The rail network in the UK is grinding to a halt. Strikes, delays and astronomical fares — is it too late to save our trains for the good of the planet?
Here is a stat for you: in Great Britain, 32.3% of trains were delayed or cancelled in Q3 of 2022. Of the trains delayed, northern England has been, and continues to be, disproportionately affected, with the figure closer to 50%. To put those numbers into context, on January 15 in war-torn Ukraine, 97% of trains departed on time. Trains are routinely operating with greater efficiency in Ukraine than in ‘Great’ Britain.
Before any statisticians reading this start lamenting my selection of data sets, and perhaps even cynically accuse me of deliberately manipulating the data, I think these numbers paint a full picture of the deep-rooted problems within our national railways. I am personally willing to forgive Ukraine if it has the odd off day on its railways. I am much less willing to forgive our domestic services for their consistently poor days, weeks, months and years of providing a substandard service.
So, whilst not identical data sets, comparing a full quarter domestically to a single day in Ukraine, these numbers tell us all we need to know about the dire provision we are currently being offered. Our train network is operating nowhere near the level that it should be, and frankly we deserve better.
Having an efficient, affordable and pleasant train network brings a wide range of benefits. On a personal level, being dropped off in the centre of the city and not having to navigate with the rush hour traffic should be enough of a pull to encourage taking the train — particularly if it allows you an extra glass of wine with dinner.
However, the societal benefits are even greater than the personal: environmentally, passenger trains produce a third of the emissions that the average petrol car does for every mile a person travels; it is also the safest mode of transport; and the more people taking the train, the fewer cars on the roads clogging up our cities — meaning cleaner air, and intercity space being put to a much better use.
Whilst waxing lyrical about the countless benefits of train travel, I am enough of a realist to appreciate that with 30-50% of trains being delayed or cancelled, this is not always a viable alternative in day-to-day life. For those with job interviews, doctors appointments or football matches to attend, the lack of dependability means taking the train simply is not a reliable enough option.
Another huge barrier preventing people from opting for public transport is the cost. If you, like me, are completely obsessed with hearing what former Apprentice contestant Thomas Skinner has for breakfast each morning, you may have seen that he took a black cab from London to Manchester and back recently, as he negotiated a cheaper price with the taxi driver than the price of the train.
When buying a ticket on the day you intend to travel, the UK has amongst the most expensive train fares in all of Europe. Many of us will be no strangers to Skinner’s predicament — high train fares serve as a major disincentive to consumers, who will instead choose to travel by road, or even air where the cost of the rail fare is so high.
We know that travelling by train is the climate-friendly option, yet we, the consumer, are disincentivised to travel this way due to an inexcusably poor service and unfairly high prices.
Staff are equally disgruntled. Since 1996, private companies operating trains have paid out over £8.3bn in dividend payments to shareholders. In that same period, fares have risen by 48% in real terms. It is profit above planet and people in its purest form.
Getting back on track – what needs to change?
The current system is extremely fragmented and disjointed, with no single body being accountable for delays. The Government have proposed a new public body, Great British Rail, to bring accountability and public interest to the forefront of our railways.
To its credit, the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail puts forward a number of suggestions that, if implemented correctly, could provide the overhaul that we so desperately need. This includes decarbonising the railways, making it easier to bring your bike on the train, reducing the cost to the consumer and improving the punctuality of the service.
However, having had 3 Secretaries of State for Transport last year alone, it feels as though no one is really in the driver’s seat. Time is not on our side in the race to decarbonise if we want to ‘keep 1.5 alive’. We need real action and investment. Now.
During her illustrious 7-week spell as the Transport Secretary last year, Anne-Marie Trevelyan announced that the Government will not be introducing the Transport Bill, which would mark the creation of Great British Rail during this parliamentary session. This means that it will not be enacted until May 2023 at the earliest, and this is unlikely to be implemented by early 2024 as was initially planned.
Not only is time money — in unfair costs to commuters — time is also carbon emissions. The failure to prioritise this reform will result in thousands of car journeys being taken that could be otherwise avoided if the railways were up to standard.
At its best, public transport can be an egalitarian institution, connecting commuters with education, employment and opportunity. Gustav Petro (former Mayor of Bogota) encapsulates the philosophy of how great public transport should work — “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation”.
The framework is there, but our legislators are lacking the urgency to realise this ideal anytime soon. The railways should so clearly be playing a vital role as we look to decarbonise our country, and the onus is on those in power to give us a service that we deserve.