Photo: Stefan Nilsson
One can debate the philosophies of Ayn Rand and the unconditional praise of absolute liberalism and laissez-faire economy, but she did get one thing right; Trains really are a good indicator of the systemic health of a society.
When the trains are reliable and run on time, free trade flows and people can feel confident getting where they need to be. A sense of certainty and predictability braces society against whatever other turmoil there might be.
When the trains become unreliable and the focus shifts from proper maintenance and fixing the underlying problems to instead covering up the unflattering statistics, society is in trouble.
The latter is exactly what is happening in Sweden, and it’s getting worse by the year.
Back in the stone age, the trains, tracks and all infrastructure was owned by the government. This set the stage for the kind of flexibility, pricing and customer service you’d expect from a government monopoly staffed by entitled lifetime employees. But at least there was regular maintenance.
Nowadays, there are many different operators running all sorts of trains back and forth. In theory, they all chip in for maintenance, which is handled by the government agency Trafikverket. They in turn contract out the service to companies that in turn usually subcontract it out to whoever bids the lowest. This shouldn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t work as planned, but of course that is exactly how it is.
Train researcher Rebecca Forsberg says Trafikverket basically lost all control. Necessary maintenance is neglected in favor of “fire fighting”, with several recent derailings as a result. She has interviewed numerous train drivers who says they report in urgent repair needs and hazards as they are spotted, yet the problems go unaddressed until there is an incident.
Ulf Adelsohn, former head of the government train behemoth SJ, puts the blame squarely on dumb politicians.
“The railway system has been a playhouse for ignorant politicians for 25 years […] when maintenance is neglected, the passengers are the ones paying for it both in the form of tax hikes and delays.”
Ain’t that the truth. I have personally experienced the extremely unreliable trains of Sweden, and there seems to be a 50/50 chance of you actually ending up at your destination on time. Therefore, now I drive even though it would technically be cheaper, quicker and more environmentally sound to take the train. But if I miss a doctor’s appointment or business meeting due to delayed or cancelled trains, the extra cost and inconvienience wipe out the benefit of ten successful train rides.
The matter of cancellations also bring about another side effect: The trains that DO run get dangerously overpacked when the passengers of the cancelled train has to squeeze into the next one. Just the other day there was another case of a woman succumbing to the heat and pressure inside the sardine cans masquerading as train cars and had to be brought to the hospital by ambulance.
“This is chaos, and it was just the same yesterday,” said one of the passengers. “It’s almost scary!”
The most heavily trafficked routes appears to be hardest hit. In 2010, almost exactly half – 48% – of the passenger trains between Stockholm and Gothenburg, Sweden’s two largest cities, were delayed.
Besides aggravation for passengers, businesses relying on goods being transported by rail are losing billions every year when deadlines are missed and factories shut down due to missing components.
And yet, Trafikverket is thumping its chest over having the most reliable trains in Europe and sky-high customer satisfaction. The annual on-time percentage is claimed to be in the high 90s.
These are obviously cooked numbers. Indeed, once you open the lid you quickly see that, for example, all cancellations just disappear rather than get make it into the statistics. So when the 7:20 train is cancelled at 7:18, the passengers can take comfort in that they’re not delayed as they wait for the 7:45 train instead.
They also recently changed the measurement for “delay” from 5 minutes to 15 minutes. So a commuter that arrives 14 minutes late to the office or a connecting train isn’t late at all, according to the statistics.
And the future isn’t looking any brighter. Budgeting is in shambles with huge shortfalls in the years ahead. And this is despite “creative” assumptions, such as the rail switches having an expected life span of 550 years.
Amazingly, none of this is anyone’s fault. Just like the bickering bureaucrats in Atlas Shrugged, butt-covering is elevated to an art form. It’s always the predecessor’s fault, or the subcontractor, or the politician, or the local ordinances, or… But whatever the cause is, the railways continue to crumble unattended. Time will tell when we’ll see the first major disaster with heavy loss of life or a serious environmental impact.