As the country is held hostage once again by the rail unions, it’s time for the nation to ask itself: does it need trains at all? The last time anyone dared ask this question was 60 years ago when Dr Richard Beeching boldly closed more than 2,000 stations and 5,000 miles of track. The time has come to finish the job and shut down the rest of Britain’s viciously expensive, underperforming and fundamentally inefficient rail network. The economic reasons for doing so are irrefutable, no matter how the railroad anoraks might sputter.
Originally private, then nationalised, then privatised again, then morphed into an odd hybrid in which tax subsidies are higher than ever, British railways are hideously expensive, uncomfortable and unreliable. On the continent, it’s little better.
Why does it cost more to take the train to the airport than to fly to Spain? And five times longer to get there on a train, than on a jet? Why is it cheaper to drive from London to Bristol than to take the train? Why are trains so often cancelled, late or stuck? Why do they insist on passengers travelling from where they are not, to where they don’t want to be?
The worship of trains has a sentimental side. The train has become part of our national mythology, like the BBC and NHS. I remember going to King’s Cross to visit my grandmother in Yorkshire, and a station shed stinking of sulphur, and porters, and a breakfast with thick rashers of bacon in a dining car with white tablecloths, as smuts of coal dashed against the window.
There’s a tradition in all parties to shove increasing quantities of cash into the infinite maw of the railways. Beeching today is reviled when he should be revered. The railways occupy Britain’s costliest and least effective transport corridors. They were mostly built in the 19th century and were a marvel of their time, a symbol and enabler of economic and social revolution. Today, these corridors are strikingly inefficient. They don’t lubricate mobility, they obstruct it. The railway network does not survive the most basic interrogation.
The admired TGV in France born during the 1980s with the Paris-Lyon line has inspired many new lines including the insanely expensive HS2. In France, the real costs and benefits of these lines have never been published because they would show the high-speed trains manage to cover an unimpressive 4 per cent of passenger/kilometres travelled. SNCF is drowning in debt and regional train services are as bad or worse than they are in Britain.
The calculus for HS2 is equally brutal, as is its environmental footprint. The railways are not reliably moving us, but they are reliably fleecing us. Quieter, cheaper, driverless hence strike-immune, rubber-tired electric vehicles could move thousands more people at a lower cost from and to more destinations. If one of these vehicles were to break down, the entire network would not grind to a standstill behind it.
Merely using buses, a single reserved lane in the Hudson Tunnel delivers more workers into New York City each day than Waterloo Station into London. An aerial view of Waterloo, indeed the entire rail network, shows rail corridors that are basically empty as adjacent roads are saturated. Trains take a long time to speed up and slow down. If they’re not kept far apart they risk running into each other.
The technology is now available to repurpose the obsolete railways into a new transport system that’s fit for purpose and economically competitive. Artificial intelligence and driverless technology can be used to transfer rail corridors into corridors for autonomous electric vehicles. Tests of autonomous pods are underway in Dubai, Singapore and China. They’re to be used in Paris during the 2024 Olympics. The Japanese are experimenting in Tokyo. Here’s Britain’s chance to lead the world again, as we did with railways. So far, there’s little evidence of that. Investing billions in trains when their replacement is imminent is like investing in the horse-buggy industry as Henry Ford prepared to invent the automobile factory.
Perhaps there are arguments for saving a few train lines, where they are manifestly profitable or essential. Otherwise, the worship of the railways is like prayer to a dead religion. Train lines should be ripped up as quickly as possible.