No matter who forms the new government in May 2010, the new set of ministers will have to tackle the worst deficit in UK public finance for decades. The 2010 to 2015 period will inevitably require policy-makers and citizens to make some hard choices – either raising taxes or pruning spending on previously highly valued public services.
In the first of our ‘Hard Choices’ series, Tim Leunig argues that keeping underused railway stations open cannot be justified:
Whoever wins the next election needs to heed this (mis)quotation of Colbert’s dictum about taxation: “The art of cutting spending consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”.
There are more than 175 railway stations in Britain that are used by fewer than 10 people a day. Another 450 more are used by fewer than 100 people a day. And an additional 725 stations are used by fewer than 500 people a day. In total, the least used 50 per cent of Britain’s stations account for just 3 per cent of all rail journeys.
Keeping stations open is not costless. They need maintenance to comply with health and safety legislation, lighting after dark, and so on. Signalling needs to be maintained so that trains can stop at the station. And stopping and starting a train uses a lot of energy, just as stop-start urban car journeys use more fuel than travelling at a constant speed. Not stopping at little-used stations would also make journeys faster between stations that are more heavily used – so that the average passenger would get a better service.
Shutting stations is bad publicity. But giving them – and the obligation to pay for them as necessary – to cash-strapped local authorities would achieve the same thing while reducing and redirecting the hissing away from central government.
Lord Beeching (who cut the UK’s railways system drastically in the early 1960s) was never a popular figure and not all of his cuts were well made. But he hugely reduced the cost of running the network, while eliminating very few journeys that were made by any number of people. We need him back once again!
Tim Leunig is the author of “Post-World War II British Railways: The Unintended Consequences of Insufficient Government Intervention”, in H. Margetts, C. Hood and Perri 6 (eds) Paradoxes of Modernisation, Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2010.
What about the argument that if you give places a terrible service, nobody will use them? Improvements in services can often make rail travel far more attractive, a local example for me being Howden station. 10 years ago only a handful of services at infrequent times called and passenger numbers were dwindling, but since open access operator Hull Trains starting calling around 5 years ago (after campaigns by local MP David Davis) the station has really taken off. It now has 7 direct services to London every weekday and since this began, other operators are now making more regular calls. The car park has had to be extended and passenger information systems are being installed to provide real time running information. And all of this has come about from an increase in services. I’m not saying this would work in all cases, but there are many other examples (particularly along the Trent Valley route) where it has helped.
And regarding Beeching, yes, savings were made. But many were at the expense of today’s economy, which would have benefited vastly from a more comprehensive public transport system. Today, many roads along former lines are heavily congested, impeding economic growth, but there simply isn’t the capital available to re-open railways.
Perhaps I’m confused, but since the railways are now privatized how are taxpayers responsible for their maintenance? Network Rail and the TOCs own, operate and maintain the vast majority of stations. The government does subsidize TOCs and Network Rail, but these subsidies aren’t directly tied to maintaining individual stations.
The greatest cost to the British public arising from the railways is the inflated fares they now pay as a result of privatization. TOCs have been squeezing every single penny they can from riders without making any noticeable improvements to service. The “Signal Failures” column in the last Private Eye revealed the extent to which TOCs are reducing the quality and availability of standard class while extensively promoting first class. This gouging of riders is much more damaging than a few stations with low ridership. Those stations serve towns and villages, and in the end are helpful to people. A Beeching-style cut would further reduce the quality of the railways without adding any real savings. Moreover, Mr. Leunig ignores the fact that, on top of being unpopular and not particularly well conceived, the Beeching Axe didn’t actually achieve its primary goal, i.e. getting British Rail into the black. Within a few years of his cuts, BR was back in the red even more so than before.