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, October 26, 2002

My favourite journey

ImageImageAfter our trip down from the mountains we arrived in Otsuki. From there we took the Azusa (or was it the Super Azusa?) to Shinjuku in Tokyo.

It was new. It was clean. There were plenty of seats. There was plenty of legroom. The seat had a table and a fold-down drinks holder. Even in second class the seats reclined. And they lined up with the windows - something we don't seem to be able to do in the UK. And the window ledge was wide and flat so you could lean your arm on it as the world sped by.

And it was smooth - except whenever I tried to take a photo.

ImageImageThe doors opened automatically with the softest of touches.

The vending machines were clean and free of graffiti. And worked.

The loos were fantastic. Clean, modern, functioning. Perfect. I even found myself cleaning the seat as requested with one of the special wipes provided.
It goes without saying that the train was on time.

I have never had a journey like it. It was perfect. This is what rail travel should be all about.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Alice in Blunderland

I fear that dear Alice Bachini is about to be sent round the twist by our railways. First she has a nightmare journey on Virgin (reported in brief on UKT). Then she has the nightmare of getting to the station to book a ticket and then the nightmare of booking that ticket once she has got there.

I advise that next time she have a look at QJump which seems the best of the internet booking agencies to me. I hope she has a credit card.

Ticketing is not easy. Every country in the world seems to have a different way of doing things. Up until recently (may still be that way for all I know) the Paris Metro charged by the line. You could go as far as you liked on one line but as soon as you changed you had to buy a new ticket.

The old way of doing things in the UK was to charge by the mile. But this can cause problems especially at peak times with everyone wanting to travel at the same time. Before the disaster of nationalisation we tried to get round this by offering workmen's fares for early morning pre-peak travel and excursion tickets. I am not sure if excursion tickets were for special trains or timetabled trains but I do know that they were cheap.

There is also the great difference between metro systems in big cities and long-distance travel. With long-distance travel people can be far more flexible about exactly when they travel and they can book in advance. That means that you can offer deals on lightly-patronised trains. Personally, I am all in favour of this because I am very bothered about getting a cheap fare and not at all bothered about being restricted in my travel arrangements.

In Japan they still charge by the mile (err, actually kilometre). And then they add a bit for an express service and then a little bit more for the Shinkansen and then a little bit more again for the really fast Shinkansen. Reservations, though, are free. Problem here is that people often have to stand. Fortunately, this being the Shinkansen they don't have to stand for very long. One consequence of this is that ticket barriers have to be able to cope with up to four tickets at once though it would seem that the Japanese have cracked that particular problem.

During our study tour I remember having a chat with one of our party (not quite sure whom) about this very point. He pointed to the example of peak services about 30 miles outside London. The problem here is that the trainset that picks people up can only be used once during the peak whereas a trainset operating further in could be used twice. That's a hell of a lot of very expensive underused rolling stock. The question he asked was whether people further out should be invited to pay more (over and above the mileage rate) for this inefficient use of rolling stock. My answer is an emphatic yes.

My ideal would be an EasyJet system for long-distance travel - that is where price varies according to number of tickets sold (very good for loading rates) and an Octopus style non-contact top-up card for metros.

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Fat flyers

Interesting story about Virgin having to pay £15,000 in compensation to a passenger crushed by her overweight neighbour.

Link from Rob Lyman who comments:
This isn't a pleasant subject. But I feel rather strongly that people large enough to require two seats on an airplane (or in crowded theater, or at the Super Bowl) have an obligation to their fellow fliers to accept whatever humiliation and financial loss their weight incurrs, and pay for all the space they are occupying. The alternative is just as humiliating and also insensitive to the legitimate desire of other passengers not to be crushed.

Passenger compaints in Japan

What do passengers complain about in Japan? The question came up a couple of times during our tour. The answer came back that they complain about the air conditioning and trains being either too hot or too cold.

There are a couple of other things they complain about. One is 6 people occupying a bench seat designed for 7 in such a way that the seventh person cannot sit down. This has led to railways experimenting with recessed seats. And women have recently been complaining about being harassed late at night. This has led to railways like Keio introducing women-only carriages after about 10.30pm.

We really do have a long way to go.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Up in the mountains

On the Wednesday of our study tour we headed up into the mountains to see Fuji. Unfortunately, it was misty so we were denied a view. At lunch the announcement was made that rather than take the coach back to Tokyo the option existed to take the train.

Half an hour later at either Fujiyoshida or Kawaguchiko station (I forget which) almost the entire party could be found queuing for a ticket - they were railwaymen after all.

ImageImageThis was the train. Built in about 1970, rumour has it that this isn't its original livery. It is operated by the Fujikyu Railway.

ImageAnd this was another train we saw draw up as we were about to leave. Thomas the Tank Engine is big in Japan.

Inside, the train, although pretty ancient, was clean and in good condition. There was even a bird's eye view screen for those who couldn't book their berth in the observation car. The conversation went something like this:

"This is a very steep gradient"

"Yes, must be about one in twenty"

"I think there used to be a one in eighteen at Llanfairgolgafrincham (or something similar)"

"Yes, but that was rope-worked."

Monday, October 21, 2002

Ésprit d'escalier

In yesterday's post on the Tokyo subway I forgot to mention that Teito is due to be privatised. Actually, it has been due to be privatised for some time but politicians, mindful of potential future job prospects, have found it difficult to let go.

Kiyoshi Michimura

ImageThis is a photo of Kiyoshi Michimura, Station Master of Keio Shinjuku Station. Sadly, it was bit rushed and usually he looks a lot more on the ball and his cap is at a rather more sensible angle. I had the great honour of sitting next to him at dinner the next evening.

Which was interesting. Our various hosts sent along some pretty big hitters - directors, men from the ministry, men from the international department. But a bloke who spends his days in uniform? Maybe not so odd. On three occasions during our trip we were addressed by station masters. Good presentations too. It is a status job in Japan - probably much like it was in the UK 60 years ago. I think this is a good thing.

Sunday, October 20, 2002

Public transport is hell...

especially in Miami where they have Awful Bus Smell

The Tokyo Subway

Tokyo has not one but two subways. Teito Rapid Transit Authority (TRTA or Teito for short) which runs 8 lines is owned partly by the national government and partly by the metropolitan government. TBTMG (or Toei) which runs 4 lines is owned exclusively by the metropolitan government. Why this is I am not entirely sure. It may have been because TBTMG ran trams which were up for replacement.

Teito, the one we visited, can be compared with London Underground thus:

  Teito London Underground
Stations 164 253
Route Kilometerage 177.2 408
Passengers per day (millions) 5.58 2.53
Number of carriages 2,455 3,954

Fewer stations, fewer track miles, fewer cars, more passengers. How does it do it? Actually, I think the answer is right there in the stats. Fewer track miles means fewer trains idling along with a small number of passengers. It also helps that Tokyo is more densely populated than London.

Although there we received no figures on punctuality, based on personal experience Teito does seem well run. According to its Handbook (no link I'm afraid) it makes a profit (after interest payments) of about £50m a year.

There is another aspect that really had my eyes popping. At an early stage Teito decided to build its tunnels to a standard (for Japan) track gauge and loading gauge (that's the size of the car) and a standard power supply. This has meant that it has been possible to allow through running from and to private and JR tracks. In Britain we have been debating the merits of CrossRail (a mainline railway running underneath London) for over 25 years. In Japan they designed in that possibility almost at the start.

So, what's going on here? A well-run (and consistently so), apparently profitable enterprise run by the state. What is even more amazing is that at an early stage of its existence it made decisions that have had extremely good effects decades later. Surely, shome mistake. Libertarians do not, on the whole, claim that every state enterprise is bound to fail - there are always a few that prosper. But on this scale?

I have mentioned before that the existence in Japan of a large number of well-run private railways has provided a discipline for and competition to state-run railways. But that didn't prevent JNR (the state railway) from accumulating enormous debts (in the region of £30bn). Teito's debt seems to have been internalised. I have looked for pay-offs and funny corporations but haven't found them.

It's a mystery.