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Posts Tagged ‘Tim Leunig

Standing up for commuters

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North London Line Capitalstar interior is optimised for standees

In articles dated 20 August 2012 on Conservative Home and the Guardian, CentreForum’s chief economist Tim Leunig put forward ideas to reduce the cost of Britain’s rail network. These included re-introducing a third class of travel, and a Beeching-style closure of lesser used stations and lines.

Third class

A low-cost commuter network would have carriages designed for standing room only. People take up a lot less space if they stand up. Call it third class if you like. If enough people are willing to stand, we need fewer carriages, and less power to haul the train. As a result operating costs fall, and prices can fall with them. We may even be able to run fewer trains, outside the main peak. That implies a big saving in wages. The biggest savings of all come from avoiding having to lengthen platforms, and rearrange stations and signalling to cope with the rise in passenger numbers. These are very expensive items.

Of course people prefer to sit down – but the reality is that most people are willing to stand. We know this because every day the vast majority of commuters at London terminal stations jump on the next train, even if it is standing room only, rather than boarding a later train. Commuters from Waterloo to Wimbledon are a good case study: trains typically leave every three minutes, from adjacent platforms. Yet people overwhelmingly choose to board the first train, even if they have to stand.

Providing that there are some seats on the train for those that need them, there are few issues with standee-oriented carriages for short distances (e.g. the Capitalstars used on the North London Line, pictured above). Workers who have been sitting down all day might even benefit from having to stand a little. But for longer distances, large numbers of standees would clearly present health and safety issues.

In Britain, purchase of a rail ticket has generally given a right to be carried, rather than a right to travel sitting down. Introducing a third class of dedicated standing-only travel would surely imply that buying a second-class ticket would henceforth give entitlement to a seat. Having multiple classes of travel could also reduce capacity utilisation and revenue, which may explain why many commuter networks are one-class only (e.g. Southeastern HS1, and local trains in the West Midlands).

In absolute terms, the number of people travelling by intercity rail is not that large, and demand is less peaky than on commuter routes. So providing everyone with a seat would not be that hard, if only the government would stop blundering.

  • The Department for Transport is procuring 596 IEP carriages from Japan. The money could have bought perhaps 1,200 new generation loco-hauled ‘Mark 6’ carriages, and/or allowed many Mark 3 carriages to be refurbished.
  • Rather than maximise the potential of underused assets such as the Chiltern Main Line, or the GN/GE Joint Line, DfT is planning to expend £40 billion on trophy infrastructure.

Closing lesser used stations and lines

Lots of stations should close. The least heavily used 50% of stations account for less than 3.6% of traffic. The least heavily used 30% of stations account for less than 1% of passengers. (Source: ORR station use data) It is a preposterous waste of money to keep them open. We have more little used stations than before Beeching.

Reviewing the options for closing (or opening) stations to meet changing demand is a rational policy, but savings from closing stations on rural lines are not going to be very large. With lightweight trains equipped with ‘Request Stop’ buttons, and stopping as required, traction energy costs can be kept small.

The high costs of station maintenance seem to be a product of how infrastructure is managed. Network Rail has been known to send workers by van from Birmingham to Holyhead (North Wales) and back, just to clean the station.

The viability of stations is also threatened by pressure groups or councillors insisting that they all be staffed. In the West Midlands, transport authority Centro wants all stations to be manned (but in Tyne and Wear, nearly all Metro stations are unstaffed).

We should accept that where passenger flows are too low, lines should close. Cross subsidies within rail make little economic or social sense.

As was mentioned in BBC television’s Ian Hislop Goes off the Rails, Lord Beeching viewed the railway as a sort of onion, whose outer unprofitable layers could be removed. He did not appreciate the network dimension of the railway, and following thousands of miles of 1960s rationalisation, it still did not cover its costs.

Ultimately, the case for the railway has to be made on grounds other than financial ones. But that does not mean that investment and subsidy should not be subject to rigorous economic and environmental tests.

Written by beleben

August 21, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Posted in Great Britain, Politics, Railways

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