Friday, 30 December 2011

British Fares Triple Europe's

Research by the Campaign for Better Transport shows that train fares for commuters in Britain are three times what they are in most European countries. They conducted a survey showing the cost of an annual season ticket, including travel on each city's underground system, from a town approximately 23 miles from the capital. The results were:

Woking to London, £3,268
Ballancourt-sur-Essonne to Paris, £924.66
Strausberg to Berlin, £705.85
Collado-Villalba to Madrid, £653.74
Velletri to Rome, £336.17

Well, the trains here are still full at peak times, so the Train Operating Companies are getting it about right, aren't they?  Why do people decide to live miles from their place of work and then bleat about the cost of getting there? Some people complain that they have to stand! It's so uncomfortable they pay £000's to do it.

Of course, people choose to live away from cities because, the further you go, the cheaper the property. In effect, they are just replacing higher mortgage costs with train fares. It seems that the train fares are cheaper than the cost of a mortgage closer to town.

And cost by train? Just 32p a mile if you only use your season ticket on weekdays. Cost by car? 40p a mile and you have to do the driving so you haven't included the cost of your labour nor of stabling parking your car.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Home and Away at High Speed

There's an article with this title in RAIL Magazine No. 686 December 29th issue. It actually mirrors some of my experiences with high speed rail travel in the UK and Europe written up in my last blog post.  It's a good read.  It also suggests that French high speed track is showing signs of its age. My experience too.

Monday, 5 December 2011

High Speed Across Europe

A few days ago, I took a trip (on business) by train from my home in the East Midlands of Britain to Frankfurt in Germany. I don't do this sort of trip by train very often so I took notes. This is an account of what happened. It made me think about how we, in the railway business, have progressed, or not.
23rd November 2011
14:00: Checked into Eurostar at St Pancras. Began with a nonsense where the barcode on my home-printed ticket would not work the entry gates so I had to be checked in manually. Then even more nonsense going through airline style security check. I thought the whole purpose of high speed rail was to compete with airlines, not to try to be the same as airlines. What would they want to blow up anyway?
Having paid a first class fare, I tried to find the business lounge. I thought there must be one. I went to information only to be told I had a “Standard Premier” ticket, even though the class on the ticket said “1”.  This means you don’t get the lounge. Now not a happy bunny.
14:15: Boarding started. The access is up to the platforms from the waiting area along a moving pavement sloped so steeply, it irritates the ankles. Another airline parallel, reminding me of the horrible moving walkways at Paris Roissy airport. I eventually found my coach and my seat after wondering how a coach with 24 seats can have them numbered in the 40s.
My immediate impression of the interior was that it is tired. I haven’t used Eurostar since it first started out of Waterloo in November 1994, so the trains are now 17 years old and they badly need a freshen up.
14:36: Train left 2 minutes late. I immediately noticed that the air pressure waves on the HS1 tunnels are unpleasant. This is taking parallelism with the airlines just too far.
On our way to Ebbsfleet, I also noticed the feeling of rising and falling over the vertical curves. It was quite distinct, a lot like being in a lift. Rather too steep in my view.
15:15: A snack is served. Having assumed I was getting a full lunch, it was rather disappointing but adequate if you’re not too hungry. My travelling partner had already had lunch but still managed to clear his plates.
The staff were generally better than I expected for a railway service. They were all French and seemed quite cheerful and willing. None of the British surliness here and worth the excessive price of the ticket on its own. 
16:45: Slowed down for the tunnel and then out the other side into thick fog. At the moment, I’m glad I took the train instead of flying, despite the airline style check-in. 
The ride on the French side was very rough. My feeling was that there were lots of wet patches. It seems that the UK HS1 team looks after their infrastructure better then the French do. Remarkable, given the supposed good reputation of the French railways.
17:33: Got to Brussels Midi on time. We decided to find out where the Frankfurt train left from and then look for a Belgian beer. Found a bar opposite the station but only had time for one before tramping back for the ICE train.
18:20:  The ICE train occupies a platform also occupied by a Thalys going to Paris.  They are stopped no more than 5 meters apart. Try doing that in the UK (sharp intake of breath from the representative of the safety taliban). 
18:25:  Departed Brussels Midi 2 minutes late.  I was unable to find a seat reservation on the train.  For some reason, my ticket didn’t show a reservation, although it did on the Eurostar section.  Then there was a slow crawl to Brussels Noord.  The train filled up there and it was now crowded.  I wasn’t sure if I’d get thrown out of my seat. I stayed put, prepared to tough it out if challenged.
The train sat at Noord a very long time.  Whether this was planned or not, I don’t know.  Left at 18:40.
18:45:  Train dot matrix display says we are doing 166km/h.  The train seems to rock gently from side to side as we progress – a sort of controlled hunting.
Train announcements were in English as well as German, Dutch and French and we were told that the seat reservation system was defective – very East Midlands Trains – I felt quite at home. 
We then found that the restaurant car was full so we couldn’t have dinner on the train. We were told we could have a snack at the seat but they didn’t have a menu.  We dispatched the attendant to find one.  When it arrived, it wasn’t much use as it was all in German. The attendant waited while we looked through it trying to find at least one word that made sense. There was an interesting debate when we asked for a translation of one of the dishes. Five passengers and two attendants joined in the discussions until someone realised that it was pea soup.  We declined. We decided to have a baguette.  When it arrived, it wasn’t too bad - warmed up and washed down with a cold beer but it was a long time coming.
19:00:  Not gone above 166km/h yet but still in Belgium.  Next stop is Liege. We were 12 minutes late into Liege but it has a very impressive station.  Money has been spent here on what is a relatively small town. I wonder why. Euromillions gone mad, I suppose.
20:17:  Doing 246km/h on approach to Cologne.  Riding very rough.  The train is bouncing on its bump stops with alarming bangs from underneath.  Train went into brake mode at 20:18, then running at progressively lower speed with brakes off and then on, off then on several times as it joined the original network.  Train finally stops in Cologne at 20:25.
20:29:  Departed Cologne.  Discovered the train toilets are no better than average UK ones.  No toilet paper, no hand towels, wet floor, and one complete toilet out of order.
20:47:  Noticed a lot of tunnels on the Cologne Frankfurt route with the same pressure wave problems that you get on HS1.  Some tunnels had the lights on and some not.
20:51:  Train now at 254km/h.  More tunnels and serious pressure discomfort.  Imagine a plane descending rather too fast.
21:00:  Now at 185 km/h and braking, I reckon, at about 0.4m/s^2.  
21:03:  Signal check down to about 50km/h.  Location unknown as its dark and foggy. 
21:20:  Arrived at Frankfurt Airport.  Braking from 200km/h took 3 minutes. 
21:23:  Depart Frankfurt Airport.  Another fine station where money has been spent.
21:33:  Arrived at Frankfurt-am-Main.  As the train was on time, I can only assume that there is a lot of slack in the timetable, since we’d made up 12 minutes since Liege.   Station stops were a minimum of 3 minutes, often longer.
The trip home
25th November
14:15: Depart Frankfurt on part full ICE to Brussels.  The train filled up at Frankfort Airport.  My travelling partner is a German expert in signalling I just met by chance. He is informative and entertaining.  
14:42:  The train came to a dead stand near Niederseelbach.  Another ICE passed us in the opposite direction and we then restarted and crossed over to the SB line.  We ran at normal speed “bang road” until the train stopped at Limburg Sud station.  This was not listed as one of the stopping points.  According to my travelling companion, they don’t list the stopping points between Cologne and Frankfurt except in the timetable.  We regained the NB road immediately after this station.

14:45:  There was no offer of food nor refreshment from the train staff.  I wasn't aware of a dining car, although there might have been one. I thought I would wait for the Eurostar trip and get an upgrade to get a full meal.
15:04:  Stopped at another small, unlisted station, Manbauer. The ICE is being used as a commuter train.  The ride is very good but what a waste of a high speed route, stopping at all the little villages between Frankfurt and Cologne.
15:14: Speed now 286km/h. 
15:16: Train slowing again for another stop at Sieburg/Bonn. 
15:22: Stop at Sieburg/Bonn.  I am advised that the train is about 5 minutes late. 
Announcements are at station stops only.  None of the backside covering, safety rubbish you get in the UK that nobody listens to, just the simple announcement that the train is approaching the next stop and then a welcome with a destination announcement after it’s restarted.
15:32:  We are now on the conventional network and approaching Cologne.  Signal checks all the way in until we stopped on a bridge just overlooking a huge yard full of commuter trains.
15:38: Restarted and passed a loco shed with a working turntable.  There was a pair of steam locomotive wheels mounted on one side as some sort of memorial to a bygone age. 
15:40 Passing Koln Messe/Deutz and a slower moving push pull commuter train on the adjacent track with a Class 111 pushing.
15:47: Departed with usual good acceleration and got clear of Cologne quickly.
16:00: Slowed to about 160km/h and we are on the conventional network again. I guess this will be like this to Brussels now.  The ride is significantly poorer now.
16:16: Arrived Aachen. I got the impression the train was shut down for a while. This might have been due to a crew change for the Belgian bit.
16:27: Departed Aachen after a long wait, but only got 100m before there was an emergency brake. Restarted immediately. Just outside Aachen, we crossed over to "left hand drive" for the Belgian run.
16:36: Came to a stand near a small village with the train straddling a level crossing but restarted almost immediately and resumed main line speed.
16:39: We seem to be on a high speed line now after passing through a junction. Perhaps the signal stop was because of the junction but there was no conflicting route nor passing trains.
16:41: Brake for approach to Liege.  Then a long run in at constant lower speed level.
16:45: More braking for Liege.  On-off approach again.
16:51: Stop at Liege.  I’m amazed again at the beautiful architecture of the place.
16:53: Start from Liege.
16:59: Train accelerated up to high speed so we must have left the national network.
17:24: Braking for Brussels Nord, another stop that isn’t displayed on the train until you get there. 
17:39: Arrived in Brussels 4 minutes late.  I went immediately to the Eurostar terminal to see if I could upgrade my ticket so I could get a meal on the train.  But, I was told, there’s no ticketing facility at Brussels Midi Station!  Eh? An attendant told me that to upgrade I had to see the train manager on Car 7 and he would sort it out.  I was told boarding would start at 18:00, so I had to cool my heels wandering about a crowded and busy Midi station dodging commuters, crazies and tramps.
At the appointed hour, I went to the terminal.  It was a scrum.  Too many people and not enough space.  When I got to the ticket gates, my ticket wouldn’t work the gate again and I was sent to the desk.  There I was told, “DB ticket – they don’t work” in a way that showed the attendant’s contempt for anything not Belgian. I found all the Belgian staff rude.
Then you have a passport control point followed by the ridiculous security system where you have to undress to shirt and trousers, load your clothes into a box and carry the box and your bags to the scanner.  At least at airports they help you with loading the scanner.
I just don’t get the security process. Why is it necessary? They don’t do it on other high speed trains so why this one?  “Oh, it’s because someone might try to blow up the channel tunnel” I was told.  What nonsense.  To have enough explosives to do that, you’d have to have a suitcase the size of a small house.
Once through the stripping aisles, I got dressed and then found another passport check.  Why?  I’d just had one.  The man at the desk told me this was UK passport control.  The other one, he said, was Belgian.  Again, why?  There isn’t anywhere else to go between the two? And why do we still have passport control between the UK and other European countries? None of them do amongst themselves and it doesn’t stop illegal immigration. I think we should let them in.  They’ll soon learn how bad it is in the UK – cold, crowded, bureaucratic, unfriendly, lousy food – why did I ever come back, ha-ha?
Eventually, we were allowed on the train.  When I got to Car 7 as told, I was re-directed to the train Manager who was by Car 10.  He then told me I should see the lady on Car 12.  Talk about pass the parcel.
Finally, I got to the lady in question. Her badge said she was the Purser.  She was polite and helpful and gave me a seat without question. She offered me a menu and generally made me feel welcome.
18:50:  Depart on Eurostar on time.  You immediately know you are getting into UK mode by the long announcements about luggage and tickets repeated three times in three languages.  You don’t get this repetition or length on DB.  The coach I’m on has flats, something I didn’t hear in Germany.
19:15: Crossed the border into France.  I know this only because my phone told me. 
19:22: Arrived at Lille.  The approach seemed to have less fuss than the approach to German and Belgian stations.
19:25: Departed Lille.  The ride to Calais was rough compared with anything I have felt on any other part of the trip.  I noticed that the train doesn’t have any indication of speed like the ICE.  I’m sure that on my last trip on Eurostar, there used to be a speed display over the end gangways.  What happened to it?
I’ve noticed that the vibration from the train is affecting the charger on my Apple Mac Book Pro laptop.  Every so often it loses connection and then restores it.  Odd that.
19:54:  Arrived at Calais.  The station looks like a New York Subway yard with barbed wire fences and thick netting on either side of each platform.  Is this what we do to keep people out of the UK?  Why? Have we created the myth that Britain is such a wonderful place that you have to climb fences and ride in the equipment cases of trains to get here?  Is our social security system so easy to get into? Perhaps some of our politicians should take this trip.
19:59: Departed Calais.  I noticed two military staff on the platform as we left.  Shortly afterwards, we passed the terminal where I did locomotive staff training.  My lasting memory of this is that sand got into everything, even me.
20:03:  Entered tunnel.  At slow speed (160km/h).
19: 24 (20:24): Left tunnel. The ride is now a lot better than France.
19:43: Arrived Ebbsfleet. Here we are told how to open the doors.  Why here and nowhere else?
20:03: Arrived at St Pancras on time.
20:19:  Got on EMT Meridian.  Can’t believe that the First Class is full at this time of night.  Packed full of people who don’t normally travel first class. You can always tell.  Is this a holiday weekend? No, it’s just a myth that fares are too expensive.  Trains are full of people not on business. Why would fares have to be any lower?
20:25:  Train left on time.  I soon discovered we are back in Britain.  The toilet is filthy and obviously wasn’t serviced at St Pancras. As an aside, I often wonder why paper hand towels in toilets are packed so tightly that, when you try to get one with wet hands, it just disintegrates in your fingers. Is there a designer for the train facilities?
Riding is rough, and I mean rough.  It makes the LGV in France look smooth. 
21:45: Train arrives at Loughborough on time. After months of chaos, the rebuilding of the station forecourt still hasn't been finished.  The recently-built new car park is now being dug up because the drains weren't installed properly.  The drop-off areas are on the wrong side of the road and the turning area is so small you have to do a 3-point turn to leave the station. Chaos for every train arrival, even at this time of night.  Design? What design? What a disgrace.