April 02, 2002

But Passenger Numbers Have Gone Up!

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | British Rail Privatisation

The claim is often made that despite its many failings pseudo-privatisation of the UK's railways has led to a huge increase in passengers. Figures of about 30% are typically bandied about, the implication being that the private sector has created a more attractive package on the railways and that, therefore, more people want to use them. It is certainly true that a lot more people are using the railways but the question is why and does pseudo-privatisation really account for the increase? There are other possible explanations: people living further from work, the increase in taxes on petrol and Britain's economic boom. Is it possible to isolate these factors and come up with a reasonable estimate as to the real impact of pseudo-privatisation?

I ask because my own experiences on the railway leave me deeply sceptical. In the early 1990s I commuted to London using BR. It wasn't great, it wasn't particularly bad. Sometimes I got a seat, sometimes I didn't. The train was often full of litter but rarely dirty, though this may be because the trains were new. The service was acceptably unpunctual. I didn't really start using overland rail again until the late 1990s when I moved from Watford to Twickenham. It's a different service down here - electrified by third rail rather than overhead wire and the rolling stock is different so direct comparisons are difficult but my impressions are much the same. Trains are dirty, unpunctual and (if travelling at peak time) I sometimes get a seat. Vandalism, especially with the new practice of scratching windows seems to have got worse. I use trains more but that is mainly because I found the costs of keeping a car (in part due to petrol taxes) prohibitive and, well, driving is just no fun anymore. To sum up I do not use the train more because the service improved but because the alternatives got worse.

Is there a way of comparing things? Possibly. First of all in London we have the Tube which is still owned by the Government, so comparisons can be made there. Secondly, there is data from the last economic boom in the 1980s so it is possible to strip out (in a rather clumsy fashion) the increase in use due to economic growth. Unfortunately, I can see no way of factoring in the effect of the State's anti-road policy - all road users have suffered equally.

There is a further problem here. How do you measure train usage? There are at least three measures available: passenger journeys, passenger miles and revenue. And how are these being measured? The collection of fares is a haphazard business. Many stations in London do not have a ticket collector or an electronic gate. It is therefore very easy to dodge the fare and therefore the statistics. We have to assume that fare dodging has remained constant.

The only figures that are easy to compare are those between London Underground and the London Commuter TOCs.

According to the Ministry of Transport (or whatever it is called this week) the number of people arriving in London in the peak was as follows:

  LU LCTs 
1995/6 348 395
2000/1 389 465
Increase % 11.8 17.7
All figures in '000s click for source

Now, that sounds good for the TOCs but what we have to bear in mind is that TOC fares are controlled by an inflation-x formula while LU fares are controlled by politicians. According to my convoluted calculations the cost to travel a mile on LU has gone up by 9.4% in the period and on the ex-NSE it has fallen by 3.1%. See Tables 23 and 24

Cost/km on Network South East and its successors:

  Passenger Journeys (bn km) Receipts (£m) Cost/passenger km
1995/6  13.3 1293 0.097
2000/1  18.4  1732  0.094
Cost/passenger km (£) LU  NSE
1995/6  0.138  0.097
2000/1 0.151  0.094
Increase %  9.4  -3.1

From this point I have to make a leap of faith but it seems to me that the extra increase in journeys on "privatised" trains could quite easily be accounted for by the decrease in fares.

Or to put it another way passenger numbers have not increased as the result of a "better" service.

UPDATE

Are you from Malaysia? Have you reached this by typing in the words "unpunctual" or "train"? If so, you are one of many. I have got about 100 hits over recent days from people like you so please tell me, what is going on? Is it some school project or something? It may be the case that I can help you but I'll need to know a little more about what you want.

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Comments

Dear Sirs,

I'm not from Malaysia as you asked in "Update" but I am interested in your reports about the trains in the UK, too. I'm taking the MBA course and I'm working already on my dissertation. This essay is about the trains passengers' Zone of Tolerance. Basically at what point the passengers are not willing to take the train anymore and switch to the use of the car. The customer perspective of customers will be also measured: For example at what level car users would switch to the train service.

I would be delighted if you could send me any information about the public train service and its strengths and weaknesses. Your figures about the passenger increase is very helpful. Do you have any numbers from last year or could you give me advise where I could get it from?

Thank you very much for your support. If you have any questions or you need more details to give me advice please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you very much.

Best regards

Diana

Posted by Diana on July 6, 2004

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