High-speed Professor goes off the rails

When someone says, literally, or in effect: “Listen to me, I’m a Professor”, be suspicious, very suspicious.  Because the truth is, Professors are just as likely as the rest of us to spout misleading garbage.  But their gibberish is more likely to be published, simply because the average editor thinks: “Letter from a Professor – must be worth a column inch or two!”  If you’re told it was written by a Professor, the chances are therefore higher than otherwise that what you are reading is poorly thought-through drivel.  Furthermore, having their output published more often provides the said Professors with the positive reinforcement that encourages them to submit for publication more material in the same vein as the rubbish that shouldn’t have been published in the first place.

I was therefore immediately sceptical when I read the last of an interesting clutch of letters in this morning’s Guardian on the topic of the UK’s procurement of new trains.  A Professor Lewis Lesley of Liverpool wrote:

“At £5.4m per carriage, these are the most expensive trains ever. For the same money, 30,000 high-speed luxury motorway coaches could be acquired, increasing the total size of the UK bus and coach fleet by 50%.”

I think he means that you could get 30,000 coaches for the £7.5bn cost of the whole order, not for £5.4m.  The order is for 1,400 train carriages, plus locomotives, so, including the cost of the locomotives (expensive, because they’re dual diesel/electric) one train carriage costs as much as around 21.5 coaches.  Hmm, maybe that’s not too unreasonable.

But, still, 5.4 million pounds – wow, that’s a lot of money!

Or is it?

Let’s assume, for ease of arithmetic, that the carriages seat 54 people each on an average trip (it’s probably more, since they’re filled like aeroplanes these days).  So that’s £100,000 per seat.  Wow, still a lot.

Wait a sec.  These carriages will be in service for decades.  Let’s just give them 20 years (they’re actually expected to last nearly twice as long as this, but, as you may have guessed by now, I like to make conservative estimates *).  Now we’re down to £5,000/seat/year.

See what I’m driving at?

Divide just once more and we see the cost is less than £15/seat/day over the 20 years.

And, of course, these trains can make, let’s say, two return trips (another conservative estimate) on one of the UK’s main lines every day.

So, for a single journey – London to Manchester, say – the portion of your ticket price needed to cover the investment in the rolling stock is at most a princely £3.75.

Think about that next time you shell out as much as £360 for a walk-on ticket, as the Guardian’s consumer champion reported on Saturday.

There was a reason why I scrutinised Professor Lewis Lesley’s “argument”.  I would much prefer a future where I am able to travel around the UK on high-speed trains than “high-speed luxury motorway coaches”.  This is a contradiction in terms: “luxury” and “coaches” do not belong together in the same sentence.  And virtually every vehicle on the UK’s roads is capable of exceeding the 70mph speed limit.  Only an idiot (or perhaps a Professor) would contemplate purchasing a fleet of coaches incapable of sustaining 70mph.  What the adjective “high-speed” is doing in the Professor’s sentence is therefore anyone’s guess.

Look, travelling by coach is an unpleasant experience.  That’s why, by and large, you find, proportionally-speaking, considerably more impoverished students on coaches and highly-paid Professors on trains.

It was when he started on the merits of promoting coach travel (in some unspecified way – presumably state diktat) that George Monbiot lost me in his (nevertheless worthwhile) book Heat.

Look, guys, if you’re going to get everyone out of their fossil-fuel powered cars and aeroplanes, then please, please provide an alternative vision that people can believe will improve their lives.  Heck, why not try to capture their imagination once in a while?  Because you’ll never get enough people to wear a hair-shirt.

Oh, and I agree with the Guardian’s correspondents who say we should be completing the electrification of the rail network, not buying diesel locomotives.  Getting rid of the need for dual-powered trains would also reduce the cost per carriage-seat even further, of course.

In fact, of course, the main costs of your rail (or coach) journey are fuel, staffing and maintenance of the infrastructure (not necessarily in that order), the last two of which are subject to economies of scale, so that the cost of rail travel should start to reduce if you can get the network into a dynamic of continued expansion of passenger numbers.  If the railways are run on renewable electricity, then in the long-run, the fuel cost will come down, because the cost of generating the energy will ultimately be subject to the scale economies of manufacturing.

Of course, the most significant cost to society of train or coach journeys is most likely the passengers’ time.  Perhaps this should be borne in mind by Professors making the recommendations on which Government transport policy is no doubt based.


* Another way of looking at this is that the cost of the capital (think of it as a mortgage) to pay for the carriages would be something of the order of 5% pa – another reason for choosing the figure of 20 years for the lifetime of the carriages.