Select Committee on Transport Written Evidence

Supplementary memorandum by Passenger Transport Networks (FOR 84A)



  In a number of countries in mainland Europe decision-making about public transport, and the commensurate funding, has been devolved to regional authorities. In many of these it is of course relevant that the tradition of decentralised government is stronger than it is in Britain, but evidence is emerging of some interesting impacts.

  In Germany the budget for regional and local rail services was transferred to the Länder as part of the process of constitutional and fiscal reorganisation following reunification and in response to perennial problems over the financing of the railway. The consequent political commitment of the Länder Governments has been a major factor in the reinvigoration of these networks, not least through the introduction of a Taktfahrplan (see below) and an increase in train-kilometres operated (by 19% between 1994 and 2001). Tension between planners at this level and Deutsche Bahn, which operates the inter-city services, may be resolved through a national timetable plan.

  In Switzerland the Cantons have always had some powers over public transport, and their voice is a strong one in the planning of local services. Provision of hourly public transport for every community above a remarkably low threshold-size is guaranteed by law. The combination of Cantonal power and the Swiss system of popular referenda ensured in the early 1 980s that a strategy of concentrating investment in a high-speed railway along the east-west corridor in the populous part of the country was replaced with a scheme to distribute improvements more evenly and to emphasise national cohesion through network-wide timetable connectivity. This became the Bahn 2000 Project, a coherent programme of infrastructure works and new rolling stock whose first stage will finally be realised in a comprehensive timetable revision in December 2004.

  In France the process of devolution is incremental, and the extent of responsibility for public transport now varies between regions (22 groups of the 96 Départements). Very large investments in modernisation are being supported at regional level, and the turnround from a steady decline between the late 1980s and 1995 to dramatic growth since then appears to be attributable to this funding (note that this growth is of the same order as that achieved by Britain's regional TOCs, but by decidedly public-sector organisations). In Rhône-Alpes, the region in the forefront of local control, a 20% increase in traffic was recorded between 1996 and 1999.

  Devolution has three specific benefits. First, responsibility for the planning and then for the delivered quality of the service clearly lies with the local governments that make supply contracts with operators, and inter-modal integration is realised. The emphasis in Britain on independent, competitive companies (for both rail and bus) has left authorities with limited powers, even in the PTA areas, and even when companies have plainly not been meeting their obligations.

  Local budgeting also forces clarity about the most appropriate means of securing a service. In mainland Europe, if it becomes evident that a bus (operated as part of an integrated system) would be more cost-effective than a railway, withdrawal of trains is fairly straightforward. Contrast that with the situation in Britain where decision-making is fragmented, rail passengers have vastly greater protection from major changes than bus passengers and sometimes use it unreasonably, and local authorities can clamour for spending on railways without having to take responsibility for assessing whether it is the most sensible solution or of funding it if it does proceed.

  Finally, it is common experience that local management can be more agile than that of larger organisations, that local project supervision and commissioning from local suppliers can reduce costs and that devolved management can be more innovative in enhancing what is offered to customers and hence in increasing revenue. This makes me sympathetic in principle to the idea of "micro-franchising", but I would caution that sentimentality about rural railways should not lead to disproportionate public grants for lines which no amount of local commitment can ever bring in from the margins and which might be better replaced by buses. (To sharpen the focus, funding of micro-franchised lines should be progressively transferred from national to more local bodies.)


  That there has been a significant upturn in rail passenger traffic since a low point in 1994-95 is incontrovertible. However, because it has coincided with privatisation there has been a glib correlation between the two events. Prima facie, it is improbable that the improvements introduced by the franchisees could explain the scale of the growth, and counter-intuitive given the criticism of their failings. It is important in contemplating the future of the railway that the causes be researched and understood, for false interpretations lead to danger. There seem to be two reasons why research is not happening, or at least is not being published for discussion.

    —  In the culture of secrecy all but the broadest aggregates of railway data are protected by "commercial confidentiality". That cannot be justified in view of the level of public funding and the weight of public-interest issues that are now arising.

    —  Each of the many players has its own objectives to pursue and does not necessarily wish for the spotlight of public, objective research.

  In respect of passenger travel the issues that merit research include the following.

    —  How reliable is the data in the first place ?—for example:

    —  the number of journeys made on season tickets is estimated by multiplying issues by a factor     representing the duration of the ticket, but these factors have not changed for years;

    —  the journey counts from National Rail ticket sales have to be supplemented by estimates of     the number made with Travelcards issued by the PTEs, and it is a mystery how this is     done; and

    —  "journey" is now defined, not as a single trip, but as the number of different operators whose     trains are used in the course of travel from origin to destination: this is a most unsatisfactory     statistic, since (a) its calculation depends on models and black boxes, (b) it is inconsistent with     counts for other countries and other modes and from other sources, and (c) it is unstable when     franchises are rearranged (it also invalidates the claim for a billion journeys in 2003).

    —  What have been the drivers for growth—demographic changes, rising GDP, plentiful disposable income, lifestyle-shifts, changing working patterns, buoyant employment in provincial city centres, a sudden impatience with road congestion, capped rail fares, new train services, improved timetables, new carriages, TOG promotions, better information, environ mental righteousness, privatisation per se

    —  Are these factors sufficient to explain why the performance of TOGs has been so varied?

    —  How have trends varied between different types of flow?—for example, London commuting, London off-peak, other South East, medium-distance London inter-city, long-distance London inter-city, non-London inter-urban, provincial-city commuting, provincial-city leisure, provincial local, branch lines, lines serving remote areas: investigation is patchy and there is virtually no transparency, yet the question matters.

  Similar points could be raised about the paucity of public data on operational efficiency.


  From my researches and from my observations in Switzerland and The Netherlands I draw five principal lessons that I think help to explain, not just the greater usage of railways in these two countries than in Britain, but also different and more positive social attitudes.

  It may be helpful to start by summarising the statistics on usage and efficiency, as shown in the table below. The key points are:

    (i)  that the network densities are similar;

    (ii)  that Swiss people use trains much more than the Dutch or British;

    (iii)  that the throughput of stations in Britain is poor by Dutch standards (probably arising from a combination of mediocre services and a surplus of little-used halts);

    (iv)  that both mainland networks run more trains carrying more people over a typical length of track;

    (v)  that rail's market-share is low in Britain (and dangerously low outside the area of the huge London operation);

    (vi)  that the mean fare in Britain is about 1½ times that in Switzerland; and

    (vii)  that although the Government pays a similar proportion of the cost of the passenger railway in Switzerland and Britain, poorer efficiency and lower use of the system make the British grant per passenger-kilometre considerably higher than the Swiss. This data is perhaps more important than that on train performance, with which the industry is obsessed.

SwitzerlandNetherlands Britain
population [m]7.216.0 57.1
route-km of passr.3,245 2,80515,042
route-km/000 km27968 65
rail journeys [m]318.794 314.466960.000
journeys/head4420 17
stations812378 2,508
passenger-km [m]13,073 14,39239,100
rail/(rail + bus + car)15.6 8.05.5
mean journey length41 4641
passenger-km/train124 13490
mean fare/km [p]6.1 ?9.2
grant revenue [£m]260 ?1,336
grant share [%]26? 26
grant/passenger-km2.0 ?3.4

Data relate to main-line railways (Switzerland = SBB + BLS), for 2001 or 2002.

Sources: Bündesamt fr Verkehr (Switzerland); International Union of Railways [UIC] (Netherlands); Transport Statistics Great Britain [TSGB], 2003 edition, and SRA publications (Britain).


  In much of mainland Europe but especially in the two comparator countries public transport, and particularly the railway, tends to offer services over a longer working day than in Britain, and high frequencies are maintained late into the evening. Moreover, weekend and holiday services follow the weekday pattern with only modest trimming, compared with the British habit of different and often markedly reduced services. The two-day shut-down at Christmas does not happen in Switzerland and The Netherlands, where the ethos of public service is firmly rooted.

  This is important because it inculcates a general sense of the convenience of the service over against the private car. In many specific circumstances it will enable a visit to, say, friends or a cultural event to be made both ways by train, whereas in Britain the last return service runs too early or the homeward timetable is poor, and the journey is made by car, even though rail may be the preferred mode. The problem is that finance-driven evaluation leads private companies to cut the least well-loaded trains (and buses), while the public-interest criteria are very narrowly drawn.

  Examples. In The Netherlands the full frequency of as many as six trains/hour is maintained on key lines until after midnight. In Switzerland reductions in frequency occur on some lines but not until after 20.00. In Britain the London area and some provincial lines are quite well served, but elsewhere evening provision is poor. The fast Edinburgh-Glasgow service is halved after 19.00 and the last is at 23.30. Scarborough and York both have popular theatres, but people from the other place cannot take the train. The last trains from Manchester to Buxton are at 21.47 and 22.58. Birmingham-Walsall falls from four trains/hour to one after 20.15. Last trains from Cardiff to the Valleys leave between 21.47 and 22.34, and the last from Cambridge to Peterborough is at 20.50.


  In most of mainland Europe public transport offers a patterned timetable in which:

    —  A  there is a hierarchy of routes clearly related to one another;

    —  A  trains and buses run at the same times every hour, every day, with little or no variation;

    —  A  the service in one direction is the mirror-image of that in the other;

    —  A  connections between services are well organised at key nodes of the network to optimise     interchange times; and

    —  A  the essential features of the service can be presented very simply.

  Ironically, our Southern Railway was the first to introduce a timetable with broadly those features over an extensive network, but Britain is now seriously out of line. There are some good timetables approximating to these standards, but

    —  A  the function of many services is confused: long-distance trains are slowed by calls at stations     where the business is mostly short-distance, and regional trains are delayed by serving wayside     halts (partly because managers unwisely accede to local pressures);

    —  A  variation in timings is rife (and some simply perverse), with the result that information is     needlessly complicated and the timetable totally unmemorable to potential users;

    —  A  because mirror-image planning is not applied a journey involving a change of trains may be     significantly slower in one direction than in the other, with the slower timing being the one     on which the traveller decides whether to travel by train rather than by car;

    —  A  the presentation of information is a nightmare (the principal details of the Swiss rail timetable     are available in a simple diagram on a single B2 sheet of paper, our National Rail timetable     has 2,560 badly-designed pages); and, perhaps most importantly of all,

    —  A  there is a long tradition, which fragmentation of the railway has made much worse, of     timetabling lines on a largely self-contained basis and then spending inordinate effort     patching connections, with the result that many journeys are slower than they need be and     interchange is perceived as a major deterrent to choosing rail—in complete contrast to     experience abroad, where the railways seek to minimise its impact and where passengers seem     to accept it, if not gladly, then at least far less negatively.

  The mainland style of timetable is known, in its most developed form, as a Takt-fahr-plan ("rhythm-journey-plan"). The mathematical logic was developed in Switzerland for a major revision in 1982, and its emphasis on connectivity across the network—ie the ability to travel from any A to any B at any reasonable hour—rather than on speed for its own sake has been endorsed by referenda. It is difficult to be certain about the advantages because its introduction has usually involved other changes, but this type of timetable does appear to yield a significant increase in the use of public transport. The research programme that I have recently been managing, with Swiss assistance, has demonstrated substantial financial and social benefits in a study of the East Coast Main Line.

  There is a further point. In Switzerland and The Netherlands one has a strong sense that public transport, and particularly the railway, is not only held in higher esteem, politically and culturally,[9] but is more deeply embedded in daily life than it is in Britain, certainly away from South East England. This must be explained in part by a long history of high-quality and convenient services. I doubt whether the railway in Britain can survive unless it sets out to achieve a similar status.


  The British system of complex fares is derived from profit-maximising models in the airline industry. It has some economic justification in that it extracts consumer-surplus by differentiating between travellers with a greater or lesser willingness to pay, and it helps to spread loadings. However, the system is burdened with gross complexity, high transaction costs and user-resentment, and it is used to optimise returns for the operator rather than to maximise the number of people carried. The complications have been made worse by TOCs following disparate practices over nomenclature and conditions (eg Virgin recently withdrew their "Business Saver" ticket and replaced it with something different just as GNER were introducing theirs).

  In Switzerland and The Netherlands fares are based on a published rate per tariff-kilometre (which may differ from the actual distance) and discounts are then offered on purchase of a card targetted at promoting regular travel. In Switzerland a quarter of the population holds a Halbtax-Abo which entitles the holder to half-price travel on most public transport for £66/year, while 3% hold a Generalabonnement which for £1,285/year gives one unrestricted travel throughout the Swiss network. What is more, there are no time-restrictions and few discouraging rules apply. Seat-reservation is offered but barely necessary, so that access is felt to be supremely easy.


  The commitment to reliability in Switzerland is legendary, and it shows in the punctuality statistics. Of course it costs money, but the reward is the confidence travellers have in the system. It comes through in many ways. Because SBB know that trains from Italy are liable be delayed an Ersatzzug is held ready to take up the path in order to maintain the Swiss domestic service. In Britain, with a greater likelihood of delays, TOC accountants take a narrow view of expenditure on back-up resources (to be fair, there has been some recent easing of this). Similarly, when a serious collision blocked a main line in Zürich one sensed that it was a matter of professional pride to reopen as quickly as possible (it was partially achieved in 14 hours and fully in 36), whereas here a blockage typically extends for days. And better design ensures that engineering projects do not cause disruption on anything like the scale now being experienced in Britain.

  It is too easy to attribute Britain's problems to catching up on under-investment, important factor though that is. Other explanations include higher-quality maintenance of rolling-stock (the Swiss have some remarkably elderly locomotives lovingly cared for), a saner approach to track safety, the epidemic of bridge-bashes here (which suggests gross indiscipline on the roads and/or over-reaction by rail staff), and managers who can pay the necessary intense attention to detail because they are not distracted by refranchising and bureaucracy. Moreover, the Swiss are incredulous at our practices whereby signal-controllers' decisions on priority are determined by competition law rather than by rational assessment of railway efficiency and the needs of customers, or connections are broken in order to enable one TOC to protect its performance and avoid penalties even if another TOC has to pick up an expensive taxi bill.

  Regular inspection of can be recommended as an insight into the reasons for the dreadful statistics. Compare that with the usually impeccable performance to be found on the station departure-boards through

  The Committee may also like to consider the apparent contradiction between the provisions in the Traffic Management Bill that specify keeping road traffic moving as a pre-eminent requirement (and which the Committee has, rightly in my view, queried) and recent developments on the railways where anything but this happens: for example, at least three times in 2003 a line was closed because of the remote risk of a small explosion of gas cylinders in adjacent premises, in one case for 12 hours and twice for 24 hours.


  In Britain confusion is widespread as to who is responsible for providing passenger trains. Many travellers are cynical about the frequent changes of branding (in York we are about to have our fourth new livery for regional services in 10 years), often unsure whose train they may travel on, and bemused when, say, they buy a ticket from a counter dominated by the Virgin house-style for a journey on a Wales & Borders train terminating at a station where they are welcomed by First Great Western. By contrast, the National Rail brand has made little impact and its message of collaboration is frequently belied by the TOCs: each refers to "our" customers (which is an arguable concept), they pass the buck, and when services are disrupted they advise passengers to come back next day rather than help to find alternative routes by other companies' services.

  I know of no evidence that this style of management has attracted significant numbers of people out of their cars (the reasons for the growth in traffic lie elsewhere, and many outwith the railway), and plenty, even if only from my own experience and numerous conversations, that it is counter-productive to any appreciation of the railway as a common good that exists to serve the public interest. And even those companies with a stable and well-presented image such as GNER can have it damaged in the eyes of customers by the folly of other companies or the bizarre consequences of the tangle of contractual relationships. (In one incident a following service was not allowed to pick up passengers from a failed GNER train because it was not contracted to stop at the station where they had been decanted.)

  Compare this with Switzerland and The Netherlands: in the former, companies other than SBB have always run the services on some lines and, in the latter, some routes are now franchised to operators other than NS, but the local branding is subservient to the presentation of the railway as a single entity. In Switzerland a long-term national infrastructure plan is designed to realise specific service-quality objectives, and the national timetable, involving all modes, is agreed consensually in the best overall interest of travellers. In Britain tortuous and expensive procedures in which companies protect their own interests have not delivered an excellent timetable—and yet the SRA fails to assert its authority to develop a strategic vision for a coherent national network. The critical point is not ownership: it is the question of whether the railway (and public transport collectively) is a single system in competition with the private car or whether it is a group of private fiefdoms at best doing their own thing and at worst fighting each other.


  In my view, as I said in my original evidence, Britain faces a crucial choice. The competition model has demonstrably not produced a quality of public transport that makes it a strong and credible player in the market place, let alone one that can make a substantial contribution to reducing congestion, to social equity and to the prevention of environmental degradation. There is weighty evidence from observation that countries which pay higher levels of support but insist on high standards of public service obtain considerably better value for money. Yet that is only my judgment: there is a dearth of analytical evidence (part of Britain's traditional reluctance to learn from others. . .), and I would ask the Committee to consider recommending a comparative study of British, as against Swiss and Dutch, policy and practice across all the issues discussed above.

Jonathan Tyler


22 January 2004

9   Swiss Railways reportedly pulled out of bidding for franchises in Britain partly because politicians sensed that voters would not stomach their railway getting into the mess that Swiss Air got into with similar external entanglements. Back

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