The continent’s approach to rail liberalisation holds lessons for Britain

An NTV train crosses the Tiburtina station in central Rome. Image: Getty.

As universal truths go, it’s not far off “death and taxes”: Britain’s rail network is privatised, the service is abysmal, fares are stratospheric. To restore our railway as a network we can be proud of, it must be renationalised. And we know that will work, because continental European railways are cheap, punctual, pleasurable and nationalised. Right?

Wrong. The binary debate over the future of UK rail is now so entrenched that we have increasingly ceased to question its fundamental tenets. This retreat to dogmatic positions risks doing a grave disservice to the travelling public – and we urgently need to consider both our own railway and those in Europe in a much more nuanced light.

John Band has already knocked down a few shibboleths in his 2015 article on rail fares, so I won’t cover the same ground again. Suffice to say, looking at our own railway’s structure, government control is so pervasive that it is not really credible to claim it is private at all. As in Europe, the railway’s fixed assets (track, stations, signalling etc.) are in public hands, following the reclassification in 2014 of Network Rail as a government entity.

Franchises, meanwhile, are so tightly specified by the Department for Transport (DfT) that any room for entrepreneurial activity has been all but squeezed out. Yes, DfT really does tell operators how many of their trains can have a catering trolley.

Yet arguably even more pressing for UK rail policy is the need to understand the profound changes happening to Europe’s railways as market reforms take root. It is still perfectly possible to jump on a train in Paris, Rome or Munich and find that train is run by a public sector operator, which is often part of a state holding group which also includes the infrastructure manager: train operator Trenitalia and infrastructure manager RFI in the case of Italy, for example.

However, over the past 20 years, EU policymakers have been looking for ways to make the European rail network more competitive. Policy measures have mostly focused on technical harmonisation between disparate national rail networks, but opening up of rail services to competition has also been a key strand.

This liberalisation has been resisted for years in many member states – but we are now reaching a point where the tide is turning, and the widely held perception in Britain of ‘nationalised’ continental railways is increasingly inaccurate. Perhaps most pernicious of all is the misleading suggestion that somehow Deutsche Bahn, SNCF or NS, the Dutch parent of Abellio, are sitting at home chuckling as filthy lucre from the fares of hardworking British commuters trickles into the coffers.

Far from it: most, but not all, European countries have seen some degree of liberalisation.

Take Italy, for starters. On 7 February, Global Infrastructure Partners (owner of London’s Gatwick Airport) made a successful offer of €1·9bn to acquire a company called Nuovo Trasporti Viaggiatori.

Who is that, you ask? Well, NTV runs pointy red high speed trains up, down and across the country, mostly on the dedicated high speed rail network that Italy has been building since the 1960s. Serving destinations including Turin, Venice and Naples, the company runs 50 trains per day on the key business route between Milan and Rome. Using the Italo brand, NTV competes head to head with the public sector operator Trenitalia, and between them they have gained a large majority of the rail/air market between the two hubs.

Unlike most British train companies however, NTV has no franchise or contract with government. It uses the EU’s ‘open access’ rules, paying access charges to use the national network. Its services are genuinely entrepreneurial as a result: if they are not viable, they would not survive.

NTV was established in 2011 by a consortium of high profile investors led by Luca di Montezemolo, whom Formula 1 motor racing fans will know as a former Team Principal at the Ferrari team. (The Italo trains’ scarlet livery is not a coincidence.)

For a few years, the state incumbent sought to frustrate NTV’s ambition amid a lack of strong independent regulation. But NTV has expanded from a niche operator to a significant player, at least on the core inter-city axes. As a consequence, private competition has compelled Trenitalia to up its game.

NTV’s state of the art Alstom trains were soon matched by a rival fleet procured by Trenitalia from Bombardier and Hitachi. Both have a whopping four classes of seating and, naturally, top quality espresso in the buffet car. More importantly, the number of services available between major cities has grown, but the rivalry has kept prices down.


There are lessons for here for Britain. We also have open access players in the shape of Grand Central and Hull Trains, operating out of London King’s Cross. Yet neither has the scale of NTV in Italy, and the government is lukewarm at best about operators who exist outside the contractual headlock of a franchise. For advocates of renationalisation however, there is a major quandary: Hull Trains and Grand Central regularly top passenger satisfaction tables, which suggests that more entrepreneurial zeal, not less, could lead to better services, at least in the long-distance segment.

In Italy, the inter-city network has been opened up to competition, while regional trains are, for now, still run by the state. In Germany, the opposite is true. Almost 40 per cent of German regional trains are now run by companies other than Deutsche Bahn, while DB retains a near monopoly on long-distance routes. Regional rail operating contracts are typically let by regional authorities (usually the Bundesländer), rather than by central government – but just as in Britain, the trains themselves are increasingly leased from the private sector rather than owned by the state.

Trenitalia is the second largest operator in Germany, while many of the companies holding UK franchises are also active. Indeed, British companies like National Express have made major inroads: its chief executive said last year that German contracts were now more attractive to private operators than UK franchising.

Where British and German ‘franchising’ really diverge is in costs. Typically, when DB loses a contract to a competitor, the cost of operation goes down, with a positive impact on subsidy and therefore fares. In an extreme example, Go-Ahead (yes, parent of loathed Southern Rail) has agreed to run several routes around Stuttgart for a period of 13 years from 2019. That contract is costing the regional authority in Baden-Württemberg approximately half the amount per train-kilometre it was giving to DB under the previous agreement. A raft of improvements is planned, including new trains across the network. Yet with such a dramatic reduction in the cost base, the authority also has the option to hold down fares.

Once again, the implications for British rail policy are clear. We should be asking why German rail liberalisation is driving down operating costs while quality of service is broadly improving. Instead, we get increasingly simplistic assertions about the benefits of renationalisation, which hark back to an increasingly hazy recollection of British Rail.

The opening up of Europe’s networks to competition has polarised opinion across the sector, and debate will continue for years to come as to the pros and cons. Indeed, there are areas where the British system has a clear advantage over, say, Germany – for example, a unified ticketing system which allows booking between any two stations, irrespective of operator.

But please let us not labour anymore under romanticised ideas of ‘nationalised’ European rail based on experience from the odd long weekend away. The debate over the future of Britain’s railways deserves a better level of understanding – and there is much to learn from the European experience.

Nick Kingsley is managing editor of Railway Gazette International, the business magazine for the global rail industry. He tweets as @njak_100.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.