The elderly woman looked harmless enough, as many do at Liberal Democrat member conferences. She sat in the audience at a fringe event on the state of Britain’s railways, a hot button national topic. When it came to questions, the woman politely waited her turn.
Her question touched on the proposed closure of about 1,000 – almost all – rail station ticket offices in England, which is facing a huge backlash. She calmly told the story of how she booked a ticket online but was told, bizarrely, that she had to go to her local ticket office to reserve a seat. The office was closed when she arrived so she tried to complete the transaction on one of the ticket machines that are meant to replace the office clerks under the closure proposals. The machine wouldn’t let her reserve a seat either, though.
“It just goes to show that it isn’t easy to navigate the rail operators’ system, even if you are computer literate, as I am,” the nice little old lady said, softly.
Then, she looked fringe event panel member Andy Bagnall, chief executive of Rail Partners, squarely in the eye and said: “So, the idea that you can manage without ticket offices is complete b****cks.”
The air was momentarily sucked out of the stuffy little room in surprise at her colourful outburst. Then, like a thermobaric bomb, it all came rushing back in a whoosh of uproarious laughter. Good on you, my dear. You tell them.
Her intervention captured one of the tributaries of post-Brexit angst that are curling their way through middle England – they are very worried indeed about the state of their rail system, once seen as a symbol of British national pride. “This is supposed to be the home of railways,” is a common refrain here. “What on earth has happened to ours?”
To someone from Ireland, where the rail system is a perennial disappointment, the British don’t even know they are born. The British system may be somewhat dilapidated in parts and it is infuriatingly complicated but it is also extensive. On the whole, it is a magnificent shambles.
The signalling infrastructure appears to be falling asunder, which means trains can be cancelled at a moment’s notice. One evening, I was standing on the platform in Warrington in the north of England, waiting on a train to Edinburgh and a hotel bed. I had just finished one engagement and was on my way to another. I certainly had no more business in Warrington.
Ten minutes before the train was due to arrive, it simply fell off the departures board. I didn’t even get an email, just a cancellation notification when I logged into a privately-operated ticket app. Cue a mad scramble through a circuitous route to try to make it to Edinburgh before midnight.
The network is plagued by strikes. The rail network has a £2 billion operating deficit since the pandemic. These two things are related, as the overall system seems to be neither fully publicly nor privately controlled, and is, instead, an inefficient mix.
The tracks are owned and operated by Network Rail, ostensibly an arms-length public body. The trains, however, are operated by private companies. Yet, the outlay of the private operators on things such as train driver’s wages seem to be controlled indirectly by the rail operator, which has a role in sanctioning costs. In the background, the Department of Transport, which political sources says is really controlled by Number 10 (prime minister Rishi Sunak’s office) is pulling the strings.
Meanwhile, at passenger level, the pricing system is notoriously byzantine: there are officially 55 million (that is not a typographical error) different fare types, according to industry body, the Rail Delivery Group. These come from a bewildering array of different day/weekly/monthly/peak/offpeak single and return options. There are split journeys where you buy a ticket to a stop halfway along your destination and then a second ticket for the rest but you stay on the same train. Some tickets can be used with any train operator on a route, others can’t.
Sometimes return tickets are even cheaper than singles. Nobody knows why. If you book well in advance, you can get tickets at reasonable prices. Book on the day and it will cost you more than a flight. There is no central system where passengers can go to get the best ticket prices.
The most recent UK political farrago is over HS2, the near-15-year-old plan to build a Y-shaped line high speed line connecting London with Birmingham, from where there would be spurs northwest to Manchester and north towards Leeds.
It seems the line will now stop at a suburban station on the edge of London, instead of going all the way into the centre. By the time you get a connection to central London, the high-speed line will be no faster than the existing infrastructure.
Projected costs have spiralled beyond £100 billion, so Sunak’s government is now rumoured to be mulling cancelling the Manchester spur too. It seems he has delayed the decision until after the Tory party conference, which, rather inconveniently for him, is in Manchester this weekend. It will be affected by a strike. Sunak should be okay, however, as he prefers taking helicopters to trains. I wonder what the little old Lib Dems lady would have to say about that.