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Britain invented trains. Now its railway system seems to be having a nervous breakdown

By Ben Jones, CNN

(CNN) — Barely a day goes by without railways making the headlines in Britain.

Industrial unrest, crumbling infrastructure, rising costs, a wildly unpopular government plan to close station ticket offices, staff shortages, late-running trains and the chaos around a money-burning project to build the so-called High Speed 2 (HS2) rail line – it feels like an industry on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

As the 200th anniversary of the world’s first public railway – opened between Stockton and Darlington in northeast England in 1825 – approaches, Britain’s railways are in turmoil.

While some governments across the world invest billions to reset and de-carbonize travel habits in a post-Covid world, the UK’s Department for Transport is, even as trains bulge at the seams, axing key projects, train services and sidelining much-needed trains to save money.

Congestion, neglected Victorian infrastructure and frequent strikes are eating away at the British public’s deep-rooted affection for rail travel.

Meanwhile, essential legislation to restructure the UK railway industry – under a plan published in 2021 – has been kicked down the road by an increasingly pro-car prime minister, Rishi Sunak.

Industry morale is at its lowest point for decades, says highly respected ex-railway managing director Michael Holden. 

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Sunak’s right wing Conservative government has pulled the rug out from under the controversial and vastly over-budget HS2 project.

Death of a mega-project

HS2 was originally meant to connect London with the northerly cities of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds in the name of trying to reduce the UK’s north-south economic divide. The Leeds link has already been scrapped, but this week Sunak cancelled the Manchester line.

The announcement on Wednesday sparked a furious reaction from lawmakers and business leaders outside London, as well as many from the prime minister’s own party.

What was once billed as a landmark mega-project to power an interconnected Britain into the oncoming century has now been reduced to a 140-mile link that, for a price tag of $108 billion (£88 billion,) will barely improve on existing services.

The revised plan retains much of the original high cost and controversy for few of the benefits, and many people are unhappy about it.

HS2 had strong opposition from communities along its route who complained of landscape destruction and disruption from which they’d see little or no gain. Ecological protesters also fought to block it to protect ancient forests and fragile landscapes.

Now those in favor of the original project are dismayed by its drastic pruning.

“What was planned to offer up to 17 trains per hour serving many of the UK’s biggest cities will now be reduced to just a shuttle service, a couple of fast trains an hour between London and Birmingham,” says rail engineer and industry commentator Gareth Dennis. “It’s a dramatic reduction.”

“It’s desperately sad. I despair at the future for our children and future generations. Whatever happens now, even if the next government decides to reverse the decision and press ahead, it’s going to take a lot longer and cost a lot more to build.

Dennis says that while it was flawed, HS2’s scale back will impact the UK’s efforts to accelerate carbon reduction to meet long-term goals and demonstrates a lack of commitment to the future.

“It’s incredible that we can’t build a new inter-city railway, but it’s so much more than that; it’s the inability of this country and its institutions to do any forward planning or make any commitment to the future.

“The British rail industry is in a real crisis at the moment. The one thing it was banking on was HS2 delivering a bit of breathing space to allow more time for catching up on the backlog of track and structure maintenance. Without HS2 that crisis only deepens.”

‘Kafkaesque’ rail trip nightmares

Sunak has said that $44 billion will be saved by cancelling HS2’s Manchester connection, insisting the money will be redistributed to other transport schemes across the country, including roads and railways.

He said the government “will reinvest every single penny” banked from cutting HS2.

“Every region outside of London will receive the same or more government investment than they would have done under HS2, with quicker results,” he said, offering no timeline.

While all this rumbles on, Britain’s long-suffering rail passengers continue to endure unacceptable – and occasionally bizarre – treatment from train operators.

Comedian James Nokise went viral after tweeting a running commentary of his “Kafkaesque” 11-hour journey from London to Edinburgh on September 25.

Hundreds of passengers were left stranded on their journey to Scotland after a train was cancelled as it approached the northwest England city of Preston and subsequent trains were either already full or cancelled.

At enormous expense, a fleet of taxis was then hired to take passengers on to their destinations, many hours later than scheduled.

The twists and turns of Nokise’s storytelling ensured that the incident gained nationwide attention, but incredibly the situation was repeated on the same route just four days later. Avanti has seen apologized for the train cancelation and says it has offered passengers compensation.

It’s a pattern of events that frustrated regulars and hard-pressed frontline workers recognize all too well.

Poor punctuality and frequent cancellations play badly with passengers all over the world, but combined with some of Europe’s highest ticket prices, the effect on the UK public’s perception has been devastating.

Customer satisfaction levels have dipped alarmingly in recent years – although Britain’s railways are not alone in that respect.

Dozens of countries are struggling to cope with demand on rail networks dating from the 19th century, spending billions to overcome the effects of decades of underinvestment in essential national infrastructure.

Congestion, overworked and aging equipment, post-Covid staff shortages, industrial action, climate change and antisocial behavior are contributing to poor reliability and declining customer satisfaction in countries such as Germany and Belgium according to the most recent Eurobarometer surveys.

Byzantine structure

But many countries in Europe and Asia are also spending big to decarbonize train travel, add new lines, stations and trains to encourage more travelers.

What sets Britain – and more specifically England – apart from others is the Byzantine structure of its railways, a legacy of their hurried privatization by a previous Conservative government in the mid-1990s.

Then, state-owned British Rail was split into 25 regional train companies and thousands of smaller private contractors delivering everything from train maintenance to track repairs and cleaning services.

Over the last three decades, the complexity of those arrangements has become increasingly expensive and difficult to manage, often leaving it unclear who is to blame when things go wrong.

Until the pandemic, the top problem for Britain’s railways was coping with demand – trying to run more trains on a network largely dating from the 19th century was hurting reliability and punctuality.

However, the collapse of passenger numbers due to Covid-19 lockdowns undermined its franchising model.

Since 2020 the UK government has effectively renationalized its rail system, spending more than $40 billion to keep the network running in 2020-22 – up from around $13 billion a year in 2018-20, according to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). Meanwhile ticket revenue is down by between $150 million and $200 million per month due to a huge decline in weekday commuting.

Broadly supported government proposals to regain control by establishing a new body – to be known as Great British Railways – have failed to materialize two years after they were revealed, causing industry frustration.

“UK rail has the potential to help the government deliver on its agenda to grow the economy, boost jobs and skills, level-up, and decarbonize,” Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Rail Industry Association trade body told trade media shortly before Wednesday’s HS2 announcement: But to do this, it needs certainty about the structure of the industry for the months and years ahead.”

Caplan said cutting back HS2 was “unnecessary and defeatist” and put a question mark over the UK’s government capability to deliver rail restructuring or other major projects.

The Department for Transport says Great British Railways is a “once in a generation reform that will transform the way the sector works.”

Despite lack of progress in its creation, the UK’s transport minister Mark Harper, told lawmakers as recently as June that the government remained committed to it.

“A successful railway needs to change to reflect passenger demand, and that is exactly what this government are going to deliver,” he said.

Strikes, overcrowding, failures

Lack of clarity is also stifling efforts to adapt as travel habits change. While ORR figures show that demand is back to pre-pandemic levels on many days – and often more than that at weekends – regular weekday commuting is increasingly a thing of the past.

Even though many routes are suffering from overcrowding, recent months have seen a raft of trains withdrawn from service – some almost-new or recently refurbished to extend their lives in projects costing tens of millions of dollars.

More worryingly, some of Britain’s newest trains – most notably the flagship Intercity Express (IET) electric and bi-mode units – require expensive repairs to body cracks just a few years after their introduction.

Hundreds of IET and regional carriages are affected, and repair costs will run into tens of millions.

Cost-saving measures put forward by the government include the closure of hundreds of station ticket offices and the adoption of controversial working practices like removing guards from some trains.

While there’s widespread acceptance of the need to modernize in certain areas, the proposed changes have been the catalyst for more than a year of industrial action by rail unions – the most prolonged strikes for more than 50 years.

The increasingly bitter dispute about pay and working practices has involved drivers, train crews, signalers and support staff and has regularly paralyzed the country’s rail network.

Ticket office closures have proved especially unpopular with staff and passengers alike.

More than 600,000 objections were received as part of a government consultation on plans to close around 860 sites – leaving all but the largest city stations relying on vending machines or online services.

Although most tickets are now sold online, campaigners and accessibility groups say closing offices will hit elderly and disabled travelers, tourists and lower income users who may not have digital skills or access.

‘Gloomy’ prospects

Michael Holden, the ex-railway managing director, told CNN Travel that the current government seems more concerned with the bottom line than finding solutions to Britain’s railway woes.

“The overwhelming mood music remains to reduce costs no matter what the impact on customer service and revenue,” he told CNN Travel. “The approach to HS2 is in line with this mindset – just cut the cost, never mind what it does to the business case.”

Holden said that the future of UK railways was “gloomy” and even the possibility of the opposition Labour Party beating the Conservatives in 2024’s upcoming general election would offer little hope.

“What happens after that is anyone’s guess, but it seems likely that the early years of any incoming Labour Party government are more likely to be focused on areas such as housing, social care and education,” he said.

“This means rail policy could continue to drift for quite some time to come.”

In the face of this bewildering onslaught, Britain’s front-line rail staff continue to work minor miracles to ensure that passengers get where they need to go, most of the time.

It’s an industry that observers say often relies on the passion and commitment of its people to deliver timetable promises.

However, as staff and assets get stretched ever tighter, and the challenges of maintaining a 19th century network in a changing climate become more obvious, many are hoping answers are coming down the line very soon.

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