Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Lies, damn lies and newspaper stories

This morning’s Times story about overcrowding on First Great Western’s trains will resonate with many passengers. Capacity problems are one of the most significant issues on the rail network and one of the things that angers travellers the most. Unfortunately, despite its relevance the story provides, at best, a partial picture and, at worst, is downright misleading.

The essence of the story comes from a Freedom of Information release made by the Department of Transport in which they detail the most overcrowded rail services in 2006. The most overcrowded service is, apparently, the 06.35 First Great Western train from Bedwyn to London Paddington. The word apparently is important: during the whole of 2006 there was no 06.35 from Bedwyn – indeed, that service has not run since the days of Thames Trains. It is likely that the Department for Transport means the 06.42 from Bedwyn, but there is no way to be certain. If the DfT are incapable of even recording the times of the trains correctly, it says very little for the accuracy of their passenger count figures. Their numbers are, of course, at odds with other overcrowding statistics – although there is no way of actually assessing their validity because, rather carelessly, the Department has not revealed its methodological or sampling details.

The Times cannot be blamed for this error; that is down to the usual incompetence at the Department for Transport. However, where the Times is culpable is in making a spurious link between the overcrowded Bedwyn service and the cutting of stock on the Great Western network. It is true that the new franchise saw stock cuts, and those cuts, as the article identifies, were expressly agreed with the government. However, the cuts were made to the ex-Wessex fleet not to the local fleet which runs the services to and from Bedwyn. Moreover, the cuts were made as part of the December 2006 timetable change and so will have had no impact whatsoever on the published 2006 overcrowding figures. In actuality, the December 2006 timetable change introduced greater capacity between Bedwyn and Paddington and so, if anything, will have helped to ease overcrowding.

None of this is to say that stock cuts won’t cause, or aren’t causing, problems; they may well be. The thrust of the article is accurate inasmuch as it identifies a growing railway needs greater levels of capacity to cope with demand; the reasons why supply isn’t matching that demand is discussed elsewhere on this blog. One thing First Great Western are doing, however, is to remodel their high speed trains to introduce greater capacity, yet this is the very thing the Times article takes a swipe at. The Times needs to make up its mind: either it wants increased capacity, or it doesn’t. If it does want an increase there has to be a realisation that some tables on HSTs have to be sacrificed to make more space for seating – and that sacrifice is the equivalent of over 3 million additional seats on the FGW network across a year.

If we are to build a better railway for the future, one thing that is critically needed is an informed debate about the future of the rail network. Newspapers can play an important part in that debate – but only if they steer clear of sensationalist headlines and report an accurate and balanced picture of the true state of play. By that standard, today’s Times article falls well short of the mark.


Anonymous said...

"If it does want an increase there has to be a realisation that some tables on HSTs have to be sacrificed to make more space for seating"

No they do not need to be sacrificed, an extra coach should be added instead. If you tell me that that would be a waste of money then you need to answer why the country could afford relatively spacious HSTs in the 1970s when the country was much less well off but that a table and leg room are seen as unaffordable luxuries today.

Why were two toilets in most carriages and Restuarant services on most Swansea services seen as neccesary by BR but an unaffordable luxury today?

You seem to think that the public anger over the state of the railways is misplaced but when the cost to the tax payer and ticket holder increases people are entitled to see an increase in quality not a back sliding.

We are on average slightly healthier and wealthier than in the 1970's. Technology has improved many areas of our life (look at the cancer survival rates in the 1970s or ask someone how unreliable GPO telephones were). If you look elsewhere in Europe advances in technology mean faster, better more comfortable and higher capacity trains. Our railways ought to be getting better but they are not. Instead the quality of the travel experience is slowly erroding. I have just heard that Virgin Cross country will be removing the shop and a toilet from their Voyagers in order to squeese in more seats. These are all steps in the wrong direction. That is why I am angry and why I think that the Times' article was justified. I don't think that it is unreasonable to want to "have it both ways"

Since I started travelling regularly between Bath and London, 8 years ago, I have seen the following changes to the service:

1, ticket prices are hugely increased

2, More seats crammed in so fewer tables

3, Journey times have been lengthened by 5 to 10 minutes each way.

4, standard class trolley has been abandoned.

5, the option of buying a ticket on the train has been withdrawn so I have to get to the station 5 to 10 minutes earlier (my door to door return journey is now 20 minutes longer than it was in 1998 - that is 20 minutes less time I get with my family or asleep.

6, the same old HSTs have been repainted 5 times

Point 6 is no compensation for points 1 to 5.

Do you think that I am being unreasonable to expect standards so slowly creep up not down?


Anonymous said...

There are rumours circulating that FGW is going to have its franchise taken away in 3 weeks if it doesn't sort things out. Can anyone confirm whether this is true?

Anonymous said...

Many HSTs will be reduced from 8 carriages to 7 following this remodelling, involving removing many of the buffet coaches and placing them off-lease. This is not long after GNER extended their HSTs to 9 carriages.

Anonymous said...

The tables were removed after intense public outcry for more seats. This was led by the Evening Standard. You cant have it both ways.
The buffet cars are not being removed.