Richard Wellings: Set the railways free to end curse of congestion

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Britain could teach the world how not to run a railway. A combination of vast subsidies and overcrowded commuter trains means both taxpayers and passengers get a bad deal.

Privatisation should have delivered a dynamic free-market industry that improved services and cut costs. But the government wouldn’t give up control; it suffocated rail firms with regulation, choking off innovation. Worse still, an artificial structure was created that separated track from train, overturning almost two centuries of railway tradition and introducing layer upon layer of bureaucratic complexity.

Subsidies ballooned, more than doubling in real terms compared with the pre-privatisation era. Government support is now running at around £6bn a year, meaning taxpayers now fund roughly 40 per cent of rail spending. Network Rail debt is forecast to hit £50bn in 2020, a massive liability for future generations.

But the big winners from such largesse are not passengers. Armies of highly paid officials, lawyers and consultants have prospered as a result of the labyrinthine rules.

More positively, there has been a big rise in passenger traffic on the railways – and not just because anti-car policies have forced more travellers to use public transport.

But with this growth in demand has come congestion. Rush-hour commuter services into many major cities now suffer severe overcrowding. In the worst affected locations, the problem has gone beyond the problem of standing-room only. Passengers must often wait for the next train as they cannot physically fit into the carriages.

This is not how a market is supposed to operate. Businesses would normally take urgent steps to address such drastic declines in the quality of service. But the rail network is not a normal market, and train operators’ room for manoeuvre is severely limited.

The obvious solution to overcrowding is to vary fares in order to incentivise passengers to use less busy trains, thereby relieving the pressure in the peak hour.

This is common practice in other sectors, such as airlines. However, on the most important commuter rail routes it is not permitted.

In the same way that Soviet apparatchiks determined the price of bread – creating shortages and long queues in the process – the government imposes price controls on the rail industry, and with similar results.

In practice, someone travelling on a packed train at 8am typically pays the same as a passenger on a much quieter service at, say, 9am. Only later on, when off-peak tickets become available (usually at 9.30am) do prices drop.

This rigid regulated price structure has been disastrous. Not only has it produced sardine-like conditions for commuters; it has also created strong political pressure for the government to spend enormous sums increasing rail capacity to deal with the problem.

The amounts involved are astounding. The total cost of just two schemes in the South East, Crossrail and Crossrail 2, is likely to reach £50bn, enough to build roughly 1,000 miles of brand new six-lane motorway.

In addition, overcrowding on the southern section of the West Coast Main Line has been used to justify the hugely expensive High Speed 2.

As well as imposing a large burden on taxpayers, such London-focused, rail-centric spending is draining investment from better-value road schemes in the North of England.

Building new rail capacity is an expensive and complicated solution to a problem that in many cases could be solved relatively simply by allowing train operators more flexibility to smooth demand. It is far cheaper to make better use of existing infrastructure.

The economic logic for deregulating fares is therefore compelling. Operators could then charge ‘super-peak’ prices on the very busiest services while offering cheaper tickets on quieter trains.

Flexible pricing could also encourage employers to alter their work patterns.

Clearly, there would also be losers from deregulating fares.

While many peak-hour commuters would rather pay more to avoid the crush, others might prefer overcrowded conditions to higher prices.

The answer here is surely to offer more choice, for example by providing cut-price, standing-only carriages – effectively reintroducing third class.

A bigger obstacle to a change in policy is a far more powerful group of losers – the vested interests that profit from unnecessary public spending on new rail projects.

Britain’s rail policies certainly defy economic logic, but they also allow various influential groups to make vast amounts of money at taxpayers’ expense. This means reform is unlikely.

• Dr Richard Wellings is Head of Transport at the Institute of Economic Affairs and the author of Fair Deal for the Taxpayer: Why rail fares should be liberalised.