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Britain Must Re-Train its Industrial Strategy

Some say the scrapping of HS2 is a signal of British national decline. For others, it is an unwelcome reminder of Westminster’s disdain for the North. For me, it reflects an inescapable and sadly immediate truth: British trains are rubbish.

Like the tragic demise of the Nokia brick, the initial supremacy enjoyed by British railways—the first in the world, no less—has given way to unmitigated decline. The Industrial Revolution may have been powered by steam rail but, outstripped by our swanky alpine relatives and the double-deckered efficiency of European Intercity links, Britain’s railways have become a starkly visual reminder of our secondary infrastructural status.

In fact, perhaps I’m being too generous. The Nokia brick, after all, was notoriously indestructible. I reckon that—were I to charge it back up—my 2010 model would be up and running again in minutes. The same, I’m afraid, cannot be said of British trains.

My recent homeward journey over the break was, to put it mildly, disastrous. Within minutes, an apology had been broadcast to the effect that ‘regrettably’, there would be no food service aboard today’s service. This was something for which I was well-prepared. After all, only the naivest of travellers would embark on a long-distance journey without stocking up on M&S Finest first. It was therefore with an air of smugness that I dutifully plugged in my earphones and settled in for the duration.

What a duration that turned out to be. Barely an hour had gone by before the same announcer—ever regretful—proceeded to break the news that, due to an ambiguous combination of absent staff members, adverse weather conditions and ‘an earlier signal failure on the line’, our train would now be terminating at York.

This was an eventuality for which I was less prepared. However—silver linings and all that—I reassured myself that my premature departure would, at least, allow me to use a fully functioning loo.

My morale was short-lived. Lugging my case to the assigned platform some forty-five minutes later, it became apparent that said vehicle was, in fact, the commuter train to London. It was therefore with no shortage of dirty looks that I squeezed my way between be-suited professionals, assuming a (thankfully) vacant seat at the rear of the carriage.

However, the seat in question was less vacant than it initially seemed. Within minutes, a particularly fusty looking gentleman had evicted me to the Floor of Shame, where I settled in for the rest of the journey. While our new announcer—presumably now wrought with guilt but apparently unwilling to do anything about it—informed us that the high capacity of the train would delay us a further hour, I reflected that perhaps St Andrews wouldn’t be the worst place to spend reading week after all.

In the interest of balance, I should probably mention that the train operator in question offered me a partial refund for the journey. Yet, to be honest, this hardly gets to the root of the problem.

If we’re going to play the blame game—a favourite pastime in Westminster—it would be more constructive to address the way that the railways are operated in general. Occupying an eccentric middle-ground between the private and public sector, our rail network operates on strange incentives, whereby rail operators do not keep the revenue from tickets, but rather receive fixed fees and performance bonuses.

Correspondingly, the risk has been placed on the shoulders of an anxious Treasury, whose response is to chronically underinvest in the network. Meanwhile, short-term contracts mean private firms lack long-term strategies. The short-term economisation of paying workers overtime, rather than recruiting more staff, has therefore been favoured at the expense of company relations. Investment strategies must be more ambitious and forward-thinking if any headway is to be made.

ULEZ restrictions dictate that the age of cars is over; planes, we are told, are a threat to the future of our environment. Trains should be the answer, yet the William-Shapps Great British Railways Plan — news of which has been conspicuously quiet recently — remains woefully unambitious.

Since the disastrous Beeching cuts of the 1960s, commentators have viewed our railways in the context of inevitable decline. HS2 may be the latest instalment in this narrative, but it doesn’t have to be. Scrapping the project has supposedly freed up £36bn for other transport projects: let’s invest it wisely and get our railways back on track.

Illustration by Calum Mayor

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