So here’s an interesting little test

Few ideas are as strangled at birth quite as effectively as the government’s planned Great British Railway has been. Wales and Scotland run their own railway systems. The new rail network the government has announced is for England alone.

OK, take that as being true.

Governments have known nationalisation is the only real answer to rail management for more than a century now. It was actually seriously toyed with after WW1. Three national railways will work in that regard. Now was the time to deliver that outcome. But the government has ducked again to keep friends in industry and finance (in particular) happy. It’s another rail disaster in the making.

Take that as being a testable proposition.

OK, are the Scots and Welsh systems currently better than the English? If not, why not?

21 thoughts on “So here’s an interesting little test”

  1. Nearly all the infrastructure currently managed by Network Rail will still be managed by Network Rail Great British Rail, and as they are the biggest single cause of the poor performance of the system don’t expect anything to change in that regard.

    What we will now have in addition though, is incompetent government interference in the operations, fares and revenue areas. What could possibly go wrong?

    Government was in charge of the rail system from 1947 until 1994 and there was a reason BR was privatised……Chesterton’s fence and all that.

  2. I thought Shapps had said that there won’t be a separate Scottish railway…. Am I wrong…?

  3. indeed, Adolff. I can see an argument for not splitting rail operators when it comes to time-tabling (though I’m not convinced) but the biggest blunder ISTM, is to remove the incentive (profit) to encourage more people to travel by train.

  4. The separation of train operating companies and track was mandated by EU directive 19/44.
    The opinion of anyone in the UK, HMG included, was irrelevant.

    Hence any change, any recombination, any renationalisation, is only made possible by Brexit.
    Is the P3 now a great fan of Brexit then?!!!

  5. The big problem with commuter Train Operating Companies is that season tickets pay the bills and leisure travel is the profit, and for the last year during the ‘peak times’ my old TOC has been moving fresh air from the outer suburbs into London and back. How do we encourage people to do the daily commute again?
    If there is no return to ‘normal’ it may be hard (impossible?) for a company to make a profit.

    It is just this idea that what we need is a return to what didn’t work last time.

  6. IIRC, commuter rail has NEVER been a viable business. Back in the days it paid, this was the property development side generating the cash, and the loss making train set making the suburbs feasible, hence the property saleable.
    Once a combination of green-belt and travel time froze off the property side, the whole metro-rail thing ran out of cash and was saddled to the taxpayer to fund. And so it remains.

    So the trains are run at taxpayers expense, as a national service, (whether nationalised or subsidised franchises) – or they don’t run at all.

    The lockdown and the revolution in WFH may just make Option 2 appear, once the enormous cost of running empty train sets is understood.

  7. Has anyone ever compared the maintenance and infrastructure bill for train/light rail with roads?

    ISTM that rail is grossly inefficient compared to road transport. Buses could easily replace commuter rail. Auto buses on dedicated routes would effectively be the same thing without the dedicated infrastructure

    Plus urban areas cannot be held to ransom by rail unions

  8. If nothing else I hope they change the name from the execrable “Great British …”.

    Still, if they combine nationalisation with the announcement that no trade unions will be recognised in public monopoly industries … oh balls, I’m dreaming.

  9. Tim, the year before BR was privatised it announced a £102M profit. The head of Deutsche Bahn said “the only way a ‘service’ / nationalised railway makes a profit is by cooking the books”.
    IIRC, BR had sold £100m of land.

    Starfish, you may be right but different cost benefit analyses have been used to justify road building over rail building and has always been skewed towards making roads look cheap(er).
    Also, what would happen if all those currently using the rail network (including freight) turned up on the roads?
    There is definitely a place for rail, but it may be smaller with fewer trains running.

    Government control isn’t the answer though (neither is HS2).

  10. Starfish,

    Rail vs Buses are like Stalinism vs capitalism. The reason buses are so much cheaper is that it’s markets, markets, markets. It’s not hard to start a bus company and create a route. You can choose from a market of drivers. You can choose from a market of bus makers. Rail is like the complete opposite. High levels of government control. Unionised workforce that take the piss on fares and staffing. A tiny number of suppliers hand making carriages that cost 5 times more than a double decker bus.

  11. Addolff,

    “Also, what would happen if all those currently using the rail network (including freight) turned up on the roads?”

    I’m not sure that would be an issue. Roads are getting quieter (and were before Covid). Work from Home doesn’t just lower rail commuting but road commuting too. IMO it’s going to have an effect on rail. If the road is quiet enough, why take the train for the odd day that you go to the office? It’s my observation that rail doesn’t do very well where roads are quiet.

    But we could dig up the rails, tarmac, and let coaches and lorries use the new roads.

  12. HS2 is the answer to the question “what is the formula for Hydrogen Sulphide?” And a rotten answer it is too.

  13. A month ago I would agree with BoM4 that traffic levels were lower than before lockdown 1. But earlier this week, I drove the M3 and it was just as bad as ever. The other half tells me that North London is back to normal as well. Local traffic is getting heavier by the week.

  14. @dearieme

    “HS2 is the answer to the question “what is the formula for Hydrogen Sulphide?” And a rotten answer it is too.”

    Or at least, it’s an anagram of the formula for hydrogen sulphide…perhaps that’s what makes it a rotten answer?

  15. Diogenes,

    Yes, the TomTom index backs that up. In fact, it’s slightly higher than 2019 for the same week.

    But train volumes are still low.

  16. @ Tim the Coder 11.05am
    I cannot believe that your memory stretches back to the 1830s, so the incorrectness is not the fault of your memory. In reality, commuter trains were profitable for the first century of their existence, until WWII when German bombing messed things up and post-War nationalisation. Railway companies paid dividends out of their profits despite competing against each other over much of the potential season-ticket-buyers living in relatively clean air outside London.
    The economic problem with the railways is staff costs thanks to power of the rail unions during Labour governments and the unwillingness of Conservative governments to repudiate (“dishonour”) pledges made by the Labour Party, while in government, to its paymasters.

  17. @John77
    You are right, I’m not that old, although at times it just feels it 🙂
    But re. “Railway companies paid dividends out of their profits”

    Yes, tru. I didn’t say they didn’t make money, only that they didn’t do so from running a train set. The profit came from property speculation: buy some out-of-town farmland cheap, build houses on it, then open a metroline service to make it accessible to commuters.

    But very early on, some of the train companies must have made some money from freight. Chicago proves that. So I guess I over simplified. Let’s say they didn’t make money from running a passenger train set! Probably still a generalisation, exceptions, and so on.

    And the deprecations of wartime exploitation, and government backed unions, certainly put paid to any hope of recovery, for freight or inter-city. Commuter trains remained inherently loss making and a miserable experience. And short of repeating metroland on what remains of the green belt, it’s hard to see any other outcome: permanent subsidy as a public service, or closure. The commuters will never pay what their fares cost.

  18. British Rail. That name brings back some memories of the wonders it worked.

    I thought standing room only all the way to Hull would be their finest hour. But they beat their own record with a Sunday tea-time standing room only from Euston to Crewe before any seats were free.

    The other clever move was having little paper slips to show a seat was reserved . So there would be many times you–in theory–could not sit down even though a carriage was mostly empty because it had been reserved by phantoms.

    Of course that didn’t last because I started looking at the printed slips and discovered that vast numbers of people book train seats that they never turn up for. Must be something to do with a surfeit of money in the South East then. Even right out of Euston there would be loads of “Euston -Watford” reserved seats who left Euston unoccupied. So I just removed the paperwork and took a seat. At each station there would be many more seats booked for which the booker never boarded. A bizarre phenomenon indeed. 30+ years ago now but I suspect that GBR will manage to equal the old records of bungling–and surpass them mightily.

  19. I find it difficult to believe that the railway companies were making significant revenues from shifting people about over time – more likely freight, mainly coal, was subsidising passenger traffic. May be it was true of a handful of locations, but not across the network as a whole, and how much consolidation of the firms went on between may be 1880 or so to the 1930s? Larger firms get to continually pick up assets cheap and sweat them, from the very start of the Mania.

    So, coal would be moved to multiple locations for local (mechanical) power generation. Once we shift to using electrical power, generated remotely, then the number of viable destinations goes down, to only a handful.

    I don’t remember the guard’s vans of the 70s and 80s ever using a form of palletisation – the lorries dropping off to all the convenience stores now are shifting pre-loaded trolleys about and taking back the empties.

    If WFH has a long term effect, bring back hybrid passenger/freight trains with pallets or containers for freight at each station. Stations across the network are the edge nodes for all the deliveries going on, whether to resi or commercial. Local roads won’t get battered by HGVs, and smaller, electric vans can be used.

    Or just rip the whole lot out, recycle the steel in Type 45s or whatever, tarmac over, and the whole thing is a closed-ish network for autonomous vehicles.

  20. Dearie me, chaps, it’s a rotten answer because (i) it’s plain wrong, and (ii) hydrogen sulphide is the nasty smell you get from rotten eggs. So it was a joke twice over, you see.

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