by Josh Wilson
Everyone has their favourite mode of transport right? No? Oh, well I do and it is the train! Some people think it is weird that I enjoy travelling on tracks, but for some reason I do. Don’t worry this is not going to be a love letter to my dear choo choo-ing and chug chug-ing transportation machines. Trains are political too.
From ownership, to cargo, to projects like HS2 and Crossrail that cost billions of pounds whilst northern cities remain barely connected to each other but just really well connected to London. Trains have always been political and with rising fares, multiple ego projects, and continued inequality between the South-East of England and the rest of the UK, it is time we start really having a conversation about our rail network.
I have recently started to get the train everyday to work. This has cemented my expectation that trains in the UK are on the whole, terrible. The infrastructure is old and the rolling stock is poorly kept. Trains were cancelled and slowed to an excruciating speed last week due to it being ‘too hot’. Although this may just sound like a moaning commuter, this is in London, the most connected area of the UK. So if this infrastructure is not up to scratch, what about the regions with less investment? Whilst £42.6bn is spent on HS2 and £14.8bn on Crossrail, the existing network is buckling before our eyes.
And on a side note, we are spending billions on High Speed Rail technology when this is already outdated. China and Japan already have Maglev trains (that is trains that levitate above the tracks using opposing electro-magnetic forces), which go considerably faster and are ultimately the direction train technology is moving in.
Even if HS2 was cutting edge technology, we still have to ask whether connecting London and Birmingham better is worth more to our society than creating a web of tracks connecting towns and cities across the North, Midlands and Wales to one another. Or even a train from Norwich to Manchester that is a little shorter than the nearly 5 hours it currently takes.
The rail system has the potential to be run as totally carbon neutral and yet the government continues to invest heavily in road networks
There is also the more underreported aspect of British trains, that we barely have a rail freight system. Although increasing, according to the Freight Transport Association just 9% of cargo is moved by rail in the UK. This number matters because freight moved by rail creates 76% less carbon emissions than freight moved by road. The rail system has the potential to be run as totally carbon neutral and yet the government continues to invest heavily in road networks and is even looking to increase the motorway speed limit, pushing businesses to use lorries to transport their goods over trains even more.
Then we have my favourite fact about the British rail network — that the majority of it is owned by nationalised companies. Unfortunately, these are companies owned by other states. The RMT claims three-quarters of the network is owned by foreign governments. Trains being publically owned would allow us to use them for what they really are, a public good.
They can connect families, create jobs, and reduce our need for petrol hungry cars and lorries. At the moment trains exacerbate the inequalities in this country, with the highest fares in Europe and a massive disparity between infrastructure in the South and the North. These issues cannot be addressed with out a democratic and strategic plan for the system, which is impossible with so many private interests being involved.
We can bring down fares, reduce carbon emissions, and decrease inequality if we only had the political will to renationalise our trains.
I like trains — I like the feeling of going somewhere new, of stepping out into the centre of a city or town, the amazing engineering feats that go into them being built. But as much as I like trains, I like them even more when they are in public hands.