Economics of train travel (continued)

Posted in air travel, easyJet, Trains, transport by Deputy city editor on April 15, 2009

I have previously described the economic absurdity of trains which in any given transport corridor carry fewer people at a higher cost than planes or buses.

Out of curiosity, I price a trip on a plane and a train for a similar trajectory. The train is more than 400 per cent more costly.

It costs £480 and takes 7-8 hours to go from London to Montpellier by train.* Not including the cost of a change of trains and terminals in Paris.

It costs £110 on easyJet and takes less than half the time, door-to-door. **

*Eurostar->SNCF St.Pancras-Montpellier return. Only available fare, booking one week in advance. 

**Booking one week in advance. LGW-MPL return. Includes taxes. One hand bag included.


Sauver the 3.628

Posted in SNCF, Trains by Deputy city editor on November 6, 2007

© Chris Ludlow

Normally I would forbear from mentioning it, but Chris Ludlow, French based train painter, leading Anglo-European train spotter, proud geek, anorak owner, tells me that for two decades, a treasure of French national significance has been stored in England, and is now in danger of going to the scrapheap. His picture of this exact engine is above. Ex-Nord Railway steam locomotive of SNCF class 230D was once owned by the Science Museum in London – even the British considered it a significant example of steam locomotive engineering – but was sold to an individual in the 1980’s. For some time, it was kept in working order at the Nene Valley Railway, a tourist line in the middle of England, but has recently languished in the open air, and is literally rusting away.

Now, its owner has put it up for sale – on Ebay! Quelle horreur! Quelle honte! Mr Ludlow notes that another example of this class exists in the French railway museum at Mulhouse, but this is never likely to operate again. The hope for no.3.628, which once hauled expresses from Paris Nord to Beauvais, Calais and Lille, is that it could be repatriated to France and restored to working order. Indeed, it should be classified as a national treasure and be supported in the manner of other patrimoine.

However, while it languishes in England and its condition rapidly deteriorates, this hope seems distant. So far, no support seems to be forthcoming in France, other than expressions of regret. There will be many more expressions of regret if we allow this beautiful and significant example of French engineering patrimoine to rot away in a foreign country.

Will Ludlow and his friends save the 3.628? My views on trains are plain. I am for tearing up the rails. But of course, it is my secret shame that I have a soft spot for steam trains. Apparently everybody does. I would buy it myself and put it in the garden but Mrs Miller is bound to notice. So an effort is going to be made to repatriate the engine and restore it to working condition, if a hospitable French railway association can be found.

I throw in my lot with Ludlow. No jokes about Germinal. Sauvez le loco!*

My normal hatred for trains is expressed here.

A version of this story in French is at Sauve Qui Peut.

* Ceci n’est pas un jeu des mots.

Trains: transport for the rich, paid for by the poor

Posted in air travel, buses, cycles, environment, France, roads, Trains, transport by Deputy city editor on August 30, 2007

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.

See this link for more on converting railways to busways in Cambridgeshire.

Paul Withrington says buses are a quarter the cost of trains.

More stuff the train people don’t want you to know is here.

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.