Britain’s Unique Railway Problems

By Morgan Anthony

Marred by years of industrial action, delays and crowded commuter services, rail travellers in Britain can rightly feel irritation at the 2.7% rise in rail fares in 2020. Despite a change in how much regulated rail fares can rise by, a fourth consecutive year of price rises will put stringent pressures on many rail users, with some season tickets rising by over £100.

Reforms to improve the quality of service and reduce the price of the railways have become a salient political issue in recent years. For many voters, who struggle with low real wage growth, the railways have become the perfect poster child for Britain’s broken economic system as commuters feel punished and exploited whilst large rail operating companies swim in profits. One of Jeremy Corbyn’s most popular policies at the 2019 U.K. General election was the renationalisation of the railways with 64% of people polled in favour of the move. Meanwhile, the Williams Review was announced by the Conservative government in September 2018 to look at the entire rail industry with Keith Williams, its chair, promising ‘revolution not evolution’ in which the franchise model established in 1994 is likely to be drastically altered. By upending the uncompetitive tendering system and holding rail managers more accountable, the incentives of rail managers would be pushed more in line with the passengers counting the cost of their tickets.

Even though  reforms to the running of network rail, changes to franchising, rolling stock ownership and better contracting are likely to help redirect the railways back onto the right track for passengers, there are many features unique to Britain’s railway network which will make the task of raising the value for money of rail tickets a highly onerous one. The number of off-peak services, a non-separated commuter network and antiquated Victorian infrastructure are distinct features of Britain’s railways which are rarely considered in the political sphere’s pursuit for simple answers without any trade-offs. Nevertheless, addressing these factors would clear the way for real change.

Britain is well served by the number of off-peak rail services in operation. The 2011 McNulty review into the operation of the railways in Britain highlighted that rail utilisation (a measure of how busy trains are) was on average 20% to 25% lower than other European rail networks, despite the often-crowded commuter services into and around major cities. Anyone who frequently travels on seldom busy off peak services will recognise its greater convenience for travellers beyond other European countries, but it also drives the expense of the service in the wrong direction for passengers. Higher operating costs, due to more demand for fuel, drivers and rolling stock are spread over fewer passengers leading to the extortionate cost of running off peak lines. This contrasts with countries such as France, which use larger – even double decker trains – on fewer journeys, spreading the lower operating costs more widely across the people using the rail network. The British travellers’ preference for more convenient and therefore more frequent and rarely busy off-peak services is an expensive barrier the U.K. government will have to grapple with when attempting to improve the economic feasibility of the railways. 

Unlike Germany’s commuter S-Bahn system, which is independent from the main regional and highspeed system, Britain’s integrated system creates large capacity constraints and makes running an efficient service that passengers can rely on almost impossible. At Manchester Piccadilly, six different rail franchises run all types of services, thus contributing to the bottlenecks which have beset rail travellers across the region. A report published by the Office of Rail and Road – a non-ministerial government entity responsible for the oversight of Britain’s railways – found that the lack of separation between different types of rail creates capacity constraints and complications in the smooth running of services primarily through difficulties with signalling. Since different types of rolling stock (with their different capacities of passengers) have contrasting lengths and inconsistent accelerating and breaking speeds, it is very difficult for signallers to maintain both appropriate gaps between trains and high speeds for as long as possible. Furthermore, this variation between different services increases the knock-on effects of delays and disruptions throughout an entire region’s network. These issues lead to a trade-off between crowded services (in which limited rolling sock variation is used) or slow services (in which an efficient use of rolling stock is used but signalling is harder) thus creating substantial barriers to operating a first-class rail service in areas with commuter rail.

Britain may have pride in its history of rail travel but its archaic Victorian infrastructure is a significant structural barrier toward making the railways fit for purpose for a twenty-first century travelling public . An average London to Edinburgh service lasts five hours and twenty minutes – far longer than on an efficient high-speed rail network. High speed rail is curtailed by slow winding tracks and the presence of many more flat junctions in which trains must wait at red signals to let trains on other lines or at different speeds pass them. Rather than using the preferred flying junctions which allow for faster and slower lines to pass above or beneath one another without stopping, slowing down or requiring more complex signalling, Britain’s high-speed railways are hindered by inefficient flat junctions. Not only does this arrangement translate into much slower travel but it also prevents efficient fuel management, limits the length of train which can be used and increases the operating cost per passenger. In turn, the ageing infrastructure contributes to the 30% more expensive ticket prices compared to equivalent journeys across Europe.

Although, Britain’s railways suffer from a multitude of problems which could be better dealt with by reforms to the management and oversight of the railways, Britain’s railways will still suffer in contrast to the networks of our European neighbours. Without a major programme of investment in new tracks, stations and junctions through often busy urban rail interchanges, Britain’s unique railway difficulties of a generous service pattern, a non-separated commuter network and antiquated Victorian infrastructure will continue to haunt passengers and managers alike.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

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