There’s no getting around it, the UK rail system is in trouble!
UK rail systems were already facing significant challenges prior to the COVID-19 crisis, let alone what is expected to become a prolonged economic recovery — perhaps with successive waves of Coronavirus to further complicate things — and with some of the country’s rail operators falling into administration possibly within days. That disaster could unfold every week until every train in the country winds up parked.
Therefore, rather than allow a complete unravelling of the UK rail system via government inaction, Parliament needs to nationalize every rail operation in Britain and during this time of light ridership — solve every rail-related problem — beginning with standardizing the customer experience to the highest possible level.
Whichever rail operator has shown itself to be the most successful railway company over the past two-years (success = a good indication how a rail operator handles the profitable times AND an unprecedented national health crisis) should have their key managers hired by the government and placed in overall charge of the (proposed) then-government-run British Rail. That way the country will have the best-of-the-best operating that newly created pan-UK entity.
Click here to see Britain’s 2019 railway rankings.
Boris Has a Lot on His Plate, but This Is Important
Brexit is ultra-important, of course. No serious person would advocate for dropping things where they are and letting the present uncertainty continue. The government’s response to COVID-19 is super-important too, that goes without saying.
But millions of Britons ride UK trains every year; To work, to sporting events, to visit family, and to check on elderly friends who have no ability to run their own errands, or for some much-needed ‘retail therapy’ or for other reasons. Which makes the British rail system the 3rd-most important issue in 2020 for UK politicians, IMHO. Whatever else goes on in Parliament are politics that will inevitably work out over time.
Fixing the country’s rail system can’t wait because whether you’re a student, an employee, or an employer, trains are essential transportation in the UK.
Switching to Government Ownership
The government should purchase all rail systems at full market value and combine them into one mega-unit and merge them with Network Rail ASAP — putting the government in the position of owning ‘everything rail’ in the country. That way, there would be no delays or pushback whenever vital changes need to be made.
Some rail operators were in such rough shape financially — even before COVID-19 wrecked the economy! — that the purchase price might be £1 (only) along with assuming the existing operator’s corporate debt.
The government would be wrong to assume they have weeks or months to ramp-up to take control of every British rail company; Expect one rail company per month to fall under administration, beginning October 2020.
After a railway is shut down it’s more difficult to begin the process of fixing deficiencies once the former employees have moved-on to other jobs and management is consulting with the banks (and law courts) on outstanding financial issues, and their regular ridership are by then car-sharing or have made other lifestyle choices like quitting their jobs. (Why do that? No train, boss!)
Therefore, whatever the government does, they must actually begin to do it — next month. There’s no luxury of time here. Other than Brexit and COVID-19, this is the country’s most pressing issue and it needs to be handled. Yesterday.
- The UK rail system is powered by high voltage (24,000 volt) overhead lines. This was done to make the UK rail system as CO2-friendly as possible. And while that part of it works well, those locomotives are only as clean as the National Grid that provides the electricity of which only 30% is renewable energy annually — much of it produced at night when the wind is blowing but no trains are running. Therefore, electric trains are dirty trains but only because of the source power plant emissions and the high-ish electricity transmission line losses experienced when dispatching electricity over long distances. However, as many electric locomotives are now nearing time for replacement, clean-burning bio-diesel locos could replace today’s electric locos, helping to create a more reliable railway. And bio-diesel locomotives feature 80% lower emission levels compared to old-style diesel locos and (bonus feature!) schedule disruptions due to electrical grid failures will no longer occur.
- With the huge resources available to government, whatever major problems have been deferred by today’s rail operators due to the inability to afford expensive maintenance or upgrades would easily be afforded by the government acting as sole owner/operator of the country’s entire railway infrastructure. Yes, some immediate infrastructure spending would be required, but as the man says, ‘You can pay me now (a little) or you can pay me later’ (a lot) yet, once the upgrades would be completed the entire UK rail infrastructure would last several decades.
- The profound and expensive changes needed throughout the British rail system haven’t been made, can’t be made, and won’t be made by leaving them in the hands of private companies. There isn’t enough profit at the best of times to make both Profit and Necessary Upgrades to their systems. UK rail operators can either have profit or they can make necessary upgrades — not both.
- No private rail operator would say it publicly because saying so would affect their bottom line and risk upsetting their shareholders, but they’ve taken the business model as far as possible — and nobody likes to admit defeat! — but they did the best they could within the constraints they operate under. They can’t say it, but it’s time for the government to take back control of the country’s railway networks, fix what’s broken, upgrade what needs upgrading, and once the whole enterprise is purring like a kitten, sell it as a (by then) successful and profitable operation via IPO. The entire upgraded and profitable enterprise could fetch £1 trillion (approximately) 10-years from now, thereby allowing the UK government to (more than) recover the cost of righting the country’s rail system. Woot-Woot!
Written by John Brian Shannon