Why Are British Railways So Crap?

Why Are British Railways So Crap?

"As far as the worst public transport service in the world is concerned, I’d have to tie the UK with the US. In short, it’s total embarrassment."
Graham Hughes
World's Most Travelled Scouser

Considering the UK prides itself on the fact that it invented the very concept of mass passenger transport, you’d think we’d have half a clue how to run a decent, affordable train service. But we don’t. Why is that?

Nothing grinds my gears quite like the state of the British train network.

Hell, at least in Guinea public transport is cheap. The London Underground, the trams in Manchester and what’s left of the Liverpool rail network cost a small fortune.

But that’s pennies compared with intercity travel, something that should be cheap and easy, considering most big British cities are located within walking distance (if you’re walking a marathon) from each other.

But no. British intercity trains are horrifically overpriced – over £300 for a standard open return to London from Liverpool (a two-hour journey).

Depending on the area in which you live, you’ll find that these trains that cost more than an economy return to New York rarely run on time and are often overcrowded. The toilets have a nasty tendency to fly open mid wee (and the “door-close” button is conveniently located out of reach of the toilet itself), the staff are notoriously rude and unhelpful, the companies running the trains are cowboys with a monopoly (laughing all the way to the bank no doubt) and the unprofitable part of the railway network – the maintenance of the track – is paid for by us gibbering idiots, yup: the taxpayer.

Madness, utter madness.

That’s not to say the coach network provides much of an alternative.  With the exception of the no-frills Megabus (which does a decent job of WYSIWYG), most of the country’s intercity coaches are operated by a monopoly called National Express. No competition (there are no other national coach companies and the trains are too expensive for 93% of the British population to afford) means that they can deliver a piss-poor service, charge over the odds and get away with it – something they’ve been getting away with for years. When I say that only Greyhound USA is worse, that’s hardly a compliment. It once took me ELEVEN HOURS to get back from London to Liverpool on a National Express bus.

I think I could have done it faster on horseback.

It’s cheaper for five scousers to buy a car, tax it, insure it, fill it with petrol and drive to London and back than to take the train. Their car could be stolen and burnt out upon completion of the journey and they’d still be better off than if the five of them had spent over £1,500 taking the train.

Then again, driving would mean using Britain’s god-awful motorways. Not that the motorways are poorly maintained, I’d argue that they’re not, it’s just that motorways in the UK are an unfinished bodge-job and are more like lorryways with an occasional car problem.

How did we end up in this ridiculous situation?

Clue: It involves this guy

"There's no corruption quite like Tory corruption..."

The word “public” was removed from “public transport” thanks to the short-sighted, piss-poor and quite frankly corrupt policy decisions of the Conservative government in the early 60s.

Most people blame Dr Beeching for the utterly incomprehensible cannibalisation of the British railway system in the 1960s, but it was dickwit-in-chief Ernest Marples who was the puppetmaster. Take it away, Wikipedia:

"Beeching had been appointed to his post as head of British Railways by Marples. Marples was not just a government minister; he also owned a construction company, Marples-Ridgway, whose main concern was constructing roads. They contributed to several motorway projects during the 1950s and 1960s and also constructed the Hammersmith flyover in London. When it was pointed out that being transport minister as well as a road builder might be construed as a conflict of interest, he agreed and divested himself of his shares in Marples-Ridgway. However, this was to his wife, with a clause to buy back the shares at the sale price when he ceased to be a minister: something not disclosed at the time."

So let me get this straight: guy owns ROAD BUILDING company, gets job as government TRANSPORT MINISTER, avoids accusations of conflict of interest by giving his shares to his wife, takes back his shares once he’s personally destroyed TWO-THIRDS of the British Rail Network (the only viable competition to HIS F—KING ROADS) and ensured his road-building company’s position on the gravy train for life?!!

Now give me another wheelbarrow full of taxpayer’s money, my wife needs a new fur coat!

A typical Sunday afternoon in a Tory minister's household.

What a irredeemable bastard. Then again, does this feel like anything out of the ordinary for a Tory? They fulfil the interests of wealthy individuals, companies and corporations over your petty little needs every time. I can’t be the only one who notices that…

Anyway, so here we are, 50 years on, our trains cost more than what most families earn in a week, our coaches are several shades of god-awful and our motorways are gridlocked since the freight that used to trundle along the railways can’t travel on non-existent lines.

Oh, did I mention that even though there are very few surviving branch lines, the tax-payer STILL has to pay for the maintenance of the THOUSANDS of now unused bridges, tunnels and viaducts that criss-cross the nation?  If a single loose brick falls onto the windscreen of a car passing underneath, it’s the great British public who will pay the damages. So we have a situation were we are paying to maintain infrastructure that we have pretty much NO WAY of getting ANY money back from whatsoever! Brilliant!!

Plus, thanks to Marples, North-East Liverpool has no railway anymore – in fact, there are over FORTY closed railway stations in Liverpool: the highest number of any first-world city in the world.  This means that in some of the most deprived area of Liverpool it’s next to impossible to get to work… unless you walk (in the rain), cycle (in the rain) or get the bus filled with screaming, gobbing, swearing, fighting schoolchildren as… oh yeah, we have no school buses(!). I don’t have to paint a picture of how unpleasant these 8.30am buses are, I’m sure you’ve got a good idea and it probably doesn’t involve Moonlight Sonata and caviar on the Orient Express.

Ninety years ago, Liverpool had a better, faster, more integrated and (bizarrely) GREENER public transport system than it has today. The same can probably be said for most cities in the UK. Progress anyone?!

A little suggestion: how about a new rule that companies are responsible for paying for bus and train passes so their employees to get to work? It would see a constant, reliable income for Public Transportation systems (even if the employees choose to drive instead) and discourage companies from employing people who would need to make a three-hour commute every day – you know, local jobs for local people? Smart.

Oh, and while you’re at it, re-nationalise the bloody railways. Even America — land of gullible poltroons who believe that corporations are their friends and that the government they have the power to elect is their enemy — has a nationalised rail service. Get with the program, you dithering Limey knuckleheads.

Oh, and if by chance you’re wondering whatever happened to that rotten bastard Marples: 


"In the early 70s ... he tried to fight off a revaluation of his assets which would undoubtedly cost him dear ... So Marples decided he had to go and hatched a plot to remove £2 million from Britain through his Liechtenstein company ... there was nothing for it but to cut and run, which Marples did just before the tax year of 1975. He left by the night ferry with his belongings crammed into tea chests, leaving the floors of his home in Belgravia littered with discarded clothes and possessions ... He claimed he had been asked to pay nearly 30 years' overdue tax ... The Treasury froze his assets in Britain for the next ten years. By then most of them were safely in Monaco and Liechtenstein."
Richard Stott
'Dogs and Lampposts', Metro Publishing, 2002

No doubt he was twirling his evil little moustache all the way.​..

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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