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Miscellaneous

Trains are Especially Vulnerable to Climate Change. Bicycles are not.

As we’ve seen from the tragic accident in Scotland last week, the U.K. rail network is facing an existential risk from the climate disaster. That might sound hyperbolic. But when you consider the likely future of self driving cars, a dramatic reduction in vehicles on the road as a result; the rise of electric bikes and the inevitable mass rollout of associated infrastructure, it doesn’t look promising for the rail industry.

As I’ve recently written, the rail network is already going to be threatened by the other forms of transport I’ve mentioned due to the fact that the network hasn’t been invested in for so long. It’s not like in Japan where they wouldn’t walk away from such a great system. Loyal daily passengers will only remain loyal for so long if they’re dissatisfied with the service they’re receiving.

But it’s when you couple that with the threat of climate change that things really unravel. I’ve been following the weekly update videos Network Rail put out on their YouTube channel for a while now. There’s an obvious trend in that they’re constantly having to fix damage caused by extreme weather. It’s mainly landslips but also work on reinforcing sea walls to protect against sea spray. Landslips in particular must be costing NR huge amounts of money, and it’s money that is not being spent on upgrading the ageing infrastructure. Watching TV shows about railways just shows how much disruption is already being caused from rain, storms, heat etc. It’s only going to get worse, and as we’ve seen this week, it can be deadly.

Road transport I believe to be at less risk from the climate disaster, but I would say the main benefits will be as we switch to autonomous driving. Because we have so many privately owned cars, the cars are parked all over the country, so whenever extreme weather hits, the cars can’t be moved and they get written off and float down the road.

However, once we stop owning cars and we replace them with self driving fleets, the number of cars in the country will drop potentially 90%. This will not only eliminate traffic, but it will also allow vehicles to avoid flooded roads or be moved to a safe location before the weather hits if it’s scheduled to hit a wide area. Because our road network is completely connected, if one road is flooded, they can go another direction. Trains can’t do that, and that’s a giant problem that the rail industry will struggle to get around.

Since the benefits for road traffic mainly take effect once we go autonomous, and that technology doesn’t exist yet; at the moment the only way to minimise the risk of flood or storm damage is to get rid of your car and buy a bike. Even a big, heavy cargo bike can be taken upstairs with your couch and the rest of your belongings. You’re not going to leave it to be flood damaged if you can avoid it. With a car, there’s very little you can do, especially if the weather is unexpected or worse than forecast.

It’s true for the infrastructure as well. It would be far cheaper to build elevated bike routes and bridges in high risk areas than it would be for other modes. We need to do everything we can to improve infrastructure and reduce risk. Invest in the rail network, move away from car ownership, and make us a bike society.

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Miscellaneous

The Future of Public Transport Part 1: Why Tesla Hasn’t Made a Bus

Elon Musk recently tweeted that he didn’t believe public transport as it exists today is viable for the future. That’s not due to Covid. He’s always thought that personal public transport is the future. As much as I wish Tesla had made a bus, because it could have made a huge impact by now if they had, I also think he’s correct. Tesla RoboTaxis combined with Boring Company “Loop” systems of tunnels and stations could kill off local traditional offerings. Especially in countries which don’t have very good public transport.

It’s sad when you consider what Tesla could have done by now had they wanted to. But to be fair to them, if the company had gone down the route of making buses back in the Model S early days then they probably wouldn’t have generated the same hype it did and Tesla probably wouldn’t have got to where it is right now.

Luckily we have companies like Proterra whose CEO, former Tesla exec Ryan Popple probably left because he also knew that Tesla wasn’t interested in traditional buses. Companies like Proterra and Arrival will help to keep the bus industry somewhat innovative over the coming years. And combined with EV models from the traditional European makers and the huge Chinese brands that have taken over the industry in the last decade or so should keep buses relevant for a while yet. Yutong and BYD are making a lot of electric buses, but are not really innovating that much in my view. They’re basically making exactly the same buses, just with batteries. And that’s a good thing for the time being. But I don’t think that will be enough in the longer term to persuade people to keep riding the bus when far more advanced mobility solutions come along. And that’s an inevitability.

And this is all before you talk about e-bikes and e-scooters cutting into their ridership. There’s going to be a lot of change in the next decade. I think to keep ridership high, they’re going to have to invest heavily in other aspects of the business like linking in with MaaS, smartcards such as Oyster, and other helpful features to make travelling as seamless as possible for passengers. My local bus company has done it the other way round. They have a pretty decent app with live tracking, digital ticketing and a smartcard for season ticket holders. But no EVs at all. They really need to fix that quickly. But with Covid dragging on forever, they’ll be able to roll out every excuse in the book as to why they can’t ditch diesel. So who knows how this will play out.

In order to talk about trains I need a whole other post. I’ll be talking about Hyperloop and the threat it poses to high speed rail.

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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.

Categories
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.