Thursday, April 22, 2010

Jumping off trains in Portsmouth

Our market research showed that 46 per cent of rail users would take the coach if they were offered a comfortable journey with leg room

One of my recent submissions to the Metro Strategy Review 2010 was the suggestion for regional bus services, coming from places like Waipara, Oxford, Darfield and - most logical of all Timaru and Ashburton. The relative subsidy cost of these would not appear to be huge, spread across several rating districts, and would probably be anyway recouped by a great many Canterbury residents in just a couple of trips a year, by an elderly relative, a trip to a show or voiding the need to ferry teenagers around.  At the moment virtually all morning bus and coach traffic is out-bound from the city mornings, in-bound afternoons - good for tourists but generally not so useful for locals.  Commuting workers, or students coming back from overnight visits to parents in rural towns, or visitors to the Ellerslie Flower Show, or those wishing to attend medical appointments or visit sick friends in Christchurch - most of the day to day demand is to get into the city early and return home later in the day. Equally the same applies for people heading into Ashburton from the south, or perhaps to Rangiora from Oxford. Obviously it does not take a rocket scientist to identify this possibility, and I won't be the first to raise it. Accepted it may fall outside existing budgets, but I raise it anyway, (as I do!) and I include it with a funding concept that appeals to me.

In this submission I have also suggested a two tier pricing concept allowing cheaper fares in country areas, but others allowed to board at limited number of specified stops within the conventional Metro bus operations area - at Kaiapoi or Rolleston for example - if they pay a surcharged fare from these stops. I call this theory XPT - Express Premium Travel - and have visions of coaches with large XPT imagery painted on the front. The theory is that a few extra metropolitan area passengers paying 150% fares ["2 passengers =3" ] would boost income, and allow top quality buses to be used for these regional services. In return these city area journey-joiners get access to certain places without need for transfer journeys (eg Burnham-Airport or Kaiapoi-Sheffield Tech Park in Wairakei Road), and to less stops, and superior comfort and speed, including Wi-fi acccess and possibly leather seats. 

Underlying this is the basic knowledge that any big transport system - the railways of yesteryear, the airlines of today -  prosper when they can offer stratification of quality and fares, 1st and 2nd class; business and economy. I consider myself fairly much a democrat by personal nature, but it is ludicrous to think in a world that has status hierarchies, quality and pricing variation in almost field of commerce, not least in car options, that public transport will gain in popularity if it stays with the "one size fits all" attitude. It is my belief that people who can pay more will pay more if it gets them better services and quality, and expresses some degree of status superiority. Introducing rural buses with a premium access component offers a good pilot to try the concept out.

Although we often hear the cry "Bring back the Southerner" (former rail service Christchurch-Invercargill) according to a study made near the end of its life, in its last years it was only averaging 60 passengers a trip, just absurd for the costs involved in operating rail. 
Modern quality coaches are usually far more comfortable  than any clunking and jolting NZ rail service ever could be, particularly with Canterbury's flat terrain as an added advantage. Last year I travelled all day by Intercity Coachlines double-decker coach Christchurch to Invercargill. Even this champion busspotter had visions of an aching back and chronic bus-lag by such a long journey's end. In fact the seating and leg room and air bag suspension (and the float along view from on high) was so comfortable that when I got off at Invercargill about 8 hours later bizarrely I felt refreshed, almost as if I'd just had a massage.

It is interesting, in light of the personal atitudes I espouse above, to read an article in The Daily Mail  about the launch of First Group's Great Britain Greyhound bus service, which started in September last year, in which the UK Manager for Greyhound, Alex Warner says,

" Our market research showed that 46 per cent of rail users would take the coach if they were offered a comfortable journey with leg room and 75 per cent of coach passengers would switch companies if they were offered an executive travel experience at a good price."

I find it very interesting to see that no special candle is held for rail by so many of those who use it regularly, and that so many people want "executive travel" at a good price. The rail lobby is so fascinated with things on steel rails, they often seem to lose sight of the fact that most public transport users want the best mobility options - frequency, reliability, consistent departure times, spread of service hours, range of direction options, comfort and speed of total journey time home to destination [etc] -  trains are interesting but not that interesting if they don't deliver what is needed or other systems do it better.

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