Friday, 11 April 2014

The Top Gear Challenge Problem

One of the things I like in Top Gear is the races, where Clarkson has to get somewhere by car and Hammond and May have to do it by public transport. And almost every time, the car wins. And it generally wins because whilst a train can travel a lot faster, once you add in all the dead time waiting for connections and the slow connections at each end of the fast bit, the overall journey time takes longer.

Many years ago, I used to go to Glasgow on business. I'd leave home, get a train to London, train to Heathrow, plane to Glasgow and then a taxi to my final destination. But in reality, it wasn't that much quicker than driving to Glasgow. And that was because of all the bits of dead time in there - waiting for my train, allowing enough time to get to the airport, time after check-in, baggage reclaim etc.

We ended up driving to Disneyland Paris recently because despite it being 2 and a half hours from London to Paris on high-speed rail, you then add in the time at Swindon station, the time waiting for the tube, the time to check-in at St Pancras, the time to get out from the middle of Paris to Marne-la-Vallee and you're up to 6 hours, and you can do the journey by car in just over 7 for a quarter of the cost.

It's why I'm rather sceptical about many of the benefits about high speed rail and how it connects London and Manchester and Birmingham and will facilitate trade. If you're going from an office in central Manchester to an office in central Birmingham, that might be the case. But if any of those are slightly outside the city centre, and not very far out, you have the extra connection times, and the train being 30 minutes faster than a car is going to dissolve rather quickly.


Bayard said...

"you can do the journey by car in just over 7 for a quarter of the cost."

Is that cost-saving dependent on you having a car-full? Most business trips are made by one person on their own, so I would expect the savings to be considerably less. Also, you can work while you are travelling, though I'm prepared to bet that the cost-benefit analysis used to justify HS2 counted travelling time as non-productive time, just as it is if you are driving. After all, if you are working, what is the problem of a few minutes' longer journey? No, I remain convinced that the whole idea of HS2 is to make a lot of Brummies rich at the public expense.

The Stigler said...


But even with one person it can be closer than it first appears, especially when you add in cab fares or other public transport costs.

And yes, the HS2 calculations consider rail to be dead time which is nonsense. I've done as good as half a day's work while meeting a client in Leeds.

Mark Wadsworth said...

TS, hats off to TG for doing this as an experiment.

But we can safely assume that most people are rational and make that difficult trade-off between car and public transport/train, depending on…
- how much advance notice you have
- how often you make the journey
- how many people are travelling
- can you take it in turns driving if long journey
- from where to where (countryside to countryside, town centre to town centre, or any combination)
- journey time
- convenience
- what time of the day you have to be at destination, what day of the week
- what you have to take with you (luggage)
- whether you want to drink alcohol when you are there
- cost, cost per person
- availability and expense of parking at either end
and several other factors besides.
- do you like railway stations or motorway architecture

By and large, most people will make the right decision, which for most journeys is by car and within large cities, is by public transport/train, with one heck of an overlap.

Lola said...

I live near Ipswich. I can be in the City in about 90 minutes - door to door. Taxi from home to station. 15 mins. Train roughly 75 mins. Cost 1st class about 45 quid (I have a senior railcard!!!). I can't do that by car.

But if I went to say Newcastle - it's car.

Bayard said...

My favourite Top Gear challenge was "The Race to the North", where Clarkson ended up shovelling coal on a steam engine and Hammond ended up breaking down on his dream motorcycle. Despite the rail nuts jumping up and down saying it was rigged, I thought it was a damn fine piece of TV.

John M said...

The whole thing about HS2 is about trying to convince the world that a 170yr old transport solution is still remotely relevant today, and to maintain the vast industry and salaries that feed from it.

Last Christmas I considered using the train to travel from Bournemouth to visit my Godchildren near Glenrothes in Scotland. The 535 mile trip takes 13 hours on a train and the cheapest return fare was £278. For comparison I can drive it in around 10 hours and spend around £50 less than that even with fuel prices where they currently are.

As if that doesn't make the point well enough, I discovered that I could get a return flight to Dubai for around the same price as the train ticket above! And let's not forget - those costs were for me to travel on my own. Additional passengers in the car wouldn't have cost me any more, whereas the train would have meant more tickets at the same price.

I rest my case.

Physiocrat said...

The Southern system is well enough used because the trains are frequent, you do not have to pre-book and the network is dense with many cross connections. If you look at a map, it is obvious that HS2 is exactly what is not required.

Improvements to give higher speed running north of Manchester towards Tyneside and Edinburgh/Glasgow would be worth while. And the whole country needs decent trains with a bit more space for people, their elbows, legs and luggage. Unfortunately it is not going to get them. The only comfortable trains left in Britain are now running on the preserved railways. There has been nothing really satisfactory built since the late 1960s.

DBC Reed said...

I too enjoyed the Northern Race programme which I thought concluded with the letter arriving by mail faster than they could go by car etc.
Clarkson's unconvincing fireman act did show that trains can go straight through the centre of towns at 80+ mph.
It is a pity that flying boat technology did not develop so you could land on the rivers and open water most cities are built by.My plan to polderise the Thames Estuary includes some open water for flying-boats to land on, depending on which envelope is consulted.In general the French scheme that every town have its own landing strip seems progressive.You should n't have to drive miles to get on a plane for say Berlin or Newcastle. A one plane a day town airport would make more sense with each day a different destination.There are plenty of small planes, low-flying, unpressurised.Shorts (of Belfast?) made some memorable ones.

The Stigler said...


I suppose what I'm saying is that the idea that this will push lots of people onto trains ignores the thing of people who aren't right in the centre of cities.


Sure. But to give you an example - I will generally travel to central Bristol by train - it's an unspeakable pain by car. But when I had to go to Filton regularly (which is only a couple of miles out), I drove.

The Stigler said...


They still have a use in congested areas. Whether extra speed beyond current levels is worth it is debateable.

Bayard said...

"It is a pity that flying boat technology did not develop"

Flying boat technology has developed, but there just doesn't seem to be the demand for a new generation of flying boats, not even in places like Canada, where they still use 50 year old designs.

Physiocrat said...

What is needed is main line stations in the outer suburbs, with a good road connection. Most journeys are not city-centre to city-centre, and that is often whey it is quicker to drive. The geography and settlement pattern in Britain is not one that high speed rail is going to serve effectively.

Some other schemes in the pipeline will be more useful eg Oxford - Milton Keynes-Bedford - Cambridge. That is a straightforward reinstatement of a line that closed to passengers in the 1960s. The cost is about 15% of a high speed line.

The Stigler said...


I'm sceptical in general about high speed for Britain because of the distances between cities. If you're doing Paris to Bordeaux or Paris to Marseille, the distances are over 350 miles which means that you're comparing a 3'20 rail journey with a 6 hour drive.

I'm guessing at least 15 miles of London to Birmingham will be at regular speed as you're going through residential areas which is a big chunk of a 115 mile journey.

Physiocrat said...

The Stigler - yes. It makes no sense to run at much more than 125 mph in Britain for the reason you have said. There is a lot to be said for holding down the speed to 99 mph, which avoids a raft of EU regulation and compliance costs.

Most of the rolling stock here in Sweden has [160] marked on the side for that reason and I think that is true elsewhere on the continent.

Bayard said...


The problem about rail improvements in the UK, is that there is no mechanism to capture the uplift in land values they produce and use that uplift to help fund the cost of the improvement. Therefore the only projects that get momentum are ones where the gain to the landowners is sufficient for the landowners to exert political pressure on either local or national government to get public money spent for their (the landowners') eventual benefit.

Rich Tee said...

Agree about this for Leeds, for non-business travellers.

Leeds city centre can't accommodate another train station, so it would have to be built on the outskirts, so non-car users would have to take a bus out to it. If that optimistically takes 20 minutes it completely negates the time benefit of HS2, and the tickets would be more expensive as well.

DBC Reed said...

Crikey .These futuristic looking seaplanes are far-out, man.Compare with the Shorts 330 or 360 which I was talking about for long trips in the UK or to short-haul Europe. This design based on the Skyvan,looked like a van but was called ,by its crew,s the Flying Shed.Seriously, when they talk about business transport over these kinds of distance, it is curious that Air is never in the mix.