Britain has a love-hate relationship with its railways. The Victorians pioneered the country’s modern rail system, which has inspired children’s stories from Paddington Bear to Thomas the Tank Engine, and the beloved InterCity 125 train holds the world speed record for a passenger-carrying diesel.
But the current setup is plagued by high fares, delays and overcrowding, and it’s getting harder to find private companies who want to bid for the right to run services.
So bad was the disruption caused by changes to last summer’s timetable, that the government was prompted to launch a major review of the UK railway system.
On Tuesday, the man tasked with drawing up a blueprint to overhaul the railways — former British Airways chief executive, Keith Williams — said the network needed someone at the helm who was independent from the government.
“Someone needs to be accountable to the public,” Williams told the BBC in an interview.
The British media was quick to evoke the image of the “Fat Controller” — the portly character in long-running children’s series Thomas the Tank Engine who single-handedly manages the railways.
Tracking Europe’s trains
But just how bad is the United Kingdom’s train service, compared to the rest of Europe?
A 2017 study by research firm Boston Consulting Group put the UK in the middle tier of rankings of European Union countries, coming in eighth.
The study rated nations’ railway systems according to punctuality, fares and accidents. Topping the list was Switzerland, which had an overall score of 7.2 out of 10. It was followed by Denmark, Finland and Germany.
At the bottom of the list was Bulgaria, which the authors said offered “relatively low value for money.”
Britain had an “excellent” safety rating, said the report. But its quality of service was deemed “poor” due to “high fares and the relatively low punctuality of regional trains.” The country scored 5.4 out of 10 overall.
Time to rethink 90s system?
Britain’s railway system is the oldest in the world and Williams admitted that “creating a railway fit for the demands of the 21st century is not going to be easy,” in an article for the Financial Times on Tuesday.
He wrote that the UK needed to “rethink the franchising model” that was introduced in the 1990s. “What worked 20 years ago is now preventing innovation, long-term decision-making and stopping the railway working as a system,” Williams said.
Britain’s rail industry was privatized in 1997 — meaning that private franchises now operate the trains, while the state-owned Network Rail maintains the tracks.
The UK government awards franchises, but in recent years that system has begun to fray, with private companies failing to make sufficient profits. Some have given up their franchises early, and others have retreated from the railway business.
Williams, who has spent the last 10 months speaking to passengers, industry workers and investors across the country, said big change was required.
“We need a different relationship between the public and private sector,” he wrote. “One that allows train operators to get on with running services in the interests of passengers. And where ministers take far fewer decisions.”
Williams is due to present the full findings of his report in the fall.