For the last three months, trains from Great Northern and to a lesser extent Thameslink have joined their brothers at Southern Rail in being utterly useless. Trains are routinely and seemingly randomly cancelled, and the trains that do run are often extremely late and occasionally just miss out stations seemingly on the fly. It has been like riding a train service run by a drunk child.
This is all because of a mess involving a timetable change and union laws, which quite frankly deserves a slam piece all on its own, but really it is part of a wider issue, in that this country seemingly can’t manage even a mildly functional train service. British trains are statistically more delayed than those on the continent, and well over double the average price. They are inconsistent, often dirty, and unreasonably expensive. In short, the British rail service is useless.
This is all the more frustrating because it makes no sense whatsoever that the service is this poor. Britain is a country perfect for trains. We are a small country with an unusually dense population, centred (whether we like it or not) around our capital. This means that trains are capable of traversing the whole country with ease, and that these journeys will take them through plenty of willing customers. It also means that the routes can essentially be plotted out as ‘to London’ and ‘from London’ meaning the rail system doesn’t even have to be that complex. In theory, we should not only be able to sustain a rail service, but it should also be one of the most effective and efficient in the world. Instead, we have the opposite of that.
Why is this the case? Essentially, the problem we have is that British rail is stuck in an ineffective middle ground. The railways were historically a nationalised industry, with a powerful trade union. This suffered from inefficiencies, and so to supposedly cure these issues, the railways were privatised. However, the root of the inefficiencies remained in the form of the strong trade unions, which continue to exist. Now though, rather than these unions exerting their pressure on the national industry that spawned them, these unions are now pressurising many different vaguely independent companies, who all have slightly different agreements with their drivers and staff. This has only worsened the situation. Whereas before we had one, large, unified problem, we now have many smaller problems, all divided up into constituent parts that refuse to work properly with each other. This only confuses matters, and drives up prices further.
So clearly, our only path is to leave this middle ground, which means one of two things. Firstly, we can renationalise rail, and return to how things were. This wasn’t perfect, and this would be expensive for the government, but at least it would simplify things and rid us of all these separate arrangements all around the country. At the very least, it would make the problem easier to understand. The second option is to go the other way, and try to take power away from the unions. If executed properly, this would allow the benefits of competition to finally be reaped, as the private companies could barter more effectively with their workers and lower prices across the board. However, it would also risk leaving train drivers out to dry in regards to pay and work standards, as well as being an extremely difficult task to complete; trade unions are no easy target, as every government from 1950 to 1985 discovered. But whatever happens, what is clear is that something must be done. Trains simply cannot keep being this bad.