October 06, 2015

In the hi-fidelity first-class travelling set

I'm beginning to understand why people have cars.

I say this even as a former car owner, and as a motorbiker who's never entirely sure that a motorbike is really the solution. But first we have to do some sums. Most people I know didn't buy their car through paying by instalments, they bought it outright, so sometime down the line, several years at least, the cost is sunk and depreciation is largely academic. Fuel, VED, insurance, MOTs and servicing are the ongoing costs, and only fuel is the daily cost, the cost we think about when contemplating a long journey. After all, the car is already there so we may as well use it. Whether we make just one long journey in the year or many, the other costs are about the same. Of course, high mileagers will want to shorten the service intervals a touch, perhaps two or three in a year rather than one (or none, if you rely on the MOT to tell you what's wrong with your car).

When I started this analysis, diesel was £1.11 per litre—now it's £1.09 per litre. It hasn't been this cheap for months and months. A nice small car, say something with a VAG 1.6 litre engine, will return about 60mpg on a run. Maybe 55, maybe 65, depending on the wind direction. And we're going to drive to Wales. This is easy enough to do in a day: take the A701 from Edinburgh to Moffat, jump onto the A74(M) and thence the M6, take a right at junction 20A and follow the M56 for a while, then take a left onto the M53 and later bear right to follow the A56 into Chester. Distance: 232 miles, and doable in four and three-quarter hours including a stop for lunch at Tebay. And you probably don't even need to stop to fill up because you only used about 17.5 litres of fuel. We'll need that much again to drive home from Chester, so that's 35 litres, but we're actually planning to finish at Carmarthen and go home from there. Carmarthen to Chester is also easy enough by taking the A40 to Llandovery, then the A483 to Crossgates and the A488 to Craven Arms where we join the A49 to Shrewsbury, then the A5 for a bit and then back onto the A483 to Chester. About 165 miles, and a bit fiddly in places, so we'll be pessimistic and say 14 litres at the most. £55 doesn't seem very much for 630 miles.

Our sightseeing itinerary runs from Chester to Pendine, in a coastal extravaganza of about 300 miles. Since much of that is made up of A roads and B roads taken at slower speeds, our fuel economy will be worsened by fiddly town and village driving, but improved by B road meandering in which we need only tickle the accelerator in 3rd gear. So to be pessimistic again at 50mpg, which is entirely doable if you remember all of the things the Energy Saving Trust taught you in your FuelGood driver training, we might expect to burn another 27 litres of diesel. Including all the outings to buy food from the supermarket a couple of miles up the road, and going the wrong way from time to time, and occasionally going for a look at something else nearby that looked interesting on the map, it might be 30 litres, or another £33.

Perhaps the car does 7000 miles a year, in which insurance is £250, VED is £110 and not £30 because the car is a few years old and only just scrapes below the 130gCO2/km emissions bracket; the MOT people want £70 a year, and so far not too much is wrong with the car, so servicing is £200 a time. That's an annual cost of £630, or 9 pence per mile. Of course if we only drive 3000 miles a year, the cost shoots up to 21 pence per mile. At 55mpg (combined cycle) we'd also be spending £640 or so a year on fuel, sometimes more, sometimes less, but about 9 pence per mile. At 3000 miles a year, the fuel cost drops accordingly, while the cost rate stays the same. But we already looked at fuel costs for the trip.

Our little holiday to Wales and back by car is therefore expected to cost £88 in fuel plus, at a generously low 9 pence per mile for static costs, £83 for the pleasure of having a car available for 930 miles. Total cost is £171, and of course we have a car to use as we like for the rest of the year anyway.

Suppose that we decided not to use the car that time but took the train instead, and cycled from Chester to Pendine to the station at Carmarthen. The return ticket for Edinburgh to Chester is about £100 and Carmarthen to Chester is £27. Easy enough. A train is a train is a train.

For the touring part, I'll use my Lightning P-38 with my panniers stuffed to the gunwales and a tent strapped to the back. The bike cost in the region of $2900 or £1700, and so far has covered just shy of 9000 miles in eight years. The cost per mile is therefore about 19 pence per mile. But in that time it's also had a new chain (£35), a new bottom bracket (£45), front and rear rims (£80), two gear shifters (£50), a new front hub (free, because I bought it years ago for almost nothing), four pairs of brake pads (£40), and four new cables (£16). It also had a complete respray earlier this year to deal with some rust, and disc mounts added at the same time, but I will discount those because they weren't essential to the functionality of the bike. So consumables add £270 or thereabouts—not all that much compared with the original cost of the bike, and in fact somewhat less than I had thought, when one winces at the cost of even a good rim—and so the cost per mile to date increases to 22 pence.

The touring therefore adds a rather shocking £66 in running costs. Shocking, because bikes don't cost anything to run, do they? They do when you don't ride them enough, or insist on buying quality components.

Our little holiday to Wales and back by bike and train is therefore expected to cost £127 in trains and £66 for the pleasure of having a bike available for 300 miles. Total cost is £193, and of course I have my bike to use as I like for the rest of the year anyway. Ah, the car was cheaper, it seemed. But not by all that much, I'm relieved to find.

The cost isn't the only issue. Driving 930 miles means eating at motorway cafes (actually, I'm being terribly unkind to Tebay and Killington Lake, both of which are lovely places to stop by while taking a turn on the M6), and that kind of distance does come with an element of risk. Worse though, sitting still means getting no exercise. With 644 miles accrued by train, drinking overpriced watery hot chocolate and scoffing baguettes and treacle waffles, I would at least also have 300 miles of riding my bike and sweating and swearing my way up hills, getting cold on hillsides and burning off all my body fat as a consequence. If we're honest though, using the car does save you money because you don't find yourself emergency-buying waterproof pannier covers or that Rab eVent waterproof hat that you spent an hour choosing in the shop.

In a textbook example of saving money by spending more, in August I put my bike on the train to Chester, and the day after that I pedalled out of town, bound for the top left-hand corner of Wales – and beyond – and two weeks of solitude and glorious uninterrupted sunshine.

Sunshine. In Snowdonia?

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