Dear Mr. Piercy
Overnight Train Services
Although there is a more positive attitude to railways, there is no certainty, bearing in mind the increasing pressures on the public purse, that more money will be made available for the more remote parts of the system. It will be prudent to work on the assumption that it will be business (or the lack of it), as usual, so the future of the Far North Line is by no means secure.
Let us start on a positive note. It is generally agreed that the ScotRail franchise has turned out to be one of the best, and one hears many comments to the effect that it is hoped National Express will secure its renewal and carry forward the good work which it has initiated. Personally I can endorse, with two reservations, the points made by Frank Faulkner and John Yellowlees. In fact I would go further and say that the regular users of the sleepers will have noticed that there is a reduction of cars with flat wheels and the air conditioning is now more responsive. So there is evidence of good work going on behind the scenes.
The presentation material that ScotRail has produced is probably the best since sleepers were first introduced and full marks should be awarded for what they have done. However outside Scotland this material is rarely if ever seen, and people contemplating journeys to Scotland must rely on the G.B.T.T. In many ways this is a poor job (a relic of the low cost solution policy), when it comes to night trains. If you turn to tables 227 and 229, there is no mention of the sleepers even though there is plenty of room to do so. The South East of England, I would imagine is the largest potential source of overnight business, so reliance on the timetable is inevitable.
It is interesting to look back to the time when Scotland had its own timetables, and before me is the 1963 edition. All the important named trains (day as well as night) are shown at the front of the book and each one has a page to itself. A few pages on, the sleeping car services are listed, all 36 of them between Scotland and England mostly running 7 nights a week- we now have 4 SX. The highland mainline is shown in Table 35. The print is large enough to read, and each long distance train has its facilities shown alongside: i.e. through carriages, restaurant cars, buffet cars, miniature buffets and sleeping cars, as the case may be. It is information in this form that busy booking and enquiry office clerks need, and I have been one.
Presentation is an integral part of expanding the business. Much good work has been done, but there is more in the timetable area which calls for attention. Promotion of the overnight service is a more difficult matter than it appears as it is necessary to obtain the travelling public's attention. Three examples from my time in Plymouth illustrate this point.
- It was desired to improve the loading of the sleeper to Manchester, so a small display of which a model of the sleeping car was the centre piece was put in the Enquiry Office. In the three years it was on display, the bookings were increased by 20 %, and went down by almost the same amount when it was removed
- The sleeping cars for the London service were put in berth from 22.30. When there were vacancies we put a black board announcement to that effect in the subway, and this produced extra business. In due course a proper printed notice was provided, but passengers walked straight past it, and so we lost the extra revenue. After an interval the printed notice was removed and the blackboard re-instated and the extra business returned.
- As mentioned in Newsletter 15, as a result of a management audit of booking clerks and travel agents, after which they understood that they would in future be monitored, the overnight business was doubled in about 10 months. When the administration was closed down at Plymouth, the audit ceased and the traffic levels reverted to what they had been previously.
These three examples show a before and after situation, and illustrate by taking certain initiatives, there can be a considerable increase in business (if you can get the public's attention), but it also shows that the measures have to be maintained.
It is also worth recalling that in the summer timetable in the year B.R. had tried to take off the Fort William service, the B.B.C. on the national news (and probably on Reporting Scotland as well) had given the train good coverage with clips of it in the dramatic setting of the West Highlands. The basic train was a brake van, a lounge car and 2 sleepers, but two empty sleepers and a van had to be added to get the necessary brake force on the W.C.M.L. The publicity which the train had received, substantially increased demand, so the empty sleepers were put into commission with good effect. Travelling up on the train at the end of September, that year, I found that there were only 2 berths not occupied, so the train was conveying just over double its usual load (it is not always fully booked.)
This together with what was said in the other examples quoted, rather confirms that the principal obstacle to expansion is public ignorance of what is available. Whilst this may not be too much of a problem in Scotland (except in Tourist Offices), where the overnight trains are an integral part of the service, it is a very different matter in the South East of England. Overnight trains do not figure in this area, and no-one gives the matter a thought.
It is now said that railways are conveying as many passengers as at any time since World War 2, so how is it that in days gone by, there used to be 36 sleeping cars trains a night between Scotland and England, and there are now only four. A recent study of present day travel showed that of the Anglo-Scottish traffic, 4 % went by air, 6% by rail and 90% by road. Many of us could write a paper on the reasons for the decline in overnight travel as direct comparisons with the past are difficult to make. That said it is doubtful if any set of explanations really cover the shortfall unless the level of public ignorance and lack of promotion in Southern England are seen as part of the equation.
Let us consider a possible scenario, of a clerk in a travel agents office in Reading, or Guildford, or Sevenoaks or Rochester. As the bulk of the public never use railways, the probability is that this clerk does not do so and hardly thinks in railway terms, let alone the facilities on offer. The ScotRail presentational material may be available, but even assuming it is to hand, will it have been read? If the office has a dot com machine, a trawl of the Internet does show that there are sleepers, but only in footnote form - hardly promotional.
I wonder if the time has come for Scotland to have its own timetable again. This would be the opportunity for quite an original production, not a bulky wadge of paper, but a booklet of perhaps A5 or A4 size, which should be pleasant to handle and attractive to use. What about a colour section for services, which ScotRail particularly wished to promote? Could this section contain a double page spread for the Royal Highlander, with the times and tabular information on one page and opposite it at the top of the page a picture of the train anywhere north of Dalwhinnie, and below it photographs of the sleeping berths?
It is not for us to tell ScotRail how to do the job, as they will have access to the latest information technology and promotional skills. In any event any initiative has to be part of an overall marketing strategy. But having made this point, attention does need to be directed to the South East of England where the level of public ignorance of what is available is profound. The difficulty is getting the attention of the public (and railway staff) and then explaining what is available. On top of that there is no particular incentive to do so. This will be a tough nut to crack, but I am confident that if anyone can do it, then ScotRail will, as they have the initiative and drive to make a success of it.
Ian Duncan makes the point that we should have sleepers running on Saturday nights. Quite right. It is taking time for the railway industry to get away from the Low cost/scorched earth policy of the last Government, but matters are improving. There are two points which can be made. Firstly it is likely that SE England would provide a substantial amount of business for a Saturday night service, lending further incentive for promotion in that area. Secondly, might we suggest to ScotRail that in putting their proposals forward for the franchise renewal, they might in turn suggest to the Strategic Rail Authority, that sleeping car services should run every night, as a matter of national transport policy, and by implication provide the wherewithal to fund any financial shortfall.
The direct relevance to the Far North Lines of the foregoing may seem tenuous, but as we know there is a benefit if more people travel to and from Inverness by train. But more importantly than that, a measurable increase in sleeper business, may bring the justification for running the Aberdeen/ Inverness/ Fort William combined train as separate trains again. This opens up the possibility of reintroducing Motorail, and more interestingly, the conveyance of premium freight (parcels and perishables) and maybe other things as well.
In the 1970's the Western Region wanted to explore the practicability of getting premium freight to areas where the justification for a independent freight service could not be made. Accordingly tests were made with a Freightliner coupled to the back of an express passenger train, over routes which were restricted to 75 mph. The tests were successful and authority was given by B.R. H.Q. engineers to use this arrangement, subject to a maximum of 20 bogie vehicles all told. Soon after these tests, the Scottish Region asked for my papers, as they wanted to try two pilot schemes, one on the West Highland, and one between Aberdeen and Wick.
Interestingly a new train was introduced at the end of May this year, between Amsterdam and Milan, comprising sleepers, couchettes, a restaurant car and freight vehicles. The purpose was to give a much faster and better service for premium freight business. By combining forces could ScotRail and E. W. S. see what could be done for the Highlands? Both organisations have the initiative and drive to make things happen and there seems to be an advantage in that the international freight yard, the carriage servicing facilities and the Royal Mail Railnet hub are all on the same site at Wembley. The long term future of the lines in the Highlands will depend on freight (and quite a lot of it ), but despite all the brave talk of getting it back on rail, it is going to be quite a tough proposition. The road haulage lobby is very powerful with huge vested interests, and no politicians have yet had the courage to stand up to it. A really good and fast service may help to win some of the long distance and lucrative traffic. What about Parcel Force containers from Wembley to Aberdeen - fish in temperature controlled containers from Aberdeen, Kinlochbervie and Mallaig to London and the Continent, and Safeway containers from Wembley to Wick? Presumably we all shop at Safeways now and encourage others to do so in the interests of a better environment!
Lastly, all three respondents to my original letter i.e. Ian Duncan, Frank Faulkner and John Yellowlees all make the point of recommending the overnight services to other people. This is one of the most important points in this correspondence. G. F. Feinnes when General Manager of the Eastern Region said that personal recommendation was the finest form of advertisement. Absolutely right.
So here is something else we can all do, besides shopping at Safeways.