Monday, February 24, 2003

Sometimes, when private firms without much eperience in railways take over railway companies, they decide that the way to revitalise the business is to try to pretend that the passenger is not travelling by train at all. In particular, they often conclude that since more people travel by plane than by train, the best way to increase the number of people travelling by train is to make the experience more like air travel. This generally fails to take into account that the reason people fly is because that is the only way to travel long distances quickly, and not because they love the service. Sometimes this leads to ludicrous situations where train passengers are compelled to queue up to check in, or where they are forced to reserve seats on a particular train, when one of the nice things about train travel is that you can buy a ticket that allows you to walk up and catch whatever train you feel like. (There is nothing wrong with having discounted tickets that specify a particular train, but making this mandatory is silly). Sometimes this leads to positives. (Virgin Trains in the UK has been quite innovative in introducing advance purchase fares that can be bought over the internet similar to the way you buy tickets for discount airlines). Sometimes this is neither negative or positive - for instance passengers in first class are served meals on airline style trays.

One of these neither particularly positive or negative things about Virgin Trains in the UK is that they provide an airline style "in flight magazine". This contains advertisements, a few non-challenging articles, safety information about the train, a map showing destinations served by Virgin Trains, and half a dozen brief introductions of a couple of pages each to the cities that Virgin Trains serve. On the train to Manchester last week, I found myself browsing this magazine. As a graduate of St John's College, Cambridge, I was heartened to see this beautiful picture of my college's most famous landmark.

Update: Stephen Karlson has some follow up comments on this. My comments were not aimed entirely at Virgin, but they were the only operator I mentioned because my main aim in posting was to point out the error in the Virgin magazine. The worst offenders are actually the high speed rail operators. Virgin are actually not guilty of a couple of the offences I mentioned (making you stand in line to check in, and the compulsory seat reservations). Eurostar on the other hand are dreadful. They have a lovely train service to Paris and Brussels, but they do require compulsory seat reservations, they do not have properly integrated tickets systems with other railways, they do make you stand in line to check in, they define a "child" as someone under 12 (as do airlines) rather than someone under 16 (as do most railways), and (in first class) they serve meals on airline like trays at your seat rather than having a separate dining car. (Virgin actually are guilty of this last one). The Thalys train services between France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany also do many of these things, although they are not quite as bad as Eurostar.

(As far as children are concerned, Eurostar have a "Youth" fare for people from 12 to 25. This is competitively priced, but quota controlled, so people from 12 to 25 might have to pay the full adult fare on busy services. When a newspaper queried them about this they actually defended it on the basis that "We are not really in the railway business as our main competitors are airlines, and they do this").

One of the best things about train travel is the ability to get up and walk around the train, and possibly even to mingle with your fellow passengers. In order to aid this, it is nice to have a car (or even part of a car) on the train as an alternative place for passengers to go than their regular seat. This might be a dining car, a lounge car with a bar and a few seats, etc. This is completely uneconomical on an aircraft (although it has been tried) but is perfectly feasible on a train. Sadly, though, most train operators have forgotten this. A basic point, though, is that like travel by sea, rail travel is a type of travel that can actually be enjoyable in itself. This is not true of bus travel, and once the novelty value has worn off, it is not normally true of air travel. (It is often true of car travel, however, especially if you are the driver).

Further Update . Stephen's blog doesn't have comments, so I will respond to his response to my response here. On the observation that

He too, notes that modern train operators have (for the most part) forgotten to provide the opportunity to allow passengers to move around, find a card table, or buy a drink. Believe me, the pain is greater when you distinctly remember such things.

One thing about British (and other European) rail services is that most of these things survive somewhere, but not in very many places. Some services from London Victoria to Brighton have a lounge car - essentially a little mobile pub - which is a very pleasant place to spend the trip, but most British services have no such thing. East Coast Main Line services have dining cars, but West Coast Services operated by Virgin do not. (Virgin includes the cost of a meal in the price of a first class ticket, and it is served at your seat. If, on the other hand, you are in second class, there is a very limited buffet selection, and nowhere to eat or drink it apart from at your seat). Dining cars are also a thing of the past in most of my native Australia, which is sad. I remember them well.

As for interline tickets, the problem is that continental Europe has long worked them out, but the British connection to the European system is a relatively new development, and connections between the British and continental European systems are not well handled. On top of that, the connecting rail company (Eurostar) is not very knowedgeable about railways, and just has poor customer service in general). Interline tickets are fine in Britain itself (any ticket office in Britain can sell you any ticket valid on any operator or combination of operators) and are usually fine in continental Europe, but the connection between the two leaves something to be desired. Whereas one ticket can get me from Paris to Moscow, I need three to get me from Watford to Amsterdam. The number of ticket offices where I can get the London to Brussels leg is very limited, whereas I can buy the others at an enormous number of outlets. Given that my local suburban London station can easily sell me a ticket on Scotrail from Glasgow to Inverness, (ie an interline system exists) I really cannot see why a ticket from London to Paris cannot be integrated into that system. Eurostar's attitude that it is really an airline and it therefore isn't actually part of the rail system doesn't really help much.

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