Nightmare journey! Courtesy of Virgin Trains

Got the to train from Glasgow to Coventry the other day. I got to the train station at 7:30 am, got on an early train…only for it to go nowhere for 2hrs! Finally, they came on the intercom on told the entire train (which now due to the delays consisted of the passengers from 2-3 trains) to decant and hurry over to Motherwell where the train would now be leaving from. We all had to rush off and squeeze on to a commuter train (at the back end of the rush hour!). After a bit of a wait on an overcrowded Motherwell platform, we were off again, on a train that looked suspiciously like the one we’d left behind in Glasgow Central….suggesting that the reason why it hadn’t left for two hours was due to some box ticking H & S malarkey…or because they couldn’t be bothered to fork out the extra cash to get maintenance done on a weekend!

Anyway, I then received conflicting instructions, one lot told me to stay on the train and get off at Wolverhampton, the other said, get off at Carlisle, which I got just as the train was pulling into the station. Ran off the train, and only realised as it was pulling away that I’d left behind my laptop bag on board!

Anyway, the train for next leg of my journey shows up, I was told to change trains at Warrington (another guy on the train in a similar predicament and been told the train would stop at Stafford, but it sailed on thro). Then I was supposed to get train from there which was supposed to stop at Coventry, but it didn’t go there and instead went straight into London Euston. As this was the likely spot to find my laptop, I decided to go visit Lost and Found, but “we’re lost ourselves” is the best way I can describe the staff there, they were no help!

But there were more useful than Virgin train staff, who won’t let me board the train, and then had the nerve to charge me an extra £26.50 to get to Coventry (even tho I was only there due to their incompetence!). They seem to have a fairly mercenary attitude the Virgin train staff in London, which boils down to “here comes a customer, lets see how much we can stiff him for”. Terrible people! While Deutsche Bahn‘s corporate motto is “travel better by train” I assume Virgin’s is “stand and deliver! You’re money or you’re life”

That night I was sick, likely due to a dodgy sandwich I bought on the train!

Anyway, last time I ever go by Virgin trains again, plan to avoid railways as much as I can now and next time I’m driving to Scotland. The UK train system is now so expensive, so badly run, that its little short of a waste of time. Environmentalist I might be, but I’m also not a mug, and if you use the trains regularly, then you’re a mug! Keen as I am on train travel, the UK’s train system is simply so decrepit and eyewateringly expensive that its become pointless to use it.

I avoid using my name sake airline (Ryanair, no I’m not related in any way to this guys, so don’t bother e-mailing me about the time they lost you’re bags) unless I absolutely have too, because while you can get a good deal from them, when things go wrong, you’re fucked! (I assume that the motto of Ryanair is “what the fuck do you want now”). The train companies, notably Virgin, are essentially offering Ryanair service for British Airways prices. If anything goes wrong with you’re journey, as with Ryanair, you’re well and truly stuffed and the Virgin staff are practically rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of what they can shaft you for. Hence, I see little to be gained from traveling with them. As I’ve previously pointed out, its actually cheaper in many cases in the UK to drive for less than the off peak (nevermind any time) ticket price.

Conditions of Carriage

To those down trodden commuters who feel they have no choice but to take a train (or a bus) I’ve one bit of advice – stand up for you’re rights as specified in the conditions of carriage. In essence when you buy a ticket on public transport you’re essentially entering into an agreement with the rail company to convey you to you’re destination within a reasonable time period. If they fail to complete this in a timely manner you’re entitled to compensation. And of course, if they fail to complete the journey at all (the bus/train breaks down or is somehow cancelled or delayed to the point of making the journey impossible) its basically their responsibility to get you to you’re destination, regardless of what that ultimately ends up costing them (if they have to get you and everyone else on the train to travel 40 miles by taxi, so be it!).

Of course for obvious reasons, staff at many train companies have a habit of developing “selective amnesia” as regards these rights, hence why its important that you apply them. If everyone whose journey was delayed by that cock up in Glasgow the other day claimed compo like I did, then after that happens a couple of times, trains would be delayed a lot less frequently, as the company simply could no longer afford to keep paying out compensation! Of course, the rail companies will try every trick they can to make things difficult. The claims process is bureaucratic (they’ll practically want you to show up with both parents to prove you’ve been born sort of stuff), they’ll loose the odd form (course Royal Mail being a similar bunch of incompetent wasters will often do this job for them), they’ll take months to process it, they’ll misspell you’re name on the compo cheque, every trick they can in the hope you’ll give up and go away. But like I said, stick with it. Enough people do, then things will start to change.

Of course, as I see, the quickest way to bring about change on Britain’s railways is to avoid them altogether and deprived of passengers, just let the whole sorry mess keel over. Then on the wreckage a “proper” railways service can be built in its place. I mean would people in any other part of Europe put up with this combination of overpriced, crowded and unreliable trains? No way! they’d skin ya alive! It would be a resigning issue in many other countries if trains were run this badly.

My laptop loss is playing havoc with me. Its like loosing a limb! Again, I reckon there’s little hope of recovering the laptop as Virgin seem pretty lousy at recovering lost property….although my suspicion is it was likely nicked by one of their staff! While I’ve backed up most of the stuff and now have a new machine up and running, I’ve been too busy the last few weeks to back up stuff, so I’ve lost the best part of two months worth of files. Either way, I suspect next time I go between Glasgow and the Midlands, I’ll be going by bus or driving.

The State of Britain’s Railways

Two big stories as regards the UK’s railway’s caught my attention this week. Firstly, HS2 which has finally been given the go ahead (more on that later), and secondly, an article by the Beeb in which they attempted to identify the UK’s most expensive railway journey. The result of this brief (and admittedly not entirely scientific study) are staggering, Britain has some of the world’s most expensive railways!

While it should come as no surprise to learn that the Heathrow express tops the billing at a whopping £1.17 per mile, the price of 80p per mile on the London to Manchester line, is incredibly high. Even the 40p off peak and 14p season tickets on this route are pretty expensive. London to Kettering or Swindon/London lines are also in the +70p anytime range, with an average of 20-30p per mile across the entire country. This is about 3 to 10 times more than what our cousins in the rest of the EU pay for rail travel. Indeed, I just hopped onto the Amtrak website in America and its about 62p per mile (UK) for the gourmet expensive Acela Express NY to DC (anytime) to about 4.5p (yes really!) for a cheap advanced ticket on the Chicago to California Zephyr. The Americans often joke that they have a railway service that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. The UK has a railway system that the Americans would be ashamed of!

Consider for sake of comparison that the typical cost of motoring is about 7-10p per mile. While this motoring cost only accounts for fuel, with insurance, tax and depreciation costs of the car adding yet further. But its doubtful that the cost of motoring would be any more than, say 20p in the most cases, or about half the off-peak fare price on the Manchester-London route, a quarter the anytime price (which would be a fairer comparison since a car represents “anytime” travel) and 1/18th the cost of the Heathrow Express! And if you’re starting to think rail travel is a tad pricy spare a thought for Londoners. The standard fare on the underground now works out at the equivalent of £5-10 per mile! That’s about 25-50 times pricier than driving! It is thus no surprise to learn that the average commuter in England can spend the best part of several thousand pounds, for a spot to stand for an hour pressed up against someone’s sweaty armpits twice a day. The comments page on the above beeb article clearly indicates much anger among British commuters about this sorry state of affairs.

Now the rail industry would counter the above by pointing to their “advance” fares. My reply is, yes if you’re incredibility lucky enough to get an advance fare they are pretty cheap, but they are rare as hens teeth. I’ll do the odd long journeys across the UK and will often specifically look out for such tickets. I have regularly searched the booking system trying to get advance tickets (searching as far in advance as the website allows) and 9 times out of 10 have failed to get anything better than the standard off peak fare.

And at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that the rail companies seem to go out of their way to make booking cheap fares as hard as possible. For example, probably the best bargain you’ll get on the railways, is the Sail/Rail ticket. For an incredibly cheap £30 single, you can get a train and a ferry ticket from the Midlands all the way to Dublin (Ferry and rail combined). I think its about £38 from central London, with similar deals to France to be had for similar bargain basement prices.

However, you try booking one of these tickets through the railway company websites! It will usually refuse to allow you to book a seat on the most convenient trains. This can be bypassed by ringing up the Ferry company, who are usually more than happy enough to book you on the specific trains you want (i.e. the boat train that waits for the boat and coincides with its departure). However, this is not always an option, if for example, as I was over Christmas, coming from Ireland to Britain, but booking the ticket in Britain, you have to go through the rail company. Ring up, and you get put through to an Indian call centre, where they will struggle to understand you’re accent, and to be perfectly blunt, the staff at Indian call centres I find simply do not understand how the British rail system works – which is hardly a surprise nor the staff’s fault, as the Indian train booking system is completely different to the UK one (see here for more info on the Indian train booking system). Try booking a bike on a British train through a Indian call centre and see what happens (when I moved from Scotland to England my bike ended up chained to a lamppost outside Patrick station for a week as “the Trainline” call centre screwed up my booking, I had to eventually transport it south by car!).

Trains, delays and the Black knight of capitalism

An interesting article here from the Imeche journal as regards the end effect of privatisation of the UK railways. In the 1990’s before privatisation was introduced, it cost the UK government £1 Billion to subsidise the railways. 18 years of private ownership later and it now costs the UK government £5 Billion to subsides the railways, i.e fives times more than before privatisation 88|!

Privatisation has therefore failed as regards it principle goal, reducing the costs of the railways to the exchequer. Furthermore, not only is it costing the government more to subsidise the railway system, but ticket fares have soared since then and (going by the grumblings of passengers) the service has gotten worse on many commuter lines.

The Black knight effect
I blame the failure of Thatcher’s privatisation on what I call “The Black knight effect” (after the infamous black knight of Monty Python) as it represents a belief held by many neo-liberal cheerleaders that capitalism and free market theory “always” triumphs, even in circumstances where it is at a distinct disadvantage…much like our armless, legless black knight! Yet like him, the neo-liberals will refuse to give up, or concede that they’re economic ideology is a tiny bit flawed, even when its glaringly obvious that its failing (“tis but a flesh wound!”).

The truth is free market theory will only work in certain circumstances, notably situations where there is truly a “free” market (not a cosy cartel), where there is actual “competition” (not the illusion of it) and the economic model being promoted is actually sustainable and water tight (our numbers add up). None of these conditions applied to the UK railways at privatisation. Firstly companies had to bid to get the contracts. As a result from day one all the individual rail companies had a huge deficit on their balance sheet and lots of share holders looking for a profit to be turned in quickly to give “confidence” to the markets (else the companies would find it impossible to raise money later without going to the government).

Hence, the rail companies started off by cutting back on services, selling off land (such as maintenance yards to property developers), laying off experienced staff and otherwise cutting corners while at the same time hiking up fares. This netted big profits for investors, but in the end it was an unsustainable bubble, and a very brief one at that. It also burst any bubble in the Tory’s heads about how privatisation would see free enterprise whisk away the UK’s old dodgy railways and replace it with a cheap sleek and new, gleaming high speed alternative. Investment in new railway projects were in many cases shelved rather than new ones being put forward. Of course just to make matters worse, the various bits of BR that had actually been profitable had been sold off in the early stages of privatisation in the 1980’s.

Certain long term issues were put on the back burner, most crucially track maintenance, eventually leading to a deterioration in track condition that would several years later come back to haunt the industry in the form of a series of 4 rail crashes (Southall (1997), Ladbroke Grove (1999), Hatfield (2000) and Potters Bar (2002)). These crashes effectively ruined the industry, as Railtrack was all but forced back into public ownership and the rail companies, dependant on Railtrack and its monopoly of track maintenance, were forced to pay an increasing amount of money to use its track as it hastily began a program of track renovation to correct previous problems.

Another problem with privatisation is that, as noted, in order for capitalism to work there has to be an element of competition, and the privatised railway network has very little room for that, as most of the rail companies have a de-facto monopoly in each geographical area. Privately owner or publicly managed, any company that’s left in a position of a de-facto monopoly will evitably become bloated and in-efficient over time. The UK railway companies are a textbook example of this. They can set prices for ticket based not on what is a competitive price (i.e a price that will attract the customer away from their competitors) but on whatever they reckon they can get away with (i.e how much can we fleece the punter for without getting physically attacked!). Managers award themselves generous and unjustified bonuses, the unions (peeved at their lazy managers getting paid so well) regularly demand this and that and management just rolls over, suppliers and contractor golfing buddies of the bosses get overly generous service contracts, staff at all levels aren’t suitably motivated to perform better, etc.

Also, in fairness to the railway companies, competition will only occur when there’s a level playing field. The things the railway’s should be competing against, cars and short haul flights, are both massively subsided by the government (a lot more than the measly 5 Billion the railways get).

Its hard to believe that the train companies have to pay tax on fuel, but the UK airline industry doesn’t. Add in the costs of maintaining the UK’s airports, air traffic control, fire and emergency cover, the cost of building all those airports and support infrastructure to begin with, not to mention the costs of climate change, air travel being a 5-10 times worse (depending on who you ask, see here and here) per km travelled than trains. Taking all this into account and you can see that there are a whole set of hidden costs that you’re Ryanair £12.99 Glasgow to Stansted ticket doesn’t cover.

Similarly, all the talk you hear from the Top Gear crowd about a “war on motorists” is baloney. The UK’s car owners are the biggest receivers of state welfare in the country. Yes motor tax and petrol tax maybe high, but its not high enough to cover the true costs of motoring, i.e maintenance of roads and motorways, the huge costs of originally building these in the first place, emergency cover, policing of roads and the costs to the country of dealing with climate change (petrol heads will often try skewing the numbers to show cars are better than trains by comparing a Prius driven slowly with 4 people and no luggage v’s a half fuel diesel commuter train, while the reality of course, a large car driven fast with 1 or 2 people against an overcrowded commuter train it’s the train that winds out, car travel being about parallel to air travel for vehicle emissions ). Then there’s the other environmental costs of cars (CO2 isn’t the only think coming out of tailpipes) and the health effects of vehicle emissions. Then of course there are the costs of maintaining cheap and readily available fossil fuels (so we should really include a “war tax” surcharge on all car travel then!). Motorists don’t know what a good deal they are getting. Unfortunately, post-peak oil they’ll be getting a rude awakening.

So obviously, it’s all but impossible for the railways to compete against cars, buses and planes if the latter are being massively subsidised while the railways being heavily constrained. So its probably no surprise that by and large the railway companies haven’t even bothered to try and “compete” and have ended up degrading into the same listless inefficient behaviour seen under the latter days of BR…only now with a 25% premium on top for “profit” :no:!

Solutions? Re-nationalisation or Re-privatisation
Clearly the solution is to do one of two things. Option one is to accept the whole thing was a bad idea and re-nationalise the entire railway network. Many of the train companies now have large debts so I suspect some would actually be happy to have the whole sorry mess taken off their books. The others could be either bought out easily or nudged out as most have committed enough violations of they’re conditions of franchise to warrant it being revoked if the government decided to do so. Nationalised railways are not the first stop on the road to communism (as the Daily Mail would have to believe). Many countries have a nationalised railway network, notably the USA, Yes! you heard me correctly, the land of free enterprise has a Federally supported railway network in the form of Amtrak.

Option two is, re-privatisation, but doing it properly this time. That means the government paying companies to take the railways off its hands, and I don’t mean token sums (i.e lowest bidder like last time), I mean what it will actually cost said companies to take on the burden. We would need to allow these companies to compete against each other on routes, and more importantly pulling the welfare rug out from under motorists and budget airlines. Of course, such a project would be hugely expensive and extremely unpopular with many motorists or the Nouveau Jet Set. Unfortunately with a Tory government in power I can’t see either being done, so it will be a case of just paying £5 Billion a year, taking a regular shafting from ticket agents over fares and just putting up with it until (hopefully) the whole sorry mess collapses under it own ineffective weight.

A note to the Austrian school
And Libertarians need to accept the fact that, as the UK railway privatisation shows us (or indeed the economic train wrecks that are the UK water, gas and utility companies), capitalism isn’t Invincible (and some of them, like the Black knight, are raving lunny’s!). It not some sort of magic formula bestowed upon us by the gods (and on the 2nd day God did tell Jesus to set up a private equity firm giving-ith an annual rate of return of 15% & he dith decree that the lepers should not be healed, as that would be socialised health care…). It’s merely an economic system that allows us to maximise resource use, while minimising costs. Nothing more nothing less. It works and works well sometimes yes, but that isn’t universally true in all situations. And it certainly doesn’t work in situations where we actively prevent a free market from forming.

And then there’s the law of unintended consequences and externalities to consider. For example, the purpose of public transport isn to provide a cheap, clean and efficient way for us to move large amounts of people from their homes to their place of business (or recreation) as quickly as possible. If we don’t do this with trains, then we have to do it with road traffic, and how much more would it cost the UK taxpayer if everyone who takes the train to work suddenly got into a car Monday and drove into work instead? (hint, the UK road network would collapse if that happened) Whose going to pay the cost of those upgrades to road and car parking facilities? And how many working class people afford to drive their own car? I’m not even working class, and I can’t afford a car! and if someone doesn’t pay up then that’s a huge chuck of the UK’s work force who can’t do their jobs anymore because they can’t get to work! Who is going to pay the costs of climate change? What about the huge amount of the UK tourist industry dependant on public transport (to move punters around the country)? How are little old lady’s who can’t drive anymore (and we don’t want driving any more!) supposed to get to the shops without public transport?
There are times when capitalism works and works well, but there also things we don’t want to leave to the whims of the market.