I’m currently spending Monday to Friday in London, making a regular dawn commute on Monday mornings, and returning late on Fridays. It means that I’m spending a lot of time on the M4, and seeing a huge amount of stationary traffic.
However, for various reasons this week it made sense for me to get public transport, and at relatively late notice I was making the futile gesture of looking for affordable train tickets that would get me into London before 10am. Much bitter experience has taught me that unless you book well in advance there is no chance of getting much change out of £150. In fact, at the time of writing, if I wanted to go to London on Monday morning, and return at about 4pm on Friday, it would cost well over £200. Searching for exactly the same times for this coming Monday to get a return from Birmingham to London? £48. About 20% of the cost of going from the Welsh capital, to a city basically the same distance away*.
For me, the cost of the train is a major factor in how often I’ve previously been to London to have meetings etc. I’ve just not been able to justify last minute, speculative meetings. Every visit has had to be able to yield a demonstrable return on that relatively considerable investment.
In fact, it’s previously resulted in me looking into hiring luxury coaches (with tables) for Cardiff Start once every few weeks that could be shared between a group who could use it to regularly work, travel and network at an affordable price. In fact, it appears someone is doing something similar. More news on this soon when I can share.
Anyway, when telling my new London chums about the costs of getting from Cardiff to London on the train at a time that is suitable for business, they were shocked. For them, being inside the M25 meant that they just weren’t aware of this pain that I, at least, was feeling. So I decided to put the word out, and see if others were feeling this way.
Welsh businesses/entrepreneurs: would you go to London more frequently to do business if train prices were lower?
— Neil Cocker (@NeilCocker) January 28, 2016
As you can see, despite this no doubt being a rather unscientific way of measuring the feeling within the small business community, the response from nearly 100 people was fairly overwhelming. Indeed, I got some fairly clear responses. Here’s a sample….
@NeilCocker I’m self-employed, a freelance writer, and for about 2 yrs I couldn’t visit London unless it was expenses paid.
— David Llewellyn (@TheDaiLlew) January 29, 2016
@NeilCocker I end up travelling at inconvenient times. Doesn’t seem v professional to say, ‘can we make it midday so i can afford to come’!
— Jess Day (@day_jess) January 29, 2016
@neilcocker abso-bloody-lutely. Booked tickets yesterday that are more expensive than flights to Spain.
— Huw David (@huwdavid) January 29, 2016
@NeilCocker Definitely means I don’t go to South Wales as often as I’d like to – so I guess that works both ways – train fares astronomical
— Mary McKenna (@MMaryMcKenna) January 28, 2016
It’s worth noting that that final tweet came from an investor in a Welsh business. That makes me wonder if the effect is not only hurting “outgoing” businesses, but “incoming”, too. We loudly trumpet that we’re the closest capital city to London, and a mere two hours away. But if it costs you an arm and a leg, we may as well be 5 hours away.
EDIT: it’s at this point that I realise I haven’t clarified why I think this is an issue, although I hope it would be clear from the previous tweets: simply put, it reduces opportunity for Welsh businesses. There are more opportunities in London than Cardiff for most businesses, and the potential to be introduced to (or accidentally meet) someone of potential importance to you is greatly improved when you’re there. The cost of getting to London is simply too great for many, and therefore they miss out on these opportunities.
In my opinion, the cost of rail services from Cardiff to London are damaging to the ability of startups to do business in the financial capital of Europe, despite it being only a few hours away.
So, what can be done?
- Are supply and demand issues at play here? Or availability?
- Are any public or private sector organisations able to apply any pressure?
- Whose responsibility is it to sort out?
- Is there data out there that suggests that Cardiff (or any other city) unfairly bears the brunt of over-the-top pricing? If so, why?
- Is this price gouging by the train companies – they clearly don’t price their service in a transparent way, so it’s difficult to know? Sidenote: apparently train tickets used to be calculated in a simple per-mile way. The whole article is worth a read if you want to see just how illogical the pricing of UK rail services is.
To be clear, I don’t have any answers, and I’m not proposing any. Maybe it’s a completely intractable problem. I just felt that this was too big an issue to leave un-questioned, although I’m very sure I’m far from the first to consider it.
Would love to hear your thoughts, proposals and solutions in the comments.
*Google maps puts Birmingham at 126 miles from London in a car, Cardiff as 151 miles.