Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

Britain's slandered transport system?...

by DoDo Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 02:52:36 AM EST

Jérôme called my attention to an article by Financial Times's transport correspondent Robert Wright, Let's hear it for Britain's slandered transport system. The title and the occasion of the new rail world speed record set in France should give you an idea of what to expect.

I'll write down what I think of the rail-related passages, but those of you actually living in Britain, France or the Netherlands, tell me how your experience relates to Wright's slanders claims...


In David Hare's play The Permanent Way, a character bemoans Britain's alleged inability to run a railway system. "I was brought up to believe the French can't do anything," he says. "But they can run a railway. And we can't."

The comment sums up a conviction held by most British adults. Transport in the UK is assumed to run badly. Continental neighbours are assumed to travel comfortably and efficiently in gleaming metros or on smoothly flowing motorways.

There has been an obvious opportunity for British self-flagellation this week. In France, a heavily modified train à grande vitesse set a world rail speed record of 574.8km/h on Tuesday on the country's new eastern high-speed rail line. In Britain, the same day, Network Rail, the owner of the country's rail network, was explaining spending plans for the next two years that will modestly ease overcrowding on some commuter routes. Why, one can almost hear the dinner party guests asking, can't we run trains the way the French do?

So far as if I heard Helen or ThatBritGuy. But now comes the turnaround!

Yet the harder one looks at the assumptions behind British attitudes, the less well-founded they appear. One of the best cures for standard British thinking is in fact to travel on normal trains or roads in continental Europe - the dinner-party set normally sees only the flagship TGVs or a few select motorways to holiday regions.

This is the one point I think is true. (It doesn't just work for the British.) The neighbour's grass is always greener if we only look at the spots on most open display.

On the ageing trains between Brussels and Amsterdam, cancelled services are common. Collapsed overhead power lines and unexplained delays are the rule.

Ageing trains? I don't know... maybe on commuter lines, but neither ICs nor the Thalys trains (which are TGVs) are particularly old or decrepit. Some unexplained delays might be down to construction works – the environs of Antwerp Central Station were completely rebuilt, and this year, the Antwerp–Amsterdam high-speed line will open...

In provincial France, at lunchtime, many rail services cease for a "maintenance break" - really just lunch.

First time I hear this. Not that it would mean much on a decrepit slow branchline. But I have a faint suspicion that this is either some nice anti-French stereotype at work, or the author missed some operational reasons for a stop (say, late passing train on single-track line).

Even managers at SNCF, the French state train operator, admit regional services have been allowed to deteriorate to fund the high-speed expansion.

Well, I don't know if any manager 'admitted' it, but it is a frequent accusation. Personally I think regional services were allowed to deteriorate independently of high-speed spending, and it is a trans-European phenomenon. Meanwhile, in recent years, there was at least tremendous new investment into new regional (TER) rolling stock.

To a traveller arriving from space, it might not even be obvious whether the European mainland or the island off the French shore had the worse transport system.

Dream on. Not outer space, but pretty far away, I read Americans giving Britain's trains an unfavourable comparison to what is on offer elsewhere in Western Europe.

Certainly the Continent has more impressive showcases - France's TGVs, Frankfurt's U-Bahn, Denmark's bridges. But the UK transport system has fewer areas as neglected as, say, outer urban rail lines north of Paris, with trains well over 40 years old.

That sounds impressive to age-fetishists, and lovers of the throwaway economy, but in reality, those 40-year-old trains are

  1. better-built than 40-year-old British counterparts (structural strength, size),
  2. continuously maintained and upgraded (I'd guess the interior doesn't resemble the original much),
  3. the operation of urban rail changes little with time (frequent stops, no high top speed remain, lots of doors and low-comfort seats for short travels remain).

Then again, the maintenance of old French (or any other non-Swiss) trains doesn't compare to the maintenance of old Swiss trains.

Trains in many parts of Britain are nearly new and services link many big cities several times an hour, at good speeds. Nearly 90 per cent of British trains now arrive on time - within five minutes for most trains and 10 minutes for long distance. Few mainland European countries publish comparable figures but there is little to suggest Britain is far behind most counterparts on this measure.

It would be better to write about the punctuality of (sub)urban, express and regional services separately – they are typically progressively lower in the above order. For (sub)urban rapid transit, 90% would be rather low for continental railways.

On the other hand, the situation certainly improved a lot in Britain since the big maintenance-related chaos. Then again, I'm told it is a big problem that the different private railways often won't wait for each others' trains, giving a finger to transfer passengers.

Above all, if the spaceman looked for a long time he might notice how quickly rail use in the UK was growing. According to the Association of Train Operating Companies, there were 42 per cent more passenger kilometres on the British railways in 2005 than in the mid-1990s. Passenger growth is running at about 10 per cent annually. No other European country matches such rates and it is hard to imagine they could be achieved by a railway much worse than its counterparts elsewhere. It is precisely because British trains have become so popular that overcrowding has become an issue.

No, overcrowding should have been foreseen by any decent planning, and the issue is directly linked to the malaise of Railtrack/Network Rail. Note:

  1. this growth came after a strong decline, also involving a certain Mrs. Thatcher;
  2. this growth was made possible by the creation of large externalities: only by separating infrastructure and operation, and the first setting low rates for the latter, could private railway operators lower fares and massively invest into rolling stock;
  3. infrastructure underfunding and mismanagement led to accidents and that to an emergency maintenance program, and that to chaos on the rails and bankruptcy of the infrastructure operator.

As they try to improve patronage, standards and value for money on their rail systems, many continental countries are, tellingly, turning to techniques such as franchising, based on British models.

LOL no, such policies are related to (1) EU policy for rail liberalisation, (2) general neolib Zeitgeist. And at least some have the sense to do it differently than the British model, generally viewed as problematic even by liberalisation proponents.

This is not to say Britain's transport system is without problems. Parts of the overground railways date back to 1825, parts of the London Underground to 1863. The railways descended into chaos amid largely unfounded panic about safety six years ago.

LARGELY UNFOUNDED PANIC!? Says who!?

But when Britons bemoan their transport system they generally mean only: "Why can't we have nice fast trains like the French?" or "I had a rotten journey to work today". The answer to the first complaint is in the Eddington report on the UK transport system, published late last year. The report says smaller projects provide greater benefits at lower risk than grand ones such as high-speed lines. While some French high-speed lines have been great successes, many have been over-budget, under-used white elephants.

Whatta spin. Even being (somewhat) over-budget and being (somewhat) under-used doesn't preclude them from being profitable – no white elephants, no Eurotunnel-style disasters of which British readers will think. And the under-performance of some French lines is no argument against any British line. And comparing smaller projects to a new high-speed line sounds like apples and oranges to me – different type of travels would be drawn (more air vs. more car/bus). And if you shy away from risk the state won't shy away from, don't praise the private economy to me.

"I had a rotten journey to work", meanwhile, is a subjective argument.

LOL! Last I heard, train lateness and over-crowdedness are measurable quantities.

It does not compare one's journey to work in London with a similar, possibly equally awful, one by a Parisian. Even if slightly more Londoners have a rotten journey, the striking thing is not the difference between the UK and the mainland but the similarity. Both face challenges of growing personal mobility putting strains on infrastructure whose capacity is hard to expand.

The difference is in how one faces those challenges. Paris built a RER network with five trunk lines, and bought innumerable double-deck trains. London's Crossrail project is still on the drawing board.

That the French railway system can - for €30m ($40m, £20m) on specially prepared track with a specially modified train and souped-up power supply - run a train at 574.8km/h will boost la gloire française and sell fast trains abroad. Britain is not necessarily worse for concentrating on more mundane tasks.

LOL. What about running London–Manchester trains at 320 km/h? 300 km/h? 250 km/h? Or just 225 km/h? ...I forgot, that was the original plan for the WCML... but those 'more mundane tasks' involved bad planning and an unimplementable train control system, leading to tripling costs. There is one of Mr. Wright's lower-risk smaller-scale projects...

As closing note, I'd say the article has at least some good points, but overall, it reeks of a hit superiority complex...

:: :: :: :: ::

Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

Display:
I forgot, that was the original plan for the WCML...

For the non-Brits: the West Coast Mainline (WCML) is one of Britain's top railway lines (it is actually a whole network of lines between London and Glasgow). In the nineties, it was decided that instead of building a parallel high-speed line, it shall be four-tracked throughout, and with the introducion of a so-called moving-bock train control/signalling system (basically: trains are followed and their brake distances are calculated continuously, so they can be allowed to follow each other more tightly), 225 km/h should be possible on it with tilting trains.

What then happened in reality: moving-block just couldn't be made operational, so a traditional signalling had to be installed extra, and there was a lot of unforeseen extra work for the track construction/reconstruction. So there were delays (another big cost booster), costs tripled, even while plans were cut back: not the entire line is four-tracked, and top speed is only 200 km/h.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 06:06:17 PM EST

While some French high-speed lines have been great successes, many have been over-budget, under-used white elephants.

Which ones? The SNCF has long been blamed for refusing to build more high speed lines because they would not hit minimum return targets. That attitude is still prevalent with RFF (the entity that now manages the network independently of the railways), and this is what delayed the Eastern TGV for so long.

Maybe the most problematic one has been the Eurostar, but surely that has causes not completely related to France... (cf Mitterrand's great jibe about the ability to leisurely enjoy the beautiful English countryside...)

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 06:14:41 PM EST
LGV Nord indeed didn't get the traffic envisaged for it, but that needs the extra note that original plans had another, more direct line to the Chunnel if traffic grows...

But, a line fitting the description up to the white elephant is the TGV Mediterranée: expensive, and initial traffic somewhat below predictions. However, it should be noted that the envisaged air/rail market share was reached -- in other words, the lower numbers were recession-related and hit the entire market, not just rail.

One thing I don't have data about is the financial performance of the Atlantique line.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 06:23:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Mitterrand's great jibe about the ability to leisurely enjoy the beautiful English countryside...

Sounds like a fair enough reason to build a railroad...

Or well, considering the externalities of all non-rail transportation, all railroads are good railroads.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 04:26:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Please understand here.  This Brit is expressing an attitude that a great many people believe in their hearts here in the English-speaking world.  They BELIEVE that the most successful societies are those where rich men with visions should make the important decisions.  And it may be argued that the huge lead the Brits once had in industrialization was due to this strategy.

The problem is that when it comes to doing the VERY difficult things, government financial support combined with a strictly enforced meritocratic bureaucracy produces far superior results.  A well organized group of smart folks can usually outperform the greatest individual genius.  

So here we have it.  The French have demonstrated that when it comes to running very fast trains, strategy 2 is clearly the winner.  But our poor Brit friend has had his most deeply held, most theologically sacred beliefs challenged but rather than admit the obvious, he actually starts an argument with a TRAIN.

I am so deeply sorry I am a monolingual Midwestern 'Merikun because their are time when I believe the simple act of thinking in English is a prime cause of mental retardation or as Veblen put it more gently, "trained incapacity."


"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 11:52:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
because their are time when

that's

because there are times when

sheesh

"Remember the I35W bridge--who needs terrorists when there are Republicans"

by techno (reply@elegant-technology.com) on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 12:01:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
they are indeed still there, and they work just fine (and their insides have indeed been refurbished). And it's not just on the Gare du Nord network (also the A and C RER lines). They are slowly replacing them with double deckers, though.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 06:17:14 PM EST
(I should note on the sidelines though that compared to the 40-year-old or even 20-year-old trains I ride on daily, refurbished or not, older British trains may be preferable... but better leace ex-East-Bloc out of the equation, Mr. Wright might not count us as Europe anyway.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 06:36:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wait Wait RER A single deckers are 40 years old? would not have guessed, and i am honest. The double deckers look just the same to me...

Rien n'est gratuit en ce bas monde. Tout s'expie, le bien comme le mal, se paie tot ou tard. Le bien c'est beaucoup plus cher, forcement. Celine
by UnEstranAvecVueSurMer (holopherne ahem gmail) on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 07:22:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There are two kinds of single deckers ; those that do the Saint-Germain En Laye - Boissy trip are the (almost) 40 years old MS61, and they are currently going through their half-life refitting. The new interiors are quite nice :)

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 08:51:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah ok... I only know those on the A line... btw i thought the double deckers only went to marne la vallee, not boissy. Has that changed?
Thanks for the info anyway.

Rien n'est gratuit en ce bas monde. Tout s'expie, le bien comme le mal, se paie tot ou tard. Le bien c'est beaucoup plus cher, forcement. Celine
by UnEstranAvecVueSurMer (holopherne ahem gmail) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 01:26:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The general rule is what you say, double deckers, being SNCF owned rather than RATP, generally do the Cergy-Poissy -- Marne La Vallée journey, but any trouble on the line is likely to change that.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 04:32:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
for its "oh there's still something the French are seen as doing right, that cannot be tolerated, let's take a flamethrower at it" approach.

Thanks for the level-headed commentary, DoDo.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 06:18:24 PM EST
I knew I should do this after the first four paragraphs, and then started to write it without first reading the rest. By the time I got to the closing paragraph, I was pretty pissed off myself...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 06:31:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
start writing themselves before you're able to finish reading the piece.

Often, my outrage meter is flaring within a few sentences with red pen figuratively (or even physically) marking up a piece before I can get past the first paragraph or two.

Good discussion.

My reaction -- wow, if the United States only had a rail system that was as comprehensive and functioned as well as rail in the UK ...

Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart. NOW!!!

by a siegel (siegeadATgmailIGNORETHISdotPLEASEcom) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 11:44:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Slightly off topic but:

Is That Finally the Sound of a 2nd Ave. Subway?

And talking about slandered, Europeans, particularly Germans, have IME some pretty strange ideas about the NYC subway, particularly crime related. Everybody seemed to believe that you couldn't ride after nine or ten at night or you'd run a serious risk of getting murdered or at least mugged.

by MarekNYC on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 06:20:18 PM EST
I guess the effect of watching too much TV, like watching the French 'riots' on TV.

I note that in railway circles, the success of reorganising and cleaning up NYC's subway was noted widely, it was no flunk idea from London's "Red Ken" to invite Bob Kiley as advisor.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 06:29:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One of my favorite NYC activities was the ritual Saturday night "navigate the subway back to the upper west side hostel at 5am while highly intoxicated." I never once felt unsafe.

They just opened a new light rail line here in SF.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 07:00:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's one of the problems of the Paris metro - it stops during the night ! That's quite dumb...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 08:53:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd imagine they need to do maintenance at night. I know that's the main reason the London tube doesn't run all night. It's a 100 year old system and needs daily tweaking to keep going.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 05:43:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
New York's metro is quite as old, and doesn't stop during the night. Berlin runs all night too. The thing is, it's pretty expensive to keep the metro running at night, so taxi's end up being the preferred solution... Too expensive for some, though. Night buses in Paris are quite a revelation : plenty of black workers coming back from their day's work... at 3 or four AM.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 05:47:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've read that the tube doesn't have enough redundancy to allow for maintenance while running. I've forgotten the details, and the relevant book is in a box somewhere ...
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 05:53:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You can't do track and signalling maintenance while trains are running.

Train maintenance is relatively simple. But 'planned engineering work' is a regular feature on both the tube and on mainline trains, with train services replaced by a bus so that track maintenance can be done safely.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 08:57:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You can do maintenance on one track while thinned-out off-rush-hour traffic of both directions uses the other track.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 09:00:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not in the UK. I suspect it's physically impossible on the Tube - if only because the signalling won't support it.

The situation on mainline rail seems to be that revising the timetable and dealing with signalling issues is too much effort. So it's easier to organise a posession for a stretch of track in both directions.

I'm sure wrong-way working happens occasionally, but it doesn't seem to happen much here.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 09:11:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting discussion.

I know that in Stockholm there is no technical reason for the subways to close after midnight - which they do. They used to run all night (though they did not run often in the middle of the night), but a couple of years ago they decided to stop. It was a mixture of preventing crime, preventing homeless persons to sleep in the subway stations, making maintenance easier and the general urge to look like they were doing something. The night-time bus drivers were not so happy about it.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 01:52:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In NYC the lines are typically four track in the inner parts of the city with a local and express, splitting off into two track on the outer edges. So what you get is that for a month or two a part of the line is express or local only on weekends and/or late nights for maintenance and repairs. On the two track lines they'll sometimes shut them down entirely late nights for maintenance. But there's no conceivable reason why you would need to close the entire system at nights.
by MarekNYC on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 03:01:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
slight correction - if the local is down it's one way only, meaning if you want to get to a local stop you overshoot on the express and switch back on a local going the other way.
by MarekNYC on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 03:23:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When they need to do maintenance in the New York system they just shut down whatever line needs maintenance overnight or on the weekend.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 01:31:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My subway line has been in operation every night since 1904 -- that's 103 years. It's true that maintenance is pretty much nonstop, but it's still a great ride and the stations are kitschy and fun. Unless it's 20 below zero, you don't really mind waiting fifteen minutes at 4:00 in the morning.
by Matt in NYC on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 03:10:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The underground stations tend to be warmer than outside, so the big problem is summer. The 125th St. stop on the 1 is  utterly brutal on a cold, windy, winter day. Several stories up, smack in the crossroads of two wind corridors, brrr. Though you do get nice views over the river and all across Harlem. In general the subway's got a sort of retro industrial grunge esthetic - the grime, the rats, the peeling paint, the chipped mosaics, the exposed I beams. It grows on you. Back when I lived in DC  my visiting friends would mock the Metro with its clean polished granite stations and carpeted cars as antiseptic and characterless. Didn't get it then, do now. Plus rats on the tracks beats rats on the sidewalks any day; and they provide a nice distraction while waiting for a train.
by MarekNYC on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 03:57:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
but do you really believe that the uptown section will be running "by 2013"? It was pretty obvious that the guy in the NYT video didn't.

Still, you gotta love New York. Hope springs etoynal!

by Matt in NYC on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 03:14:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Fingers crossed.
by MarekNYC on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 03:19:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Standard nonsense from the FT:

Growth - you've covered this. If anything it should prove that the market for train services already existed and could easily have been kept and nurtured by intelligent strategic planning. (Note as usual that 'growth' is apparently the only metric that matters.)

Punctuality - punctuality has been massaged by moving the goal posts. Many services run with delays built into the schedule, so journey times have been sacrificed to make punctuality figures appear better. (This is literally true, by the way - it's not exaggeration, rhetoric or paranoia.)

Service quality - there's nothing subjective about having to stand where ten years ago you'd have had no problem finding a seat. There's also nothing subjective about trains that carry fewer passengers on journeys that take longer. (I'll admit that new trains have mostly been an improvement, but there's another angle on that.)

Not mentioned by the estimable Mr Wright:

Subsidy levels - running at between three and five times pre-privatisation levels. Effectively tax payers are paying far more for a poorer service. They're also paying twice, because fares have been incresed to between five and fifty (!) times pre-privatisation levels.

Service provision - many routes have been cut. There have been two major passenger mutinies - on First Great Western and South Western - when passengers staged non-payment protests about time table cuts and fare increases.

Maintenance - is a patchwork of responsibilities between the companies that own trains and the companies that run trains. Identical trains can have very different MPC (miles per casualty) levels depending on who runs them. Many new trains have suffered from severe teething troubles and MPC figures of only a few thousand miles.

Comfort - while some new trains are better, flagship services, including Voyagers and Pendolinos, are far less comfortable on longer journeys than the HSTs they replaced.

Strategic planning - there isn't any. There's some low-level tinkering of the network, with a bit of track doubling here and resignalling there. But there's absolutely no interest in larger projects, extended electrification, or planning for customer demand over the next few decades. The Olympics will get some high-PR services for 2012, but the rest of the South East, or indeed the rest of the country, can forget about any significant capacity upgrades.

Franchising - is a bad joke. The bidding process wastes millions, smart companies know how to play the DfT to cream off short term profits from subsidies before declaring themselves unable to fulfill the terms of their contract, and no one has ever been able to explain what franchising is for.

A sane solution would be to renationalise rail, keep the best managers, recall the good managers and engineers who have left, keep current subsidy levels and use them to build up capacity.

But that's not going to happen, because everyone has to worship at the Free Market temple.

So instead we get a running financial sore, with pretty new trains, vast oceans of wasted money, wretchedly unhappy passengers, but oh so very much 'growth' to justify it all.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 06:36:18 PM EST
In provincial France, at lunchtime, many rail services cease for a "maintenance break" - really just lunch.

That's pure French-bashing bullshit.

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Mon Apr 9th, 2007 at 07:20:50 PM EST
I was about to make the same comment. It's complete rubbish. Why is it so apparently easy to get away with anti-French nonsense like this? Imagine how

In provincial Britain, at teatime, many rail services cease for a "maintenance break" - really just tea.

would go down.

OTOH, the picture regarding service on French regional lines is mixed. There are the good sides (see our recent pics of new, comfortable regional trains), but it's undoubtedly the case that the regions themselves have furthered improvement and are keeping lines open (by funding them) against the wishes of SNCF, which often seems to be dragging its feet. SNCF seems only really enthusiastic about running TGVs.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 02:16:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For some reason i had bookmarked this Guardian article from last year, it paints all but a pretty picture of British train privatization...

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1823607,00.html

by Torres on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 06:00:14 AM EST
Excellent and timely, Torres!

In Britain, when you commit a fraud costing thousands you go to prison. When you bring a great industry to its knees, costing billions through incompetence, you get a job in a City bank. That is where those responsible for rail privatisation were ensconced: Lord Lamont (Rothschild), Lord Macgregor (Hill Samuel) and the scheme's architect, the Treasury's Sir Steve Robson (Royal Bank of Scotland). All were warned that the 1993 Rail Act would be a disaster. Rubbish, they said, they knew better. I hope the banks are counting their spoons.

Note, as DoDo says, that Wright in the FT article speaks of growth from the mid-90s because that was a very low point... A self-serving argument to say the least.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 06:19:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The difficulty is that both statements about UK rail systems are true...in parts. I enjoy a very good frequent service where I live and believe that the service is at least adequate outside of rush hour all around london. I have travelled regionally as well and found the service to be excellent if time consuming.

Yes, of course, it gets frantic at rush hour, but that's what happens when govt policy for the last 25 years has been to concentrate practicallly the whole of national employment possibilities into the 20 sq miles inside the cicle line tube in london. Apparently they call it market forces, although personally I'd call it abdication of government.

It is undeniable that successive governments have underinvested in the British railway system. It was often noted that the French had a much better railway system because they put five times as much support into it. As is usual in the UK, we want the services but aren't prepared to fund it properly. So it just limps along and we moan about it.

Privatising the railways didn't stop that problem, it just shifted the blame. That the subsidy is now at the levels British Rail always needed it is worth noting that a substantial portion (anout 1/3 if memory serves) of that is trousered by directors and shareholders.

Right now, the system needs major overhauls of signalling across most sectors. The price of travel for anything but journeys planned a month or two in advance is prohibitive. Most car journeys are cheaper that the equivalent train travel, even for single travellers. The only incentive to use the train is that in the South East the road network is worse than the railway.

Yes, there can be problems with reliability, but much less than is supposed. However weekend off-peak travel is often subject to maintenance interruptions that prevent casual leisure use.

NB The reason Crossrail hasn't been started is that everybody knows it's a political vanity project. There is no demonstrable purpose for the line that can possibly justify the cost. It's a nice-to-have but there are many projects with a higher priority and greater justification.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 06:18:32 AM EST
There is no demonstrable purpose for the line that can possibly justify the cost.

Maybe then planned costs are too high. I think London would sorely need through connections on rail and an express-metro-like service to relieve the Tube, e.g. just what the RER is in Paris (and the S-Bahn in Berlin or Vienna); and what the Crossrail 1, 2, the East London Line and Thameslink2000 were supposed to integrate into.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 06:34:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I really don't think that it is possible to deliver service improvments in London for the simple reason that demand is so high that sufficient provision is economically unrealistic.

We need to move employment out of London and thus shift the demand. It's somewhat like the need to provide alternative energy souces in the face of peak oil; the biggest single factor that would make a difference is reducing demand. Right now that is taking place, but it's a generational shift as London increasingly becomes unbearable for those on even reasonable income.

Once teachers, nurses, firemen, rubbish collectors, waiters, bar workers are priced out of the south east (which is happening) then other parts of Britain become more attractive employment centres. But that will happen too slowly and government should take a lead in changing the financial environment to encourage business to leave london. Instead they abdicate responsibility, and wait for the whole thing to fall in on some successive government's head.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 07:13:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
demand is so high that sufficient provision is economically unrealistic

London is not bigger and less employment-centralised than Paris. But I agree that moving employment out might be a sensible goal.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 09:02:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd dispute this. Although the nominal populations for the two cities is about the same, the fact is that london is surrounded by an extremely densely populated commuter zone about 120 miles wide and the effective population of this extended area is about 25 million. Most of whom derive their principal income from within the Circle line.

 Paris has nothing like such a zone and os the pressure on its central services is noticeably less.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 09:26:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Paris city "core" has 2 millions inhabitants and is three times denser than the inner London, I guess that's part of why there's less stress on central transport.

The whole area around Paris is about 11 millions people.

http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agglom%C3%A9ration_parisienne

I read paper that said that lots of workers went from one place outside Paris to work outside Paris too while the central system was designed to bring people to Paris though.

by Laurent GUERBY on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 10:30:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Do you have a source for the 25 million number? The Wiki article on the London commuter belt says 13,945,000, while its source says all of Southeast England is 18,387,000 people. For Paris, the comparable number is 11,100,523 (for Île-de-France in 2001).

At any rate, the Paris mass transit system carries much more passengers than London's. In 2005, London had 971 million Tube, 53 million DLR and 503 million rail passengers. In the same year, Paris had 1,372.7 million Métro passengers, 444.5 million RER passengers on the part of the network run by Paris transport authority RATP, and a further 633 million on the rest or RER and suburban lines run by Transilien, SNCF's Île-de-France rapid transit branch.

I note the central element of the RER network are three long tunnels across the city.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 11:08:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
...on the other hand, buses are 1816 million in London vs. c. 991,4 million for RATP in Paris. I'm not sure these figures are that comparable, though.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 11:16:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
RATP is not the only bus carrier in the Paris metro area. It only handles bus in Paris itself and the inner suburbs, whereas there are other carriers for the outer suburbs. It probably doesn't make up for a billion trips, though.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 04:26:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I suspect Transport of London isn't the only bus carrier in the London commuter area, either, though it may operate on a larger part of this territory than the part of I-de-F RATP operates in.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 05:20:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think she's speaking of the London economic region, in general, which would include parts of the East, South and perhaps a bit of the Midlands.  I could be wrong, but I've read the 25m figure before.  It's the joy of drawing lines to decide whether an area falls into "Greater London" or "Greater New York" or whatever other city you like.  I suppose "Greater Miami" is in the tens of millions if we draw the line out to Charleston.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 11:45:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, the most relevant for the issue debated is just the commuter area. We could include ever wider regions around Paris, too. (Especially now that some people commute on the TGV from as far away as Marseille...)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 01:54:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think 120 miles is pushing it a bit.  That's essentially St Pancras to Nottingham, and there's really just Luton, Leicester, and a lot of farmland in between, once you clear the M25.  And, heading in a straight line, that brings you almost to Manchester from Camden.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 11:37:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, there is a difference between diameter and radius :-)))

That's Brighton to Milton Keynes, Basinstoke to Colchester, Canterbury to Oxford

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 01:24:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When I lived in Bath - about two hours from London by train - I knew people who did a daily commute to London.

The London catchment area is bogglingly huge. People commute from all kinds of insane places, usually because of property prices.

Someone else I know commutes from Newcastle to Reading for the week - around 300 miles - and then back again at weekends. By car.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 05:33:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Paris has a pretty large commute area too, if we're talking about extreme cases. Every town less than one hour away by TGV has some commuters ; I've known a colleague coming from Arras, heard of Rouen, and I'm ready to bet there exist a few Lyon Paris commuters... Although the cost becomes very high (TGV ain't that cheap).

Also, there is a new phenomenon of tax evaders who have residency in Belgium, while working in Paris.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 06:43:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm certain I have read of businessmen who even do Marseille-Paris commuting, but don't remember where. WIll try to search.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 05:21:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Here they say Paris has 45,000 daily TGV commuters.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 05:35:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I know people who commute from Swansea daily to London, And at the local station for my Father, it is impossible to get a seat on the train before nine in the morning, as they are packed with people commuting from Nottingham and Derby.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Wed Apr 11th, 2007 at 06:00:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's got to become a sensible goal, because too many people -- as Helen noted, in critical areas like schools, fire stations, etc -- are being priced out.  My read of it is that a person needs to bring in roughly £15-20k, after income taxes, to live a fairly comfortable -- defined here as having plenty of money to afford basic necessities (a flat or, more likely, flatshare; food; utilities; council tax; etc) and a little bit of spending cash -- young person's kind of life in London, based on the lowest rents I've found being about £400/month (give or take a few tens per week) inside the M25 and using the old 25% of Income rule.  Problem: £20k is a lot of money.  It's roughly the median for a given person in one of the developed countries.  You're, of course, more likely to earn more than that in a major city like London, but probably not that much more.

I, honestly, don't follow the reasoning behind businesses not having moved already.  Most of the recruits from universities are going to be well outside of London.  The rents are going to be cheaper.  The wages paid are going to be lower, given the difference in the cost of living, alone.  It doesn't make sense, economically, to feed everything into it, the City be damned.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.

by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 10:57:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's interesting as there has been pressure on London housing for a long time. It's worth remembering that it's only 30 years or so that London has been such a sole focus of the UK economy. These "market-led" changes generally take on the order of a lifetime to actually occur, so businesses will start moving out in another 20 years or so, in time for my 50th birthday...
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 01:26:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Keeping employment concentrated makes mass transit commuting possible. If you want to encourage mass transit over cars then you need to discourage the development of offices outside city centers.
by MarekNYC on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 03:05:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Either that or build a comprehensive netowrk of orbital/spiral trams.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 03:18:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Apparently they call it market forces, although personally I'd call it abdication of government.

Oh they call it that too. explicitly.


In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 08:34:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Blair should have re-nationalised the railways in his first year in office. It was a huge wasted opportunity and it would have been popular with almost everyone, especially among South-East Tories and swing voters who Blair was desperate to impress(Labour's core voters in the North and Midlands generally use the railways less).

But New Labour always neglected transport, which is surprising as transport is one area of government spending which is supported by right-wing supply siders and business interests (so long as they are not taxed to pay for it).

by lemonwilmot (lemonwilmot at gmail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 06:46:44 AM EST
Godz, on a long list of things Blair should have done.....

Yes, re-nationalising should have happened, even now the Tories can get caned simply because their names were on the privatisation. Blair probably reasoned he could save money by not re-nationalising as he knew the tories could never disavow their deed and he could always kick them for it. Renationalise and it's his problem again. Hatfield proved that ("see, we're having to fix their mess")

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 07:21:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Another thing, a reason often sited for the prohibitive cost of a TGV-type system (and on-shore wind farms, and a reasonable level of house building) in the UK is the decentralised planning system - i.e. there are too many nimbys who object to any planning proposal near their property and tie it up for years.

How do other countries (esp. France) deal with their nimbys? Can the central government just overrule local authorities?

by lemonwilmot (lemonwilmot at gmail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 06:51:29 AM EST
In France, you can declare a project one of National Interest, and then NIMBY has much less legal possibilities.

However, in general, I am symphatetic to a solution where all local grievances get a hearing and solutions are sought, even if it costs extra time, rather than (heh) railroad over any protests. Some NIMBY protests are justified, and not only when the issue is an airport runway or new highway, even for cleaner technologies I favour.

In Britain, it may be that NIMBYs don't have to make a strong case.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 09:09:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There may also be a small difference in population density... A high speed line has a lot fewer backyards to cross in France as in the UK, i'd bet.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 09:51:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yep, I also made that argument to richardk (a thread where England vs. France and London vs. Paris was already discussed).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 02:00:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
is that the French State preempted corridors as early as 50 years ago for freeways or railway tracks - i.e. bits if land that were deemed not usable for residential or commercial use, where they expected there would be a need for infrastructure in the future.

Similarly, the land area around Roissy was reserved more than 40 years ago, thus the airport is the only one in Europe that can extend pretty easily (whether that's a good thing today is another debate), because the NIMBYs has very little recourse - because no backyards could be built where there'd a conflict...

Very long term strategic planning by the State can make things a lot easier later. There's still a bit of that going on in the French government, but less than there used to be, unfortunately.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 03:28:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
On the ageing trains between Brussels and Amsterdam, cancelled services are common. Collapsed overhead power lines and unexplained delays are the rule.

Where the hell that comes from.
Delays on that line happen once in a while because of police-searches in the weekend for drug-trafficking.
The writer missed some facts.
Since the reopening this year of the Antwerp-station and opening the new tunnel traveltime Brussels-Amsterdam is 25% faster as before. New loco's are put in service on that line to maintain speed even on the tunnel-slopes.

The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.(Kundera)
by Elco B (elcob at scarlet dot be) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 06:51:48 AM EST
Commenting a bit late, but to add to the general air of irritation at the article:

The column is depressingly anecdotal, I could come up with a different slant citing my own experiences in the UK, Netherlands and Germany, but what's the point? It's a sign of how low FT standards are more than anything.

TBG is correct that the "punctuality figures" are a farce. Travelling from Doncaster to London by train now takes 15 mins longer than it did 20 years ago. At least on the schedule. On the good days we arrive "10 mins early." It is true that reliability/punctuality is a virtue in a network, it makes travel planning possible. All the same, there is a distortion going on here.

Helen gets onto the other most critical point: inside a particular radius from London, the system is pretty good, albeit still overcrowded at rush hour in my experience. However, outside this radius there a number of black spots in the picture.

For example, if we look at overcrowding on the trains and the roads around Manchester and Leeds (lots of congestion problems, overcrowding and late/cancelled services) compared to my limited experience in Lyons or larger experience in Koeln, then it seems to me that the transport problems are quite a bit worse here.

In particular, peak hour commuting times are pretty scary for Leeds (where I travel most often at the moment.)

And yes, as Helen says, compared to the years of underinvestment the system isn't performing badly, but compared to better funded and organised systems it looks like a joke.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 08:43:17 AM EST
I realise as well that buried in my response, but also in this FT column is an issue that really affects any discussion of the rail network, that is the state of the road network.

The point about the state of the rail network here is that it is incapable of meeting current demand at a time when the roads (up here, don't know about London generally, but the M25 has some bad times too) is approaching gridlock.

One of the main ways you can see the rail network is performing better in other parts of Europe is simply that the road network has not been pushed to such a brink (generally) because rail is an effective alternative.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 08:46:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's strategic non-planning in action. The government isn't really interested in getting the job done, so much as keeping sweet with the City, the infrastructure companies, and the construction companies.

A new stretch of motorway typically costs between two and five times as much as an equivalent rail link. But according to the Treasury, rail is 'too expensive.'

In most countries this would be considered corruption and would be investigated by the General Accounting Office.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 09:15:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Travelling from Doncaster to London by train now takes 15 mins longer than it did 20 years ago. At least on the schedule. On the good days we arrive "10 mins early."

The airlines (in the US at least, and probably everywhere) started using that nasty trick in the early 90's. I've been on 2 hour flights that arrived 30 minutes early.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 01:34:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I sympathize with part of the article, in the sense that I didn't find transport to be overwhelmingly unreliable in Britain.  (I do, however, think Helen would agree with me when I say that the train we took from Gatwick to Brighton was absolutely filthy.  The St Pancras to Notts ones were generally quite nice, though, and, in my experience, always on time.)  The Underground is very expensive compared with the Metro in Washington -- about £5.00/day vs. (at peak times) about $4.00/day, if I remember correctly.  But I've never compared the Underground with the New York subway, and, as things tend to be in DC, I believe the Metro is heavily subsidized by the entire country.  (I know it was when it was constructed.  I could be wrong about it still being so.)  Whether or not that is also true of London, I don't know.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 10:28:28 AM EST
I confess I didn't notice the state of the train. I think we get used to grimy and litter-strewn being the default state of Britain, I only notice if it's actually clean.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue Apr 10th, 2007 at 01:30:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The difference is in how one faces those challenges. Paris built a RER network with five trunk lines, and bought innumerable double-deck trains. London's Crossrail project is still on the drawing board.

What's the point of crossrail when the quite extensive commuter rail network (See the London Connections map - PDF) in London is left to decay? Wouldn't it be wort it upgrading some of the rail lines within Greater London, and improving the trainsets?

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Apr 19th, 2007 at 06:13:51 AM EST
But the UK transport system has fewer areas as neglected as, say, outer urban rail lines north of Paris, with trains well over 40 years old.

Like some of the neglected London Connections lines I mention above.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Apr 19th, 2007 at 06:16:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It is also a way to renew the rest of the commuter connections. When you are buying new trains, all trains trickle down and the worst train get dumped :)

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Thu Apr 19th, 2007 at 08:02:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not if you buy new trains for a new line.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Apr 19th, 2007 at 08:18:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The concept of French RER is that you link two or moreexisting lines (coming from opposite side of the city) by an underground tunnel... Not really creating new lines. Usually the places which you want to connect crossrail to already have lines.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Thu Apr 19th, 2007 at 08:39:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Crossrail is a new line, with its own new tunnel, I believe.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Apr 19th, 2007 at 09:01:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The tunnel will be new, but it is reausing existing lines in the suburbs :

A pdf map

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Thu Apr 19th, 2007 at 10:24:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Precisely. Crossrail was inspired by the RER.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Apr 20th, 2007 at 04:02:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Crossrail project is about renovating lines in Greater London, not just a new tunnel. (Same for the East London line.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Apr 20th, 2007 at 04:01:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]


Display:
Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]

Top Diaries