On Monday I was interviewed on Clifton Down Station in Bristol for a YouTube video. It was commissioned by FoSBR (Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways) in connection with a campaign called “Bring Back British Rail”. It is so-called because many people now believe that the only way to get decent and affordable rail services in this country is to put the railways back in public ownership.

The Economist magazine was, I believe, the first to reveal that although our rail-fares are the highest in Europe, the level of public subsidy is nonetheless  five times higher (inflation adjusted) than it was before the railways were privatised. It is now £5bn per annum. That is outrageous, surely. (unless you own shares in one of the Train Operating Companies to which we grant regional monopolies)

Anyway, my small contribution to this video was to relate a frequently problematic suburban rail journey I used to make here in Bristol, when I would try and travel the short distance from Clifton to my job in Ashton Vale on the other side of the city. Three miles maybe? It sometimes took an hour and a half because of inconvenient or non-existent connections; or late or cancelled trains. It never took less than 45 minutes; in fact I could walk it faster. By car it took only 15 minutes. I rest my case.

When the video is finished I’ll post it here.

That same evening, I attended a fascinating transport debate at the Colston Hall, hosted by Bristol Civic Society. I was intending to make a separate post about that but judging by the amount of expertise and strong views on display I am sure there will already be plenty of coverage in the blogosphere.

Much of the discussion was on bus services and the most depressing fact was the admission that the local authority has very little power on a range of issues, as 90% of the bus services are provided on a commercial basis by the virtually monopoly provider First Bus, who pay lip service to consultation and then do exactly as they please. A wag of a local journalist once described them as “Worst Bus”; but I didn’t say that.  (“You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment”, as has famously been said on many occasions)

Interestingly I have often travelled on buses owned by First Bus in London but there the situation is totally different, in that they don’t have a monopoly. As far as I can understand it, Transport for London tells the bus companies what to do. How different from the situation in our fair city; but according to statements from the Colston Hall platform that’s a situation we are stuck with due to the differences between regulation in the two cities.



The Bring Back British Rail organisation was formed to campaign for publicly-owned railways. Their promotional material says they intend to “learn from the mistakes of BR of the past, remind the UK of the broader services that were available and the virtues of public ownership, and form a new, integrated rail system with a progressive, participatory structure”.

Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways (FoSBR) campaigns for improved, integrated and sustainable local rail services in the Bristol area and for the reopening of closed-down passenger lines such as Bristol / Portishead.


Rail is again in the headlines but not for the right reasons. That nice Mr Hammond has been defending the fact that Bombardier, our last train maker,  has announced redundancies at its Derby factory.

To what extent this was because Thameslink had decided to buy “1200 new trains” from Siemens, according to the FT, is  not clear. It’s not even clear how many trains are involved; the Guardian on the same day said 1200 carriages, which is rather different; unless, of course, these are single-carriage trains, which we sometimes have to tolerate on some routes here in the rail-deprived West Country.

Who’s the guilty party?

The FT’s coverage went on to say that “insiders attributed the (Siemens) decision to a procurement process set up by the previous Labour Government” and in a radio interview that day I definitely heard Philip Hammond espouse that view. However he has also flagged`up his concerns about the EU procurement directive,an unequal implementation of which meant that you get German-built trains on German railways and French-built trains on French railways but we’ll get (mostly) German-built Thameslink trains, though some of the components for the latter will be UK-sourced.

Mr Hammond should decide which to blame; although the answer is probably not simple (it rarely is), it’d make better copy if he blamed just one party.

That nice Mr Hammond

By the way, the minister seemed surprised that the level-playing-field concept is not universally accepted throughout Europe. When I worked in the chemical industry, I remember it was often said that some of our European partners (no names, no pack-drill) would always press for the strictest possible regulations on safety, environment etc, knowing that they would be less strictly policed in their own countries, thus giving them a cost advantage. So the concept is not new; if it was a surprise, that justifies my having called him that nice Mr Hammond.

Bombardier: post hoc ergo propter hoc?

The Transport Secretary did, however, point out robustly  to a Radio 4 interviewer that the job losses at Bombardier were not totally, or even primarily, caused by the Thameslink decision. And he persisted in his defence even when the interviewer (no names again) pressed him with the traditional “so you are saying that …”, followed by a summary that was totally at variance with what had actually been said. Who’d be a government minister?


For the Guardian story:

For the FT story:  (but you may have to register)



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):



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.


Earlier this year, train operating companies (TOCs) in the UK were asked by Network Rail, who own the track and signalling systems, to sign an undertaking that they will use “rail replacement services” only as a last resort. That’s because their research has shown that rail passengers (sorry, customers; we are all customers now), having paid for a rail ticket, prefer to travel on a train and not on a rail replacement service. Did they need to commission research to come to that conclusion?

For those of you who have never had the doubtful pleasure of using them, “rail replacement service” is another way of saying “bus”. This euphemism is widely used by train operating companies in the UK.

The issue is not new. A report said that Network Rail “recognises the need for a 7-day railway”. That was in August 2007. What progress have we made since then? See

My impression is that many other European rail systems handle this problem far better, by doing more of the necessary maintenance work overnight. That’s referred to in the link above.

Going back to the original report, a question that occurs to me is: how do you define “last resort”? If a TOC wants to use a bus – sorry, rail replacement service – they could, of course, find a reason, or excuse, and call it a “last resort.” The BBC report said that Virgin Trains, for example, can sometimes run replacement trains over the parallel Chiltern Railways track between London and Birmingham when their normal route is blocked by engineering work, but they don’t like to do it because (a) their drivers are not familiar with the route, and (b) the cost is higher than using buses. Would either of those reasons qualify as a “last resort”?

I avoid travelling by train on Sundays and will continue to do so until we really do have a “7-day railway”.


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!

Who’d want to run a railway?

It’s good to have an opportunity to defend the UK’s often-criticised rail system. Did I hear you say “a rare opportunity”? Shame on you!

Last Sunday I was travelling, as I often do, from Cheltenham to Bristol Temple Meads. This time I took the first train of the day, the 09.52; I had been surprised that there wasn’t anything earlier, but as the train was half-empty, the operator would no doubt have replied that there’s no demand for an earlier train on a Sunday.

You don’t have to be a railway fan, just a traveller, to know that the franchise for cross-country routes, particularly from my home in the South-West to the North-East and Scotland, is no longer held by Virgin Cross-Country but by the imaginatively named Cross-Country Trains. You might not also know that Cross-Country Trains is / are run by Arriva.

I was chatting to the very helpful guy running the shop (probably his title was Retail Manager or something like it.) I was keen to found out what differences the franchise change had made (I hadn’t observed too many, apart from a new and rather dull external colour scheme on the trains which they had taken over from Virgin) and he was very forthcoming. Yes, there was a definite improvement in the new company as seen from the viewpoint of the employees, all of who had transferred across from Virgin, like the trains.

I told Paul (not his real name) that my only beef about the change was that it had been reported that the main reason Virgin lost the franchise to Arriva (several years earlier than it was due to expire) was because of frequent complaints of overcrowding, i.e. insufficient capacity, but I had seen little change in that regard.

Paul however said that progress is being made and Arriva had just bought five renovated “HST sets”, i.e. the so-called High-Speed Trains. They’re widely used elsewhere in the country; I say “so-called” because the name is a misnomer on this part of the route, where average speeds are not that high due to the frequent bends. He said that these new acquisitions had been extensively renovated and were better than the “Voyager” trains that were previously the only trains on this route. I agreed that the HSTs were more comfortable and roomy, less noisy, and had more capacity compared with the four- and five coach Voyagers. I added that they also didn’t suffer from the smelly-loo syndrome of the Voyagers; the latter always remind me of the scene in the movie version of “Glengarry Glen Ross” when the Al Pacino character, holding forth in a bar, says: “all train carriages smell vaguely of shit. It gets so you don’t mind it. That’s the worst thing that I can confess. You know how long it took me to get there? A long time.”

Enough of movies: Paul told me that the five new trains (well, second-hand but renovated) were the most that “the Government” had allowed Arriva / Cross-Country to buy. That’s not the first time that I’ve heard “from the horse’s mouth”, i.e. from a railway employee, that the TOCs (Train Operating Companies) cannot make their own decisions about procurement of new trains and that new trains / rolling stock are allocated centrally. Makes you wonder about the thinking behind privatisation. It seems to be a typical British muddle. You sell off the railways, giving private companies local monopolies. However, their prices, i.e. fares, are controlled to a great extent in a way not many private enterprises are. Then you can take away their franchise if their services are overcrowded, i.e. they don’t have enough seating capacity (e.g. the Virgin Cross-Country case, plus threats of similar sanctions have probably been discussed with First Great Western) but if they want to buy new trains they are told they can’t. The FGW employee who first told me their hands were tied in this respect, said that most new trains are currently being allocated to routes serving the north, where FGW doesn’t operate. I don’t know how true that is. Furthermore, I know that late running can bring financial penalties, but how many times have you been on a train that is held up by a signalling problem (which is clearly outside the TOC’s control), or because another train (which may be from a different TOC) is running late? That’s often been my experience.

I know that the Rail Minister Tom Harris (in July 2007) said Arriva’s commitment to increase capacity – “it has promised a 35 per cent rise in the number of passenger seats on rush-hour trains by June 2009” – had played a key part in the award. Strange that he used the phrase “[Arriva] has promised to … “ when his department has so much control over whether they can keep that promise.

In short: we love to complain about the railways in this country. Our moans are generally directed at the company whose train we’re travelling on, but who’d want to run a railway company these days, with the messy structure we have? Just stand at a major junction station (say Leeds) and count how many trains arrive and depart every hour; many of them operated by different companies, and using track and signalling systems owned by yet another company. I rest my case.