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Are British trains worse than Indian ones?

Strikes, steep prices and congestion in British train services have irked many commuters, who are now calling for its nationalisation.

world Updated: Aug 15, 2016 17:20 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Passengers walk past striking Eurostar train managers and members of the RMT union in London.
Passengers walk past striking Eurostar train managers and members of the RMT union in London.(REUTERS)

The British may have introduced railways in India, where the rapidly improving network is one of the world’s largest, but things are not exactly the same in UK: strikes, steep prices and congestion have irked many commuters, who are now calling for its nationalisation.

So much so that when Indian-origin stand-up Nish Kumar used humour in a Monday article to cut through the complex issues and claimed that British trains were worse than Indian ones, many agreed, but some were thrown off-track.

“When I was growing up, and periodically going to India to visit my grandmother, my classmates would often ask me about the trains. There was an exotic fascination with people sitting on top of the carriages.”

 “Well, just to clear this up, British trains are now worse than Indian trains. Even if you sat on the roof, at least you get a seat,” he wrote in The Guardian, provoking nearly 1,000 comments from readers comparing their experience of travelling in India, Britain and elsewhere.

The introduction of railways in India in 1853 is often cited as part of the ‘good’ that British rule purportedly did in India, but critics have insisted that it was introduced mainly to facilitate revenue extraction rather than to transport ‘natives’ across the subcontinent.

Today, Britain is reputed to have the highest train fares in Europe. Unless booked days in advance at a discounted price, travelling by train by purchasing a ticket on the day of travel can be costlier than travelling by air - as many Indian tourists realise.

 “If you want to travel from London to Manchester, and have not booked a ticket, be prepared to sell a kidney or stay at home. Frequent train travellers have to plan ahead, booking months in advance to avoid massive fares,” Kumar wrote.

One of the private companies running trains, Southern Rail, went on a five-day strike earlier this month, prompting renewed calls for nationalisation of Britain’s rail network. It is a cause espoused by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, winning him increasing supporters.

Kumar, who is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, added: “Nationalisation might seem like the preserve of old-fashioned, duffel-coat-wearing, Red-Flag-singing socialists, but it also appears to be economically efficient.”

“Labour adopted renationalisation as a policy at its 2015 autumn conference, and Jeremy Corbyn is trying to make this a key platform in his plans to be the next prime minister. Corbyn might be on to a winner here. Time will tell. Anyway, I had better head off – I’ve got to start booking some train tickets for October 2025.”

British rail was privatised by the John Major government, when the infrastructure, maintenance and ownership of trains were each sold off to private companies in a process that lasted three years from 1994. It led to more investment, but also higher fares over the years.

Passionate comments on Kumar’s article included good, bad and ugly experiences of Britons travelling on Indian trains, but many agreed that commuting by rail in Britain is anything but a pleasure any more.

Some objected to Kumar's assumption in the article that Indian trains are bad, and pointed out the improvements and investments in recent years. Others insisted there was scope for improvement and rail travel in India would certainly be better than that in Britain in a decade.