UK

Passenger suggestions for improving the railways

A train at London St Pancras
Image caption Readers have been having their say on how to improve the country's rail networks

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has told MPs British railways are a "rich man's toy", describing some fares as "eye-wateringly expensive".

He also said it was an "uncomfortable fact" that trains were already used by the better-off. The BBC's report on Mr Hammond's comments on Tuesday prompted hundreds of comments from readers, including several suggestions. We put some of them to rail expert Christian Wolmar to get his opinion.

FRANCHISE FEARS

"Nodding-Nick" wrote: "The railway has to compete with air and road travel. The sad thing is it doesn't do that very effectively due to the ridiculous & dogmatic model used when privatisation was enacted, and because of demands from the Treasury. The system needs reunification, and needs to be rid of the ludicrous system of franchising, which provides profits when successful and no risks to the operators when failing."

Mr Wolmar said: "I totally agree with that. These failings were dealt with in the McNulty report into rail value for money. I have been asking for the past 15 years as to what is the purpose of it and nobody has been able to give me an answer. The present system results in higher costs and a poorer service."

RAIL TAX

Richard wrote in to say: "The privatisation of British rail was handled very badly. The railways should have been kept under government (local or national) control and a 'rail tax' (for maintenance & expansion) charged to the companies that wanted to run rail services, similar to how road tax used to work."

Mr Wolmar replied: "One sensible idea would be for the government to pay for the rail infrastructure as it does with the roads. Rail fares would be a lot cheaper and the private companies would be able to operate as genuine private sector entities. But the details are complicated and would need further elaboration."

LOOKING OVERSEAS

Nigel left a comment which said: "Having spent decades shuttling in and out of London in overpriced, overstuffed cattle-trucks laughingly referred to as commuter trains, it's high time we sent our railway bosses abroad to find out how the rest of the world manages to run railways (OUR invention, after all) cheaper than we can and bring that knowledge home to share with us. No wonder foreign investors call us Treasure Island."

Mr Wolmar said: "Actually, the railways around London are amongst the busiest in the world. Other countries experience the same problems of getting people into work at peak hours. Yes, you need more capacity but ultimately changing work schedules would be a better idea."

PRISON LABOUR

"Billy The Bull" wrote: "Some of our non-violent prisoners could be usefully employed as railway construction workers and then they would be ready to take up jobs when their sentences were completed. It would give them a bit of pride to be involved in a nationwide project of rejuvenation and if they proved their worth they would be guaranteed a job on release."

Mr Wolmar replied: "This underestimates the skill required in maintaining a safe and functioning railway. I don't think chain gangs should be used on the railways. Labour is expensive but I don't think it will change anything - it's money that's the issue, not the workforce."

TIGHT REGULATION

Alan T said: "The privatised railways convinced government after government they must charge high fares 'for now' to invest in the railway (making up for the under-investment of the 'BR' [British Rail] years and blah blah). I was a rail traveller during the transitional years from BR to private, I can say service improved no end, so back to BR? No thanks. However, it's now time for some seriously hands-on rail regulation."

Mr Wolmar's response was: "Yes, some services have improved since British Rail. Others are the same or worse. Whenever the government tries to increase regulation on the train companies, they complain that it's too tight. When they loosen regulation, passengers complain about poor services. The problem we're having is with the franchise system. There's no sense or reason for perpetuating it."

EUROPEAN COMPARISON

Dave wrote in to say: "The problem is that the cost base of the railways is way higher than in the rest of Europe, largely due to train drivers being over paid and there being no incentive to their employers to keep costs down. A better solution would be for the government to tell the rail companies that the regulated fairs will be based on the average cost of running a European railway, rather than the current UK cost."

Mr Wolmar replied: "If that were the case no-one would take on a franchise. It's impossible to drive down the wages of a skilled workforce who can withdraw labour. It was a privatised system that fragmented the railway and allowed drivers to increase their wages by creating competition for drivers between different trains companies. Our commuter fares tend to be higher than those in Europe, but there's a lot of cheap advance fares for long distance journeys available in advance."

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