Is Britain’s rail network suffering problems as a result of successful growth?

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As a depressingly frequent long distance traveller on Britain’s railways, I have many spare hours to consider the challenges faced by the train operators, and how good (or not), they are at addressing those challenges.


It has been one of the interesting features of the past 20 years that rail traffic has been growing rapidly in the UK. My love of facts and data has had me delving into the statistics section of the website of the Office of Rail and Road, as the Rail Regulator is now called. In the past 20 years, the number of rail passenger journeys has more than doubled. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, there were consistently between 800 million and 900 million passenger journeys made each year. That number has now shot up to 1.65 billion, the busiest that our rail network has ever been.


Whilst there has been some investment in rail infrastructure, the pieces that make the difference, the stations and rail lines have not really has sufficient investment to cope. As a regular commuter both on the West Coast mainline, and on Trans Pennine services, I see a lot of the challenges that the rail companies face at the sharp end.


A couple of months ago, my train into Leeds ground to a halt just outside Leeds station, and after a few minutes, the guard came on to apologise for the delay, saying that he was uncertain of the reasons. As I was looking at my rail operator app, I could see that the earlier train from Manchester to Leeds and beyond had been delayed in its departure, and there was simply no other platform available for our train to use. I have been incredibly impressed with how the rail companies manage to use the limited infrastructure available to them – many platforms are used by 2 trains simultaneously, and Leeds has some tracks between platforms which enable a train to appear half way along a platform. That has been helped by trains having got shorter and more densely occupied in recent years, but it is still clever use of infrastructure. In reality, Leeds, like Manchester Piccadilly probably needs another 5 platforms, but the sheer cost of trying to free up that space in a city centre would be prohibitive. Effectively, I concluded that my train had been delayed due to 50 years of chronic underinvestment by success governments in the rail infrastructure.


If this trend of increasing rail travel continues, this problem is only going to get worse. Since 2002, rail traffic has been growing at an average of around 4.5% per annum, and bear in mind that for around 5 years in that period, the country was in a recession. Trains are full, and so are the tracks on which they operate. The biggest issue I experience as a regular train traveller is that when the systems are all working, the rail network is fantastic; however, it doesn’t take much of a problem for everything to start falling apart. The resulting delays may only be minor, but frequently turn out to be more significant.


In the past week, I have had to make 6 different rail journeys – a return trip to London, and 2 return trips to Leeds. This was a fairly typical week, and whilst I was not massively inconvenienced on any day, every journey I undertook had at least a 10 minute arrival delay. Irritating, rather than anything more. Rather better though than my previous week’s experience where twice I experienced delays of over an hour. True, the rail companies operate a compensation scheme, akin to the air equivalent of Regulation 261, but given the choice of an on time arrival or a small measure of compensation, I would much sooner get to my destination at the time I was scheduled to do so – and I expect that most rail passengers probably feel the same.


Part of the issue is caused not just by station infrastructure, but also by the lack of sufficient train tracks. For the most part, the West Coast main line has got both fast and slow lines, so that there isn’t the problem of a delayed fast train being placed behind a slow train on the same tracks, delaying it further. This is not the case on the trans Pennine routes, and the lack of suitable passing points can result in an “Express” train having to slow down or stop just outside a whole series of local stations. Some of this problem could be managed by prioritisation of fast trains, but the approach to this subject seems inconsistent, to say the least.


The connected problem of this huge growth has been that the train capacities have not grown to match the passenger usage. As a result, trains are frequently overcrowded. I have a hobby horse about the policy on off peak trains on the West Coast – the peak period covers arrivals in London before 11:15, and departures from London between 15:00 and 19:00. Consequently, trains in the so called peak period, where prices are frankly ludicrous (£312 standard class return from Wilmslow to London – who is supposed to afford that?) are often nearly empty, whereas the off peak trains, particularly those at the start and end of off peak are crammed to the gunwales. Passengers are forced to stand for the best part of 2 hours which cannot be right. On shorter commuter journeys, where the fares are lower, the inconvenience and discomfort can be just as great. The problem is that buying more carriages may be part of the answer, but the costs are high, and ironically, some of the wins created by being able to share platforms may be lost.


To give them some credit, the government does seem to recognise that this is a problem, although I question whether, for example, building HS2 is really the best way of addressing that problem. It may eventually save some time for those travelling city centre to city centre, but doesn’t really help the many travellers who are only going to an intermediate point – and it will undoubtedly come at an even more extortionate cost.


It’s definitely difficult to reverse 50 years of under-investment, but unless something major is done pretty soon, the whole rail network is going to creak and judder to a complete standstill – and then those year on year 4% increases in rail journeys are simply going to try to switch to an impossibly overcrowded road network.


My fear, as someone whose main business interest is in air travel, is that it is only a matter of time before the challenges of success and growth that the rail network is currently facing get repeated across the aviation network. We still await any development in the government response to the Airports Commission, but doing nothing to address all aspects of Britain’s transport infrastructure cannot be a sensible, realistic or appropriate answer.