May 2004

May 25, 2004

Expanding capacity, stretching credulity

Jackie D | Rail General

A deal brokered by Centro and Central Trains will see ten new diesel units added to one of the busiest lines in the West Midlands. A new "train every ten minutes" timetable is also planned for a September launch, when the first of these ten units are rolled out.

I used to live in the West Midlands, and frequently took the Stourbridge-Birmingham-Stratford line, so I noted this story with interest. (Of course, like most who flee the area, I plan never to return, so it's not as if this development will actually affect my life in any substantial way -- but still.) Apart from the typically chaotic and unreliable services in and out of Birmingham New Street, I couldn't say if the state of public transport in the West Midlands struck me as being any worse than services I've experienced in other parts of the country. But things certainly weren't remarkably better. Additional carriages and more frequent trains could only be welcome news to a beleaguered traveller.

That said, my eye stuck on a couple of claims in particular that Centro and Central Trains have made about public transport in the Midlands. One:

Centro say the trains will encourage up to 1,000 cars off the road.
If there are two little words that it drives me crazy to encounter in the context of statistics and news reporting, "up to" would have to fit the bill. I would love to see them replaced by "at the very most optimistic estimate".


Ged Burgess, from Central Trains, said: "The issue in the West Midlands is not rail performance, which is quite good now, but rail capacity. This is aiming to alleviate that."
So says the man from the franchise holder. I no longer live in the area, and am a novice when it comes to transport anyway, so maybe Transport Blog readers can tell me what sources I can look to in order to check Mr Burgess's assertion. It would have been nice if the reporter had done so for me and other readers, but these days, that's asking a lot.

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May 24, 2004

Last night's Top Gear - what did you think?

Patrick Crozier | Road Miscellany

The Jeremy Clarkson vehicle (geddit?!) included items on:

Oh, yes and Clarkson expressed the heart felt opinion that all he wanted to do on the road was get in front of the person in front. Hmm…

Update 24/05/04

This was written in ignorance of Jackie's post below. I checked out the timestamps - they're 7 minutes apart. Great minds, as they say.

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Clarkson's £100 Transport Challenge

Jackie D | Rail General

Further to Clarkson's Great Race, Top Gear last night featured another (supposed) blow to public transport, using the almighty car as its weapon of choice. But it was really much more than that: It was a ringing endorsement of the free market.

Jeremy Clarkson and his Top Gear co-presenters, James May and Richard Hammond, were each given £100 with which to buy a car. It had to be taxed and tested, but otherwise they were free to purchase what they liked. Clarkson opted for an ugly Volvo, May for an Audi, and Hammond for a GTI...a Rover GTI, which was greeted with much derision by Clarkson and May. ("Ha ha ha! A Rover! Ha ha ha! A bleedin' Rover!" -- repeat ad nauseam.) Apart from being unattractive in the extreme, the cars really were in surprisingly good nick -- especially considering that they each cost less than £100.

Of course, Clarkson and co used this as an opportunity to rubbish trains. They calculated that a return train ticket from London to Manchester costs £182, a number to which we might all take exception. That's the price of a standard open return, whereas a saver return for off-peak travel would be £52.10. But I'm willing to let that slide, because if you compare the cost of deciding on the spur-of-the-moment to drive to Manchester with the cost of deciding on the spur-of-the-moment to catch the train to Manchester, and figure in the convenience that driving allows...Well, let's not get hung up on those numbers.

The fact is, for under £100 they got three cars, fully tested and taxed, that got them to Manchester and back. I believe that it was at one point stated that, even with fuel and the cost of the M6 toll road (oh, that glorious M6 toll road -- another post altogether), it still worked out at under £100 for each car and its journey northward and back. That strikes me as pretty good going and, leaving aside the question of the value of public transport, should please any supporter of the free market, in transport or otherwise.

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A couple of new writers

Patrick Crozier | Blogging

As regular readers will have noticed Transport Blog has acquired a couple of new writers. Jackie D will be well known to those who remember the now sadly defunct Au Currant. She continues to contribute to GastroBlog and Samizdata. Mark Holland aka MH, on the other hand, though a frequent commenter has only recently set up his personal blog: Blognor Regis.

A warm welcome to both of them.

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May 22, 2004

Vertical fragmentation of the railways doesn't work

Patrick Crozier | Fragmentation

Regular readers of Transport Blog will be familiar with my belief that one of the major causes of the failure of British Rail Privatisation has been the vertical fragmentation of the network. However, I have never written a post specifically stating that view. Until now.

Continue reading "Vertical fragmentation of the railways doesn't work"

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May 20, 2004

The Ever-Elusive Perfectly Timed Journey

Jackie D | Rail General

I've only been using public transport for seven years or so, since I came to Britain from the US. In that time, I've become somewhat obsessed with a certain aspect of travelling by bus and train: perfect timing.

I really hate being late for events or to meet people, but I'm almost as annoyed by arriving with too much time to kill. With the slight unpredictability, shall we say, of public transport, a fun-but-maddening game can be made of timing one's trip perfectly.

Yesterday evening was a case in point.

Continue reading "The Ever-Elusive Perfectly Timed Journey"

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May 18, 2004

Why I find it difficult to comment on the government's speed fine proposals

Patrick Crozier | Road Safety

I see speed cameras are once again in the news. This time because the government is proposing to change the fines applied to those caught by them. I find it very difficult to comment on stories like this:

  1. because this issue is not about speed cameras but speed limits
  2. Because I want to see private roads which set their own speed limits
  3. Because the issue of speed limits is predicated on the idea that safety is paramount. This isn't true.
  4. Because the assumption is that speed limits make the world a safer place. This is also doubtful.
In other words, I disagree with just about all the assumptions on which this proposal is based.

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May 13, 2004

Whether frequency, speed, or something else is important depends upon the circumstances.

Michael Jennings | Inter-modal Competition

Recently, my laptop computer developed a fault. My laptop is my only computer, and it was thus very annoying to be without it for several weeks. Partly as a consequence, I am in the process of building myself a desktop computer out of various bits and pieces. The first step is just to get the thing to work in some form - I may upgrade some of the pieces to something nicer later. One thing that I needed was a screen. Lots of people have old screens lying around, and Brian Micklethwait wanted to get rid of his because it was taking up space in his flat.

So I just had to get it home. As I don't have a car, it had to be by public transport. The screen was an old model and heavy, and I did not want to have to carry it far. This led me to a different set of requirements when figuring how to get home to those that normally apply. In normal circumstances I would either walk to Victoria station, and catch a train to Selhurst just north of Croydon, which is where I live. Or I would walk to Vauxhall across the river, catch a train to Clapham Junction, and then catch the train from Victoria on its way through. (As Vauxhall is in Zone 2, going this way also works out cheaper).

However, both of these routes were clearly out in this instance. The screen was too heavy to carry to either of the railway stations. However, I could catch a bus in Vauxhall Bridge road to either Victoria or Vauxhall. However, there were disadvantages to both. To get to Victoria, I would have to cross a busy road, and walk a distance down the street to the nearest bus stop, get off a bus at a location not terribly close to Victoria Station, find the right platform, walk a substantial distance through a crowded station, go through ticket barriers, and get on the train. If I chose instead to get on a bus to Vauxhall, I would have to get off at a bus stop not especially close to the station, cross a complicated road intersection, and find the right train. I probably would have done this, except for the fact that I would have to change trains at Clapham Junction, which would mean carting the screen a fair distance including up and down stairs through another crowded station.

So what did I do? Well, I looked carefully at the bus map, and noticed that the bus to Vauxhall continued a substantial distance into south London. In particular it happened to stop right next to East Dulwich station. As it happens, not all trains to Selhurst start at Victoria: there is a less frequent service that starts at London Bridge and goes via East Dulwich and Tulse Hill. So as it happened, it was possible to get a bus to East Dulwich wich stopped right outside the station (although I still had to cross a road), where I could change to a train at a not very busy station with no ticket barriers and a relatively short walk. And this I did.

In this case, most of the usual considerations for choosing a route did not apply. I was not concerned with finding the route with the minimum time or the shortest route. (To say that the route I took was non-direct is an understatement). What I was concerned with was minimising the total walking distance, minimising the number of times I had to change from one vehicle or mode of transport to another, and avoiding having to walk in large crowds. Frequency was not very important to me, and journey time even less so. And this led me to make a completely different decision to the one I normally would.

Of course, Jeremy Clarkson would say that it would have been a great deal easier and faster if I had a car. And in this instance he would certainly have been right.

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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.

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

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May 09, 2004

The oddities of satellite navigation systems

Jackie D | Transport General

A couple of years ago, I drove to the South of France with my friends. We borrowed my friend's father's BMW estate, so that we could bring back as many crates of wine as possible. But after the first twelve hours of driving and map reading, at least one of us (that would be me) was thinking that the wine may not have made such an ordeal worthwhile.

One of those friends, soon after we returned from France, bought a Mercedes CLK with satellite navigation, and has since purchased a Mini Cooper (for himself) and a BMW (for his wife-type-partner), all with sat nav. The idea is that we'll be able to take one or more of these cars to France with us and fill them with booze, without the hassle of maps and the spats they can cause. An expensive solution to a minor problem, perhaps, but one I approve of wholeheartedly. After using satellite navigation to find several potentially troublesome addresses, I have become a major fan of the technology, and would not dream of driving a car without it.

But these sat nav systems are not without their bugs.

One day last month, I was visiting with someone who has satellite navigation in his BMW. We decided to go for lunch at a restaurant near Colchester, in the village of Great Tey. But we couldn't find Great Tey in the sat nav directory no matter how hard we looked. And then finally, there it was -- under Tey Great. "That's a bit cheeky," the car's owner commented.

A couple of weeks ago, driving around central London in the same car, we were trying to find a certain restaurant. But at almost every turn, the sat nav system directed us to drive the wrong way down one-way streets, or to take avenues that were closed due to road works. The driver explained to me that there were updates to the sat nav software that you could get, but as he'd only had the car a few months, he hadn't yet bothered to do so. That explained that, then.

Fast forward to this week: same car, same car owner, in deepest Fingringhoe. After a couple of drinks in a country pub, we got in the car and entered our desired destination into the sat nav system. The system advised us to make a U-turn.

We were still in the car park.

It also indicated that we were 7.3 miles from our destination. Once we'd pulled out of the car park, it told us that we were 9.6 miles from our destination. Half a mile up the road, it sent us down what appeared to be a mud track for a quarter of a mile, then spit us back out onto the road on which we'd originally been driving.

Somehow, I don't think that my hypothesis -- that the car is possessed, a British Christine -- quite hits the nail on the head. I've looked on Google for information on sat nav bugs, and have come up quite emptyhanded. While I'd love to take this as an indication that the car is evil, I suspect there is more to it than that. Any suggestions gratefully received in the comments.

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May 07, 2004

How not to name a transport company.

Michael Jennings | Rail Franchising

Company naming seems to go through trends, and we seem to be going through a particularly silly one at the moment, which is to give companies numbers as names. A case in point:

One problem that has occurred since rail franchising is that train companies forced to share London terminal stations with one another have taken to squabbling with one another about who gets access to which platforms and when, and as franchises are re-awarded, policy has been to create knew franchises in such a way that the London terminal stations are used by a single company only. (This essentially recreates the original companies that built the stations in the first place, of course). Very recently, a new franchise has been created to serve Liverpool Street station. After immense thought, and no doubt spending lots of money, the marketroids came up with a name for the new franchise: "One", presumably to imply that there was only one company serving Liverpool Street.

How is this stupid? Let me count the ways. Firstly, using such a common word as a company name is difficult if you want to find the company on the internet. The URL is impossible to guess, and it takes a few attempts before you can even figure out how to find it on Google. (It is here). I haven't tried it, but I suspect the same problem occurs if you attempt to ring up directory enquiries to find a phone number. And there is the problem discussed in the Times yesterday. How do you deal with an announcement like

"The train on platform seven is the 7.20 One service to Norwich".

And what does

"The train on platform six is the 3.47 One service to Cambridge" actually mean?

Unsurprisingly, announcers have quickly reverted to

"The train on platform seven is the 7.20 service to Norwich", which is presumably not what the people who own One really want.

One is not even the first train company in Britain to have run into this problem. The Great Western franchise (the railway famously built by Isambard Brunel) is owned by a company named "First", and the operation is collectively called "First Great Western". This company initially put the words "First Great Western" on the side of all their trains (with the word "First" helpfully in a different font, as that was a corporate logo), and found themselves suffering from the problem that passengers would walk from one end of the train to the other, trying to find a second class carriage. (I have not heard if any people with first class tickets sat down in second class thinking they were in first and were disappointed). This problem was solved in an equivalent way to what the announcers are doing. Many of the carriages were repainted simply with the words "Great Western", and the corporate logo was left off entirely.

Given how much money is spent on corporate branding, it surely isn't too much to ask that people think these things through. But they often don't.

(As another non-transport example of the same thing, mobile phone company "3" last year sponsored two series of cricket matches in Australia. Hence the "3 Test series" between Australia and Zimbabwe that consisted of two matches and the "3 Test series" between Australia and India, that consisted of four matches. At least in this case the corporate name was invented well before it was decided that the company would be sponsoring cricket matches. The "One" people have no such excuse).

Correction: I repeatedly wrote "Great Eastern" when I meant "Great Western" when I first posted this article. Silly me.

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May 04, 2004

How to drive when you have passengers

Patrick Crozier | Road Miscellany

“So, how was my driving?”

“Terrible. You were driving too fast, cutting people up, driving too close to the car in front…”


“You never used to be this bad.”

“Yes, I always thought you were a good driver.”

This came as something of a shock especially when it came from my mother and my sister. I (of course) thought my driving was fine. But then, we all think our driving is just fine. Of course we do. You are hardly going to drive in a way you think is dangerous. Or, at least, not normally, you’re not.

And then, there is the problem that as passengers most of us are more on edge than we are as drivers. It’s all to do with being in control, I guess.

And it was France. And we all know how they drive.

But that’s not the point. Good manners requires considering the feelings of others. And when driving considering the feelings of others means driving in a way they are comfortable with. And if that means driving in a way you regard as ludicrously slow then so be it. Even in France.

There is another point, I suppose. Passengers are very reluctant to criticise drivers. There is always a fear that you are going to wreck a relationship. Which, of course, means that vital information is not going to be communicated. The answer: perhaps before we even get into a car, we should initiate a discussion:

“Is your driving going to alarm me?”

Or perhaps:

“If you find my driving alarming please tell me and I will do my best to moderate it.”

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Plane and Car v The Train

Patrick Crozier | Inter-modal Competition

For my trip to Alsace I could have chosen rail. Waterloo to Paris; Paris to Strasbourg; Strasbourg to Colmar. Booking it would have been a pain and it would have worked out more expensive than flying but it could have been done.

But…my pregnant sister was coming along.

This changed everything. After that fact became known there was no mucking about. So, it was a plane to Basle and hire car from thereon.

The thing is that although that was the decision I made and although it seemed obvious, I am still not quite sure why that was the one I made. I think it was because it meant that my sister would spent the least possible time trapped. On a plane you are trapped. It’s a rotten place to feel ill. No, I wasn’t expecting my sister to feel ill (she’s at a stage of pregnancy where you don’t tend to) but it was more that she might. But although you are trapped on a plane the entrapment doesn’t last unlike a five-hour train journey.

The hire car also gave us one significant advantage once we got to Colmar: flexibility. We could change our plans, go sightseeing and we wouldn’t need to call cabs. Very useful.

In the end, hiring the car worked out pretty expensive but looking back and even armed with the knowledge that French train travel is dirt cheap I don’t think I would have changed things. Paying to remove some of the hassles of travel was, in this case, very much worth it.

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This is a list of date-based archives from the In Brief section:

November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004