Northern, Southern, Thameslink: Why are British trains so bad?

Northern, Southern, Thameslink: Why are British trains so bad?

Let me guess: you think your local train service is the worst in the world.

At the time of writing (June 2018), Northern (currently Arriva Rail North), with almost a third of trains being cancelled. A couple of weeks ago it was all about Govia's Southern and Thameslink, who were doing the same thing but in London. Then we have the shambles that is the East Coast Main Line (Virgin/Stagecoach) and strikes across the country including Merseyrail and the new South Western Railway. That's just the last few weeks.

Why are British trains so bad?

As you can imagine, it's a complicated picture. This article will try to boil down a couple of key points to give you something to think about while you're standing on the platform.

1. It's a race to the bottom. Since privatisation, the UK rail network has been divided into a number of sectors, and every few years companies are invited to compete to run that sector's trains. Most of them are bus companies.

The government will claim that they award the franchise to the best offer. The reality is it goes to the cheapest. That's not a criticism: the Department for Transport have a shoestring budget and would be heavily criticised if they took money away from education or healthcare in order to take the more expensive offer.

The consequence of going with the lowest bidder is that the staff are at the raw end of the cuts. They get the blame when head office gets things wrong, they are having their benefits taken away, and they have to contend with working practices which they don't like, currently that's all about driver only operation: I've talked about the costs and the benefits of that here.

The railway industry depends on employee goodwill. It always has done. Staff are expected to do all the overtime available, they are expected to clock in before they get paid, and they are expected to deal with whatever abuse, violence or aggression they are faced with. Remarkably that system works: railway staff tolerate all of that because they love their jobs. But if you make them hate their jobs, it all falls apart.

Even training up office staff takes several weeks; training up train drivers takes several years. The industry has to see problems coming several years before they happen, otherwise they can't deal with them. If several train drivers suddenly resign, or decide they aren't going to do any more overtime, the whole thing falls apart.

And who can blame somebody for deciding they don't want to be the face of a terrible service any more?

2. The infrastructure is falling apart. Our ways of working are very old-fashioned, we don't have enough trains, and the ones we do have are used all day, every day.

It's not all bad. According to a recent study (source), British trains are the second-safest in Europe, significantly beating Germany and Austria. That is really impressive, especially considering how busy our network is. After all, it's very difficult to maintain something when it's being used all day.

Rather than upgrade or improve our infrastructure, over the past decades we have taken to squeezing every ounce of capacity out of what we have. This means if we have a slight issue like a signal failure, a passenger being taken ill or a reduced speed limit, we have no choice but to reduce the service because there is no spare capacity to utilise. And the knock-on effects quickly build up.

Those last two points require a significant - and I mean phenomenal - investment to put them right. The longer we leave it, the more difficult it becomes. We are just going to leave it.

What happened on the East Coast Mainline?

The East Coast Mainline between London and Edinburgh is the most profitable railway franchise ("sector") in the country. As a result, companies are desperate to run it: so desperate that they start making ridiculous offers and promises to hand some of that profit to the government.

The nature of privatisation means that the one who makes the biggest offer wins, but on several occasions now their offer has been so ludicrous they've had to be bailed out.

There are other factors at play too, such as a failure on the part of Network Rail to deliver promised improvements.

Which part of the UK has the worst trains?

Tough one! London trains usually have 12 carriages and nice styling, but this doesn't matter when you are struggling to breathe due to lack of space (which is often the case). In that respect they are just as bad as Northern's services around Manchester.

Northerners will also be surprised to hear that some of the oldest trains in the country actually serve London, on all-sorts of routes including Virgin East Coast, Great Northern, East Midlands and Great Western Railway. Despite their age they aren't as unpleasant as Northern's Pacers though, also used by Arriva in Wales and First on the Great Western Railway.

I'd have to say as long-term trends go, Southern probably provide the worst service. But there is a lot of competition for that title.

Both Virgin West Coast and East Coast (which are managed separately) provide a good service, although the latter have issues, as does Merseyrail. Island Line is excellent because it's self-contained, but it's actually part of the troubled South Western Railway.

The best trains are actually provided by the open-access operators. Hull Trains and Grand Central have very little that can go wrong.

Why is there always an excuse?

There is a lot that does go wrong. Let's take another look at those excuses:

  • Engineering works. Our tracks are in dire need of improvement. It's so bad, we ought to close them all for a year and build everything properly from scratch, with the right track layout for how we need it today. However, this would go down terribly with the voting public (and also isn't physically possible as we don't have enough engineers).

    With that off the cards, the only option is to deliver our repair and improvement work at night. But with the last train being at 01:00 and the first one being at 05:00, that doesn't give you long to get any work done. Take away the time it takes to go through all your health and safety checks (I'm not being facetious: you don't want a worker accidentally stepping on an electric railway line they thought was switched off, or accidentally leaving a screw which causes a derailment) and a project which could have been done in three days now seems to take three years. It is an embarrassingly inefficient way of getting any job done, but with our tracks so busy we can't put a diversion in place as it would cause chaos, so this is our only option. We have to seize every chance we get to do work, and it's true, the job will never be finished.

    Really, we should be building new railway lines, as you can do that without disrupting existing trains. However, building new railways attracts so many complaints it is politically impossible.
  • The wrong type of leaves/snow. A few leaves don't cause a problem, but after they have been crushed by a heavy train, they quickly become stuck to the rail and leave it in a dangerous position. With electric railways, anything which stops the electricity from reaching the train is obviously a problem.
  • The wrong type of rain. If you drive a car you will know (or should know) you can't drive fast through a puddle, because of the risk the car will start to aquaplane ("float"). The same is true of a train: railways usually have more cuttings than roads, and are prone to floods and landslips, which aren't easy to divert around.

    In addition, railways have a lot of electronic equipment which will fail during severe flooding. Common sense says that equipment shouldn't be placed where it can flood, but then if it were that simple you could do the same with houses too.
  • The wrong type of lightning. Like the others, this sounds like a feeble excuse, until you apply a tiny bit of thought. Railways are long and flat. In a rural area, trees and signal poles are likely to be the only tall things around. If lightning strikes a tree you're probably fine (unless it falls on the railway). If it strikes a signal pole, you've got a problem - and it's one that happens a lot. You can't run a densely congested railway with a signal that's not sure where it is.
  • The wrong type of heat. We built the railways in India and they survive much worse heat than we get. It's true, but it's also irrelevant. Primary school science taught us metal expands, and becomes bendier, in high temperatures. In both the UK and India this wasn't a problem, because the long metal rails had gaps in them to allow the track to expand (this gave the 'clickety-clack' sound we all love). But listen carefully: most tracks don't go clickety-clack any more.

    In the 1990s, following hundreds of complaints that trains are too noisy, Britain filled in most of those expansion gaps, so that now our rails are two long, quiet, strips of metal. As a result, when they get hot, they expand and start to flex or buckle. Run a train over them and they could break, causing the train to derail. This is ridiculous but it's a situation the UK public have created for themselves.
  • The wrong type of sun. Another one which makes nice headlines but is quite sensible. Trains take a long time to stop, and they need to stop before a red signal. It's perfectly simple. If the sun is shining brightly, and is pointing directly at the front of the train, the driver won't be able to see the colour of the signal until it's too late. Low sun causes hundreds of road accidents, especially during Spring, but fortunately rail incidents are rare. This problem ought to be designed-out really by moving and changing signalling systems, but you are requesting an expensive and complicated change - and we know how you feel about engineering works.
  • The wrong type of wind. Yes, again, it makes for a good headline but it's true. Trains travelling at 140mph tend to much safer if there are no trees in their way, and if all the signals are standing upright. You can't ensure a train will never hit a tree, but if there is a violent storm which is likely to be doing some damage you will have to tell the trains to slow down or stop. Think of noise the papers would make if a train did hit a tree that was uprooted during a forecast storm.

"Bring back British Rail"

I love this comment, because while there's no doubt that the present system for running the railways is not working, saying that implies that until about 1996 everything was perfect. How short are people's memories? British Rail were notorious for late, dirty, overcrowded trains with apparently rude staff. Check out the news stories from the time on YouTube if you don't believe me.

Just because you've changed the person at the top from a shareholder to a politician does not mean that a hundred additional qualified drivers will suddenly appear at every Southern depot, or that the government will say that fares can come down because they're feeling like throwing money around.

There is room to argue the case for nationalisation of the railways and there is a time for that debate. But while we're busy talking about repainting all the trains a new colour, please do not forget this point: the reason the railways are terrible now is the same reason they were terrible in the 1990s and the 1970s. Chronic government underfunding. Network Rail is the closest we currently have to a nationalised railway (they're the public body who owns all the tracks), and they cause more disruption than anybody else with their overrunning and unscheduled engineering works.

You can get an idea of how well the government will run the railways by looking at how well they manage the roads. (The answer is with zero investment, silly publicity stunts and half-hearted solutions.)

Make no mistake, I am not arguing in favour of privatisation, or saying that another government would have done a decent job. I am instead looking back at 30 years of particularly terrible decisions and saying let's think before we repeat history.

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I love music, media, news, travelling, old TV shows, heavy machinery, lists. Have a fear of boats. Humour is weak at best.

I present/produce radio, I write, I'll be whoever you want to be. I'm not wearing that.


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© 2018 Johnathan Randall.