söndag 12 augusti 2007

Why not travel by train?

Interesting article in todays Observer about the need to encourage people to travel by train and improve Britain's railway system. The picture shows the 24 tickets you need for a return journey from London to Stockholm. This demonstrates the problem.

I travel all over Europe by train and in my experience the British system is the worst – even Estonia's is better, in its modest little way. The UK now has the very worst rolling stock. This is partly for historical reasons, because the carriages have to be made narrower and shorter than they are everywhere else but they try and fit in the same number of seats.

But the main problems affects all the railways in Europe, not just Britain's. Huge amounts have been spent on technology but it does not produce a more comfortable seat or a decent amount of space for people and their luggage. The only really pleasant modern trains (less than 15 years old) are the Danish IC3, followed by the German ICE trains.

Because these ultra high-tech trains are so expensive there is a shortage of carriages and the seats have to be stuffed in.

You can get horrors like the Thalys between Cologne and Paris where the seats are crammed in so tightly that all you can see is a bit of curtain and all the luggage sometimes has to be stuffed into the doorway and unloaded onto the platform at stations just so that people can get off the train.

The overall shortage of seats results in having to book everyone into a seat and is really the cause of the crazy pricing systems which are not just a British quirk. I have been booked into seats for 20 minute journeys in Sweden. It is crazy because it makes it difficult to buy tickets. The high capital cost of the trains is the reason why the train companies have no leeway so they try to book all their passengers into a particular seat on a particular train.

The continental railways are slightly better because they run more older trains which means eg Stockholm to Uppsala has plenty of carriages though they are old, with an old locomotive at each end, so that train always has plenty of really comfortable seats, better than, say, first class on Virgin. But in Britain all the older carriages got scrapped because of the safety panic, which was entirely unjustified on the basis of actual statistics.

Why are trains so expensive now? That is an interesting question. The manufacturers (there are only three in Europe) have a vested interest in selling all the technology. Modern railway managers think they cannot do without it. High labour costs, largely due to the shape of the tax system, encourage the replacement of labour by high tech gadgetry. And there is the partly irrational pressure for higher speed. The faster a train has to go, the more it costs and the more the track and signalling costs. It will cost between two and times as much to run a railway with trains going at 140 mph than at 90 mph. But the time savings are not always commensurate. This is especially true in Britain where 85% of the population live within 150 miles of, say, Leicester (why this is so is itself an interesting question). The median long distance train journey is less than 100 miles and high speeds save little time.

This is even more the case when considering door-to-door journey times, because the time taken to get to and from the station is important. This is why trains. compete badly with cars for so many people's journeys.

Perhaps the real answer is to invest more in local journeys eg by constructing more tram systems.

Long distance (international) travel by rail is so troublesome, mostly due to the difficulty of buying tickets, that my preference is to use the ferry. You can go all the way to Denmark
on the luxury cruise ferry, with your own cabin with sea view, and two nice meals, for less than it costs to go by train, and it gets you most of the way there with no trouble, on one ticket!

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