The real time cost of fast trains and advance booking

ImageOn board one of France’s remaining regular intercity trains. Photo by self.

In introducing a post on The Transport Politic on France’s new low-cost TGV service (named OuiGo in some truly horrible Franglais), Yonah Freemark writes this of France’s High Speed TGV trains in general:

France’s SNCF national rail service has, since the introduction of the TGV in 1981, held to the belief that fast trains should not be segregated to serve only higher-paying passengers. As a result, fast trains have replaced all slow-speed service on most long-distance travel throughout the country; passengers are able to take advantage of fare deals that allow them to journey between cities hundreds of miles apart at €25 or less, as long as they book in advance.

“As long as they book in advance” is the key phrase here. Note also that “fast trains have replaced all slow-speed service on most long-distance travel throughout the country”. This is largely true; while other intercity trains continue to operate unreserved service on regular lines, their frequencies are typically poor and service patterns irregular, and often changes are required where one-seat TGV rides are available.

Freemark contrasts this with elsewhere:

In Germany, for instance, train service between major cities is often available at two speeds — fast Intercity-express and slower InterCity, at very different prices. In the U.S., too, a trip on Amtrak’s Acela “high-speed” service in the Northeast is routinely $50 or more than a similar journey on the slightly slower Regional.

Freemark doesn’t explicitly favour one model over the other, but praises France’s model of high quality service for all, cheap only if booked ahead, as a means of achieving equity of provision of intercity public transport.

There is, sadly, no such thing as a free lunch. Where governments wish to increase revenues and/or decrease spending, including in the transport sector, and/or they have not provided capacity to meet demand and must therefore use pricing to limit demand (especially at peak times), there is an upward pressure on fares. If we didn’t care about a large proportion of society having access to rail travel, it would be acceptable to simply increase fares uniformly, letting the bottom end of the market be discouraged from using rail travel at all, and the top end able to continue using it liberally.

Because that outcome is generally seen as undesirable, most railway systems, at least in relatively wealthy economies, use some form of pricing that attempts to charge close to reservation price – the maximum price that someone is willing and able to pay for a trip that they value to a reasonable extent. That’s where we hit the free lunch problem. In order that those with a high willingness and ability to pay do pay a high fare, the higher fares must offer something better than the lower fares; the lower fares must reflect an inferior product.

Most intercity trains offer premium accommodation to capture the highest end of the market. With pressure on standard fares, those must also be differentiated in some way. In the case of Germany, Northeastern USA, Italy and elsewhere that’s at least partly in the form of offering slower trains at lower fares. In France and the UK, it’s principally in the form of using advance booking as a hoop through which to jump in order to demonstrate that one needs the cheaper fares.

If one has the money, one will likely take the much more convenient option of not planning ahead, going to the station, buying a ticket and taking the first train; a hassle-free process save for a bit of queuing sometimes. I’d like to argue here that far from being trivial, booking in advance can be a difficult hoop to jump through, and can take far more time than the fast train saves. I’d like to split the time taken by advance booking into three components, which I’ll explain in order:

  • Additional out-of-vehicle travel time
  • Planning and booking time
  • Time spent in the wrong place

Additional out-of-vehicle travel time

Much of the everyday experience of using public transport involves winging it. Routines are built around leaving the house a bit too late, making transfers that are a bit too short but work nine out of ten times, knowing when a journey time is optimistic or pessimistic, and so on, and accepting being late on occasion when it doesn’t work.

The threats of arriving late for an advance booked train are frequently severe; most likely no refund and a high cost for buying a ticket for the next train. My normal way of doing things is leave at least half an hour on top of my most pessimistic prediction of how local public transport will work out. In the UK, one is often obliged to take a local connecting train maybe half an hour earlier than a familiar connection that normally works, because it doesn’t leave the recommended transfer time. All of this is a pretty clear increase in one’s journey time due to advance booking.

Planning and booking time

One may very possibly be combining multiple engagements, events and/or visits with people. This probably becomes more likely the more travel becomes a significant expense, and if paid-for accommodation is out of the question. If the cost of advance tickets varies by day and time, it becomes tangled up with those plans. If I’m going to London for a few days, planning and booking time will look a bit like this:

  • Do an initial search of three alternative rail routes.
  • Spend the next day or so texting and calling people about what they’re doing when, and when I might be able to stay with them.
  • Check up on what my own commitments are and what events are going on.
  • Search the three alternative rail routes again, and put something in my basket for the two hours it’ll stay there.
  • Spend about half an hour checking that definitely works out.
  • Find my card, but the details in, triple check the times and dates are right.

For the 2-3 hour train trip, I probably spend at least that long doing all this, and I spend a couple of days being really anxious about the whole affair. That’s far more time than a slower train would cost me.

Time spent in the wrong place

“Time when you’re in the wrong place” was coined by Jarrett Walker, talking about building one’s life around a consistent scheduled service of low frequency, arguing that it can be worse than a less predictable but more frequent service one waits for:

If a route runs once an hour does that really mean I wait an average of 30 minutes?  Or do I just build my life around the schedule?  I view the two as the same thing, really.  We’re not describing literal waiting so much as time when you’re in the wrong place.  We’re describing the difference between when you need to arrive and when you can actually arrive.  This could take the form of arriving at work 29 minutes earlier than your shift starts — consistently, every day.  Effectively, you end up waiting at your destination.

The time spent in the wrong place effect bites even harder with advance booked intercity trains. For a start, you might have had to book a train at a bad time; meaning having to spend a few hours too little or too long at your destination? What if something comes up at your destination or at home – maybe someone finds out they’re free, maybe work offers or cancels some shifts, meaning you want to travel hours or days earlier or later? What if you want/need to get home sooner or stay away longer? This has frequently happened to me. Sometimes it’s meant having to buy a new ticket from scratch, other times I’ve had to lump it.

Far, far better than all this would be the ability to call a few people whenever I’m free for a few days, go to the station, buy a ticket, go somewhere and come back whenever I like. As the above illustrates, there can be a cost of hours; or sometimes days if including time spent in the wrong place because plans change. Not included is the amount of anxiety of having to make those plans and hope they remain relevant.

All this being so, I want to strongly argue firstly that the time time cost of a service that takes a bit longer for an intercity trip is in many cases less time than is being wasted because of having to book fast trains in advance. And secondly that making fast trains available at low advance fares is not equity, and it is not providing an equivalent service. It requires the poorer end of society to play this complex game, and essentially requires that an amount of labour be put in to merit low fares.

Subsidies to universally low rail fares as a universal benefit for all of society is what I see as an ideal, and something that should be agitated for. But initially, without the capacity or cash to deal with that, a robust, affordable regional rail service that combines serving secondary stations with the lower end of the intercity rail market is a useful tool. Stay tuned for a few words on how that could come about in certain places.


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