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17th February 2023

See it, say it, don’t bother sorting it: Even Ukraine has better trains than Britain

Credit is due to Ukrainian Rail for their prompt train timetable amid violent conflict, but questions must be asked as to how they’re outperforming their British counterpart
See it, say it, don’t bother sorting it: Even Ukraine has better trains than Britain
Photo: Rob Hakimian @ New Civil Engineer

I could write an entire piece on why the state of British rail depresses me. Fear not – I shan’t – because that would take me far, far longer to write than the Avanti West Coast journey from Euston to Manchester that I’m currently on.

Regular passengers are familiar with the, to be polite, unsavoury experience of delays and high prices of British rail: tales are common where customers have paid sums well into the hundreds of pounds, only to be greeted with bright letters spelling out that dreaded word “Delayed” in orange writing on their arrival at the station.

A more unsavoury-yet experience this week was seeing a tweet by the chief-executive of Ukrainian Railways (the country’s state rail company). He posted a shocking statistic. That 97% of all Ukraine’s trains had arrived at their destination on time on February 8.

Surely, this was some bizarre one-day-only stroke of luck? A tiny bit of optimism for a nation that no-doubt takes any good statistic it can? Well… no. I quickly scrolled through the rest of Alexander Kamyshin’s posts, which only boasted more optimism.

There you go – a country whose rail system is being actively targeted by the missiles of the world’s largest nuclear power during an invasion is reporting more reliable rail times than Britain. It makes for a good headline, a good giggle, even. But the tweet left a bitter taste in my mouth: if Britain is in a period of managed decline, the state of its rail is surely the most fitting microcosm of that.

It was, after all, Britain that brought rail to the world. A symbol of new technology. An era of global trade. From Mexico to Myanmar, British rail construction connected a new world together. Indeed, that programme of construction was largely for the Empire’s benefit, often building routes that were of no use to locals but instead to the UK’s trade profits. Nonetheless, trains have since been tossed to one side.

The 1980s ushered in a new economic era under Thatcher. Almost all public services were seen no longer as services essential to a functioning society, but a network of deep, abundant gold mines that needed to be carved out and exploited for profit. Privatisation in rail and transport began in the early years of the Thatcher administration. By the end of her time in office, certain elements of rail had been sold off, but the core of British Rail was still in public hands.

Buses had much rockier journey during the decade – all routes were privatised. Interestingly, in every part of Great Britain – except, conveniently, in London – local authorities were prohibited from having any control of routes or prices. It’s almost as if Thatcher herself knew that privatisation was bad, but as long as London doesn’t suffer, who cares?

But selling off rail was still a delicious dream the Tories craved, and this went full-steam-ahead (pun intended) with the Railways Act 1993. In a final blow to the public having control of their infrastructure, the British Railways Board was broken up into pieces and each piece was sold to the highest bidder.

And who bought these new enterprises? Funnily enough, foreign state operators.

Trenitalia and Deutsche Bahn (DB) are among those, quite smartly, ripping off UK passengers to subsidise their affordable transport systems. DB owns Arriva and the Newcastle Metro to name just a few; it’s little wonder they could afford to offer all Germans unlimited transport for nine Euros last summer.

A satirical campaign video from the TSSA transport union made me fascinated by this issue. In it, young Europeans mockingly “thank” Brits for giving them such great transport systems.

Once the envy of the world, our trains are a laughing stock. A tragically familiar pattern of British life.

Someone would be clever to make this theme the central issue of the next election. Such a campaign could hold appeal for a diverse cross-section of the electorate. Enchant students and thirty-somethings with big plans to nationalise the evil corporations. Pepper pensioners with the rhetoric of European neighbours cunningly profiting from poor England’s misery. A guaranteed victory at the polls, surely? But like I say, that would require someone clever.

I’ll stop ranting now, a gentleman is passing down the aisle with a coffee trolley.

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