This week is set to be one of the busiest of the year for domestic travel.
So, as London’s train stations are swamped with those endeavouring to get away for the their holidays, it’s worth dwelling on what would be the best Christmas present for travellers: a properly functioning rail system.
Amid the whirlwind of anger against rail operators, it might surprise you to learn that the most maddening things about travelling by train are, in fact, down to the state. Network Rail – the nationalised, state-run part of the railways – is responsible for around 60 per cent of delays.
So the next time your train is cancelled or you wind up being late for work, blame the Grinch-like incompetence from the state.
That’s not to say that the current franchising system is perfect. However, the solution is not nationalisation, but more competition.
Where this has happened and open-access companies operate (buying slots, rather having a monopoly on a part of the network), passengers feel the benefits.
Heathrow Express is a great example, consistently rated one of the best train operators by passengers.
Grand Central, another open-access operator which competes on the East Coast line, has also been a success. The government’s Office for Rail and Road itself has said that the competition introduced on this line has delivered significant benefits, including “lower fares, improvements to service levels and growth in the market for rail travel”.
And on the subject of fares, yes, prices can be steep, and hikes due in the new year will be unwelcome.
Keep in mind, though, that while headline fares may look higher than our European counterparts, taxpayers in those countries fork out far more for services.
The most recent figures from the European Commission show that the subsidy per passenger train kilometre was €23 in France. In the UK, it was minus €2.
As well as more competition, investing in infrastructure upgrades to the system as a whole would also be a worthwhile gift to commuters.
The West Coast mainline and trans-Pennine routes have long suffered from delays to electrification. Improving these parts of the network could help to alleviate pressure on others, and it would also provide a big boost to parts of the country which have relatively poor infrastructure and productivity, such as the south west.
The best Christmas present of all, however, would be the immediate scrapping of HS2. Already, the work to remove 45,000 skeletons from a burial site near Euston station has begun. One estimate of the total cost for this ghoulish enterprise comes to £104bn. That’s almost £1,600 for every Briton. That would pay for one hell of a Christmas dinner.
At least 22 HS2 employees are raking in around £200,000, and the total cost of the project has risen to £56bn. Think what that money could do to improve and upgrade the existing system.
Passengers will be dismayed to learn that significant disruption is already planned for over the holiday period. But as we head into 2019, bear in mind that commuting doesn’t have to be this way.
Encouraging proper competition, more astute infrastructure spending, and scrapping the wholly unjustified HS2 should be the transport secretary’s new year’s resolution.