How to save a billion pounds

A tad belatedly, the UK recently completed its high-speed rail link to the Channel tunnel – the French had theirs ready in 1994 when the tunnel opened, of course. Ours cost £5.8 billion and cuts “journey times to Paris by 20 minutes to two hours and 15 minutes and to Brussels by 25 minutes to one hour and 51 minutes”, according to the BBC. Here’s a plan to save a third of those numbers of minutes (why the saving on trains to/from Paris is less than to/from Brussels is beyond me, since the track in question is common to both routes – arcane timetabling issues presumably come into it).

Yesterday afternoon I was told the train from Brussels would get me to St Pancras at 13:03. It didn’t. This might sound like one of those conundrums in the paper, but, as far as I could tell, on this occasion the service ran bang on time. The train to Cambridge left King’s Cross at 13:15 on the dot. I know – I was running for it. King’s Cross is next door to St P and, even more favourably, the first platform you come to is number 8, where the Cambridge train left from. It’s 3 minute walk, tops. To say I (rather then the train) will arrive at “St Pancras” or worse “King’s Cross/St Pancras” at 13:03 is spin to the point of lying.

What happened to the other 9 minutes? Let’s be reasonable and just try to save 5 of them. Even if this cost us, say £160 million, the saving would be worth a net £1 billion at the rate of the high-speed link (if £5.8 billion saves 25 minutes, then to find the cost of saving 5 minutes we divide by 5 and get £1.16 billion).

First, it can take several minutes just to escape the carriage. These things were not designed by the iPod team, I can tell you. Let’s put to one side the arm-rests on the seats – clearly the carriage requirement specification did not include any provision for people to actually move around the train. The arm-rests are carefully positioned to manage to catch the average adult in the upper thigh or worse. But, although avoiding catching the arm-rests with your leg generally only results in one on the other side of the aisle tripping up the suitcase you are wheeling, the arm-rests are a problem mainly when the train is moving, and not the limiting factor when queuing in the aisle to get off.

No, what I noticed while standing in the aisle swearing yesterday was that there are doors at one end of the carriage only. 80 people, many with large items of luggage, trying to go through one small exit. Now, I presume train doors are expensive, but I suggest a false economy has been made. It clearly never occurred to anyone that these trains are point to point. (Or maybe it did, and they don’t care). (Practically) everyone gets on at Brussels (also a tedious process) and everyone gets off at St Pancras. They don’t drop off a few passengers at every station. I recollect that the previous train I caught, from den Haag to Brussels, did have rather more door provision, even though at most stations only a few people got on or off.

So, the whole point of investing £5.8bn in this train service was to shade a few minutes off the journey time to compete with air travel, yet a design decision has been made which adds several minutes to the average journey time. But I’m not finished yet. The whole problem is compounded by the luggage pantomime. For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t used the Eurostar service, although even medium-sized suitcases fit above the seats, racks have helpfully been provided for large items of luggage next to the door. Not quite enough racks, though, mind – suitcases blocking the aisle and exit are a regular problem. Yesterday I watched in horrified fascination as those lucky enough to be leaving the train each held up dozens of other people as they slowly collected their heavy bags. Often they had to move other people’s bags first.

Clearly the luggage pantomime would take half the time if there were an exit at each end of the carriage, but there may be other options. Large bags could be checked. People could – like on the trans-Canadian – collect them on the platform. A luggage carriage would be a more efficient way of providing the space used for luggage racks throughout the train, since in general some will be full (or overflowing) and some less than full. The luggage carriage could be the first on the train (where it might also provide a crumple-zone if they ever crash the thing!), since that’s the way you have to exit both in Brussels and London (though a problem to solve is that the luggage carriage would then be at the back on the return journey).

This brings us neatly to the second problem. When you finally manage to get off the train you find yourself on a narrow, crowded platform, full of hundreds of people, many wheeling large suitcases. This is where a few more minutes go. Remember, the £5.8 billion investment implies that each minute is worth about £200 million. The problem I’ve already alluded to is that you have to walk to the front of the train – I’d guess something approaching 400m from carriage 17 where I was. And when you finally get to the front of the train, you simply go down to another station level on an escalator (after queuing for it, of course). Although fairly cluttered – for some reason a shopping mall has been included in St Pancras – this other level is the main station service level, where you find the ticket office and, in my case the passage leading to the road where (I kid you not) you have to dodge taxis in order to cross to the King’s Cross part of Europe’s busiest (non-airport?) transport interchange.

Particularly frustrating if you’re in a hurry is that the Eurostar platform has entrances along it, but no other exits. This is simply poor station design. Though it may also have something to do with the obsession with “illegal immigration” – despite French and UK border checks at Brussels, you get to walk past a UK passport checkpoint. Although the booths are unstaffed, you get stared at by several “spotters” as I think they are termed – they could be immigration, police or a bunch of guys having a laugh, for all you can tell. (What a welcome! Couldn’t these guys be hidden behind screens, or watching us on CCTV?). Presumably, this checkpoint is deemed necessary, but it could nevertheless be duplicated at least once. Even if there was only one more checkpoint bottleneck at the rear of the train, further exits could be provided along the platform to move people to more space on the lower level. And how much value was put on each metre of width of the platform? Since a few metres more width would allow the crowd to move much faster – and a minute is worth £200 million, remember – the value of a platform-metre should have been tens of millions of pounds. I bet it wasn’t. Or rather I bet no-one even did this calculation.

So, to save a billion pounds – or rather £1.16 billion pounds worth of time for £160 million investment – I suggest we spend a few million on experiments on alternative carriage designs with doors at each end so that people can exit a bit more quickly. Implementaion will have to wait until the fleet is renewed, though. More practical would be to spend the rest of the money on (1) additional exits from St Pancras (and Brussels) so that people can get away from the train more quickly coupled with (2) carriages for the storage of large items of luggage at either end of the train.

As someone who once started a blog purely to report on the state of UK public transport, I know to stop here. The problem is that there are so many issues that I could write a tome after every journey, since passenger interests are barely taken into account, which is surely what government should be doing.

Next time I’ll tell you how to save tens of billions of pounds. Or, to put it another way, improve the service with no engineering at all so that I for one would never consider taking the plane to large areas of Europe.