Network Fail: Why Trains Need to be Abolished in the UK.

Rail travel has been a staple of life in the UK for well over a century. Great engineers like George Stephenson set the stage for the revolutionary new mode of transport in the early 1800s with his innovative steam engine designs. The Stephenson gauge is a standard that’s still in use to this day across Network Rail’s 10,000 miles of track. My grandfather worked all his life on the railways, starting as a lad porter in 1918 (aged 14), and retiring as a station inspector in 1967. My father still has his old station whistle; The Acme Thunderer, with the letters “G.W.R.” emblazoned on the side. When blown enthusiastically by my father, the whistle generates a deafening tone that could wake the entire street.

My Grandfather and his station whistle

There’s no doubt the railways have played a formative role in the civilisation of Great Britain; enabling poorer people to travel and find better lives, and giving those living in the cities the chance to escape to the countryside for a breath of fresh air. Even as I write this I watch the GWR trains of today slide gracefully past my window, listening to the comforting sound of their diesel engines revving up as they accelerate away from the station. The railway network has been enjoying a renaissance for the last two decades and today there are more passengers choosing to travel by train than ever before.

GBR rail passengers by year 1830–2015

Network Rail is spending more than ever on improving its network. For the first time in nearly a century the network is growing, with new lines opening, new trains being built, more electrification, and high speed lines being put in. This all looks like a picture of success for privatisation and for Network Rail, and that’s exactly why we’re on the brink of a major crisis in public transportation.

The charts below show an approximate cost comparison of public transport options available in the UK at present. It’s assumed the traveller is alone, an adult, travelling at peak time and with no discounts.

These charts look reasonable, you pay more for a better service; opting for the convenience of a taxi, the speed and reliability of a train, or the value of a bus. The problem comes when we look just 10 years into the future, when we’ll have a new option…

As soon as autonomous vehicles become commonplace, the cost of a taxi will fall below that of a train. Being that the taxi is typically a more convenient and often faster transport option, there will be no good reason to use the train. When this transition happens, trains will become obsolete, and only peak time trains will be worth maintaining for the commuters that can still beat the traffic. This will be bad news for everyone; roads will become more busy and train services will get worse and become even less attractive to use.

The railway infrastructure we use today was designed two centuries ago, for a country that had a population of 21 million people (as opposed to 65 million today), before the invention of the motorcar, and before electricity was even discovered. Right now we are marching blindly into this chaos, wasting money on more ancient rail infrastructure without thinking about the long term consequences.

So what do we do about it?

I believe it’s time for a change, and I believe there’s a way that the rail network could be almost* completely replaced, without spending any additional money and saving both passengers and tax payers billions of pounds.

*It makes sense to keep the London Underground.

The solution is in the charts above. Buses are far cheaper to run than trains. In fact, by almost any measure I could find, they’re around 1/5th to 1/4th the cost of trains. I looked at government spending figures for various costs and across the board, buses and their infrastructure cost about 1/5th of what trains cost.

What’s more, although trains themselves can go faster than buses, train services don’t even come close to achieving their full potential. The average speed of a local service is about 42mph and an intercity service is about 70mph. With better acceleration and deceleration than a train, a bus could do the equivalent local route considerably faster, and the mid to long routes at around the same speed.

What I’m suggesting is that we pave over all the railway tracks, and introduce dedicated, autonomous buses to serve passengers along the exact same routes. The railway network was designed long before cars or buses were even invented, so at the time, it was the best solution. Once so much money had been invested into the network it made financial sense to keep it running. Only with the invention of autonomous vehicles are trains no longer financially viable and this is why the network will soon collapse. We must act now to prevent the UK from wasting billions of pounds of tax payer money.

How would it work?

The network would have paved roads instead of railway tracks but it would be isolated from the main road network and only for use by the licensed operator companies. The buses that drove on the Network would have an on-board computer, which would do the autonomous driving control, and wirelessly communicate with the network to inform all the other buses of its exact location. The network would have base stations placed along it, which would enable the wireless communications and assist the GPS in giving the exact location of each bus, even when inside tunnels. The buses would then drive passengers along the same existing routes the trains have been using.

One of the huge benefits of this system is that each bus is a single carriage. This means that local services (usually 3 train carriages) would become 3 separate bus services, running 3 times as frequently. Longer services which are 6 or 7 train carriages long would become 6–7 times as frequent. This would mean you’d have a service leaving from Bristol to London every 5 minutes at peak time. Not only does this make travel faster and more convenient, it also introduces a much more realistic competition element to route tendering. On the National Rail network, a train operator wins a contract to exclusively service a particular route and has a monopoly during the contract period, which can be up to 20 years. With a system of autonomous buses, you could have multiple companies operating on the same route simultaneously, which would drive prices down to their most efficient level and improve customer value. There would be no signals (no signal failures), no points (no points failures), and no drivers (no late drivers). If well designed, the system could be much more reliable than the existing rail network, which has a very poor rate of punctuality.

Why now?

Despite the introduction in this article, Network Rail is a catastrophic failure. Network Rail is a not-for-profit company, owned wholly by the government. The train companies lease routes from Network Rail, and then make their money by selling train tickets to passengers. The problem is that to make prices attractive enough for passengers to buy, and to make it profitable for train operators to lease the routes, Network Rail has to chronically under-price the leasing fees on the routes. The network is so costly to maintain that Network Rail takes 70% of its funding from the Tax Payer, with the leasing fees covering just 25% of the cost of maintaining the network.

To make matters worse, Network Rail is laden with debt. It’s currently £46bn in debt and that figure is rising exponentially as it fails to cover its costs. Despite its reliance on the Tax Payer and the enormous debt the company has amassed, it still chooses to pay its CEO an annual salary of £820k. For comparison, the Prime Minister of the UK is paid £150k per year. It boggles the mind that an organisation that’s wholly owned by the government and 70% funded by the UK tax payer is paying its CEO £820k a year, all while it racks up billions of pounds in debt.

British railways were a marvel of engineering, a leap into the future and a huge socioeconomic boon to the British people. Their impact is immeasurable, and everyone has some personal memory on the railways; waving goodbye to a loved one at the station, taking long journeys to visit family during the holidays or taking the train to the beach for a day out at the seaside. I have early memories of my father stomping through the train carriages to seek out the illusive 4 vacant table seats so we could sit as a family on day trips to London.

Now is the time for our generation to put its mark on the UK’s infrastructure. We need to bring the transport network into the 21st century with the same foresight and vision that George Stephenson had 200 years ago. Let’s once again pave the way for the rest of the world by building Britain a new infrastructure that’s fit for purpose, works for the people of our time and creates new opportunities for everyone.