/ Travel & Leisure

Update: train pain – our railways are stagnating while prices soar

We all have our own individual train horror stories, but is satisfaction with our railways declining across the board? Our research suggests it is…

Update: 04/12/2018

We gave evidence to the Transport Select Committee in September on the impact of the May timetable changes on the passenger experience.

The Committee’s report, published today, found that no-one took responsibility for fixing the timetable mess and that blame for the appalling delays, cancellations and lack of information endured by passengers lies across the sector.

Research showed that less than a fifth of passengers affected by the recent timetable chaos said they were told about their right to claim for disruption to their journey.

Recognising the need for support when things go wrong, the committee backed our long-standing calls for automatic compensation to be urgently introduced across the board.


The rail regulator is also examining the issues that caused the chaos in May and is expected to publish its final report and recommendations later this month.

Following the government’s own analysis, the Secretary of State announced today that GTR will make no profit from its franchise in this financial year. The government has also capped the amount of profit that the operator is able to make for the remainder of its franchise, which is due to expire in September 2021.

Rail fares are going up in 2019: how much more will you pay?

Were you caught up in the timetable chaos? Did you claim compensation? Let us know how you feel the situation was handled.

Update: 16/10/2018

Feel like your station is the least reliable in Britain? If you commute from Manchester’s Oxford Road station, then you’d be right.

Today, we’ve revealed the UK’s most disrupted railway stations. To find them, we considered how many departures and arrivals were cancelled or at least one minute late (the industry’s measure of punctuality is five or 10 minutes late, depending on distance and region).

What’s the worst experience you’ve had on Britain’s trains? Share your stories with us here and use #TrainPain on Twitter.

Value for money?

Passenger satisfaction with the railways has dropped over the last decade while fares have ballooned, our new analysis showed today.

Satisfaction with punctuality and reliability has fallen by 6% over the past 10 years (from 79% in 2008 to 73% this year) our analysis of Transport Focus’s data showed.

For commuters, that satisfaction has dropped even more markedly, sliding by 10% (from 72% in 2008  to 62% today).

Satisfaction with value for money remains low, at 46%, having increased by just three percentage points over the decade for all passengers.

For commuters there’s been only a marginal rise in appallingly low satisfaction levels, from 30% in 2008 to 31% now.

During the same period rail fares have grown by over 40% – more than one and a half times higher than the overall rate of CPI inflation (26%) – for the same period.

Trust in tatters

Trust in the rail industry is at its lowest point in nearly six years, according to our Consumer Insight Tracker.

Only 23% of people have trust in train travel. And this is six percentage points less than last year.

This makes train travel one of the least-trusted consumer industries, beaten to last place only by car dealers.

Auto comp call

But the data’s perhaps not entirely surprising, given over 110,000 of you have now signed our petition demanding a better rail service.

So what’s to be done about our stagnating and increasingly expensive railways? Train companies need to get their act together and the government needs to make them.

We want trains to work for passengers, not just for train companies. That’s why today we’re calling on the government to introduce automatic compensation for all passengers who experience delays and cancellations.

Claiming compensation is a time-consuming and often complicated process, meaning too many people just don’t claim. Making it automatic would send a real message to our train operators and make sure passengers always get the compensation that they are owed.


It gets my goat that increasingly ministers claim to have no responsibility for the management, performance or outputs of their departments, declaring responsibility only for oversight, nudging and reporting. I recall Hunt started with his 2012 Health Act, anticipating his/Lansley’s policy changes might prejudice health/life and ID Smith continued when DWP hardened its management methods and policies, infamously in retrospect when the prospect of manslaughter charges loomed!
It’s time Tory ministers grew balls and accepted the full responsibilities which accompany the authority of their roles.

The salient, unavoidable facts are that a) it is not possible to run a passenger railway at a profit, no other country has managed it and so a taxpayer funded subsidy will always be needed. In the days of British Rail profit-making freight operations were used to cross-subsidise passenger services. This can no longer happen.
b) Not a single one of the dozen or so train operating companies actually owns so much as a train wheel; all the current rolling stock is leased from just three train leasing companies (three banks in fact) So when you hear a PR puff from an operating company about how much it is investing in new trains, just remember that it is really the TLC that is doing the investing, and considering how many of the banks were bailed out by the good old taxpayer post-2008 you may well wonder whether some of this investment actually comes from, once again, the taxpayer.
c) Remember whenever your train is cancelled at the last moment and you have to wait for the next (overcrowded) service, It is usually because a train has been taken out of service and there is no replacement, or a driver has called in sick and there is no relief to take over,- so much for these private companies ‘investing in the railways’
d) Networkrail continues to undercharge rail companied for track access, I’m not clear as to whether this is a government-imposed rule, or sheer incompetence on the part of NR. Probably the former, so that profits are privatised and losses are kept in the public sector.
e) In the event of a major rail disaster or mega c**k-up, as in the timetable fiasco this year, there are so many individual organisations involved that it is invariably impossible to get to the bottom of who is responsible for what. The friends and families of those killed, for example in the Royston train crash which occured during the early years of rail privatisation due to dodgy track maintenance practises, will never know who was really responsible.
When I worked for NR on signal maintenence we were told that the train companies based their business case on being able to claw back compensation money from NR for infrastructure-related delays. We, on the other hand were offered annual bonuses based, on minimising such delays. In other words if we did our jobs well and there were no delays due to signalling faults, the train companies would struggle to make profits and would then have to either raise fares or beg further subsidies from the government (translation: taxpayers)
It is wryly amusing to remember those MP’s who regularly complained about British Rail being overly bureaucratic, blimey, look at things now!
One final thought, back in 1994/5 the then chairman of British Rail, Sir Bob Reid, at whom the buck ultimately stopped for EVERYTHING to do with the rail network: track, signalling, train operations, stations, hotels, ferry services, training and recruitment, etc etc. was paid a salary of around £80,000 pa. Today, not
one of the train company bosses is on less than £1000,000 pa!

I started work on the railway in 1951 as an apprentice fitter and turner at Doncaster Works. In terms of technology the railways were, in those days, relatively primitive. They made a small loss, but were generally efficient and into the bargain investing in a fleet of new standardised steam locomotives which probably formed the best the railway system had ever seen at that time. The railways were still in a state of recovery from the enormous setbacks in damage, neglect, replacing a fleet of clapped out locomotives and poor maintenance caused by WW2. But, the system was supported by in-house arrangements. A broken down locomotive usually had a replacement on stand by at the next main station. Breakdown cranes were placed strategically around the system and constantly manned to deal immediately with cases of derailments or accidents. It seemed to me, at the time, all to be a bit ramshackle, but it worked. At the time of privatisation the railways were slowly being modernised, despite the lack of investment by the Thatcher government: in the 1960s there were some very good Diesel and electric locomotives coming on stream as well as coaches and trains were also speeding up. Some of the new rolling stock was made by private companies and that wasn’t always good news. A fleet of electric locomotives made by the private North British company in Glasgow were a complete failure and, although there were plenty of them, they saw little service.

Bob Reid had a difficult time. On the one hand, he had to make the system even more efficient, whilst having to implement swingeing cut after swingeing: step forward Margaret Thatcher who disliked railways, or any kind of public transport to take the credit for this. Thatcher hid behind Bob Reid who took the blame for the cuts made by the Thatcher government. She was the woman who said that only failures over the age of 25 used public transport. So there!

All told, British Rail was a success story, despite it’s every creak and groan being headlined in the likes of the Express or Mail: one headline being “Nationalisation and Paralysation.” What a witty headline.

I have no doubt that everything that is wrong with the railways (I nearly wrote “our” railways except they’re no longer ours,) is that the once integrated system has been reduced to disparate entities farmed out to strange, unapproachable bodies and is, essentially, no longer answerable to anybody.

Dr Anthony GREENWAY says:
5 December 2018

The overall situation is a total shambles – as many others have explained already – and Secretary Grayling has a Track Record (Ha Ha!!) of deep Incompetence yet fails to take responsibility for the mess travellers regularly experience. He should GO and take his daft Brexit ideas with him!!!!.
The mess persists despite the dedication of staff who clearly do their best despite lousy Management who fail to listen to them whilst blaming Unions for the troubles directly linked to their own failures.
How many more travellers have to suffer higher prices for deteriorating Services – or worst still be killed and/or injured as a result of deliberately fragmented structures???
I am appalled as a Citizen of the Country which invented Railways!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I travelled from York to Sheffield at around 5.00 on the 4th of December. The train was grossly overcrowded, but I was lucky to get on early enough to bag one of the few seats available. At 83, I’m no longer good at standing for more than half an hour at a time. The centre aisle of the coach was packed, mainly with people returning home from a day’s work. Many looked very tired, some were middle-aged and the rest were all younger people. All had paid the same fares as those lucky enough to have a seat. The train operators must know that this train is overcrowded at this time on every week-day. So, why not another coach? The train was a through train from Newcastle to Plymouth and, I’d guess, that it would be overcrowded for much of its journey. In fact, it was so overcrowded that nobody came to inspect my ticket. I could have taken a chance and travelled for nothing! I’m afraid the answer lies in the incompetence and greed of the operating companies who have to hire the coaches. So, if you can pack ’em all into 5 coaches, why go to the expense of having 6 where everybody can have a seat?

Chris Grayling tells us that although he is Minister of Transport, he’s not in charge of the railways, which, in a way, is probably a mercy, but in his absence, who is? It’s now time to nationalise and try to piece back together the railways which have suffered so much from a lack of government interest and who, foolishly, caused an integrated, co-ordinated system able to sort most of its problems in house and even build it’s own coaches and locomotives to degenerate into the uncoordinated mess we have today. I have no faith that a tory government will do this, and even doubt the intentions of the Labour party who always cite waiting until franchises expire. Clement Attlee managed to get much needed nationalisation through parliament in less than three years, so, what’s so difficult about taking the industry back into state control when we live in an age of short cuts and computers.

andy says:
5 December 2018

sheffield to loughborough in October, had no idea if there was gonna be a train till 2 days before when a timetable appeared it was a limited and restricted service

The Secretary of State for Transport MUST be releived of his ministerial duties because of his gross incompetence. If he was employed in the private sector he would have been sacked well before now. Yet another incompetent masquerading as as responsible person. Open question: how are politians whose performances fall far below the standards required able to hold on to their jobs with little or no consequences for their ineptitude?
Time for change.

Richard A Curtis says:
5 December 2018

I’ve been let down quite a lot over the last 6months by SWT TRANS Eather they are late, delayed or just canceled at the last minute there have been times when I’ve had to wait between 20 – 40 minutes sometimes more for a train driver or guard to turn up I’ve no choice but to use the train’s to get to work, i am a porter at a very busy hospital so i have to get into work how would they feel if i kept them waiting 40 minutes or an hour before i picked them up to go the operating theater for an operation, I’ve sent SWT my season ticket at least 7 times over the last 6 months with my details did i get any refunds of any Kind not licky I’ve got a better chance of getting a wining line on a lottery ticket .

Fred says:
5 December 2018

I am a third generation railwayman and joined British Railways in 1958 and the comments made by David Bacon closely mirror my experiences.

We have to wake up to the fact that successive governments, particularly the Thatcher administration, have completed the job initiated by the Luftwaffe in 1941 and as a result our railway industry has been destroyed. They are now a stagnant, fragmented, dysfunctional and completely unmanageable shambles. My biggest fear is that it has now gone beyond the point of recovery and there are not enough competent railwaymen under the age of 65 to even begin to tackle recovery and even if there were, it would still take decades to achieve. Clearly the case for renationalisation is now overwhelming. However it can only be considered as a start, because our system of national corporate governance, accountability and the competence of our politicians need to be sorted out first.

To confirm the magnitude of our dismal and disgraceful failure, I note the Luxembourg government have just announced they are to make public transport free at the point of delivery and funded from the public purse.

Chris says:
5 December 2018

We used a train a few times while on holiday in Spain. It was very cheap, very clean & always ran on time. For a country much poorer than UK they have a brilliant train service. The train companies here are all about profit. We need to take it out of private ownership & give it back to the public sector.

We had ALL our trains cancelled two weeks ago, with a replacement bus to cover some of the trains. the train is the lifeline of our village. Many of us have written to our MP Seem Kennedy but to no avail. We are now back to a part train / part bus replacement. It is not fair on the guards and staff who have to bear the brunt of the complaints of the public.

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Ain’t you glad nobody stopped dear ol’Maggie flogging off all that stuff she didn’t actually own (and letting the red Tories in New Labour finish the job)? Ain’t all that lovely privatisation made things soooooooooo much better for consumers? Ain’t crapitalism grand!

So far as I recall, the denationalisation of public utilities was a very popular move at the time. And I thought it was John Major who privatised the railways – the problem is that much of it is back under state control now through state ownership of Network Rail and through the detailed control over franchised passenger operations. I would go so far as to say that the railways are badly run because of the government’s detailed involvement.

Alan – As a matter of interest, what exactly did the Labour governments privatise – other than investment in public provision through the disastrous Private Finance Initiatives?

I know it was popular at the time John – there’s always plenty of people who will buy stuff that fell off the back of a lorry from crooks with no thought for future consequences, and Major was just carrying on the theft of the family jewels that Maggie started.
And I did mention that I found Tony, Gordon & Co just as “you ought to wear a face-mask!”

Northern Rail are a disgrace. There were strikes every Saturday in December and these will continue in December. In addition, trains are cancelled at the drop of a hat.

I must add that the striking members of the RMT are a total liabilty to the rail service in general, and their claim that they are striking to maintain safety standards is a myth.

I guess if Northern’s workers are striking, then it is fairly safe to assume that they are very unhappy with their current conditions of employment.

It might go deeper than that. I suspect questions of culture, peer pressure, the need to adhere to group norms might all figure, one way or another.

It is interesting that in response to public pressure in light of the mutual intransigence of Northern Rail and the RMT, the government has stepped in and agreed to an adjustment of the Northern Rail franchise terms and conditions which will fund the employment of an additional crew member on trains where the driver will control the doors [the particular bone of contention in this dispute]. This might not satisfy the RMT, however, which is looking for a commitment that the second crew member will have safety-critical competence to manage passenger safety in the event of an emergency. No such commitment has been given, and there is also disagreement over whether there could be some relaxation of the extra crewing commitment in exceptional circumstances.

Whereas the RMT’s claim that the strikes are about maintaining safety standards might be somewhat disingenuous [as John Moyes suggests], I believe there is a powerful case for making sure that every train does have an additional member of staff in each separate unit [coupled but without a through corridor] to deal with any problems that might arise including any incapacity on the part of the driver. This is more important now that the railways are carrying record numbers of passengers and many trains are now formed of six, eight, ten or twelve carriages made up of coupled units containing three, four, or five coaches each [with no inter-unit passageway]. Higher passenger numbers should result in more revenue to meet the cost of the additional staffing [which can also be used for revenue protection, ticket sales and customer support].

I think this staffing issue is an example of the problem that commuter services cause. At two relatively short periods in the working day there are very substantial extra demands for trains, rolling stock and staff that for the rest of the day are not needed. Trains sit in sidings and depots waiting for the next rush. This inefficient use of stock and personnel all needs paying for.

One way is to spread commuting over longer periods by altering the timing of the working day for different groups of workers. Another is to reduce the need for commuting by moving employers from over-used areas; using more of the UK can only help the economies of the more deprived areas, many in, or very near, very attractive parts of the country. We don’t, however, embrace solutions that require loner-term planning; sticking plaster will be used until the wound requires emergency surgery.

I think that any well-managed business can accommodate for busy and less busy periods in staff terms; after all, most retail and public-facing businesses have to, and usually manage quite well.

But while there may well be some theoretical merit in arguing for more flexitime work operations and even for suggesting companies relocate, neither can be accomplished quickly nor easily, as people build their entire lives around their employment and make the myriad adjustments necessary to ensure smooth life functioning.

The trains, however, are different: they already exist, as does the infrastructure, and many of the extremely justified complaints revolve around aspects that can be changed with comparatively little effort.

There’s also the case that many smaller areas would resent larger companies moving in and changing the entire nature of the areas concerned. And there’s no evidence that the problems would not simply be both repeated and exacerbated. One reason London is the base for many companies is that all roads and rail tracks lead there. However seemingly enticing it might be to relocate Unilever, say – to Beddgelert, I doubt the inhabitants of the latter would be enthusiastic about the former moving in, and communication between the newly located HQ and its European partners would be substantially increased in difficulty.

Finally, while I agree that long term planning is sorely needed, when the government attempts it – such as with the commendable HS2 project – there’s enormous resistance from those who feel it’s a waste of money.

I’m not sure about Beddgelert, but there are some buildings/sites in Harlech that could welcome new corporate owners…


They’d also be served by more than just a “toy” railway 😀

In the case of Harlech and other seaside resorts the compulsory purchase laws need a great deal of work. This is fairly typical behaviour from corporate owners, and they’d sing a different tune if they knew once planing permission had been granted the buildings would automatically revert to the council if no meaningful work had commenced within a certain time frame.

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Distortion of rail track did occur under the original forms of jointed track above certain temperature levels, but in those days trains generally went slower and services were suspended during extremely hot weather.

Before being secured to the sleepers continuous welded rail is stretched to compensate for the expansion caused by hot weather. The technical details are complex but the temperature of the rail would have to reach well over 50 degrees Celsius before buckling would occur. The spacing of the sleepers, the profile of the rail, and the depth and condition of the ballast all have a bearing on the ability of the track to withstand the heat without distortion.

A more common problem during heat waves recently has been sagging of the overhead electrical conductors on the older electrified lines. These are progressively being modernised with better support structures, improved cable tensioning, and better suspension geometry [to resist deformation of the contact wire which imposes excess forces on the pantographs which collect the current and can lead to dewirements]. This renewal work has been the cause of much longer disruptions as the overhead system is replaced, usually meaning complete closure of all tracks on each section of line, however the long term benefit is a much more reliable railway with fewer incidents and less suspension of services.

I concur and well remember a section of track on the Wirral becoming deformed owing to a heat wave in the 1950s. It seems, in fact, that it has become more reliable and safer to use CWR. From Wikipedia:

“Jointed rails were used at first because contemporary technology did not offer any alternative. However, the intrinsic weakness in resisting vertical loading results in the ballast becoming depressed and a heavy maintenance workload is imposed to prevent unacceptable geometrical defects at the joints. The joints also needed to be lubricated, and wear at the fishplate (joint bar) mating surfaces needed to be rectified by shimming. For this reason jointed track is not financially appropriate for heavily operated railroads.”

It’s a topic that’s always interested me, since we do a lot of rail travel, both in the UK and on the continent, and continuously supported track (CST) is now being explored for new runs for High Speed trains. I have noticed that when the TGV exceeds 190mph the movement and vibration increase significantly, possibly owing to track ballast easing over time.

The biggest issue for UK trains in heatwaves currently is the overhead gantry cable expansion, And replacing them is a very time consuming and passenger-inconvenient process. Still, that’s what you get when you were the first country in the world to have an extensive rail network.

See also:


In nine years 2000/1 to 2008/9 there were 429 track buckle incidents in Great Britain:


Short rail lengths with fishplate joints did not prevent track buckling in very hot weather; the joints closed. In addition the necessary gap between rail ends under lower temperatures caused rail-end wear and joint/ballast movement requiring extra maintenance as has been pointed out. Long (continuously welded) rail avoids these problems. It is tensioned on installation to be stress-free at 27C; above this air temperature the track will be in compression, below it will be in tension, with movement constrained by the mass of sleepers and ballast.

In exceptional temperatures running trains at restricted speed will reduce the forces they exert on the track


The modern flat-bottomed rail that has progressively replaced the older bullhead rail is much more resistant to movement as well, and the clips now used to grip the rail on the sleepers also provide more stabiliity.

All sorts of interesting comment has come in re this topic. I am in my mid 70’s and can remember the various changes that have been tried on our railways.

Renationalisation wouldn’t be the right answer , with its monolithic ,”top down”, quasi – military command structure. In its last few years, in fact , BR embraced “Sectorisation” , with a number of specialised sectors , both freight and passenger, working semi – independently, This was generally seen as relatively succesfull. The hope from privatisation has been that , in a similar vein, specialised private companies could add the factors of enterprise, innovation and access to the capital markets for investment. Unfortunately, over the past few years, things have begun to “go pear shaped” with some passenger operators, it seems, alongside currently growing DfT micro management, so that in some respects the decision making is now largely back in government hands and the operating companies have become state directed private monopolies – no incentive for operators to try to please customers.

A new approach is very much needed now , that ends the franchise model and that will re- enthuse and re- vitalise the operating companies, recognising the diversity between different types of passenger operations, with some , such as commuter / short distance ( natural monopolies) probably best under localised direct – democracy public ownership, whilst longer distance / intercity “national” serrvices could gain accountability through on – going, on – rail commercial competition.

Which? response to the ORR’s Williams Rail Review recommendations
16 July 2019
….”the rail review should recommend fully automatic compensation…“, something I am not in favour of. Compensation where due is fine but we must realise that it is paid for through fares by all passengers,

However what bothers me more is an apparent mindset in Williams. He says in his speech:

One thing I am not considering is giving Network Rail control over the trains, as recent reports in the media suggest.

This is no judgement on Network Rail — I’ve been impressed with their professionalism and the direction of their Put Passengers First initiative. But you don’t create a customer focused railway by putting engineers in charge.

It is a pity to make such a condemnatory statement when you look at what happens when you put “businessmen”, politicians and suchlike in charge. When you need knowledge, objectivity, pragmatism and an ability to assimilate facts and solve complex problems, perhaps putting engineers and scientist in charge, suitably supported, would produce a more rational approach.

Few people are characterised by a single label; they usually have diverse attributes to bring to the problem; engineers and scientists tend to have more disciplined minds than your usual professional managers.

I hope Williams’ mind is more open than this suggests.