Britain’s rail system is working OK for once. So the Competition & Markets Authority wants to stuff it up

Choo choo: another busy day at King's Cross. Image: Getty.

The current British rail system*, for the first time in about a century, works quite well. Performance figures and passenger numbers are around all-time highs, and subsidies are around the lowest level since the collapse of Railtrack in 2001.

So naturally, almost everyone in the political sphere, from left to right, is trying to break it again. The recent report from the government’s competition quango, the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA), is the worst of a bad bunch of proposals.

Although some people wilfully obscure it, the structure of the rail network is quite simple. In short, government-owned Network Rail owns and operates the tracks; train operating companies (TOCs) like South West Trains are contracted by the Department for Transport (DfT) to run passenger train services, based on government tenders (“franchises”); and privately-owned freight operators pay a charge to Network Rail to use its tracks.

There are a few complications, of course. Charter trains (steam excursions, football specials) can use the tracks by paying a charge like freight companies do, so long as there’s spare room. And there are special arrangements for services controlled by devolved governments, such as London Overground and Scotrail.

There’s also a weird, hybrid class of passenger train operator, created during the Major government’s privatisation process at the Treasury’s insistence: the “Open Access Operators”, such as Grand Central. These work like charter trains, except instead of using spare room, they are given timetabled paths that take capacity from TOCs. They aren’t under tender to the DfT and don’t have public service obligations, and so can run profitable services without paying the government; as a result, the services they run tend to be cheaper and better than TOC services.

The UK subsidises its railways less than almost anywhere, which means that – although you can pick up bargain off-peak advance fares – peak fares on popular services are high. But this has been true since British Rail, at least (Citymetric pay rates are sadly not quite high enough to warrant the work required to track down per-mile journey rates in pre-WWII days, as fun as that would be). The railway is also running at capacity on many of its popular routes, due to favourable geography, soaring house prices, road congestion, and decades of under-investment prior to the current era.

Together, these factors mean that if you’re a peak-time rail commuter, you probably wanted to punch me when you read this article’s first sentence. When you’re paying a lot of money to spend an hour each way with your nose in someone else’s armpit, the fact that the journey is costing the taxpayer less than ever isn’t much comfort.

If you’re a grumpy left-leaning commuter, your eyes may well turn to the profiteering bastards with their name on your train. Never mind that TOC profits only account for 3 per cent of industry costs; if it wasn’t for those GreatSouthCentralLink bastards, your train would be as cheap and empty and reliable as the Swiss one you once caught on holiday. Abolish them and let the government run the trains!


And if you’re a grumpy conservative commuter, the fault is clearly with the Blairite socialists who brought back British Rail after Railtrack went bust. Fix the Attlee government’s original mistake and bring back the Big Four, running their own private trains on their own private tracks with proper wooden dining cars!

There are politicians on the left and on the right who are willing to lobby each of these views. Both sides are probably wrong, but there are decent arguments in favour of both.

If you’re a rabid Thatcherite ideologue, however, the problem is that the trains weren’t privatised competitively enough. Instead of TOCs, all trains should be open-access, competing against each other day-by-day and train-by-train with no inter-available tickets, like that nice Grand Central train you caught to your meeting in York.

This view is outright silly. As Sir Patrick Brown, permanent secretary at the DfT in the 1990s, said on a documentary broadcast in October 2002: “I don’t think any of us in the Department of Transport thought that open access… could have any part in the privatisation. But you couldn’t say so.” (BBC 4, “Witness to History: Privatising the Railways”.)

The railways aren’t like roads: train and track operators need a close working relationship (whoever owns them); paths are scarce and time-dependent; and boosting frequencies is pointless if trains aren’t turn-up-and-go. It’s worse still for people on less-used routes: the miserable failure of the bus industry outside London shows how badly the “competition plus subsidy for the uncompetitive bits” model works, even without the complications of rail.

It should be very worrying, then – no matter what your political views – that ahead of the Treasury’s rail review, the CMA has published a report which says that the future of rail lies in open access operators.

Like the people who drove the original failed privatisation, the CMA is made up of finance and business people with no transport background. If the government listens to their advice, it will be yet another rail disaster.

*By “British” I mean the system controlled by Network Rail in England, Wales and Scotland. The Northern Irish system is very different and not geographically connected to the rest of the network; London Underground and various regional metro/tram systems are also run and operated separately.

 

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How bad is the air pollution on the average subway network?

The New York Subway. Image: Getty.

Four more major Indian cities will soon have their own metro lines, the country’s government has announced. On the other side of the Himalayas, Shanghai is building its 14th subway line, set to open in 2020, adding 38.5 km and 32 stations to the world’s largest subway network. And New Yorkers can finally enjoy their Second Avenue Subway line after waiting for almost 100 years for it to arrive.

In Europe alone, commuters in more than 60 cities use rail subways. Internationally, more than 120m people commute by them every day. We count around 4.8m riders per day in London, 5.3m in Paris, 6.8m in Tokyo, 9.7m in Moscow and 10m in Beijing.

Subways are vital for commuting in crowded cities, something that will become more and more important over time – according to a United Nations 2014 report, half of the world’s population is now urban. They can also play a part in reducing outdoor air pollution in large metropolises by helping to reduce motor-vehicle use.

Large amounts of breathable particles (particulate matter, or PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), produced in part by industrial emissions and road traffic, are responsible for shortening the lifespans of city dwellers. Public transportation systems such as subways have thus seemed like a solution to reduce air pollution in the urban environment.

But what is the air like that we breathe underground, on the rail platforms and inside trains?

Mixed air quality

Over the last decade, several pioneering studies have monitored subway air quality across a range of cities in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The database is incomplete, but is growing and is already valuable.

Subway, Tokyo, 2016. Image: Mildiou/Flickr/creative commons.

For example, comparing air quality on subway, bus, tram and walking journeys from the same origin to the same destination in Barcelona, revealed that subway air had higher levels of air pollution than in trams or walking in the street, but slightly lower than those in buses. Similar lower values for subway environments compared to other public transport modes have been demonstrated by studies in Hong Kong, Mexico City, Istanbul and Santiago de Chile.

Of wheels and brakes

Such differences have been attributed to different wheel materials and braking mechanisms, as well as to variations in ventilation and air conditioning systems, but may also relate to differences in measurement campaign protocols and choice of sampling sites.

Second Avenue Subway in the making, New York, 2013. Image: MTA Capital Construction/Rehema Trimiew/Wikimedia Commons.

Key factors influencing subway air pollution will include station depth, date of construction, type of ventilation (natural/air conditioning), types of brakes (electromagnetic or conventional brake pads) and wheels (rubber or steel) used on the trains, train frequency and more recently the presence or absence of platform screen-door systems.

In particular, much subway particulate matter is sourced from moving train parts such as wheels and brake pads, as well as from the steel rails and power-supply materials, making the particles dominantly iron-containing.


To date, there is no clear epidemiological indication of abnormal health effects on underground workers and commuters. New York subway workers have been exposed to such air without significant observed impacts on their health, and no increased risk of lung cancer was found among subway train drivers in the Stockholm subway system.

But a note of caution is struck by the observations of scholars who found that employees working on the platforms of Stockholm underground, where PM concentrations were greatest, tended to have higher levels of risk markers for cardiovascular disease than ticket sellers and train drivers.

The dominantly ferrous particles are mixed with particles from a range of other sources, including rock ballast from the track, biological aerosols (such as bacteria and viruses), and air from the outdoors, and driven through the tunnel system on turbulent air currents generated by the trains themselves and ventilation systems.

Comparing platforms

The most extensive measurement programme on subway platforms to date has been carried out in the Barcelona subway system, where 30 stations with differing designs were studied under the frame of IMPROVE LIFE project with additional support from the AXA Research Fund.

It reveals substantial variations in particle-matter concentrations. The stations with just a single tunnel with one rail track separated from the platform by glass barrier systems showed on average half the concentration of such particles in comparison with conventional stations, which have no barrier between the platform and tracks. The use of air-conditioning has been shown to produce lower particle-matter concentrations inside carriages.

In trains where it is possible to open the windows, such as in Athens, concentrations can be shown generally to increase inside the train when passing through tunnels and more specifically when the train enters the tunnel at high speed.

According to their construction material, you may breath different kind of particles on various platforms worldwide. Image: London Tube/Wikimedia Commons.

Monitoring stations

Although there are no existing legal controls on air quality in the subway environment, research should be moving towards realistic methods of mitigating particle pollution. Our experience in the Barcelona subway system, with its considerable range of different station designs and operating ventilation systems, is that each platform has its own specific atmospheric micro environment.

To design solutions, one will need to take into account local conditions of each station. Only then can researchers assess the influences of pollution generated from moving train parts.

The ConversationSuch research is still growing and will increase as subway operating companies are now more aware about how cleaner air leads directly to better health for city commuters.

Fulvio Amato is a tenured scientist at the Spanish National Research CouncilTeresa Moreno is a tenured scientist at the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA), Spanish Scientific Research Council CSIC.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.