A recent letter received by Anne Main, MP for St Albans, reveals a lot about the government’s attitude towards rail investment.
In response to questions concerning the Abbey Line, Under-Secretary of State for Rail, Claire Perry MP, states that on the Abbey Line, “….demand forecasts indicate the current level of train service is sufficient to meet future demand, and therefore at this time there is no transport case to increase the service frequency”.
But there are several reasons why this mentality could be somewhat flawed.
Firstly, what are demand forecasts based on? Mathematical models. And what goes into the mathematical models? Predominantly, ticket sales data. We know that ticket sales on the Abbey Line significantly under-predict the true footfall, due to the fact that tickets are rarely checked or issued on the train. ABFLY estimates based on the data we have collected puts ‘unchecked journeys’ at between 80-90%, which may amount to over £200k per year in lost revenue. To be fair, London Midland are taking steps to address the issue by recruiting a new revenue inspector who will work between the hours of 7am and 3pm, Monday to Friday. But it does nothing to change the fact that past demand forecasts were almost certainly very pessimistic.
Note also that demand forecasts are from the ‘predict and provide’ school of transport planning, but they don’t take into account the ability of good, entrepreneurial train operators to create new markets, simply by providing a better product. Chiltern Railways have been a master at this with projects such as Warwick Parkway, their soon to be introduced service to Oxford and being the first rail company after privatisation to buy new trains. All of this has attracted swathes of new customers in areas where demand forecasts had not predicted investment would be necessary.
And consider this, did the great railway builders of the 19th century conduct demand forecasting before sinking their money into schemes such as the Great Western and London to Birmingham Railway? To some extent yes, it is true that many railways were initially built to satisfy particular demands e.g. the need of colliery owners to bring coal from pit to port. But having opened these railways, the owners then realised that there was money to be made from transporting other goods through the provision of, in modern parlance, what would be called ‘tailored transport solutions’. Cattle to market, milk to town, post to packet ships, straw to the hat makers, workers to work, families to the seaside – you name it, the railways carried it. Diversification, investment and expansion – and they profited greatly from it. In many cases these were entirely new markets, unlocked by the superior product which the railways offered over other transport modes.
What we are calling for on the Abbey Line is basically a better product. A service where you can turn up and go, catching a train within a short time of arrival. If you miss it, what the hell, there’ll be another one along in 20mins. You don’t even have to think about the timetable. You can rely on it to get you home after a late night at work, or a jovial evening in St Albans. You can get on at Bricket Wood and go right through to London, without having to shuffle along the narrow, crowded alleyway to change trains at Watford on a cold winter’s morning. Only then will we persuade people to leave their cars behind.
This doesn’t require a mathematical model. It’s just good business sense.