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
- better-built than 40-year-old British counterparts (structural strength, size),
- continuously maintained and upgraded (I'd guess the interior doesn't resemble the original much),
- 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:
- this growth came after a strong decline, also involving a certain Mrs. Thatcher;
- 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;
- 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...
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