What the Hell is Wrong With British Trains?

By Chris Mills on at

I recently had the misfortune of spending a couple of days travelling up and down the spine of a very soggy Britain on trains. Now don't get me wrong -- I like trains. But the British rail system is seriously screwed up. Why, though? We invented the damn things!


So. Much. Money.

The numero uno problem with British trains is the cost. Compared to pretty much everywhere in the world -- and especially compared with our European neighbours -- the price we pay for the pleasure of travelling on Britain's rail network is downright insane. Per kilometre, the average season ticket costs 14 shiny pennies -- that's almost double the next most expensive, Germany (and they have trains which travel up freaking mountains). To put that in perspective: a 20-mile commute into London from Woking (you poor, poor person if that's your commute) will cost you £3,268 a year. Similar-distance journeys in Germany and Spain will cost just £705 and £653 respectively. That's nearly four times more expensive.

Day trippers don't get off any easier either -- The Beatles might've had a Ticket to Ride, but it probably cost them an arm and a leg: 24p per kilometre, to be precise, which again is a good 60% more than the next most expensive. Yeah, you can get good discounts if you book in advance and travel at 4 in the morning, via Swindon and Milton Keynes, but that defeats the point of trains. If I want inconvenience and booking in advance, I'll get a plane. Trains are meant to be something you can pitch up on, out of the blue, and jump on with the minimum of hassle.

Train cost also fails in one other fairly crucial comparison -- to cars. All things considered, a train ticket should be less than the price of petrol for a journey. After all, if you travel by car you also have to pay for insurance, road tax and depreciation (and things like tyre wear, if you want to be pedantic). Cars are also more convenient, especially if you're lugging a bunch of Christmas presents around with you. Especially with the oncoming advent of self-driving cars and road trains, cars are often a lot more convenient than trains.


Sardines in Tins Get it Easy

And before any of you start jumping to the defence of National Rail, it's not like we get an amazing service for all the dosh we fork over. Overcrowding is rampant on all the peak services around the country -- to be technical, we have one of the worst passenger-to-seat ratios in Europe. More simply put though, the 0821 to London Waterloo is like a cattle carriage, with people crammed in, 100 deep, nose-to-armpit. It's not just commuter trains though: I've been stuck on tiny regional trains in Wales, where for hours on end people are crammed into that awkward little umbilical between carriages, trying to read over the sounds of screaming infants. Occasionally, the trains can be less overcrowded -- non-commuter services, or particularly popular routes at non-busy times are often enjoyable, with enough space to sprawl over as many seats as you and your laptop can physically accommodate. Overall, though, the level of overcrowding in the British rail system is unacceptable.


"I'm Sorry to Announce, Due To 'Unseasonable' Weather You're Totally Screwed"

Overcrowding isn't the only other problem, either. In typical British fashion, the weather is also an issue. I don't know if any of you have been on a train in Europe in the winter, but they seem to have these amazing, magical trains that can still function when there's a pathetically tiny amount of snow on the rails. National Rail's lack of ability (though to be fair, it's more the whole British transport infrastructure than just the railways) to function in "wintry" conditions is pathetic. Even when the rail network doesn't shut down all together, so-called "unseasonable" weather (like we've had in the South this morning, apparently -- since when is snow in December unseasonable?) can see 20-minute commutes turn into hour-long marathons. Given that 2.5 million people use the rail network every day, that's an absolute shitload of time spent standing on trains trying to avoid eye contact, rather than being in an office reading Gizmodo being productive. So, it's not just for my own sake that I wish National Rail would sort their shit out -- it's in the best interests of the economy.


We Really Need High-Speed Rail

There's one other complaint about the British rail system -- the trains just aren't as good. We don't have a proper high-speed rail infrastructure, and even the proposed High Speed 2 rail link that's going to be built (for an eye-wateringly large sum) will only benefit people who travel between the really major cities. Compare this to places like Greece (not the first place you'd look to for shining examples of efficiency, you'd think), where the high-speed rail link is well-established, and was designed to put 90% of the population within 50km of a high-speed station. This turns high-speed rail from a convenience into the travel backbone of the entire country. It's even more pronounced in Japan, where double-decker bullet trains run up and down 2700km of specially-built track that runs at 250kph.

In Britain, then, how fast are our trains? Answer: not very. In fact, apart from the Eurostar, trains in Britain are limited to 125mph. Considering that this speed was first achieved by a steam locomotive in 1938, that's quite pathetic. The simple fact is, our rail network lags behind the rest of the developed world (apart from North America, that is). The real shame is that it didn't have to be this way. Britain was the pioneer of the railways -- between 1830 and 1840, the national economy did pretty much nothing but build railways. It was all going rosily until around the 1950s, when increasing road usage saw passenger numbers start to dip. Simultaneously, the newly-nationalised rail industry failed to invest in the rail network, preferring instead to patch everything up with gaffer tape and bodge it, rather than spend the cash.


How British Rail and Labour Left the Trains Borked

When high-speed rail infrastructure started being built in Asia and Europe,  the bosses of British Rail preferred to bury their heads in the sand. Rather than do what everyone else did and construct a new set of rails to carry a super-fast set of trains, the super-clever civil servants decided to try and make a train that would run on existing rails, but at the same time tried to make it gas-powered, rather than the more conventional electric or diesel. Needless to say, it was a massive financial black hole. Indeed, the project was so pathetically delayed that they developed another "interim" solution to the problem, building diesel trains that would run on existing rail systems -- and this is what we're left with today, our sad legacy of "high speed" rail networks. It's only now that the British rail industry is starting to tentatively stick their noses into the 20th century, with the proposal to build a high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham. For the UK, though, it's mostly too little, too late.

At the same time as British Rail was monumentally cocking up high-speed rail, it was also proceeding to gut the comprehensive railway infrastructure that had served the UK through two world wars and one world cup. Faced with an unprofitable and costly rail network (owing to years of  under-investment during the World Wars, and the rise of road transport), a series of cuts called the "Beeching cuts" were enacted in the 1960s, and saw the closure of about a third of the 29,000km of railway lines that existed in 1949. Whilst this saved cash in the short run, it removed a lot of the "feeder" stations from the network, and pushed even more people towards road transport. Additionally, freight haulage, which was one of the biggest earners for the railways, saw a drop-off after the closure of the more regional networks. Slow hand-clap please for British Rail.

My final bugbear are the trains themselves. It used to be that you could take a journey on a train -- dine in a proper restaurant, whilst taking in the magnificent views you can get in the Scottish Highlands. Now, you'll eat a soggy egg & cress sandwich whilst crammed into your aisle seat, while your neighbour watches the latest Eastenders while wearing the leakiest pair of garish headphones you've ever seen. Want to do some work to get your mind off of it? Good luck. Wi-Fi on trains is terrible, and even those who've come equipped with MiFis will have to struggle with bad signal. These should be simple things to sort out, given that a lot of mobile and internet infrastructure runs alongside major train routes -- even the tunnels on the Eurostar link (the only modern part of the British rail network) have cell reception. Given that one of the big attractions of train travel is that you can work on the train, sorting this stuff out would be really, really handy (and then maybe I'd think about paying £5 an hour for Wi-Fi).

So, where are we now? An over-crowded, woefully expensive, badly managed and painfully short-sighted system exists in the UK today. Serious investment would be needed to dig the infrastructure out of the hole it's currently in. Firstly, an all-powerful regulator should be created, to effectively oversee and co-ordinate all of the different train operators, and kick their lazy arses into gear. Secondly, serious investment is needed. Current government plans seem to see rail as something that happens only in London -- projects like CrossRail and High Speed 2, whilst all well and good, will be of most benefit to Londoners. Meanwhile, there's thousands of miles of track in the North that would benefit massively from electrification. God knows that we're paying enough money through fares at the moment -- how about they start spending all of that to provide us with a decent, up-to-date, 21st century service? I want the British rail system to be good again. I like trains. I started out this article with the intention of saying something nice about trains. But the more I discover, and the more I write, the more I'm persuaded that nationalised British Rail well and truly screwed us over for the next few decades.