Rail 621: Obstacles in the paths of high speed users

The opening of the high speed line for Kent domestic services is a fascinating reversal of what usually has happened in this country. Normally such major pieces of infrastructure are only provided once there is a pressing demand but on this occasion, the high speed line has been built and now there is a desperate need to find uses for it.

The high speed line project has already left behind a series of expensive white elephants, which have been sold off cheaply or remain unused. There are the five platforms at Waterloo International, the North Pole depot at Willesden, Ashford International (mostly given the paucity of trains, but there are plans to increase them), Stratford International (whose first and possibly only use will be for the Javelin trains at the Olympics), the north of London day trains – thankfully used by other operators – and the hotel trains for sleeper services (sent at rock bottom prices to Canada). At face value, one could say that these various debacles are a result of political interference in the rail market but the story is more complicated than that. It is, in fairness, impossible for governments not to be involved in the decision making process for investment in the railways because much of the funding is always going to come from taxpayers.

Certainly, the government is going to continue to interfere. Indeed, the government has taken control of the project and both ministers and High Speed One will be particularly anxious to increase usage of the line. The government has nationalised High Speed One, with the idea of packaging it up into its three components – the line itself, Eurostar UK (which owns a third of the overall Eurostar service, the rest belonging mainly to SNCF and the land property holdings – for eventual sale to the private sector.

The £5.2bn debt has gone directly onto the government’s books, which will allow High Speed One to offer cheaper access charges but inevitably it is not that simple because the way we run these projects in the UK, always pretending that they can be done economically and with private involvement, means that they are always complex, lack transparency and generally come out more expensive than if the procurement exercise had been kept simple. So, rather than simply writing off the debt since we know that railway projects bring all kinds of other societal benefits that cannot be paid for through the fare box, High Speed One is supposed to charge access high enough to ensure that over two concession periods – the first stretches to 2047 and the second, probably, will be to 2086 when the Eurotunnel concession ends – the cost of the construction is supposed to be paid back. While that may seem laughable because it always is based on the idea that projects have to pay for themselves in financial terms and money earned in 2086 is virtually worthless today, the result is that the price of using the line will remain comparatively high, something like £4,200 per Eurostar train path. This is made up of an operational cost of around £2,000 to pay for the maintenance and running of the line (the rate is calculated on the number of minutes the service uses the line, so the Kent domestic trains will pay less since they mostly will leave the line at Ebbsfleet), and a further £2,200 for what is called the ‘investment recovery charge’, which is some £3,000 less than previously before the line was nationalised.

It is still expensive. Say the Eurostar has 400 people, an average load, that works out at £10 per passenger and then with a further £12 50 which Eurotunnel charges for every passenger going through the tunnel, which means immediate costs of £45 for a return journey before Eurostar makes any money towards its other expenses. Eurostar, whose ownership structure is so complicated that it would take this whole column to explain in detail, does not publish any accounts, merely revenue figures. That is because its other owners, SNCF and SNCB, incorporate many of the costs into other parts of their business and there is no clear analysis of costs. What we do know, however, is that Eurostar UK is loss making partly because of the high access charges.

Given this extremely complex and difficult situation, any new operator will face an uphill task to make a business case for running international services, even with the reduced access charges. There are a whole host of other obstacles, noticeably the requirement for trains running through the tunnel to be able to be split in the case of an emergency with all the passengers piling into half the coaches, which is why the Eurostar train sets are the only ones currently certified to operate under the tunnel apart from Le Shuttle stock. The Channel Tunnel Safety Authority is aware that this is a ridiculous requirement and is likely to waive it, but has to tread carefully given that there have been three major fires in the tunnel in its first 15 years of operation, much more than had been predicted in the risk assessment.

Then there are the security strictures imposed by the UK government on trains using the tunnel. The huge amount of fencing around existing stations at the ski resorts, Avignon and Disneyland currently used by Eurostar suggests that dedicated platforms will be needed, something which putative operators like Deutsche Bahn will be unwilling to provide since they will be used for only a few services per day.

Despite these difficulties, the government and High Speed One are in negotiations with both the French and German state railways to run new services into St Pancras once the open access arrangements for international lines imposed on the government by the European Union come into force next year. So far the line, with at best four trains per hour, has been greatly underused but this will change with the Kent domestic services, which will mean about two thirds of capacity is filled. Freight is another possibility, as charges have been sharply reduced for freight trains, but my bet is that the freight loops provided at great expense will be another white elephant.

Overall, with three minute headways, there is scope for 20 train paths per hour but realistically High Speed One, which is responsible for marketing the line, is aiming to fill 16 or 17. With four Eurostar trains at peak times, and, from December, eight domestic Kent services, that only leaves four or five in the peak, but plenty more off peak.

The launch of the Kent services, with an embryonic service being offered now, six months in advance of the full timetable, could not be happening at a worse time. The service was launched with much fanfare and the inevitable press trip on June 15, attended by Lord Adonis who was, of course, very upbeat about the whole thing. However, not only is this a bad time for the railways, but there are serious doubts about whether people will pay the premium fares – up to 35 per cent more than on the old lines – to go to a station, St Pancras, which may well be much further away from their work than Charing Cross or Cannon Street. The outcome of the equation between time savings and extra cost will depend very much on people’s individual circumstances.

The marketing people at Southeastern tell me that extensive research, involving 4,000 users and non users of the service, has been undertaken and the results are extremely positive, with many respondents apparently very keen to transfer to the new trains. They would say that, though and they will not reveal details of the research which is, of course, ‘commercially confidential’.

Of course, the new services are being subsidised, with extra money from franchise payments, but this is unlikely to be enough to keep Govia, which has the Southeastern franchise, in the black given the change in circumstances from when the franchise was let four years ago. I always argued that this was an unquantifiable risk that should never have been passed on to the private sector and from the sour comment quoted above, it suggests that Southeastern – or its parent company – is rather regretting having taken it on. Indeed, a senior source at Govia told me that they would have preferred that the money invested on high speed services had been spent on refurbishing existing heavily used stations such as East Croydon and generally improving the routine train service. My view is that in the long term, provided that fares rises are eventually restricted to inflation or below, the line will stimulate development at both ends, Kent and the King’s Cross lands, and the trains will eventually fill up. But in between, for the next ten or even twenty years, I suspect there will be precious few full trains.

High Speed One, therefore, is a fascinating experiment being largely conducted at our expense. Its users are being subsidised in various ways, both openly and indirectly. At the moment it is being greatly underused but that will change as the Kent trains are introduced and, possibly, other international services will emerge. Of course it is very exciting and has given us a fantastic new railway and a world class station. However, it is too early to say whether the vast sums that have gone into its construction, which realistically amount to nearer than £10bn than £5bn if the various extras (remember the Eurostar trains worth a £1bn or so which were given away and the improvements paid for by British Rail) are taken into account have been well spent. That will depend on how flexible the government is prepared to be over potential future users and whether the Kent trains are really a regenerative factor or yet another part of this saga that turn out to be a white elephant.

  • brendan. naughton

    Dear sir, I was present at the opening of a ceremony to mark the beginning of construction of a revamped Ashford International Station entrance and ticket hall. I spoke with various stakeholders such as network rail, South eastern trains and others, who told me that HSI has had a very good start .Indeed they are looking to add extra carriages already to cater for the demand. I was invited in my capacity as a Ashford Borough Councillor.

  • Chris Sharp

    Southern et al appear to have done very well with their West Coast Main Line (WCML)- Brighton Main Line service using the West London Line. Will any operator see a similar opportunity to create a link through North London between the WCML and HS1. A Milton Kenyes to Dover service with stops in West London (Willsden?), North London (take your pick) and East London (Stratford Int).

    The longer distance services along the West London line have shown that there are plenty of people who prefer trains that don’t go to London terminals are the people traveling to and from Kent any different?

  • Pingback: LondonUnlocked.org | Christian Wolmar: Obstacles in the paths of high speed rail users()

  • Michael Weinberg

    Trust Christian to put a negative spin on the Javelin services and HS1.
    If I want a good news story to make me depressed I just read one of Wolmar’s articles.
    No one else will be able to use HS1?
    We’ll see if the Germans and French are as lily livered and defeatest as Wolmar seems to be.
    Why not cover the airline industry instead of rail, Christian, then I might be cheered up if you can put a negative spin on Ryanair, Easyjet et al!

  • RapidAssistant

    Well – he’s got a point…..it’s of little use to anyone who doesn’t live in London or the home counties, the hoped for Kent/City commuters may prefer to stay at Cannon Street or Charing X instead of migrating to St Pancras. Then we have the DfT trying to eventually punt the whole lot to a private operator so it can try and mine some more sheckles from it. Whatever its technical achievements, it is another missed opportunity in my honest opinion.

    Contrast this with the HST which, when it was new back in 1976, was rolled out nationwide on almost every main line over a number of years, effectively shortening the distance between cities, opening up new commuting opportunities, freed up train paths, and best of all British Rail didn’t charge a premium for using it. That genuinely was something which benefited the whole nation. It rejuvenated a failing, declining railway. And it was a darned sight cheaper than the billions that have been poured into HS1 (and indeed the IEP project).

    HS1 sadly doesn’t, unless we cling to the (distant) hope that it will lead to a HS2, HS3 and so on.

  • Dan

    Yes, and indeed there is a campaign from Cannon Street commuters to resist the deletion of off peak city services by SE Trains (from Maidstone) – I encountered them leafletting a train I was on a month or so back.

    See this news item


    Now of course you can’t simply always go with campiagns from people who don’t want to see changes (as it disrupts what is best for them) since something else might be better for lots of other people who are not yet your customers. But for public service there would be an argument for providing both services in tandem (say for 4 years) and see how patterns of travel changed. I’m sure HS1 domestic will build new business, and offices will relocate to KX area etc (just like happened with the docklands perhaps) – but that won’t happen right away so there is an argument for both services to run for a while, with a reveiw in due course. Not ‘force’ people on to the more expensive HS1 straight off.

  • Michael Weinberg

    Well of course HS 1 doesn’t benefit East Anglia or Wales or Scotland or anywhere else that it doesn’t link, although you could say it improves access to the Continent for those who wish to use trains.
    The Leeds suburban electrification didn’t help me in Milton Keynes until I visited the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway and found a quick, efficient and reliable service from Leeds to Keighley!
    HST’s didn’t reach East Anglia, or the Midland main line ( not for years anyway) or Trans-penine but that wasn’t a reason for not building them.
    It’s interesting that the early train from Ashford to SPI has had to be doubled up because of overcrowding!
    As for HS 2-6, it’s unlikely they would even be considered if HS 1 hadn’t led the way ( I suppose to RapidAssistant that would be a negative!)

    It’s no good comparing the introduction of HST’s with today’s railway. Totally different conditions apply. The convoluted structure we now have results in the ludicrous successor to HST’s being designed by wonks in the DfT.

    Unfortunately we have to live in todays world and in that context, the advent of the Javelins may well spur on the apathetic British public to demand similar service elsewhere.
    Putting a negative spin on every development gives ammunition to this nation of petrolheads who believe anything spent on public transport to be a waste of money.

  • @Michael Weinberg: I’ve used the Ebbsfleet—SPI preview service as I live near Gravesend. My suspicions were confirmed by the staff on the trains: they’re just carting fresh, Kentish air into industrial Essex and London at the moment. I’m sure Londoners appreciate the slight improvement in the air they’re breathing, but it’s hardly a sensible use of the infrastructure and rolling stock.

    Unlike Ashford, Ebbsfleet has no convenient connections with the classic line, even though said line crosses over HS1 just north of the station. Northfleet Station is also very close as the crow flies, but as Northfleet is up on a chalk ridge and Ebbsfleet was built in a neighbouring valley, it’s a long, hilly walk between the two stations. Not helped by the need to walk through Northfleet itself as nobody thought to build a pedestrian link between the two stations. All rail users who live west of Gravesend would have to travel to the latter station first before transferring onto an HS1 service.

    HS1 Domestic services via Ebbsfleet from Rochester will travel at an average speed of *under* 60mph. (London-Brighton services do better than that, and they don’t have brand new high-speed infrastructure to run on.) And that’s just from Rochester. When you reach Faversham, you’re looking at an average speed of around 50 mph for the journey to London. Using 140 mph. trains. On which planet is this considered “High Speed”? That Southern are effectively twisting commuters’ arms and forcing them to use these new services by deliberately making the alternatives less attractive isn’t helping their case.

    Extending Crossrail out to Gravesend would be a far more useful to commuters in in this neck of the woods. It would also serve commuters between Dartford and Gravesend, boosting the local economy and kickstarting more of the Thames Gateway regeneration work. HS1 Domestic won’t do this.

    A far better solution for HS1 Domestic services, given that the Medway district has a population comparable with that of Brighton & Hove, would have been to build a park and ride station next to the M2, just south of the Medway Viaduct. (In fact, this was one of the proposed sites for what is now Ebbsfleet Int’l.) HS1 Domestic trains could thus all run via Ashford, perhaps making use of the freight loop lines to allow Eurostar services to overtake. This would make far better use of the infrastructure and new trains.

  • Michael Weinberg

    Lets see what the situation is in a couple of years time!
    No matter what service is introduced there are always some folk who think:-
    (a) it’s a waste of money,
    (b) it should go somewhere else
    (c) it’s worse than before
    (d) they’ve got another pet scheme that helps them more!
    The British syndrome par excellance.

  • Stephen Humphreys

    Interesting comment Michael. Isn’t that why the car wins in the public mind over public transport? I want a bus train etc from outside my house to go where I want to go when I want to go there. I don’t want the noise though. If it doesn’t then public transport is useless etc.

  • RapidAssistant

    Michael’s points are taken to an extreme when you look at the West Highland Line which I took a ride on yesterday – there are only three trains a day in each direction, it takes well over an hour longer to get from Glasgow to Fort William since it takes a rather circuitous route, compared to the more direct A82 trunk road. It’s also ludicrously expensive (it cost me £60 return in fares for me, my partner and my two stepchildren).

    And that’s with all the infrastructure costs cut to the bone (DMUs, huge sections of single track line, radio token block signalling, request stops, short platforms, unmanned stations etc etc).

    My observation was that people make travel choices for a wide variety of reasons, not just cost – myself included. Here, folks use the WHL for the spectacular views, or don’t want to suffer the summer nightmares of the A82 (impatient drivers, caravans, nutters on motorbikes etc etc). As I’ve said before you pays your money and you takes your choice.

  • @Michael Weinberg:

    (a) Any complex system saddled with as many interfaces as a privatised industry (e.g. Network Rail) will waste gargantuan sums of money. Guaranteed. It’s basic interface design. Our politicians and management classes have no clue how to do it properly.

    (b) People want to get from A to B, where “A” is “their front door” and “B” is “their destination’s front door”. This has always been the case. Trains can form a part of that journey, but they’re rarely in a position to do *all* of it. Modal changes are often needed. (And, yes, “walking” is just as much a mode of transport as any other. That planners never seem to cost it properly reflects poorly on them.)

    (c) This is provable fact. HS1 Domestic services via Gravesend *will* result in fewer semi-fast services via the classic lines. It’s the only way they can fit the damned trains *in*. Gravesend has passing loops for a reason.

    (d) Crossrail already has aspirations to extend to Hoo Junction. This extension would serve *all* the stations from Dartford to Gravesend, with easy—usually same-platform—connections for those travelling from the Medway and beyond. This provides far better interfaces for rail users and also bypasses the long, slow run into London via the existing route. It also more closely matches current travel patterns.

    HS1 Domestics via Gravesend have a headline journey time of “37 minutes”, but that’s assuming your entire journey begins and ends with the railway. It doesn’t. Hardly anybody’s does. Convenience and end-to-end journey times are *everything* for commuters, not how quick one particular component of their journey is. The interchanges at St. Pancras aren’t particularly convenient if you’re stuck with the Tube. (It’s not too bad if you have to switch to Thameslink.)

    A railway is a complex system that exposes a user interface to travellers. Traditional interface design rules therefore apply. That few bother to take this step is all too evident given the state of our system at present. Donald A. Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” should be required reading for every planner, engineer, minister and politician.

  • Correction and clarification: ‘HS1 Domestics via Gravesend have a headline journey time of “37 minutes”’

    This time is measured from Rochester. (My source below averages it at 43 from “Medway”.) From Faversham, it’s nearer 65 minutes.

    Faversham is about 52 miles from London, making for an average speed of just under 50 mph. Only the final 17 miles is at anywhere near 140 mph. Allowing for acceleration and deceleration—the train has to call at Stratford Int’l. too from December—this seems a rather inefficient use of the Class 395’s capabilities.

    (Source: http://www.thamesgatewaykent.com/Transport/transport.php?h=1)

  • Dan

    Interesting debate here. For HS1 domestics I’m of the ‘give it the benfit of the doubt’ school – but Sean’s comments are all valid.

    Just came back from Paris on Sat eve (after 10 days in Normandy / Brittany keeping off the TGVs to see what the ‘back roads’ of SNCF were like). Our Eurostar stopped at Ebbsfleet so I stuck my nose out the door to see how many alighted – quite a few, more than I expected – but I bet most were using their cars to complete their journey. I suspect it lends itself to the ‘day trip market’ too – fair enough I suppose.

    Comments on Eurostar – I was travelling 1st class but the train interiors had not been properly cleaned IMHO, the food served at seat is rather poor value for a train (‘airline +’ style), if you were starving after a long previous journey it would not fill you up.

    Also Gare Du Nord is now a weak link for Eurostar as their part of the terminal is seriously under sized for the job. If there are people for more than 1 train the queues for baggage security and passports (2 examination points) can’t cope, and the waiting area on the upper deck is inadequate too, size wise in terms of seating, toilets etc.

    What I thought was especially mean was not letting Leisure 1st passengers use the empty business class lounge at Eurostar Gare Du Nord. The lounge is large (taking up std class space of course), and on a Saturday – obvioulsy un-used by business travellers. Given the lack of seating for std / leisure 1st passengers in the departure area, it would make sense to allow lesiure 1st ticket holders to use this area, at least at off peak times. This would be a generous touch by Eurostar who must now be aware that the Gare Du Nord facils are inadequate.

    Don’t want to sound over critical as it is still a very comfortable service, and more civilsed than the avg UK domestic train – although my East Mids Trains onward connection had a cleaner and smarter interior!

    How unusual it is for the UK, in St Pancras, to have much better infrastructure than SNCF!

  • Dan

    On the gneral HS issue (re HS2) this is worth a read:


    “Economic growth and development are driven by what innovation theorists call general purpose technologies. A general purpose technology is one that transforms economies and societies. The wheel was a general purpose technology. So was the Portuguese invention of the three-masted caravel in the 15th century that allowed ships to become ocean – going, leading to European long-distance trade, colonisation and the emergence of a rich European merchant class. So was the printing press. And so was the railway in the 19th century…..

    “The intriguing question is whether high-speed rail will be as transformative. My hunch is that it will.”

  • The Guardian article makes some good points on the value of innovation, but TGV-style lines aren’t particularly innovative. It’s just a “brute force” engineering approach to making existing rail technology faster by building new, straighter, railway lines to stop the trains flying off the rails on corners. The first high-speed rail route in the UK already existed by the mid-1800s. It was called the “Great Western Railway” and, as built, (with only minor tweaks), still lets HSTs run at 125 miles per hour.

    (The first dedicated, stand-alone “High Speed” railway line ever built in the EU was the “Direttissima” line constructed between Rome and Florence, the first section of which opened in 1977. The first TGV line opened four years later. Unlike the French, the Italians have terrain that’s just a teensy bit harder to build straight railway lines through, but they do at least deserve the recognition of doing it first, even if 125 miles per hour doesn’t sound particularly “high speed” to Britons.)

    Ultimately, rail is a 190-year-old technology. It’s also a stagnating one. There really isn’t much more you can do with it to make it faster, short of building arrow-straight lines through peoples’ homes.

    Maglev, while certainly expensive—as all new technologies invariably are—makes far more sense as a long-term investment. Granted, it’s not particularly compatible with other systems, but nobody’s suggesting you run freight down the thing. (Well, not yet anyway.)

    The best way to reduce air travel is to make the alternatives more competitive. Maglev has the potential to make even London to *Rome* competitive with air. TGV technology can never do that. (It could also justify building an Irish Sea tunnel linking Ireland with Europe and reducing that nation’s dependency on sea and air: with the potential to run trains at around 500 mph, you could get from Dublin to London in about 45 minutes!)

    (On a completely separate point: why are BAA so hell-bent on diverting HS2 to run via Heathrow? Which part of “HS3, HS4 and HS5” did they not understand?)

  • Postscript…

    Building new HS lines in the UK is better than doing nothing, but it’s not “21st Century” technology. It’s the *last* century’s technology. All we’d be doing is catching up with our neighbours.

    However, no matter what technology is used to build HS2 (and any others), there will still be a long, protracted planning stage filled with endless protests and NIMBYs.

    And, of course, there’s the small matter of where all that lovely electricity is going to come from. And that’s not just for HS2 either: the proposed electrification projects will also need to be plugged in somewhere…

    There’s no magic bullet for energy production: wind is a joke; tidal energy—which the UK has in abundance—can contribute, but it’s not a continuous, unbroken source of energy supply. And photovoltaic panels aren’t an option either, given their inefficiency and high environmental impact in manufacture. (Solar water heating is, on the other hand, a viable system for reducing reliance on gas for many.)

    Distressingly, not a single one of our 40-year-old nuclear power stations has managed to turn itself into a giant radioactive mushroom cloud worthy of our disaster-porn media yet, so I don’t really understand all the hate and vitriol about them. Fossil-fuel power plants have killed or injured far more people. Replacing coal, gas and oil plants with nuclear, while replacing the life-expired nuke plants with modern ones, makes sense for the medium term: it buys us some time to master the fusion process. (Once again, the French are ahead of us here.)

    If trains are to save our environment, we need to make their environmental footprint as small as possible. That means electricity from low-carbon sources, and more construction in tunnel and deep cuttings to reduce noise pollution and impact on the landscape. The environment isn’t just carbon.

  • Michael Weinberg

    I wondered when Maglev would rear its ugly head!

    Travelling at 500 mph on the ground would mean plenty of sick buckets built in! (technologically advanced ones of course). Perhaps no windows then.

    By the time a network of Maglevs was built we’d be in the 22nd century.
    By then of course, we’d all be being beamed about.!

  • “Travelling at 500 mph on the ground would mean plenty of sick buckets built in!”

    You aren’t descended from a certain Dionysus Lardner, perchance? Critics of passenger rail in the early 1800s spouted similar nonsense about speed too. Most people who suffer from motion sickness—and I’m one of them—will do so regardless of the cause of said motion. They have pills for it now, you know.

    As for Maglev itself: it’s the logical next step, but probably not as an alternative to, or replacement of TGV technology. I see it as a potential replacement for air travel where the journey is over land. (I.e. flights within the EU and most of the Eurasian subcontinent.)

    Aircraft have a number of problems, but the most important isn’t the jet engine, though that’s certainly one element. The big problem is *airports*. Airports are vast, noisy and make very poor neighbours. By their very nature, they tend to built miles away from where the people who need to use them actually live and work, so the ecological impact of air travel also includes the cost of travelling to and from the airports at each end of the journey, not to mention all the supporting infrastructure to support all this folderol.

    Finding some way to transport people without using jet engines at a high enough speed to make switching from jets worthwhile is certainly a valid concern, but not the most important one. Maglev wouldn’t really work as an urban or inter-city railway in an area as small as the UK, except for a very small number of options. It does, however, lend itself to getting people from, say, London to Frankfurt, Moscow or Rome. It might take slightly longer than a jet aircraft, but not that much longer. And trains can stop *in* the cities, cutting out an awful lot of travel. Aircraft are hamstrung by their reliance on airports.

    TGV technology can replace short-haul flights within an EU nation’s boundaries. It can also replace *some* short-haul flights to some cities in neighbouring countries. But that’s about it. If you want to get from London to Rome via HS1 and the St. Gotthard Base Tunnel in 2017, you’ll still be looking at around 9-10 hours for the end-to-end journey. And that’s assuming no stops. Granted, it’s much quicker than driving, but an Airbus A380 would eat a TGV for breakfast over that distance.

    A 500 mph Maglev, on the other hand, could do the 1100 mile run from London to Rome in about two and a half hours. And that’s not London Stansted to Roma Ciampino, but London St. Pancras to Roma Termini. Even if it took three hours, it’d still save everyone time and money by avoiding the connections to and from each airport.

    Granted, the only chance of this ever happening is as part of an EU-wide, and EU-funded, network. Few EU nations would see much advantage in building a national Maglev network on their own. I suspect Maglev’s first big win will likely be in the larger Asian nations, such as China. Which I don’t mind; the UK made a lot of mistakes when it introduced rail to the world and we’re paying the price now.

    So, I suppose I almost, but not entirely, agree with you.

  • Dan

    Maglev is probably a good idea for short links – like airport shuttles – the one in China may be a good example of this I reckon – but in other respects I fear they are the ‘BetaMax of the transport world’ – ie actually better technology – but not fit for purpose due to interoperational probs etc

  • Dan

    Actually – what we probably need are TGV style motorail operations – combining the speed of HS rail with the flexibility of the car which is what the users love (at an affordable price natch).

    Making TGV / Eurostar bike friendly might be a good start however.

    Have SNCF checked the behaviour of car tranposters at speeds above 150mph (might work if they are enclosed).

    This could be the future….

  • Most of my relatives are based in Italy, so I’ve had to drive there from London frequently. (I absolutely *hate* flying. I learned to drive just five years ago partly so I wouldn’t have to fly any more.)

    A TGV take on Motorail would only make sense over longer distances, such as UK-Italy or UK-Spain. Over shorter distances, it’d be less faff to just drive there straight.

    Some people I know drive to Germany to meet their Motorail train to Bologna, so there’s definitely a demand for this. I don’t even think the TGV element is entirely necessary: over these distances, putting on sleeper trains with car transporters and running the service overnight using mainly classic lines would be perfectly viable. The idea is to get there fresh and alert, without all the stress and strain of driving there.

    I suspect a service like this might prove rather popular even from places like Edinburgh. Just driving from there to Dover takes a long time. A Motorail service would let them drive onto a train in the late afternoon, and wake up not far from Barcelona or Milano the following morning.

    Building a TGV line to the north would certainly relieve the pressure on the classic routes for such services.

  • Ian Raymond

    Yes, building high speed lines can be part of the equation in reducing short-haul air travel, but making the services (high speed or not) comfortable, attractive and affordable will be the winner in attracting a dominant market share.
    After all, why should I swap a shabby airline with inadequate baggage provision, staff and managers who treat their customers like dirt, cramped seating and poor food for a train which simply offers the more of the same (and at inflated prices)?
    I used to travel by rail from Devon to Scotland – but seeing as Arriva are now only willing to provide a trolley of snacks for such a long distance I fly (how I miss the overnight sleeper!); and the quality of cross-country rail travel in this country is now so poor and expensive I am considering buying a car for the first time in my life. The lesson is that both high speed and ‘conventional’ services need to pander a little bit more to the customer.

  • RapidAssistant

    Privatisation was supposed to deliver private sector flair and innovation to bad old British Rail. However, as we’ve said time and time again the TOCs are strangled by the overregulation of the franchising system and are also quite happy to keep the status quo in terms of fares and ticketing because it makes them good money as it stands – largely because on the other hand they’ve got the Government trying to recover the billions it pumps into the Network Rail black hole through premium payments. It isn’t therefore, strictly all their fault. There are a number of key issues:

    1. Network Rail needs better control of its costs through more streamlined management, more indians and less chiefs basically.

    2. The franchising system is a mess. The model can only work if there is less micromanagement from Whitehall, and longer franchises.

    3. The Government needs to understand that its attempts to get paying passengers to fund more of the railway’s costs is counterproductive – we’ve seen now that persisting with the types of contracts that have caused so much grief on the ECML will only price people off rail and discourage private sector involvement.

  • I agree that the present franchising system is a farce. It’s a complex system designed by a group who felt the internal combustion engine was both the cause of, and the solution to, all our transportation problems. (Yes, Tory MPs, I’m looking at you. It’s all very well pointing and laughing at Labour’s incompetence, but YOU made this almighty mess in the first place! *Both* parties should hang their heads in shame.)

    The system’s current design makes maintaining the status quo the no-cost option. There are more incentives for just keeping the network ticking over than there are for making it *better*. The upshot of which is that we, the taxpayers, are having to do all that ourselves, driving the design, planning and construction of new infrastructure and improvement works.

    The only exception is Chiltern Railways, who were (accidentally?) given such an incentive to improve their network by being granted a nice, long franchise to play with. A franchise long enough to make investing in their network and building up their brand and goodwill worthwhile.

    One quick fix might be to change the franchising emphasis on sacking a TOC if their customers demand it, rather than relying on the present system. With such a rule in place, the letting of franchises becomes much less of an issue: you make it clear that a franchise will *only* be lost if their service falls below an agreed threshold. This makes taking a pro-active Chiltern-like approach to a franchise more sensible.

    A key element of the above is giving the TOCs the right to make their own changes to their part of the rail network. NR would become more of an inspectorate and training body, leasing the infrastructure to the TOCs, enforcing industry standards, and generally ensuring they don’t bugger up the public’s rail network. This reduces micromanagement.

    (Obviously this is all somewhat simplified, but you get the idea.)

    The final piece of the puzzle is to move away from the fashion for “big bang” projects. Rolling programmes of improvements cost less per year and are usually much easier to manage and budget. Why does it always have to be “Fast and Expensive” instead of “Slow and Cheap”? (The quality shouldn’t suffer either way.)

  • Chris Sharp

    I don’t own a car, never have, so I don’t understand the mentality of having to have your own car at the other end of the journey.

    A TGV motorail service is, quite frankly, nuts. No sane person suggest that easyjet start up “motorplane”.

    In the USA air travel and car rental go hand in hand, but in the UK renting a car is not part of our culture. If the intercity TOC’s got into the car rental business you could collect your keys on the train and be driving away just as quick as if you had your own car in the car park.

  • RapidAssistant

    Chris – good point. I used to remember that GNER used to push car rental at a few of the main stations, but looking at NXEC it is now nowhere to be seen. Part of the problem is that the car rental companies (is it a coincidence that Hertz, Avis, Budget and National are all American owned?) are more interested at the lucrative airport market instead of railway stations.

  • Michael Weinberg

    Ian is absolutely right. Far more emphasis should be put on the quality of the trains.
    Since privatisation there has been an alarming reduction in the comfort and service provided on British trains, particularly on what used to be ‘inter-city’ routes.
    Nowadays TOC’s see nothing wrong with putting local type trains on long distance routes.
    Desiros on Manchester to Scotland services are a case in point.
    Catering facilities are now very poor throughout the network, and even in First class service is poor.
    I shudder each time I hear of stock being ‘refurbished’ which invariably means more uncomfortable seats crammed in, catering withdrawn etc.
    The feeling of spaciousness and relaxation to be found in the best Continental stock is completely missing in our trains. I wonder if our railway executives ever sample what’s available overseas.
    Pendolinos may be technological marvels but as vehicles to travel in for the next 30 years the just arn’t good enough.
    Even the cheapest cars now available come with standards of seating, ride comfort, noise levels and in car entertainment,(if such is your wish) that put most modern trains to shame. And car makers are continually improving their products to make them even more attractive to an already car mad nation.
    The minimum in my judgement for a modern inter city train should be very comfortable seating, plenty of legroom, a good view out, a quiet and relaxing ride, good catering facilities, room for luggage and bikes etc, technological gadgetry for those who want it, and quiet zones for those who dont!. Others could no doubt add other things.
    To me this would indicate longer trains, reverting to loco hauled stock, ( I’ve never understood why multiple units are so universally adopted, and the trend in Germany apparently is to increase loco hauled trains) and an end to cramming people in like sardines.
    As Ian says you may as well be uncomfortable for an hour in a plane as uncomfortable for two hours in a train.

  • Michael W., the reason our trains feel so small and cramped is because they are: our railways were built to a smaller loading gauge than those of most mainland EU countries. Our trains are physically smaller, while the population who use them have been growing somewhat since the 1800s—Homo Sapiens’ loading gauge in the western hemisphere has also increased!

    Our major railways are also running at, over, or very close to capacity. Sod catching up with the French: even the Italians started building new high-speed lines decades ago! And they have earthquakes, active volcanoes and major mountain ranges to deal with.

    New high speed lines would release a lot of capacity on our existing lines, reducing the pressure on trains. Our continental cousins are already seeing this, which is why their trains aren’t as jam-packed with passengers as our own. They have more *choice*. (And it’s genuine, real *choice*. Not the pretend “choice” our government seems to think is so important to encourage irrelevant “competition” between companies who run services in completely different parts of the country.)


    The reason we Brits don’t have a car rental culture is because we’re much more into property ownership. Look around any EU city and you’ll see far more people living in apartments and renting. In the UK, we have this fixation with *owning* everything, even when it makes no sense to do so.

    That said, Motorail was quite popular until the late ’70s. It also has some advantages in that people with Motability-modified cars might not be able to hire a suitably modified car at their destination.

    It’s also something of a lottery as to which car you might end up with—even if you request an MPV, there’s often a get-out clause that allows the hiring firm to saddle you with something less suitable instead if they’re temporarily out of stock. If you want to take your entire family on a driving holiday, taking a large car you already own to the foreign country by rail makes more ecological sense than driving it all the way there yourself. And you don’t have to worry about packing and unpacking all that luggage at each modal change.

    In short, there are genuine advantages to a Motorail-type service. There are, however, few advantages, if any, to running it over the TGV network. The Germans still run their Motorail services to Italy today. It’s a good candidate for an open access operator too.

  • ” I’ve never understood why multiple units are so universally adopted, and the trend in Germany apparently is to increase loco hauled trains”

    Because this is the UK, not Germany. Germany’s population is far more evenly spread out than ours. London and the SE have 25% of the *entire* population of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. So multiple units make more sense. You need to get those trains turned-around *fast* to maintain the frequencies we need. We tend to run trains at almost metro-levels of frequency even on relatively long distances.

    (The Beeching cuts also meant we lost a lot of shunting and turn-back capacity, so multiple-unit stock is pretty much all we can use for most services.)

    Look at the new LOROL trains and ask yourself why a mainline railway is getting a tube-style train fitted with side seats throughout.

    One advantage HS2, 3 and so on would give us is the opportunity to relieve the pressure on London and encourage more businesses and people to live and work outside the SE, releasing some capacity and making it financially viable to fit decent seating.

    Also, frankly, some of the EMUs in use today are still far better than the ancient slam-door trains they replaced. I, for one, did not shed a single tear when the last of the Mk. 1 trains left the SE London rail network.

  • Dan

    The loading gauge issue is only part of the issue – UK traisn had plenty of interior space until the 1st refurbs of the IC 125 and Mk 3 stock went dramatically airline circa 1987 etc. OK Mk 1 stock was totally clapped out by the time it was withdrawn, but the seating, window and other general layout was good stuff compared with what followed, Michael w is spot on on this.

  • Michael Weinberg

    I’m afraid I dont see the logic in Sean’s statement that because 25% of the population of the UK that ‘multiple units make more sense’!
    Anyway I think most people would have cottoned on to the fact that I was talking more about inter-city travel than commuter trains.

    ( Incidentally the old Great Eastern railway operated an intensive commuter service into Liverpool Street with turn round times far less than on today’s railways using steam engines!)

    The advantages of loco-hauled stock are well documented in Ian Walmsley’s articles in ‘Modern Railways’ and he seems also to have missed Sean’s revelation that ‘this is the UK, not Germany’

    I travel to Germany fairly often and on most routes their trains are just as frequent as ours, and parts of Germany are just as crowded as parts of the UK.
    ( I Know Virgin offers a 20min. frequency London-Birmingham & Manchester, but this is just a typical Virgin gimmick and is not motivated by any true demand. In fact its probable raison d’etre is to take up pathways that some future open access operator might want to use)
    As for interior space and loading gauge, I wonder if Sean has used the metre gauge Swiss railways? ( I know loading gauge and track guage are different, Sean)
    but nevertheless those trains are far less cramped than Pendolinos and Voyagers.

  • Dan

    I presume that MU operating is a typical case of transferring costs from one account to another (as Sean might say the result of accountants running the country) – so you end up with empty MUs (or empty 1st class) running up and down when at off peak times you’d be better switching the carriages to more std class. What you save is costs of locos, points, shunters at terminals and depots.

    At least the advent of the frustrating ‘yield managment’ ticketing that computers permit (not the private sector) mean that off peak 1st class on IC routes has a better chance of being filled than in the early years of fixed formation trains running off peak (eg the IC 125s back in the late 70s and 80s when I would note many 1st class vehicles regulalrly empty). My TOC – EMT does a good job of filling off peak 1st class seats by selling them cheaply – XC – I note, does not, since they are all too often not sold cheaply enough (and even XCs w/e 1st if not now good value)!

    Remember the removal of the Plymouth carriages from the Night Riviera was to ‘save’ the cost of a shunter and probably a shunting loco to detach the carriages / attach them – whereas a dynamic business model (like the private sector would surely provide if only it was left to its own devices ha ha) would be to find other business for said shunter to do between the arrival and departure of each days night riviera. Hence a city is denied a whole service due to this cost.

    Even in the SE of England for good chunks of the day MUs must cart fresh air around since on some routes the volume of traffic must not even justify a 3 or 4 car unit off peak – but presumably the railway has been happy to shoulder these costs since at least the advent of MU operation in at least the 1st half of the 20th C !

    The big problem our railway has is that if it could carry more freight, there would be more locos about, which could also be sued on passenger services say during the day – getting more freight on rail (esp at night) might actually benefit both rail passengers – and car users. I’ve never understood why ministers don’t face up to the lorry lobby – after all there are not many votes in lorries clogging up roads IMHO.

    Apols Christian – not sure this has much to do with high speed!

  • Geoff Brown

    Just re-read Christian’s article- he refers to “Stratford International (whose first and possibly only use will be for the Javelin trains at the Olympics)”. This seems unduly pessimistic- with completion of DLR, pedestrian link to Stratford Regional, road access returning to normal, buses(?), Stratford City, and Olympic legacy, it should come good- eventually- shouldn’t it….?

  • “I’m afraid I dont see the logic in Sean’s statement that because 25% of the population of the UK that ‘multiple units make more sense’!”

    You misquoted me there: 25% of the population of the UK *lives in the south-east of England*.

    The UK doesn’t have the total population of Germany, but the land our population lives on is quite a bit smaller. The population density here is one of the highest in the EU.

    But it’s worse than that…

    London ate all the economic and cultural pies in this country. Most foreigners would have a hard time naming any city other than London or Manchester, unless they’re serious Premier League fans.

    But London isn’t merely our biggest tourist attraction. London is also the nation’s political centre, its financial centre and its cultural centre. Birmingham may well be England’s second city, but the entire conurbation’s population is still just a quarter that of London. London points at Birmingham and laughs.

    The upshot of which is that London has a massive influence on infrastructure and logistical planning. Multiple motors usually give better acceleration than loco-hauled stock. Adding four coaches onto a loco reduces its acceleration and braking capabilities. Coupling two four-car EMUs together, on the other hand, has a negligible effect on either acceleration or braking characteristics.

    And multiple-unit stock has built-in redundancy, so there’s no need to keep a fleet of “Thunderbird” locos sitting around costing you money: when a loco fails, the entire train fails. When a single motor on an EMU fails, the EMU can still keep going. It’s just a little bit slower.

    In mainland Europe, this unhealthy focus on a single conurbation is nowhere near as prevalent. Yes, you have your capital cities, but it’s not *just* Paris. We’re also familiar with Lille, Lyon, Cannes, Marseilles and Calais. Population in Germany and Italy is similarly more spread out, so demand for individual destinations is more even. High Speed rail on the TGV model makes perfect sense in that context.

    In the UK, a High Speed rail network needs to do two things:

    1. Release capacity on the existing routes, which are already bursting at the seams;
    2. Release the pressure on London itself.

    For any High Speed route to be viable long-term, it cannot simply be a glorified high-speed commuter line for London. It needs to encourage businesses and workers *out* of London and into the other towns and cities it serves. London has been running at capacity for decades. It, too, needs capacity relief. There are only so many brownfield sites left to build housing on. Only so many old warehouses and other industrial buildings we can convert into new apartments.

    If HS2 ends up doing little more than turning Manchester and Birmingham into larger versions of Stevenage and Chelmsford, we’ll know we’ve done it wrong.

  • “Stratford International (whose first and possibly only use will be for the Javelin trains at the Olympics)”

    I think Christian’s exaggerating a little for effect, but it’s hard to see a compelling reason for adding this station onto what’s supposed to be a high-speed, inter-city railway. Eurostar stock isn’t designed for frequent stops.

    Stratford itself is amply served by its present station, which has two DLR routes, the Jubilee Line, Central Line, NLL, GEML services and (eventually) Crossrail too.

    Stratford International is going to be served primarily by HS1 Domestic trains if I understand the proposals correctly, so I’m not sure what’s so “International” about it.

  • Michael Weinberg

    Sean wrote:
    ‘Multiple motors usually give better acceleration than loco-hauled stock. Adding four coaches onto a loco reduces its acceleration and braking capabilities. Coupling two four-car EMUs together, on the other hand, has a negligible effect on either acceleration or braking characteristics.’
    Firstly it doesn’t if the loco is as high powered as the combined multiple motors: it might even be better as locos are heavier and can put more power onto the rail without slipping.
    I used to use the class 321’s on the WCML and on any slippery rail they could take an age to get going, regardless of how many units there were.
    I’ve often crawled from Hemel to Berkhamsted because the wheels could just not get a grip.

    But even if you’re right it wouldn’t matter, as long as the loco could keep time.
    The class 86/7’s would often be loaded up to fourteen vehicles but would still keep to timings geared to ten.
    Anyway this whole discussion is futile since I’m not suggesting loco haulage for commuter trains. This is despite the fact that in Germany, Switzerland, Austria etc loco haulage is common on commuter routes and I’ve seen for myself how the German’s are far more able to tailor the length of trains to the traffic offering.
    If we need one more coach we usually have to add four. So of course that would be uneconomic so we just let more people cram into the original four! European locos can romp away with anything from three to eight coaches and still keep time.

    It shouldn’t be difficult to grasp that I’m talking about what passes for inter-city services in this country.
    It’s obvious that individual coaches can give far more flexibility in delivering services than MU’s.
    I repeat, have a look at “Modern Railways” where the arguments are put far better than I can manage.
    It’s got nothing to do with population density.
    We always think Britain is different. Things that work abroad wont work here.
    Trams are the mode of choice in European cities, but they dont work here. High speed lines are proliferating all over the Continent, but Britain is different. We’re smaller ( than Holland or Belgium) more tightly packed( than Holland) and there’s Sean going on about population of London being so big we cant have loco hauled trains.

    Incidentally I reckon Sean is seriously underestimating the level of education in Europe if he thinks nobody has heard of Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle, Sheffield or Leeds. My German friends would be choking into their saurkraut!

    “For any High Speed route to be viable long-term, it cannot simply be a glorified high-speed commuter line for London. It needs to encourage businesses and workers *out* of London and into the other towns and cities it serves.”

    Are you suggesting we only sell tickets in one direction?

    It’s gobbledegook. You could argue that London has grown so big because we HAVN’T had a high speed line.

  • “Trams are the mode of choice in European cities, but they don’t work here.”

    Demonstrably so. It’s not like we didn’t have them before. If they were so brilliant, why did we replace them all with trolleybuses and Routemasters?

    Running trams down a central reservation is only feasible when you *have* a central reservation. Very few urban roads in the UK do so outside of Milton Keynes. Similarly, reusing disused or little-used heavy rail infrastructure is also only possible when such infrastructure (a) exists, and (b) goes somewhere useful. Manchester, Croydon, Nottingham and even Newcastle’s Metro all recycled *heavy rail* routes. There aren’t too many of those left, even in the more industrial cities.

    Rome almost ditched its trams too, but has started to bring them back. But Rome has retained its original Roman grid layout and therefore has lovely, wide, roads. They may be clogged with cars and scooters, but most of Rome’s major roads are still wide enough for herringbone parking *and* a central reservation. Contrast with Naples, which has very little light rail at all, and never had much to begin with. This city has tiny, narrow medieval streets. It’s closer to London than Rome in its layout.

    Traditional trams in London aren’t, therefore, a particularly good idea. There simply isn’t room.

    “… inter-city… It’s obvious that individual coaches can give far more flexibility in delivering services than MU’s.”

    Inter-City services in the UK use a “short, frequent trains” model. Most of the EU, including Italy and France, uses the “long, infrequent trains” model.

    However, our continental cousins have also been rather more willing to invest in a more holistic approach to their transport infrastructure. They haven’t just built high-speed railways, but also metros, light rails and even tram-trains. In the UK, we’ve barely touched our rail infrastructure and have let roads take much of the strain.

    Nailing an extra coach onto a train is all very well, but our station platforms tend to be quite short compared to continental services. If half your train is sticking out of the station, fouling points, increasing dwell times, etc., you’ll be losing money in short order. If a service needs more room, there’s no point building just enough infrastructure to lengthen the train by one coach. Better to lengthen it to cope with future demand too and be done with it.

    The “Networker” stock used in Kent was supplied in both 4-car and 2-car formations, so it’s not hard to lengthen a 4-car train to six cars. It’s one extra coach, yes, but the fact both parts of your train can move *themselves* into relevant carriage sidings makes even this aspect easier than using loco-hauled stock with ‘dead’ coaches. Shunting locos cost money to buy, run and maintain too.

    Our loading gauge is also quite a bit smaller than on the continent, which tends to make our stock feel quite cramped. Personally, I’d mandate gauge enhancement to EU standards as part of any major renewal (or electrification) project. Most of the whining about lack of luggage space, cramped seating and the lack of stowage room for cycles would disappear for a start. And there are only so many platform extensions you can build before your stations end up merging into each other.

    (The latter could be done using an EU grant. We’ve certainly paid enough for other countries to do similar projects. It’s our damned turn.)

  • Andy Bishop

    Further to the HS1 domestic service via Gravesend, I agree that (east of the said Gravesend), such a service will be quite poor, with respect to journey times etc.
    As Gravesend is just 2 miles from HS1 at Ebbsfleet, it is clear that the impending services from the town will be considered very attractive.
    I would also suggest that you keep a watchful eye on the major redevelopment of Gravesend station, currently being drafted by Network Rail.

  • Michael Weinberg

    “It’s not like we didn’t have them before. If they were so brilliant, why did we replace them all with trolleybuses and Routemasters?”
    For the same reason that buses are now being replaced by trams on many routes in many cities around the world.
    Times have changed.
    The trams in Nottingham now are light years away from the old rocking double deckers that I used to use to get to college.
    The whole design of tram systems has changed. Yes, you can use old railway lines where possible and there are still plenty of instances where that will be possible, but there are also plenty of exampes of on street running in Britain and abroad.
    Milton Keynes has central reservations on some grid roads , but they’re nothing like wide enough to put tram tracks. One solution would be to widen the central reservation and reduce the carriageways. We’ve got to stop thinking that the car is sacrosanct and its use must’nt be curbed.
    If you get rid of cars in the centre of cities you can lay tram tracks in many narrow streets as is already done in many continental towns and cities.
    I’m not saying trams are the answer for all situations but to dismiss them as being unsuitable in Britain flies in the face of all the evidence.

  • Dan
  • “We’ve got to stop thinking that the car is sacrosanct and its use must’nt be curbed.”

    Cars aren’t the only mode that needs roads. Where would the buses go? What about deliveries to High Street shops? What about cycle lanes and pedestrianised areas; do trams trump those too? Not all cities look like Milton Keynes. That city was *planned*. Most were not, and retain their medieval street layout.

    You’re right: things have changed. Most people have fridges and freezers now; in the 1950s, very few people had either, so people tended to go shopping daily, rather than weekly. We also have a lot more cars—and a love of the mobility and freedom that goes with it. Trams had the streets almost to themselves even by the time they were scrapped. Compare photos and newsreel footage of London circa 1956 with the same areas today.

    There’s nothing a tram can do that a bus cannot. Sorry. Image and public perception are fleeting, transitory things: It only takes a single generation for the novelty to be taken for granted. At which point we collectively lose interest in it.

    This is what’s been crippling our existing network: we tend to build a load of new infrastructure during brief, faddish bursts of enthusiasm, bask briefly in the sheer, unutterable shininess of it all, before letting it all crumble apart through apathy while we move onto the next Cool Thing. The British are the fashion-victim magpies of Europe; the only thing missing from the various HS2 proposals is an Apple logo.

    A long-term, holistic and integrated approach to *all* our transport needs is urgently required. Traditional steel-wheel-on-steel-rail trams do have *a* part to play, but I honestly don’t think it’ll be as big as many people think. For cities like London, with its winding, narrow streets, trams are a poor solution. If a service pipe fails, or a vehicle breaks down, it’ll likely end up closing the road. Trams can’t be diverted down alternative routes where expensive embedded rail isn’t installed; buses can. Contraflows—of which London has many—are also going to be *really* unpopular on tram routes!

    (Personally, I think a monorail-derived solution would be a much better fit for places like London. I know they have a bad reputation—utterly undeserved—in the West, but the Japanese and their fellow Asians have been using them just fine for over 40 years and are building even more. The likes of Hitachi have been involved in this technology for decades.)

    As more low-emission and (eventually) zero-emission buses appear on the roads, their public image will improve. At present, tram technology is seen as being ‘greener’ than buses, purely because they run on electricity. Take that advantage away from them and they have precious little left to offer other than mere novelty. And that, as I’ve pointed out, won’t last forever. Traditional tram networks are based on technology dating back well over a century. What TGV has done to traditional rail, we now need to apply to urban mass transit. (I suspect some form of PRT may prove a more effective long-term solution to urban transit over trams, buses, and could even replace city driving in cars too.)

    But… meh.

  • Michael Weinberg

    “Cars aren’t the only mode that needs roads. Where would the buses go? What about deliveries to High Street shops? What about cycle lanes and pedestrianised areas; do trams trump those too? ”

    “There’s nothing a tram can do that a bus cannot. Sorry. Image and public perception are fleeting, transitory things: It only takes a single generation for the novelty to be taken for granted. At which point we collectively lose interest in it.”

    “As more low-emission and (eventually) zero-emission buses appear on the roads, their public image will improve. At present, tram technology is seen as being ‘greener’ than buses, purely because they run on electricity. Take that advantage away from them and they have precious little left to offer other than mere novelty”

    Gollygosh, Sean, you are a master of the sweeping statement.

    I reckon you could hire yourself out as an ‘expert’ trailing round Europe telling all the transport planners over there just where they have gone wrong!

    Tell the people of Zurich, Vienna and Amsterdam that buses could do everything their tram systems do and all the money the hundreds of towns and cities with developing tram systems could save by using buses instead.

    Point out to them that there is no room in Karlsruhe, Freiburg or Lyon for buses, delivery vans or pedestrians now they’ve got trams.

    Dont you realize that in many towns trams are the ONLY public transport allowed into the pedestrianised centres.

    Please dont tell me foreign cities are different from ours: they’re not!
    What is different is that we have a plethora of people who think like you, which is why we have the worst public transport of anywhere in western Europe.

    The futility of a complete bus based surface transport system can be seen every day in Oxford street where hundreds of mainly empty buses creep along at less than walking pace vying for space with taxis and cyclists and shoppers.

    ‘buses can do everything a tram can do!’ Lets see one load and unloade fifty people in a few seconds as they do every day in Market Square, Nottingham

    Maynard Keynes said ‘in the long run we’re all dead’ so while we wait for the zero emission green bus we should get on and develop light rail and tram systems for OUR cities and please note i am NOT advocating eliminating your pet bus, simply that IN SOME SITUATIONS trams can help solve some of our mobility problems, as every other Country in the world has already recognised.

  • Dan

    “There’s nothing a tram can do that a bus cannot” – yes there is – and this is harsh and I resent saying it – but there is and it is “transport middle class people”.

    I’m sure this isn’t necessarily the case in London, but middle class people who use buses are few and far between – with some exceptions around the rush hour for people who can’t use their cars for reasons of workplace parking restrictions etc – ie aspirational people avoid bus based public transport IMHO.

    I think it is even quite often the case that middle class pensioners (who would get free use) don’t use buses that much either.

    This simply isn’t the case with tram systems I have seen – even in cities with high qaulity, modern, bus services.

    The reason that this is important is that as people become more prosperous, or aspire to be (and car ownership keeps going up as it has done) then more people reject the bus in favour of the car – adding to our congestion / emmissions etc problems. Trams offer a way out of this conundrum, and thus where urban transport volumes can sustain it on core routes, the tram offers a much better solution than the bus, since it can grow public transport market share.

  • ‘“There’s nothing a tram can do that a bus cannot” – yes there is – and this is harsh and I resent saying it – but there is and it is “transport middle class people”.’

    There may be something in that.

    The “Fastrack” bus between Gravesend and Dartford (essentially a wannabe tram) seems to have rather more be-suited people using it than I would have expected. This fits with its primary destinations—Ebbsfleet, and the extremely middle-class Bluewater shopping centre. The latter has no Sainsbury’s, Morrisons or Poundstretcher stores. Not even a Waitrose! But it does have umpteen ‘fashion’ stores, shoe shops, Starbucks and an Apple Store. And it’s only accessible by road.

    @Michael Weinberg:

    “Tell the people of Zurich, Vienna and Amsterdam that buses could do everything their tram systems do and all the money the hundreds of towns and cities with developing tram systems could save by using buses instead.”

    The cities of Zürich, Wien and Amsterdam never got rid of their _old_ trams, so their citizens have grown up with both tram and car, side by side, in (im)perfect harmony. Even here in the UK, it wasn’t until the late ’60s—long after the last tram was kicked off the streets of London—that car ownership really took off. Yet the pathetic level of congestion even back then was considered enough to remove trams from the streets.

    In fact, most of the anti-tram sentiment was about the inevitable problems that arise from a fixed-guideway system: if a tram breaks down, *all the trams behind it are affected*. Buses can be trivially diverted, but trams cannot. From a purely logistical perspective, buses are far better than trams.

    Trams *do* make sense where the road congestion issue doesn’t apply and you have plenty of options for a segregated right of way. (E.g. if you have loads of wide roads with room for a central reservation. As many EU cities do. London is unusual in its historical lack of a true ‘centre’. The GLA and GLC are both 20th Century creations; there was nothing like them before, and this explains many of London’s infrastructural woes.)

    Most of our industrial towns and cities have any number of disused railways cluttering the cityscape. London, on the other hand, has rather less, thanks to the initial resistance to this newfangled technology. This is why we have 13 mainline railway terminii surrounding the City.

    As for building a tram route down Oxford Street—how would this help, exactly? In order to replace all those buses, you’d need to build *track* along all of their routes—http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl/gettingaround/maps/buses/pdf/oxfordcircusdr-day-2199.pdf. That’s an awful lot of road-digging for re-arrangement of utilities and track-laying. Now consider what would happen if a tram were to break down half-way down the street.

    If you only build a couple of tram routes, the buses will still be there. They’ll just be sharing the road with trams too.

    Finally, how would people get around Oxford Street while the tracks are being laid? I doubt the residents of the rather quieter streets paralleling this road would be impressed if you sent all those buses past their homes.

  • One last point:

    I’m not against “light transit” as such. I’m against using a centuries-old technology when there are better, tried and tested, alternatives. I tend to mutter “monorail” occasionally when faced with criticisms like yours. The reason is simple: if a monorail, suspended above the existing traffic, were to break down, you wouldn’t have the same problems a failed tram would cause. You could still run a bus along its route, serving its stations, until the problem is rectified. The domino effects are drastically reduced.

    Another advantage is that a suspended structure is always grade-separated—so road congestion won’t affect it—while also being much less disruptive during construction. You only need to dig small foundations for the supports. (Oh, and monorails have all the electrical and signalling gubbins built into the guideway too, so you don’t have the OHLE masts either.)

    In other words, I’m not against light rail as such. I just don’t subscribe to the view that those light rails *have* to be exactly four feet, eight and a quarter inches apart and embedded into the roadway itself.

    The point is to get people from A to B. Traditional steel wheel on steel rail has its place in achieving this, but it is no longer the *only* option. Nor is it always the most sensible, the cheapest, or even the greenest.

    Even the steam locomotive was new once.

  • Anoop

    It is silly to say that trams are useless, or buses are useless, or trolleybuses are useless. They all have potential roles to play in different locations.

    Trams have a role on high-volume routes, particularly where they can make use of parts of abandoned railway line or other suitable off-road alignments.

    Their advantages over buses:
    – larger vehicles with bigger capacity
    – smoother ride
    – attract more passengers
    – energy savings through regenerative braking, no local pollution

    Trolleybuses have a role on high volume bus routes in hilly areas, where their rapid acceleration and regenerative braking can be used to advantage.

    Elevated or underground railways and monorails have the advantages of speed and avoidance of congestion. However they require large stations which are not as accessible from the street.

  • “Trams have a role on high-volume routes, particularly where they can make use of parts of abandoned railway line or other suitable off-road alignments.”

    Which is why I have no problem with those in Manchester and Nottingham. But London never had that same legacy of railways running right through the city centre. What little suitable recyclable rail infrastructure it has tends to be well outside the city’s core. The Snow Hill tunnel route was an exception, built much later than the bulk of London’s rail network.

    For central London, traditional trams aren’t the right solution.

    “Elevated or underground railways and monorails have the advantages of speed and avoidance of congestion. However they require large stations which are not as accessible from the street.”

    This is only partly true. In places like Oxford Street, it’s not a great stretch to imagine some of the larger stores being modified to include a monorail station. The Sydney monorail goes right through some buildings, including a shopping mall.

    Here’s a mock-up from a proposal for a monorail in London:

    (I think their trains are too long myself, but you get the idea.)

    Also, the DLR proves that, while elevated stations aren’t going to be as cheap as a bus stop, they’re not *that* expensive either. No need for overblown architecture.

    However, a monorail can also run at-grade in some locations, avoiding the need for lifts and escalators. E.g. it can run along each side of a bridge; cut a suitable hole in the side walls, replace with platform-edge gates (already common in Japan), and you’re done.

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  • RapidAssistant

    Anoop, Dan and others – all very worthy stuff here about trams – ask an Edinburgh resident what they think of them at the moment and I think they’d tell you where to go….

    Despite Transport Scotland’s reasonably good record at delivering rail projects (well at least Scotland has rail projects to begin with….) the Edinburgh tram has become a city-wide embarrassment (and pretty much a Scottish one as well), with cost overruns, delays and high-profile resignations – yet it has only amassed a relative footnote in the media south of the border. It is an object lesson in exactly how not to build a major piece of transport infrastructure to anyone thinking of urban tram schemes.

    A future column Christian, maybe??