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:
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.