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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 things that made Britain great is that the British military contributed hugely to the UK economy via its large appetite for hardware and personnel from the civilian side of the economy, although in recent decades this has tapered because most Western politicians don’t understand militaries nor their potential for contributing to the macro economy.
Globally speaking, military spending is sometimes thought of as ‘revenue-neutral’ at best. But nothing could be further from the truth — it’s much better than that! — but generations of politicians have somehow managed to miss it.
In previous decades, the British military contributed up to 20% of the country’s GDP by maintaining a fully-fledged and ready to fight military that was trained to an exceptionally high standard.
All that costs a lot of money — nobody denies that. But every pence was spent within the UK (and that’s the key) on goods and services to supply the military, or pay military personnel wages, all of which contributed massively to the UK economy.
Sadly, in today’s very low UK defence spending modality, such is not the case.
The British Military Could Add 20% to UK GDP
Properly equipping the British military by continually building latest-generation warships, military aircraft, tanks and armoured personnel carriers AND selling copies of them to Commonwealth of Nations and other countries means the UK military and its defence contractor partners could add up to TWENTY PERCENT to the country’s EXISTING GDP if done properly.
Especially coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, boosting Britain’s GDP could go a long way to restoring what was lost in 2020 and turn the UK into a military exporting superstar within a decade.
Think it can’t be done? You’re wrong. Sweden, the U.S., China and other countries sell multi-billions worth of high-tech weaponry annually which adds significantly to their GDP and provides thousands of good paying jobs in their countries. And none of them have the privilege of membership in a 53-member bloc with a combined population of 2.2 billion. Think of that spending power! Think of the economies of scale when designing, engineering and constructing new military hardware!
Therefore, letting British military spending wane in order to save money is a false economy.
Building hundreds of ships, planes, firearms, and wheeled and tracked vehicles for the UK military, and for export, will create thousands of jobs for Britons — and supplying just the ammunition for those military platforms is almost better from a capital outlay perspective!
Even if the UK military never uses any of that military hardware in combat (and let’s hope it never needs to) it will have provided thousands of jobs and boosted the UK economy by up to 20%.
That’s reason enough for the UK to immediately embark on a massive military modernization programme and to do it NOW! before any other Commonwealth country steals the idea. And who could blame them? It’s a complete no-brainer that would benefit the entire Commonwealth.
First Item on the Agenda – Britain and its Commonwealth Partners Need New Tanks
According to a BBC article published 25 August, 2020 the UK is considering retiring its near-obsolete Challenger 2 tanks, or buying more-modern Leopard tanks from Germany which are a great tank but not as capable as Russia’s world-class T-72 tank, nor as good as America’s M1A3 Main Battle Tank.
But instead of hiding in our foxholes until we ‘man-up’ (or ‘woman-up’) to spend the necessary in order to become a weapons exporting superstar, the UK needs to build its own main battle tank now — a tank that the UK can also sell to 52-other Commonwealth nations and to non-Commonwealth countries by the dozens per year, thereby creating a continuous assembly line that must be maintained for at least 10-years to keep up with all those tank orders.
And it will be important to liaise with our Commonwealth partners to ensure that the British-built ‘Commonwealth Main Battle Tank’ would meet all of their requirements and be able to perform well in all conditions — whether dense jungle, blasting hot Australian outback, on muskeg in northern Canada (which is bigger than the entire EU) or in deep snow at high altitude. Because you never know where you’ll be required to train or operate.
Some Say the World is Changing and We Don’t Need Tanks in the 21st-Century
But I’m about to blow up that theory with a well-known military history lesson.
The F-4 Phantom II all-weather fighter/bomber/interceptor provides the best example of wrong-headed defence industry thinking of all time. You know the Phantom… the most successful warplane of the Cold War and arguably, the most important military aircraft of all time. It was all that and more in its day.
But back in the late 1950’s, America’s defence contractors decided they wouldn’t consult with their own military or their Cold War allies and went ahead and built the world’s best all-weather fighter/bomber/reconnaissance jet, and they decided it didn’t need an onboard gun installed for close-in ‘dogfighting’ or for harassing enemy ground troops (by persistently strafing them).
America’s then-existing aerospace industry decided they were smarter than every military officer in the world and that they would launch a new generation of high-tech onboard air-to-air missiles to lead the world into the 21st-century and fighter jets would no longer need guns. Yi-Haw!
However, it soon became apparent during the Vietnam War that the Phantom’s lack of a gun prevented it from defending itself once it had fired its two air-to-air missiles. And as often happens in combat, once you drop your bombs on the target the enemy instantly scrambles its fighter jets to shoot you down. (When the Phantom was deployed for bombing missions, it typically carried only two air-to-air missiles for self defence — which is a very big problem when you have five enemy aircraft chasing you).
Think about that for a minute. What if you were that Phantom pilot in Vietnam with 5-MiG’s in hot pursuit? What if your son or daughter was the Phantom pilot with no installed gun and both missiles had already been fired? The Phantoms were stunningly fast, but not fast enough to outrun enemy radio communications to other enemy fighter jets operating nearby. No gun? You lose.
So at great cost, the Phantom was retrofitted with an astonishingly good gun (a massive Gatling gun that’s still in use on some Western fighter aircraft) and American fighter pilots were again able to defend themselves against air and ground attack on the way to their target, while engaging the air or ground target (sometimes both air and ground targets on the same sortie) and on the way back to their airbase or aircraft carrier. And American fighter pilot kill ratios and other important statistics soon returned to their former glory.
From that costly lesson we know that fighter jets must have the ability to defend themselves with an onboard gun, and they also need the ability to instantly switch to the close air support role to assist friendly ground troops that may be pinned down by an enemy ground force.
It was a well-intentioned decision to design a lighter and therefore faster multi-role fighter — but in actual combat conditions the decision to delete the onboard gun turned out to be a disaster — and in zero cases was the gun-less Phantom more mission-capable or mission-survivable than the Phantom equipped with an onboard gun.
As for the idea to engage ground combat forces without tanks, or occupy enemy territory, or to protect power stations without tanks in situ… I can only stress that if you’re bigger, stronger, and better protected on the battlefield, you’re much more likely to attain your military objectives and return home alive. And don’t British troops deserve the best possible chance to complete their mission and return home safely?
Therefore, let’s begin by working with our Commonwealth friends ASAP to obtain their main battle tank requirements (and even hire some of their expertise if possible!) and get to work on building the world’s best tank — as a money-making defence industry operation, as a job creator, as a way to protect deployed British Army troops, and to create a new paradigm where every Commonwealth nation shops the UK first to fulfil all of their military hardware needs.