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Can Boris Johnson “fix” the UK train system?

My father liked to tell a story that when, during the last days of the Second World War, he was travelling though England and working then for the Ministry of Supplies, making sure that agricultural products — mostly food for wartime rationing — reached where it should. And that meant travelling up and down England by train.

If you’ve ever travelled north from London, the Cheshire town of Crewe is where train passengers change to travel to Manchester, Liverpool or North Wales. And it was at Crewe that my father’s story took place. The way he tells it, a group of soldiers were playing cards and there was a sizeable sum of bank notes at stake on the table. The lights of the waiting room out suddenly, there was rumble and then a scream. When the lights came back on, one soldier had his hand impaled on the notes with a dagger, stopped in his attempt to steal the cash by the quick actions of another gambler.

I thought of that as I passed through Crewe on the train to London. The rail industry still dominates the town, its local League One club in the third tier of English football are known as “The Railwaymen”, and there’s a complex network of sidings at the central station where dozens of old trains, rolling stock, engines — all in the liveries of former incarnations of the UK railway systems — now rest in homage to the train as a transport mode.

Successive governments since the Second World War have tried to “fix” the UK train system, whether that be through slashing thousands of kilometres of tracks and shutting hundreds of stations, nationalising the railway under one big umbrella of British Rail, or selling off piece to franchise operations some two decades ago in a disastrous policy that only saw shareholders rewarded as train services declined and ticket prices went through the roof.

Booking a train ticket in England now is a complicated affair — more complex than booking a flight — requiring you to carefully watch when you travel, what train provider you can use and making sure you don’t accidentally stray into First Class coaches. As an example, I had planned to travel from London to Glasgow. An off-peak one-way ticket booked at least a week in advance would cost £104 (Dh540). I flew for £39.

Regular commuters into London face an annual season’s pass cost that can exceed £5,000 — with limited seats and overcrowded trains, or where industrial action by railway unions stops service because the franchises want to have the driver alone responsible for making sure the train doors are closed and passengers are all on-board.

Last week, it was the turn of the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to try and fix the broken train service. Broken? Yes, my return journey from London was delayed for an hour initially because of an unruly passenger on a train at Watford that resulted in all train services from Euston being delayed, and then a signal fault further delayed service near Northampton.

The government has said its massive overhaul will improve matters for long-suffering passengers.

Instead of the British Rail that died with the spin-off of franchises, now it will be Great British Railways that will set train timetables and ticket prices as well as managing railway infrastructure.

“I am a great believer in rail, but for too long passengers have not had the level of service they deserve,” Johnson said. “By creating Great British Railways and investing in the future of the network, this government will deliver a rail system the country can be proud of.”

As things stand now, UK passengers have the highest per-kilometre price in Europe. Indeed, one of the spurious arguments — there were very many — used by Brexiteers to push for leaving the EU was that Brussels was impeding proper reform of the UK’s rail system.

That was a stretch, given that train travel across the EU is generally cheap, efficient and always on time! I should hasten to add that Luxembourg — yes, it is small — but nevertheless became the first country in Europe to make all public transport free. Yes, you read that right. ALL public transport is free.

The government also committed to giving another £1 billion to Transport for London (TfL) to cover operational costs for the rest of the year. But there are strings attached. TfL must actively pursue letting London Underground trains run without train guards — with only the driver responsible for making sure the trains operate safely. It’s hard enough trying to operate a train above ground with just a train driver — can you imagine how difficult it will be to operate a crowded rush-hour tube train with just the driver? Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, is grateful for the extra cash but says he’ll fight the one-man train idea tooth and nail.

As things stand now, the UK government has also committed to building HS2 — a high-speed train link between London and Birmingham initially, and then onto to Manchester and Leeds and other northern cities. The price tag so far is £100 billion and rising by the day, the first trains won’t run until 2028 and a good proportion of the eventual investment will have to be recuperated from passengers.

HS2 will cut travel times between London and Birmingham to a little over the hour mark. That’s ideal for commuters — but after Covid-19 there are fewer people now making train journeys to or from offices as home-working took hold.

And with HS2 to fund, is it any reason that critics already say Johnson’s Great British Railways plan will be starved of adequate funding that is a prerequisite for an effective train system — just like you’ll find on the continent.

Ironically, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the reduction in flights across Europe, European railway operators are reviving long-distance sleep services — trains that lost out to air travel.