Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Don't just do the math

There was a story in yesterday’s Western Mail about the introduction by Flybe of ‘rescue flights’ between Cardiff and London City airport to cover the period of closure of the Severn Tunnel.  Full marks for good PR – it’s almost identical to the same story covered by the same newspaper just over five months earlier.  Still, in these hard times, I suppose it saves on the cost of journalism.
Talking of savings brings me to the point that I wanted to make.  According to the newspaper report, passengers could save “approximately two hours from their working day”.  With my usual fascination with figures, I inevitably found myself wondering about that one.  I suppose that it might be true if you take a Cardiff-centric view and compare the journey time of someone who is boarding a plane at the airport with that of someone boarding a train at Cardiff Central, but that simple comparison hides a lot of detail. 
What about the time getting to the airport compared with the time getting to the station?  The train doesn’t just call at Cardiff – it also calls at Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot, Bridgend, and Newport.  For most potential travellers across South Wales, I reckon that the time spent getting to and from Cardiff Airport will be greater than the time spent getting to their nearest station, and that immediately starts eating into the average saving.  And it’s a journey which will, almost inevitably, be made by car rather than by public transport.
And what about check-in time at the airport?  That means that travellers need to be at the airport longer in advance of departure time than would be the case at a railway station.  The report suggests that there would be a special ‘fast-track’ for passengers on these flights, which might reduce that time, although not eliminate it.  But hold on a moment – if some passengers are ‘fast-tracked’ with no overall increase in resources (and none is proposed as far as I can see), then others will end up being ‘slow-tracked’ to compensate.  The total time saving for one privileged group of passengers is surely balanced out by a total time increase for everyone else.
And then there is the question of how the travel time is used.  Whether on plane or train, business people usually claim to be ‘working’ (although in my experience, that’s rather easier on a train than on a plane), so any time ‘saved’ merely means they’re going to be doing the same amount of work (and spending the same amount of time on it) elsewhere doesn’t it?  (Or perhaps we should be rather less willing to believe the line about ‘working’ whilst in transit.)
But even supposing for a moment that the headline figure is true, and that the average person will save two hours by using these flights, how ‘true’ is the conclusion that Welsh businesses will save up to 800 working weeks?  The mathematics is simple enough; take the basic figures and do the multiplications.  But this is about more than mathematics; it’s also about current day working culture and practices.
Take the phenomenon of ‘presenteeism’.  If a business traveller ‘saves’ two hours off his journey, does he actually get two hours less pay, or spend two hours less ‘working’ on that day?  I very much doubt it; it’s simply not done to go home early or to stop checking those all-important e-mails just because you’re no longer ‘in the office’.  The working day is likely to be just as long, just spent in a different fashion.
And businesses actually ‘save’ not a penny from shorter journey times, because they aren’t paying for the extra time anyway – the general expectation these days is that the staff concerned do the job, not that they spend a particular number of hours doing it.  Apparent ‘savings’ from shorter travel times may be the valid result of strict arithmetic, but they’re non-existent in the real world.
It might not matter at all in this case, but it does in others.  Similarly spurious ‘savings’ are after all the main basis of the case for building the M4 relief road, a project which is going to cost us all a great deal of money.  We shouldn’t be blinded by the apparent accuracy of mathematical processes – we need to challenge the underlying assumptions more thoroughly.

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