Transport matters: Testing times for new railway

A Network Rail test train approaching Berwick on its way from its base at Derby to Edinburgh, where it became the first 'proper' train to run on the Borders Railway.
A Network Rail test train approaching Berwick on its way from its base at Derby to Edinburgh, where it became the first 'proper' train to run on the Borders Railway.

Construction gangs have finished the track on the Borders Railway, and the first ‘proper’ train has run to Tweedbank. This was a Test Train to make sure everything is in order, and the track has been laid properly.

On the East Coast Main Line, Stagecoach/Virgin launched their operation at the beginning of March with a flourish and a train painted in a swirly strawberries and cream colour scheme. While the publicity people are keen to make a good impression, the engineers are only interested in whether the locomotive works, so locomotives and coaches don’t often match. Otherwise a few head-end and tail-end vehicles have been patch-branded with red panels and the Virgin signature, but it seems that no more trains have appeared in the full regalia, ten weeks after the launch.

On board, the new franchisees have reprinted the menus in first class using type so faint that people with less than perfect eyesight just cannot read them. In general, several people have said they have not detected any great improvement as a result of the change of franchise, a typical comment being that the last lot were pretty good.

Following my comments about cramped seats in modern railway coaches, an article has appeared in the railway technical press asking what went wrong with train seats? The writer answered his own question, recounting the method whereby seats are chosen by the operators. This is almost the only thing that the operators can do, almost everything of greater consequence being decided elsewhere. His description of choice of seats boils down to nothing more complicated than asking which are cheapest.

The point has also been made that people don’t actually complain about uncomfortable and cramped seats, but just put up with it. If enough people took the trouble to complain, operators might think twice about always installing the cheapest seats, and reducing the knee-room so that they can fit another row in.

There are always complaints about fares on trains. It is interesting that when people are asked what they think a reasonable fare is, they almost all say a figure which turns out to be last year’s fare. This shows that we take a year to become conditioned to the current prices, but as the standard fares rise each year, we are always discontent.

Britain’s fares are probably the most expensive in Europe, but this is due to a fundamental difference in attitude to public transport. About 20 years ago it was found that subsidy per passenger on Swiss railways was 33 times higher than in Britain. Transport is regarded as an essential public service, while British politicians have always insisted that it is a business.

It is a basic law of economics that prices are set according to cost and demand. Nobody can run a business whose income is less than its costs, but the other factor is demand. In the case of trains, people use them in increasing numbers, so the law of economics says that prices can go higher.

Commuters, which is a word which the Americans devised to mean passengers who travel regularly at less than the full fare, are what we used to call season-ticket holders, and they complain that they have no option but to use trains to go to and from work at specific times. The cost of their tickets is a worry for them, and the media love to report their tales of woe when the fares go up.

It was government policy for 50 years to deliberately neglect the railways, assuming that most people prefer to use their car and the railways would therefore slowly subside into oblivion.

This has not happened, and at long last governments have woken up to the fact that people really want to use trains. Consequently a huge backlog of neglect has to be made good and the policy of improvements such as main-line electrification is having to be revived as fast as possible.