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The age of the train ?

Tony Lynck (Glasgow).

lundi 18 mars 2013, par rixke

According to the British Rail advertisements, ‘This is the age of the train’. But is it ? In August 1981 BR said that it had lost £37 million in the first six months of the year. It is expected to lose a total of µ140 million by the end of 1981. This would be almost as twice as high as its losses for 1980. Clearly, BR is in trouble. But its chairman, Sir Peter Parker, says that of all the nationalized rail systems in Europe, only Sweden’s is doing any better than BR. All the systems lose money and need to receive help from their national governments. Sweden’s railway pays 83% of their costs ; BR pays 71% ; Belgium’s NMBS/SNCB pays 49%. But BR knows that, if it is going to make more money, it has to improve its position in Britain’s transport market. It has therefore launched an effort to make progress in three main areas : in passenger advertising ; in industrial relations ; and in technical research.

Let’s look first at BR’s passengers adverts.

Perhaps the most obvious way to persuade people to use the train is to make rail travel cheaper — either by actually cutting prices, or at least by showing the public that journeys are cheaper by train than by any other means of public transport. BR now runs a wide choice of special offers. An ‘Awayday’ return is a ticket for travel to and from a particular city or town, with both trips made on the same day. A ‘Big City Saver’ is a return ticket for trips made on different days to one of the country’s larger cities and booked in advance ; only a limited number of ‘Big City Saver’ seats are available on any one train. Then there are other special offers — for young people under 24, for people over 60, for students in full-time education. Last November BR tried an experiment in travel for pensioners, offering an ‘Awayday’ type of ticket anywhere in Britain, for only £1. the result was that on some rail routes the trains were completely packed, with elderly people taking the chance to visit friends and relatives. So the price of any return journey can vary enormously. I travel each day from Glasgow to Edinburgh and back, a distance of about 160 kilometres. My Monday-Friday 5-day ticket cost me £16 — in other words, £3.20 a day ; an Ordinary return is £4.24 ; an ‘Awayday’ return costs £3.80 ; an ‘Offpeak’ return is £2.80 ; a Winter Special offer was £2.00 ; someone with a Student railcard would pay just half price.

BR adverts concentrate on the advantages of train travel in comparison with journeys by car or plane. Flying, they say, is certainly the fastest way — but not by so much. Glasgow - London by plane takes about 1¼ hours and costs at least £60 return. The train takes over 5 hours ans-d costs as little as £20 return for a reserved seat. But, BR say, the flight time does not include the check-in and waiting time at the two airports — say, 75 minutes — or the time you spend travelling out from the city centre to the airport, and vice versa — say, another hour at least. When those times are included, then the train is not that much slower than the plane.

When comparing car and train, they tell us that driving (and, in particular, driving on a busy motorway) is an activity that demands high concentration and effort, which puts the driver under great nervous stress. A recent advert shows the heartbeat rates for a driver on the motorway journey from Leeds to London, in contrast with those for someone doing the same trip by train. ‘Let the train take the train’ the advert says, ‘Why add the pressure of a long drive to the pressure of your job, when there is an alternative ?’ The train also gives you the chance to stretch your legs, to avoid the packed-in feeling that you can get in a car or plane — or, at least, so BR tell us.

Apart from the aim of making more money by selling more tickets and keepi,g trains full, BR intend to spend less, where possible. The main expense for any company is labour — in the form of wages and social insurance payments for the workers. BR reduced its total workforce in 1980 by 6,000 ; its present total of employees is 175,000 and about 40,000 of those jobs will disappear by the end of 1985, if BR manages to keep to its plans. This reduction will be achieved partly by what is called ‘natural wastage’ (the number of workers who would anyway leave their jobs to find other work, or to retire) and partly through ‘voluntary redundancy’, the system under which workers may choose to leave their jobs and receive money in compensation. The size of the payment depends on the number of years they have worked for BR. (The popular name for this payment is ‘the Golden Handshake’ — can you see why ?)

One area in which BR plans to reduce the workforce is in the sale, inspection and collection of tickets. At the moment, a passenger’s ticket is usually looked at by at least three people : at the platform barrier when getting on the train ; by an inspector on the train ; again at the barrier at the destination. Understandably, the railway trade unions have resisted cuts in jobs in the past. The situation is made more difficult by the fact there are a number of different unions involved in the railway system, (as in most British industries), and so any loss of jobs means fewer members for a union and so a reduction in that union’s relative power in the rail industry.

Apart from the passenger adverts and the reduction of the workforce, BR is active in the field of scientific research and technical modernization. It has worked on two principal projects for faster, more economical trains : the Advanced Passenger Train and the High Speed Train. The APT was brought into service in an experiment in 1980. It is an electric train with a top speed of around 240 k.p.h. But there where problems with its suspension system, which is quite revolutionary : it is designed to ‘lean’ into a curve, rather like a motorcyclist does when approaching a curve in the road at high speed. The system means that the APT should not need to slow down at all when coming up to a bend in the track, so saving time on long journey. Because of the problem, the train was taken out of experimental service, and will coma back when the scientists have resolved the difficulty. The other train, the HST, is already in service ; it is a diesel train and is popularly known as the 125, because its top speed is 125 m.p.h. (200 k.p.h.). BR is particularly proud of the fact that runs very smoothlyn despite the relatively high speed it can reach.

But, in spite of its efforts to attract new passengers, to cut prices, to improve services and to speed up rail travail, BR stills gets only 7% of all passenger traffic in Britain. Future decisions on government spending — especially by a Conservative government such as the present one — are going to depend on BR capturing more of the passenger market. Otherwise, the ‘Age of the Train’ will become a dream of the past.

English pages, March 1982