Archive for the ‘rail fares’ Category

Off topic. On message.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Dyspozytor takes a trip down memory lane to his school days and reflects on the UK elections.

Lost domain

A treasure trove of transport history. The River Thames (bottom right) has been a transport route since before the Romans invaded Britain. The Roman road from London to Bath (left bottom to mid right) was by-passed by the Great West Road which itself was superseded by the M4 motorway. The canalised River Brent  (top left to bottom right) was opened in 1798 as part of the Grand Junction Canal. The area comprising both banks of the canal to the north of Brentford Locks was the canal company’s Brentford Dock. The last commercial traffic on this section of the canal ceased around 1980.

The London & South Western Railway’s line from Barnes to Hounslow (lower left to upper right) opened in 1849 and is still open for passenger services. The Great Western Railway’s Brentford Branch, opened in 1859, was the last commission of Brunel, the GWR’s chief engineer. The whole triangular built up area to the south of Thames Locks was the GWR’s Brentford Dock. The Dock closed in December 1964.

The Great West Road (mid left to top right) from Hounslow to Kew was opened around 1930. The remaining section from Kew in Middlesex to the Cromwell Road in London completed in the 1950s. The eastern section of the M4 motorway (top left to top right) from Slough to the Chiswick flyover was opened in 1965. The white oblong on the right is the Griffin Park ground of Brentford Football Club.

Satellite view courtesy Google Maps. Click the image to open an interactive map of this area on Google Maps.

Today, Parliamentary elections are being held in the United Kingdom. What have football and party politics got in common? Both are capable of generating enormous levels of passion, both – in spite of the media hype – seem to leave a large portion of the population stone cold. I first noted the similarities between the two as a schoolboy.

Let us start at the beginning. In the early 1960s, whenever I could get away from school, much of my time was spent on the Grand Union (formerly Grand Junction) canal at Brentford where – having made friends with the lock-keeper at Lock 99 – I became his unofficial deputy. I had discovered the canal, the lock and my friendly lock keeper while on a cycle ride to explore the ex Great Western Railway Brentford branch line.


Almost the entire section of the Brentford branch line that lies to the north-east of the Great West Road is visible in this photograph. It shows the area as it was in 1953. The Imperial Biscuit Works is the factory on the extreme left – it had its own siding as did Firestone Rubber Tyre factory in the foreground. This building with its iconic Art Deco frontage was demolished during the August 1980 bank holiday weekend before it could be listed.

Lock 99 of the Grand Union Canal is visible on the extreme right and Brentford Town Goods Depot is in the middle distance. Those with a keen eye will spot the Great Western main line and Wharncliffe Viaduct which carries the line over the River Brent valley. Photo ©Historic England.

(Click the image to see the original on the Historic England website and for details regarding reuse.)

At 07:00 each morning during the holidays, I would help to lock through 6 or 7 lighters (unpowered barges) that had been waiting below Lock 99 while their two-man crews (tractor driver and steerer) had breakfast at the café serving the Firestone Tyre factory.

Already the narrow boat pairs (motor boat and unpowered butty) heading for Birmingham had left the British Waterways Brentford Dock and locked through Lock 99, before the lock-keeper had come on duty. They were in a hurry to clear the 6 lock Hanwell Flight before the lighters began to move.

On Friday afternoons I was allowed to leave school early and as often as no cycling along the canal in the late afternoon, I would see a pannier tank haul a train of coal wagons along the branch where it ran parallel to the canal.

And so at an early age my life became linked with two transport routes that were on the way out: the railway to Brentford Docks and the Grand Union Canal. Meanwhile the M4 motorway was being cut through one of the lakes of Osterley Park and taken over Boston Manor Park on an ugly steel viaduct.

My lock keeper friend took me to see the run down Brentford Docks just before they closed in December 1964. The tractor-hauled lighters carried their loads up to Hanwell and Southall until the closure of London Docks. Long distance narrowboat carrying along the Grand Union continued on a small until the closure of Blisworth Tunnel for major engineering work in 1980.

It was easy to see even at my tender age that a tiny tractor pulling a barge loaded with 80 tons of cargo, or a pair of narrow boats carrying 50 tons between them with the motor boat powered by a single cylinder Bolinger engine, or an ex GWR 0-6-0PT 57xx class loco pulling 25 coal wagons, were all burning much less fossil fuel than if the same loads were being carried by heavy lorries. Likewise it did not require a Philosophy, Politics and Economics degree from Oxford to see connect the dots when a Minister of Transport called Ernest Marples was promoting a switch from rail to road while his wife’s company, Marples Ridgeway, was building motorways.

Biscuits and Firestone

The Great West Road, looking from Osterley towards the Brentford Dock branch line in 1931. The Imperial Biscuit Works is the first factory on the left and Firestone Rubber Tyre factory is far distance. Photo ©Historic England.

(Click on the image to see it on the Historic England website and for details of re-use.)

During the 1960s, a great deal of effort was expended explaining to the general public that railways make a loss and road transport is ‘more economic’ to justify the wholesale destruction of Britain’s railways. A great deal less was said then, and has been said since, about the way that this economic argument is slanted against railways which in the UK, as in Poland, are expected to bear their capital and maintenance costs – a charge which is not made on the balance sheet of road transport. If the environmental and health costs of unbridled road expansion are taken into account the case for investing in railways becomes even stranger.

Ever wondered why in countries such as Austria and Switzerland which do put their roads and railways on the same financial footing it still ‘pays’ to transport rail freight by the wagonload and also carry it over their extensive networks of narrow gauge railways.

In 1993, Britain’s railways were broken up into over 90 companies and privatised. Poland’s railways are undergoing a similar process and the privatisation of PKP Energytyka – responsible for supplying the traction current – and PKP Informatyka – responsible for PKP’s computer services – is being rushed through with indecent haste.

Not surprisingly the ‘reform’ pushed up costs and made long-distance ‘walk-on’ fares too expensive for ordinary people who switched coach services. Since those days the major political parties have produced a great deal of hot air – usually while in opposition – about making railway services more affordable for passengers and switching freight from road to rail. These promises are quickly forgotten as soon as the opposition party is elected to government.

Which brings me back to the football analogy at the start of today’s post. While the fans roar their support for one or other side, the real action is taking place off the pitch. Who will invest in the club? Which players should be bought? What will the sponsor want for his money?

As it is with football so it is with mainstream politics. If you share my concern for the destruction wrought by the UK’s pro road transport policy and have still not cast your vote, why not fire a shot across the bows of the mainstream political parties and cast a vote for the Green Party?

EPSON scanner image

The site of Brentford GWR station in 1961. Note the overhead wires for providing the traction current for trolleybuses. The footbridge to the British Waterways office at Lock 100 can just be discerned under the railway bridge, Photo ©Ben Brooksbank.

(Click on image for details of licensing.)


Toxic 2014 results at PKP IC

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Chairman sacked. Privatisation to be rushed through?


Unofficial 2014 figures for passengers carried by Poland’s TOCs show passengers deserting PKP InterCity in droves. PKP IC carried 30.7 million passengers in 2013, but only some 25.4 million in 2014, a loss approx of 5.3 million passengers (-17.2%). Most of the passengers deserting Poland’s long-distance train operating company were those who used PKP IC for relatively shorter journeys as the decline in passenger kilometres (from 7,085 million in 2013 to 6,221 million in 2014) was a more modest -7.9%.

To say that the result is a disaster for PKP IC would be an understatement. In 2013, PKP IC declared an overall loss of 87.2 million PLN, on a difference between sales revenue and operating expenses of 91.3 million PLN. Adjusting sales revenue in accordance with the approx 8% reduction in passenger km in 2014, and assuming that any savings achieved in operating expenses was cancelled out by increased debt service charges, the gap between sales revenue and operating revenue opens out to a huge 282.6 million PLN. What the overall effect on PKP IC’s bottom line is, is anybody’s guess, PKP IC has additional deprecation charges associated with the purchase of new rolling stock in 2014.

What is known for certain is that, after 12 months in post, former PKP IC chairman, Marcin Celejewski, has been turfed out of his job (though he remains a board member) giving up his chair to PKP privatisation guru, Jacek Leonkiewicz – the clearest sign yet that PKP may wish to rapidly divest itself of its troublesome flagship company.

Selling some, or even all of PKP IC, will not be easy. Compared to the UK, Poland’s long-distance passenger market is a mess: there are no through ticketing arrangements between the different passenger operators, journey times are lengthy due to speed restrictions due to poor track or construction work, ticket prices (when compared to earnings) are high, Poland’s TOCs having to pay some of the highest track access charges in Europe.

Stagecoach investigated the possibility of setting up as a TOC in Poland and decided the market was too risky – with the insight so obtained into Poland’s public transport market Stagecoach founder, Brian Souter, decided to set up PKP IC’s nemesis, Polski Bus, instead!

A departmental disconnection

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

With the all UK mainstream media and much of the UK blogsphere focussing on MPs expenses and the resignation statement of House of Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, Behind The Water Tower cannot entirely ignore the matter, so if – in spite of the everything already published – you still want to read more about MPs and Michael Martin, just skip to very end of this post for a few links to some material that you may have not yet read.

Now back to railways. It seems that only The Railway Eye and Behind The Water Tower consider the report on Rail Franchising by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committe worth reporting.

Though railways have not escaped completely from the media’s gaze. The Guardian reports that 2.2 million railcard holders such as students and pensioners face fares rises of up to 50%, while The Daily Mail predicts that 1.6 million train travellers face misery because of line closures during the bank holiday weekend.

Incidentally a year ago, we reported on the complexity of UK rail fares and that only the Internet-savvy could find good deals. It is encouraging to see that the Public Accounts Committee has come to the same view.

Here is the Conclusions and recommendations section of the Committee’s report. If you want to download the full report, just click on the picture at the head of the article.

Conclusions and recommendations

  1. Since taking over from the Strategic Rail Authority, the Department has shown itself capable of letting rail franchises to the planned timescales and protecting the taxpayers’ interests. The Department has procured passenger rail services that live within the public funding available and improve railway performance, although passenger satisfaction continues to pose problems. The Department cannot be complacent and should provide regular analysis and assurance to demonstrate that rail franchising developments are consistent with the Government’s wider objectives.
  2. The Department does not consider damaging side effects for passengers from its rail franchising approach. The Department sets requirements for service frequency and punctuality but does not, for example, measure the impact of rising car parking charges, complex fares and crowding on travellers, including on vulnerable members of society.
  3. Although the Department consults widely, regional transport bodies are not involved in selecting the bidder who will operate services in their area. The Government plans an increased emphasis on a local approach to transport decisions, with Integrated Transport Authorities providing oversight to a number of Passenger Transport Executives in the regions. The Department should invite local and regional bodies to second suitably qualified staff to join the Department’s bid evaluation teams so that details of the services, as bid, are checked against local needs.
  4. The present economic crisis may well put additional pressure on the commercial skills of the Department’s staff. The Department’s franchise management and monitoring will only be effective if there are enough staff in post with the necessary skills to interpret and question financial and commercial information. The Department should be flexible in its recruitment, remuneration and use of staff with commercial experience. Pressure to reduce administrative budgets should not undermine its ability to negotiate effectively with train operators.
  5. The Department promises of bringing 1,300 new rail carriages into service by 2014 look over-optimistic. There are only 423 on order so far, and another 150 carriages are the subject of negotiations. It takes 30 to 36 months to mobilise the supply chain, suggesting deliveries running into 2011–2012 for the current work in progress.
  6. It is unacceptable that low cost fares, which should be available to all rail passengers, are most readily found by those with access to the Internet. This approach undermines the whole basis of the railways as a public service available to all. It excludes those people without access to the Internet, without the time to search or who decide to travel at short notice. There is no reason why the Department should favour a system which supports such perverse and unwarranted exclusion.
  7. The Department must do much more to simplify fares. The Department has made a start in simplifying fares, but some complex fares still exist and the best fares are hard to find without access to the Internet. Fare structures should be simple, fares should be accurately named, and the lowest priced fare for a journey should be publicised and readily available at station ticket offices, as well as on the internet.
  8. In the economic downturn, the Department intends to hold train operating companies to their financial commitments. The Department hopes that, by 2010– 2011, direct subsidies to train operators will be eliminated as companies increase their revenues. But the recession may trigger a reduction in rail travel and fare revenues, and some train operating companies may ask the Department to relax their contractual obligations. The Department should hold train operators to their contract terms although, in some cases, including National Express’s bid for the East Coast franchise, the original bid might have included over-optimistic revenue assumptions.
  9. In the short term, there is an increased risk of train operator financial failure. Although the Department has effective arrangements for monitoring the operational and financial viability of train operating companies, there is a risk that some companies could fail as their revenues fall. In some cases problems that are temporary in nature will be managed through parent company support for additional bank finance. The Department should explore all options and develop robust contingency plans to keep train services running in the event of multiple failure.
  10. In the short term, there is also an increased risk of financial failure by banks that have issued performance bonds. The Department requires train operating companies to issue performance bonds, backed by banks, which the Department can call in the event of the failure of a company. The bonds cover about 5% of the annual cost base of each franchise holding company and have been issued by a selection of banks. The Department should review the ability of the issuers of performance bonds to respond to a call as often as necessary, potentially even on a daily basis.

MPs and Michael Martin