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A Railway Run for Passengers Not Shareholders: There's an Idea

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I almost made my connection at Newport. I had my hand on the handle of the Paddington train, having run from the other side of the platform where my train from Hereford had just got in. But a staff member started blowing his whistle furiously, yelling "the doors are locked", so I had to step back and watch it draw slowly out of the station.

A connection isn't always a connection on Britain's privatised railways.

It felt particularly galling since two days before I'd been at a conference about the Swiss system, hearing how they operate a hub-based integrated regular interval timetable system, in which at major station trains are scheduled to arrive a few minutes before the hour, and to leave a few minutes after, so that connections can be easily and conveniently made.

And at your local station you'll find trains operating at the same minute on the hour seven days a week for the whole time they're running, so you're just going to know that at your local station there's always a train at say 17 minutes past the hour. No complicated calculations of timetables, you just hop on a train and go.

After I missed the connection I sat in the crowded café , packed with angry, frustrated people exchanging travel horror stories. I felt particularly sorry for the woman who was on her way to arrange her mother's funeral, who'd not only missed a connection, but was clearly feeling the cost of a £60-plus train ticket for a pretty short, one-way journey.

Our misery was compounded by the fact that the station seemed to have been designed for maximum inconvenience. There was a shiny new overbridge at one end, but the toilets, the waiting room (unmodernised and extremely grungy), and the only café open, are all right at the other end, where the old, blocked-off, footbridge sits quietly rotting.

I've been having lots of conversations with fellow travellers recently - not very British, but adversity had broken down the usual reserve. It was hard not to talk to fellow passengers on the Newport-Hereford "service", when we were treading all over each other's toes, rammed in tight after several pleas at Newport: "More people want to get on - move down!"

That was after I'd stood from London to Reading earlier on during the same journey. And these weren't even peak-hour trains.

So what's the other differences between the Swiss railways and here? When that question was asked at the railway conference, one of the Swiss speakers said "We run our railways for the benefit of the passengers". He was too polite to add, "you run railways for the benefit of shareholders", but that's what everyone in the room was thinking. He'd even been trying to find something positive to say about our railways, how the British had invented them (lots of nice historic photos) - had even come up with the fixed interval timetable on the London-Brighton run.
But it was clear that while what he wasn't saying was "where did you go so wrong?", that's what everyone was also thinking. Rail passenger miles in the UK and Switzerland grew at about at the same rate between 1997 and 2007 (their's from a much higher base), but our real costs have grown by 25% while theirs are stable.

There are 67 different railway companies in Switzertland, but nearly all are publicly owned, and the system is regarded as one of "co-opetition" - a combination of cooperating while competing not just on costs but also customer satisfaction and quality of rolling stock. "It's a matter of pride," we were told.

We'd heard how the Swiss have integrated tickets for all journeys - if it takes a bus, a train and a funicular to get you where you're going, the ticket will get you there - no extra costs, no complications.

You can also get a GA, an annual card that simply allows you to use any form of public transport, anywhere, any time. More than 300,000 Swiss (of eight million inhabitants) have one of these and some third of Swiss have some form of system discount card. The GA ticket is priced, we were told, so that a household of four could buy one each and the cost would be a little less than running a car.

As a consequence of this, and no doubt the ease and convenience and quality of the service (no reservations, because they aren't needed), we heard that young city dwellers increasingly don't even bother to learn to drive- why would you, when there's good public transport on which you can relax, listen to music or read your emails, and never need to plan ahead?

I hear the term "modal shift" - referring to the move of passengers from cars to public transport -- a lot, and a lot of discussion of how to achieve that. But I've now seen the answer - copy the Swiss in practically everything.

And an excellent place to start would be bringing the railways back into public hands (do ask your MP if they're backing Caroline Lucas's private members' bill to do just that) - and start to run them for passengers, not shareholders.

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