A highly articulate outburst

I was having an e-mail conversation yesterday, and the subject of people driving everywhere rather than using public transport came up. As the only car driver present on the mailing list, I got asked for my opinion – specifically in relation to my having taken the Park & Ride into Oxford, rather than having tried to park in the city centre, & having started to write a short reply, I found several hundred words had passed.

Most of them, I decided, on re-reading what I’d written, relatively sensible ones.

At this point, I’ll point out I’ve made barely any revisions to this theory – bar my square-bracketed clarification of fare changes, and the re-setting of the line-breaks my gmail account put in this is just what I churned out last night, but I think there might be something there. Lord knows we’ve all got enough money to fritter it away trying to prop up a brassic banking industry, I don’t see why we didn’t ought to get some decent use out of it.

There’s probably a few hundredweight of flaws in the idea; you’re welcome to point them out in a friendly way, but at least it’s not as stupid as some of the ideas out there. (Seriously, I am curious as to where the bad ideas are, here; I admit I’ve kinda planned everything out in Sandbox Mode, with unlimited funds and no fixed deadlines, but still…)

I’m in favour of P&R. Although I’ve driven through Oxford (through a complicated coming-off-the-motorway-wrong scenario that had me trying to plot a route through the centre of the city based on
where I thought the tour buses went after Broad Street. Was dead chuffed when I managed it). However, I still drove to Oxford. From Wallingford. And the X39 is actually pretty damn good – I really like Thames Travel.

Even London – Edinburgh is the sort of thing I might drive, depending on circumstances! If it was at a busy time, I think I’d take the car, because I’d at least get a seat! Other times, maybe not – it’d depend what I was doing after Edinburgh, I guess.

But, yeah. The thing to do is spend a hundred fuckloads of money on the transport network: re-nationalise *everything*, buy back all the land sold under the Beeching Axe, put the tracks back, buy the station houses back and re-introduce full service to all of them (automatic ticket machines will save you a few salaries there, at least) and get into the habit of offering free rail passes to, er, everyone. (Or everyone paying less than the 50% income tax band, say).

Upgrade everything. Electrify the entire network while you’re at it to a) save time in the future and b) free yourself up to put any rolling stock down a line, increase the number of passing places, terminals
and sidings and give tax breaks to businesses that transport anything by rail, including produce (I reckon the distribution networks could cope with running services from local rail terminals instead of local warehouse depots, I don’t really see the difference). Accept that the national debt is going to look like swiss bloody cheese anyway, and bootstrap the domestic rail manufacturing industry to get some trains that’re less than 20 years old running through the provinces.

Bring back First, Second & Third class, [but do away with the multitude of saver fares; either it’s off peak or it’s a fixed rush hour surcharge of £3, say] and change the conditions of carriage to promise everyone a seat on their service, or they get a £5 voucher for the shop on the train for each 100 miles or part thereof for their journey as specified *on the ticket* – we could print that easy enough.

Then – gradually, over a few years – increase tax on petrol to fund the public transport network, and offer free bus routes to railway stations. No less than every 10 minutes per stop in towns, and aim for
every 30-40 minutes for rural areas. Since the Government run everything anyway, they can sync all the timetables up without (too much) difficulty.

Engineering works no longer mean such severe stoppages, as there’s now *network redundancy* and you can route around them with care. Long-term you get improved maintainance. Schedule for an x-day period, specifying exactly what needs to be done, and at the end of the works, have them surveyed by two independent teams from seperate bodies (one from RailSafe.gov and one from the Dept. of Engineering Works, say). If the works are approved by both bodies as being OK – and *signed
off* by *every member* of the inspection teams, good. If they’re signed off ahead of schedule, give the workers a bonus of £x/day over schedule.

The thing is I *want* trains to be good. But as long as people think they’re supposed to make money, they ain’t gonna. And even people like me will stay in our cars until we can get a fascist party set up, with me in charge…

As Statto said: a highly articulate outburst. So where’s it fall down? Money, obviously, and political intransigence. But where else?

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  1. On April 16, 2009 Matt The Hat says:

    Asking people to use public transport is like asking people to use public lavatories and showers: they won’t if they’ve access to their own creature comforts.

  2. On April 16, 2009 Statto says:

    I suspect the criticisms from the right would be precisely those you outline; so cash, timescales, and probably a quick dose of ‘but nationalised industries are less efficient than privatised ones!’ thrown in. (Of course, the argument that the railways even approximate to a free market, which is what makes privatisation efficient, is a bit of a joke. There are very few stations where passengers can choose which train company will take them on a particular route; where there is choice of company at all, it will usually be between completely different journeys. No competition = no market = privatisation is just as bad as nationalisation, but run by slightly more evil business types.)

    A few queries:

    Free rail travel for all/many is interesting; it would certainly encourage people onto the trains, but might destroy what vestiges of a free market there is for transport by biasing people towards trains over other forms of transportation. Whether this would be a bad thing in practice I don’t know—perhaps this heavy bias is needed to overcome an irrationally high prejudice barrier. Also, shouldn’t the people who actually use the trains pay for them in some way, rather than us all footing the bill collectively, regardless of train use? Finally, losing the price signal stops us influencing consumers’ choice of time to travel—rush hour tickets are more expensive partly to milk idiot commuters for all they’re worth, but partly too to make sure people who aren’t idiot commuters don’t go making the network even more overcrowded than it already is at peak times. Though possibly the surcharges you suggest later would be on top of the free passes, ignore that point if so.

    Branch line rebuying is something it’s hard to encourage en masse—would people actually use the damn things? It’s also not obvious the level of network redundancy this would provide, as it may not be possible to route high-speed mainline trains down these offshoots, unless you build all the track to the same stratospheric spec.

    Why third class, out of interest? What would be the difference?

    Difficult to give people a way to prove that they weren’t sitting down…but probably necessary to make consumers feel a bit empowered in some way.

    But finally:

    As always, my broken-record concern is that you’d need to do some studies and let the nerds work out what levels of service and pricing structure were economic. I assume you’ll readily acknowledge that the figures in there all appeared to you in a cloud of rant! We need to work out what the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits would be, and only lay new track and change timetables where it can be demonstrated that they will be of net benefit.

    The biggest unknown, I would guess, is the algorithm by which people decide what mode of transport to use for a given journey. As you say in the London–Edinburgh aside, there are circumstances where you’d consider it worth driving, others where you’d catch the choo-choo. If we decide that forcing people out of their cars onto trains is what we want to do, we should find what aspects of car driving are most annoying, and make them more so, and what aspects of train travel are most annoying, and alleviate them. For example, if we find that making train travel really cheap is not an effective incentive because people still don’t like the timetabling, we should strive to improve the latter before the former, or whatever. We have to weight the dice to make sure that people make the ‘right’ choice, playing human psychological foibles towards the common good. The first stage of doing that is acknowledging that, whilst people are idiots, they are idiots in a far more complex way than we can second-guess, so studies and pilot schemes are the only way to make decisions like those in the articulate outburst.

  3. On April 30, 2009 Statto says:

    Having been on a train at the weekend and wondered about the merits and demerits of first class, it got me wondering again about why you wanted third class—so answer, you git!

  4. On April 30, 2009 Mister JTA says:

    O, sorry!

    Because I think it would help to retain a variety of fares while doing away with all that nonsense about Off Peak, and Advance Saver and Super Mario Koopa Sava tickets. It kinda relies on the creation of new rolling stock, but basically third class gets created by painting a big ‘3’ on the side of yer old Arriva Sprinter carriages: No legroom, tatty seating, and 25% cheaper, if you can hack the misery of it. (I figure this saves us the hassle of scrapping all of these that still work).

    First Class, on the other hand, could stick at however-much-more it is now (75%? It’s something fairly crazy) and most people would probably go in standard, which I imagine will be a lot more like the posh new trains you get Central running round Brum, all open spaces and seats and tables and things.