February 23, 2004

A beano

Patrick Crozier | Railtrack and Network Rail | Railways - Japan

There was an article in Saturday's Times (subscription only for foreign residents I'm afraid) on Japanese railways. It was all about a proposed study trip by Network Rail managers to see what they can learn.

There is nothing new in this. Railwaymen have been going to Japan for yonks. I went with a group two years ago. Adrian Shooter (formerly Managing Director of Chiltern Railways) has been running a scheme for ten years. And there have been plenty of others. I remember a comment on yet another trip reported in Modern Railways about three years back to the effect of: "we keep sending people over it's about time we started learning the lessons."

What I found from our trip is that people à la Michael Jennings saw what they wanted to see. The ATOC (Association of Train Operating Companies) guy saw an example of fragmented management and proclaimed that fragmentation could work, the journalist saw the state subsidising infrastructure and concluded that that's what we should have here, the London Underground guy took one look at the maintenance depot and decried its inefficiency - LU's contracted out structure was far better and I saw privately-owned integrated railways and concluded that privatisation works and state-inflicted fragmentation doesn't.

Network Rail say that they need to make comparisons:

If we are not careful we can be fat, dumb and happy. So we have to create a substitute for competition by doing international benchmarking.

Or they could engage in a bit of historical benchmarking. They could compare themselves with British Rail or even, for that matter, Railtrack. Save themselves a fortune they would. Mind you the results might not look so good bearing in mind that it takes the modern, fragmented railway nearly £4bn to achieve less than what the integrated one did for about £1bn. McAllister may come to regret making the comment about being "fat, dumb and happy".

There are a couple of niggles I have with this article. For instance, I am really not sure about this claim that delays are recorded if trains are 15 seconds late. A couple of years ago I was actually in Tokyo's main control centre asking the head honcho there about this very thing. Delays are recorded when a train is a minute late.

And Japan is not the only other significant economy with a privatised railway. There's another one. Readers may have heard of it. It has the biggest railway in the world.

It's called the United States.

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Comments

US the biggest in the world? What about India and China?

The big US railroads carry impressive volumes of freight, but aren't passenger trains more or less non existant across most of the country, unable to compete with air travel over the vast distances? (The same vast distances that enable the railroads to compete effectively for freight)

Posted by Tim Hall on February 23, 2004

According to these statistics from the UIC (warning Excel file) the US has 194,000 km, India 63,000km and China 59,000km.

The UK has about 17,000km, France 32,000km and Germany 36,000km.

The figures for Japan do not seem to include the "private" lines.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on February 23, 2004

Note that the other big country, Russia, has 86,000 km of rail.

The US has plenty of passenger trains--too many actually, most are wildly underutilized and heavily subsidized by the federal government. What the US doesn't have much of is fast intercity passenger trains. (BTW, here's Amtrak's national route map: http://www.amtrak.com/pdf/national.pdf)

Posted by Sam on February 24, 2004

How long is a yonk?

Posted by Randolph on February 24, 2004

I think that freight and people are two totally different matters, and if we are talking about public transport, then it's passenger kms per year that give an indication of 'size', rather than actual length of tracks.
In this case, Japan, India, and China have the 'largest' passenger railways, and the USA has a pretty 'small' one.

Posted by Paul on February 24, 2004

Amtrak is a public company taken under government control when it went titsup.com in the early 70’s

“Amtrak is the name of an intercity passenger train system created on May 1, 1971 in the United States. Amtrak is an independent public government corporation, however it is entirely owned by the United States government. The name Amtrak is a combination of the words American and Track; the official name of the public corporation that owns Amtrak is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation” from Wizzo

And has remained there ever since. The private freight train companies used to offer passenger trains but didn’t make much money. Amtrak itself didn’t own any track at first. Sounds familiar! But now owns 730 miles of track. The rest is made up of the private freight trains company.

The only way is to create six regional companies owning infrastructure and trains. For instance on the lines of the pre-nationalisation days of ‘the big four’ but ‘the big six.’ Routes can be overlapping to create some competition. Increase freight for the passenger trains to make money by leasing out its lines at night. The Great Western Railway used money from shipping coal from Bristol and was always profitable. People make me laugh when they say the previous companies went bankrupt. What would happen if Network Rail lost its entire subsidy tomorrow? It would be bankrupt the next day, as it could not afford £10 bill of debts. Or ‘track access charges’ would probably quadruple. It’s a joke of a company. It’s not a real company. Nor was Railtrack and shareholders new this that’s why they bought the shares. The previous companies went bankrupt because the government owed them millions of pounds of money for usage from the Second World War and never paid it back.

Now the government pays through the nose for its ‘smash and grab of the railways’ in the late 1940’s. Please come back all is forgiven.

Posted by Amir on February 24, 2004

Amir

Could you send me an e-mail sometime? There's something I wanted to ask you.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on February 24, 2004

China's total mileage is not that much different from Canadian National plus Burlington Northern Santa Fe. (I think the biggest single private railroad company in the world is Canadian National, itself recently privatised.) As far as the passenger network in the States is concerned, Amtrak is only part of it. Metra in the Chicago area is a workable substitute for driving into the Loop, even on weekends, and the network of commuter authorities that share the Northeast Corridor with Amtrak is impressive in its own right, not to mention that these authorities also share the rails with some serious freight trains.

Posted by Stephen Karlson on February 26, 2004

What did you want to ask me Patrick? It’s true isn’t it, it’s going that way anyway. Network Rail Southern Region and Great Western region. BR operated the railway in the same way as the separate companies did. Network South East was a separate company. Now the SRA is merging franchisees. Soon they will have about six companies. Ministers are looking at Japan and can see that ‘track and train’ need to be remarried. Once there are six companies they will offer the infrastructure as part of the franchise.

The current system of railway works with the airline industry but doesn’t work with trains. The Tories have vowed to either set up regional companies or have nationalisation. The Tories have never nationalised anything so I cannot see them following that route. In Japan they have six companies and a freight and rolling stock company and no franchisee’s I.e. real companies either owned by another company or on the Stock Exchange. Number of serious high-speed accidents on Japanese Railways is 0 for 40 years. It’s not privatisation that is the problem. It’s this bizarre structure dreamt up by some Tory civil servant. Who thought it works for roads and airlines lets stick it on the railway. Short sighted rail policy that the railways have got since Beeching. Most people I know did not like BR but recognise that the railways is like a hot coal. How quickly you can pass the buck to another person.

Posted by Amir on February 27, 2004

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