Hello, this is Wilhelm. I love trains. Some of you may know this. They are grand and fast and powerful and beautiful and they move on man-made skeletons of the Earth. And so today’s blog is about why the UK must do something about its trains.
According to the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm the word ‘railway’ meant in the nineteenth century what the word ‘atomic’ meant after World War II. The trains of the age “were several generations ahead of the rest of the economy.”
Today many people still use trains but they are seen as symbols of the past, and that is partly because, in the UK, they do not work well. People wrongly assume that the bumpy tracks and creaking carriages and unreliability is because they are from an older time. The truth is things have gotten much worse than they were. A big part of that is due to lack of investment and maintenance.
As many of you know, on most matters I believe in free markets – but the marvel of rail is an exception in my mind. The UK has lost its advantage when it comes to train travel. Once providing the greatest in the world, it now trails many countries in Europe. Less than 1% of its railways are high-speed, while Spain has 22%, France has 10% and Germany has 4%. The huge capital costs of HS2, caused by bureaucracy and obstacles thrown in by ecowarriors and badly informed residents along the line, have scared away this government from completing its eastern leg.
Cost is the main concern for the train traveler as well, who faces fares 30% higher than in western Europe. I am not going to pretend, as the Cato Institute does, that this is a fair reflection of the service provided and we’re effectively unable to improve the situation. It is that fare denial that emboldens critics, like the Labour Party. Not long ago Owen Jones, a prominent Jeremy Corbyn supporter, wrote for the New York Times that the problem with our trains is capitalism. That can feel true, because the train companies are heavily subsidised and are accused of giving large sums in shareholder dividends without improving the service.
What we need is a third way, something that resists the urge to bring everything under state control – as if that makes the problems go away – but doesn’t settle for bad train travel at high prices. There is a role for government in this industry, but it is more like a conductor than the whole orchestra. To save the railways, we need to bring into the equation an entity like National Grid in the energy sector, National Rail not only building and maintaining the rail infrastructure but coordinating the railway companies’ operations. It is an approach that will ensure train companies are efficiently putting taxpayer money into high-standard services, and one that will keep things running smoothly.
Agatha Christie once wrote: “Trains are wonderful… To travel by train is to see nature and human beings, towns and churches, and rivers, in fact, to see life.”