This is a book with an unusual origin story. Tom Haines-Doran is an academic with expertise in railways and transport policy. Then he got into a conversation with some fellow passengers on a delayed train. Once they realised his profession, they had a lot of questions about the state of Britain’s railways. He promised to write them a book. “This is for them,” he writes in the introduction, “and for the millions of people who rely on Britain’s railway.”
Derailed then, is a book about the problems with Britain’s trains, written by an expert, to directly reply to some of the most common questions people have. Pretty useful I’d say, and the chapter run-down reflects this practical FAQ approach:
- Why don’t the trains run on time?
- Why are fares so high?
- Why are there so many strikes?
The answers to these questions aren’t straightforward. To explain it properly, Haines-Doran lays out a very brief history of the railways and how we got to where we are. In particular, he explains how Britain’s railways were privatised, and the series of decisions that were made about who is responsible for what. It’s quite a complex jigsaw of companies that run trains, others that own and lease the rolling stock, and those that are responsible for the infrastructure.
Putting aside the neverending debate about privatisation vs nationalisation, the key thing is here is the power structures that were created as the railways were sold on, and how they interact. For example, train operators don’t own the trains themselves and the main way they can compete on price is to reduce staffing. Hence the constant pressure to reduce staff numbers, and the regular arguments about guards. For their part, railway staff have to be trained. It’s cheaper to poach drivers from other companies than to recruit, so rail companies haven’t invested enough in training schemes. That risks staff shortages, and it also leaves the unions with more power than they wield in other sectors, because you can’t bring in temporary staff to drive a train.
Despite privatisation, the government remains as hands-on with the railways as ever. They actually cost the taxpayer four times more now than they did under British Rail. Plenty of people are extracting their dividends, but the railways don’t really make any money and they continue to rely on subsidies. The book argues that the railways won’t ever be truly profitable and ought to be seen as a public service. We can’t go back in time and the debate needs to move beyond simple calls for re-nationalisation. Instead, we should ask what we want the trains for do for us in the 21st century.
In the context of the climate crisis, the railways should be managed as part of an overall transport system. It should be cheaper to take the train than to drive, helping to push people towards the most sustainable ways to travel. Electrification is an unfinished task that needs to be seen through to reduce emissions. There are opportunities to expand the railways along key routes, giving towns back a sustainable transport option that has been missing for decades. Haines-Doran imagines an integrated national transport system being coordinated by a National Climate Service, named to echo the National Health Service to recognise the scope of its ambitions.
There are ways to reinvigorate the railways for this kind of a role, Haines-Doran argues, but “fundamental change will not come from within the industry or government.” The best avenues for change are passenger activism, and there are some interesting examples in the book.
I found Derailed very helpful for setting things in context, and I have a better grasp of the new Great British Railways body that comes in next year. I also found myself somewhat depressed by the state of the railways, which are worse than I knew. The reduced passenger numbers since Covid still present a significant risk to their survival, and we are currently eroding one of the most important parts of our low carbon infrastructure right when we need it most.
If you have a particular interest in the railways, it’s likely you’ll know a lot of what is in Derailed. You may also have strong views of your own about how to fix the railways. That’s fine. This isn’t a book for the experts, but for the millions of frustrated people who rely on the railways every day, paying high fares for a disappointing service. It’s short and it scratches where people itch. It sets out the reasons for the problems on Britain’s railways and offers solutions. Most of all, it equips people to talk about the railways and how to make them better, so that we can agree on a way forward and make it happen.
Read it. Talk to your elected representatives about it. Join passenger groups and lobby for a fix. Change is possible, and as Haines-Doran says, “we all deserve a much better rail system.”
- Derailed is published by Manchester University Press and is available from Earthbound Books.