The climate crisis means we need more and better public transport – but train travel is a mess, unreliable and expensive. Amy Gilligan reviews Tom Haines-Doran’s Derailed: How to Fix Britain’s Broken Railways
Train travel can be great. It can be a quick and efficient way to get from A to B. It can be a relaxing and pleasant way to go on holiday. It can be affordable. But this isn’t the case for many train journeys in Britain. Tom Haines-Doran’s Derailed provides an accessible and detailed explanation for the problems with Britain’s railways and puts forward a compelling argument that improved train travel can play an important role in mitigating the climate crisis.
Derailed begins by addressing three key questions that railway users may ask: ‘Why don’t trains run on time?’, ‘Why are fares so high?’ and ‘Why are there so many strikes?’. The answer to all three lies in political decisions taken by successive governments, particularly since privatisation in the mid-1990s. Tom Haines-Doran outlines how breaking railways up into small pieces with the hopes of attracting private finance and driving competition has resulted in understaffing and a lack of investment in infrastructure, which would be needed to cope with the number of people who want to travel. This means that delays are commonplace, and can result in people being put off from train travel.
Astronomical fares are another factor that can push people away from trains, and on to other, more environmentally damaging, forms of transportation. Why take a train when it’s cheaper to drive or fly? While train operators may argue they make very little profit from fares (the figure cited in the book is 2-5%), this masks the fact that they invest very little into the railways: both the trains and the tracks are hired, and the operators own very little capital of their own. This means that rolling stock companies – the people who lease out the trains – can charge high prices, and make large amounts of money. Tom gives the example of pacer trains – now retired due to being inaccessible – which were built in the 1980s for £700,000 but were still being hired out in 2006 for over £100,000 a year. The cost of this is pushed on to passengers, and is one of the reasons fares are so expensive.
Within the franchising system, Tom Haines-Doran argues, many of the costs for train operators, such as leasing the track and the trains, are fixed. However, one way they can reduce costs, and make themselves the most attractive in the bidding process with the government, is to reduce staff. A notable example in recent years has been attempts to get rid of guards on trains. This led to 153 days of strike action over a four year period. The strike action by the RMT was successful in retaining guards in at least six rail franchises including Northern Rail and ScotRail. Some of this success, Tom explains, is due to the structural power of rail workers – but also, after the election of Bob Crow in 2002, the RMT became ‘a more democratic organisation and one more willing to take the fight to the employers’, with a higher proportion of workers taking part in action when it was called.
The removal of guards from trains would not just have resulted in job losses, but also have made train travel even more challenging for those with access needs. In this context, Tom makes the case for how links with community groups, and campaigns to highlight the broader social impact of attacks on rail workers, can be effective in saving jobs and result in better train travel for passengers. The solidarity between train staff and passengers is also discussed in the section on pushing for reform of the railways, in which Tom describes the effective fare strikes taken by the More Train Less Strain group in Bristol and the South Yorkshire Freedom Riders, again highlighting how linking with community groups can provide ‘more deep-rooted and stable’ support than relying on passengers alone.
The final chapter of Derailed places the railways at the ‘particular historical juncture’ of the climate emergency and the cost of living crisis. Transport is the economic sector with the highest greenhouse gas emissions, and part of this comes from ‘forced car ownership’ – people have no choice but to buy and use cars because public transport is unreliable and expensive. The geographies of where people live and work are often designed around the presumption of car ownership. Tom argues that in order to achieve a ‘just transition’, transformation of public transport is crucial, and railways are part of this. What would this transformation look like? It might include:
targeted expansion where rail is ‘the most efficient and socially useful’
expanded capacity by abolishing first-class
setting the maximum fare to be half the cost of going by car
These are all things that could be implemented fairly straightforwardly and aren’t in the realm of fantasy, like ideas of net zero air travel.