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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
Here’s a List of Seven Reasons that the UK Needs to Spend Real Money on it’s Ageing Rail Infrastructure:
- There are huge bottlenecks throughout the country’s railway routes and those bottlenecks make every other thing in the system worse, including timeliness, scheduling, customer satisfaction, and passenger safety.
- Congestion on UK roads is appreciably worse when the trains are unavailable due to labour strikes, weather-related problems, line maintenance issues and electrical power outages that affect the railway electrical grid.
- The UK will never meet it’s clean air commitments as long as most ground travel is by automobile, but when millions of Britons ride trains to get to their destinations, CO2 levels drop correspondingly, especially as the UK electricity grid continues to add more renewable energy capacity.
- In most cases, the UK rail experience hasn’t changed much over the decades. It’s overcrowded at peak times and under-utilized during the rest of the day. For the country that invented passenger rail systems in 1802 when Englishmen Richard Trevithick and Andrew Vivian received a patent for the world’s first steam locomotive, providing mediocre or average service isn’t good enough. Rail service in the UK could and should be the envy of the world.
- Rail Tourism. Most people in the UK take trains to get to and from work, to go shopping, or to visit Grandma at the weekend. But there are millions of people around the world who dream of riding in a posh railcar, seeing a foreign country from the viewpoint of a luxury railcar, eating gourmet food and tasting fine wines. If you’ve done it (I have) it’s an experience you’ll never forget — and you’ll want to do it again. The UK rail system (yes, the rail system alone!) could bring millions of pounds into the UK economy. Just by doing railways right.
- Building and operating HS2, removing longstanding bottlenecks throughout the UK rail system, combined with ongoing upgrades to make rail travel a truly world-class experience will create thousands of jobs — particularly if all new locomotives, rail cars, and rail track are manufactured in the UK.
- More capacity, better railcars, more user-friendly schedules and a higher passenger experience, will itself, cause millions more Britons to take the train to work, shop, and play, thereby helping rail operators to run a profit — even during non-peak times of the day — whether in ‘high season’ or the ‘low season’.
In short, there’s every good reason to build-up Britain’s rail system even at significant cost… because the benefits to the entire country, to Britons, and to the UK’s international tourism reputation are mind blowing.
One of the great things about Brexit is that the UK will be free to change anything within the remit of the UK government — but without the drag induced by the overly-bureaucratic EU governmental architecture slowing things down to such an extent that by the time anything gets approved it’s no longer relevant.
And judging by actual need, doing a full reset on Britain’s passenger rail network must rank as one of the top items requiring attention by HM government in the first quarter of 2020.
It’s not only the inconvenience of slow, outdated trains that fail to depart on schedule or show up at all, or the insecurity of Britons left standing on lonely platforms waiting in the darkness for a late train, it’s the lost productivity of late or no-show workers who take the train to work that acts as a drag on UK GDP. Any of those concerns alone represent a serious issue with the British rail system, but in totality suggest that Britain’s rail system is in crisis. Which means that minor adjustments won’t suffice.
And the only important metric in any passenger rail system is customer satisfaction — otherwise, no one will bother riding trains any more.
Five Ways to a Better Rail Network
People will only ride trains if they meet expectations IMHO, and at present, less than 50% of Britain’s train routes meet the following simple but important criteria; Cost, appropriate scheduling and destinations, comfort, and such modern-day necessities as high speed WiFi, snackbar, clean washrooms, and a high degree of personal security while aboard the train and in train stations, and on platforms and other common areas, rank highly with riders.
- The UK government should legislate a universal daypass that costs only £10 per/person per/day (except for business class) This price adjustment would revolutionize how Britons think about train travel vs. commuting by car. The proposed pricing system would apply no matter how long or short the trip and the daypass would remain valid until the end of the service day. (Because some trains run past midnight, tickets would need to remain valid until 3:00am or whenever the last stop of the day occurs anywhere on the system) That daypass ticket should allow unrestricted trips anywhere within the UK on that day with the ability for riders to ‘hop on’ and ‘hop off’ a train as many times as they like. More ridership means more revenue, which would also translate into less automobile congestion in cities and work to lower CO2 emissions, and it would improve worker reliability/productivity which is tied to national GDP. Whatever per rider cost isn’t covered by the £10 daypass revenue stream should be subsidized by the UK government as less traffic congestion, lower CO2 emissions and higher productivity are important public goods. If the government is to subsidize anything at all in the UK… unquestionably, rail should be it… because real benefits accrue to large numbers of citizens, businesses, and UK GDP just by making trains affordable for everyone.
- The highest customer satisfaction rail network in the UK should be given the mandate to manage the entire UK rail system and could at its discretion, subcontract some routes to other rail networks on condition they meet GCR customer service standards (for one example of a highly-rated rail system operator) going forward.
- Rail stations and other rail infrastructure should be built by the UK military with 21st century security needs top of mind. The UK military should create a military branch parallel to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) which built most of America’s dams, levees, canals, and some bridges and tunnels, and other important infrastructure at a lower cost when compared to building the same projects employing (for profit) private companies; Sometimes 1/10th the cost! Projects deemed too expensive for private companies to build were, and still are, turned over to the ACOE by the U.S. government. Many military recruits begin their adjustment to military life by enlisting with the ACOE, then move to combat training later-on if they feel they want to continue in the military. It’s a good way for young people to try out military life before committing to the much harsher combat training regime and it still counts towards their tuition-free college degree credit if they signed-up under the ROTC program which rewards them with one tuition-free college degree for 4-years of service in either the U.S. ACOE or the U.S. Army/Air Force/Navy or Marines.
- All trains in the UK should be pulled by hydrogen fuelled locomotives and all overhead electrical wire systems for trains should be removed. (Germany is building hydrogen fuelled locomotives and two are in the UK undergoing testing) Hydrogen can be produced using surplus wind turbine energy instead of that energy being wasted due to low electricity demand at certain hours of the day. (The wind blows whenever the wind blows, but it doesn’t always blow during peak demand hours) At night for instance, electrical demand in the UK falls to 15% of maximum daytime demand, yet the wind turbines might be churning out prodigious amounts of electricity far in excess of what is needed to meet demand at that hour. The national grid then ‘curtails’ wind turbine output by remotely applying the brake to stop the wind turbine blades from spinning, or remotely turn the angle of the wind turbine blades to slow or even stop the blades from turning. Which represents a massive lost opportunity! Thousands of MegaWatt hours of energy per year are lost via such curtailment, therefore, by building a number of small hydrogen plants (reverse-osmosis) near rail lines, surplus wind power can be utilized to create hydrogen for Britain’s hydrogen fuelled locomotive fleet. Therefore, no matter what happens to the electrical grid on any given day, including a complete electrical blackout, hydrogen fuelled trains will always run on time as their fuel is carried onboard and will easily last them until the last stop of the day.
- All train stations should incorporate useful shops and services and the rental agent and landlord should always be the government. Useful stores such as a coffee shop, a post office, a secure and patrolled bicycle lock-up, a green grocer, a florist, a secure daycare to drop off your child in the morning and retrieve him/her on your way home, a hardware store, a convenience store, a dog kennel so you can drop off your dog in the morning and pick him up and walk home with him at night, a lost and found, and a police station, even if it has only one constable and one police dog. In this way, the government can rent the retail space in each train station and thereby recoup the construction costs of building such stations over a 25-year timeframe.
It’s simply a case of turning the rail system into something that meshes with the needs of riders instead of one designed to meet the profits of rail operators.
In that way, ridership will increase and rail operators will be funded by a combination of riders and government subsidy. No financial losses for rail operators! Lower spending by the government on roads and automobile-related CO2 reduction programmes! All good.
And this plan results in a virtuous cycle. As everyone leaves their cars at home, it will mean less automobile congestion in UK cities, lower CO2 levels in cities, better productivity for employers whose employees take the train to work, less curtailment of wind turbines, job creation to produce reverse-osmosis hydrogen facilities relatively near each rail terminus, job creation to manufacture hydrogen locomotives under license from the German patent-holder, zero rail disruptions due to electrical grid power failures, no more unsightly and tangled mess of wires above UK rail routes and job creation for the (as suggested in this blog post) a UK ‘Army Corps of Engineers’ so that young people can try military life at low risk and still receive a tuition-free college degree after 4-years of service.
One last point: No one would have created the UK rail system as it exists today — it evolved into what it is over many decades. Imagine that there were no railways in the UK until this very day and that tomorrow a brilliant team would assemble to begin planning the new rail system. In no way would that ‘designed from scratch’ rail system look anything like the system that exists today. At all! Not even close.
And let that be our guide! For we now have the opportunity to begin anew following Brexit, to recreate Britain’s rail network so that it works for the people, for UK cities, for UK businesses, for the UK military, and for the government. That’s a rail network everyone can buy into. Toot-toot!
In Vancouver, Canada, (if you have plenty of time on your hands) you can ride every Skytrain route and every Seabus route and every bus route for only $10.50 per day using a DayPass.
“A DayPass provides unlimited transit use on all buses, SkyTrain and SeaBus for one day from the start of the first transit service to the end of the service day. You can use it for travel through all zones, and save money over buying single fares when you take multiple trips in the same day.” — Vancouver TRANSLINK
In Britain, those Bombardier ALRT cars would require a streamlined hydrogen powered locomotive to pull them along at up to 150 miles per hour in the wide-open spaces between UK cities — instead of being powered by the Bombardier linear induction motors energized by an electrical current bar/pickup on the trackbed.
- UK railways need ‘radical overhaul’, campaigners say (BBC)