/ Travel & Leisure

Are Britain’s railways better or worse since privatisation?

Steam train

It’s easy to look back on the train services of yesteryear with rose-tinted glasses, but were they really that much better? And what about the future of train travel – are those signals pointing up, or down?

I’m old enough to remember British Rail: InterCity 125s; Regional Railways; Weekend First upgrades for £1; even connections being held if your train was late.

But I also remember there being just one direct train a day from my town of Hull to London. It left at some ungodly hour, so most of the time you were on the appalling Pacer ‘railbus’ to Doncaster.

Yet if you were lucky, it was the comfier, older InterCity 125 that pulled up at Doncaster, its turbochargers shrieking as it accelerated.


There I go, starting to think things used to be better. But perhaps I’m wrong…

Lots of things are ‘up’ in relation to trains. Frequency is one – when Passenger Focus looked at frequency of UK trains versus those in seven other European countries, it found Britain had the most frequent service in the short and longer distance bands (we were third in the medium band).

Government spending is another. There are estimates that, despite privatisation, public funding of the railways is three times more than it was under British Rail – in real terms. Some claim the figure is even higher.

Even the government’s own figures show public funding has ballooned from £2.3bn in 1993-4 to £5.2bn in 2008-9 (and both figures are at 2008-9 prices, too). A funny kind of privatisation.

But isn’t spending better than cutbacks? Isn’t it better to be talking about opening lines rather than closing them?

Unfortunately, there’s lots of evidence to show the money hasn’t always been well spent – when the Office of Rail Regulation compared Network Rail with its European counterparts, it found it up to 40% less efficient in terms of how Network Rail spends its money.

The price you pay to travel by train

Unfortunately, fares are also up – by more than inflation. And it’s already been announced that they’ll go even higher next year.

But it’s not as clear cut as it might seem. When Passenger Focus looked at fares in the UK against other European countries, it found Britain’s tickets to be both the cheapest (longer distance advance tickets) and the most expensive (long distance walk-up return tickets).

What do you think? Has the situation improved overall for you? Perhaps things are better, but not by as much as they should be for the money spent?

Since privatisation, I think that train travel in the UK has got:

Worse (64%, 209 Votes)

Better (19%, 62 Votes)

Neither better nor worse (17%, 54 Votes)

Total Voters: 325

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Anne Wollenberg says:
18 February 2011

Southeastern Trains are so bad, I’m having to move house so I don’t have to get the train any more.

W.S.Becket says:
18 February 2011

I don’t know what Mr Dilks is talking about when he says that Hull only had one train a day to Kings Cross in BR times. There were actually four through services, leaving Paragon at 08.45, 10.23 (Pullman), 13.33 and 16.55. All were expresses.
Britain always had a more frequent service of trains than most other countries – these feature is nothing new
The railways were privatised to bring in market expertise in order to eliminate the subsidy (which was actually very small in relation to mainline European systems). This expertise has seen the subsidy rise four-fold whilst fares have increased by a factor of ten.
It is worth noting that in spite of all the tax-payers money used since privatisation, journeys on the railways have fallen to about one-third of what they were when the railway were nationalised in 1948. Goods traffic, of course, has almost entirely evaporated.


W. S. Becket – those sound like palmy days indeed; four trains a day! I can assure you that in my time, 1991-1997, the word Pullman was but a distant memory and there was only one direct train from Hull to London each day.

W.S.Becket says:
21 February 2011

1991 – 97 was mostly in the privatised and not BR period.
If you want another comparison between BR and its successors, take the period of bad weather we had a few weeks ago. Entire services were cancelled – Kings Cross to Peterborough especially – whilst he read of horror tales about hundreds having to sleep on the platforms of Kings Cross or in suburban trains at Redhill.
In 1963 we had a far more severe winter with month-long snow that was shoulder-high in parts of the hoime counties. Nevertheless, during this period 53% of all trains in and out of Kingsw Cross, Brioad Street and Moorgate ran to time (which in those days meant right time). 75% ran within ten minutes of right time and in the entire seven weeks of snow only nine (9) trains ran more than half an hour late.
On top of that, the weather was not the only problem we had at that time since we were trying to bring in a fleet of diesels that were generally less use than ornament.

Alan Rickards says:
14 January 2014

The big difference between the winters of 1963 and 2013/14 is that in ’63 many trains were still hauled by heavy steam locos, if not, almost as heavy diesels. The EMUs and DMUs of today are considerably lighter formations and therefore more severely affected by snow and ice. Nothing whatever to do with privatisation!

W.S.Becket says:
14 January 2014

Dmu’s were no more affected by snow than loco-hauled trains. Weight was not a factor. Electric trains suffered from ice on the third rail; something that was very difficult to combat. In 1963 we were battling with a brand new fleet of diesel locomotives, very few of which could be relied to complete half a day’s work. I also remember an A2 Paciofic on an up Newcastle sleeper, running hours late and having to throw its fire out on the main line at Ganwick – injectors frozen.


I do remember British Rail and consider privatisation to be appalling way to run a national railway system. I particularly dislike having a for profit company owning and maintaining the infrastucture.

There is a problem with your basic question though. It’s 18 years since privatisation so a fair comparison is between how the railways are now and how they would have been had British Rail continued. Not so easy. For me they are much worse now.

I recently travelled to Sheffield on cross country services and spent the outward jouney in a tiny seat with not enough leg space. Very uncomfortable. The return journey was worse. The train was seriously over crowded (only one unit of coaches) and I spent the first half of the journey in a corridor between coaches next to the Guard’s room with between 8 and 11 other passengers. The guard checked our tickets but had no chance of going any further down the train. I have to say I did not feel safe.

The ticketing system is a mess. Finding the cheapest fare takes hours of research and even then you cannot rely on railway staff agreeing with the stated terms and conditions.


I read, the other day, of a plea for cheaper rail fares and the hope that motoring would force the rail companies to see reason. That was 1902. I also remember the time when one could decide on a rail journey, turn up at the station and get the only available ticket for the required destination. It just remained to get on the platform and go. Do that these days and it’s financial suicide. Trains were cold, dirty and slow, but they got you there and there was a romance and excitement to it all. Dr. Beeching came along with his hatchet, freight disappeared and gradually the system has morphed, through British Rail and privatisation to what we have today. I use the train for leisure, but my heart goes out to the commuter who stands all the way to work and spends upto 20% of his disposable income just getting to the place where he earns it. Every January we are informed that fares will rise by 6%. Standing on a continental platform one sees double decker trains come and go. Our system can’t cope with these. Places like the Watford Viaduct bottle neck main line services and the Western region remains diesel. With the country strapped for cash, the only highlight is the agreement for Crossrail and vague talk of new North South routes. Rail services are better and less haphazard than they were in my youth, but they go to fewer destinations, there are many more bodies to shift around and they charge you an arm and a leg to get there. No wonder there are traffic jams on the M6.