Britain's "best passenger railway" is owned by the German Government
Most of Britain’s train companies serve the franchising system rather than the public. Governments, DfT and the train operators need to remember that public services should serve the public
Imagine a train with spacious second-class seats, plenty of baggage space, screens showing airline-style maps of your current location and estimates of arrival times – typically on time – and the regular passage of a refreshment trolley which serves proper esspresso coffee.
Such a train exists; unfortunately for Britons, it is operated by Austria’s railway company between Vienna and Zurich.
British railway services are generally noted for being cramped, late (with nearly one in six long-distance trains missing the fairly generous punctuality target) and providing passengers with minimal information. Almost all are run by private companies, which collectively are perceived to have done such a bad job that the Labour party is planning to consider public sector management of franchises as the private sector deals come up for renewal.
The train operating companies concerned are not solely to blame. The Office of Rail Regulation last week fined the public sector track operator Network Rail £53m for the previously mentioned poor punctuality, not the operators.
Railways in Britain have suffered from decades of poor management and underinvestment, in both the public and private sectors. They also have to cope with the unintended consequences of Britain’s highly-restrictive planning laws, which lead to too little housing near centres of employment, leading to sky-high demand for commuter trains.
And yet, some of the train operating companies do a far better job than others, despite their constraints. Among the best is Chiltern Railways, which runs services between London and Birmingham roughly along the line of the M40 motorway. Like East Coast, the only operator currently run by British civil servants, Chiltern is under some government control – in this case Germany’s - as the firm is ultimately owned by Deutsche Bahn, which is majority owned by the German government . The public service spirit runs deep; the franchise was originally won by a management buyout of former British Rail leaders, and it advertises its aim “to be the best passenger railway in the UK”. It has made serious efforts to achieve this, not least by having one of the best punctuality records.
Chiltern has some built-in advantages over rivals: it runs its own London and Birmingham terminals and is the main or only operator for the lines it uses, giving it significant control over reliability, and strong incentives to make things work well. But it has negotiated and in some cases funded improvements to this infrastructure, cutting journey times significantly by speeding up its main line and adding double or triple decker car-parks to many of its stations. It is currently building the track needed to run services from Oxford to London, ending First Great Western’s monopoly.
It has also tried to meet demand rather than manage it, by abolishing first class on most services and running longer trains. The former is an idea from low-cost airlines, but Chiltern hasn’t made the mistake of trying to copy their business model wholesale: while it does offer some cheap advance tickets – and made them easy to use, being a pioneer of e-tickets on mobile phones – it does not set prices on peak-time services at silly levels. It also looks after the passengers who pay the most, by (at almost no extra cost to itself) letting season ticket holders travel free anywhere on its network at weekends.
This thoughtfulness extends to individual stations, which in several cases have been nicely restored, including London's Marylebone and Birmingham’s Moor Street. There are multilingual signs and a shuttle bus at Bicester for the increasing numbers of Chinese tourists visiting the town’s posh outlet shopping centre Bicester Village – which will have its own stop soon.
Chiltern is not perfect – it suffers delays and cancellations, and it charges for use of the toilets at Marylebone. In this it follows most of the other big stations in the capital, yet still it feels like a way of taking advantage of customers. But in general, Chiltern shows how Britain’s trains should work.
When supplying government, there is a narrow commercial logic in serving the immediate client, in this case the Department for Transport franchise system, and neglecting the ultimate one: the public, both as passengers and taxpayers. This has long-term costs; it is harder to think of Virgin as being on the customer’s side if you have ever had to pay richly to travel out of London on one of its trains at short notice.
Labour’s plans to extend public-sector management of trains show the long-term danger of forgetting that providing public services means serving the public. Chiltern should be safe, as it won a 20-year franchise extension in 2002, but if other operators lose their businesses to the public sector following a Labour victory, they will largely have themselves to blame.
The engine that could (on Chiltern Railways from The Economist, January 2014)
Transport Secretary To Grant Extension To Chiltern Railways For Their £250M Investment In Routes (TheInformationDaily.com, January 2010)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.
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