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"Virgin Trains - Some Reflections" by Allan McLean - Edinburgh meeting of 3 March 2009

But before I deal with some of the myths of railway history and wonder about the myths about railways in our own time, let's nip back to 1824 and acknowledge a Scottish hero who deserves to be better known.

Charles Maclaren was the founding editor of The Scotsman in 1817. In December 1824, he published a series of articles assessing the future of railways. Remember this was ten months before the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway and almost five years before steam locomotive power was finally guaranteed a future when Robert Stephenson's Rocket won the Rainhill Trials on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.

Maclaren forecast that railways would straddle countries all over the globe. As a journalist he loved good sounding phrases, of course, and wrote that in time there would be a continuous line of rails between Calais and Constantinople. He didn't forecast the Channel Tunnel, but he did forecast that the United States of America would only truly become United when there was a railway from Coast to Coast.

Think about that. It was to be four decades later before rails would link the Atlantic and the Pacific - under legislation pushed through by President Abraham Lincoln who made it very clear at the time that he believed that the railroads would unite America after the Civil War. And he was right - as was Charles Maclaren all those years earlier, right here in Edinburgh only a few feet from where we are gathered tonight.

When Barack Obama set out for Washington DC to be sworn in as the 44th President of that great country in January this year, he went by train, deliberately following the route taken by Abraham Lincoln in 1861. The platform on which Lincoln got elected saw him represented - among other things! - as the man who would see to it that America got new railroads. And President Obama is following in that, too, pursuing proposals for new high-speed railways through 11 major inter-city corridors in the United States of today.

Before returning to history, I am happy to mention that there is a British company this year that has been asked to be involved in the assessment of the future of inter-city rail travel in the United States - Virgin Trains. But back to Abraham Lincoln. Way back in 1832, he declared: "No other improvement ... can equal in utility the railroad..." As President, he pushed forward legislation under which the state gave land - and opportunity - upon which private enterprise could build railways for the public good.

Meanwhile, Britain's national railway network advanced earlier than in the much larger United States. When I travel on a Virgin Pendolino today in little more than four hours between London and Glasgow, I am conscious that the tracks along which that train tilts at speed are following the alignments laid out more than a century-and-a-half ago by engineers Robert Stephenson and Joseph Locke. Every penny they spent came from the purses of private enterprise, something we do well to remember.

The London & Birmingham Railway was opened between London Euston station and Birmingham Curzon Street in 1838, the second year of Queen Victoria's 64-year reign. This included the southern part of what is now the West Coast Main Line. Robert Stephenson was appointed engineer in September 1833 and got down to work immediately. He and his contractors and 20,000 men got that railway completed within five years.

Thomas Roscoe railed against members of the House of Lords who had delayed approval for the London & Birmingham for a year as they had temporarily stopped a great public company "from pursuing a project of such vast importance to the country at large. He also complained that the company had been forced to spend £72,000 - a truly phenomenal price at that time - on lawyers "before they were allowed to benefit the country by establishing one of the greatest public works ever achieved by man".

Talking of phenomenal price, the original estimate of £1,698,715 was revised before work started to £2,467,730 but came in at a final £5,500,000. That was in 1838. Using indices of average earnings, that is equivalent in today's money to more than FOUR BILLION POUNDS. Let's move on to the present day, and let's not mention any current projects that might be taking a wee bit longer than hoped for...

It is frequently asserted that Britain's railways are inferior to those in Continental Europe. Is this true? On what grounds? It is certainly true that the only purpose-built high-speed line in Britain is HS1, linking St Pancras International with the Channel Tunnel, whereas France, Spain, Belgium, Germany and Italy have come a long way on the development of high-speed networks since the French first hurtled a TGV between Paris and Lyons 28 years ago.

The absence of British high-speed tracks is not something that can be laid at the door of anyone currently running railways in Britain. When Japan proved with the first Shinkansen back in 1964 that the future would run on rails, Britain decided that the way ahead was jams on the road and stacks in the air instead.

However, critics frequently assert that Britain is not as good as its neighbours on other grounds than the acknowledged facts concerning new high-speed tracks. The most expensive fares in Europe - that's one of the regular assertions. Is this based on comparison of like with like?

Britain's most expensive fares are those paid by business travellers, or rather their employers, who value the flexibility to just turn up and go at any time without advance booking, especially during the peaks. Fares paid by the other 85 per cent of train passengers are cheaper. The cheapest fares of all, commit the passenger to travel at a specific time.

An honest comparison of fares would surely match travel opportunity for travel opportunity. So if you are committed to travel on one train and one train only out of all those available, you'll pay more in Britain than on the Continent? Right? Well, it ain't necessarily so, because in many cases passengers on long-distance trains in other countries who have paid top-whack fares may still find themselves committed to a specific train.

Let's dip into the European Rail Timetable published by Thomas Cook in search of some facts.

In Italy, for example, reservations are compulsory in many cases. You only get on the trains to which this rule applies if you book ahead.
In Spain, reservations are generally compulsory.
In Portugal, reservations are compulsory on trains designated as InterCity - and also on tilting trains.
In Sweden, tilting trains also require compulsory reservation.
Not quite so strict in Germany, where reservations are compulsory on designated trains only, but there's quite a range of those.
In the Czech Republic, reservations are compulsory on Pendolino tilting trains.

Hungary requires reservations in many cases. And what of France? Well booking that seat is essential on all TGVs, and many other trains too.

So is it fair to compare a British walk-up fare with the price of a Continental journey for which there is no walk-up fare? Especially as a fee is charged for European compulsory reservations, whereas reservations in Great Britain are free of charge.

It was interesting to see the way the press treated the recent report by the watchdog Passenger Focus on train fare comparisons within Europe. Several papers informed their readers that the report proved again that Britain had the highest fares. Not all the papers pointed out that the report also found that Britain has the lowest fares as well. If you book ahead, you can indeed pay less in Britain. Simon Calder, the Independent travel writer, was berated the other day for pointing out that actually British long-distance train fares are at the mid-point of prices in Europe, not the top. But he was right.

Colin Foxall, Passenger Focus chairman, said of the Fares And Ticketing Study: "This major new study lays bare why Britain' s passengers are broadly happy with the quality of rail services but not happy with the value for money they are getting. Price of tickets is a key factor behind this but so is performance, overcrowding and managing delays. By comparison with some other European countries Britain's railways are generally more expensive, especially in London and the South East. However, most of Britain's passengers seem better served than other European passengers by the number and times of trains available."

That London and the south east comparison is of course of major significance to the huge numbers of people who work in central London where pay is higher but live miles away where housing is cheaper. Passenger Focus found that commuters working in Paris pay a great deal less than their counterparts who commute daily to work in London over comparable distances. In fact, that has been the case for decades. It was one of the points used to hit British Rail over the head when I worked for them 30 years ago ... and the point then was the same as it is now, namely that working in Paris is seen as so important for the glory of la belle France that it is very heavily subsidised, whereas in Britain the tendency is to regard daily commuters into London as being less worthy of support from taxation than their French counterparts.

Incidentally, the study found that people commuting to work in Glasgow pay less than their London counterparts. In the report, Colin Foxall's comments included:

"For a long time people have sought to compare rail fares in Britain with those elsewhere in Europe, popularly perceived to be much less expensive. This is the first major report that attempts to compare prices and services in Britain with those abroad in a meaningful way. Its key findings are that commuting to London is expensive when compared with other principal European cities, although train frequency in Britain is generally higher. On long distance trains it is possible to travel more cheaply in Britain than elsewhere in Europe - if you manage to buy an Advance purchase ticket at the lowest price. However, our long-distance "walk up" railway is expensive when compared with other countries."

Passenger Focus stated in their press release:

"The research found that if you can get a ticket at the cheapest possible "buy in advance, one train only" price, long-distance travel to London can be cheaper than travel to Paris, Hamburg, Milan, Amsterdam, Madrid, Stockholm and Zurich. However, travelling at short notice or needing flexibility about the train you catch can be more expensive travelling to London than to the other cities."

The Passenger Focus report is objective in comparison with some of the partisan claims that have previously been made by others. That won't stop some commentators from using it selectively to bolster subjective views. Among those subjective views, you will find the glib claim that it is cheaper to fly between Glasgow and London than it is to take the train.

I have actually checked today on the internet. On a range of different dates I found trains consistently cheaper from Glasgow Central to London Euston than from Glasgow (Abbotsinch) Airport to any London airport, and that's before taking into account the cost of travel between airport and city centre.

And when it comes to complication, I would point out that there are a great many more different air fares between Glasgow and London than train fares. I today checked the British Airways website for Glasgow to London for tomorrow and found ten different prices quoted for single fares, depending on the time of travel. The cheapest single fare, bookable in advance and committing you to that specific flight, is £87 incidentally, on the 20:10 to London City. The most expensive, at various times of day to London Heathrow, is £233. I repeat, £233 for a single journey, Glasgow Airport to London Heathrow airport. The cheapest single ticket still available for travel by Virgin Trains from Glasgow Central to London Euston tomorrow was £42.50 when I checked today, incidentally - on the 11:40 train which is due in London in 4 hours 23 minutes.

Even a few minutes ago, First Class single Advance travel was still possible tomorrow from Glasgow to London by train for just £86.50. And Virgin Trains includes free at-seat service of food and drink in First Class on a weekday!

I looked at other dates because air fares are cheaper if booked in advance. Something everybody accepts, even though they jib at trains being exactly the same. The cheapest easyJet fare I could find in the month of May from Glasgow to a London airport was £20.99 single, including taxation. Very good. But I found the comparable train fare, city to city NOT airport to airport, is just £12. And yes, I found the £12 fare available - it IS in there, people CAN book it.

OK, so I couldn't find the £12 fare for travel tomorrow. But the easyJet £20.99 isn't available tomorrow either, when the cheapest Virgin Trains single actually available was £42.50 and the cheapest easyJet single was £49.99.

Looking to other dates this month, only a couple of weeks ahead when the cheapest train fares might be expected to have sold out because they go on sale up to 12 weeks ahead, I still found train to be cheaper than plane. Take a return journey from Glasgow to London, outward on 17 March, two weeks today, coming back a week later, on 24 March - cheapest return by air from Glasgow Airport according to is £64.58 with easyJet. Cheapest by train, still bookable today, totalled a return price of £51.50.

But what about Ryanair, I hear you ask. I mentioned that price comparison websites give fares from Glasgow Abbotsinch. Ah, yes, Ryanair, flying from Prestwick to Stansted, well well, what's this for tomorrow on their website? A single fare for £14.99. Ah, but, that's before taxes and fees bring the fare up to £35.05. Of course I hope you are travelling light, because that £35.05 doesn't include £9.50 for your first item of checked-in luggage, and £19 each extra item if you have a second and/or third bag for the hold. And £1.90 extra if you want to be one of the first passengers allowed to board the flight. And £4.75 each way if you check in at the airport instead of checking in on line. An accompanied child under two years old is charged £19, by the way. Free under five on the train.

Ryanair charges a handling fee of £4.75 when you make a booking, incidentally. Bear that in mind when I acknowledge that Ryanair is offering single tickets between Prestwick and Stansted for £3 for travel on selected flights later this month and in April and May - an offer only there until midnight tonight. They won't charge taxes on those fares, but unless you've an Electron card, the booking handling fee is still £4.75. And you've got to get to and from the airports (£15 single from Stansted to London). No extra charges for buying Virgin's £12 single between city centres. We even give you seat reservations free of charge.

Last time one of my sons tried to fly Ryanair, he wasn't able to go in spite of making a booking because he was suddenly switched to a flight too early in the morning for him to get from the Isle of Bute to Prestwick in time to join it. OK, so what about other criticisms?

Britain's railways are run by lots of different companies - that's sometimes used as a criticism too. The people who find this not to their taste will often assert that things are better organised in Switzerland. So it might come as a surprise to seek the answer to the question, which country has more passenger train operating companies? Great Britain or Switzerland? The answer is, in fact, Switzerland. Of course, they run a joined-up national network. But then, so do we! As well as being expensive our fares are complicated - another widely-held belief.

Well, you want complicated? How about Italy? There are ELEVEN categories of express train in Italy. Varying supplements are payable before you are allowed to travel on seven of these. And Spain? Again, there are ELEVEN types of express and long-distance train, most requiring passengers to pay higher fares.

When it comes to supplementary fares, these also apply on various trains in France, Germany, Poland, Hungary and Sweden. And in the Czech Republic you pay an extra fee to ride on a Pendolino. Britain's railway is Europe's fastest growing, with passenger journeys up from 700 million in 1995 to 1.3 billion in 2007 and yet critics continue to claim that high fares, complicated ticketing and a plethora of companies are combining to drive people off the rails and onto the roads.

Well, at Virgin Trains we are still on target to double the number of passengers we were catering for when we started in 1997. And the average fare actually paid to travel by Virgin Trains has come DOWN in price over the past year thanks to the fact that we are offering many more cheap fares.

Iain Coucher, Chief Executive of Network Rail, recently pointed out in an address to the Railway Study Association that in 1994 there were 14,000 trains a day in Britain but now there are 24,000. This hardly seems like a failing railway.

Of course, another point that is often asserted is that everybody else runs trains to the same timetables 365 days a year but only in Britain are there days when trains are diverted or missing or their passengers have to use buses.

However, the introduction to train times in Ireland states in the Thomas Cook publication: "All services are subject to alteration during the Christmas, New Year and Easter holiday periods."

Guess which country's entry also warns of altered holiday timings, adding: "Engineering work can often affect schedules ... Where a train is shown subject to alteration on certain dates this often means that part of the journey may be provided by bus, often with earlier departure or later arrival times."

And which country would one suppose this entry applies to: "Engineering work may occasionally disrupt services at short notice (especially at weekends and during holiday periods), so it is advisable to check times locally before travelling." Of course that first entry is for France. Yes, France. And the second one is for Germany. Yes, Germany. The invaluable reference book also warns of engineering work requiring a switch to buses for some journeys in Austria from 22 March.

Yes, there are similar warnings for Great Britain. But to hear the way some people go on, you might be forgiven for thinking that ours would be the only country requiring such entries. Agreed, high-speed lines are, well, high-speed. And we don't have any of those for inter-city journeys wholly within Great Britain, so naturally those journeys covered by these lines elsewhere are faster than on conventional tracks here.

But there's more to it than fast journeys. There is also the matter of frequency. The continentals are bound to be better than us, aren't they? Er, well, no! The Cook's publication confirms that Great Britain - more specifically Virgin Trains - offers Europe's most frequent long-distance services with trains every 20 minutes from London to Birmingham and also every 20 minutes to Manchester.

Take, for example, Berlin to Hamburg, a similar distance to London-Manchester. There are 23 trains a day from Berlin to Hamburg. There are 46 a day from London to Manchester. Journey times are certainly faster where new routes are in place. But where conventional tracks are still the order of the day, the continentals do not necessarily take the lead. For example, Vichy is 365 km south of Paris, a distance covered in 2h 50. London to Lancaster is 370 km and typically takes 2h 24.

Arguably, some critics are not just failing to compare apples with apples or oranges with oranges; at best they are comparing apples and oranges, but at worst their comparisons are like linking mince and rhubarb. All we ask at Britain's railway companies is that comparisons are fair and like for like.

Report by Allan McLean.


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