Securing the future of rail through commuters’ pockets

David Cameron has announced an investment of £9.4 billion in the rail industry in a project which is “absolutely key to securing our country’s prosperity in the decades ahead” according to the transport secretary, Justine Greening. What neither Cameron nor Greening mentioned was that the money was coming mostly from passengers. The projects are being part funded by above-inflation fare rises, which were announced in 2010.

The new investment package is expected to deliver faster journey times, more reliable services and capacity for 140,000 extra daily commutes by train. And do you know what these extra commuters will do? They will pay an ever-increasing amount of money for the privilege of travelling to work on a train.

I am one of them. The number of us is increasing in the same positive direction as our costs.

First is the price of the ticket. The increase of RPI + 3% each year for three years was announced in 2010. Discounts on season tickets had stopped in 2009* with the arrival of the hardest moments of the recession.

A return ticket to Cheltenham Spa from Bristol Temple Meads went up from £11 to £15 in two years which represents £1000 extra a year.

Second is the cost of the shops and food outlets at the stations. Most of these places have exclusive access to passenger footfall and are in a very privileged position. Instead of reducing prices to reflect the fact that they have a constant stream of customers, they take advantage and charge over and above what what you would find in the nearest stores.

At Bristol Temple Meads there are six convenience food stores within the station and one outside the ticket barriers. The six inside include Starbucks and Pumpkin. A coffee** and a muffin from Starbucks cost £3.30 plus £1.85 respectively. This is nearly £350 more a year than if you were buying them from the Starbucks located in the business park outside the rear entrance of the station (£2.25 and £1.55). Buy outside and you are saving one third of the cost.

Why the extra levy on each customer? Because the Starbucks in the station is run by Select Service Partners who according to Dominic Walsh from the Times, are doing exceedingly well. No surprise there.

Select Service Partners do not have the right to use Starbucks cards – which offer discounts – and they charge ‘eat in’ prices rather than ‘take out’ equivalents. It’s not a scam but it is a premium for every customer commuter that passes its doors and can’t see the difference behind the logo. In Bristol they also run the Bristol International Airport Starbucks which also doesn’t accept the corporate cards.

According to an SSP spokesperson, ‘operating a food service brand at a rail station is not comparable to operating that same brand at a high street or business park location. Rent structures differ, opening hours and days are significantly longer, trading peaks and trough are much more pronounced, more staff are required to serve at peak periods in a commuter environment, and there are a number of logistical challenges (such as operating in a smaller space, with limited areas for deliveries or within the confines of historically important buildings) that all result in high costs.

‘Unfortunately we are not able to integrate with the Starbucks loyalty
scheme however we do operate our own loyalty programme called the Bite Card, which offers our customers generous discounts. At Bristol Temple Meads, this can be used at the bar, the Pasty Shop, Upper Crust and Pumpkin.’

Pumpkin Cafes are ubiquitous throughout British railway stations and their prices are as painful to pockets as Starbucks. Overpriced items can also be found on the trolley service on certain trains and the catering carriage on others. Some prices which may seem familiar to you.

  • 69p for an orange (Pumpkin at Cheltenham Spa)
  • 1.85 for a fresh banana muffin (occasionally very tasty and fresh)
  • Sandwiches, pasties, pastry slices and sausage rolls are all exclusively Ginsters when not sold fresh (Cheltenham Spa)
  • Sandwiches range from £2.49 to 2.99, deep fill £3.39

From the trolley service on the Cross Country trains

  • £1.70 for 500ml drinks inc water
  • £1.20 Capri
  • £1.90 orange juice 330ml
  • £1.50 for a Starbucks caramel waffle
  • £2.10 for a Starbucks via instant coffee

The money paid to these outlets does not go to the government coffers directly, obviously, but the indirect flow is from us to them. So when you hear David Cameron talk about the biggest investment in rail infrastructure for the last 150 years, I hope you know who to thank. Hint: it’s not the government.

Bristol Temple Meads

Select Service Partners have yet to respond to a request for comment.

*Season tickets stopped being discounted on my service from December 2009.
** Grande soy caramel latte with an extra shot (and wet).

Updated with SSP comment: 23.07.12

Transported: Join In For A Free Ride with FreeBus

If you’ve recently taken a ride on a bus around Bristol then it was probably a First Bus by First Group, the company which manages 95% of the services in the city. A small trickle of people, however, may have had the opportunity to ride the Bristol FreeBus which began its pilot route in December and is aiming to begin a proper service in April 2011.

While this latter service is entirely free for those unable to pay, monetary support is welcomed by the company and people are encouraged to become members or donate. I say ‘company’ but FreeBus is a non-profit organisation and charity, funded by its membership and voluntary donations. They aim to provide a comprehensive, environmentally friendly and free public transport system for Bristol and aim to have 500 members by the end of 2010. Apparently there are 46 to go until the magic number.

FreeBus have set a startup threshold of £25,000, to be raised through a combination of memberships, donations and non-statutory funding. No funds will be collected until this threshold is reached. Memberships are therefore a pledge to support the project when service operation begins

The initial route is an express loop between Temple Meads, Broadmead and the City Centre but the FreeBus service will expand with its membership.

More than just a transport service, there is a conservation and ethical feel to the service with the fleet of customised minibuses aiming to be the greenest in the city and offering disabled access and bicycle carriage.

The guiding principles of this new service are as follows:

  • Cars are polluting our air and destroying our communities.
  • The only way to affect change is to provide alternatives.
  • Public services should be for people, not profit.
  • Private business will never provide a genuine alternative to the car.

See the website for more information for the FreeBus plans. Their ethics and goals are quite motivating and inspiring so if you are looking for an alternative that will leave you happy to have helped then do take a moment to visit.

Related links:

Transported: Out Of The Snow

Talk of the coldest winter in 100 years does not feel right with the temperature at a moderate 8 degrees today but the pavements have been ice-free for only two days. I finished work six days ago and before that I only managed to travel to Cheltenham for five out of the last seven working days. There was to be no public transport for me as a colleague was incredibly helpful and drove me to work and back.

The pavements were icy, the trains were delayed and the buses were not running in Cheltenham on the days I stayed home. I was being extra cautious at eight and a half months pregnant but I would not have risked the lack of buses no matter what state I was in. The snow near work covered the trees and the Cotswolds and settled at two to three inches on the pavements. In contrast, Bristol had little white but made up for it with plenty of ice.

Many experienced an early winter this year and the government commissioned an independent report on the resilience of public transport between the dates 24 November and 9 December. With great interest I noted one of the recommendations on the audit undertaken on how the severe weather was dealt with: “Some parts of the railway were caught out by early snow, […]; the industry’s own review of anti-icing equipment and operations on the third rail network is strongly endorsed;”

The review concluded that one of the worst affected areas was that south of the Thames where the three commuter networks using the ‘third rail’ network faced severe disruptions. One way to improve
railway performance and service to passengers during periods of winter disruption would be to improve the resilience of the third rail.

A little closer to home, most of the South West Rail trains are powered by electricity from the track-level third rail DC electrical system. This low cost system was introduced in the 1920s and 30s and operates just fine when the weather is normal. During freezing temperatures, however, snow and ice can form on the third rail and interfere with the ability of electric trains to draw power.

The Winter Resilience report recommends that the conversion of the third rail network be considered but the cost is high and who is going to pay for it? The Comprehensive Spending Review has implemented fare rises of RPI plus 3%, which could lead to 10% increases each year for three years, starting from 2012. For me that just won’t be affordable and I will have to consider other ways of travel.

Anthony Smith, Passenger Focus chief executive correctly states that “Passengers need to be asked about the balance of the cost of doing this weather-proofing of the railways, against the bill that will increasingly fall on rail users.”

The cost of running the railways is increasingly transferring to the passengers and with costs already running high we are going to have to start behaving like corporations as well. We will need to choose the affordable option even if that includes missing a few days of work. Let us hope that there is some truth to the Met Office’s advice that severe winters have only a 1 in 20 chance, that the weather in any one winter is virtually independent (statistically speaking) of weather in preceding winters, and that this incidence is slowly declining due to global warming. As Smith says: “Would you rather have two or three days of disruption or would you rather pay 10% more for your ticket to ensure it does not happen again? Heating the third rail is going to cost a fortune.”

For some of us paying more is not a viable choice.

Photograph courtesy of Passenger Focus

Winter Resilience Review

Transported: To The Late Shift

Until last week, I have been generally pleased about my commute which is now just past its fourth year. The occasional mishap notwithstanding, the majority of the travel has been hassle free and on schedule. This last week however I discovered a whole new world of train travel which shocked me a little and made me miserable, a lot.

It was the later hours commuting. For various reasons I changed my working hours from 9 to 5 to 10 to 6 so my morning train was no longer the 0700, 0730 or 0800, but instead changed to the 0830 or 0900. My evening train was meant to be the 1825 or at the latest the 1852 which would get me back to Bristol by 1915 or perhaps 1940. All manageable I thought until I tried to follow this new timetable.

The first thing I discovered was that these hours between 8am and 9am are peak hours for most workers, let alone commuters. There was no hope of grabbing a quick coffee on the way to the station because the queue was out to the door. The wave of commuters I passed as I approached made my feel claustrophic as hundreds of them (as they seemed to me) headed to the city centre en masse. The trains had plenty of carriages but they were ridiculously full as the tickets had just hit their off-peak price which was sometimes as cheap as half the cost of the peak ones.

During the half-term I couldn’t even find a seat and perched in one of the bicycle little areas. So I gave up my coffee and the quiet and the silence. I became used to weaving in and out of crowds of people on the way to Temple Meads and avoiding bicycles through Queen Square. I thought it was probably not too bad.

The worst was yet to come. The evening trains from Cheltenham to Bristol became horrendous. I would arrive at the station at 1800 and the boards wouldn’t even bother with five or ten minute delays. On one day the 1825 was due at 1922 and on this last Monday it was due at 1855. It seemed that every time I showed up at the station I would have to wait nearly an hour and then inevitably the delay would increase as I sat in the waiting room. On Friday night I arrived home after nine o’clock and on the Monday that just passed I was back in time to wash the dishes for 2048.

I have now gone back to my normal hours and after the horror of 13 and 14 hour days I felt motivated enough to catch the 0627 and 0700 to work. The streets were empty, the lights were orange and the trains left on time, both in the morning and the evening.

Utter bliss.

bus stop at the station

Transported: By The Army of Commuters

A few years ago, in a Political Sociology of the Modern State seminar, I remember discussing the effect of the media in a pluralist society. My point, which is not particularly original but I do stand by it, is that controlling the means of communication leads to controlling the way in which people think. What ‘Rupert Murdoch‘ can deliver to political parties, business or whomever he chooses is an army of thinkers, voters and actors. It all sounds like a bit of a conspiracy but not a problem as I am a huge fan of conspiracies.

However, let me explain a little more. Each morning when I commute to work I pass maybe a couple of hundred people who are heading in my direction. Sometimes, the majority will be reading the same newspaper – the Metro – which they pick up for free at the station. The metro is also available on the bus on the way in to work in the morning and it’s not unusual to see 20 or more people reading the same thing, same articles, same headlines, same shock horror ‘who-would-have-thought-it’ cheap, descriptive gossip. When the bus stops in town there is an older man who steps in to pick up a copy and then leaves again. It’s a very popular paper.

Occasionally I read it myself and find fascinating that, for the rest of that day, I will know the same things as other people. When my housemate and I both caught public transport to work, our conversations dwindled quite rapidly because we already knew what the other was going to say, we’d read the same things.

Imagine that on a scale of millions which the distribution of Metro papers reaches monthly these days. This is the environment in which the new Independent spin-off paper i is trying to enter.

One of the early comments on the new paper mentions how it is being ‘touted as the first “quality” newspaper launch in 25 years, it’s a slimmed down version of the Indie designed for busy, younger readers who may have never got the paper-reading habit.’

It’s not only younger readers who may have never picked up the habit but it’s their bite-sized, limited character, short-attention span consumption to which the paper is focusing its efforts. I picked up a copy on the first day of its launch and struggled to find anything to hold my attention. Lots of little bits and pieces (see link for a better description) and only one substantial article which I read in its entirety – Johann Hari’s condensed article on how Obama let us down. I would have preferred the longer version in the Independent.

That was only my first attempt and I’m going to try again soon as I am now armed with my five-days worth of vouchers.

I will let you know if it’s worth recruiting to this new cause which at least has some commentary and analysis, even if it’s condensed.

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

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.


  • 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.

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