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How do Britain’s railways compare?

19 October 2022
How do Britain’s railways compare?

Fare hikes at the height of a cost-of-living crisis. Strikes that have brought the railways to a standstill – and look likely to continue into next year. It has not been a good summer for Britain’s railways as the industry strives to recover from the impact of lockdown on passenger numbers. Based on research by Campaign for Better Transport, the Daily Mail recently reported that UK passengers pay the second-highest train fares in Europe. Only Germans pay more, but the efficiency of their trains is legendary – arguably they get value for money.

Given ticket prices, how then do the railways in Britain measure up? Analysing cost, punctuality, capacity and annual government investment across comparable European countries (France, Germany, Italy and Spain), the results might be surprising.

Germany invests the most in its railways by head of population (£104) and France the least (£38). In 2019, prior to lockdown, the UK Government spent just over £96 per capita on the railways. This investment resulted in a profit from the franchised services for the Department for Transport.

But what do we get for the second highest public investment in western Europe? Firstly, some of the most punctual trains with 94 per cent of regional and 93 per cent of long-distance trains arriving within five minutes of their advertised time – only German trains were more punctual overall.

Britain also has the second busiest railway, with 990 million passengers carried in 2021, just behind Germany with 1.2 billion passengers and ahead of France (880 million). French railways may carry fewer passengers overall, but they are well in front on passenger kilometres. Passenger Kilometres (p-km) are the unit of measurement representing the transport of one passenger by rail over one kilometre. This provides an insight into the extent to which rail services are used. There were 75 billion p-km travelled in France in 2021, compared to the UK (in third place) with 39 billion p-km.

In terms of the proportion of the network which consists of dedicated high-speed lines, Britain is third from bottom with only eight per cent of our lines high speed. Spain, which has led on high-speed rail for decades, is well out in front with almost a fifth (19.7 per cent) of its lines able to carry high-speed trains. The completion of HS2 will of course increase Britain’s high-speed network. Once completed, it will mean nearly 12% per cent of our lines will be high speed, propelling us into joint second place with France. We currently have the safest railways in Britain. While we had the highest number of accidents in 2020, we had the lowest number of fatalities per train mile (0.003). In contrast, although Spain had the lowest number of accidents, its railways are the most deadly.

As for ticket cost, it is true that for an off-peak, return day journey using a direct train, booked one month in advance, Britain has the second highest fares. Spain’s decision to continue its free rail travel scheme to help deal with the cost-of-living crisis further highlights the price of rail travel in Britain. However, when the price of an advance ticket is compared with the walk-up ticket price, Britain has the smallest increase (18 per cent). In France, buying your ticket on the day of travel is almost twice as expensive, and in Italy it is 60 per cent more expensive to do so.

So, while inflation might take its toll on fares and strikes cause disruption, the UK’s railways perform comparatively well. There is capacity to carry more passengers on the network, and more passengers produces more revenue to invest in improvements. That’s one of the reasons we’re calling for a rail fare freeze for 2023 to help tackle the cost-of-living crisis and encourage people on to trains. There is no reason why, with drive and direction from the Government, that Britain cannot have the best performing railway in Europe.