There was an interesting article in the Sunday Times titled “Make trains run like the budget airlines”. What to do about trains in Britain. The think tank Policy Exchange offers an 8-point plan for fixing trains here. There is reference to research that shows UK trains are 40% less efficient than those in Germany, Belgium and Ireland. An immediate thought – what must that data have been like 10 years ago?
One of the major themes of this piece is the need for trains to pay for themselves with no subsidy. In the UK there still are subsidies paid to train operators in order to keep trains affordable. But those of us in England all know people who have £2,500-£4,000 annual passes to get to and from work each day.
This is where I say the strategist needs to step back and ask a preliminary question before having a prescription for remedy. And that is, “What is a public good and what isn’t, and if it is a public good, how much should we contribute to it?” Commuter trains wouldn’t exist if governments didn’t build them. That’s a fact. The US is a good reference point for what happens with no subsidy.
So the strategic challenge is to construct a glide path to the lowest possible subsidy possible. Zero subsidy is only reasonable if it is affordable for people to continue to use trains — because the citizens of England have already decided that trains are a good thing and we don’t want to force people off them. Having figured that out, many of the conclusions that Policy Exchange develops make a lot of sense. For instance, making localities where stations are very infrequently used kick in some money to support continued service; an information exchange for potential franchise owners on which to gather information for their bids; and alternative configurations of operators and track maintainers all seem good recommendations. There are other good ones as well.
My takeaways from this rumination. First, as Policy Exchange recommends, people should always be experimenting with new things to see if they work better. Rail would certainly benefit from further experimentation. And second, developing strategy sometimes involves peeling back multiple layers to uncover the best path forward. For more information on how Faculty Partnership approaches this issue, please visit Intelligent Strategic Thinking.