rail

Rail v Road During Holidays: Compare and Contrast

The above press release dropped into my inbox the other day.* It’s from Highways England, and is of the sort that is regularly published at holiday times of the year. So as we enter the Easter weekend, roadworks all over the country have been temporarily lifted to enable the flow of traffic.

They even have a quote from the MD of National Express: “It’s great that Highways England have lifted roadworks on key routes, including those serving airports, helping us make sure we can get passengers where they need to be for their Easter plans.”

Compare and contrast with this message from the National Rail website.

While the roads are cleared to ensure easy travel, lots of rail works are scheduled for precisely this period, notably including Bristol, the West Coast main line, Manchester Victoria, London Euston and more.

The reason given is that the period is, “A time when less people travel on the railway and when traditionally a considerable amount of improvement and engineering work needs to be undertaken on Britain’s rail network.”

Let’s parse that a little shall we? The first part of that sentence, grammatically should probably say, “fewer people.” But we’ll come back to that first part of the reasoning in a while.

The second part of the sentence is basically saying, “We’re doing works now because we always do works now.”

I’m not really sure that’s an excuse.  I completely understand the need for maintenance and improvements – these are essential. What I’m not clear about is why these have to be scheduled at a time when large numbers of people are travelling often long distances to be with family and friends.

Network Rail actually has a page on their website explaining, “Why we carry out work at weekends and bank holidays”

Here’s the key text from that page:

We plan works for certain times so they cause the least disruption to passengers, such as on bank holidays, Sundays and overnight, when the network is less busy.

An independent review in 2016 looking at how the rail industry plans and schedules major improvement work concluded that Christmas, Easter and bank holidays are the best times for upgrades that need major lines to be closed. Even though it might seem strange to carry out work at Christmas – when people are travelling to see friends and family – on average, around half the usual five million people travel by train each day during the Christmas period.

I’m not going to dispute the claim that fewer people travel during the Christmas period (although that doesn’t mention Easter), but there a couple of things that I would bring to bear on this.

First, overall rail travel is vastly driven by travel in London and south east, and in particular commuter traffic. That largely stops over the holiday period, and might easily account for most of the overall reduction. According to the Department of Transport’s most recent Rail Factsheet, 69% of all passenger rail journeys are accounted for by London and the south east alone. Much of that is commuter travel.

What would be much more useful would be to understand how much the traffic flow changes for different types of journeys. For example, does long distance or inter-city traffic decrease, stay the same, or even increase?

The second thought I have is that because rail travel at holiday times is so unpredictable, more people take to cars. But this disadvantages those who don’t drive or don’t own a car – notably many of those in inner-London boroughs, or those who are poorer.

The statement above talks about a 2016 independent review, and I confess that I had trouble tracking that down. I did find a 2015 report commissioned by the Rail Delivery Group: Planning and Timing of Engineering Works on the GB Rail Network. This followed the failure to complete works on time over Christmas 2014 when there were overruns and serious problems with people travelling around the country.

Interestingly, it seems that getting accurate and full data for the report was something of a problem:


“Whilst rail travel is popular around Christmas passenger volumes are lower than the rest of the year. We looked at passenger numbers and type of passenger (leisure or commuter) during the year, which were difficult to obtain in any detail. Although we expected the passenger mix to vary with the time of year we did not find significantly lower passenger flows during the summer holiday periods or around the bank holidays on the major London routes. Obtaining more detailed insights into passenger flows during the year as a base for planning is essential and is one of our recommendations.”

Another point of note was this:

The passenger mix at Christmas is different than at other times of the year with a higher proportion of leisure passengers who are unfamiliar with the railway and less capable at coping with modal transfer during disruption.

But they also noted that fewer elderly travel at Christmas – perhaps because people travel to the elderly rather than expecting them to do the travelling.

I found this to be an interesting paragraph:

At present the major blocks at Christmas and Easter contain a range of work. Some of this can be done only at these times: other work can be undertaken at weekends but often is not done because the amount of weekend access is limited and there is pressure to add work to major possessions to improve the overall productivity of work. If the industry were able to make greater use of extended midweek night access (having full due regard for revenues generated by traffic that operates at night, especially freight) it would be possible to move some work undertaken at weekends into midweek nights. This would, in turn, free up weekends to do work that is currently being squeezed into the margins of long blockades. However, this will need to be balanced with the potential revenue benefit from reducing weekend access, which has been a focus of APSCM work.

In other words, if some freight traffic were disadvantaged, then weekend work could move to mid-week overnights, and holiday work move to weekends. That at least would leave the big holiday periods more free of disruption.

There are lots of other issues including adjacent line working (work being carried out alongside a working line), bi-directional signals (lines being capable of running trains in both directions – largely not the case in the UK), and other factors. Not least is the various recharging and pricing elements in terms of the timing of works. It seems Christmas overtime costs might be negated by other pricing determined by government.

It’s interesting to note that in other European countries they do things differently.

  • In the Netherlands: “There is no project work undertaken during the Christmas holidays and the burden of engineering projects is better divided over the year including long blockades during summer holidays.”
  • In France: “While passenger flows into Paris are similar or higher then these into London, enhancements and renewals are being done throughout the year, but not at Christmas. Long possessions are taken during the August summer holiday period, even at the RER for which busses and alternative routes are being offered as alternative; It should be noted however that there is hardly commuter traffic during that month.”

What I didn’t see in the report is any comparison of rail travel over different route types. In other words – shorter distance largely commuter travel v longer distance inter-city travel.

It’s evident that this work needs to be done, and I’d never want to underplay the complexity of track access, and the various calls there are on our rail network. But as I’ve argued before, it feels as though those who need to travel during holiday periods are actively disadvantaged. Furthermore, carrying out works in short bursts is less efficient than closing a line down for a longer period – a blockade in the industry parlance – and getting more work done. It’s notable that in cases where some major work is required, shutting down a station for a longer period, despite inconveniencing commuters, leads to fewer overall disruptions.

I would just like to see more innovative thinking from the Department of Transport and Network Rail.

 

* No. I’m not entirely clear why I was sent it either. But I was.

Rail Fares: Who’d Benefit From Cutting Them?

Today, most of the country went back to work, or at least began to return judging by the generally quiet commute I had today.

But a new year means new rail fares. Or more to the point increased rail fares.

It’s always worth noting that it’s UK Government policy to reduce rail subsidies. Like most forms of transport, general taxation pays for at least part of our transport needs. And it has been government policy to get rail users to pay for a larger part of the cost of the railways over time. Hence we see above inflation fare increases each year.

Certain routes and fares are capped, but others aren’t. For goodness’ sake, don’t try travelling from London to Newcastle on the spur of the moment!

(Of course, nobody thinks about “subsidies” to road users. New roads are considered “investments.” And no, vehicle licence funds (aka your “car tax”) do not pay for all the roads.)

Anyway, the usual protest groups were out today protesting the ever increasing fares we’re paying, and the increasing proportion of salaries accounted for by commuting costs.

On Twitter, I saw this Tweet from Buzzfeed’s James Ball:

Are rich people really likely to be the big winners if rail fare increases were reigned in?

The data in the Tweet above came from the 2014 National Transport Survey, and it’s worth noting that the numbers refer to the average number of journeys completed by each income group, and not percentages as you might at first believe.

The 2015 data is now available, so for the rest of this piece, I’ll refer to that.

Here’s the equivalent data from that 2015 survey:

The numbers are pretty similar, and would seem to tell the same story. The richest in society make more train journeys. So do they benefit the most?

Of course, these are averages.

But we can also look at the miles travelled:

This shows a similar story – the rich travel further.

But if we use both sets of data, we can look at the average trip length:

Suddenly the data is much closer. It seems that regardless of income level, if you travel by train, your journey will be broadly the same length.

Now this kind of overall data obfuscates things a lot. Buried within it are people who travel once or twice a year perhaps visiting family and going on holiday, and those who travel every day for work.

Other factors need to be considered too. If I’m very poor and in the lowest income level, then I’m likely to be either not in employment, or perhaps only have a part-time job.

The ONS shows that lowest quintile earns a median “final income” of £13,841. It notes that increases in tax credits and Jobseekers Allowances make a difference in this quintile.

If we assume that rail travel is relatively expensive, then it seems likely that anyone at the lowest level of employment is unlikely to travel a great deal, or indeed choose a job that is sufficiently distant the train travel is an optimal travel solution.

In other words, if I live in Croydon, and have a job in central London that gives me an income of just £13,841, I’m not going to be happy to spend £1,704, or 12.3% of my entire income on train fares. I’m going to look for a low-paid local job if I can that minimises my commuting costs.

On the other hand, if I’m in the top quintile with an average final income of £86,768, then spending just 2.0% of my income on my commute is far more palatable.

Just to be clear, this is really all about commuting. 56% of all rail trips are for commuting/business purposes.

But rail isn’t remotely suitable for commuting if there isn’t a line that works for you. It’s perhaps unsurprising that London and the south east see far more rail commuting than other parts of the country, simply because the infrastructure is there.

And note that this excludes tube travel.

With both property prices and earnings higher in the south-east, plus active disincentives to use other forms of transport – notably the car – then these London and home counties travellers significantly skew the results in favour of the wealthier.

Yet increases in rail fares do not solely affect those in the top quintile. All it means is that those transport users – who largely have no other choice of transport to use – are less affected than poorer users.

In many respects, the archetypal “Surrey stockbroker” can moan, but get on afford to pay for their trainfare. But a nurse who has to live far outside of central London through high property prices has pay the fares or look for a job elsewhere.

Govia Thameslink Railways – Closing All Ticket Offices

Enfield Chase - Ticket Office Closing

I like to think I’m fairly on the ball. I pay attention to what’s happening, and that includes transport issues. So I was a bit surprised to learn only this morning that Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the operator of my local trainline, is busy trying to close pretty much all the station ticket offices on the line.

Instead, everyone will have to use self-service ticket machines for everything, and they’ll have someone wandering around to either help you, or sell you a ticket from a handheld machine. How they will cope, on their own, late at night (the proposals say they’ll be present from first until last train) isn’t clear.

There has been a minimum duration consultation that is closing this Sunday. I only learnt of it because a member of the RMT was handing out postcards at my station this morning. And if there has been a poster up in the station promoting the consultation, I’ve not seen it. I suspect that majority of rail travellers from my station – and probably many others on the line – hadn’t realised this is being proposed, and still don’t.

[Update: The picture above, taken at Enfield Chase station, shows the information that is being given to passengers. It says “modernising” rather than highlighting “closing”]

Of course London Underground has now closed all the ticket offices on the network with the exception of 6 visitor centres at major stations like Victoria and King’s Cross (well, it’s in St Pancras actually). Instead commuters, tourists and visitors have to use machines to learn the delights of the Oyster Card system. Or you can use your contactless card – assuming you have one, and if you’re an overseas visitor, don’t mind paying a very healthy transaction fee on every trip.

But at least the London Underground is relatively simple. You can only buy tickets to other underground stations, and they all lie in zones, meaning that the ticketing costs are relatively simple (I say “relatively”, but explaining about off-peak, peak and daily caps is fiddly).

And the closure was planned over many months. There wasn’t a quiet 3 week consultation with a desire to get the whole thing finished within months regardless of readiness.

So what’s the problem with this then?

Well lots.

This proposal is “to change ticket office opening hours at 45 ticket offices at 44 stations and to make amendments to the operation of the ticket offices at a further 39 station ticket offices.

That description is disingenuous.

At 45 stations, the ticket offices will close entirely, and they’ll have a “station host” standing around by the gates helping people use machines. That’s not a “change” to “office opening hours” it’s an end to opening hours.

The “amendments” at the other 39 stations will see those ticket offices closed at all times except between 0600 and 1030 on Mondays to Fridays.

Fancy a trip to London at the weekend? Going to the football? You’ll have to make do without unless you join the massed ranks in the morning commute and buy your tickets then.

Or you’ll have to use a ticket machine.

Here’s a short, and not remotely comprehensive list of things you can’t do with ticket machines:

  • Buy railcards
  • Get photocards – most season tickets require them
  • Buy Gold cards (aka – buy annual season tickets)
  • Get refunds
  • Buy “Boundary Zone” fares*
  • Discounted advance purchase tickets
  • Split tickets and more complicated journeys
  • Some machines don’t even let you buy a ticket starting at another location. Especially frustrating if you’re using your season ticket for part of the journey.

* Few people seem to know about these, but if you have a Travelcard for, say, Zones 1-5, then you can buy a ticket from the boundary of your zone onwards. This saves money if, you’re perhaps travelling across London and on to another destination beyond your zone on the other side. You effectively don’t have to double pay for the part of the trip you already have a season ticket for.

And that’s before making use of the booking office staff who can often alert you to discounted tickets that you may not have known about – group travel deals for example.

To do many of these things, you can’t complete purchases online either. You may be able to buy a season ticket in advance, but you have to await delivery, be available when it arrives and so on. It’s an enormous inconvenience in comparison to going to your local station.

If you don’t have access to the internet – perhaps because you’re elderly, or poor (i.e the most disadvantaged in society), you will be forced to make an extra trip to the closest station that will actually sell you tickets, at additional cost!

Londoners have proportionately fewer cars than the rest of the population, and therefore need full access to public transport. Closing station ticket offices undoubtedly curtails this.

Under these proposals, from Letchworth Garden City to Harringey along the line I use daily, there will be no station ticket offices open at all, with the exceptions of Hertford North, Stevenage, Hitchin and Letchworth during early peak Mon-Fri – all stations far to the north of where I live.

To buy any ticket that is not available via the ticket machine will involve a trip to Finsbury Park or more realistically (since the ticket office there is tiny), King’s Cross St Pancras, where ticket offices are already extremely busy.

Have you ever been to a commuter rail station in the morning at the start of the week, month or year? They’re full of people spending hundreds or thousands of pounds on rail tickets.

Ticket machines breakdown and go out of order. Last week, the only ticket machine I could use on a Sunday wasn’t accepting credit cards. I had to walk away.

Just to be clear how massive the imapact of this is going to be, I dug into the Office of Rail Regulation’s station usage stats. Cumulatively, these stations deal with over 191m entries and exits a year. They account for 7% of the entire UK rail network!

Below I’ve posted all the stations under threat and the entries and exits they’ve recorded in the last two years. I’ve noted the change in usage of these stations too, because there is significant year on year growth – 4.7% across all of these stations.

My local station, Gordon Hill, has seen 8.7% growth in just a single year, with 1.3m entries and exits. It won’t have a ticket office.

Stevenage has 4.6m entries and exits and year. It’ll only have a ticket office open between 0600 and 1100 Mon-Fri (NB There is a small Virgin Trains office too). Hitchin has over 3m entries and exits a year and will have similarly curtailed facilities.

This is a dismal state of affairs, and it feels like Govia Thameslink Railway is really trying it on to see what they can get away with.

This is the rail operator that does not have enough drivers to sustain its service. While it’s training more drivers, it does not offer 7-day a week contracts, which means that all Sunday shifts are voluntery overtime. Before Christmas, Sundays were a disaster as drivers simply chose not to work, leading to entire services being shut down, including the day they launched a new timetable and redirected services to Moorgate at weekends.

Elsewhere on the network, they’re trying to implement a smartcard system called The Key, so far with very poor results.

They are currently installing barriers in stations, which should stop some of the rampant fare avoidance (you never get checked for tickets except at weekends), but will lead to queues to get out of stations in particular, as hundreds of passengers try to get through a maximum of two barriers.

This is a disaster waiting to happen, and it’s going to happen very very soon.

Respond now to the consultation by Sunday 13 March. Support the RMT’s stance. Ensure that rail travellers can get the best deals!

Ticket Office Closed - No Other Ticketing FacilitiesEntries & Exits
2014/152013/14% Change
Alexandra Palace1,419,8521,282,46210.7%
Battersea Park2,417,2142,402,6040.6%
Carshalton Beeches1,020,594952,7307.1%
City Thameslink6,354,1286,019,9465.6%
Cricklewood1,493,5581,338,29611.6%
Denmark Hill5,631,0085,166,0409.0%
Enfield Chase1,390,1101,326,7204.8%
Gipsy Hill2,063,9461,992,1363.6%
Loughborough Junction1,404,5521,386,2901.3%
New Barnet1,266,3501,220,7683.7%
Palmers Green1,878,0041,723,5189.0%
Peckham Rye5,074,0804,665,5868.8%
Queen's Road Peckham1,790,7861,585,24013.0%
Selhurst1,626,7361,493,1568.9%
South Croydon1,294,3421,286,2740.6%
Streatham3,194,0982,883,73410.8%
Streatham Common4,003,9383,827,2964.6%
Streatham Hill2,813,1822,725,3203.2%
Tooting1,451,7321,317,76010.2%
Tulse Hill2,597,7522,442,1266.4%
Wandsworth Common1,835,0841,789,0402.6%
West Norwood2,265,2182,118,2606.9%
Ticket Office Closed - Limited Ticket Machine AccessEntries & Exits
2014/152013/14% Change
Balham7,643,7986,916,22010.5%
Carshalton1,425,6361,354,7065.2%
Caterham1,065,0661,055,6980.9%
City Thameslink6,354,1286,019,9465.6%
Coulsdon South1,753,4301,714,3222.3%
Elstree & Borehamwood4,043,6803,616,33611.8%
Falmer1,336,3341,316,5501.5%
Gordon Hill1,271,3341,169,8148.7%
Hornsey1,351,5021,237,6989.2%
Lancing999,790987,4821.2%
Luton Airport Parkway2,754,7002,567,2327.3%
Mill Hill Broadway2,674,5902,482,1707.8%
Norbury3,433,8083,316,6303.5%
Purley3,205,6663,064,1704.6%
Radlett1,198,7021,139,0245.2%
Reigate1,613,0501,622,182-0.6%
Sanderstead1,225,6641,140,7967.4%
Shoreham-by-Sea1,491,7421,471,6921.4%
Sutton (Surrey)6,778,9326,607,1802.6%
Thornton Heath3,266,6423,073,4966.3%
Wallington2,178,9022,114,8743.0%
West Hampstead Thameslink3,591,3963,288,7209.2%
Winchmore Hill1,573,3061,440,3189.2%
Ticket Office Closed - Except Mon-Fri Morning PeakEntries & Exits
2014/152013/14% Change
Angmering882,480883,150-0.1%
Ashtead1,296,4341,249,7483.7%
Barnham1,015,654995,2622.0%
Bexhill1,509,5501,577,696-4.3%
Bognor Regis1,236,7941,231,3860.4%
Burgess Hill1,783,4381,756,3301.5%
Chichester3,232,6543,269,046-1.1%
Crawley1,997,2882,018,116-1.0%
Dorking1,292,4281,259,9832.6%
East Grinstead1,608,4141,563,4982.9%
Eastbourne3,752,7343,693,0601.6%
Epsom4,116,6243,962,7163.9%
Flitwick1,450,9701,347,0507.7%
Harpenden3,315,8903,182,2944.2%
Hassocks1,344,3821,317,8342.0%
Hatfield2,134,0842,085,1342.3%
Hertford North1,429,1431,373,3194.1%
Hitchin3,035,6922,902,6064.6%
Horley984,932955,3883.1%
Horsham2,837,9862,746,5623.3%
Hove2,453,1942,421,5361.3%
Huntingdon1,769,7021,692,1544.6%
King's Lynn970,890913,4606.3%
Leagrave1,894,2941,810,1204.7%
Leatherhead2,147,8762,104,6862.1%
Letchworth1,751,8201,652,2566.0%
Lewes2,663,5082,748,556-3.1%
Littlehampton1,038,3901,044,158-0.6%
Merstham719,172724,584-0.7%
Oxted1,723,4081,692,9241.8%
Polegate1,027,230994,2903.3%
Portslade1,147,3081,101,6504.1%
Potters Bar1,851,5241,781,6083.9%
Royston1,394,1041,300,5227.2%
Sandy501,652480,5624.4%
St.Neots1,272,1521,214,3904.8%
Stevenage4,608,9844,448,6343.6%
Welwyn Garden City2,724,0162,677,7781.7%
Worthing2,575,5762,602,406-1.0%
Total191,010,433182,439,0094.7%