Rail Confusion

By | Category: Travel rumblings

Image © Virgin Trains

Amid all the brouhaha about Virgin Trains losing the west coast line rail franchise and First Group winning it, not much has been said about what is best for the traveller.

The government will say that by accepting the highest tender, it has gained the best deal for the taxpayer. Virgin argues that it has performed a good reliable service since it won. First Group points to its success in running so much of the network.

The traveller wonders whether anything will change other than that fares will rise and does it matter anyway.
That 100,000 people have signed an e-petition (heavily promoted by Virgin itself) meaning that parliament may get to debate the process drags out the inevitable. The question is not whether Virgin or First Group should have won but whether our rail system is fit for purpose at all.
Under nationalisation we moaned. Remember British Rail’s slogan of “We’re getting there” and the inevitable answer of “when?” Under privatisation we had virtual monopolies in particular areas so what choice did we have? The government now sets a price rise plus inflation so the alternative for the traveller is bus, car or cycle some of which prove to be impossible or impractical. When we did get competition such as the Wrexham and Shropshire, less than fair competition from other rail operators – Virgin comes to mind – then the company disappeared as the route “proved” to be unviable financially. Grand Central which runs a strangely timetabled service partly in competition to East Coast Trains is now owned by Arriva who control railways in most of Wales. Other companies have announced plans that have led to little.
With subsidiaries of Dutch, French, and German state owned railways having stakes in some of our railway companies, is a state run railway better for travellers? Why has privatisation led to such high costs and high fares? Why are fares for travellers in most other countries cheaper than ours? One thing that Bob Crow at the RMT union and the McNulty report agreed on was that our railways are inefficient. Christian Wolmar writing in The Times last January even pointed out that subsidies in France and Germany were lower than ours yet German fares could be a quarter of the price on some comparable routes. The ex-transport minister, Philip Hammond said that just 12% of the population used the trains and that they should pay, not those who didn’t use it. Shouldn’t the question be why doesn’t the other 88% of the population travel by train?
And I as a taxpayer, voter and traveller say that something is fundamentally wrong and politicians don’t seem to be doing a lot about it other than set up committees and blather.
And finally the big question.
If tourism is supposed to be at the front of the government’s plans to boost the economy why don’t they introduce plans to help it by making train journeys – one of the key ways of getting visitors around – more affordable? Wouldn’t a few million here be more useful than giving Visit England a few million to promote intra-England visits?

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