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Miscellaneous

Why You Shouldn’t Buy a Cheap Bike

One of the things that frustrates me most as a cycling enthusiast is when people buy cheap, junk bikes because they think bikes are overpriced or they can’t afford one.

So I decided to do a little calculation to compare riding the bus for short journeys (5 miles or less) around town over a year to buying a bicycle, to see which comes out ahead on price (not to mention fun, health benefits etc).

I looked on the Stagecoach bus website for Worthing and found that a Worthing 52 Week Megarider season ticket costs £603 per year. Compared to buying a ticket on the bus or via the app per ride (or even compared to monthly season tickets), it goes without saying that it’s a bargain and I would get it if I was a daily bus passenger.

So if I was to ride a bicycle for all of these short trips around town instead, I could spend about £600 on it. Except you tend to keep a bike for several years at least. So I think it’s fair to say that I could spend around £1800 on bikes and equipment. And after 3 years I could keep it and continue saving, or buy another one if I felt like it.

The money adds up, but why not just buy a cheap new or used bike and save even more? Cheap new bikes generally use worse components which will end up lasting far less time than more expensive ones (up to a point where it becomes mainly about weight). This will mean more maintenance costs for you, higher likelihood of the bike letting you down during a ride, for example with a dropped chain during your commute, which no one wants. When you buy a more expensive bike, the components are more reliable, work better and are longer lasting. And that’s before you get into things like belt drives and internal hub gearing which take the benefits to a whole new level.

Buying second hand can be a good idea if you get lucky, but in my experience, I think you’ll struggle to find a bike in a good enough condition at a low enough price. You often find people selling bikes in the hundreds of pounds when they need a lot of work. To the point where it makes more sense to just buy new. I hope that as cycling matures and more people buy better quality bikes, and actually look after the bikes they own, it will become better. But for now, I would recommend to buy a good quality new one. It’ll pay for itself in the long run. And perhaps even in the short run. If you replace an Oyster season ticket in London with a Brompton you could save thousands every year.

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Miscellaneous

The Average U.K. Train is Twice as Old as the Average Car

How can it be that the average car on our roads is about 8 years old, while the average train has spent around 19 years on the tracks. Trains will travel many times the distance of a car during its lifetime, and because they’re used by so many people, it makes sense to replace them at regular intervals of around 10 years. It keeps the experience fresh and enjoyable for passengers and keeps the railways relevant to the world changing around it. In many cases, they can keep on going, and that allows you to send older rolling stock to other lines. Especially if it allows you to replace old diesel trains with newer electric ones. You routinely see this kind of thing in Asia when old Japanese trains often find their way to less developed nations in the region for example.

If the old carriages are not needed on other lines, they can of course also be refurbished or recycled. We’ve seen an example of up-cycling recently when some old tube trains were refurbished for use on a national rail line. Vivarail have even been turning some of them into battery electric trains, which for me is how they all should be. It’s the easiest way to electrify old lines and make rail travel even more sustainable.

It’s important to remember that it’s ok to replace new trains every 10 years. You can see it as wasteful when you can keep running old trains for decades. But on lines where Pacers are still used for example, you won’t find many people who love that service or those trains, apart from the rare fanatical enthusiast. Even if we were to do the worst possible thing and just scrap the trains after 10 years, that would be nothing compared to the insane levels of waste that the car industry creates. We need huge and sustained investment and we need it to be spent in the right places. It must provide the best bang for the buck. So, in other words, everything other than HS2.

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Miscellaneous

How to Fix UK Train Ticketing

One of the reasons I haven’t used trains more than a handful of times in the last decade was because of my frustration at the lack of innovation in ticketing. While they have made progress in that time, it’s still a far cry from the Suica and Passmo smartcard systems Japanese travellers enjoy.

We started with services like Trainline, an app where you can buy tickets. It has some nice features, but one of the biggest problems is that, at least here in the south, we can’t just show the conductor our phone screen. Instead, we have to enter a code provided by Trainline into the station ticket machine in order to print out a paper version of our ticket! In other parts of the country you can keep it in-app via QR code. But even then, it doesn’t strike me as an elegant solution. I think you should be able to use NFC to scan the phone on the gate to open it like you would if you were paying for something with Apple Pay. Presumably this will become an option at some point. I hope so.

But, perhaps the holy-grail of easy ticketing is the Oyster Card style tap in and tap out system where you don’t have to buy any tickets ahead of time for the quickest and most seamless experience.

Sadly, Oyster isn’t available outside of TfL lines but we do now have a dizzying array of smartcards available from every rail franchise in the country. And I’m sure you’ll be unsurprised to find out that in true British Rail tradition, they all work in slightly different ways and are unnecessarily confusing. Most of them appear to only work with season tickets or regular tickets you pre-purchase on an app, website or ticket machine, which to me seems to defeat the purpose.

The best example I’ve found is The Key Smartcard by GTR. Which fortunately for me allows me travel on my local Southern service as well as Thameslink, GX, and Great Northern. But puzzlingly, not Southeastern. Despite them also being part of Govia and also distributing their own card with the same name.

The best thing about “The Key” by far, which sets it apart from all of the others, is the ability to combine the season ticket function with this feature called KeyGo. This allows you to assign a debit card to your account, and enables pay as you go travel for lines you don’t have a season ticket for. Or just make travel super easy for less frequent train travellers. Just tap in and out as you would with Oyster. Pay attention every other train operator. You need to do this immediately.

And then once we get to this point, we need a fully integrated system were you can use one card on any line and the ticket money gets automatically distributed to the right TOC. Maybe a card branded National Rail Smartcard which works at any station. This should be a major focus for National Rail. We can’t afford to fall any further behind the rest of the world. And passengers deserve a ticketing system fit for the modern world.

Categories
Miscellaneous

How to Fix the UK Train Network

As I’m only a few months away now from giving back my Smart EQ electric car, my second EV, and my last privately owned car, I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to get around in future. I don’t tend to travel very far very often, and cycling works for me to get around most of the time. But when I want to go to Scotland for example, trains are the obvious choice. They’re efficient, they’re fun, and they’re electric in many cases.

As a child I loved trains, and at one point I wanted to be a train driver. Now that I’m rediscovering my love of rail, I suppose it may still be possible, but that’s something to consider in the future. As far as the train network itself, it has many problems, and as someone who hasn’t been paying much attention to it for a long time, I’d like to offer my fresh perspective on what can and should happen in order to bring the British rail network up to the level it should be.

Trains are one of those things that the British invented before they got left behind as other countries surpassed them. If you look at the Japanese or Dutch railway systems now, and then you look at our trains in 2020, you should feel ashamed and embarrassed to be British. I know I do.

One of the main reasons we’ve put ourselves in this position is because of the nostalgia people feel in this country towards those good old days. Most of the people who truly care about trains are the same people who have grown up with and have great attachment to steam and diesel rolling stock. It has prevented us from moving forward and causing this huge resistance to change. But there are other reasons too. Politically, we’ve seen awful government after awful government who haven’t been willing to invest. And because our society has fully embraced the car to the detriment of trains, buses and cycling, our ancient and crumbling train infrastructure has been left to rot. Even keeping it from disintegrating further costs huge amounts of money which is then translated to sky high ticket prices. For a service that doesn’t even come close to justifying this cost. It would surely be cheaper to just rip it all up and basically start again.

Everything about rail travel in this country feels antiquated and long overdue a total overhaul. From the track and stations to ticketing and railcards. We need full electrification, we need contactless payments and Oyster support nationally, new trains, timetables you can rely on. And most importantly, if the prices are to remain high, then the service quality has to match.

In the coming posts, I will go into more detail about each of the topics I’ve outlined here.