Tuesday, 24 July 2018

It's time to stop obsessing about trains - they aren't the infrastructure solution we need

Let's imagine for a minute that I'm going to give you several billion pounds for the purpose of making the North of England's infrastructure "fit for the 21st century". Let's also forget that, in the real world, this looks unlikely because when you put infrastructure schemes through the Department of Transport's models they tell you that investing in the North - compared to yet another rail scheme for London - is a financial no-no.

Now, because you're an assiduous consumer of commentary and consider yourself bang up to the minute on transport issues, you come straight back and say something like:

High Speed Rail from York to Liverpool - maybe extending HS2 to Newcastle as well

Electrification of assorted railway lines (Calder Valley, Harrogate-York, etc.)

Rail links to Yorkshire's airports and ports

Light rail for Leeds (that may or may not connect to Bradford, Huddersfield and Wakefield

New stations, new rolling stock, fancy ticket machines and ticket systems

More trains, bigger trains, faster trains...

I know this is the response most folk will give because, even in the North where 95% of people don't use trains (on anything but a very occasional basis), the reporting on transport issues is utterly dominated by problems with trains - too old, too crowded, strikes, break downs, timetable problems:: you name it the BBC, Yorkshire Post and local media will be all over it.

Tell me, when did the newspapers or television news last cover the fact that your bus is old, slow and subject to delays and cancellations? When was there a shock horror report complete with vox pops from exasperated commuters saying how the endless summer of road works has caused congestion everywhere? One of the main routes into Bradford, the B6144 along Toller Lane and White Abbey Road, has been closed for eight weeks while Yorkshire Water try to find some of the wet stuff - have there been any reports on the sheer annoying inconvenience and cost of this work? You missed it?

Yet the single most important means by which people in the North get to work is by car and, however much you might want to parade your green credentials, all that vast investment in railways won't make anything but the tiniest of dents in this traffic. And, as you all know of course, the problems on the railways result from the decision (something to do with privatisation) to incentivise increasing passenger numbers - there isn't enough capacity on the rail system. Modal shift (every councillor I've ever met who has served on a transport committee can intone this - it goes with 'get more freight on rails' as a mantra) if it is a success simply results in the rail system seizing up.

So here's an alternative list for your infrastructure investment - one better linked to reality and less to the fact that too many transport planners still have a model railway in the attic:

Bus priority schemes, new buses and better bus stations

Superfast broadband - targeting where the commuter traffic is coming from not where it's going to

Car share apps and schemes - with financial rewards for users

Properly funded road maintenance and improvement - dealing with the thousands of stalled small schemes

Deregulation of taxi and minibus - getting something like the US Dollar bus schemes

Support for employer run bus schemes

Incentives for home working and local shared work spaces

Better cycling infrastructure (including, for larger places, cycle rent schemes)

Railways - for all that they have a place - are still 19th century technology. The EU auditors recently reported that the only high speed line on the whole continent (including HS1 and the Channel Tunnel) that is profitable is the Paris-Lyon line. The money spemt on railways represents a huge subsidy to wealthy urban commuters and we're paying the price of this with potholed roads, outdated diesel buses, over-regulated taxis and the almost complete absence of any national (let alone regional) strategy for roads. It is time to line the transport planners up and ask: "do you like trains?" If the answer is "yes" then get rid of them.



Superlucent said...

Sorry Simon, I don't have many Twitter followers. But your post was so relevant and thought provoking that I had to tweet it

Anonymous said...

I even doubt that the supposed energy efficiency of railways is that good once you include the energy use of all staff, all subcontractor staff, all fuel and heating costs for same, manufacturing of materials, trains, rails and operation of stations as well as running empty trains about the country.
They are not even that good for the economy because we buy it all from abroad.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that the national infrastructure folk are all based within the M25, where mature rail-based mass-transit systems are the only way to get 'fleshware' from where it is to where it wants to be.

So the only financial offers they will ever make to the provinces are based on their own unbalanced mind-set. The local councils know this, but also know it's the only cash available, so they take it because it's better than nothing (but not much). Hence we see vast sums committed to fantasy rail-based projects which will be of little interest or benefit to the vast majority of the residents.

It's time the provincial councils 'grew a pair' and told central government what it can do with it's ridiculous Hornby Train-set funding, then tell them what we really need and how much it will cost. Then get on with it - I thought that's what we elected you to do.