The People’s Railway is a train crash – the people need more liberal rail routes

I need to be in Cardiff Bay next Thursday morning by 10:00. I don’t drive and I live in West London. You guessed it, I have to get the train. So I look on the National Rail website for train times and prices. The only route for me to go is from Paddington to Cardiff Central, then change at Cardiff Central. Only First Great Western operate the Paddington to Cardiff Central route, so I am at the mercy of their prices and service (I’m not picking on First Great Western, I’m from the North West originally and often get Virgin trains and they are just as bad). If I want to go Thursday I can either pay £26 for a train from Paddington at 05:19 (before the first Tube and I don’t drive remember) or any train later than that, but will still get me into Cardiff before 10:00, will cost £106. And that’s not to mention that I have to pay a minimum extra of £46 for a return if I fancy going home at some point, as well.

I could get a cheaper train the night before and pay for a B&B, but that will end up costing more, especially as, with the rugby on, the cheapest room I can find is for £200 a night. Either way, a two hour meeting in Cardiff is going to end up costing me the at least £100 (with the taxi I will need to get me from to Paddington at that ungodly hour of the morning).

Am I expecting a decadent, five-star service, akin to sailing to Mediterranean on the yacht of a Dubai prince? Am I heck.

So when Jeremy Corbyn announced his first policy as Labour leader was to renationalise the railway or ‘the People’s Railway’, I agreed with his sentiment that there is a need for a “better and more efficient services, proper integration and fairer fares” on the nation’s railways. But to swallow up the country’s rail networks into the state is something I disagree with.

The sensible, liberal and better alternative would be to go completely the other way and open up all train routes to the free-market and ensure that there are more than one train operator running trains on every route. Breaking Virgin’s monopolisation of the Manchester Piccadilly-London Euston route, for example, and letting other train operators provide a competing service would benefit us all.

It doesn’t need explaining that competing service providers would encourage the companies to reduce their prices and improve their services. Imagine it like booking a flight. Say if I didn’t need to go to Cardiff on Thursday, say I had to go to Rome (in fact, yes, let’s definitely please say that), if British Airways were the only people allowed to fly from Heathrow to Fiumicino, what would stop them, as the only show in town, from decreasing the quality of their service and bumping up their prices? Either pay or don’t go to Rome, your choice.

But you can go to Rome on all sorts of airlines; a variety of budget airlines, if you’re price conscious or premium ones, if you want to pay a bit extra for some comfort and quality facilities. Britain’s railways should be like that too. Having a wide(r) variety of train operators wouldn’t just mean more money in your pocket, but better catering, cleaner toilets, maybe even improved train Wifi (I tried sending an email on the train back from conference this week. Took me twenty minutes. The struggle is real), the possibilities are endless.

Speaking of flying, the extortionate prices of monopolised rail routes sometimes mean it’s cheaper for people to fly, from Edinburgh to London for example, then it would be to get the train. You don’t need to be a climate change expert to know that flying is more damaging to the environment then rail travel. Cheaper rail fares would see a reduction in the carbon spilling out of domestic flights.

Encouraging extra train operators on routes would promote entrepreneurialism and create more jobs, not just for drivers, train managers .etc , but it would see a rise in demand for skilled workers to help trains to be made, improved and innovated.

There are obviously potential problems, there would need to be clear safety regulations and established distances between trains on lines, but the London Underground deals with a much denser frequency of trains on rail tracks and manages.

An increase in train operators will of course lead to the higher chance of a train breaking down and causing disruption – now who’s responsibility the breakdowns could be attributed to (the state, the local authorities or the train operators who could perhaps contribute or share responsibility to line maintenance and breakdown repairs as part of the conditions when winning the contract to operate on a route) is a different topic but irrelevant to the point – because in a liberal free market problems usually lead to solution, I am not an engineer or rail scientist (if that’s even a thing) but, to provide a better service, breakdowns would prompt innovation to help reduce and hopefully eliminate the technical issues which cause these problems. Leading to more efficient, reliable and world class rail networks, nationwide.

Mr Corbyn’s aims are to improve the rail network whilst, at the same time, decreasing fares. By re-nationalising the railways, this can only result in higher taxes in order to pay for this. So some taxpayers, who hardly ever to never use rail transport, will have to help pay for the service they seldom utilise. Why should the tax money of someone working a minimum wage job around the corner from their flat have to help pay for the commute of a big city banker who travels into London from his mansion in the Cotswolds every working day? It doesn’t make sense and it isn’t fair. Unfortunately statistics show that “The People’s Railway” is a popular policy, but we, as liberals, shouldn’t be tempted into supporting it.

Or, one of you can give me a lift to Cardiff Bay on Thursday morning and I’ll drop the topic completely.

* Charles Lawley is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Chapel & Hope Valley in the Derbyshire County Council Elections in 2017. He works for a humanitarian aid NGO.

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  • Richard Harris 24th Sep '15 - 11:44am

    So Charles, what’s your view of the low paid,tax paying worker who has been forced to pay tax to support a local hospital he may never use? Or perhaps he never listens to Radio 4? Or need mental health services?

  • Jenny Barnes 24th Sep '15 - 11:51am

    Either way, a two hour meeting in Cardiff is going to end up costing me the at least £100 (with the taxi I will need to get me from to Paddington at that ungodly hour of the morning).
    Assuming you don’t do this sort of thing every day, it probably still works out a lot cheaper than paying the depreciation and other costs of owning a car. When it comes to competition, the experience of privatised bus services is probably relevant – most places ended up with a worse service provided by one operator. London is an exception.

  • Russel McPhate 24th Sep '15 - 11:53am

    Sorry Charles, but the Corbyn solution is better than yours – and this is where yours goes most wrong –
    “An increase in train operators will of course lead to the higher chance of a train breaking down and causing disruption – now who’s responsibility the breakdowns could be attributed to (the state, the local authorities or the train operators who could perhaps contribute or share responsibility to line maintenance and breakdown repairs as part of the conditions when winning the contract to operate on a route) is a different topic but irrelevant to the point –”
    Fundamentally, rail travel in the UK suffers from – and is expensive BECAUSE of – the kind of arrangements we need to make to regulate relationships and resolve issues between different companies in different roles. It is not irrelevant – it is the root cause of many of the problems – and your ” solution” would make it a whole lot worse.
    Liberalism should be about the most appropriate solution to benefit the greatest number and sometimes that is public ownership. BR was actually very efficient and a co-ordinated unified rail network can provide better service delivery at lower cost than the disjointed system of today.

  • James Barber 24th Sep '15 - 12:00pm

    I’m surprised you’re not also suggesting the London Overground model of private/public ownership. TfL specify the services they wont operated on London Overground. Private companies bid to be that train operating company. This ensures services when private companies would by themselves not operate them. Low interest rates to buy trains, etc at government rates. Avoids pointless duplication.

  • The liberal free market was introduced for the buses -result in the urban area I live in was that one major company used its clout to drive away all smaller competitors and in rural Derbyshire most services disappeared.

    As for tax payer subsidy to rail -it’s higher now than before privatisation.

  • Charles Lawley 24th Sep '15 - 12:19pm

    Richard, any person could be struck by illness or mental health issues at any point. Hence why it’s called National Insurance. Cheaper trains, not subsidised by the tax payer can only help the poorest in society who need to travel.

  • I think the problem here is that there are limited places on trains, particular at popular times of day, and it is more profitable to apply scarcity pricing than increase capacity. Some franchises are let with a condition of increased capacity, but this depends on the will of the government to impose a condition that might come with a cost.

    There ought to be some way to build a recognition of the economic benefits of higher capacity into a funding formula that explicitly rewards capacity.

    Yes to more competition though it can be difficult to achieve. Have you looked at Megabus? I took the 3.30am megabus from Sheffield to London once for £5, for a 9.30am meeting. Probably won’t again though.

  • Tsar Nicholas 24th Sep '15 - 12:41pm

    Renationalising the train operating companies can save money since you won’t need to pay dividends to shareholders.

    Secondly, I can’t see how allowing more competition on rail routes without massively increasing capacity is going to work. You can’t have twice as many trains running on the same length of track or the same amount of signalling. railways are in many respects a natural monopoly.

    I would advise against getting a train from Cardiff Central to Cardiff Bay. You have first to go to Cardiff Queen Street from Cardiff Central and then change trains to get to the Bay. Taxi or foot is probably quicker.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Sep '15 - 12:43pm

    I have two responses to this, which may be slightly contradictory. Here’s the first one.

    Why do too many people in this party accept that all the regulation and oversight of franchise process for the railways has to be held at UK level? (OK, N Ireland has its own settlement, not how much oversight the Scottish Parliament has over ScotRail, would need to check). As railway infrastructure is key to regional development surely there is a case for a regionalised franchising system with regional authorities and/or consortia of local authorities calling the shots.

    I would argue that in a liberal, democratic state, any regional transport authorities / regulators would need powers with latitude to consider a variety of solutions, including creating the capacity for greater ‘open access’ operation, but also some kind of public intervention in the running of the railways in their area if they saw fit.

    On the other hand, an alternative ‘social liberal’ model for railway operation would be to insist that all franchisees were mutuals, removing the element of public subsidy of private profit that has been integral to all policy on this issue since the Major government’s (surprisingly) seminal settlement of the matter in the 90s.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Sep '15 - 12:43pm

    Here’s my second point:

    2) Joe’s raising of the national coach/bus networks is interesting. I am of the opinion that if Corbyn genuinely wanted to put in place a ‘People’s Transport’ system of cheap, affordable national coverage that would most benefit the poorest, and wanted to use state intervention to do it, he’d renationalise National Express and merge it with MegaBus. All transport policy-making needs to remember that the poorest people in our society do not travel by train, in many cases because it doesn’t go where they’re going. That’s in part due to the expensive nature of new rail infrastructure, but also due to the rail network being based on a Victorian understanding of population centres, then warped by the policy mistakes of the 60s when harsh cutbacks went ahead if there was no political cost, but were vetoed if they were in marginal consitutencies.

  • James Barber: that is EXACTLY how the current rail franchising system works!

  • Neil Sandison 24th Sep '15 - 12:45pm

    Taking the lines back into public ownership as contracts end is dead easy but how you will get the huge amounts of investment needed to upgrade and maintain those lines now and into the future is the tricky part or will Corbyn allow them to deteriorate as previous labour administrations did. and will the rail system will then need to face Beeching 2 axe and we end up with a nationally owned but smaller rail system substantially under funded.
    The practical solution is to get long term investors involved like pension funds and insurance companies who want a steady and reliable return on their investment .How the government of the day makes that an attractive option for long term investors will take some thought .

  • Paul, the entire taxpayer subsidy goes to Network Rail, none to the operating companies. Network Rail although legally private is a non-profit company with a single shareholder, the government. The track (and therefore the entire subsidy) goes from one arm of the government to another. Back when the track was operated by Railtrack (a genuine private company, albeit a horrible monopoly) the subsidy was only ~£2bn, now it’s more like £6bn. The real reason for this though is that Labour started investing in the track after the Potter’s Bar rail crash of 2002 and is largely irrelevant to the privatisation debate.

  • “It doesn’t need explaining that competing service providers would encourage the companies to reduce their prices and improve their services. ”

    Actually, it does. Free market capitalism is littered with examples of companies competing with each other by using sharp practices rather than competing with each other to drive down prices and improve services. Our utility companies and insurance companies compete with each other by seeing who can deliberately confuse the consumer the most with special rates for those that don’t have the time to become better informed of the products on offer. Companies compete with each other by trying to out-avoid tax compared with the next company. Many tradespeople out-compete their rivals by offering tax-evaded prices to the consumer, etc, etc…

    How on earth are you going to let two or more companies run a train at the same time on the same line? – as that is the only way they could possibly compete and is impossible because of capacity/timetabling. Plus, the trains themselves would be the same ones for the different companies as the rolling stock is usually tailored to specific lines – so the consumer would be offered the choice of differently painted trains with different sandwiches, both of which aren’t really big issues for travellers when it comes to deciding which service to use. Improved wifi would require the installation of some serious trackside hardware – are you advocating more than one set of this hardware for different companies?

    Extra jobs would mean higher fares. This is somewhat inconsistent with your theory about efficiency savings, unless you’re arguing that extra trains can be run. However, that idea is easily swept aside by looking at current peak time capacity issues and it really isn’t that simple to magic up more trains – they need manufacturing and buying for a start and then there are additional issues relating to whether that extra demand exists to justify the investment.

    “liberal free market”

    There is nothing inherently liberal about the free market. At the moment we have a privatised monopoly under the ‘free market’.

    So, why was rail nationalisation in the 2005 Lib Dem manifesto then? By the way, 20% of those that voted for Corbyn to be leader of the Labour party voted Liberal Democrat in 2005.

  • Can’t we just look at what works in Europe and copy that. The main problem as far as I can tell is that Britain always tries to do stuff on the cheap and ends up with inferior infra structure and ridiculous ideas like it ok to say get communist china to fund the next generation of nuclear power stations or for the French to government to own great chunks of British infrastructure or franchise the profits but force the public purse to pay for the loss making bits, but noo public ownership by the British Public is morally wrong and too expensive. Personally, I think Britain’s main problem is that it’s trying to pretend that you can have top grade public services on bottom grade investment and decreased taxation. To me all the advocates of small states and private ownership should just come clean say what they want and stand on it at election time rather than sneak stuff in through the back door. I’m afraid that in this case I do agree with Jeremy.

  • “There are obviously potential problems, there would need to be clear safety regulations and established distances between trains on lines, but the London Underground deals with a much denser frequency of trains on rail tracks and manages.”

    London Underground manages higher frequency because all the trains are the same. Not because they’re all the same physical rolling stock (though that helps), but because every train runs at the same speed and stops at the same stations. With one minor exception (fast Metropolitan Line services to Chesham and Amersham), every London Underground train stops at every station it goes past. This means that trains never overtake each other.

    On mixed-use lines, like the rest of the UK railway, this doesn’t apply. You have slow trains that don’t stop at any stations (freight), medium-speed trains that stop at lots of stations (commuter / suburban / regional trains) and fast trains that stop at few stations (expresses, or what the industry calls LDHS).

    If you want to run an extra train, you need a “path”. Much like a “slot” at an airport, but a path runs from end-to-end, because you can’t have two trains on the same bit of track at the same time.

    To give you an example, every time a train stops at Deansgate station (in central Manchester), it consumes two paths, because it blocks the line while it’s stationary. So we could run twice as many trains if they didn’t stop there and just stopped at Oxford Road station half a mile away (where there are multiple platforms and one train can arrive before the previous one leaves). How do you value the extra trains against the extra stop? How do you value building another couple of platforms at Deansgate so more trains could stop there?

    If you want a more complicated (and more realistic) example, look at the East Coast Mainline LDHS pathing negotiations:

  • “Either way, a two hour meeting in Cardiff is going to end up costing me the at least £100 (with the taxi I will need to get me from to Paddington at that ungodly hour of the morning). ”

    Why do you have to be there physically? Why not do it by videoconferencing?

  • The “slots” example above is a good reason why this would be incredibly hard to do. Not impossible, but something which would not be as easy as, say, coaches when it comes to competition.

    Are there any examples of other countries doing this? I’m open to persuasion – I’d just like to see that someone else has made it work…

  • Nigel Taylor 24th Sep '15 - 2:32pm


    You display a typical lack of understanding of how the Rail and transport industry operates.

    The reasons the cost of your ticket was so high is for two reasons. Since privatisation the cost of running the railway has doubled or tripled, and someone has to pay for it (You and Me). Rail Franchises are let on the basis of who pays the most money, so the operator has to get the money from someone (You and Me).

    The Tory bus deregulation in the 1980s followed your model. The result was 3 busses an hour, all within 3 minutes of each other, then nothing for an hour. No Busses after 6pm etc. If you bought a return ticket on one operator it would not be valid on another one.

    In the rail industry most lines are only single track or double track. The reason they work is they are planned. In your model if a slow train sets off in front of a fast train the fast train would be stuck be hide it all the way and be very slow.

    Even if we followed your model, someone would have to pay for the infrastructure. And that is not cheap. You would have 3 operators all offering tickets to Cardiff at £107, £108 or £109.

    You question the need to provide the train service to London. Unfortunately the UK economy it totally dependent on London. London’s main resource is its people. The only way of getting the quantity of people required into London is using Railways. So if you don’t like the cost of London’s Railway, you will like it even less without them.

    I could go on, but your ideas are very similar to the ones created by the Tories to break up British Rail. “The magical free market would create a wonderful service with no money”. Before the reality was the free market treated the fragmented industry as a “Cash Cow”, ready to be “Milked” for all it was worth (and it has been!).

    The Civil Servants took the Tory/your ideas and made the best of them they could.

    The current system you complain about, is the result of the Tory/your ideas 20 years on.

    I do not want to see the railways nationalised as Network Rail was last year (its former mutual status was better). The Government has spent the last 70 years wrecking the industry, it is not a good owner. But if you want to reduce the cost of your ticket and tax pay subsidy, we need integration, as the only way of controlling cost. The rail industry needs to compete with the Roads and Airlines not itself.

  • @Nick yes, you can do that, but (a) only on the few bits of the system that don’t need subsidy and (b) only where there’s spare capacity.

    For obvious reasons, the tendency is that the profitable bits are the busy bits where all the spare capacity gets more trains run, so there aren’t many places where open-access works.

    The East Coast Main Line is one of the few, because (a) the lower parts that are shared with Great Northern commuter trains into London are four-tracked so the commuters and long-distance don’t interfere with each other, (b) there are lots of potential destinations, but each one can only fill one or two trains an hour, so there are full trains from Leeds, but you couldn’t run more – so the way to use the capacity is to cover new destinations, which is best done on a commercial-risk basis. Grand Central (Sunderland and Bradford) and Hull Trains (Hull) have identified good new destinations on exactly that basis. However, the complexity of fitting all those trains from different operators together – and multiple new bidders wanting to open up more routes, as well as a desire to run a more frequent main service to Newcastle/Edinburgh and Leeds, is resulting in an enormous headache for the regulator ORR who allocates the paths.

    The West Coast Main Line has similar potential (Blackpool, Blackburn/Burnley, Wrexham/Shrewsbury/Wolverhampton) that was restricted by Virgin West Coast’s notorious “moderation of competition” clause (the only example of an actual legally-enforced monopoly). There was an attempt to do with with Wrexham&Shropshire, which resulted in the ludicrous situation of trains running through Birmingham without stopping – unsurprisingly this wasn’t profitable. Now that moderation of competition has expired, there is already one open-access operator that has been granted rights (for London-Blackpool); the problem now is that Euston Station is so busy that the trains have to stop at Queen’s Park until the HS2 rebuild of Euston is complete.

    There might be something on the lines to Paddington (which station should have some free capacity once Crossrail is in operation), but probably no-where else.

  • Dave Orbison 24th Sep '15 - 4:32pm

    Charles – “It doesn’t need explaining that competing service providers would encourage the companies to reduce their prices and improve their services”
    Ah yes, the liberal economist article of faith – ‘free markets must be better than state intervention’. This is just dogma
    If free markets worked why in my area, following deregulation of buses, am I not spoilt for superb modern buses at frequent times and a low, low prices? Thank goodness I do not live in a rural area where I would be lucky to get one bus a day. Why hasn’t the free market leapt at this apparent opportunity?
    I read the LibDem’s ‘Rail policy’. It’s not really a policy. It is nothing more than a long, long wish list of things that they would like to do but does not address the key issue of financing. The demise of the East Coast Mainline, state ownership of German and French railways show us that ‘free markets’ and liberal economics do not always work.
    Farron committed the LibDems to meeting the Government’s deficit reduction by 2018. He seemed to indicate that the LibDems would not be nasty like the Tories and suggested that in all sorts of areas cuts would not be made. Indeed, as with the LibDem Rail policy it seems the LibDems are committed to ensuring there is huge investment. But the LibDems (some) seem to sneer at any prospect of cooperating with Corbyn. They reject his approach to economics and in fact are extremely scornful – they omit of course that some economists say there is merit in his plans. But setting that aside, could someone Joe Orton perhaps, explain the specifics of the LibDem economic policy. How will the deficit be cut, how will the LibDems avoid cutting public services and how will they fund huge infrastructure projects having rejected Corbynomics? Details please?

  • The EU has competency for Transport which means it decides major policy. The Single European Railway Area is concerned with unifying all aspects of the EU rail network. They did something similar with postal services a few years ago.

    This is why the government subsidies are being removed and the full costs borne by consumers through escalating ticket prices. The business will be opened up to all EU tenders just like the postal market. I doubt if our government in Brussels will be very pleased if Corbyn tries to re-nationalise all the services.

  • Alex Macfie 24th Sep '15 - 5:27pm

    The EU has not done a very good job at “unifying” the EU rail network. Ticket integration for Europe-wide rail travel has gone backwards over the past ~20 years. It used to be possible to go to your local rail ticket office and buy a through ticket to any destination in Europe, and this ticket was valid on any train and ferry by any reasonable route. Now UK National Rail ticket offices don’t deal with international travel at all (except to Ireland). Travel to mainland Europe usually involves buying several tickets from different operators or agencies, and often you are forced to specify the service you travel on. And integration between train services across borders is often poor. If you live in Kent, it logically ought to be possible to just hop on a passenger train at Ashford to Calais, the same way as you can between Didcot and Swindon, or between Grantham and Peterborough. But this is not a good option because (i) the cross-Channel passenger trains are bookahead-only; (ii) hardly any of them stop there, and (iii) it’s ridiculously expensive. Another example, which demonstrates the flaw in Charles’ idea of separate competing rail companies, is the high-speed train service between Brussels and Cologne, which is provided by two separate companies with no ticket inter-availability. This does not foster competition in a way that benefits passengers; it’s just a nuisance, as it makes it more difficult to book through journeys involving that route.

  • Benjamin Teall 24th Sep '15 - 5:33pm

    A flaw I see is that people need to take trains at particular times, so companies would mainly be competing over access to the most lucrative time slots, and once the order operators were running was established the effective monopolies would return. I don’t know if alternating access to slots between weeks or days would resolve this.

  • Alex Macfie 24th Sep '15 - 5:39pm

    Charles: You could save money by splitting your ticket. By buying separate one-way tickets from London to Swindon, and Swindon to Cardiff, you would save about £20 on the ticket price you were quoted.

  • I like the idea of allowing anyone to run trains on any line so long as they pay for a licence to check that their trains are safe. A solution to the breakdown problem would be building a hard shoulder rail – a third rail line so traffic can be diverted to the third rail. The state would keep control of the rail network and incorporate into a tax on all trains the cost of building the new rail, the cost of electrification and keeping the tracks in good order. To stop monopolies developing is a problem and it might mean that there would be a need for a state owned operator to operate on all lines and routes where there is a monopoly. Also it might be necessary for the state owned operator to run trains outside of the profitable time and routes, where no operator wants to run trains, subsidized by taxes on the other rail operators.

    If there is limited capacity why can’t new rail lines be built, rather than reducing the amount of space each passenger gets with new coaches?

    Therefore this ideal system would be very difficult to setup and manage, but is the difficulty worth the perceived benefits for the consumer?

    There is no need to go back to the old model of nationalised industries. A state owned rail operator could work like a private company going to the market for finance and paying dividends to its shareholder the government. It could be made possible for it to go bust and then the government would set up a new company just like private company owners do.

  • Alex Macfie 24th Sep '15 - 6:29pm

    @MichaelBG: You do realise, don’t you, that building new rail lines requires investment: the infrastructure cannot simply magicked into existence. And as others have noted, allowing train operators to run services is not simply a matter of having a safety certificate: the trains need to be fitted in with existing services. Ticket integration is also important when having the sort of mixture of state-run and open-access operations that you envisage. The present National Rail ticketing structure works OK-ish for this purpose, although it does have flaws, which lead to many anomalies where it is often cheaper to buy separate tickets for a journey than one through-ticket — and this can happen even when all the trains are run by the same operator, as I note above.

  • Morgan-Ross Inwood 24th Sep '15 - 9:46pm

    There was a report from a right-wing think tank that called for the complete free market regarding the railways. the current system introduced under the 1993 Railways Act amended in 2000 and 2005 and you also have EU Rail Policy and Directives to comply with too.

    I favour a debate and measures to improve the system: a system that is open and transparent, a system with effective regulation and a system that puts the traveller first

  • Morgan-Ross Inwood 24th Sep '15 - 10:03pm

    The Report I mentioned in my previous comment is entitled Rail’s second chance Putting competition back on track by the Centre for Policy Studies and was published in 2013

    Here is the link to that Report,

  • Peter Davies 24th Sep '15 - 11:03pm

    @ David / James Barber
    The difference is that on London Overground (and DLR and Crossrail), TFL gets the fares and the operators bid to provide the service at the lowest price. On regional rail franchises, The fares go to the operator and they bid on the basis of how much of that they pay on to the government. Most people in London (including Ken and Boris) think the TFL model is working better than the regional franchises.

  • Cliff Occomore 24th Sep '15 - 11:37pm

    You don’t compare like with like in comparing flights with trains. The only constraint on flights is airport space. The railways are constrained from departure to arrival by track capacity – a lot of which was lost as a result of the Beeching and subsequent closures in the 60s and early 70s. So often competing lines were closed – St Pancras to Manchester for example – or four track railways were reduced to two. Your discussion of being able to get flights to the same destination from different airports is, with respect, fatuous when it come to railway journeys within the UK. The only practicable way from London to Cardiff is from London Paddington via Bristol Parkway. Even before Beeching there really wasn’t an alternative. I guess you could start your RyanTrains from another London terminus, but that would imvolved greatly extended journey times while the train circumnavigated busy London commuter lines to gain the main Cardiff route. Open access (which is what you appear to be advocating) has not really worked in the present privatised set up, apart from where it has been introduced to serve places off the franchised routes such as Grand Central to Wearside, won’t work as it removes revenue from the franchise holder and thus the Treasury loose out. There has to be franchising, with a set service requirement for without it only the main routes would be cherry picked. We would see closures which would make even Beeching blanch and turn in his grave. The tracks are a finite resource and in many cases are already reaching full capacity. No, the only way your utopian dream of multitudes of competing services is by spending vast sums on reopening of closed competing services – Matlock to Buxton, for a St Pancras to Manchester service, Uckfield to Lewes for a competing Brighton service, Harrogate to Ripon and Northallerton for a competing service to the North East and Scotland, But I’m not sure that such would help your Cardiff journey as the old GWR had things pretty well sewn up and there never was a competing route to the Welsh capital

  • Thanks for interesting debate. Think I am with Jeremy but would love to see a proper economic analysis. RENFE works well in Spain but there aren’t many tracks. Nice prices and efficiency. How about B&B in Swindon (cheap) and then early train morning from there?

  • The contributor says he is a writer and broadcaster, may i add whiner. This kind of ill informed rant does not do anything to promote a serious debate over the railways. Maybe he does not remember when the railways rain as a nationlised network, been private is not all bad. Also i have used TGV rail in France recently, not any better than the UK. Being in private or public hands will make no difference to pricing being higher at peak times and no difference to being able to run additional trains, the platform and track capacity will still be the same. Virgin is to have competition on the west coast main line, BUT it has taken slow and difficult negotiating to get the slots and platform space. If we are going to discuss the railways, let’s do in a mature way

  • @Cliff, you’ve actually picked a poor example with London-Cardiff for alternate routes; you could do Waterloo-Cardiff via Basingstoke, Salisbury, Bath and Bristol. The problem is that Waterloo is at capacity, so it wouldn’t be any cheaper than Paddington, and would be at least an hour slower. In fact, SWT run an occasional train this way as far as Bristol (09:20 and 12:20 from London, 05:51, 12:49 or 15:51 from Bristol).

    The reason there was never a competing route is that GWR had it sewn up at the Bristol end, not at the London end; the LSWR (now SWT) route out of London Waterloo to the SW (Basingstoke-Salisbury-Yeovil-Exeter) was always competitive with the GWR route (Reading-Westbury-Castle Cary-Taunton-Exeter), but GWR controlled everything in Somerset and Gloucestershire, so LSWR trains from London were never allowed onto the Wessex Main Line (Southampton-Bristol) to serve Bristol and South Wales.

    The reason the alternative route is much slower now is that the Great Western Main Line has had lots of investment in both the BR and post-privatisation era, while the West of England Main Line has had the exact opposite, being run down to a single-track route that is barely faster than it was in steam days.

  • There used to be Wales & West (later Wales & Borders) services (2 or 3 a day each way) from Waterloo to Cardiff & Manchester on the route Richard mentions.In 2004 (I think) it was cut back to Bristol and transferred to South West Trains. It is still possible to buy tickets between London and South Wales valid only on the Warminster/Salisbury route, although these are actually more expensive than the cheapest walk-up Any Permitted London–South Wales tickets!

    RyanTrains — it’s been done! France has a train service called Ouigo ( that is a wholly owned subsidiary of SNCF but competes directly with its main TGV services. It copies the worst features of low-cost airlines, using only stations a long way outside the cities they serve (their “Paris” is Marne-la-Valée), airport-style check-in (with self-printed tickets), online-only booking, charges for luggage, etc etc. The concept is intriguing but it’s a backwards step as far as ticket integration is concerned, as there is no way of using these trains with standard train tickets. In the UK open-access services (which are run by genuinely separate companies, not a national monopoly “competing” with itself) are integrated into the National Rail framework, so they accept National Rail “Any Permitted” route walk-up tickets and their services show up in journey planners.

  • The Train operator contracts can be made to include whatever we decide, it would be helpful if the deal was attractive enough to get bidders.
    What should be put into the contracts , that isn’t already there?
    It wouldn’t be an insignificant cost, but will we ever use Double Decker trains as they do in some countries to increase capacity – this should enable fare reductions. Perhaps you could enable competition within the same journey with different carriages from different companies, or at least you could offer alternate trains from different companies. Run the same number of trains overall but double the capacity. Start with the very busiest routes.
    Buses by their nature are more flexible – but only because the infrastructure is there.
    Integration is vital, I’m not keen on Nationalisation, but not against it if it will “Work Better and Cost Less both to Taxpayer and Passenger”. I’d rather see major improvements to the present system.
    We must be business friendly but set things up firmly in a way that benefits everyone fairly!

  • @Paul Walter “TCO There are some things when you normally have to be there in person. Just taking a random example, job interviews, for example.”

    Normally, maybe, but I’ve seen interviews conducted via phone and videolink, and norms are there to be challenged.

    A lot of people travel for and to work for no other reason than convention. Remember – work is an acitivity not a place.

  • @Steve “Perhaps you could enable competition within the same journey with different carriages from different companies”

    Back to the future:

  • There are still some competing routes from London for example to Exeter and Birmingham. Fares from Marylebone to Birmingham are often much cheaper than from Euston, likewise fares from Waterloo to Exeter are cheaper than fares from Paddington though in both cases journey times are a bit longer. Express Coaches are available from most parts of Britain and some are surprisingly quick and much cheaper than trains. The West of England has a surprisingly good coach service emanating from Taunton to London and covering many Somerset towns which has been increased from one to four routes over the last 20 years.

    Maybe we should follow Argentina and close all but the short distance commuter railways. They have an extensive network of competing long distance coach services, though I would be sad to lose the opportunity to travel by train.

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Sep '15 - 1:27pm

    Richard Gadsden – there was another hypothetical route into South Wales via the missing Severn Bridge, and there were two proposals in the 19th century that may have in the long run created competition into South Wales – the Basing(stoke) and Bath proposal, which was going to run across Salisbury Plain, and the London and South Wales Railways, which would have basically envisaged a Euston-Bletchley-Oxford-Worcester-Wales route. This didn’t happen, obviously.

    This is all geekery, but illustrates that railway policy and infrastructure development in this country is locked in patterns of development and politics that go back nearly 200 years in some cases and are hard to change, in a relatviely intensively populated and developed island. Politicians like the illusion that with one fell swoop they can create radical change.

  • Alex Macfie 25th Sep '15 - 1:40pm

    I can’t see how “competition within the same journey with different carriages from different companies” would work. How do you divide each section? Would there be a separate guard for each section of the train? Note that guards to a lot more than just check (and, where appropriate, sell) tickets: they are responsible for the entire operation of the train. It’s a train-wide job, and it simply does not make sense to divide the train up into operationally separate sections.

  • Alex Macfie 25th Sep '15 - 1:43pm

    Or have separate catering trolleys and separate wi-fi for each train operator’s section of the train (and how do you stop people using the wrong wi-fi?). And what is done with a passenger in the wrong part of the train? It’s totally unnecessary duplication; a train functions as a whole unit. Who employs the driver?

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Sep '15 - 2:31pm

    “A lot of people travel for and to work for no other reason than convention. Remember – work is an acitivity not a place.”

    Excuse me whilst I vomit.

  • nvelope2003 25th Sep '15 - 4:04pm

    In all the discussions over railways most people seem to overlook the very high costs involved with not just having a separate track which must be maintained to a very high standard for safety reasons if trains are to be run at a high speed which they have to be or otherwise there would be no point in having them. The trains themselves also cost over £1 million per carriage for safety reasons compared to about £200,000 to £300,000 for a perfectly safe road passenger vehicle. Road coaches can also serve places more directly in some cases.

    People who complain about the high costs seem to expect someone else to pay a large part of their train fare although I accept that there are issues with the efficient use of staff and appropriate levels of remuneration in a highly unionised industry which has been around for nearly 200 years and is very much stuck in the past in terms of organisation even if not the trains themselves. This is an issue which is normally dealt with by outside competition but as the railways are controlled by the state and subsidised by the tax payers this is very difficult to achieve except by allowing them to go bankrupt and new people to come in.

  • @ Alex Macfie

    I don’t see building rail tracts as different from building roads. Of course the government should borrow to finance them. I do accept that running different speed trains on the same tracts can be problematic, which is why more tracts would be needed. I don’t understand why ticket integration is important so long as the consumer can get the information about which suppliers run trains, when, and at what price. The consumer should be able to cope with buying tickets from different suppliers.

    However I did write, would having this level of competition be “worth the perceived benefits for the consumer?”

  • Michael: Have you ever booked a multi-leg flight? Can you imagine having to use two different airline websites for the separate tickets instead of using skyscanner or something like that?

    Now, imagine if that wasn’t a one-off for a holiday or business trip, but was your daily commute to work.

    Imagine if you couldn’t buy a through ticket from the ticket office, but you had to get a second one in the station where you change, and possibly miss a transfer buying the ticket – unless you buy online in advance, which might be reasonable for long-distance, but isn’t for short journeys that you do to pop to a friend’s for an afternoon and cost less than a tenner.

  • Alex Macfie 25th Sep '15 - 6:23pm

    I used to live in Oxford and I have family in south Wales. So quite often I used to make the journey by train between Oxford and Abergavenny, a journey that necessarily involves the services of more than one operator and which is also possible by several permitted routes. Under the National Rail ticketing structure (inherited from British Rail), I can buy a through ticket for that journey and use any train that is on a permitted route, regardless of who runs it. If there were no integrated ticketing, then I would have to decide at the start whether I wanted to travel via Newport or Hereford, then buy a ticket at Oxford station to whichever of the two I have decided to travel via, and then at Newport or Hereford buy a separate ticket to Abergavenny. And if I were buying return tickets I would be forced to return via the same route I went there. This would be an annoyance, not a benefit. With the current system the traveller need neither know nor care who runs the service they use, and they can be sure they can use any train appropriate to the journey being made. This is why, when rail was originally privatised, it was passenger groups that pushed for continued availability of through tickets across the whole network, against the preferences of ministers who were inclined towards the pure competition-based system envisaged by Charles and Michael.

  • @ Richard Gadsden

    “Michael: Have you ever booked a multi-leg flight? Can you imagine having to use two different airline websites for the separate tickets instead of using skyscanner or something like that?”

    No. I see that having a free for all would be problematic. Therefore I now recognise the need for train tickets to be purchased from other organisations and not just the operator. It should be possible to buy train tickets from all suppliers on one website? There has to be one website to provide the “perfect” information for consumers or the free market doesn’t work as it is supposed to. So part of being able to run a train on the tracks would be inclusion into the joint website, another could be the issuing of season tickets via the same website. I assume that the train stations would be owned by the same organisation who own the rail tracks and so it should be possible to buy tickets for all train operators at every station that sells tickets.

    @ Alex Macfie

    If I wanted to get a train to Birmingham I would need to state if I wanted to go via London and if so pay more for a quicker journey, but if I state I do not wish to travel via London then my ticket will not be valid on trains going to London. So parallel routes via different stations at different costs already exist. There is a cost for having lots of through ticketing. You see the cost as worth paying, but others might think that they would rather pay less and so ensure they get on the right operators’ trains. I would prefer cheaper fares to be available but it might be that my “ideal” competitive system would not create them.

  • Just nationalise it and quick. Im fed up with being bled dry for a shambolic service. Im guessing many people commenting rarely use trains. I spend about 16 or so hours a week travelling incredibly slowly at massive expense in hugely cramped conditions. I can remember rail travel in the 80s and 90s and it wasnt like this.

  • @MichaelBG: Well, that sounds similar to what we have now, although stations are run by train operating companies, which also run the ticket offices, which sell tickets for all operators impartially. A few big stations (e.g. London Euston) have separate ticket offices run by different train operators but they still all sell the same range of tickets. With online retailers it is the same.
    I’m well aware of different routeing options for tickets (some of which, e.g. the “Not London” / “Any Permitted” routeings are inherited from British Rail). I have also mentioned above that split-ticketing is sometimes cheaper than buying a through-ticket. Also that from where I live in South West London, it is often cheaper to buy a ticket from “London Terminals” to somewhere in the regions than from my local station (and use Oyster to get to central London).
    When I travelled to Liverpool a few months ago, I bought cheap London Midland advance tickets. But when I travelled to South Wales recently, I bought a walk-up single ticket with origin London Terminals (bizarrely much cheaper than originating at my local station). I was glad that this ticket allows travel on the Waterloo—Reading route as well as from Paddington, so that I did not have to go into central London and back out on a dog’s leg, but instead could just go straight out west from my local station. It is this kind of flexibility that makes through-tickets useful, and as shown it is not incompatible with train operators also offering special cheap tickets. Which I find more useful depends on the circumstances.

  • If you want an example of poor co-operation between train operators leading to a lack of flexible through-tickets making booking complex generally, look at certain EU cross-border routes. I mentioned above Brussels–Cologne, where the lack of ticket inter-availability between the two high-speed operators on that route unnecessarily complicates booking train trips from the UK to Germany. Or consider travel from UK to Brussels/Paris. Unlike in my example of travelling to South Wales on one ticket by taking a local train to the most convenient interchange station (Reading), it is not possible on a Eurostar ticket to take domestic trains to the most logical interchange station to pick up the Eurostar train: you have to buy a separate National Rail ticket and decide exactly which route you want to take beforehand. Similarly, at the other end, by paying a supplement to a Brussels ticket you can travel to “Any Belgian Station”, but you are forced to change at Brussels, even tho’ for some stations in Belgium it would be more logical to change at Lille. Also it’s occasionally the case that travelling from London to Brussels is most convenient by changing at Lille and taking local trains from there. But because Eurostar is bookahead-only, you cannot do that on one ticket: you have to buy a separate ticket for the local section. Compare this with travelling from London to Manchester on a walk-up ticket, where it is permissible to change anywhere en route to a local train.

    Booking tickets is also complex for EU cross-border journeys, as online retailers (it’s no longer possible to buy international rail tickets from most UK rail ticket offices) do not all sell the complete range of tickets, so you have to know which retailer is best for the journey you wish to make. Compare this with the National Rail system, where all retailers sell all tickets for all operators.

    So based on the situation with EU cross-border rail travel, which has a free-for-all of sorts, I feel that this way of running a rail network is not desirable.

  • nvelope2003 26th Sep '15 - 1:10pm

    Alistair: I often use trains. Maybe you are unlucky but I find them punctual and rarely over crowded but it depends what time you travel. They are busier than 20 years ago possibly because they are much better. My recollection of years spent using BR is more like a nightmare.

  • “the National Rail system, where all retailers sell all tickets for all operators.”

    Annoyingly, that’s not quite true. Most won’t sell tickets to the “LONDON INTERNATIONAL CIV” destination (flexible tickets only valid if you have a Eurostar ticket for the same day), nor do they all have the Sail-Rail tickets to Ireland/Man (combined with ferry) or Dutch Flyer tickets to the Netherlands (also combined with ferry). And sleeper tickets are a complete nightmare unless you go to (and the Night Riviera tickets are a nightmare from every site).

    But yes, if you want a daytime ticket within the UK, all sites are the same and all tickets are on all sites.

  • If the EU wanted to do something really useful, then they should regulate rail ticketing to require the following:

    (a) the availability of a flexible ticket, both single and return, for each class of travel from any station in the EU to any other station in the EU, by any reasonable route. Services may require a reservation, but such a reservation must be free on a flexible ticket, and must be available no later than an hour before departure; reservation-only trains can fill up, but there must be no other means to obtain a ticket for such a train if it is full for reservation to flexible ticket holders (ie, you can’t just put aside some seats for the flexible ticket-holders and keep selling the rest once the allocation has run out). Classes would be standard/second and first as seat-only. For routes where a sleeper could be included, a second+couchette and a first+sleeper class would be added to the seat-only classes.

    (b) All ticket prices available to the general public (ie other than staff schemes and the like) must be made available for free in a suitable data format to be used by any website wishing to process ticketing information.

    (c) Ticket resellers must be able to resell all tickets that are available; qualification processes for selling tickets must be reasonable and non-discriminatory. In particular, they must not require ticket resellers not to resell other rail tickets or other forms of transport. Ideally, there should be a single, integrated, ticket-purchasing API shared by all EU train operators so that any qualified reseller can resell tickets for any train in the EU.

    Flexible through-tickets would be expensive (much as flexible anytime ticket are in the UK) but would force systems integration that would enable train operators to offer inflexible tickets for services that involve a change of trains between operators.

    The travel ticket reseller that my work uses will sell me a flight from Madrid from Barcelona, but not a rail ticket, because RENFE are such a pain to deal with, while there’s a global, integrated, airline booking system. The EU can’t create a global, integrated, rail booking system, but it could certainly create an EU-wide one, and it could invite neighbouring countries to participate, so it can extend across the whole European network.

  • @Richard: Very sensible proposals, although I’m wondering if the EU actually has the power to do anything like this. Additionally, the EU should specify minimum service levels across borders, for which current service is patchy. There are some cross-border links, such as Malmö–Copenhagen and Strasbourg–Kehl, where the service is excellent for both local and long-distance trains, but in far too many there is little to no service. Some links, such as the Channel Tunnel service, cater well for long-distance passengers, but offer no local or inter-regional service. Therefore, this minimum service requirement should apply principally to local cross-border connections (i.e. between the two stations immediately either side of the border). To make this easier, governments should be allowed to subsidise passenger train serivces to the first station across the border (currently no cross-border subsidy is permitted).

  • @Thanks Alex, I don’t think we’re very far apart. If the EU doesn’t have such powers, then they seem like the sort of thing that they should be granted through a new treaty.

    The IGC security rules make short-distance trains through the Tunnel impracticable, but I really like the last rule that national governments can subsidise to the first station in another country. It would resolve the ludicrous situation in France/Spain where French trains run to Hendaye and Spanish ones to Irun and relatively few cross the bridge between the two countries; where the old rule was that Spanish trains all ran to Hendaye and French all ran to Irun, so everything crossed the border.

    The other rule I’d want would be to reduce track-access charges for very-long-distance services. At the moment track-access charges are done on the basis of capital+overhead+marginal costs, on the basis that the trains have to pay for the infrastructure to exist. The result is that long-distance services (particularly international sleepers) are withdrawn, which reduces revenue to the rail system. If those sorts of services – which piggy-back on infrastructure that exists for local trains, and can usually pick between multiple routes – only had to pay the marginal costs and any additional overhead (e.g night shifts for signallers), then there would be a far more comprehensive European network of very-long-distance trains. Running an Orient Express again might be a realistic proposition, for instance.

  • Jane Ann Liston 30th Sep '15 - 11:04am

    In principal I support renationalising the railways, provided it is carried out in a coherent way and properly funded. However, can one rely upon the assumption that Governments will always support a nationalised rail network and run it for the benefit of passengers & freight customers? All it would take would be a pro-road government, not necessarily a Conservative one, and the railways would be in trouble again. A Labour councillor has pointed out to me that under nationalisation Labour governments actually closed more railways than did the Tories and of course although the latter commissioned the Beeching report, Labour implemented many of the closures, despite promising pre-1964 to save them.

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