8 Dec 2011
Advance train tickets cost more than you think
The hand of tickets I bought on Monday turned out to be money down the drain. Late on Monday evening I got a phone call from the people I was visiting to say their car had been run into and they could not see me because they would be spending the day trying to get it fixed and back on the road.
That is the trouble with advance tickets. Things can crop up to stop one making the journey. Which is why they are more expensive than they seem. People must realise this. So why do we have to put up with them?
Advance tickets are all about "Yield Management". Ideally, every train would have a full load of passengers for the whole length of its journey. Ideally, also, trains would run at regular intervals for 16 hours a day and every train would have the same number of carriages. But people prefer to travel when it suits them, and this gives rise to periods of peak demand. If the system is designed to carry peak traffic, then the trains will be more than half-empty for much of the time. Conversely, a system designed for off-peak traffic will be overcrowded at peak times.
Yield management is used to even out the traffic to match demand to supply. There is nothing new about the concept. From the earliest times, cheap excursion fares were offered, and at the weekends passengers travelled from the city to the seaside on commuter trains. On long-distance routes there were cheap mid-week tickets to tempt people to travel then rather than at the busy week-ends. At the busiest times of the year, seat reservations were compulsory for some trains. At the busiest times of the year, also, extra trains were run. If a particular train looked as if it was likely to be over-full, extra coaches could easily be added. Elderly trains were held in reserve for just this eventuality. At times, one was liable to travel in a train that belonged in a museum, but one could expect to get a seat, and sometimes a surprisingly comfortable though ancient one.
All this came to an end with the advent of fixed formation and multiple unit trains in the 1970s. These are so expensive that spare trains can not be held in reserve, and so complex, with so many cable connections between the vehicles, that extra carriages cannot easily be added. It can take several hours to remove a vehicle from some types of diesel multiple unit and and another half a day to put it back again and make sure everything is working properly.
Slower is faster
With the HS2 trains costing about twice as much as a conventional speed train, and the special trains for running on both HS2 and existing lines costing three times as much, the pressure on the operators to fill every seat at the maximum price will be even more acute. It is good economics but rotten service, and it adds to journey time because passengers have to turn up long before their train departs to be sure of not losing the journey they have paid for. From the passengers' point of view, a slower, regular interval walk-on service is faster!
In the long run, better technical solutions should be sought. The price of carriages needs to come down, and it should be made easier to add and remove vehicles, even if it means leaving off some of the frills we have become accustomed to such as computer points. Nevertheless, things could be improved. It is very expensive to keep all these booking systems up and running. It is not necessary to book every passenger into a particular seat on a particular train. The main need is to encourage people to travel off peak. It is not difficult to predict which trains are likely to be busy. Surely all that is needed is to have a relatively low standard fare and have all seats reservable on the busiest trains, with reservation fees set according to how popular the train was likely to be. And get rid of those bargain basement tickets which can turn out to be money down the drain.