Let railways be railways

The railways were not built for commuters.

No matter what their job is, the moment an otherwise sane businessperson is faced with their train to and from work they often turn into something akin to a socialist in a champagne shortage.

Commuter trains are not economical. Indeed, were it not for the fact that London would fail without them, there would be no reason whatsoever to run them. For most of the day the trains sit empty in sidings. Despite existing for more than 100 years the commuter has yet to realise that the railways do not function for them. They are the froth, not the American coffee.

Railways were built for freight. They function best for freight, since they carry much larger loads than their rivals and they can travel faster. The part of the railways with the most modern stock is freight, vast numbers of new locomotives have been shipped across the Atlantic in the past decade to cope with the demand.

This is partly due to the fact that the freight sector of the railways functions much better than the passenger. There are not the franchises, government schemes and endless meddling restrictions that the passenger companies face. They can just get on with the job. Consider that the Royal train is organised by a freight company, not a passenger one, because the Royal train needs to work flexibly.

Thanks to the micromanagement of Whitehall since privatisation there is no longer the ability for the railways to respond to trade. The rolling stock is tired and has needed replacement for years. You can still find BR shunters, built based on a design from the 1930s, and it is only three years since the last 1950s slam door commuter trains were retired.

Years of working have taken their toll on the railways. Had there been the investment needed they’d be in a great state. Despite being focussed too much on unprofitable services, the railways can just about muddle along, if they were left alone, they might even be able to thrive again.

It is worth pointing out that one sector of the railways has grown fantastically in the last 60 years. The preserved sector. They have lessons for the mainline railways, since the best are actually able to turn a profit.

They remember to give passengers a service, rather than simply shipping a cargo of people, they make a fuss of passengers, with well-kept coaches, honest apologies if things go wrong, and staff who are happy and motivated. They’re the only railways thriving without freight.
Why? They make do. Yes, old rolling stock is going to be tired. But if it is given a decent overhaul before it’s falling apart, cleaned regularly and thoroughly when in service and works, passengers won’t know it’s ancient. Yes, it may be a wooden 1880s third class carriage. But it’s clean, with a working light, and the window opens and the strap is new. Most people will be content with the equivalent for modern trains.

There are 536 miles of preserved railway in this country, comparable to any mainline. They carry over 7 million passengers a year, comparable to many ordinary railways. Despite not having the delights of Network Rail and the franchises, they work. It may well be time that the railway companies stand up for themselves, tell the Civil Service to let go of the railways and learn how to do it for themselves.

Would fares still go up then? Not necessarily. They might, prepare yourselves, go down.

Why? If the railways had the ability to work for themselves, they might try and fill the trains between the commuter hours, instead of trying to fund them on just the commuters. Which might just benefit everybody.


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