Cutting red tape for train firms will help decarbonise our railways
Great herds of world leaders, climate change activists and media crews are all converging on Glasgow at the COP26 climate summit, like one of nature’s great animal migrations, to try to save the planet. There will be lofty speeches, lots of scrutiny of who emits the most carbon on their trip, and a fair bit of finger-pointing at people who don’t practice what they preach – or are full of hot air.
Travel is one of the hottest topics. We’ve all become experts at online meetings, and few of us will shed a tear if we don’t have to commute quite so much in future. But there are still plenty of things which mean you have to be somewhere in person; whether it’s a beach holiday, a festival, giving friends and family a hug, or cementing an important client relationship. We still need to move food and goods around the world too. So the world won’t stop travelling, and the question is how to do it without burning fossil carbon.
One of the best, most practical answers is long-distance trains. Italy has just broken its rail monopoly, so different firms can compete to win passengers on one of the main business routes between Rome and Milan. It has made taking a train more like choosing which flight to catch, and the results are astounding. The number of trains has doubled, prices have fallen, and passenger numbers have soared sixfold; from 6.5 million in 2008 to a whopping 40 million in 2018.
The environmental benefits are huge too: air travel dipped almost 7 per cent in the three years to 2018 as the train firms raced to provide the best service for passengers.
We could have the same here. Taking a train from London to Edinburgh just got easier since the launch of Lumo; a new train firm promising to be “the budget airline of the rails”. They say “travelling in the UK shouldn’t cost a fortune”, and they’re aiming to eat the airline’s lunch by persuading you and me to swap flights for cheaper, greener and more consumer-friendly trains.
Plucky new firms have to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops before they are allowed to sign up a single passenger
So what’s stopping firms like Lumo from revolutionising lots of other routes around the UK? If it works to give passengers a better deal with more choices between London and Edinburgh, why not Glasgow as well? Or Cardiff, Manchester and Leeds?
The problem is that plucky new firms like Lumo have to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops before they are allowed to sign up a single passenger. Some of those checks are entirely sensible; they’re asking similar questions to the ones we’d pose to new airlines to make sure they will run a safe and honest service. But a lot of the others are simply there to protect the existing train firms from too much competition, which is much harder to justify.
We shouldn’t be blocking dynamic, creative challengers from having a go if it’s at their own risk, particularly if it’s better for passengers and kinder to the planet. And we certainly shouldn’t be feather-bedding their big, deep-pocketed, lumbering rivals either.
Fortunately, Ministers are already looking at rail reform, with the Shapps-Williams Review set to implement the biggest overhaul since the 1990s. No-one wants to go back to the disasters of timetable meltdowns, delays and strikes that plagued not just nationalised British Rail but the pre-Covid franchise system too. But will they have the bottle to give passengers real choice, like we already have with air travel?
Unless and until we open up all those other rail routes to the same kind of passenger choice and competition as Rome to Milan, or London to Edinburgh, it will make more sense for rail firms to focus on lunching their regulators rather than delighting their passengers. And that will mean we’ll all carry on catching planes instead of trains.
It’s probably one of the simplest, no-regrets solutions for decarbonising a chunk of our travel, and a step towards saving the planet. The delegates in Glasgow should grab it with both hands.
John Penrose is the Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare.
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