Almost 200 years ago, in 1825, the world’s first public railway opened in the UK, connecting Stockton and Darlington. Two centuries later, while other countries around the world are investing in high-speed trains and railway infrastructure, the UK’s network seems to be lagging behind.
The British rail industry is in a real crisis at the moment.Gareth Dennis, rail engineer
1. Scrapped funding
Approved 10 years ago, the HS2 is a high-speed, government-funded railway, initially planned to connect London with Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, using the fastest trains (402kmh) in Europe.
Although highly debated from the very beginning, the HS2 was still a step forward for UK’s once pioneering rail network, today still supported by the same Victorian infrastructure. However, the initially £33 billion, which last year reached an almost triple estimate of £98 billion, is being cut one segment at a time.
The connection to Leeds had already been scrapped and, at the beginning of October, the London – Manchester segment was also cut, supposedly for reinvesting the saved budget into other projects benefiting regions outside of London faster and better. However, CNN Travel points out that the scale down of the project comes at little, if not negligible, cost reductions.
The overwhelming mood music remains to reduce costs no matter what the impact on customer service and revenue. The approach to HS2 is in line with this mindset – just cut the cost, never mind what it does to the business case.Michael Holden, the ex-railway managing director, told CNN Travel
“What was planned to offer up to 17 trains per hour serving many of the UK’s biggest cities will now be reduced to just a shuttle service, a couple of fast trains an hour between London and Birmingham. It’s a dramatic reduction”, said rail engineer and industry commentator Gareth Dennis.
“The British rail industry is in a real crisis at the moment”, he added. “The one thing it was banking on was HS2 delivering a bit of breathing space to allow more time for catching up on the backlog of track and structure maintenance. Without HS2 that crisis only deepens.”
While prospects for new infrastructure get dimmer day by day, current services continue to fail passengers. Strikes form overworked and underpaid staff are becoming a more and more frequent occurrence post-Covid, while sudden cancellations and long delays push travellers to increasingly look for alternative modes of transport.
On 25 September, comedian James Nokise embarked on what was to become an 11-hour journey from London to Edinburgh. Mid-travel, he and other passengers received an email informing them the train they were on was cancelled, which the conductor was just as surprised about when he was asked what was going on. Soon after the train conductor confirmed that the journey was indeed cancelled after the station in Preston, but assured passengers a connecting service would be waiting for them.
Once in Preston, travellers discovered the would-be connection train was in fact too full to accommodate everyone and left without taking on any additional passengers, while the last service heading to Edinburgh was, in the end, cancelled. The solution from rail operator Avanti West Coast was to arrange for taxis.
Nokise’s story went viral and his followers were quick to point out the ridicule of the situation of cancelling one train service, which would have had multiple stops, rather than paying for taxis to drive to Edinburgh, Glasglow, Dundee, Carlisle and all other stations passengers were supposed to get off at, and back to Preston on the same night.
The increasing delays and cancellations are reflected into passengers’ satisfaction rates, which have been continuously decreasing over the past years. A survey conducted by the Office of Rail and Road on passenger sentiment about rail operators shows that, after needing to resolve a complaint with a rail operator 1 April 2022 and 31March 2023, 58% of the respondents had a more negative opinion about the operator than before, while only 10% had a more positive opinion.
The future does not look very bright either, as ex-railway managing director Michael Holden told CNN Travel that, regardless of the affiliations of any future government, rail policy is unlikely to be a priority in the next few years, which, in turn, will contribute to the failure of meeting long-term climate goals.