Not a way to run a railway: the lunacy of trains in the UK

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. After 28 long years in the wilderness, finally this week he gratefully picked up the travel prize in the British Journalism Awards; better late than never. In his weekly opinion column, Simon explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

Imagine a business that, in the course of three years, has lost one in five of its customers. Revenue has shrunk even further, to just 71 per cent of where it was in 2019. That translates to taking £10m less per day than in 2019.

It gets worse. Three different bosses in seven weeks. A pricing policy so irrational and riddled with anomalies that an increasing number of customers make two or more purchases to obtain a single product, typically saving 40 per cent in the process. And bewildering working arrangements for staff.

In one unit of this business, the terms of employment depends on which side of a range of hills your job happens to be based. It is a seven-day-a-week operation, and the staff in the east could be rostered on any day. Yet those on the western side can work Sundays only when they feel like earning some overtime.

This is an organisation that clearly needs to be reconstructed from the ground up, with far lower costs, greater flexibility, sane pricing and fresh ideas. Yet to the contrary, the service is sliding downhill with toxic industrial relations and an apparent death wish: the company is recommending prospective customers to avoid it for much of the time in the next three weeks.

As you realise, I am describing the railways of Britain in the dying days of a chaotic year.

Those passenger and revenue figures (released this week for July to September 2022) spell out the scale of the slump since the coronavirus pandemic.

Mark Harper took over as transport secretary from Anne-Marie Trevelyan who replaced Grant Shapps, himself sacked by Liz Truss for supporting Rishi Sunak’s campaign for leadership. And all this during a long and bitter rail strike that has dragged on for six months and blights travel planning in the UK.

While you can point to a fragmented industry involving dozens of individual enterprises, many privately owned, the reality is that His Majesty’s secretary of state for transport calls the shots.

Some train operators are in the private sector and effectively pick up fees for running services as stipulated by the Department for Transport (DfT). Others are publicly run, such as Northern Trains – whose employment agreements are decided according to the worker’s position relative to the Pennines.

There are good arguments for a fully state-owned railway, and conversely for the present largely outsourced arrangements. But the notion that billions of pounds are exiting the industry to “foreign shareholders” and could simply be redirected to provide inflation-matching pay rises is preposterous. As things stand, the railway is haemorrhaging cash and the taxpayer is picking up the bill.

“Split ticketing,” whereby you legally exploit anomalies in the fare structure to cut the cost of rail travel, has moved into the mainstream. With ticket apps presenting you will ways to save, revenue is further depleted. Surely nobody ever buys a full-fare ticket from Bristol to London with the “Didcot Dodge” (buying one ticket to the Oxfordshire junction and another from there) cutting the cost by 40 per cent.

Everyone in the business realises the unappealing truth that much needs to change. Yet from most of those involved there is no sign of meaningful advances to improve services, cut costs and boost business. On the contrary, the government and unions are engaged in a long, ideological brawl for which the traveller and taxpayer are mere bystanders.

The RMT union, which is ending the year and starting 2023 with 12 days of strikes, believes that the government has a bottomless pit of cash and will eventually hand more of it over. Ministers, in contrast, believe that they can face down the strikers and set an example to other public-sector workers. A plague on both your platforms, say passengers as we book flights, hire cars or simply stay at home as the train firms urge. Every day that the disputes drag on and the fundamental problems of the railway remain unaddressed will dull the appetite for train travel and hasten the spiral of decline that both sides have chosen to back.

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