Category Archives: Transported

Transported: When Not Waiting

In December 2009, I was running for the morning train through the dark and rainy streets of Bristol. The time was just before seven and the train doors were beginning to close as I sprinted towards the barriers. The guard used his pass to let me through the gate and then pointed towards the end of the train while the manager held the remaining open door for me.

The train left a few seconds late that morning because of the efforts at Bristol Temple Meads. I was so enthused by the wonderful treatment that my compliments were effusive on Twitter. The response from some was that at least the staff were nice this once. I realised, however, that there had been very few bad days overall. That was one magical event in a series of pretty ok travelling over four years.

The inside of the train is usually warm in the winter and cool in the summer. I tend to get a seat and occasionally have the privilege of having a table to myself. The waiting part is the worst because not only is it indeterminate but the standing around is done outside. Buses are more variable in their service probably due to traffic and other urban centre issues. Trains seem to be better at getting there.

This isn’t just anecdotal information; the annual public performance measures by the Office of Rail Regulation backs up my memories with data. A train is defined as being “on time” if it arrives within five minutes or ten minutes of the planned destination arrival time.

The service I use is now run by CrossCountry but was run by Virgin. In Quarter 2, the on time measures were 89.9% for 2008/09 and 91.8% for 2009/10. Compare that to Virgin whose on time statistics were 81.9% for 2008/09, a huge difference, especially for anyone waiting out in the cold. However even they have improved to around 90%.

When everything runs on time, and that includes my waking up, I can be home in Bristol by 6.30pm. Other times, of course, it’s not that easy.

I remember a winter three years ago when I was still reading my Terry Pratchett book at 8pm in the snow while waiting for the Virgin train which didn’t want to arrive. I went home through Newport once because the track to Bristol had to be closed off. There was snow and ice on the tracks that closed off the Severn Tunnel and made a morning’s journey much longer but provided some beautiful Welsh scenery and the slow journey behind a regional train that extended the 42 minutes into over 160. These tales of woe, however, are sparse and in between. In February 2009, the snow in England which shut down most work was mostly ignored by the trains although I was warned to avoid travelling by a colleague who arrived in Cheltenham and couldn’t get to work because the buses had been stopped. He paused for a coffee and then went back home.

The commute may not be as lovely a journey as those on the Orient Express but it’s usually a nice break from reality and punctuated by a cup of coffee and a good book.

on time

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Transported: In The South West But Maybe Not For Long

Today is Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) day and it is dire news for commuters. According to the Daily Telegraph, “Mr Osborne asked the Department for Transport to prepare for cuts of anywhere between 25% and 40% to its annual budget of £15.9 billion” before today’s announcement. The Association of Train Operating Companies said that “money from train tickets pays for around half the cost of running the railways with the rest coming from the taxpayer.” The media have anticipated that the government plans to shift the costs to the passengers and we saw a lot of that in the details.

The current rate of increase for tickets is the Retail Price Index (RPI) plus one per cent which in September 2010 stands at 4.6% (down from 4.7% in August). This will increase to RPI + 3% for three years up to 2012. As we read in the CSR “some public transport fare increases will be unavoidable. This will include raising rail fares where necessary” (p.31).

The Channel 4 economics editor, Faisal Islam, wrote four days ago that the increases to rail faire could be 30 to 40% in four years. He seems to be right. The increase will not be put in place until 2012 and there is some wishful thinking about inflation falling but there is no guarantee of this.

The department of Transport will implement “overall resource savings of 21 per cent by 2014-15. … Bus subsidy will be reduced by 20 per cent and local government resource grants by 28 per cent” (p.46).

The number of people this would affect is a huge amount. An estimate of South West workers who travel by rail to work in 2008 suggests that the numbers are over 12,000. The number of bus travellers is twice that. For a glimpse of some bigger effects we need only look at travellers into the London, one of the major commuter routes from Bristol, with 510,000 people entering the city in that same year using bus or rail.

My own costs would increase by a huge amount. I currently commute by bus and train at a cost of around £5000 pre-tax. A 40% increase by the end of 2016 would mean a year-on-year pay cut as the costs increase to around £7000. That doesn’t make rail travel much of an affordable option.

inside a train

Transported: By Commuter Tales

Man sitting opposite: six weeks of train travel he says in a type of weary exasperation. I’ve been doing it for four years I reply. I then have to take out my headphones as he tells me about his shoulder. He’s been on a cycling trip to Wales with a friend, his friend slammed into a gate and he fell after hitting his friend’s bike. His shoulder was compressed and there were various injuries to do with ligaments etc and he is now attending physiotherapy sessions. He’s thinking of going private because the once fortnightly appointment on the NHS is not enough.

The 1652 on the way back to Bristol: A commuter’s husband manages a car rental place. He frequently changes cars and their friends say they never know in which car he will turn up. They also get cheap petrol. Much shaking of head and mirth.

A quiet zone carriage on the 1752 from Cheltenham: The carriage is full and one man is talking on his phone somewhere towards the back. I sit near the middle on the right side by the aisle. At Bristol Parkway the people from one of the tables get out and a young woman not yet in her twenties walks in and sits down while still talking on her phone. A minute or so later a much older woman stands up and is practically shaking. She proceeds to yell at the young girl who looks much bigger than her in stature and to threaten her with ‘if you were a man I’d punch you in the face, no one else is talking on this carriage. I have travelled all the way from Manchester and no one has talked the whole time’. The girl looked up at her then went straight back to her conversation with barely a pause. She seemed most unperturbed but the older woman was so angry she packed her bags and moved to sit elsewhere. I didn’t think it was the right time for me to mention the guy chatting at the back of the quiet zone.

On the bus in Cheltenham around 8am: A woman sitting at the front of the bus leans across to steady herself on the rail across the passageway. She’s in her 50s, wearing a vest and a woolly jumper, has a slightly ruddy complexion and short grey hair. I wonder why she’s leaning but think nothing of it until she takes out a bottle of white wine and drinks some before putting it away in her shopping bag.

The 0730 from Bristol: The king of commuters (unofficially) has been making the journey from Parkway to Cheltenham for 19 years. He has a law practice and has recently been trying out a fold-up bike. He doesn’t have it with him today and I ask how it’s going. He tells me that on his way to work the saddle had slipped, the pedal had fallen off and his leg had been impaled on the latter. He has taken photographs and is ready to sue.

Temple Meads

Transported: On Schedule

I step outside the Bristol Parkway station five years ago and notice nothing in particular. My then boyfriend and I are visiting for the weekend and hadn’t yet learnt which of the Bristol stations is actually near the city centre. Knowing what we know now, we would have got back on a train and been at Temple Meads in eight minutes. Instead we took a bus and spent over half an hour being driven back through Lockleaze and Fishponds.

These days I pass through Parkway almost daily and I know not to get out. It’s usually the people that get in who are the problem and I hope they don’t take this personally because I’m pretty sure they see us in a similar way. I have no idea where the train stops before it gets to Temple Meads so I can sympathise with those who look upon us as simply seat invaders.

Not all trains are the same of course and over the last four years I have travelled on a range of services between 0627 and 0900 to get to work. The 0627 gets me to my desk sometime between 0745 and 0800 and is the loveliest service. There are nine carriages and barely any passengers. The service goes to Edinburgh so I guess it gets a little busier but from Bristol Temple Meads I usually get a table seat and a carriage all to myself.

The 0700 is busier during summer but quiet later on so a seat is always guaranteed. The 0730 is a nightmare with only four coaches including first class. The Parkway people are sometimes left with the corridors and aisle as their only choice for travel and I undoubtedly have to share with someone else. The eight o’clock is not so bad and then we get to off-peak tickets so the trains get busier on their way to Manchester or Edinburgh.

I don’t seem to notice the Parkway people so much on the way home. They drift out with barely a glance back. There are fellow commuters who I chat to and it’s not until they stare blankly as I mention the 0730 delay or the 0800 being packed that I realise who they are. “The 0740” they correct me with barely a flicker or “the 0810”. One has been commuting for 19 years and is the veteran among us. My four years seem a little mediocre compared to K’s seven but then I am far more seasoned than barely eight month traveller who may be getting a job in the Bristol City Centre. I don’t blame her. I enjoy my commute but some days having three hours less travel would be bliss.

All this occurs during normal service, and while I am always surprised to say this, normal service seems to happen a lot. On the infrequent occasion when things don’t go to plan the delays seem to drag. After a recent night out in Cheltenham the driver announced quite enthusiastically that we would be arriving 20 minutes early but to Parkway and not to Temple Meads.

The Engineering works  scheduled for that evening had been cancelled and the train would wait at an empty station and then arrive at Temple Meads half an hour later. From 42 minutes, the journey lasted over an hour and it’s probably the only time in my commuting history that it felt like Parkway got the better deal.

bristol train station

Transported: To The End Of The Line

The Monday that just passed, brought back memories of previous long queues, and the usual feeling of relief, as I tended to pass by with my monthly ticket. This time there was less satisfaction as I had to wait along with more than 80 other people, some outside the side door of the station. With 10 minutes before my train left, I knew I’d missed it but I did gain some time to think about why the queues were so long and clustered around certain days.

While there need not be a significant relationship between the clusters of people and the time or day, randomness does love clusters after all, there appeared to be an association, so what to make of it? If data were available on ticket purchases by date and time I could analyse it in a way that identifies significant relationships. I could then survey passengers and with a sample large, and random, enough I could infer the results onto the general population of train travellers. This would be the way I would plan it if I was looking for a definitive answer but I was pondering more than seeking certainty.

There were four windows open with cashiers ready to serve, and four automatic machines but they don’t provide all of the services you get at the windows. The staff are usually good, so any potential slowness is not the problem. The reason that had me personally queuing was the inability to purchase advance season tickets. There are various times when I have wanted to be organised and tried to buy my monthly or weekly ticket in advance but was told I could not do so.

When contacted, the Stage Coach Group said that the rules governing the advance issue of season tickets are common to National Rail and are as follows:

New Tickets

  • Starting on a Saturday, Sunday or Monday (or Tuesdays following a Bank Holiday Monday): Tickets may be purchased from 12 noon on the Friday before.
  • Starting any other day: Tickets may be purchased from 12 noon on the day before.

Renewals*

  • Starting any day: Tickets may be purchased up to 7 days in advance.

* You are required to surrender the expiring ticket at the time of purchase and there must be no break in validity.

The rules in place are designed to strike a balance between the requirements of season ticket customers to renew tickets at less busy times and also to minimise the potential for misuse of season tickets in advance of the validity start date. All existing ticket issuing systems throughout the National Rail network work to the same specification, in that they encode only the expiry date of the ticket – this is primarily a limitation imposed by magnetic ticketing design.

These rules and limitations are in place to prevent me buying a monthly ticket for the end of the year and being able to use it at any point until it expires and before it is valid. I can see the reasoning behind this and while it doesn’t solve the problem it does suggest an area to look for a solution. Is it a problem limited by technology because there are no better ticketing systems available?

The South Coach Group said they are trialling a Smartcard ticketing scheme for South West Trains. Initially, this is only going to be available for a limited range of but within a couple of years, they are hopeful that this could be extended and make ticket renewals more flexible.

Bristol transport are getting a ‘smart card’ system soon and this could be the same thing. Jon Rogers, Bristol’s councillor in charge of transport told the Bristol Evening Post in May 2010, that the card will initially work on buses but will also be extended to be used on trains, ferries and the proposed bus rapid transit network. If it has the same functionality as the London Oyster card then it may save some time but we will have to see.