The Ghost Trains of Great Britain

In various corners of the British landscape, empty trains run unannounced routes at strange times of day. Here's why.


Writing at the BBC's website, Amanda Ruggeri describes the "many train services around Britain that run with empty carriages—sometimes once or twice a day, sometimes as rarely as once a week. Sometimes even ticket sellers don't know they exist, and it takes dedicated amateurs to seek them out."

She isn't kidding about those dedicated amateurs: The routes are so strange, so seemingly pointless, that they have attracted the attention of hobbyists who hunt for them as a sort of sport. This can be a tricky business. "Since the trains are run on extremely inconvenient schedules, sometimes without a return trip, sometimes before sunrise, the journey means a lot of legwork," Ruggeri writes. "If there is anyone else on the train, it's probably another ghost train enthusiast."

So why do these lines exist? Chalk it up to political incentives:

Specifically, you had your chance to establish a fully deregulated market in railway travel. That's what he means.

Given the overcrowding on Britain's trains, it may seem odd for these empty carriages to ride the rails—or for empty stations to stand sentry over them. From 1995-96 to 2011-12, the total number of miles ridden by train passengers leapt by 91%, while the entire UK train fleet grew by only 12%.

"Ghost trains are there just for a legal placeholder to prevent the line from being closed," says Bruce Williamson, national spokesperson for the advocacy group RailFuture. Or as Colin Divall, professor of railway studies at the University of York, puts it: "It's a useless, limited service that's borderline, and the reason that it's been kept is there would be a stink if anyone tried to close it."

That is the crux of why the ghost trains still exist. A more official term is "parliamentary trains," a name that stems from past years when an Act of Parliament was needed to shut down a line. Many train operators kept running empty trains to avoid the costs and political fallout—and while this law has since changed, the same pressures remain.

Closing down a line is cumbersome. There must first be a transport appraisal analysing the effect of a closure on passengers, the environment and the economy. The proposal is submitted to the Department of Transport and at that point its details must be published in the press, six months ahead of the closure. Then comes a 12-week consultation period, during which time anyone is welcome to protest; public hearings are sometimes held, especially if the closure is controversial. Then, finally, the plans are submitted to the Office of Rail and Road, who decide if the line closes.

As a result it often costs less—in terms of time, paperwork and taxpayers' money—to keep a line running at a bare minimum.

Britain's railroads were denationalized two decades ago. But the private rails still get plenty of government subsidies—and, evidently, plenty of government controls.

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  1. So, it’s THE LAW.

    1. Nope; just like a rent-seeker buying an obscure drug patent and raising the cost per unit 4000% because competition is forbidden by government decree, it’s another example of rapacious, wasteful capitalism in action.

      1. Government degree equals wasteful capitalism? Those words do not mean what you think they do.

        1. That’s his point.

        2. Your sarcasm meter might need calibrating, buybuy.

          1. I missed the sarcasm, also.

            Well played, sir.

  2. If only there was some mechanism to see if the line was needed. Maybe if we gave people something like train credits and each trip requires a certain number of train credits, then if people arn’t using a particular line we can have trains for it, and if people use a particular line like crazy we add more trains.

    Oh this is all so confusing. If only there was a way to match supply and demand.

    1. We need to nudge people off the heavy routes and onto the most inconvenient routes (that would would never take personally), because we know what’s best for people.

      And so what if a train is full and another is empty. The empty train is providing jobs for people and bringing economic impact. It’s like paying half the people to dig holes and the other half to fill them up… prosperity!


      1. You seem like a young man with his head screwed on straight! Have you considered joining Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet? He’ll need capable individuals to help re-nationalize raliways if he’s UK’s next Prime Minister!

        1. He could follow Chicago’s example and try the cemetary.

  3. Fascinating. Thank you.

  4. For some strange reason, I’m reminded of airports in the US. Wonder why that is?

    1. “Look man, we need those airports because we want to able to land a B-52 every 10 miles.”

  5. The Brits could save money by making these trains self-driving.

    1. “The Brits could save money by making these trains self-driving.”

      The train-guy union does not agree.

      1. No, no. The train guys will keep their jobs (“layoffs! Where’s the fainting couch?”). The robots will just do the driving more efficiently and save fuel and so – save the planet.

  6. Diffused cost, concentrated benefits. Nothing new here.

  7. OT: Mother Who Allegedly Threw Newborn Daughter out 7th-Floor Window Was Child Services Worker

    A 33-year-old woman accused of throwing her newborn baby out of her 7th-floor window in New York City had been a child welfare caseworker, PEOPLE has confirmed.

    1. Please tell me that the ‘has been’ is because even CPS realized she was a psycho who shouldn’t be allowed near children.

      1. “‘Had been,’ right up until a minute ago. Now she’s on paid administrative leave.”

      2. They say July 2006 – January 2007. So consistent with hiring someone and then discover they were unfit for the job regardless of remediation efforts.

    2. How stupid do you have to be to drop a baby out a window? With the cord still attached she could have whirled that thing fast enough to get it at least to the next building down the block.

      1. This isn’t a contest, guys.

        1. Obviously. She didn’t even try.


    3. Berry’s boyfriend told police that he had no idea she was even pregnant because she told him she had an abortion months ago. He told officers he found Berry in a pool of blood in the bathroom after she allegedly tossed the child out the window. She insisted it was just from her period.

      “When you get cleaned up get me another beer.”

    4. Wow this woman takes the stupid cake. First she tell her boyfriend she got an abortion when she didn’t. Then when she give birth in his shower she tosses the kid out the window and tells him the bleeding is from her period. Then when the police come to her door she tells them the baby was stillborn, when it wasn’t.

      1. Okay, but what about the boyfriend? That woman is not nearly hefty enough to conceal a full-term pregnancy.

      2. Well, yeah, she was a CPS worker.

    5. I’m taking this one as a strike against both CPS *and* Planned Parenthood.

      1. Look, shitlord, this is what happens when those NYC Republican yokels wage their war on women’s health!

    6. Experts say it was too young to survive and would have died anyway.

  8. I am reminded of Fedbucks going to places like suburban Dallas to build trains nobody rides instead of NYC where the trains are more overcrowded than at any time since WWII.

    1. F@#$@ DART rail destroyed my beautiful Good Latimer bridge.

  9. Dear freaking god, that is ridiculous. I’m guessing for this reason train providers aren’t very likely to open new lines unless they are absolutely sure they will be profitable.

    1. It appears they don’t need Parliamentary permission to add trains, only to cancel them.

      1. Doesn’t matter. If it’s hard to fire someone, you won’t hire them.

  10. “Britain’s railroads were denationalized two decades ago.”

    And I shit you not, most people see re-Nationalization the “Solution” to this kind of stupidity

    ” Corbyn told the Independent on Sunday: “We know there is overwhelming support from the British people for a people’s railway, better and more efficient services, proper integration and fairer fares. On this issue, it won’t work to have a nearly-but-not-quite position. Labour will commit to a clear plan for a fully integrated railway in public ownership.””

    And in the meantime, lacking the ability to re-Nationalize… they will simply find ways to impose rules that make the status quo *worse*

    The red tape imposed on the ‘private’ rail system exists by design to frustrate operators

    The rail system in the UK is a political nexus of everything “Public vs Private”. I find it difficult to think of any comparison in the US. I suppose the Post Office. But there’s no debate that FedEx runs better than USPS. Maybe because proper competition was introduced.

    1. I’ve said it before: the coming Labour implosion in GB is going to be epic.

      1. By implode, do you mean the number of seats or the vote total. Because the UK uses first-past-the-post instead of some form of proportional representation it is not uncommon for a party to win few if any seats even though getting a significant number of votes nationwide. The most recent election there saw the implosion of the LibDems who were reduced to the fringes (both politically and geographically) in the UK. It is going to be a long time, if ever, before the LibDems get close to the number of MPs they had before this last election.

        So, if Labour implodes does that mean that UKIP will pick up seats or will those seats mostly go to the Torys? The SNP in Scotland will likely keep most of its seats and the Welsh Nationalists may pick up a few. The Greens too may add a few seats at Labour’s expense but that is just replacing one color of the far left with another color.

        1. Unless they fall apart, and manage to keep Farage as figurehead but not influencing policy, UKIP will sweep them in the North. They’ve left their rightish-liberalish roots ages ago and are now party of choice for dissatisfied Labour voters.
          Labour might recover some Scottish votes from SNP from the few that voted no to independence but then voted SNP instead of Labour.

    2. Not even US post office is as horrible. Hell, it’s my preferred method for delivery when ordering from US. And no political party (OK, maybe Communists) wants FedEx/UPS/DHL/whatever not just shut down, but taken over by the government. For Corbyn equivalent in US, maybe late 19th Century Progressives? Shit, not even FDR was as economically fascist as Corbyn.

  11. Close down that friggin’ train to Hogwarts. I bet the magic folk have their hooks deep in the muggle treasury for that boondoggle.

    1. Most of the wizards keep their riches at the offshore bank Gringotts and don’t pay a dime in UK taxes, either.

  12. But mass transit is more efficient than private vehicles! I am told that all the time.

    1. When there are masses, sure it is.

      1. And when those masses will ride that transit.

      2. Yeah, that’s why everyone must be required to live in a dense urban environment and use mass transit exclusively for all their transportation needs.

        For their own good of course.

  13. Closing down a line is cumbersome

    Huh? You just stop running the train, end of story.

    What is so difficult about that?

    1. Must. Follow. Procedures.

    2. What is so difficult about that?

      Getting hauled in front of Parliament and put on the national stage as a townkiller who puts baby blood on his Cheerios for breakfast and having that same parliament put an additional per passenger tax on your railroad.

    3. Closing down a line is cumbersome

      I first read that as Closing down a line in Cumberland.

  14. My favorite quote from the Guardian’s groundlings =


    Declare franchises to be usury, and nationalise immediately without compensation.

    Beeron Kimpatsu

    How are Vyvyan, Mike and Neil?’

    1. Vyv is still “Very Metal”. Mike has some new pictures of the dean in a compromising position and is applying for his PhD. And Neil just simply disappeared during the Hawkwind set at an outdoor music festival in Wales.

    2. It always delights me to see true genius recognized. Truly you are one of the great Americans, Gilmore!

      And I can’t help thinking that Young Ones needs a remake for Occupy/SJW/Uber generation. I’m just not sure if any studio could muster the balls-out insanity and (usually internally logical) absurdity needed.

  15. It’s funny how people criticize on RAM for creating cartoon characters in a cartoon world.
    And then the real world brings this cartoon to life day after day after day.

    1. And then the real world brings this cartoon to life day after day after day.

      I know!!!! Twenty years ago, I sat on a beautiful summer field overlooking a delighful pond near Saratoga Springs NY reading Atlas Shrugged marveling at how idiotic the villains appeared. “Nobody is this ridiculous in real life!” I found myself thinking. “What crummy dialogue!” “What oversimplified characters!” “Where’s the nuance?!?”

      And during the Obama administration, there were serious people, at the highest levels of government, saying exactly those laughable things! And only a few people blinked an eye. An even smaller number laughed at them! Most people nodded and acted like the stupid shit were pearls of wisdom!

      Quite took my breath away.

      1. It’s quite a phenomenon, isn’t it?

        “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

      2. My big government boss (an Obama insider) is Cuffy Meigs incarnate, minus the jodhpurs.

      3. You bastards are going to make me pick up that brick one of these days, I swear.

        In my defense, I went from a country where Ayn Rand was never spoken of, to one where she was never spoken of until recently (because Salon is now a think-tank for Canadian opposition parties).

        1. I found it both breathtaking and incredibly stupid. Simultaneously. It’s that good and it’s that terrible.

          Definitely a book everyone should read at least once in their life.

          1. I thought she had some good raw material in there, it’s just her writing style is so ham-handed. I chalk it up to her years spent doing movie script treatments, which probably doesn’t allow for much creativity.

            1. Tell that to Frances Marion.

              1. My impression is that the bulk of Rand’s writing work in Hollywood wasn’t writing scripts (thought she did write a couple), but doing treatments of already-written scripts, like plot synopses, etc.

          2. Agreed.

      4. Rand’s dystopia is a prog’s utopia. It’s as if they read Atlas Shrugged from back to front.

  16. On RAM =Ayn Rand. Damn computers.

  17. OT: oh, Carly. Not that I’m surprised. Statists gonna state, regardless of their ability to make snappy comebacks.

  18. This seems to be as benign an example of government waste as I can think of.

    1. yeah whatever, hurry up and dig that hole so jim can get started filling it in.

      1. No too fast, though. We want to make sure this is a full-time, permanent gig. Use a spoon.

        1. Sorry, the spoons are reserved for the use of those employed to empty the Pacific Ocean.

          Now THOSE are permanent gigs.

          1. Sorry, we can’t distribute the spoons until we’ve had the Spoon Approval unit ensure they’re workplace-compliant. also, we’re now told that, following recent legislation, we’re going to need at least 10% transgender Spooners. What i propose is that the tranny-spooners strain the dirt removed from the hole before replacement. To ensure its not, uh, got anything like Fracking compounds or something in it.

            (“Boss, Fracking compounds are Sand and Water”)

            Exactly. The trannies will be in charge of sand-ratio-compliance

      2. “hurry up and dig that hole ”

        Excellent example. Hole digging is a fine example of benign government waste. I’m sure you Puritans don’t approve, but that surplus has to be expended, whether it’s pyramid building, moon missions, war making etc. Hole digging and ghost trains are pretty benign.

        1. Excellent example. Hole digging is a fine example of benign government waste. I’m sure you Puritans don’t approve, but that surplus has to be expended, whether it’s pyramid building, moon missions, war making etc. Hole digging and ghost trains are pretty benign.DERP!


          1. Keep up with that noble fight against waste, pilgrim.

  19. They did however just open the new Scottish Borders Railway, it’s packed and the views are luvely!

    Come on over tae see the Scottish munroes. Enjoy a wee malt wi your view. If it’s not Scottish it’s crap!

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