Saturday, January 03, 2009

JP talks rail fare rises

Here we are folks, this is what we've all been waiting for.  The first train related rant of 2009.  Stress balls at the ready...


Obviously, I'm in favour of the rises.  I don't mind paying more for my commute, because the government has shown that it can be prudent with money.  At a time when we should be concerned about the environment it's very wise of them to reduce investment in the railway network.  Besides, the increases have been offset by the fact that the VAT reduction saved me 2p on my cup of coffee at Victoria recently.


It's too early to say for definite whether or not I can actually expect an improvement in the level of service, but in the unlikely event that I begin to find standing up for most of my journey home a bit wearing I will obviously complain to the train operating company concerned; they don't have much of an excuse with our pro-Rail friends in charge at Number 10.  The government, of course, makes it very easy for them to offer the service people want, and their system of targets works very well.  I have to admit that I did get a bit cold on waiting on the station platform earlier today as I watched two fairly empty trains sail through non-stop, but I know that such apparent "cancellations" are for the Greater Good.  I know that the aforementioned trains will have made it to their destination on time, and I look forward to the warm fuzzy feeling I will get when I see the next round of punctuality figures.   It won't be long before Gordon Brown and his chums are hailing the fact that punctuality figures have improved a lot under their reign, and when that day comes I shall look back with pride at the times I endured lengthy delays on a cold platform to make this happen.


As 2009 dawns, it's good to see that caring for people is a thing of the past.  As with the railways, so with the NHS.  Why worry about what things are like for the individual at the bottom of the pile when you can have statistics which look this good?


Jim said...

Having just seen what it's now going to cost me to a) go home and b) visit Dawn, I have to say you beat me to it with the sarcasm. £50 return? Yeah, very reasonable - if the trains had leather seats, hot waitresses and a personal multimedia system for each seat. Oh forget it, even running on time and working properly would be a bonus for some of them!!

Starkey said...

It is getting to the point when trains can no longer pick passengers up, because this would delay the service.

alasdair said...

<devil's advocate>

With a huge budget deficit, surely it's prudent to reduce the government contribution. You've sounded sceptical about climate change in the past, so do you really think that's a good enough reason to keep fares down. Why should the taxpayer subsidise your train fares? That sounds like dangerously pinko leftie thinking to me.

</devil's advocate>

What do you think will save the railways? I think the key point is that better railways need more cash. That either comes from increased fares (which annoy you) or increased taxes (which annoy you).

Chuck Revel said...

I think the point is that increasing the fares and/or taxes wouldn't be so annoying if they were actually improving things, but they're not.

The best thing they could do with the railways would be to re-nationalise them, and run them on a government subsidy JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER EUROPEAN COUNTRY - most of which, by *sheer coincidence* have efficient and reliable transport infrastructures. But of course that would involve the government a) spending money, b) doing something actually helpful and c) reducing the inordinate amount of money they get from fuel taxes. Why do you think half our railways are still diesel powered, rather than electric?

JP said...

I think - if I am honest - that I have become a bit softer in my old age, and some of my ideals are less right-wing than you might expect.

Whereas I have voiced scepticism about our impact on the environment (both in terms of the damage we have done, and our own ability to right it), I certainly agree that we have not been as responsible as we should have been. As a Christian I believe that we are called to be good steward's of God's Earth, which means that - whether or not we think we can affect the natural course of things to a large extent - we should be concerned about our impact on the environment and prudent with the way in which we use resources. With that in mind, therefore, I think that it's important to encourage public transport where it is environmentally friendly to do so.

My first objection to the fare rises is the fact that on one hand we have a government who claims to be concerned about the environment (to appease the voting masses, no doubt) whilst on the other hand they are not backing this up in terms of transport policies and related spending patterns.

In an ideal world, we would have a government who invested properly in the railway system. The reason I am so unhappy about paying more is that the government have frittered away so much money in headline grabbing schemes that a) I rue having to spend more to fill a black hole (be that through taxes or fare increases) and b) I have no evidence to suggest that any money will be spent prudently by the powers that be (i.e. the Department for Transport).

It might well be the case that we now need more money to support our railway network. Part of me says that this should come from taxation, as part of a coherent policy to invest in public transport and other environmentally conscious schemes. Equally, it's only fair as a rail user I should expect to pay for the service I use.

That's all well and good until you consider that under investment and poor management by successive governments have left me paying too much already. We have had various fare increases and "promises" of improved services for some time now, but the fact is I still often have to stand for part of my journey home every day. All too often I have been left stranded whilst connections are no longer held or trains omit stations from their calling pattern just so the government can bandy about useless statistics about how many trains reached their destinations on time. You wouldn't pay for a broken product in the shop on the basis that "it will be fixed later" so why should we pay more for rail services on the same basis?

Enough is enough, and I can fully understand why the recent fare increases have caused such upset. I wouldn't mind paying if I knew that the money would actually be invested in the railway system, without bureaucracy. I wouldn't mind paying if I had a guarantee of what improvements I could expect, and by when (with a promise of a refund if projects weren't delivered on time).

Unfortunately, however, things haven't worked like this in the past and I have no reason to believe that things will suddenly change. This dishonest government has shown itself to be quite good at squandering money and I fear that the latest round of fare increases are nothing more than a roundabout way of reducing the financial black hole this country is suffering from.

Like it or lump it, governmental meddling is a huge problem with the railways system at the moment, and there is no way on Earth that I would call for renationalisation with this bunch of lying toe-rags in charge.

[sarcastic mode]
"It's not the government's fault that they've applied restrictions to the franchising system, dithered with new rolling stock orders and left several TOC's struggling as a result. That's just for starters, of course, but they clearly have good vision and management skills, as well as an idea of what commuters and leisure travellers really need. Once the system is fully nationalised, all of the problems will magically go away and we will have levels of investment and service second to none, just like we did under British Rail."
[/sarcastic mode]

At least they'd no longer be able to hide their incompetence behind the face of the private companies, I guess.

Incidentally, you need to be careful when comparing our rail services to those in Continental Europe. I too look jealously at the high speed flagship services (TGV, ICE etc) but that's not the whole picture. Whereas we've seen record service increases since privatisation in the mid '90s, many rural services in France and Germany (for example) still have very poor frequencies. Many of the trains I have been on on the Continent were also far dirtier and much less comfortable than the trains we have here. The grass certainly isn't greener on the other side, and I am hugely appreciative of the fact that I can board a train in this country (very cheaply if I book in advance), and sit with my laptop plugged in to a power point and on a large table. I can stroll to the buffet and pick up a coffee for no more than I could on the High Street. On some services these days I can even enjoy free Wifi.

Look below the flagship services on the continent and you will also find many diesel hauled trains. I'm not convinced that this is a bad thing, either. As I write this, the BBC News page is telling me that services out of Euston are suspended because of problems with the overhead wires, and this is not an unusual occurence. The infrastructure for electrified services is also very expensive, and I'm not convinced of any environmental benefits - especially when we don't have an abundance of clean, renewable electricity.

Petro said...

Oh dear. Allow me to for once stand up for the railways, my livelihood, and clear up some of the misconceptions.
The money we pay for tickets doesn’t go into a government pot that they can then squander; it goes into a collective railway pot by route. So, my ticket in Sussex goes into the Sussex pot, which has to then pay for all of the Southern Railway’s costs, maintain the infrastructure and pay the electricity bill which moves the trains, keeps the signalling lights on etc.
It costs Network Rail £14 million a DAY just to do that much, operations and routine maintenance for the whole country. The government then gives us a set amount, about 75% of what we know it will cost to do the jobs, to upgrade the railways, and we then bust our humps trying to do it with the mess the previous governments caused of a badly maintained infrastructure that had no investment for decades and now takes a huge effort to run let alone upgrade. So please folks, don’t talk about the lack of government subsidy for the regular train fares – there isn’t any.
As for the electric/diesel debate, it’s over, the decision has been made; the country will go all electric over time. The reasons for this are simple; diesel trains have to lug around their fuel which as you said costs a fortune; it weighs literally tons, and their engines, which again weigh tons. That means that for each coach, we’re paying a fortune to lug around as much extra weight as the entire weight of an electric coach (a 377 electric coach weighs 34 tons, a diesel coach laden with fuel weighs around 60). The EU’s bringing out new emissions laws which will make those engines even heavier and mean we have to pay to upgrade the entire fleet.
Measure that against the faster, more reliable (mechanically) electric trains which are quieter, more comfortable, longer (so more seats) cheaper to buy, run, maintain, and which waste almost none of the money they cost to run, and the benefits are clear. We’ve now opened bidding to companies to supply the materials needed to electrify the network at a reasonable price. As for the reliability of the electrification infrastructure, we’re taking on more people and equipment on maintenance (which is directly paid for by our tickets) and the 40+ year old equipment is being better maintained and is more reliable than it’s ever been. (Personally I hate overhead lines, 3rd rail is much more reliable and simple to use but it’s limited to 100mph because of friction issues).
As well as these economic benefits, the environmental benefits of using electric over diesel are clear. Yes there is still emission of waste gases at the generation source but these generators are far more efficient than hundreds of diesel engines, so there’s an immediate benefit. We’re slowly switching to renewable suppliers such as biofuel, hydro, wind etc for the power supplies so eventually they will be 100% cleaner than diesel. But there are other environmental benefits beyond greenhouse gases; trains not leaking oil and fuel all over the network which contaminate the environment, quieter running (have you heard the noise diesels make? Compare that to the ‘widowmaker’ – the class of stock used for the new Gatwick-Brighton Gatwick Express is so quiet railway workers never hear it coming).
As for the practise of missing stations when a train is running late – yes it’s annoying and in an ideal world the TOCs would have spare stock available to make up for this. But the level of control it takes to keep the timetable workable so lines don’t get blocked and trains can run around a busy section like Clapham Junction beggars belief. A 5 minute delay at Three Bridges means when you get to Clapham you’re then taking up lines that another train should be on, using a platform, delaying another service, blocking three lines when you come out into the junction, slowing down other services, not to mention giving the signaller a migraine. Then when you get to Victoria you delay other departures blocking routes as you come in, the service is delayed leaving; by the time you’ve done all this your delay to a single service could have delayed 2 dozen other services in three counties. So it’s nothing to do with performance reliability figures, it’s about cutting your losses to minimize the knock-on effect.
So I will pay more for my ticket; that money goes into the increasing costs of running our network on a day to day basis and I will be paid to spend more overtime on my evenings and weekends doing more maintenance as a result. And I will join in with you all in condemning the government for failing to cough up enough cash for new rolling stock, electrification and general improvements.
Then in about 5 years time I’ll look at the entire fleet of brand new 377s now on order and being built for FCC to run from Brighton to Bedford, with three times as many trains per minute passing over Blackfriars bridge from the multi-million pound project now ongoing there, and I’ll have only half as long to wait for another train from Horsham to Billingshurst if one’s cancelled when we’ve doubled the ability of the power supplies in this area to allow us to run that many trains.

Rant over ;)