The Null Device

The new age of the train?

Good news: Britain is arguably entering the new age of the train, with more journeys having been made on the railways last year than in any year since 1946. Not so good news: Britain's railways are still barely adequate; John Major's ideologically-driven privatisation of British Railways has led to a situation where more taxpayers' money is being pumped into the railways than even in the bad old days of that Inefficient Socialist Monopoly, though fewer pounds actually making it through to improving the service (but rather going to the profits of various private enterprises at various levels and/or falling through the cracks of the various inefficiencies of the present arrangement, which in some ways looks to be cobbled together with duct tape and string). Meanwhile, passengers are paying more for their tickets than anywhere in continental Europe, whilst putting up with slower trains and often a lack of seats. Not surprisingly, most of the record-breaking rail journeys were fairly short ones, with people choosing to fly between cities (like, say, London and Manchester), in a way that they just don't do in France or Germany:

The problem is that Britain's railways are a public utility run as a profit-making enterprise, and thus a rather inefficient conduit for channelling taxpayers' funds into the coffers of private industry. It seems that there are two possible ways out of the current mess:

  1. Continue regarding the railways as a public utility and undo a lot of privatisation. Either nationalise rail operators or have them provide a service to a non-profit rail company, under carefully controlled terms. All state subsidies (for keeping socially- and economically-useful though unprofitable services running) will go to the non-profit (let's call it British Rail 2.0), or:
  2. Run the railways consistently as a profit-making enterprise, and restructure them to run at a profit. That would mean a new round of Beeching-style cuts, with most smaller lines being scrapped, and the service ultimately being cut down to something like American-style commuter rail, consisting largely of profitable shuttles between dormitory areas and economic centres, running mostly at commuting hours. This is the approach The Economist recommended last year.

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