/ 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

Loading ... Loading ...

At least most trains are now a lot cleaner, BR just couldn’t be bothered, or else were too skint, to keep either the trains or the infrastructure clean. And what made it even worse was that dreadful drab all over dull shade of blue, that looked hideous when it was dirty and far too many of their trains were. And their yards and sidings were far too often full of piles of garbage and weeds, and a lot of their stations were too. But at least now the system is generally cleaner, and there’s far more trains on time too, with some appalling exceptions, like northern rail’s infamous driver shortage which led to loads of cancellations, often leaving people stranded miles from home, including me on one occasion. And if you look in old railway books you often see how things were in the old days before BR and especially before WW2 where the stations, and the yards at engine sheds and goods yards were often immaculately clean and tidy, as were the trains, with the engines all polished, even on freight and maintenance trains. But then in the 1950’s after BR took over the whole system became absolutely filthy, all covered in layers of soot and all manner of filth. That’s if the pictures in the old railway history books are anything to go by. But some things have only gone seriously backwards, as we now have trains which are all open all the way through which is just what people severely disabled like me absolutely DON’T need, they need quiet segregation like they have on the intercity trains. Yet the operators still insist they somehow “conform to the so-called “equality” act”, simply because they can get a wheelchair through the doors. Well that alone does NOT constitute such conformity, as the act clearly states, but now there’s been some kind of “shifting around” with the regs, and it looks like while trains are now supposedly covered by the “equality” act, they now have another set of rules which by the looks of it actually legalise the EXclusion of anyone like me which is absolutely outrageous in 21st century Britain. Surely that is not what countless millions of people have fought and died for in so many dreadful conflicts, making democracy and essential services an ultra-exclusive club. Why should folk like me have to accept what is effectively a life sentence of being confined to home and never going much further than the local shops? Honestly it’s just like being relegated to being like some poor peasant in medieval times who were often so confined because there was no transport or networks etc.