UK Politics

Planes, Trains and Automobiles: What can the UK government do to fix the rail network?

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The UK rail network has endured record levels of cancellations due to the Covid-19 disruption. Train travel has plummeted to nearly half of pre-pandemic levels, coupled with staff shortages, which has resulted in “4.4 per cent of services cancelled across the UK between 12 December and 8 January.” 

With a return to work on the horizon, there is now a huge opportunity to realign the UK’s train infrastructure network to suit the needs of the most crucial of interests: the passengers. These are the questions that occupy the minds of travellers: 

Why do prices increase, why do the government allow this increase? Why do we, as a network of travel consumers accept this increase? 

In Andrew Bowman’s 2014 article on the UK rail infrastructure, the launch of a privatised network of rail travel would “secure financial sustainability through private investment and increased operating efficiency” yet the economic calculations did not match up. The enactment of such a policy failed to consider the problems of “a capital intensive industry where passenger fare revenue was rarely sufficient to recover the costs of investment”. Though arguments continue to consider whether the UK rail network is indeed privatised at all, many advocates of private ownership shape public perceptions around privatisation by inflating its assumed profitability. Most evidence points to a heavily subsidised industry that instead credits private enterprise with its so-called ‘operating success’. 

The key to unlocking this opportunity to (re)modernise the railway network in the UK is in defining and upholding accountability. Last year a review of Britain’s rail industry was published that called for greater punctuality, integrated ticketing systems and an end to franchises, yet train fares continue to increase and contracts are still afforded to private companies.

British Railways was privatised in 1994 and the infrastructure was auctioned off. The ability of private companies to profit from a successful rail contract is precarious at the best of times, being prone to uncontrollable variables like employments levels, health emergencies, weather and can influence the possible losses of these private companies. The lack of a central coordinator, or central actor, that can determine these variables means that a stable consumer product can never be achieved. A process of corporation panic sets in. Instead of driving down prices, bit by bit, companies are falling away and temporary re-nationalisation plans (much to the loathing of Conservative governments) are enacted. 

There is scant evidence of development in these areas. Delayed travel, restructured timetables, the oxymoronic bywords of “resilience” and “reliability” and “flexibility” act as an effective re-substantiation of what has gone before. Governments in the 21st century, following on from those of the 1970s, do not see a role for government in managing this public service. 

Fixing the UK railway network is seen as a problem that only the future can solve. Projects like HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse, while sincere in concept, lack the political muscle to mark a definitive shift from the past. So instead, the current government is using the pandemic to enact £2bn worth of cuts to railways which further erodes the desperate need for modernisation. Like any far-reaching policy that serves different layers of society, train services will always need adaptation, depending on the areas they operate in. What is indispensable to a robust model of efficient service is appropriate capacity, dynamic governance and plans for stable growth. 

The UK’s reliance on car travel, exacerbated by the pandemic, has stalled any obvious move toward these key improvements. However, as we have seen over the course of the last two years, the government has used the levers of the state in ways not seen since the Second World War. Yet, large-scale investment and planning, while positive in principle, requires able actors to oversee their success. Reconfiguring these bodies, decentralising and funding them through local authorities presents a far more optimistic opportunity for rail services. A cooperative of interests seems the only sustainable way forward in light of growing economic and environmental pressures. 

Perhaps what lies beneath this concerning static, this seemingly obvious yet immovable obstacle toward certain progress, is rail’s place among other lingering societal problems. A cost of living crisis is fast moving out of control. Energy companies are falling, interest rates are rising, fuel prices are increasing and real wage growth has continued to stagnate.

If the UK government does not act decisively to neutralise the very worst consequences of both Brexit and Covid-19, then the much-promised levelling-up programme – which includes rail travel – will once again fall to the back of the queue, as society pockets another loss from another failed political agenda. 


Image provided by Callum Chapman on Unsplash

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