Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Age of the (s)Train - Investing in our Future

On my way home from Birmingham down the Snow Hill lines to Stourbridge Junction last night, the service was quite busy. Few seats and the odd standee. Nothing new there, you might say - but this was the 2157 from Birmingham.
Now, of course it's the run up to Christmas, and the German market and Bull Ring shops are pulling the punters into the City, but nonetheless - despite all the complaints and frustrations that seem to engulf the railway - this mode of transport has seen the most incredible rise in patronage over the last decade that no one can seem to put a finger on why.
Centro's own figures reveal that patronage has risen a whopping 94% on the West Midlands rail network since 2000/1. The trains must be doing something right!
A BBC report today reveals the top 10 most overcrowded trains in England - and one of them is on my very own local Snow Hill line. It doesn't make for great reading, and of course it is even more uncomfortable for those having to squeeze onto these services for the daily commute.
So, how to solve a problem like the great train squash?
Not as simple as you might think!
Why not simply buy more trains? Firstly, they don't come cheap! Fares may be going up, but this is as much to do with Government long-term plans to reduce the burden on the tax payer for the cost of running the railways. At present, it is roughly a 50-50 split between fare payers and taxpayers. The plan is to move this further towards those who actually use them, hence the year-on-year fare increases on regulated fares. And on a simple, practical level, some platforms aren't actually long enough to accommodate longer trains! Extending platforms costs more money, and some stations physically can't be extended.
Secondly, most of the rolling stock is owned by leasing companies - actual train operating companies have, in relative terms, mostly short franchise agreements. If they invested themselves in new bits of kit, would they recoup their investment by the time their franchise was up? And what if they lost the bid for the new one? Make franchises longer? The problem here is that the current economic situation makes it difficult to plan ahead for the next 5 years, let alone, say 20. And current industry thinking is edging away from the awarding of long franchises, even given the success of Chiltern's unique long franchise - although there are some reasons particular to Chiltern's operating area that help them.
So, for individual train operating companies, a conundrum. They take the brickbats for both the rush hour squash and the rise in ticket prices, when, actually, neither is really directly their own fault!
The answer must be substantial, long-term investment by the country itself if we are to continue the success story of rail. Many historians of the mode look to the 1920s as being the pinnacle of British Railways - but we are carrying more people now than we were then, on a much smaller network, trimmed down by Beeching (and other plans) in the 60s. It makes eminent sense to invest in rail and public transport as a whole to accommodate the huge rises in people on the move. There are more people living in the country than ever and they are on the move to work, shop and spend their leisure time.
Roads of course are important, but cars are wasteful. Public transport, at its best, moves large numbers of people efficiently and far more safely than cars. Projects like High Speed 2 are exactly the kind of confident long-term investment that is needed to help our rail network. The "high speed" is good, obviously, but the story should be more about the capacity it generates, not only on the main corridor it will serve, but on other parts of the rail network it frees up to create new passenger services and move more freight, reducing the need to move so much of our goods by road.
If investment is the key, logistics and management is also ripe for reform. Areas like the West Midlands and it's surrounding "travel to work" areas might well be served by having its rail services planned and managed more locally, rather than London. Centro is well placed to deliver this, and has long-term plans to see the local network expanded, using not only trains, but more metro and possibly tram-trains.
Ultimately, rail is a success already, by the sheer numbers of people it carries every day. But to see even more people using this this mode of transport, we need to see the entire passenger experience being one of excellence delivered, every hour of every day. Our roads are clogged, unpleasant experiences, but crowded trains for commuters offer a similarly less-than-great feeling for those that use them day in, day out.
The vision is simple: provide trains that people don't "endure" but choose to use and enjoy. The maths suggest that the railways are already extremely popular. Let's build on that and encourage more and more people to use our trains.
Government is at present already investing in our railways, but we need more of it, over the longer-term, that takes into account the whole system of franchising operating companies, but is also separate from it, with management and planning on different levels for different types of operation.
For the passenger, the utopia of reliable trains, understandable pricing, good information, smart ticketing, less overcrowding and easy integration with other modes is the goal.


  1. The amount of subsidy into the railway has increased substantially, changing the relative costs of bus, train, and car travel.

    So in London, *bus* patronage has grown strongly, but in the regions, it has gone down. The differing fortunes are largely explained by the big subsidies in London.

    Rather than looking at the BBC report, it might be better to read the DfT document:

    "07:55 service from Stourbridge Junction to Stratford-upon-Avon (load factor 157 per cent, 203 passengers in excess of its capacity of 355)

    Capacity includes seats and a standing allowance.

    More recent counts suggest much lower loadings on this service."

  2. Thanks for the link - interesting. Snow Hill line services are of course benefiting from new longer trains since the class 172 units have been in operation - so there is an example of investment actually working. But the 0755 - even if it is improved - is just one journey out of many that is subject to uncomfortable overcrowding. No easy answers!