Why are our trains so awful?

The train operators are pushing up prices again - and yet the service they provide remains as terrible as ever. Jody Clarke looks at who's to blame - and whether renationalisation is the answer.

Why are the railways in the news?

The country's train operators introduced hefty train price hikes on 2 January, in some cases up to as much as 14.5%. But as commuters along the busy West Coast line into London found after the Christmas break, services hadn't improved to match.

Engineering work on overhead electricity lines around Rugby overran by four days, forcing more than 50,000 people a day onto buses. Similar overruns at Liverpool Street led to delays for London-bound passengers from Essex.

That the hold-ups were down to a shortage of specialist engineers many too hungover to come into work, according to press reports left many passengers angry.

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Whose fault is it?

Responsibility for Britain's train network is split in two. Trains are organised and run by rail operators such as Virgin and First Great Western, who bid against each other to take over and operate certain rail routes, or franchises', for fixed periods.

They have nothing to do with the ownership or upkeep of tracks, overhead lines and signalling, all of which is done by Network Rail, which is also ultimately responsible for all engineering work. Last year the company was fined £2.4m for a delay in signalling work at Portsmouth, and it looks like it will be fined again for the current missed deadline. In response, the firm is reportedly planning to remove work from private contractors, such as Bechtel and Jarvis, and do more maintenance in house.

Will any of this help?

Probably not. Network Rail took over the responsibilities of the much maligned shareholder-owned Railtrack in 2002, but is even less accountable than its predecessor. It is neither publicly listed nor government owned, but its debts are underwritten by the state. This means that any fines it has to pay will have to be funded by the government (and thus the taxpayer), or it will be left with less money to invest in the network.

Its board is answerable to 118 members, drawn from the ranks of the public and nominees from the railway industry, but they meet infrequently and have little knowledge of its internal dealings. As former rail regulator Tom Winsor told The Daily Telegraph, when the body was being established, "one senior civil servant remarked that it didn't matter how many members Network Rail had because they would have no power".

Is re-nationalisation the solution?

It is tempting to think so. Government subsidy to the railways is now three times as high as it was in the days of British Rail, while the industry now has six times as many managers on six-figure salaries, even allowing for inflation, says Rod Smith, research professor of railway engineering at Imperial College London in The Daily Telegraph. Taxpayers give £4.5bn a year to Network Rail. The government wants to cut that to £3bn by 2014, by shifting more of the cost to commuters.

But that would mean more fare increases, and as Smith points out, commuters aren't exactly getting value for money. "In terms of the world's railways, we are well below the premier league and there's no possibility of promotion. The only element that's top drawer is the ticket price. We are paying sky-high fares to be left behind."

Were things better under British Rail then?

Sadly not. When British Rail last made a profit, in the 1950s, rail was hardly the safest means of travelling, points out Graham Stewart in The Times. In 1952, 112 people were killed in the Harrow train crash, and 90 died at Lewisham in 1957. "By comparison, the Blair government decided to force the privatised Railtrack into administration after the Hatfield crash killed four people." British Rail was hardly the most forward-thinking train operator either, only getting rid of its last steam engine in 1968 by which time Japan had been operating its bullet trains for four years. And according to Office of Rail Regulation statistics, things have improved in recent years. Nearly 91% of services now run on time, up from 83% in 2002. Meanwhile, more people than ever are using the railways, which is part of the reason that they are under such pressure.

So what is the answer?

The division of track and trains into separate businesses under John Major's government is now widely seen as a mistake, with Conservative MP Chris Grayling claiming that it has pushed up costs and led to confusion over who is responsible for what. "The railways badly need to be reprivatised, with operators owning the lines. That was how it was before 1947 and, by golly, it worked," agrees Simon Heffer in The Daily Telegraph. Although this would lead to the duplication of overheads, "the introduction of competition between routes and individual companies would bring a much-needed incentive to perform", says Dominic O'Connell in The Sunday Times.

Take a taxi it's cheaper

Passenger group More Trains Less Strain says it is becoming cheaper to share a taxi on many routes than to take the train. First Great Western the worst-performing train firm is raising the price of a standard open-return fare from London to Bath by nearly 10% to £133, says The Times. A return taxi for the same journey would cost £260.

Rising fares also make air travel look even more attractive: a return from London to Manchester costs as little as £90, while the standard-class open-return fare is £230. Rail operators claim you can save money by booking ahead. For help with the arcane world of train fares, see Moneysavingexpert.com.

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.