UK Transport

As its title suggests UK Transport covers all aspects of transport in the UK. It is written from a libertarian perspective, in other words, that the less the State involves itself in the running, regulation or funding of roads, railways or anything else - the better.
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Saturday, August 17, 2002

Friday, August 16, 2002

The railway's tragedy

I was listening to Radio 4's News Quiz the other day (I think). There was an article about train overcrowding. Linda Smith (I think) made some remark like: "Why don't they just add an extra carriage?" Queue laughter.

So, why don't they add an extra carriage? I am by no means an expert but here are a few possible answers.

If you tried to add a carriage the first question is where would you get it from? In peak hours, when overcrowding occurs just about every carriage in an operator's fleet is either in use or undergoing maintenance. So you'd have to either buy one, or, as the current system dictates, lease one.

Let's look at the economics of that. First of all there is the cost. According to RAIL 405 a new carriage costs about £100,000 a year. And then you have to add in cleaning, stabling, maintenance, staffing and power costs.

But how much does it bring in? Well, if we remember that this exercise is about reducing overcrowding then not a lot. The aim is not to bring in new customers and the existing customers (because of fare control) cannot be made to pay any more. So we are looking at a loss of at least £100,000 per carriage per year.

Then there is the question of where to put the carriage. You can't put it at the end - otherwise you couldn't drive the train out of the station. Doesn't make sense? Let me explain. In the old days trains were made up of carriages and locomotives. Nowadays, certainly for commuter services, trains are made up exclusively of what are known as multiple units. Multiple units are self-powered sets of carriages (usually between 3 and 5) with driving cabs at either end. They are capable of being driven in either direction. The only way you can expand them is by adding an extra multiple unit.

So, why not add a multiple unit? Well, of course, in many cases they already do. Why not add another one? This is where things get very tricky. If you have 12-coach trains ie 3 multiple units, you need 12-coach platforms. Very few stations have these. They are expensive and under the current arrangements capital improvements to stations are outside the control of the train operators.

It is the railway's tragedy that:
  1. lot's of people use them
  2. there are lots of problems
  3. the solutions look easy
  4. they aren't
[Since first publishing this piece, Tim Hall of has e-mailed me to point out that operators can and do add extra carriages to the middle of multiple units. I presume that they do so in order to avoid fines for overcrowding. As I understand it this would not be a solution south of the Thames. Firstly, because you can only really carry out this arrangement on relatively new trains and secondly, because there would still be insufficient platform space. Having said that, I understand that SWT will be running its new trains in formations of 10 rather than the usual 8.]

Thursday, August 15, 2002

No, you can't have a seat

Connex, the London commuter railway, is consulting passengers over the interior design of its carriages. Now, you might have thought this was a good thing but not if you read the London Evening Standard. Their article starts:
For years London's hardpressed rail commuters have complained of being herded into carriages like animals. Now Connex, which serves the capital's busiest routes, has admitted its new trains will be like "cattle trucks".
Ah yes, "cattle trucks". That's a good emotional term. Even better because it evokes images of millions of people being sent to gas chambers. Who wants to travel on a cattle truck? What sort of bastard would want to make them?

So, will these new and refurbished carriages actually be like cattle trucks? Will they lack windows, or seats, or lighting, or ventilation? Of course not. Will they lack suspension? Will faeces and urine swim around the floor? Of course not. The only similarity is that people will have to stand. So, if the Evening Standard was looking for a more accurate simile (which, of course, it wasn't) it would have used the term "Japanese-style" carriages.

But why should people have to stand at all? Couldn't they lay on more trains or longer trains or double-deck trains? In their press release, Connex carefully explain why they can't, or at least why they can't anytime soon. None, of this, however, got into the Evening Standard article. Did they lose the power to read half-way through?

Instead, we get a whole load of whingeing from various statist pressure groups such as the Rail Passengers Committee and Capital Transport.

Connex also explain (and to give the Standard their due here, they do report it) that many changes would require changes to the infrastructure over which Connex has no control. So, at least part of the problem lies with state-enforced fragmentation, which, incidentally, Alistair Darling is not going to do anything about.

What no one mentions is that the quickest way to solve the problem would be to allow Connex the flexibility to put up the fares. Not only would this reduce overcrowding over a fairly short period but it would also give Connex the sort of financial muscle it needs to be able to fund infrastructure improvements. See Higher fares are good for you and update.

Having said that, I am not entirely surprised that Connex decided to leave that one out of the press release. It doesn't seem to matter how reasonable they are or how much they are trying to change (see Apologies Connex) the story, as far as the press are concerned, is that Connex are rubbish and that wild horses won't make them change their minds.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Have rail fares gone up...? - an update

Last week I posed the question whether fares had gone up or not, did some sums and posted the results on the uk.railway newsgroup. This caused a storm of protest.

Most were protesting at what had happened to "walk-on" fares. These are fares that you don't have to book in advance and have, in most cases, risen considerably. But that wasn't in question. I was never saying that no fares had risen. What I said was that some fares had risen, some had fallen (or rather been brought into existence) and that the average was about the same.

One poster wrote that walk-on fares were: "the one big advantage of railways over other forms of transport, cars excluded." So that would be coaches and aircraft then? I really do hate such absolute statements when they can so easily be contradicted. Sure, it may be the big advantage for some people but not all. Personally speaking, I can say that the advantage of rail is price and the fact you can read. For others it may be that they have a meal or get on with some work at the same time. For others it may be that it offers city centre to city centre travel or that you can use it to get to most places in the country. The fact that fare revenue has not collapsed would seem to indicate that rail has many advantages other than walk-on fares.

Several replies demonstrated a very shaky grasp of mathematics and the English language. One wrote: "Such an average [ie my average] ignores the fact that people do not buy tickets at this average price. Offering cheap ticket[s] will lower the average ticket price, but the majority of passengers will be paying as much or more than they were (because extra restrictions are generally placed on other tickets when very cheap ones are introduced)." I hope that anyone reading this can see the flaw in the logic (such as it is). The point is that my calculation was based on fare revenue ie what people actually paid not what they could have paid. The last part is plain ludicrous. If the average fare paid is the same but fare prices have both gone up and down that means that the majority of passengers are paying less. The same applies to the correspondent who asked me to supply the median figure.

One of the unexpected benefits of posting the article to a newsgroup was that a thread developed on the subject of competition on the London to Manchester route. There isn't any. Midland Mainline would like to offer an alternative to Virgin but can't because Railtrack who have a deal with Virgin won't let them. So much for on-rail competition. Bizarrely enough, had the industry been privatised on a regional basis such competition would have been possible.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

No to public enquiries

Yesterday, Louise Christian, the railway accident lawyer and Socialist Alliance activist, once again called for a public enquiry into the Potters Bar crash. She is nothing if not consistent. She said:
If there had been a public inquiry into Hatfield, which happened along the same railway line, for probably much the same reasons, then arguably Potters Bar wouldn't have happened.
Well, I don't know where to start. Hatfield and Potters Bar were completely different accidents. One involved a broken rail, the other a failed set of points. Even so, there is every possibility that both can trace their root causes back to the fragmented nature of the industry.

The question is whether a public enquiry is likely to solve the problem. They haven't got a particularly good track record in this area. First of all, they take a long time. The report into the Ladbroke Grove crash took over two years to complete. Had a similar enquiry taken place into Hatfield then there is every likelihood we'd still be waiting for it. Second, public enquiries are extremely expensive (all those QCs on £500 an hour) and consume vast amounts of managers' time, diverting them from their real job of running the railway. Third, public enquiries do not have a particularly good track record of producing useful conclusions. The Cullen enquiry recommended a hugely expensive, untried and not spectacularly useful safety system known as ERTMS. In the heat of the safety frenzy that it itself had done so much to whip up, the Government committed itself to implementing these recommendations. Ever since, the government has been dreaming up ways of wiggling out of this commitment. Act in haste, repent at leisure.

There is also a particular problem with Potters Bar in that the cause is far from certain. It is difficult to see how lawyers will succeed where engineers have failed.

So, what is the alternative? How's about some freedom. People are very suspicious of private enterprise. They believe that they will put "profits before safety". But the reality is that if you don't put safety before profits you don't make the profits. Just look at what happened to Railtrack. The fact is that accidents cost a lot of money. Compensation to the dead and injured is part of it but there is also the disruption to the service, the cost of replacing the rolling stock and the cost of replacing wrecked track. It is precisely this pursuit of profits that led to the Japanese Railway being the safest in the world.

It has nothing to do with privatisation

In an otherwise good article on our transport problems, A N Wilson rounds off by saying:
Kingsley Amis thought that the spirit of "sod the public", which afflicted all public services, was the consequence of state socialism-Chaotic capitalism has even less regard for the actual needs of individuals. Transport chaos will get better only when a green dictator takes over and forces us all to stay at home: i.e. Never.
Apart from the fact that roads and air traffic control are nationalised he falls into the old trap of blaming all our rail problems on "privatisation". The chaos on the railways has nothing to do with capitalism or privatisation and everything to do with fragmentation and franchising - both of them creatures of Whitehall. See Misuses of the English Language #1: Privatisation

Monday, August 12, 2002

Natalie Solent quotes from the New Statesman of 1916. They were praising the government take over of the railway during the First World War. Isn't it amazing how the cause of socialism was aided by the world wars?

Praise be to More Room Throughout Coach which is (sort of) my American alter ego. Author, Gary Leff, seems to be mostly interested in getting cheap air fares but he has called for the impeachment of Norman Mineta, America's Secretary of State for Transportation. Gofurit!

Sunday, August 11, 2002


Generally, when I read something in the press, I have little doubt what I think about it but I am afraid that this article in the Times on railway insurance leaves me stumped.

That insurance premiums for engineering consultants and maintenance contractors are rising is not in doubt. The question is why? Explanations include the "spate" of railway accidents and the stock market.

Rising insurance premiums is not necessarily a bad thing. People often say to me that private companies don't have to bother with safety because insurance will pay out. My reply to this is that insurance payouts come from insurance premiums and that in the long run they pay. If it is the case that safety has declined and that premiums have to go up then quite right too.

The stock market explanation seems to be a complete red herring unless there has been some weird and wonderful way that insurance premiums have been being subsidised in recent years.

The idea that the railway is significantly more dangerous also seems dodgy. As I understand it (and I will see what statistics I can dig out here) although there have been some high profile crashes the death rate and other accident rates are not massively different from previous times. It is possible to argue that the trouble is all ahead of us and to look at the four foot at the average SWT station you would have to agree. But then again, TPWS (a safety system) will soom be with us, contractors do seem to be getting their act together and the industry is painfully aware of the importance of safety.

So what is the explanation then? The only thing that is left, it seems to me, is the whole public enquiry/corporate manslaughter circus. As far as I remember there is still a possibility of court cases arising from the Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar crashes and the payouts could be enormous.

It is also possible that the fragmentation of the industry doesn't help. Recently, I rang up WAGN to find out how much the Potters Bar crash had cost. Ah well, they said, there are questions of insurance and responsibility. It could take some time.

There was something else that caught my attention. If it is true that insurance amounts to only about 1% of contractors' costs then surely, in the grand scheme of things, that isn't going to make much difference. So, why the fuss?

In the news

Easyjet cancels flights as rota fails
Science fiction edges towards fact - including updates on what happened to the jet pack and the future of the personal helicopter
Special trains for Labour conference - the uplifting news that while everyone else will have to get off and take a coach, politicos will travel non-stop.
Railtrack offers £12m payout to Potters Bar crash victims
Insurance threat to rail work
Who is at fault in bicycle crashes? - Times Letters