Europe’s best train systems, UK railway poor in service quality

05 June 2017 6 min. read

UK railways have the joint 6th worst standard of service in Europe, according to insights found in a new report. While the researchers ultimately ranked Britain as the 8th best performing rail system across the continent, quality of service only accounted for a third of their overall scoring.

The United Kingdom’s train-networks have retained their rank as the 8th best performing rail system in Europe, according to recent analysis from BCG’s latest Rail Performance Index (RPI), which updated research last published in 2015.

Despite rising costs and a continued decline in the quality of service, the UK retained its previous position in the 2017 RPI thanks to high standards of safety and good levels of use – as while quality was one of three criteria for a favourable ranking, researchers also factored in the potential risks of each system along with how regularly it is utilised by commuters and freight alike to come up with a comprehensive overall RPI score.

The RPI comprises weighted measures across critical dimensions

Top rail systems

According to BCG’s most recent findings, Great Britain has the third highest safety rating of the 25 nations listed, scoring 2.8 and narrowly missing out on top-spot, shared by Luxembourg and Denmark, both achieving a 3.0 evaluation.

While the UK only scores a ‘good’ rating for intensity of use, due to a relatively low level of freight utilisation across its rail network, the country’s excellent safety rating boosts their overall score has an excellent rating to 5.4, meaning it avoids a further drop from 2012’s listing, where it was positioned 7th.

The UK’s consolidation is also thanks in part to a general fall in RPI ratings amongst key competitors, including France, Germany, Spain and Italy. However, while the BCG report cites the size of those respective systems as placing strain on networks and resultantly lowering standards, only the UK and Italy have seen a decrease in the quality of service they provide travellers. Punctuality of local and long-distance trains, the country’s proportion of high speed rail services, and price per passenger per kilometre all contribute to this criteria.

Country Performance on the RPI

France increased their quality rating to 2.0, while Germany climbed to 1.5 and Spain remained unchanged at 2.1, the highest standard of service in Europe. Italian rail service quality may have fallen slightly to 1.5 meanwhile, but it remains steadfastly ahead of Britain’s rating, which fell a further .2, to hit 1.0. The rating sees the UK’s rail system slump to being joint 6th worst of the 25 countries examined in terms of value to passengers.

Stagnant service

BCG’s analysts also found that the British rail system as a whole had continued to deliver sub-par returns on public subsidies – with increased state spending on privately owned networks having a below-average impact on performance improvement, consistent with figures in the 2015 report.

In January 2017, it was announced fares for passengers were to rise a further 2.3%, topping of an above-inflation increase of ticket costs of 25% since the mid-1990s, when British Rail was first privatised.

Meanwhile, reports from across the country suggested huge hikes in the cost of season-tickets since 2010, with the largest increase of 43% coming for commuters between Tame Bridge Parkway near Walsall and Nuneaton. In the same period median gross weekly wages meanwhile increased by just 8%.

Increased public cost correlates with Performance Improvement

According to a further report by the Action for Rail group, a lobbying group for re-nationalisation of British railways, from 2017 UK commuters are due to spend the largest chunk of their salaries on travel in Europe. Travellers between Luton and London for example are projected to spend 14% of an average wage on rail fares – while similar commutes across a number of European capitals sampled would cost less than 8% of an average worker’s earnings.

What’s to be done?

The declining levels of quality in rail service provision, coupled with the stagnating rates of progress across the privatised system, come at a time when the state of British rail services has become a major point of political contention in the country, particularly with an early election on the horizon.

In response to the continued controversy of the state of UK rail services, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party maintained a commitment to inject £40 billion into public transport, in their 2017 election manifesto, with voters due to hit polling booths on June 8th.

While specifics of the Conservative proposals included plans for HS2, a new high speed railway linking several major cities however, plans for a new Crossrail2 service were dropped from the Tory manifesto. The omission from the election document of the connector train for commuters utilising HS2 has led to speculation surrounding the viability of the government’s larger project.

The opposition meanwhile contend that further state subsidies of private enterprise are not enough, with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party recently announcing rail nationalisation as a key election pledge. The Party’s manifesto commitment was announced in May, with a view to giving passengers better value for money from the service.