Monday, March 4, 2013

Planes, trains and automobiles

I was recently in England again, with a rental car. A VW Golf Bluemotion as it happens - a nifty little 1.6 diesel engine that returned an easy 88mpg (UK) or about 73mpg (US). Think about that for a moment while we apparently struggle to get anything over 40mpg here in America. But that's a topic for another post.
The point of this is that owning and running a car in England is monstrously expensive. To half-fill that Golf on the way back to the airport cost me $75 - so we're looking at close to $150 to brim it from empty (thanks to a nearly 500% tax rate that the UK government levy on fuel). There's a bevy of taxes when you buy a new or used car (delivery tax, luxury car tax, sales tax, showroom tax and so on and so forth) and the annual taxes and costs of running are similarly high. Yet it's increasingly common for families over there to have two or more cars - something unheard of 15 years ago. Why is this?
I'll tell you why - because public transport in the UK is as broken as it's ever been, and even more prohibitively expensive. We needed to get in to London one day whilst there and I wasn't about to pay the extra road tax to get in to London by car (I think that's up to £8/$13 or more per day now) so we chose to take the train. To travel 49 miles to and from London Victoria station cost me £38 in train tickets each - so £76 for the pair of us (about $105). The journey was 90 minutes, averaging a whopping 32mph. Half way there the train broke down and we had to stand around at a station waiting 20 minutes for the one behind us to catch up, thus meaning double the number of commuters all jammed into a single train.
When we got to London it cost another £17 in tube tickets to travel - wait for it - two stops on the tube. They don't do single tickets any more - you need to buy an all-day TravelCard even if you're only traveling one station. Tip: if you get the TravelCard when you buy the train ticket, it's much cheaper. I found this out when I got home. Nice that the guy at the station ticket hall didn't bother to tell me this when I bought the tickets.
This situation hasn't improved since we left the UK in 2001 when it was already expensive and inconvenient to use public transport and/or run a car. Since then the cost of fuel has doubled; the underlying price-per-litre for petrol has only gone up about 20p but because of all the taxes on top, the end price to the customer goes up exponentially. In the same time the cost of public transport has doubled while the number of services have been slashed.
So it's really a case of the lesser of two evils. Sitting in your own car with your own music, even if it is in endless lines of traffic, paying through the nose for fuel, taxes and the "priveledge" to use roads that haven't seen proper maintenance in years, is still a much better option than being abused in a smelly train.


Paul said...

We're not going to get better fuel economy here in the US until gas prices get near the overseas prices.
I'm from NZ and the price there is around US$9/gallon at the moment. Until prices start approaching that Joe Public in the US won't choose the cheaper option, they don't have to.
And yes, I could be described as hypocritical, I have a 2004 Mustang (18mpg) and my wife has a 2012 Charger (34mpg). But with the price of fuel here, it's not really a problem.

SJ Cuthbertson said...

In terms of London tube travel, saying "they don't do single tickets" is a little misleading. We are moving towards not doing /tickets/ at all. Anyone who lives in England and ever goes to London has an Oyster card (contactless payment for most London public transport). Oyster does do cheap single fares. It works out how much to charge you after you travel, always getting as cheap as possible.

So I guess your (extortionate) £17 tickets could be considered a foreigner-tax for London public transport - it'll almost solely be foreigners that don't get an Oyster card, though to be fair you could have got a couple easily while you were there and topped them up with cash.

And in fact, I think you can still get cash singles for less than you paid, assuming this is up to date: E.g. Victoria to Westminster (two stops) single would be £4.50 per person. If you want to go back again, the travelcard is cheaper!

Chris said...

You're right about the 'foreigner tax'. I know when we were in Singapore and Hong Kong a couple of years ago, they had the same sort of thing - RFID cards that you load up with credit and then it charges you each time you tap on and off a bus or tube. Interestingly, over there (and in Holland where the have the OV Chip card), there's plenty of info for tourists on how to get one, what they are and how to use them. As a visitor to the UK, there's nothing to tell you you should be using an Oyster card. The ticket machines don't ask, the guys behind the ticket desks don't offer it up as an option - nothing. It's what I call "tourist-hostile". Especially when the guy behind the ticket counter tells you it's £8.80 per ticket for a single journey. I guess he knew perfectly well he could have offered an Oyster card but chose not to. Again - "tourist-hostile".
Also, for what it's worth, the ones we used in Asia weren't just for public transport - in Hong Kong especially you could pay for small items with it too - entrance to attractions, small meals, kiosk type stuff - very handy.