torsdag 6 juni 2024

Railway ticket and fares shambles

Once upon a time, a train ticket was a small piece of thick card which you bought at the station when you wanted to travel. You would turn up a few minutes early in case there was a queue at the ticket office, which was staffed by a human being who knew his job. Then you waited for your train and made your journey. And that was all.

Nowadays, except for local journeys, you have to book in advance and have to travel in a particular train. You might have to buy the ticket on a mobile phone, or else you will have to negotiate a terminal with a confusing and poorly designed touch screen, with every train company having a different layout and programme flow.

There is a bewildering variety of tickets and prices. In the latest version of the Swedish Railways (SJ) booking system, there is no means of changing your booking or getting a refund if something crops up. You have to allow an extra half hour or more to be certain of catching the train you have booked for. The railways have adopted one of the worst features of airline practice.

Why has this happened? In the first place, it seems as if railway are managed by people who do not use the system themselves and do not understand what railways are about. In the second place, they are desperate to get rid of staff as half of the labour costs of any business consists of tax. Thirdly, they have got themselves into a position where what is known as ‶yield management″ has to be exercised to the highest degree. 

The railway have always done yield management. As early as the 1840s, excursion trains were run on Sundays, to make use of rolling stock that would otherwise have been standing idle in sidings. Later on, the principle was applied by keeping a reserve of old rolling stock which would otherwise have been scrapped; some of this was parked in remote locations over the whole of the winter season, to be brought out for the busy summer timetable. 

These spare carriages could be brought into service at short notice; photographs of trains in the 1920s often show one or two old vehicles at the front, which would have been attached at the last moment if a lot of passengers turned up. Timetables had built-in slack to allow for the extra weight of these ad-hoc additions, while steam locomotives could, at need, be worked harder than their normal design capacity.

From the 1960s onward, the practice of using fixed formation set trains like the British Inter-City 125 came in, though these were more flexible than subsequent trains, since the carriages themselves were relatively simple trailer vehicles which could be added or removed to suit the traffic. Older rolling stock was simply scrapped instead of being kept as a reserve.

Thus, the railway having got themselves into a straitjacket, have to match a fixed supply to a highly variable demand, which is the root cause of the current user-hostile fares and ticketing systems. Even so, simplification is possible. There is no reason for tying passengers to particular trains; in most situations, a two-tier fares structure - peak and off-peak - should suffice to even-out demand to the fixed supply. In the longer term, the railways need to return to the older practice of retaining a reserve of stock which can be stored without deterioration for several months at a time.

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Railway ticket and fares shambles

Once upon a time, a train ticket was a small piece of thick card which you bought at the station when you wanted to travel. You would turn u...