In our ScienceOmega.com
poll this week, we asked for your opinion on whether investment justifies fare increases
for the United Kingdom’s rail network. At the time of going to press*, the result was coming down heavily on the side of a resounding ‘NO’.
If I’m being honest**, I’m guilty of quite aggressively clicking ‘NO’ myself. Since doing so, however, I’ve paused to give a little thought to whether the regular tirades we in the United Kingdom like to have about the railways – and, indeed, public transport generally – are justified or, more importantly, productive in any way.
In typical British fashion, we have turned moaning about trains into a conversational art form – we have no intention of actually complaining to anyone who could make a difference. Maybe that’s where our problem arises. We’re the passenger who cried wolf.
If the rest of the respondents have anything in common with me, it’s probably the case that they wouldn’t mind increasing rail fares if we could see the tangible, visible benefits of paying more. Sometimes it can seem (especially the further you get from a major city) that the railways are barely maintained, never mind improved, in spite of the extortionate fares we are expected to fork out. In comparison to most of the rest of Europe we seem miles (kilometres) behind. This is a shame when there’s such huge potential for the railways to provide a more environmentally friendly and cost-effective mode of transport.
Instead we’re left with a feeling of injustice and the niggling belief that the companies are lining their own pockets, the government is moving further away from accepting responsibility, and meanwhile services and passengers – and, by extension, railway staff – are suffering the consequences.
Founder of Virgin Group Sir Richard Branson (as well as at least 130,000 others who've signed an online petition) is still fighting for the delay of the signing over of the West Coast Mainline (WCM) franchise to FirstGroup, due to take place tomorrow. Personally, I was quite touched at what was described in the press as his ‘fury’ over Virgin Train’s loss of the franchise last week. It seemed like he was a businessman being, well... honest
. Of course none of us are naïve enough to think he has nothing to lose and wants to run the WCM out of the goodness of his heart, but in the statement
he came across as genuinely upset and disappointed in the government for taking what would seem to be such a short-sighted decision.
‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,’ said Sir Richard. Aren’t we all guilty of this? Complaining to each other on platforms and in station coffee shops up and down the country and still expecting that things will change? That fares will level out at a price that we can afford on special occasions by eating packet noodles for a week. That the train will be dead on time. That we won’t have to catch a bus from Middle-of-Nowhereville to Latetown.
It’s almost instinctive to moan. It’s second on the list of casual conversation starters, after moaning about the weather, to moan about public transport. In typical British fashion, we have turned moaning about trains into a conversational art form – we have no intention of actually complaining to anyone who could make a difference. Maybe that’s where our problem arises. We’re the passenger who cried wolf.
The moral of the piece (and where I elegantly bring this all back to STEM) is that we shouldn’t forget that there are positives. We shouldn’t take for granted, neglect or otherwise overlook the great research being done by scientists and engineers up and down the country to improve our rail system. Although Rail Research UK (RRUK) which provided funding for rail-related research from 2003 was wound up in 2010, the reins have since been taken up by the Rail Research UK Association (RRUK-A) which was launched last year to join all the interested dots.
Next time you’re waiting for the train and find out it’s running 15 minutes late, try your best to devote those minutes not to cursing, muttering under your breath or bemoaning the state of the world these days; instead spend them in awe of a railway system which facilitates 1.3 billion journeys and transports 100 million tonnes of freight every year, all on a network only half the size it was a century ago.1
*insofar as you’ll allow me to refer to putting this online as ‘going to press’
**I am1 www.rruka.org