Her Majesty’s Government have decided that it is now national policy that we must all fly more, in order to stop British European Airlines from going to the wall and because one day the plane might run off laptop batteries. Poor BEA – now trading as Flybe – has had a rather rocky career. Every time it gets a nice route up and running some evil railway company enhances its services and causes it to go to the wall.
To defend against these evil railway companies, Flybe have been obliged to sell fares at what is liable to be simply colloquially described as half the rate charged by the railway. It has always been rather intriguing as to how the company can afford to charge half the rate of the railway, and we now have the answer – it can’t. The inability to hand over to the Government the share of air fares to which the Government is entitled rather suggests that someone has been misappropriating it to keep their airline afloat. The fact that the airline is viewed as quicker and cheaper than rail, meanwhile, suggests that a vastly simpler (and more legal) solution would have been to increase fares.
While the airline rolls out their PR person to disingenuously argue that the rail industry is heavily subsidised, an Oxera report a few years ago showed that the rail industry in fact makes an operating profit but capital investment has to be met by Network Rail’s shareholder, which can be almost entirely covered by the taxes paid by the industry and the people involved within it. Flybe, meanwhile, is unable to pay the inadequate bill intended to amortise the environmental harm caused by its vehicles.
Nonetheless, let’s leave the finances and the environment to one side for a moment. The key question is simple – what benefits do Flybe’s customers actually gain in terms of time saved by going by plane? (Cost is easily resolved by writing off the extra subsidy to rail companies for cutting fares as an annual economic cost for climate change mitigation, much of which would be recovered by increased usage of the trains after the fare cuts.)
Case study: North Wales to South Wales
So, let’s imagine that our fictional traveller is in Valley, Anglesey, and has discovered an urgent need to be in Rhoose, Vale of Glamorgan. Flybe will offer two flights each way daily (weekdays only) and a round trip is of variable price (£74 for this example, but Monday morning out and Tuesday morning back is £89). It is an interesting feature of the website that it does not consider the time of these flights to be especially material – all that is of interest is that it could cost just £74:
The outward flights turn out to leave Anglesey at 08:55 and 17:30 for a 50-minute journey (the latter doesn’t seem to run on Fridays); the return flights are at 07:35 and 16:00 (the 16:00 takes an hour for some reason; presumably pathing difficulties over Dolgellau). Passengers can bring one small item of luggage into the cabin and must be able to walk up and down stairs unaided. Hold baggage costs extra. Batteries, aerosols and matches are prohibited (remember to remove from mobile, camera and watch before boarding aircraft, and buy replacements at the other end).
The rail journey varies between 5 hours 20 minutes and 6 hours 33 minutes; it costs £93 walk-up return. Both stations are deemed to have step-free access so being unable to walk and stuck in a mobility scooter is not a hindrance to travel. Explosives, loaded firearms and pigs are banned under the conditions of carriage and railway bylaws.
So – go ahead and fly then…
Landscape at Valley, 55 minutes from Cardiff by plane.
For some reason Flybe offer several luggage policies – one allows you to travel but nothing else, one allows you to travel with a suitcase or a bag exceeding 55cm x 33cm x 20cm (a large overstuffed rucksack or classic briefcase will do) and one allows two suitcases and the bag. At booking stage only the third option costs extra on the Valley route, although later in the process a “Just Fly” ticket holder can buy additional hold space for an extra £29 each way or £58 return. Interestingly once taxes are deducted it costs more to carry your bags in this way than it does to carry you. If you get this wrong (some effort required) or want two suitcases from the outset then the airline now costs £132; the railway considers this to be expected passenger’s luggage. (In fact little old you can bring two large suitcases, a rucksack, a 3-year-old child in a pushchair and a bike to Valley station and load them all onto the train for no extra charge, plus the guard will hold the train while you do it.)
So, a businessperson on a day trip will find the plane is cheaper from Valley to Rhoose, but a businessperson having a night away, or a tourist on holiday, or a student going home from university, may have to weigh up the time saving against the extra cost. (And that’s assuming you got a £74 return. If you got an £89 return, the saving was only £4 to begin with.)
And flying being the better option is of course assuming three things:
- Turn-up-and-go travel;
- The traveller wishes to travel at the times shown in the timetable;
- The traveller is actually going from Valley to Rhoose.
Actually, airlines are not turn-up-and-go. Flybe rather fudge this on their website:
The time required to check-in, go through security and board your flight will vary depending on the airport and the type of flight, and so we are not able to suggest a time for you to arrive at the airport.
Depending on the layout and operation of each airport, the boarding gate may close up to 40 minutes before the scheduled time of departure.
We would always recommend that you check-in as far in advance as possible to assure your travel. Online check-in is available from 36 hours prior to departure and airport check-in is open from 2 hours prior to departure.
Please note: You must ensure you are present to check-in at these times or you may be denied boarding.
Call it an hour, to be kind. That actually gives a journey of two hours each way, although this does still compare favourably to 5½. And on the railway it is actually the time shown, although as Valley is a request stop it is really necessary to be present before the train comes into view so that it can be flagged down. And the arrival time is when you are standing on Rhoose platform and free to go, not when the aircraft stops taxiing and you can begin working your way back to your luggage.
Of course, if you actually want to be in Rhoose for 3pm you can either catch the train and kick your heels watching the coastal and Marcher scenery go past (or watch Lord of the Rings films on your laptop, taking advantage of the newly-installed on-train plug sockets) or get a flight at a similarly disagreeable hour and then kick your heels enjoying the delights of Rhoose for five hours.
Well, so much for the Valley to Rhoose market. What about the passenger from Holyhead who wants to get to Cardiff?
Bing Maps reports that from Llaingoch (the western bit of Holyhead) it takes 18 minutes to drive to the airport. Most of us would call that half an hour. There is then an hour waiting at the airport and an hour on the plane, followed by the journey into central Cardiff (call it the castle’s front gatehouse) which, assuming you have another car to hand (or a taxi which actually takes the direct route rather than enjoying the small fact that nobody knows where the airport is relative to anywhere else) will take 34 minutes. Most of us would call that three-quarters of an hour and, as it happens, so does the bus company. This gives a total journey of three and a quarter hours. Those counting the cost should work out how much the hour-and-a-quarter in road vehicles adds to our £74.
The rail journey is quicker than that between Valley and Rhoose – now varying between direct in 4 hours 31 minutes or with a change in 5 hours 16 minutes – and, owing to the wonders of nodal ticketing structures, still costs £93 return:
So our Holyhead to Cardiff customer could save an hour to an hour-and-a-half by flying – provided that they want to travel at the flight times specified. If they want to get up at 7am and don’t mind when they get to Cardiff provided it’s before teatime, or want to be there for 3pm and don’t want to spend ages admiring shopping centres, or have luggage, or don’t want to fuss around with check-in, travel mode changes and paperwork, then the train is probably the better option. Bung the luggage in the rack, sit down and go to sleep.
But then again, Holyhead isn’t exactly the centre of the universe. It’s Anglesey’s major place and the port for Dublin, but Bangor is bigger. So how does Bangor compare?
Bangor city centre
Bing reckons it is half an hour from Bangor to Valley airport by car, so the journey time is similar to that from Holyhead (maybe make it three quarters of an hour from Bangor in reality to be safe). The rail option is still demonstrating the wonders of nodal ticketing and is now only 45 minutes slower than that three-and-a-quarter hour Flybe journey:
And those 45 minutes may be very important and definitely worth the carbon emissions plus £100,000,000 in unpaid taxes. Or it might be time to accelerate the “North & West” line.
So, from Anglesey and hinterlands the plane is quicker, although if starting south of the airport the saving rapidly becomes relatively marginal for the length of journey involved. Also there’s the faff of changing transport mode plus the perceived delay in the journey caused by sitting in airport terminals and the A48’s copious traffic jams, which keep interrupting the Lord of the Rings films (especially when security enforce the “no batteries” rule and make you leave your laptop battery at the airport). Another part of the journey experience worth remembering is that Bangor station has a neat little cafe which apparently does really nice teacakes.
And what about from Llandudno? Now the airline suffers the joys of a 45 minute drive along the A55, which may be translated by those doing it often into an hour – a total end-to-end journey of three-and-three-quarter hours. While the train leaving shortly before the plane takes off…
… is quicker. (And once the car rides are thrown in it’s cheaper, still at £93.)
Llandudno, which is big enough to have a light rail system.
By the time we’re looking at Rhyl, there’s a journey of over an hour to the airport plus the hour at the terminal plus the hour in the air plus 45 minutes into Cardiff, making a total of about four hours. Whereas the train is now down to a fastest journey time that’s not much over three hours (and has got past the node that’s priced at £93), leaving Flybe out of the market on cost, convenience, frequency, comfort, luggage space, accessibility, environmental impact and speed.
(The 09:45 arrival time into Rhoose airport will get you into Cardiff around quarter to eleven having got in a car in Rhyl around 7am – or you get on a train in Rhyl at 07:40 and get into Cardiff half an hour after the plane’s passenger arrived, assuming the traffic on Penarth Road was behaving itself.)
And this is repeated all over the country. Flybe is quicker on certain intercity hops, particularly if the customer is willing to work around Flybe’s timetable. But once you’re going the wrong way to get to the airport, that benefit starts to collapse. From Bangor to Cardiff it is just under four hours to drive, according to Bing – a smidgen over half an hour slower than flying, and with the bonus of having your own car on hand at the other end of it.
Then we get into the people who don’t want to go even generally where Flybe wants to go. What about Bangor to Bristol? There’s no direct flight and the car journey from Rhoose airport will take an hour and a quarter to Bristol city centre – a little under four hours, twice daily. The train from Bangor takes four-and-a-half to five hours, roughly hourly, for £87. (Why it is cheaper to go from North Wales to Somerset than to South Wales, even after Transport for Wales pruned the fares, is another matter entirely.)
So, what we have here is not really an argument for saving Flybe. It is an argument that Flybe can be done a lot of damage by some marginal rail improvements to knock out the company’s very slight advantages on a few corridors. Get Cross Country to replace their Voyagers with HSTs of a decent length, prune the fares to fill them and target some strategic speed enhancements. Separate the “North & West” stopping service from the North Wales to South Wales expresses so that the citizens of Pontypool, Leominster, Ludlow and Church Stretton get a quality hourly train service that isn’t full of long-distance travellers – and lop £5 from the North Wales to South Wales fares – and roll out more than two trains each way daily with quality rolling stock on the Holyhead to Cardiff corridor. Watch with interest as the forthcoming LNER timetable for London to Edinburgh services brings the clockface end-to-end journey times back down towards the four-hour mark and starts mangling the airlines – with an operation that washes its face financially, whatever the airline’s spin-doctor says. And build High Speed 2, which will bring London to Scottish Central Belt rail times down to three hours and finish off the airlines on that corridor. Electrify enough of the Cross Country network to allow them to use the HS2 lines to whizz across the North Midlands – there’s about 90 minutes waiting to be pulled out of the Bristol to Edinburgh journey time (currently six-and-a-half hours) that will seriously inconvenience the regional airlines but quite likely make a nice little profit with an hourly service between Exeter (well, Plymouth would be ideal) and somewhere north of Edinburgh.
It’s worth it because the railway is often quicker, and it is nicer to travel on when done properly, and it doesn’t involve hanging round airports for ages or remembering to bring lots of paperwork. And it is more democratic – it actually serves a lot of these intermediate places (ok, an argument against removing Ludlow calls from Holyhead to Cardiff trains) so that all of North Wales benefits from the railway for a wide range of journey opportunities (including to London and Manchester) as opposed to the 70,000 residents of Anglesey having access to an airport that can take them on shopping trips to Cardiff – provided that they don’t buy more than they planned.
Flybe routes look nice on bits of paper, and help a few (able-bodied) people who do long intercity journeys. Those who do them regularly should probably be questioning their lifestyles. But as a general rule, excepting the lightweight planes keeping the Hebrides and Shetland in touch with the rest of the UK, they do not add much to our transport mix. They should be allowed to go, and the airports used as brownfield land to solve our housing problems.
Fast train to the North, hurrying through Craven Arms.