Perceptions versus Realities of European Passenger Trains

COST Comments: Often heard is a comment that Austin should be “more like Europe” regarding train transit. Railway transportation was first implemented in England. As the article below from England indicates regarding one aspect, there is a wide gap between unfounded perceptions of train transit in Europe and reality. The fares are stated in British pounds and would be about double the amout in American dollars. Passenger train systems in England have substantially shut down since the early 1900’s for the same reasons they did in the United States.

Bring back British Rail, all is forgiven

We all remember the bad old days but they were better than today’s mess of delays, soaring fares and higher subsidies
by Rod Liddle, The Sunday Times OnLine, London, January 6, 2008.

The new price for a return fare between Swindon and London Paddington with First Great Western is £98, for a journey of 77 miles. It seems better value if you think of it in terms of unit cost per minute, though – you could be on the train for hours and hours. And quite probably standing up. I assume that’s why the train crawls from Reading through Didcot and finally into Wiltshire – to let the passengers know, by stringing out the journey, that they’re getting their money’s worth.

Really the trip should last less than an hour – 56 minutes to be precise; it’s a fine old line down to the West Country from London, devoid of troublesome gradients and bends. It was designed that way back in 1833; a rail route ahead of its time, with the best locomotives and the roomiest rolling stock.

But these days it never is 56 minutes. Something terrible happens when the train hits Oxfordshire; the engine is suddenly afflicted with torpor and then it shudders to a halt and you stand there, crushed and sweating in the aisle, teeth ground clean of enamel, and listen to the passenger service operative, or whatever the hell guards are called now, tell you that the train is delayed because of delays, or because of previous delays, or delays that have not yet happened but will very soon. Remember, £98.

The new ticket price from Bristol to London with what is, by common consent (and by most of the official indicators) Britain’s worst train company, is £137. At which price you could take a family of five to Budapest and back, although not with First Great Western. Again, this seems better value if you take into account the fact that you might well have to get off the train at Chippenham and travel by bus for a bit; two modes of transport for the price of one, you see. They think of everything for you.

Pretty much all of the train operating companies have announced huge fare increases, although few matched First Great Western’s brave and swashbuckling 10%. And as they did so, they demonstrated a quality that had hitherto been conspicuously absent: perfect timing.

The message came through just as 60,000 passengers, or wannabe passengers, found themselves stranded at stations on the west coast main line because there were no trains whatsoever last week. And another 60,000 wondering why Liverpool Street station was still closed. And the rest of us, planning to visit friends and relatives over the holiday period, recalling the advice given out by the train operators: don’t travel by rail over Christmas, whatever you do, it’ll be murder. Or words to that effect.

Last week, the boss of the Association of Train Operating Companies, George Muir, said the fare increases were needed so that investment could be ploughed back into providing better services. And he added, keeping a straight face, “the results are showing through”. No kidding, George?

I asked the eminent transport journalist Christian Wolmar what he made of Muir’s suggestion that increased fares would lead to improved services. “It’s just complete and utter crap,” he replied. “The money is going to the train operating companies, full stop.” How much is invested in improving rail services is, in any case, decided in advance by the rail regulator. Muir is being disingenuous. At the least.

Here’s a few more fares to gape at in wonderment: Plymouth to London with First Great Western – £196. That’s three times the cost of the usual return air ticket, and of course it takes almost four times as long by train. London to Manchester on Virgin Trains – £219. Fly instead and it will set you back about £80. And incidentally, those are the old prices, without the “A happy Christmas to all our benighted customers” fare increases.

As the train operators will very quickly point out, these fares I have quoted are not the only ones available. You can travel on our network much more cheaply, but only if you are a dedicated researcher on the scale of, say, Kinsey. The station counter clerks certainly won’t tell you the cheapest way to get from A to B, either because they’d prefer you to pay a whole bunch more or haven’t the remotest idea themselves. Only one man in Britain understands the bizarre, arcane and – as you will see – patently absurd ticket-pricing policy of the train operators: his name is Barry, and he’s made it his life’s work.

Barry Doe runs a travel advice website (www.barrydoe.plus.com). He knows stuff even the train operators don’t know. For example, if you want to travel from Plymouth to Reading – usual return fare £206 – you can save yourself more than £50 by buying three separate return tickets (Plymouth to Exeter, Exeter to Taunton, Taunton to Reading). Similarly, if you wish to travel first class to Manchester from London and save a bit on the £360 fare, buy a ticket to Falkirk instead and simply get off at Manchester. Falkirk is further, but cheaper. That’s sort of insane, isn’t it?

Even the comparatively straightforward “saver returns”, of which there are about 900 kinds, will leave you in trouble if you wish to alter your return time. You can’t upgrade, you’ll have to buy yourself a whole new open ticket. I travelled by train in Poland recently and asked for a ticket between two cities: I was told the price (which was about one-tenth of the price for a similar rail journey in Britain) – but then felt moved to bombard the poor counter clerk with subsidiary questions. Was this the cheapest ticket? Were there restrictions on it? How long did it last?

The Pole looked at me in utter bewilderment. “It’s just a return ticket to Krakow, sir,” he said, “they all cost the same. Why wouldn’t they?” You get conditioned to the rules of the asylum, after a while, you see.

So: this is where we are, right now, with our railways. Incompetent and greedy train operators, a ticketing policy that only a man called Barry properly understands, an infrastructure that is starved of investment and crumbling to bits, a byzantine relationship between the train companies themselves, between the train companies and Network Rail, between the whole convoluted shebang and central government. Trains late, trains crowded and in many cases infrequent and always mind-blowingly, extortionately, expensive. And sometimes, as we saw last week, not even there at all. You wonder how we can have arrived at such a frustrating, desolate situation, given that it all began so promisingly. Railways were, after all, one of Britain’s more thoughtful gifts to the rest of the world.

Christian Wolmar’s fine book, Fire and Steam, will give you the history of almost two centuries of government neglect and lack of interest, of individual foresight and brilliance thwarted by official insouciance. It is probably true that all governments have taken the railways for granted and more recently failed to understand that they will never turn a profit, but that the social benefits of a vigorous network hugely outweigh the public subsidy required. But if governments have been negligent, none wreaked upon the railways the scale of vandalism occasioned by John Major’s priva-tisation of the network. For reasons of purblind ideology, a successful (by today’s standards) state-run system was chopped up and rendered an unworkable, unmanageable and almost unaccountable antisocial agglomerate.

It is either depressing or hilarious, take your pick, to mull over the fact that the privatised rail network soaks up almost three times as much taxpayers’ money in subsidies than did that much maligned, publicly owned corporation, British Rail. And the sad truth is that in those final years British Rail really was “getting there”.

Not that new Labour should escape the blame, mind. You might expect of the Conservative party an instinctive affection for that most insular and individualistic form of transport, the motor car. Labour, though, has its ideological roots in public transport – and yet in the 10 years since Tony Blair took office, rail fares have been allowed to rise by 46% (not counting the latest rise), while the cost of travelling by car has risen by only 26%, according to figures from the Department for Transport. In other words, Labour has made it even more attractive to travel by car and less attractive to travel by train.

Indeed, the two forms of transport Labour supposedly wished to encourage – rail and bus – have risen most steeply in cost, while the two forms of transport it supposedly wished to discourage – plane and car – have risen in cost the least. But you would not dare to mention the notion of renationalisation to Gordon Brown; a shiver would pass through him.

No matter how desirable – both socially and economically – state ownership might be, the whole business has the most unfortunate connotations. Jon Cruddas put the idea forward when he stood for the deputy leadership of the Labour party – and look where it got him.

It is no accident that the railways were born in Britain, a country of tightly packed urban conurbations separated from each other by comparatively short distances. Britain was made for railways; when you think of it, it is truly ludicrous that anyone would wish to travel the 185 miles from London to Manchester by any other mode of transport – until you figure in that £219. And the delays. And, just recently, the agreeable detour by coach from Birmingham to Northampton.

Why suffer the misery and the extortionate cost when you can fly for a third of the price and in about half the time? Again, the train companies will tell you that more people are travelling by rail than at any time since the 1950s. Well, up to a point. But they’re travelling short distances by rail (especially within central London, which recently got its first effectively nationalised route, the North London line). For the longer trips, people are turning to the planes, or sticking with the comfort of their cars.

Passengers of First Great Western have threatened not to pay their fares as a consequence of the latest price increase. You admire their pluck and resolve, but I don’t suppose it will do any good. If a company that is renowned as the worst train operator in the country can have the chutzpah to announce a 10% fare increase at Christmas, then I don’t suppose it’ll give a monkey’s about what its customers think or do. It has another agenda, after all.

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