Whether or not you believe that Keith Williams’ railway review will achieve lasting improvements, it gives chance to look at why steel wheels on steel rails help this small and populous island.

In the first of several reports, Williams looks at some of rail’s basic figures. The doubling of passenger figures over the two decades since privatisation is well-known. Yet even with the huge increase, rail accounts for only 2% of all trips and 8% of distance travelled. Cars cater for 61% and 78% respectively.

Over 70% of those rail journeys take place in London and South East England. Williams notes that one million arrive in London by rail on a typical weekday. This explains why so DfT has made decisions to focus so much rail investment on the capital. This upsets those elsewhere, particularly in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, where some commuters still bounce into their city centres aboard two-coach trains.

Few people actually use rail

Rail might work best when catering for mass travel but it’s not travel for the masses. Williams reminds us that the top 20% of earners made three times as many rail trips as those on the lowest 20% of incomes. Commuting skews this figure with many using rail to reach their relatively well-paid jobs.

I find this uncomfortable. Much as I support rail and welcome investment on tracks, trains and services, I worry that rail receives more government support than its passengers justify.

Williams’ review comes as the behest of UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling but only covers England. Scotland and Wales control their own transport policy and both make decisions about their own policies and objectives. So the figures that Williams uses relate to England although his conclusions might be relevant across wider Britain.

Rail travel is changing with more commuters making decisions to work from home. This is King’s Cross station in May 2019. PHILIP HAIGH.

In England, commuting accounts for 47% of all journeys, followed by leisure with a quarter share and business travel on 9%. This shows rail’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Imagine if even just half of those million arriving in London every day made decisions to drive instead? And yet, commuters’ needs drive considerable spending on longer trains just for a morning and evening journey. Encouraging more off-peak journeys to earn a better return on that rolling stock forms a key part of every rail franchise. That’s nothing new; rail companies have long been doing it.

Commuters switch decisions

Commuting is changing. There are still many people buying weekly, monthly or annual seasons tickets, taking advantage of the discounts they provide when compared with daily peak tickets. But more people are working from home one day a week or a couple of days a month. Buying a weekly ticket valid for seven days but only using it for four dents its value. And on some routes, the canny traveller will use advance-purchase tickets on a daily basis.

This cuts their bills but cuts operators’ income. Good for the passenger, bad for the operator. However, reduced demand might allow future enhancements to be postponed. It might allow current stock and infrastructure to remain untouched for longer, which will be good for governments which generally foot the bill.

Williams explores some of the wider reasons why governments should support railways. Rail improvements can support regeneration, he argues. I suspect they might merely attract regeneration efforts that would otherwise have gone elsewhere.

Good rail links can open a wider market of jobs, giving individuals and companies more choice. This is not unique to rail; buses deliver this ability but rail’s effect spreads further. Rail links make land more attractive to developers. They make it easier to build the houses Britain needs. But if the developer is to reap the rewards of a new station, they should pay more towards building it.

Railways help housing

Indeed, I think the new station should come before any houses but this will need to railway to be quicker in providing it. Kirkstall Forge, between Leeds and Shipley, is the best example I can think of. The station opened a couple of years ago while the adjacent development site has yet to see many houses built. Future residents will have a quick link into Leeds or Bradford on their doorstep and connections to other destinations far and wide.

Williams reckons that one in five households has no access to a car and so rely in public transport. For the poorest households, this proportion increases to two-thirds. I suspect buses play a more important role than rail but we need both. Those with cars might think they have no reason to pay for rail through their taxes but journeys made by rail are not journeys made by road. And every container that rail carries is a lorry removed from the road. 

That’s why it’s frustrating to see the Department for Transport dragging its heels with electrification of the main trans-Pennine route via Huddersfield. The nearby M62 motorway is busy and has seen plenty of upgrade money. Traffic levels suggest there’s plenty of scope for rail operators to attract Leeds-Manchester travellers to trains. And, as I discovered reading a 110-year-old paper given by John Aspinall to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, one of the advantages of electrification is that it can speed stopping trains. This makes them easier to path around expresses thus boosting capacity.

The reason to electrify the line is for Northern’s services that call at Slaithwaite and Marsden as they slog up the 1-in-105 towards Standedge Tunnel, or at Mossley or Greenfield on the slightly gentler 1-in-125 on the other side of the tunnel. Had DfT been quicker, these stopping trains could be in the hands of EMUs made redundant by new trains in Southern England.

Poor decisions afflict rail

But that’s to diverge from the essence of Keith Williams’ first printed foray into railways. As he says himself in his introduction: “In Great Britain we are rightly proud of our railways. They enable millions of people every day to get to school, college and work, visit family, meet clients, and access new places, and manufacturers to move everything from cars to concrete. Our railways do a huge amount for the country and are carrying vast numbers of passengers and goods every day.”

That’s why I’m troubled to hear of timetable meltdowns, new trains mired in testing problems, major projects such as Great Western’s wiring running late and over-budget. I hear of promises to passengers being deferred while reading headlines about rising fares and overcrowded trains.

These problems cannot lie solely at the feet of the rail industry’s complex structure. Williams says: “I have seen first-hand that the railways are staffed by passionate and knowledgeable people who want the best for passengers. But too often the infrastructure and organisational systems in which they work are no longer coping with the unprecedented demands placed on them.”

I’ve seen those people too and I’ve seen them work miracles. But I have a nagging thought – systems and structures don’t make decisions. People do. And recent rail history is littered with poor decisions. So I hope Keith Williams will examine how and why they were made.

This article first appeared in RAIL 874, published on March 13 2019.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.