Transport 1: Unintegration

The title is chosen with care: our transport system is not integrated, but neither is it disintegrated in its totally, though parts come close.  It is unintegrated – with parallel activity and lack of co-ordination.  Planes, trains and automobiles have developed, and within and between each policy has arisen without thought or planning.  Hence, it is in a mess.

Government reluctance to invest in a mass transit public transport system that truly renders the car redundant is a long way off, not least because the treasury is so addicted to the income it wrings from the motorist in form of VAT, car tax, fuel duties, congestion charges and much more, maybe even the road usage tax when the technology is reliable.

We motorists are a sitting target, there to be squeezed like lemons, though the government would also sooner see us buying new cars like billy-o to prop up the ailing economy.  Maybe this explains the somewhat schizophrenic policies of successive governments?

True, the occasional fuel rebellion might have eased off tax hikes every now and again, but in the longer term the trend is up and up.  That is the stick to try to persuade us out from behind the wheel, but in the transportation debate we are notably short of juicy carrots to tempt us: train services are hideously expensive, have suffered donkeys years of under-investment, are frequently failing and are still heavily subsidised under privatisation, and simply don’t deliver the efficient high-speed service available in other countries. True, London buses are marvellous but throughout the rest of the country, especially in rural areas, bus services are patchy, sporadic and ineffective.

Freight is a different story altogether, the problem was always that the road lobby does not do co-operation. Sure, sea and air are necessary to get goods to UK ports and airports, but it views road as the be-all and end-all; they have won the debate, which is why our roads are packed with artics from the UK and much of Europe.  Reminds me of my student days when I used to get around by hitch-hiking when money was tight – and lorries were often good for a lift.

Personally I now have two main modes of transport:  living out in the country, car is pretty essential for most purposes, so I do a lot more driving than I should do.  If I’m travelling to London, it’s drive to Kelvedon, leave the car there, buy a day travel card (off-peak is around £25) and travel around by train and tube.  In London it’s pretty convenient, but to get anywhere else by public transport is certainly difficult and not designed to work as part of a bigger transport plan.  Services compete rather than co-ordinate, but the lack of linkage seems to be a deliberate government policy too.

Go back 50 years and the buzz in politics, and not just on the left, was about integrated transport policy, for passengers and for freight alike: for any given journey, let the most efficient mode of transport be used, but do so in a way that the entire trip is tied up together.  Within London you can do that in the Internet age, such that TfL’s journey planner will take in every possible route around the capital (including occasional bits of walking.)

Sadly, you never get the same holistic view anywhere else in the country, but at least there are trams and trains to get you between airports and cities, for example, but neither do you get the days of the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire in the days of David Blunkett – with bus fares subsidised to the point where you could get around the city for about 2p!

A Tory government soon saw the end of that experiment, but neither did they come up with a better solution to make transport modern and affordable.  Privatising rail has not been a success, and we are still struggling to get to the point other countries reached 20 years ago.  High-speed trains?  Only just starting to be built, and mostly because of linking up with the French system through the Chunnel.  Crossrail?  Now being built after many years of dithering.  The French railway system has a huge debt, but at least they have the infrastructure that is fast, efficient and affordable.  We pay a fortune (especially commuters) for a truly appalling service with insufficient rolling stock and continuous breakdowns – and like fools, we accept it!!

By comparison with other cities, London’s tube network is reasonable at any time but rush hour, but it has a pricing system that is hellishly complicated and potentially pricy, when you’re not travelling with a day card or a season ticket.  True, most people seem to use oyster cards these days, but do they really need 6 travel zones within greater London, with complicated bands of pricing depending on how many you travel through?  Why not flat fares no matter how far or near you go, as with many other cities?  The whole approach to pricing seems to have been thought through in a very slapdash fashion.

But that’s nothing compared to the rest of the country.  It’s often been pointed out that getting around the UK by train now requires a PhD, given the complexities, quirks and inconsistencies within the pricing systems.  This gives you some measure of what I mean, but even the previous transport secretary acknowledged that because of the complexities in fare structures passengers are almost certainly paying more than they need to in very many journeys.  How could they allow this to happen?!  At least there are some independent sites that help you identify the “hidden” fares, but if you’re old, infirm or too poor or unskilled to access the net, chances are you will not find the best or cheapest way to get there.

Indeed, if you’re travelling around the country it’s usually cheaper and quicker these days to fly budget airlines within the UK and hire a car at the other end, though the yield management systems and the truly aggravating habit of adding charges for everything can easily see costs bump up from the advertised price.  Then you still have to get to the airport and back again afterwards, which can be easy or difficult, and sometimes very costly, depending on your airport.  The other irritating aspect is that the actual time you spend in the air from one UK airport to another is minute… but the delays and time sitting around waiting in airports can be very lengthy indeed.

In short: getting around by different modes of transport is just too complicated and expensive, the effect of successive governments failing to grasp the nettle.  This is arguably the greatest reason why everybody uses cars, though I will deal with this subject more in the second transport blog.  Transport within the UK is difficult because it has grown in a random and haphazard fashion, is the victim of the unforeseen consequences of feeble government transport policies, and also schemes like PFI which were used to encourage investment without it going on the national debt… but with crippling revenue costs thereafter.  We as a nation never grasped transport policy, and we are suffering for it.

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