How to make trains run on time

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A well-functioning train system is a virtue. Citizens do not take delays, strikes, or fare increases lightly. Economies also need strong connectivity to thrive. Railway lines join supply chains, and link workers to employers. As one of the cleanest modes of transport, a good train network is a boon for the green transition too. Yet, few places have mastered the art of managing and modernising their railways.

Rail standards vary between countries, and within them. Swiss and Japanese trains — particularly the Shinkansen, or “bullet train” — are widely considered the most punctual. The average delay of the Tokaido Shinkansen is just under one minute, across a year. In 2016, it was 24 seconds. Standards must be slipping. When it comes to speed, China, Germany and France lead. The 180km Cologne-Frankfurt journey takes about an hour via the Intercity Express 3. It used to consume two and half hours.

For the overall quality of railroad infrastructure, Japan, Hong Kong, and Switzerland often rank top. Geography is a key factor: maintaining tracks across an expansive land mass is hard. The US has the largest network, but its standards are variable. Legacy infrastructure matters too. Upgrading the UK’s Victoria-era routes is not easy. And then there’s regulation. China built a high-tech high-speed rail network, at high speed, helped by engineering prowess but also opaque planning processes. Hong Kong’s slick MTR can buy land development rights along routes and pocket revenue from real estate, which supports its train operations.

Replicating different models is difficult. So how do you get it right? First, the debate between national or private ownership is a distraction. There are two core components to any network: the track and the train. The Swiss largely integrate it under state ownership, whereas in Japan, the private sector takes the lead on almost all routes. Both are relatively successful models, each with its own pros and cons. Elsewhere in Europe, the state in effect manages the infrastructure and a mix of public and private train operators run the service.

Whatever the structure, tracks need investment and the trains need to deliver for travellers. This means strong co-ordination and incentives to improve both the asset and the service. Where ownership is less integrated a centralised guiding mind that manages the infrastructure, scheduling and overarching fare structure — think the “Fat Controller” from popular children’s stories — can avoid fragmentation. Depending on the route, private train operators can then compete on trains, pricing and onboard services, to targets and standards — for an incentive. This is what the UK government has proposed, but is yet to act upon.

Second, you need a long-term plan for maintenance and upgrades. Over the past half century Germany’s rolling electrification programme has delivered at a rate of about 200km a year. Though it has its own problems, more than 60 per cent of the German rail network is now electrified, compared with the UK’s 38 per cent, which has a stop-start strategy. For infrastructure as unwieldy and highly utilised as train lines, strategic co-ordination across the supply chain can get things built on time, cost effectively. Political meddling is always unhelpful.

Third, technological innovation can support performance. This does not always mean adopting high-tech train models and tracking systems. The London Underground can leverage passenger data from WiFi usage and card data to reduce overcrowding, provide bespoke service updates, and support advertising revenue. Research by McKinsey also highlights the potential benefits of railways adopting artificial intelligence, including for predictive maintenance.

A lot goes into making trains run on time. As passenger numbers rise, demand for greener modes of transport picks up and technology advances, railway management will continue to be an uphill battle. But while the precise recipe for an effective train network may differ across countries, the core ingredients are the same.


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