Spain’s trains are getting cheaper while UK rail fares and HS2 costs surge

Less than a fortnight in, the new year has already brought more misery for Britain’s beleaguered rail travellers. Fares are going up and so, apparently, is the cost of HS2 – or what’s left of it.

The latest price tag for this limping infrastructure project now stands at £66.6bn, MPs have been told. That’s the number of the devil. Imagine how many hospitals or schools you could build for that.

It’s certainly a high price for a shuttle service between London and Birmingham, which is what this cursed project has become.

HS2 was supposed to be much more than just a single line through the Chilterns. It was pitched to the public as a gleaming high-speed network that would liberate our railways from their Victorian straitjacket, linking eight of the country’s 10 biggest cities, while freeing up capacity elsewhere on the network and driving down fares.

But like the ancient oaks that were felled to make way for it, HS2 has instead been reduced to a stump.

Its failure locks rail travellers into higher fares for the near future, experts say, and is symptomatic of a wider malaise, a sense that Britain’s railways – once the envy of the world – are drifting.

Where has it all gone wrong? Since the pandemic, the Government has been running our railways, mostly into the ground and without any sense of shame.

Lest we forget Rishi Sunak announced he was axing HS2’s northern leg to Manchester while at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. “The Government has turned not giving a shit about the railways into an art form,” gripes Mark Smith, also known as The Man in Seat 61.

Boring the HS2 Northolt Tunnel East (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Boring the HS2 Northolt Tunnel East (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The post-pandemic arrangement means that rail firms, once our favourite panto villains, are now just glorified contractors for the UK government. They are paid to run the trains but, as Smith says, it’s the Treasury that pockets fare revenue and – in a further sign of chaos – the Department for Transport that picks up the costs. It’s hardly a recipe for innovation.

What would the Fat Controller make of all this? In the episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine that my son makes me watch, the big man simply does not tolerate “confusion and delay”, not on his watch.

Perhaps someone should employ him to run our network, even though he’s a fictional, animated character. It would surely be an improvement on the current arrangement, because, as Smith points out, “there is no one actually controlling the railways at the moment”.

So, what’s the answer? “Wait for the next election and reverse everything when we change administration.” Perhaps that could be Britain’s mantra for 2024. And after that? A British Rail 2.0, or equivalent; a body that sits at arm’s length from the government and is staffed by people who actually know something about railways, and can run them, while co-ordinating train companies on behalf of the government.

That’s not likely before we go to the polls. In the meantime, perhaps we should all just move to Spain. Not only is it sunny there, but the country is accelerating into a bold new era for high-speed rail travel – and, conversely, ticket prices are coming down.

Proving that privatisation can work for rail travellers, the Spanish government has allowed operators to compete with each other on key high-speed routes. The result? Fares have almost halved between Barcelona and Madrid, whose tracks are served by national operator Renfe’s Ave high-speed trains and its Avlo low-cost offshoot, Ouigo and private high-speed Iryo services.

A study commissioned by Spain’s ministry of transport also found that the country has the most extensive high-speed network in the EU, with the lowest average construction cost in the Eurozone – €17.7m per km, compared to an average of €45.5m in other high-speed destinations.

Unsurprisingly, lower fares have enticed more people onto the railways in Spain, which is precisely what we need to do amid an escalating climate crisis. Data published before Christmas showed that passenger numbers on Spain’s competitively operated high-speed routes increased by about a third between September and December 2023.

The UK Government could follow Spain’s example. But it hasn’t. And so Britain trundles on, destined, apparently, to become the rail replacement bus service of Europe. Wake us up when we get to the election.