You can’t get there from here
We really don’t have much idea about transport planning in this country. I’m currently looking for work. I live four miles outside Leicester. 300 yards away, there’s a railway which carries aggregates from quarries to all parts of the country. The railway runs from Leicester to Burton-on-Trent. It lost its passenger service in 1967, but for years people have been trying to get it re-opened. The County Council, which deals with transport planning, takes the attitude of “We’re fed up of telling people there’s no demand for such a service.”
I do have a bus that runs from outside my front door into Leicester. But to connect to anywhere else by transferring to rail, I have a twenty-minute walk across town.
I have an interview for a job in Nottingham on Monday. At the moment, my car is playing up, so much so that I’m reluctant to go to this interview in it. (Motorway speeds are a problem.) I can get to the interview by public transport – drive into Leicester, get the train, 30 minutes or less to Nottingham, then a cross-platform change to the tram; I get off at the first stop and the interview venue is eight minutes away on foot. That’s fine. But if I get the job, I’d actually be working in a different building that isn’t accessible by public transport in the same way. And in any case, a £15 return fare off-peak for an interview in the middle of the day is one thing; the extra cost for peak-time fares, plus the timings, would make it more problematical for a commute.
I’m looking for work in a wide radius from Leicester, but it’s all based on the motorway network. Some places where I’m entertaining jobs can only be accessed by public transport with one or two changes. Others – say, Northampton or Milton Keynes – which are just on the hour away by car have much more convoluted journeys by rail because a number of rail links were closed in the Beeching era. And because IT jobs are based around attracting talent from a wide catchment area, IT companies aren’t in town centres but are usually on trading estates on the edge of towns, convenient to motorways and trunk roads. So even if I could get by train from Leicester to, say, Northampton (where I had an interview the other week), I’d still then have to get from the centre of town out to the trading estate – twenty minutes at least on a bus, if one exists, and more than likely a walk at each end of the journey because the stops aren’t convenient.
Municipal public transport was done away with by a previous Conservative government because they believed that it was not the job of councils to provide transport. Well, I disagree. It is the job of councils to facilitate and support businesses, and that must include some means of getting employees to work. This is what makes the country work. Is that not as important as defending the country against external threats?
I’m not advocating a return to nineteenth-century patterns of travel and transport. We have moved beyond that. But when you look at a successful economy – say, Germany, or Switzerland – and consider that it has a public transport system which has only started pruning some less economical routes in recent years through monetarist pressure from outside the country, the contrast could not be plainer. In such countries, transport interchanges actually allow interchange instead of there being a twenty minute walk from one to the other. Timetables are organised around virtually allowing ‘turn up and walk on board’ services for most local services. And interchangeable ticketing is the norm. (We have made some progress in that direction – my rail fare for Monday includes the tram fare – but it is not enough, especially when the rail system alone has a pricing and ticketing structure which verges on lunacy.)
Some people would object to the level of taxation that would be required to subsidise a more rationally-planned transport system. They would argue that they shouldn’t pay taxes for something they do not personally use. Well, I disagree. When I worked in central Birmingham., I ended up commuting by car because the railway system was overpriced and did not offer me convenient journeys. I used to leave work at 6pm to try to avoid the worst of the congestion; and even then, the first three miles or so out of the city centre were stop-start queuing. I would sit in that queue and think “How much worse would this be if everyone who is now on a train was also in a car, or on a bus?” And knowing how many people used rail services, the answer was “At least twice as bad.”
My car is thirteen years old, it is showing signs of body rot and it has a smoking habit that verges on the anti-social. I shall soon need to replace it (once I have a job). Which will mean taking out a loan (assuming I can get one). Would a rational, flexible public transport system increase my taxes by £2400 a year? Because that’s the likely cost of a loan in interest and repayments (back-of-envelope calculations, of course). The shift from public to private transport also meant a change in economic activity from the large-scale (major contracts for infrastructure and the corporate provision of vehicle fleets) to the smaller scale (the car as a big-ticket consumer purchase). Either way, I end up paying. Of course, the car gives me flexibility. Which is fine until suddenly, I don’t have it, either temporarily or in the longer term. If my car were to suddenly expire, instead of looking for work in a fifty-mile radius of Leicester, I’d be effectively restricted to Leicester city centre, and possibly Derby and Nottingham city centres (Nottingham would give me slightly more leeway because of their tram system, but not much).
(I did a two-week contract last month for a company in South Wigston. It was only twenty minutes away by car, skirting the edge of the Leicester city area. I could get to it by bus, but it would be seventy minutes each way by public transport as I would have to go into the city centre on one bus and then go out to site on another.)
Multiply this effect across the workforce, and suddenly you are back to a Victorian model of people living close to where they work – in some respects a good thing, say for the environment – but also suffering a closing down of the horizons. You are back to expecting people to mould their lives around their work, and knowing their place.
There are no easy answers to any of this. But the decision to change from public to private transport – and worse still, to tear up the infrastructure so that it couldn’t be reinstated if conditions or traffic patterns changed in future – must count as one of the major crimes against working people of the 20th century.