UK industry deeply frustrated by Network Rail staff domestic air travel
Railway executives at Network Rail, the government-administered infrastructure agency responsible for operating 20,000 miles of train track across Britain, have come under scrutiny for their astonishing choice to fly rather than take trains for their domestic travel needs. It has long been known that the organisation used domestic flights, but the extent of their use has now been revealed. According to figures released by the organisation, under freedom of information legislation, an exorbitant 10,000 pounds (11,600 euros) per week was spent in 2022 on average, just to fly their staff around the UK.
The revelation comes amid widespread discontent among commuters, who face the brunt of expensive train ticket prices, frequent delays, cancellations, and strikes. Despite encouraging the public to choose trains for their daily commutes and leisure travel, often citing the environmental benefits and, ironically, the advantages of working on the train, Network Rail bosses have seemingly overlooked their own advice, and continue to sanction the purchase of plane tickets, even on routes where direct services exists, including the prestige West Coast Main Line between Birmingham and Glasgow.
Defending the indefensible
Among the 985 domestic flights, 72 took staff from Birmingham to Glasgow, despite the presence of a direct rail service between the two cities, raising questions about the practicality and cost-effectiveness of such choices. Network Rail’s Birmingham office at Duddeston Mill Road is adjacent to the freight yards in the east of the city centre and staff can view works on the developing HS2 high speed railway from track facing windows. It’s a six-minute walk to the local Duddeston station, which is a few minutes journey from New Street, one of the twenty major stations directly managed by Network Rail, with as good as hourly services to Glasgow.
One egregious case that has drawn considerable attention is that of Michelle Handforth, the managing director for the Wales & Western region, earning 330,000 pounds (383,000 euro) annually, whose 35 plane tickets cost Network Rail almost 8,000 pounds (9,300 euro).
In response to the revelations, a spokesperson for Network Rail, presumably on a rather lower salary, defended the agency. They claimed that 94 per cent of their employees’ trips were made by rail, and their travel policy aimed to book the cheapest available option. They said that “most” of the international flights were attributed to Network Rail Consulting, the agency’s international consultancy arm. The obvious questions for Network rail are why would their executives not exclusively use rail, taking advantage of early booking where available, and query whether air fares were actually cheaper when compared to standard class travel by rail (first class tickets tend to command a premium price, even when discounted).
Mounting frustration of working Britons
Critics, however, expressed deep disappointment and frustration over the findings. They emphasised the importance of leadership within the rail industry, especially in times of climate crisis. Air travel is hugely more polluting than rail. Extensive television advertising by the operating companies, at considerable cost, is focused on encouraging passengers to choose greener options, such as trains in preference to planes. The Network Rail revelations are not only a kick in the teeth for that campaign, but open the railways to ridicule in the eyes of the public.
“The revelations about Network Rail’s travel policy are both disappointing and, deeply frustrating for everyone involved in the rail industry”, said David Pitt, vice-president UK at SilverRail, a technology supplier to the industry, who specialise in lower-cost solutions. “When even the organisation charged with delivering an accessible and affordable rail system feels it is preferable to fly than to get the train, it is no surprise that the UK public is still hesitant to leave the airways behind. Nearly 1,000 of Network Rail’s domestic journeys were made via air. [It is] even worse that many of these journeys are served by direct rail services between each destination.”
Unlike the staff of the passenger train operating companies, Network Rail is not part of any travel concession scheme, and pays for train tickets. However, while cheap domestic air travel is available in the UK, and rack rate fares can be cheaper than equivalent rail fares, advance booking can greatly reduce the cost of rail travel. However, an eye-opening Freedom of Information Request, submitted by The Sun newspaper, brought these damning statistics to light, adding to the mounting frustration of working Britons who have recently endured train strikes during the months of July and August, and face seemingly unending industrial disputes.
“Hopefully, these figures will give Network Rail pause for thought”, said David Pitt. He added that “the infrastructure agency needs additional motivation to continue in their mission to deliver a railway infrastructure on which trains can become a true competitor to planes, providing passengers with a service that is comparable in terms of cost, quality, and convenience.” Although, with a station just over five minutes walk from the office, and offices actually in the twenty biggest stations in the country, it is difficult to see how the railways could be more convenient for Network Rail. Perhaps six-figure salaried executives may better appreciate the true nature of the railway system if they opted more often to descend onto the subterranean platforms at Birmingham New Street for a cut-price standard class journey to Glasgow.