Trains: transport for the rich, paid for by the poor
Le train fait mal
Born in France during the 1980s with the Paris-Lyon line the iconic TGV has inspired many new lines and not just in France. But the real figures of the costs and benefits of these lines have never been published because they show that in France, with its highly-developed TGV network, the high-speed trains manage to cover a not so very impressive 4 per cent of passenger/kilometres travelled. Just as bad, the high-profile TGV lines help cover up the real story which is that the rest of the network is falling apart.
As Nicolas Sakozy knows, SNCF is a financial train wreck. An infernal machine. Suburban networks are décrépit and starved for investment. And not just in France. The religion of trains causes misery everywhere. Costly, cranky, often filthy and unreliable and crime ridden, unglamorous suburban services move consumers in conditions that would be illegal for sheep. The economics of trains are not just bad: they are terrible.
They are also a secular religion nobody is allowed to question. Squillions are spent moving functionaries with first class tickets on the TGV or local equivalent, no matter that it costs four times more than a low-cost airline, even with the monstrous special taxes imposed by the government. These subsidise Concorde-like subsidies to the train operators (a motley, terrible bunch, frankly) who employ train drivers paid more than school teachers.
Other than fortunate travellers whose organisations are willing to subsidise this extravagance, the transport unions and the subsidised operators (the train systems everywhere are among the last great command economies), it is hard to see who else benefits, when it would obviously be so much more efficient to tear up the tracks and turn the railways into roads and put the people into, er, buses.
It is quite clear that in any transport corridor, you can move more people on buses than in widely spaced trains. Plus, buses can drop people off much closer to their destination (and pick them up closer to where they live). And best of all, they can be built with integrated cycleways as in Cambridgeshire, which is opening its dedicated busway-cycleway network in 2008 on abandoned railway tracks.
Notice the adjacent cycle lane – is this not cool?
Railways do not pass elementary tests. If one bus breaks down, 40,000 people behind it are not kept waiting. Yet a single defective train set can bring chaos to an entire rush hour.
Buses are greener than trains because they are massively more efficient users of transport corridors. Look at london from the air at rush hour and roads are jammed and buses stuck, while most of the railway right of way is unoccupied, most of the time. More people move in buses through a single bus lane under the Hudson into Manhattan each weekday than arrive by train in a similar period at Waterloo station. Yet the religion of steel wheels continues stronger than ever, even as the evidence mounts that trains are usually a disaster when applied to any transportation problem, resulting in unsafe and uncomfortable overcrowding at times of peak demand, high fares, high potential for escalation of problems, underutilised human and capital resources at off-peak times, not to forget high regultory costs, bribes to operators, plus inflexible and costly union contracts. All of which vanish the moment you move people into, er, buses.
As the mania for trains and high-speed trains has seized Europe, this quasi-religious belief in 19th century transportation technology has cost billions in sudidies to such deprived people as Sir Richard Branson, even as fares have inflated at five times the rate of inflation. If the idea is to have environmentally sound transportation solutions, then trains are part of the problem, not the solution.
The Beeching axe didn’t cut deep enough! If the transport corridors occupied by railways were freed up for buses, there is no conceivable demand that could not be accommodated at lower cost, with greater comfort and reliability, returning a profit to the country not a loss.
Bus geeks talk about future buses that look like this (below).
Future “superbus” – read about it here.
Saving the heritage of old steam engines is quite another matter and when the railways are finally scrapped, it will be worth saving several sections so that the train geeks can play with old train sets. This blog strongly supports the effort to rescue 3.628, a French built Paris-Calais locomotive rusting in Britain, that surely deserving a grander destiny.