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The Truth About Britain's Railways

The Truth About Britain's Railways

The New Year will bring with it the traditional grumbling about the cost of train fares - which go up in January by an inflation-busting 3.1%. At the same time, punctuality has fallen to its lowest level since 2005, in the wake of the timetabling fiasco in May.

Yet new analysis by the Centre for Policy Studies, as part of its wider work on privatisation and renationalisation, paints a more encouraging picture.

As the CPS’s Director, Robert Colvile, explains in today’s Times, Britain’s rail network has its flaws - but is superior in key respects both to its main European rivals and to its nationalised predecessor.

As outlined in a new briefing by CPS researcher Conor Walsh, there is a case to make that despite the flawed franchising model, Britain’s railways have improved by more than any other European country’s since privatisation. Passenger journeys have doubled, and the share of journeys taken by rail has also increased sharply, from 4.6% of miles travelled in 1993 to 8.8% in 2016.

Britain’s safety record is arguably the best of any European nation - and certainly better than any of our major rivals. And in the most recent survey of customer satisfaction we came sixth out of 26 nations - comfortably beating countries such as Germany and France.

In Britain, 76% of passengers are happy with the frequency of their trains, vs 17% who are unhappy. The figures for punctuality/reliability are 69% and 26%. In France, by contrast, more passengers were unhappy with their rail network’s punctuality than happy. 

The briefing also shows that Britain has among Europe’s most efficient train networks, making more productive use of its track, trains and workers than other nations - at a lower cost in terms of subsidy. It points out that Britain’s well-attested problems with punctuality are in part a result of this, as there is less slack in a more efficient system for when things do go wrong.

It acknowledges that high prices are a problem for consumers, as are continuing levels of subsidy. But it points out that the high prices paid by consumers are in part the result of a deliberate policy choice - reflecting a decision to pay for the rail system via tickets rather than tax bills. Higher subsidy, it argues, would actually be regressive, making those who do not travel by train (who tend to be poorer) pay more for those who do.

Robert Colvile, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, said:

“Britain’s railways are very far from perfect. The Centre for Policy Studies has made many suggestions over the years for improving their operation - for example in Rail’s Second Chance by CPS research fellow Tony Lodge. 

“But it is vital that in discussing how to improve the rail system, we stick to the facts rather than the myths - and that advocates of renationalisation explain how their plans would preserve the progress made since privatisation, let alone improve upon it.”

Conor Walsh - Friday 28th December 2018

Conor Walsh is a Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies, having previously taught Economics at a sixth form college for four years.