Complaining about public transport (and the weather) comes about as naturally to Brits as karaoke and kebabs to a drunk person.
Unfortunately, we have good reason for discontent when it comes to the rail network. Its infrastructure operator, National Rail, claims that 91.6 per cent of its 22,500 passenger services each year run on time. Sounds good, until you realise that if you commute by rail, you’ll be late once a week.
Why, you ask?
Well, to rail enthusiasts, the devil doesn’t have horns. He’s a skin-head:
Meet Dr Harold Beeching. I love that he looks a bit like the fat controller:
Hired by the government in 1963, Beeching’s remit was to reshape Britain’s loss-making railways. His solution: close over 5000 miles of railway and 2000 stations – the ones not making any money. (His report is here if you want to read it).
Since Beeching’s report, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it is now no longer possible to get a train down to the post box. But, in all fairness, we have email for that anyway. It’s not actually Beeching’s fault that the rail network is so pants today. It was unsustainable in its previous form and Beeching wanted the most used parts of the network (connecting cities, mostly) to work brilliantly, at the cost of the least used parts. Unfortunately, the money saved by shutting down lines was not used very well.
A report published by Just Economics at the beginning of 2012 compared the rail networks in Britain, France Italy and Germany. It found that, despite higher than ever passenger numbers and expensive tickets, railways in the UK are the least comfortable, least affordable, slowest, most inefficient and least environmentally friendly. Why?
They were neglected.
The report says that between 1995 and 2003, the other European countries spent more than 0.5 per cent of their country’s yearly generated wealth (GDP) on their rail networks. In Britain, we spent half that – 0.22 per cent – and our system of part-private, part-state run networks just doesn’t work. Ineffective competition between rail providers actually costs around £900m each year to rail users – almost fifth of the government subsidy.
On the plus side, railways are more than just useful for people going from A to B. The report estimates that an upgraded network could bring £324bn in social value between now and 2050.
So what is the government doing about it?
Well in May 2011, a Labour-commissioned report entitled ‘Value for Money’ was presented to the coalition by Sir Roy McNulty. Yes, you guessed it, he was also bald(ish):
But let’s not hold that against him. He made some very sensible suggestions, but sadly his proposals included nothing radical enough to really fix the problem. The government has committed much more money to rail, including towards controversial high-speed links, but this hasn’t stopped critics railing against the plans (geddit?).
Unfortunately, as the head of Network Rail admitted, Britain needs 30 years of continuous investment to match Europe. Hilariously, National Express recently won two contracts to operate lines in western Germany, so perhaps the industry’s tactic is just to sink the comparison.
Bottom line: buy a car.