May 10, 2004

Clarkson’s Great Race – and why frequency is often more important than speed

Patrick Crozier | Inter-modal Competition | Railways - Other

In a comment to Jackie’s post on satellite navigation Mark Holland manages to mention last night’s Top Gear in which Jeremy Clarkson challenged his co-presenters to a race from the Top Gear HQ in Cranleigh to Monte Carlo. Clarkson drove, his colleagues took the train. Why exactly, they didn’t pop down to Heathrow like everyone else is a mystery but that was the challenge. And Clarkson won.

That’s a bit of a shocker. I know there are all sorts of things that slow down train journeys. You have to get to the station. You have to buy your ticket. They have to slow for bends, dodgy track etc. They have to stop. I presume that his colleagues had to transfer in Paris but, you never know, maybe they didn’t. And I am sure that Clarkson took a “French” view of speed limits.

But even so I am surprised. The top speed of a TGV is 186mph. Average I would guess is about 140mph. My guess is that Clarkson (even he has to be mindful of his licence) was rarely driving at above 110mph. One wonders what he might have done if he’d really been allowed to rip.

So what happened? I wonder if SNCF frequency was the culprit.

I bet at some point the lads got off the TGV an age ahead of Clarkson and then discovered that the next train wasn’t for about an hour or so. That’s the thing about high-speed rail. You can have all the top speed you like, but if you can’t maintain it, if you’re stopping the whole time or the connections are poor you’ve had it.

Last weekend I found this out for myself. It was midday. The reception didn’t start until 1700. I thought “I know I’ll pop down to Basle”. And at shortly after 1300 there I was, in Switzerland. I thought I’d check the timetable for trains back. 1417. Fab. Oh and there’s another one at 1517 just in case. Even more fab. And then I took another look. 1417 doesn’t operate on a Saturday. Oh well. 1517 doesn’t operate on Bank Holidays.

Uh oh.

I was in big trub. Correction. I was already in big trub. Now I was in even bigger trub.

Frequency matters. BR, towards the end of the 1980s, was (as I understand it) pretty savvy about this. It regarded frequency as a surrogate for speed. It realised that if services were frequent enough then they could achieve end-to-end journey times the equivalent of or even better than if they had upgraded the line and bought swanky new trains. And all at a fraction of the cost.

Likewise the Tokaido Shinkansen (between Tokyo and Osaka) is at least as impressive for its frequency as it is for its top speed. A train leaves Tokyo station about every six minutes.

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Comments

The guys doing the train journey did have to transfer in Paris, and again in (I believe) Nice for the last 15 miles to Monte Carlo. Clarkson had to make multiple fuel stops, and hit a traffic jam before he even got to Dover, and had to slow down a bit in the home stretch to Monte Carlo, but I don't think the stoppages were quite equal.

The thing is, Clarkson sold it as a triumph for the car over public transport. I saw it as a triumph for the Aston Martin DB9. If we could all drive a £103,000 car to Casino Square, perhaps we'd all opt to drive to Monte Carlo instead of get the train or a plane.

Which is another thing they didn't tell us -- apart from the cost of procuring such a motor, what was the cost of the respective journeys?

I was also annoyed that they never told us by how much Clarkson actually beat the other two chaps to Casino Square. The editing made it seem like mere minutes, but who knows.

And I think it was a bit silly that Clarkson wasn't allowed to utilise any sort of train, and the other guys weren't allowed to get in any taxis (though coaches, while none were used, were allowed). It's so cheap to get a taxi in Paris, you can bet your ass that anyone rushing from Gare du Nord to catch their train at Gare de Lyon would hop in one for a couple of quid, rather than navigate the Metro with all their luggage. I thought that they sacrificed a bit of common sense and reality for the sake of their big race, which was a shame.

That said, it did make for suspenseful viewing, and was beautifully shot -- the production values for the driving scenes were excellent.

As it happens, I was telling a (transport-fixated, former trainspotter) friend about this race this evening, and he claimed not to be surprised that the car won. Which is another reason I wish they'd told us by just how many minutes Clarkson beat the boys who trained it.

Posted by Jackie D on May 10, 2004

Cost - taking a car on the ferry with two people varies from about £200 in the low season to up to £500 in the high season. One occupant isn't that much cheaper. From what I recall, the train costs around £250 - £300 for two people to get to Montpellier, so it wouldn't be hugely different.

Why didn't they change at Lille?

Posted by Mark Ellott on May 10, 2004

Jackie sums it up superbly.

Clarkson pulled out a huge lead early on. He was in France before James and Jeremy even got on to the Eurostar (they'd got a bus to Guildford and then SWT to Waterloo). Once they were on board they started to catchup.

I think Clarkson was near Troyes when they reached Paris. Like Jackie says they used the Metro to reach the Gare de Lyon and only caught their TGV with minutes to spare. Then they began to gain on Clarkson hand over fist.

Then, near Valance, the trainers did pull ahead. Sadly they had to go right in to Nice and get a couple of connecting trains which they not only had to wait for but which also weaved along the Cote D'Azur while Clarkson took the direct route.

It was edited to look like the lads were running up the road to the hotel while Jeremy had been there 10minutes and was nonchalantly sipping a coffee when they arrived puffing and panting.

A holiday programme breakdown of the different costs involved would have been interesting. I reckon ferry crossings with a car are very expensive (even to the Isle of Wight - £60!) and how much petrol does a 6 litre V12 Aston Martin DB9 guzzle?

Good fun anyway.

Posted by Mark Holland on May 10, 2004

Mark, Clarkson did say at one point that -- by his calculations -- the car was getting 19 mpg (motorway). Someone who's not as ignorant about continental petrol prices or lazy as I am can do the maths.

The whole ferry thing was lame. Rather than make it a contest of the car over all forms of public transport, I would have been more interested to see them do it the common sense way any punter (who had access to a £100k+ Aston Martin that goes up to 190mph...) would. But I guess they'd say I'm thinking outside the spirit of the race. It really was great viewing, though.

Posted by Jackie D on May 10, 2004

An un-scientific comparison. We travel to our house near Lodeve regularly and have tried different means of transport. Some rough door-to-door times:

Drive, fly, drive - Bristol, Stanstead, Montpellier: 12 hours

Train - Bristol, Paddington, Waterloo, Lille, Montpellier: 12 Hours

Drive, ferry (overnight), drive - Bristol, Portsmouth, Caen, Lodeve: 24 hours.

The most convenient is driving as we have our own vehicle and apart from the ferry crossing are our own agents. For pleasure? I'd take the train - first class ;-)

Posted by Mark Ellott on May 10, 2004

Changing trains in Paris seems a curious way of doing it. The normal way to go to the south of France by train is to switch from the Eurostar to a TGV at Lille, and then get a train to Marseilles (or somewhere else in the south) from there. Then you can get a direct train to Monte Carlo from Marseilles. That way you don't have the business of crossing from one station in Paris to another. (SNCF even built a TGV loop around Paris to allow this).

Of course, the frequency question pops up there, too. There may not be a train from Marseille to Marseilles at that time, although there likely is one at least to Lyon. There you could change again to a train to Marseilles that has come from Paris. It would still beat crossing Paris, I think.

Posted by Michael Jennings on May 10, 2004

I mean "Lille to Marseilles"

Posted by Michael Jennings on May 10, 2004

call me cynical, but is there no chance that they chose a train route specifically to give Clarkson a chance? the programme's about cars not trains after all

Posted by dgately on May 14, 2004

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