12 Mar 2010

A railway is a conveyor belt - not an airline

The London to Brighton line has frequent trains. You go to the station, buy a ticket and get on the train. It is not particularly fast but you know exactly how long the journey will take and plan accordingly. Buying a ticket is slow because of the rotten machines, and you may need to get on the train five minutes before it leaves to be sure of a seat, but you just build the necessary extra ten minutes into the journey.

If you get delayed, it is not a problem because there is another train leaving soon.

This is exactly the opposite of the high speed rail concept. Because such trains are very costly to build and run, every seat has to be filled. So passengers end up being confronted with complex fares and find themselves booked into a particular seat on a particular train.

Of course, if they miss their train they have lost their booking and wasted their money. To be certain not to miss their booking, they must allow  an hour or more. 

High speed rail leads to the paradoxical situation that although the train is faster than an ordinary train, the journey time can be longer! And a frequent service is of little use to the passengers who cannot make use of the potential freedom of choice it gives.

When railways cannot offer an affordable walk-on service, they need to re-think their entire operation. A railway is not an airline and should not be run as if it was.


  1. Hello, I found your blog today for the first time. I liked it a lot since I fundamentally agree with the points you make (except reintroducing kettles..)

    One idea I like to open up to you is an answer to "why is HSR suddenly the golden boy of British politics?". There are various green benefits that can be sold to the voting public, as well as all the other arguments that can be found on the dft website.

    But I think there is another factor - that you won't see mentioned (except as vague references to "thousands of jobs created") , that is: building and construction. In the last few years, the only 'manufacturing' industry in the UK that has really prospered is the construction industry - not just the house building and renovation boom, but larger scale projects too - especially things like large supermarkets and the like. It's fairly clear given the state of the rail manufacturing industry in the UK following privatisation that any train orders will result in a net flow of money out of the country. But one industry that is still healthy (long term excluding the recent financial-economic collapse) is civil engineering and construction - and that's what a high speed line has a lot of - cuttings, tunnels, viaducts etc. In short: concrete.

    This makes a massive construction project extremely attractive - especially politcally - there are few jobs left to save in engineering - but many in construction. I don't doubt that such interests have a strong lobby in Parliament too.

    As examples look at the companies and people involved in the formulation of the various reports (such as HS2) - no one actually asks a mechanical engineering firm their opinion because no such firm exists in Britain today that would be able to build a "400kph" train - thus the favourable opinions are those of people and companies that would benefit from the construction of such a line.

    Apologies if that reads a bit like a conspiracy theory - but I wanted to fill a hole in your excellent thesis about HSR concerning the driving forces that have made HSR so attractive in Britain to day.

    I hope you continue your blog and wish you well with it.

    By the way loco hauled rail seems to still be popular in Italy (amongst others)- if you haven't already have a look at the E464 (normal) and ETR 500 (high speed) trains. In current marketing speak the engine+carriages+dvt configuration would be described as a 'modular solution'; as you rightly point out a pendolino (390) carriage is a bespoke solution, irreplaceable by anything else - and as such incredibly inefficient and inflexible in construction terms.

  2. That's why we don't need a HS line between London and Brighton, but do need one between London and Glasgow/Edinburgh.

    And eventually, the HS2 will be fully convey-belted. The HS2 is extremely delayed but is never too late to build.

  3. i386 - show me a high speed railway which has a walk on service at similar fares to the heavily discounted book-ahead ones. It cannot happen because the operators are compelled to use yield management to fill all the seats. There is no scope for slack.

  4. Almost all intercity railways here and abroad are now using yield management to smooth demand. Very high walk on fares are seen with conventional services, especially at peak times to maximise revenue and reduce overcrowding. While it might not suit all travellers, most long distance transport has been moving in this direction for some time, and will continue to do so in order to maximise revenue, reduce overcrowding and keep off peak fares low.

  5. Rob, railways have used yield management since the 1840s. Of course it is sound practice to charge more for travel at the most popular times and less at the quieter periods. But there are other ways of doing it than booking every passenger into a particular seat on a particular train. This has come about because costs have risen, partly due to the complexity and cost of rolling stock and partly due to present-day high speeds, which also adds to the complexity and cost of rolling stock.

    Using rolling stock which would otherwise have been scrapped is also a form of yield management. So was the old practice of using commuter trains for cheap weekend excursions.

    Many railways have got themselves into this corner by specifying inflexible unit trains which cannot be changed to match traffic conditions. The whole point of a train is that vehicles can easily be added or removed to suit the circumstances. The X2000 trains (picture at the top of this blog) are a typical example, they can run only as a 5-car or 10-car formation. Nothing in-between is possible, apart from a few six-car sets.

    [The X2000 train is illustrated here as an example of best practice in rolling stock design and construction, employing stainless steel corrugated bodyshells]