‘Poor value for money, endless delays and overcrowding’: How Britain went from a nation that pioneered railways to having an overstretched system that is £33billion in debt despite rising fares

  • Britain's railway is 'overstretched and outdated' according to Nick Hewer
  • Network Rail is estimated to be £33bn in debt - reaching £110bn by 2030
  • Alan Sugar's former Apprentice sidekick reveals how it got into a mess
  • The Trouble With Trains documentary starring Hewer aired last night

Britain was the nation that pioneered the railways, and today, almost two centuries later, the system remains central to life in Britain, with more than 1.5 billion passenger journeys made every year. 

Despite the United Kingdom being ranked only 23rd in terms of population size, our railways are the fifth most heavily used in the world.

But our venerable system is now badly showing its age. The network is overstretched, capacity is inadequate, and rolling stock outdated.

Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, both formerly of The Apprentice, set out to discover what happened to Britain's railways in a new documentary The Trouble With Trains

Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, both formerly of The Apprentice, set out to discover what happened to Britain's railways in a new documentary The Trouble With Trains

The result is that passengers and taxpayers often receive a raw deal. Yet despite some of the highest fares in the world, as well as lavish subsidies from the public purse, the debts keep on mounting.

The sum owed by Network Rail, which runs the system, is estimated to be £33 billion, and could reach no less than £110 billion by 2030.

So how have the railways got into this mess, where a creaking infrastructure is matched by colossal arrears?

That’s the question that I and Margaret Mountford, my former colleague from The Apprentice, set out to answer in a new documentary The Trouble With Trains, which aired on BBC2 last night.

What we found during an extensive tour across the country was a very mixed picture of railway efficiency.

Commuters from Brighton to London, using the notorious 7.29am early morning train, which is widely regarded as the most unreliable service in Britain (file picture)

Commuters from Brighton to London, using the notorious 7.29am early morning train, which is widely regarded as the most unreliable service in Britain (file picture)

There are some success stories such as the High Speed  train lines which run up to London St Pancras station

There are some success stories such as the High Speed train lines which run up to London St Pancras station

There were some success stories, like the excellence of the Javelin trains operating on the recently opened High Speed line between Ashford in Kent and St Pancras in London, or the reliability of Virgin service between Manchester and Euston.

A further indicator of intermittent progress can be found in the improvement to stations, which used to be notoriously run-down. Now, several of them - like the elegantly restored concourse at King's Cross - are vast palaces of culinary and retail pleasure.

But this contrasted with the grimmer stories we heard of poor value-for-money, endless delays, overcrowding, and lack of respect for the passengers.

All the extensive modernisation work on the railway has barely kept pace with increased use. Head of Network Rail Mark Carne (pictured) described it as 'like trying to live in a house that is being rebuilt’

All the extensive modernisation work on the railway has barely kept pace with increased use. Head of Network Rail Mark Carne (pictured) described it as 'like trying to live in a house that is being rebuilt’

‘The customer comes first’ is one of the oldest adages in business, but those words are frequently forgotten in the railway industry, where the customer often – and literally – comes last.

One of the graphic symbols of the failure to update the rolling stock can be found in the continued use of so-called Pacer trains in the north of England.

First introduced in the early 1980s as a cheap alternative to proper trains, the Pacers were built by the now defunct Leyland bus manufacturer. Indeed, they were little more than a glorified bus on a railway carriage chassis, and were only seen as a short-term, stop gap measure.

Their defects included poor suspension, unreliability, dismal acceleration and awkward access for the disabled. Yet 30 years later, the Pacers are still in operation, spreading discontent among their users.

Their survival is so indicative of a network that has failed to come fully into the 21st century.

Many passengers are paying for a high-quality service, but are not receiving it. In fact it was reported this week that some rail fares are so high that Network Rail staff spent £1.3 million on UK flights over the past two years because it was cheaper to fly around Britain than to take the train, according to a report by The Sun.

I interviewed one woman who commutes from Brighton to London, using the notorious 7.29am early morning train, which is widely regarded as the most unreliable service in Britain. (According to some estimates, it has never actually arrived at its destination on time.) 

Embittered that she has to fork out around £5,000 for a season ticket, she feared that her continual lateness meant that her boss would one day throw her out of her job.

‘Why not get an earlier train?’ I naively asked, a question that only deepened her rage. ‘Why should I do that, given what I am paying? Anyway, I would never get to see my daughter if I did so,’ she said crossly.

More harrowing was the case of another commuter who regularly used the same train. A high-flying professional who works for one of Britain’s most prestigious magazines, he actually had to go into therapy because his mind became so disturbed by the chronic unpunctuality he had to endure.

Britain was the nation that pioneered the railways, running locomotives such as the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) Princess Royal Class (pictured in 1933)

Britain was the nation that pioneered the railways, running locomotives such as the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) Princess Royal Class (pictured in 1933)

For almost two centuries, the railway system has remained central to life in Britain with huge investments made into upgraded models and networks (pictured is the first 'orient' train on the Southern Railway in 1942) 

For almost two centuries, the railway system has remained central to life in Britain with huge investments made into upgraded models and networks (pictured is the first 'orient' train on the Southern Railway in 1942) 

After years of post-war decline, pictured is the interior of a 3rd class compartment of the Southern Railway post-war passenger stock in 1945, the railways have enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in the past two decades

After years of post-war decline, pictured is the interior of a 3rd class compartment of the Southern Railway post-war passenger stock in 1945, the railways have enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in the past two decades

In a sense, the railways have been a victim of their own success.

After years of post-war decline, they have enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in the past two decades, partly because of the rise of the service economy, especially in the south-east, partly because of the expansion in the population, and partly because of urban property boom, which pushed up house prices in town and cities, which thus made commuting from further away a financial necessity.

Since 1998 alone, passenger numbers have gone up by more than 60 per cent, with rail use now at levels not seen since the 1940s.

But the rail infrastructure has not been adapted sufficiently quickly to cope with this soaring demand. As the Brighton Line proves, congestion and inadequate capacity means that the slightest disruption, like a train sitting in a station for just 30 seconds too long, can throw a whole sector into chaos.

All the extensive modernisation work has barely kept pace with increased use. As the impressive head of Network Rail Mark Carne put it to me: ‘It’s like trying to live in a house that is being rebuilt.’

Private train-operating companies, like Virgin bid for franchises - usually lasting seven years - to provide services on each lines and Hewer praised their service between Manchester and Euston as reliable 

Private train-operating companies, like Virgin bid for franchises - usually lasting seven years - to provide services on each lines and Hewer praised their service between Manchester and Euston as reliable 

Improving the railways is a hugely expensive operation, which is mainly why the debts keep going up despite the annual £8.2 billion revenue from fares, and the subsidies of £4 billion from the taxpayer. Nor are the railways helped by the fragmented structure that has developed since privatisation in 1994. 

Essentially there are three elements to it: Network Rail, which is in the public sector and is responsible for running the infrastructure; the rolling stock companies that own the actual trains; and the private train-operating companies, like Virgin or First Great Western, which bid for franchises - usually lasting seven years - to provide services on each lines. 

The aim of the private companies is to achieve a profit, which is one reason why peak fares are so high. If they could not be profitable, they would not bid for the franchises.

But this commercial imperative reflects a strange paradox whereby the private firms are dependent for their profits on a system that is massively subsidised by the taxpayer.

No one can pretend this is a proper free market in operation.

But privatisation was not just about franchising. It was also meant to bring the best of the private sector into the industry, with more innovative thinking, better marketing, streamlined management and an end to outdated working practices. To an extent that has happened, as demonstrated by the massive increase in passenger numbers. 

An indicator of progress can be found in the improvement to stations and now several of them - like the elegantly restored concourse at King's Cross - are vast palaces of culinary and retail pleasure

An indicator of progress can be found in the improvement to stations and now several of them - like the elegantly restored concourse at King's Cross - are vast palaces of culinary and retail pleasure

I saw for myself a good example of innovation, with the development of a new direct service from London to Shrewsbury. Passengers wanting to go from the capital to Shrewsbury used to have to change at Crewe, but then someone came up with the bright idea of uncoupling four carriages from the main northbound train, allowing the Shropshire-bound passengers to remain on board and travel on separately to their destination.

Yet this case also showed why the railways remain in trouble. To decouple the four Shrewsbury-bound carriages, all it really required was for the driver to press a button and, with a hiss and shudder, the train would split. But it took around two years for this simple operation to be approved by the bureaucracy of the railway industry. Without any sense of urgency, the decision had to go through endless committees and be discussed by a stream of civil servants and managers.

Once again, the passengers were the losers. As our programme shows, the British railways might be getting there, but it is taking a heck of a long time.