My local paper, the Bristol (UK) Evening Post, has thrown its influential weight behind a cause in which I believe strongly; the need for better public transport. The first five pages of yesterday’s issue (30 June) focus on the theme and the first two sentences on the front page sum it up:

“It’s time Greater Bristol had a transport system fit for the 21st century.

Most experts believe the key to this is railways, and our map shows a bold vision for the future.”

(I would have reproduced the map but my editing skills are yet up to it)

The paper also states its support for the creation of an Integrated Transport Authority for the Greater Bristol area; an area covering four different local authorities that don’t at present all agree on the rail option.

See below for link to their full story.

Scotland takes the lead

About a week ago I heard a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4, about the recent trend to expand railway services in Scotland: reopening lines that had been closed during the Maudling / Beeching cuts of the 60s and since.

There was talk of the “business case”, e.g. reconnecting St Andrews, with its university, golf and tourism, but also much talk of the social case, when there was not a strong business case. Strangely to my ears, it seemed that the social case had more traction in Scotland than it does in England. Or am I wrong about that?

High-speed rail interesting; local rail boring?

However … the coalition has restated its commitment to HS2, the high-speed line from London to Birmingham, subsequently to Manchester and Leeds. The cost? £37bn, maybe. But wait … Philip Hammond, the Minister responsible, said in the Financial Times (June 24) that it will probably be much less than that. Why? Because we don’t have to pay for the whole project ourselves. In other words, we can move most of the cost off-balance sheet. So, to summarise: it could be £37bn. It could, of course, be much more, judging by our track record in such projects. Or it could be less; but only if we hand the private sector a “licence to print money”. Sorry, I meant a PFI project.

When it comes to rail, it seems that the Westminster village can only get interested if the project is big enough and the sums are eye-watering enough. Improving services and reducing fares on 95% of the country’s lines, where we pay the highest fares in Europe for arguably the worst service, is clearly a boring matter.

Sketchy local rail in Bristol

Where I live (in Bristol, surely one of the UK’s major cities and a mere 120 miles from Westminster) we have a pretty sketchy suburban rail service, with trains that should have been pensioned off 30 years ago. That’s why I’ve joined a lobbying group called FOSBR, which stands for Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways.

Severn Beach Line success

FOSBR’s lobbying has been successful in improving frequency and reliability on one of the local lines, from Bristol Temple Meads to Avonmouth and on to Severn Beach. After that positive outcome, there is another focus of interest for those in favour of expanding access to local rail in this area: the former passenger line from Bristol to Portbury, on the North Somerset side of the Avon Gorge.

That’s a wonderfully scenic run that’s experienced by no passengers, as freight trains constitute the sole traffic. There has for years been a proposal to reintroduce passenger services and to extend the line a mere three miles to the rapidly-growing town of Portishead.

Portishead: growth and congestion

When I arrived in this area I was told that Portishead was the fastest-growing town in the West. In fact, according to local railway lobbyists, its population has doubled in recent years.

I’ve been told that Portishead is now the largest town in the country without a rail link. It has one congested single-carriageway road connecting it with Bristol, to which a high proportion of residents commute. The rush-hour journey of eight miles (via a predictably congested junction with the M5) often takes well over an hour; a headache highlighted by a 2008 BBC4 programme. In fact, on the day presenter Simon Calder made the journey it took over two hours. Two hours for eight miles?

Despite this, the rail proposal has got nowhere. Instead, the local planners have been proposing to address the commuting problem by means of a BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) scheme. The words Rapid Transit sound impressive and modern (and rapid), don’t they? But will the vehicles be the bendy buses London doesn’t want? And where exactly will these rapid buses run, without taking a fair chunk of Green Belt?

Hope for the future?

However, I am optimistic that with the very strong support that’s been shown by the Bristol Evening Post and of the local MPs there is now a hope that the BRT decision can be reversed and the funding reallocated to rail. After that, why not a real 21st-century transport system for the Greater Bristol area? After all, if it makes sense to reverse the Beeching cuts in Scotland, why shouldn’t we emulate that trend in the West of England?

Watch this space!



For the Bristol Evening Post’s coverage 30.06.11:

About “Reversing Dr Beeching” (BBC Radio 4 programme):

About rail pressure groups in the Bristol area:

About former Bristol / Portishead / Minehead line (BBC4 TV programme):



Just when British rail travellers thought they had seen the end of travel miseries caused by the ice and snow in the weeks up to Christmas, they’ve been hit with steep fare increases. The average fare hike is double the inflation rate and some fares will rise by 12.8%. Meanwhile promised improvements to services are in most cases nowhere to be seen, although to be fair punctuality has improved. (By British standards, that is; we say that a train is punctual if it’s less than 10 minutes late, whereas in Spain, the land supposedly of ‘manana’, if one of their high-speed services is five minutes late your fare is refunded.).

Rail’s share of “total miles” small?

A recent article in last weekend’s Independent on Sunday (2 Jan 2010) by Alexandra Woodsworth, of the Campaign for Better Transport, says that even steeper rises are planned from January 2012, as the government wants to reduce the taxpayer’s contribution to the cost of running our much-criticised rail network. In itself a justifiable aim, if you consider it unfair to subsidise so heavily a mode of transport that represents 8% of the total distance travelled in Britain, (The Economist, 1 Jan 2010) compared with “85% by cars and vans”. That last phrase makes me wonder whether the statistic included freight miles; time to call in Tim Harford and his team at Radio 4’s wonderful “More or Less” programme with their genius for unpicking the headline statistics so beloved of many journalists and so often misleadingly used. It was Gore Vidal who said, “The worst thing I can say about my fellow-Americans is that they don’t like any question that can’t be answered in ten seconds” and sometimes I think we are going the same way.

Captive market

The Economist article points out that UK rail fares have grown by 50% in real terms since 1980 and it’s already well-known that our fares are the highest in Europe by a massive margin. Despite that, many commuters have no real alternative and “many rail firms enjoy a virtually captive market, (and regional monopolies too) hence passenger numbers continue to increase: we complain but many of us cannot vote with our feet because we need the trains to get to our jobs. The claim is often made that trains are “favoured by the better-off” but this is somewhat misleading: trains are not so much the favoured solution as a necessity for those who work in London, where wages and salaries are higher but so are living costs.

Subsidies and profits

The same magazine has often made the claim that the taxpayer subsidy of rail (currently £4.4 bn / annum) is four times higher than it was before we privatised the network in the mid-1990s (a decision taken by the then Tory government but implemented by Labour) but it’s not clear if that’s inflation-adjusted. Either way, can this massive subsidy be justified in view of rail’s small share of the travel market? And can it be consistent with the highest fares in Europe? (and in many people’s opinion the worst services?)

In a recent post I quoted a letter scoffing at a claim by a senior manager in the train operating companies (TOCs) that there would be fares “to suit everyone’s pockets”. The writer guessed whose pockets would be best suited by the new fares and it would not be the traveller. These new fares will be better news for the taxpayer and best of all for the TOCs themselves. The partial justification of the increases is planned improvements to the services provided by these privately owned train operators; that’s equivalent to Tesco, for example saying: “we want to open new stores next year, which will of course increase our market share, our turnover and our profits; that’s a good economic decision for us but to pay for it we need you, the consumer, to make the investment, so we will increase all our prices now.”

Off-peak more expensive?

“And another thing …” Why are our rail fares so complicated? Last week I travelled from Bristol to Exeter. Even though I knew exactly which train I wanted to get, there were seven different single fares available, just for that particular train, according to, all with slightly different conditions attached. If I had not been sure which train to take, there would have been dozens of different fares.

Of course advance booking is usually cheaper than walk-up and off-peak is cheaper than peak, i.e. “anytime”. However, here’s the most ludicrous thing I noticed last week: the walk-up fare for an “off-peak single” on my train was slightly more expensive than the equivalent fare for an “anytime single.” As Jeremy Clarkson might say, if he’d ever written about trains (which I doubt), “you couldn’t make it up.”


“What’s green about encouraging us to drive?” The Independent on Sunday, 2 January 2011.

Alexandra Woodsworth, The Campaign for Better Transport.

“After the deluge, the pinch: Britain’s expensive trains are set to get even pricier.” The Economist, 1 January 2011.

“ … Britain’s definition of punctual includes trains up to ten minutes late”. From The Economist 4 June 2009: “Pay up, pay up, and board the train.”


I read a letter in Metro yesterday that was so good I want to quote from it. It was from Julian Self of Buckinghamshire.


So the Association of Train Operating Companies reckons it will always offer “a range of fares to suit every pocket”, does it?

Given it (rail) is already massively subsidised by the public purse at a far higher level than the old, state-owned British Rail ever was, and that it has`raised fares above inflation ever since privatisation in the mid-1990s, I rather fancy I know whose pockets these fares are designed to suit. It certainly isn’t those who depend on trains to get them to their places of work.

It seems rail companies and successive governments have done their very best to reduce train overcrowding in peak hours … by making the entire rail experience as unpleasant and uncomfortable as possible.

… At a time when all public services are struggling to provide more for less, it seems these railwaymen (and I use the term in the same spirit as highwaymen) are intent on providing less for more.


Good man yourself, Julian Self. The overcrowding I can vouch for, as I am at present experiencing it a daily basis between Bristol, where I live, and Newport, where I am working for the next couple of weeks.

… and another thing: in case you don’t believe J. Self’s assertion that the subsidy is higher now than before rail was privatised in the UK, I have read the same claim in “The Economist”, a magazine whose grasp of facts I tend to trust.


We all seem to agree that improving public transport has benefits for the environment, as well as for quality of life. Well, public transport in the UK is improving, slightly, and not before time. However, the costs are still ridiculously high by international standards, despite what we are told by politicians and the train companies. Earlier this year a damning report by the Passenger Focus group – the first-ever of its kind – compared rail fares in the UK with the rest of Europe. For average commuter journeys (11 – 25 miles) into the respective capital cities, UK fares are (a) the highest in Europe, (b) twice as high as the second highest, France, and (c) four times as high as Italy. Inter-city fares compared equally badly; 87% higher than in Germany; three times those in the Netherlands.
Transport commentator Christian Wolmar says that despite these high fares (and despite having privatised our rail system so as to hand regional monopolies to a small number of operating companies) we are still subsidising rail to a large extent. To what extent, I’d love to know. I’ve heard it said that subsidies are higher than when the rail system was nationally owned in the UK. That can’t be true, can it? If you want to see the BBC’s report on the report, see

When representatives of train operating companies are interviewed about high fares, they always say that if you book early, you can get really good deals. Well, “a chance would be a fine thing”, as the saying goes. Next week I’m heading from Bristol, where I live, to Harrogate in Yorkshire; to visit old friends and also to see my daughter singing in cabaret (had to get that in!) at a hotel in the Dales. Despite checking online several times, well in advance, I have found none of these elusive so-called advance tickets available. Thus I’ll have to pay the “turn up and go” fare. That’s £58 return, based on (a) my senior card, (b) off-peak travel, and (c) avoiding London. If I’d needed to travel before 9 a.m., go via London and been a couple of years younger, it would have been £167. The distance is 224 miles each way … “do the math!” as they say in America.

My fare information source, by the way, was the well-known website branded: “The Train Line: buy cheap tickets ….” Cheap tickets, huh? What would qualify as expensive? I wonder if there is another website that offers “expensive tickets … because you’re worth it.” Those fares would be truly eye-watering.

This was not an isolated case: in the past few months I have made also made longish journeys to Manchester and to Haverfordwest in West Wales. In neither case was an advance ticket available, despite trying to book at least a week in advance; the ads tell us that advance tickets are available until the day before travel.

By the way, my senior railcard costs £26 a year. That’s a good investment, because I save much more than that. However, in France and (see below) Canada, seniors get discounted travel without paying for the privilege. As I saw on a T-shirt: “I’m a senior: give me my damn discount!”

Re Canada: last week I was there for my nephew’s wedding. Coming back, I discovered that I could get to the airport by Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) subway – or underground as we’d say on this side of the pond – with a connecting shuttle bus for the last couple of miles. The service was frequent, quick, civilised. The one-way fare (one ticket, valid on subway, tram and bus, as always in Toronto) costs just $1.85 Canadian, (that’s about £1.20) for seniors, $2.85 for you youngsters. The distance is 17 miles, (27 km) which is similar to the Heathrow / London distance. Yes, I know that one can do the whole journey to Heathrow by tube, whereas in Toronto it’s tube plus shuttle-bus; but if you live in or near London, you don’t need me to tell you how the costs compare.

I also saw two safety ideas of especial interest to women passengers. Every subway platform has a Designated Waiting Area with an emergency call system, where anyone who might feel vulnerable is invited to stand. Also their buses have a “Request Stop Program,” whereby women travelling alone on a bus between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. can ask the driver to stop at any intermediate point between bus-stops.

So, on both value for money and on passenger (sorry, customer) care: Toronto Transit Commission, take a bow!