Actually, I would call Bilbao-San Sebastián an inter-city route. That’s the one that averages 40km/h, and where the buses are twice as fast. But the trains don’t run empty.
I’m not disputing the slow speed of the WRC; I’m just not sure what everyone is trying to prove. But my line of reason comes from being familiar with the flawed logic behind the arguments used for closing railways. The theory was always that buses could do the job adequately at lower cost. What actually happened was that less people used the replacement bus, since some now went by car and others travelled less often. Connecting traffic on the adjoining lines was also lost. This is why replacement buses were often withdrawn subsequently. Closures undermined the system as a whole.
So the result was more car journeys, less travelling overall, and perhaps not even a saving in public funds. Notice that the period of the most closures (1958-63) was also a time of rapidly increasing deficit. We as taxpayers might not even have gained anything from the closures.
Transport theories of that era, sometimes called “predict and provide”, assumed that the demand for any service was independent of its quality. They thought that a service could deteriorate and everyone would still have to use it. Aspects of quality obviously include journey time and fares, but they also include comfort, reliability, frequency, minimum number of changes, and regularity (whether the timetable is clock-face or not). Experience also shows that a train has a definite advantage over a bus in perceived quality. Curiously, this seems to be true no matter how good the bus service is.
This has lots of implications. One is that where trains and buses run parallel, they have distinct but overlapping markets. The growth in inter-city buses hasn’t destroyed the market for the parallel railways – even when the buses are faster. You may say, “No one will use the train if the bus is cheaper and quicker”, but experience shows otherwise. Trains have a lot more success in getting people out of their cars.
So in re-opening services, we are trying to reverse the process that happens in closures. Where a route is well served by buses, and it looks like we should leave things as they are, the two main motives for introducing a train service are:
1. Connections with adjoining lines mean more people making longer journeys. This may go a long way to covering costs, and
2. There will be a benefit to the wider community in reducing car journeys.
This is very much a summary, but there is a range of factors that RUI members should be familiar with. There was a mentality and a set of mistaken assumptions that led to the closures. Too many economists, sadly, still cling to this mentality, with their predict-and-provide approach and their dreams of a bus-only system. Let us make sure we don’t unwittingly make the same mistaken assumptions.
Much needs to be done on the WRC. In the short term this means improving frequency and regularity, running through trains to other lines, and improving connections generally (see my contribution to the timetable consultation). This will not all be negated just because road journeys can be faster.