Archive for category Transport

Totally off the rails

Yesterday SNP Ministers published what must be the most bizarre proposals for rail services in Britain since the Tory privatisations went through.

If you just read the consultation’s blather-tastic introduction, it sounds great. We’re promised. “… an efficient railway, attuned to Scotland’s needs … coordinated, integrated … [with] passenger interests at its heart”, all harmonised with The Central Blather, i.e. “the Scottish Government’s Purpose of creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth.”

The reality is utterly different – a shopping list of essentially anti-passenger changes.

  1. Breaking up the franchise still further. The breakup of British Rail into franchises, ROSCOs and Railtrack (now Network Rail) didn’t work. Train companies competing with each other has complicated journey planning, made pricing opaque, and made it even harder to identify who’s responsible when something goes wrong.
    We are considering a range of options including separate franchises for sleeper services and other elements of the network such as inter-urban lines, for example the main Edinburgh – Glasgow line.” – 7, p4
    Even though, later on Ministers say “In our view the need for greater integration of activities is self-evident..” – 2.17, p16
  2.  Forcing travellers to and from England from points north of Edinburgh to change at Edinburgh. Because everyone loves changing trains unnecessarily, right? These are Scotland’s passenger miles, so they should be travelled on a train covered in a Saltire: is that really the logic?
    We are therefore considering whether services north of Edinburgh should be provided by the Scottish franchisee, with Edinburgh becoming an interchange hub for cross-border services in the east of the country in much the same way that Glasgow acts as a cross- border hub for the west of the country.” – 16, p5
    On some routes, longer-distance services could be replaced by a number of shorter-distance services terminating at an interchange station.” 5.16, p34
  3. Cutting sleeper services. These compete directly with domestic flights, and reducing them could hardly be more cack-handed if you want to cut short-haul flying. The threat is that more trains will stop at Edinburgh, and that one of the services could be removed. A passing reference to increasing financial support seems totally stranded in a sea of cuts.
    We are considering … a number of options for the future provision of sleeper services, for instance: removing or increasing financial support; and reducing the provision, either through removing the Highland or Lowland service, or by running the Lowland services to and from Edinburgh only.” – 19, p6
  4. Allowing trains to arrive later so fewer of them are officially “late”. Surely it’s obvious that increasing journey times purely to allow the operator look more reliable is not what passengers want. Why not penalise operators for running late trains instead? This gives them no incentive to make the rail network more competitive. And (see below) as an additional downside to this, we’ll get fewer trains.
    “… timetable adjustments could be made to increase the time journeys take which would allow more flexibility and thereby improve train performance levels, increasing the proportion of punctual trains. However increasing journey time may result in a reduction in the number of train services that can be provided.” – 4.8, p27
  5. More standing. First run too few trains on peak services and they’re too small. Solution? Allow them to run trains on those services so one in twenty-one people regularly have to stand, and make people stand for longer. No other option for intercity travel makes you stand.
    The carrying capacity could for example be set at 105% on certain types of service.“ 5.6, p31
    We will therefore be considering whether we should increase the time that passengers may have to stand and welcome views.” 5.7, p31
  6. Charging more for this worse service. Hilariously, the SNP are describing this Ryanair version of Scotrail as an “enhanced service”, and are consulting on an end to the inflation +1% cap on fare rises.
    These fares currently increase each January by RPI+1%..” – 6.21, p40 “… we have estimated that rail demand and revenue would continue to grow for fares increases of up to RPI+3%.” – 6.24, p40
    We are therefore considering whether those passengers receiving an enhanced service as a consequence of investment in that service should make a contribution through increased fares, rather than having all costs falling to the taxpayer.” – 6.25, p41
  7. Specifically hitting commuters with even higher increases. You know, the people who can’t travel at other times. But who can often afford to drive if it becomes uneconomic to use the train.
    We are considering increasing the differential [between peak and off-peak fares] in order to free capacity in the peak period to accommodate future growth.” – 6.27, p41
  8. Banning booze on trains. I don’t mind if people drink on trains – I mind if they’re disorderly and disruptive. Can we tackle the bad behaviour, not the drinking, please? Most of the problems are from people who are hammered before they even get on the train. Banning people drinking responsibly does nothing to improve that, and makes long distance travel less attractive to those of us who quite like a beer en route.
    … consideration is being given to whether there should be a ban on the consumption of alcohol on all trains in Scotland…” – 10.18, p59

Labour Ministers would never have had the cojones to use their power over the Scotrail franchise to reclaim it for the travelling public, but pre-2007 SNP commitments had given rise to some optimism. Even as recently as 2008, despite having extended the franchise without consultation earlier that year, SNP conference and Ministers backed public ownership.

In short, on rail, SNP rhetoric and SNP actions in government have long been out of line. But what’s driving this (pun intended)? The only plausible explanation for even considering inflicting this disastrous set of proposals on the travelling public is that we have a government which is determined to devalue public transport and which remains obsessed with saving money on it to shovel into roadbuilding schemes.

If you love your railway, or if you think (shock! horror!) it could be improved rather than treated like this, you have until 20th February to reply to this consultation, which I will do more in hope than expectation.

British trains – the tracks of my tears

Here’s a fact that might raise an eyebrow. Did you know that it is illegal to resell a train ticket?

I only realised this when I tried to sell a couple of tickets that I now don’t need on Gumtree (awesome website) and Gumtree quickly removed it, emailing me the reason why.

So I now have the hat-trick of money going into railways for seats that I won’t be sitting on in the space of a few short months: 

1 – Forgetting that I’d already printed out my ticket and then turning up at King’s Cross station without it costing me a £113 walk-on fare

2 – Absentmindedly getting on an East Coast train that left 30 minutes later than my own one costing me £146

3 – And now, this weekend, having to change my travel plans at the last minute and being unable to sell my ticket because the law, the law!, is working against me, costing me £68

It’s enough to drive a person to the reliably cheap Megabus or the guiltily dirty Easyjet. 

Of course, underpinning all of the three issues above is the fact that booking a train ticket on the day of travel is so maddeningly exorbitantly expensive. In the first two instances, the charge wouldn’t have been so stomach-churningly steep and in the third instance I wouldn’t have needed to gamble on booking a ticket at the reduced price before knowing for sure what my travel plans were going to be.

The really annoying thing is that this pricing structure that these railway companies are so insistent upon is actually subsidising richer people. The more organised amongst us tend to be the middle to upper classes. That might be a crass generalisation but it’s also true. Who is more likely to get those 12-week advance tickets? The web-savvy business-person or the elderly pensioner who only travels on trains on special occasions and has never heard of let alone appreciates how great the app is?

I don’t even want to think of the people with shallower pockets than I who have been hit even harder than the three examples above for simple human error. They are the ones that are subsidising the super-early-advance tickets and it is high time that it is stopped and fares were flattened out.

One answer, and it is an answer that Scotland is hopefully more amenable to, is to nationalise the railways. To make the rail service a system that works for the people and not a vessel to make profits. The philosophy could, and should, be grossed out across numerous institutions, power companies and banks making giant profits while people struggle to make ends meet sticks in the craw too, but the railways are a decent first step on that journey.

I daresay the SNP would be worried that it would come over as too leftie, too Socialist, if it proposed renationalising the railways and, to be fair, it wasn’t in their manifesto so there is no mandate anyway. However, Ken Macintosh has pleasingly put the policy forward in his campaign to lead Labour and, if he is successful in his charge to take over from Iain Gray, some pressure may be placed on the Scottish Government to look into it as an option.

Anyway, if anyone needs to get from Penrith to London today leaving 12noon and likes the idea of sitting in first class, don’t contact me. That’s right, don’t contact me.

High Speed Rail

Dominic Hinde is a Scottish Green Party Activist and a doctoral research student at the University of Edinburgh investigating the social capital of environment from a Scandinavian perspective. He is also Convenor of the Edinburgh Young Greens and a freelance journalist writing about the Nordic countries.

As you may have noticed, the respective governments in Edinburgh and London are not the best of friends. What with the SNP pushing the paradox of a simultaneously low and high carbon economy as magic bullet for our problems and the Westminster government struggling to understand how the economy works in the first place, the time might seem wrong for a sound piece of mutual common sense investment. Yet the royal wedding which would unite the two warring kingdoms is right under their noses – high speed rail.

Nothing says unity like a railway line, just look at China which is building high speed rail lines faster than anyone ever has before. If you glance through European Union literature on the continent’s economic infrastructure high speed trains are everywhere. Everywhere except Britain that is.

There is a pressing need to expand Britain’s general rail network already. Successive governments have boasted about how more people now use rail than at any time since the Second World War, which sounds inspiring until you realise that Britain’s population then was less than half of what it is today. Rail fares are extortionate for anybody who does not have the prescience to book a journey six months in advance, and many people choose to fly on the core routes from Glasgow and Edinburgh to any one of London’s five major aiports (soon to be six with the expansion of Southend) because of both price constraints and the fact that cheaper planes don’t fly more slowly.

We’ve been here before of course: in the early eighties when Britain was on the cusp of deploying one of the world’s most advanced passenger trains, the creatively named Advanced Passenger Train (APT), into service between Glasgow and London. It had the potential to reduce journey times to a very respectable four hours but the carpet was pulled from under the feet of British Rail by the Thatcher government; politicians were put off by bad publicity and the up front cost in an era where public infrastructure was seen as an attack on the rights of the individual and the taxpayer.

If you want to see what high speed Britain may have looked like take a trip to Crewe. The original APT has for the past twenty years sat on a disconnected piece of track at a railway museum and is available for children’s parties at very reasonable prices.

If the SNP are serious about kick starting the Scottish economy and the Westminster government want to keep hold of Scotland then high speed rail would be a sound economic and environmental investment. Even countries with far lower population densities such as Sweden and Spain are investing heavily in high speed rail. Earlier this year the Swedes for example showed some impressive vision and a more expansive grasp of economics by building a high speed line to connect the populous middle of the country with the coastal cities in the Bothnian gulf which were in dire need of infrastructure improvements.

The last few years have also seen the birth of ‘very high speed rail’, which surprisingly enough is a recognised technical term. The world record for conventional trains is 357 miles per hour, set last year by a specially adapted French TGV train. At that speed London to Edinburgh would take less than two hours centre to centre. Even at the average commercial speed of around 186 miles per hour it would be possible to make a journey from Edinburgh to Brussels in under five hours.

Neither is this experimental technology. The handling of the UK’s plans for high speed rail has so far been carried out with an air of apprehension over this great leap into the unknown. Just as a reminder of how ridiculous this reluctance to try something new is, the first high speed railway in the world, Japan’s Tokaido Shinkansen line, was built in 1964. Even the US. which has an almost willfull aversion to rail travel, is pumping money into high speed infrastructure. At the same time all Britain looks set to get is a connection between London and the far flung shores of Birmingham.

If the government in London is serious about making the UK work then these kind of infrastructure projects are desperately needed. With the right backing they can be energy smart, carbon efficient and accessible to the majority of the population. They could also do wonders for Scotland’s ability to interact economically with the European mainland and perhaps even more so with the huge cities of Northern England.

In eight to ten years time I want to be sipping a cappucino as I speed past Sheffield at two hundred miles an hour on my way to Paris. If the current lack of ambition in rail planning continues however it’ll more likely be a lukewarm cup of Nescafe on the way to Prestwick.

So you think you can dance?

One news story that caught my eye this morning was the SNP complaint that a young girl (who happens to have a Labour MSP as a relative) has been granted £9,000 a year in taxi fares in order to attend Dance School of Scotland in Knightswood throughout the year. The story struck me in light of yesterday’s discussion on Better Nation where Kate (SNP) wrote “Carping, sniping, empty posturing. That’s what the people rejected, so we’ll (Labour’ll) give them more of the same.” and Aidan Skinner (Lab) followed up with “The other thing is that there’s a developing and hardening narrative that the SNP are relentlessly positive, above the old, discredited politics and offering something new. They aren’t.”.

It didn’t take long for a bit of evidence to back up Aidan’s point.

I vividly remember the one kid in our school who wanted to do German and had to get a taxi out to Kilsyth every other day to make this happen (as we had no German teachers). The girl lost out on a good half an hour of her lunch break whenever these trips took place and had to sit on her own in a class of strangers. So, obviously, we thought she was mental. Now, of course, I’m 15 years older and wiser(?) and I’m in a relationship with someone who speaks three languages and I, luddite Brit that I am, only speak the one, the dearth of opportunities open to Scottish youngsters now abundantly clear.

A Scotland where we don’t aspire to be creative, cultural, sporty, healthy and knowledgeable because it’s too hard or it costs too much or it means ‘the other lot’ might win a few more votes than us is a terrible prospect for our nation to find itself in and, yet, hardly a day goes by that a headline doesn’t relate to something along those lines. How do so many other countries find it so easy to make all the pieces fall into place? Why is it so damn hard for Scots to better themselves and feel good about it, all at the same time?

So, it is disappointing to see the SNP acting in this way. North Lanarkshire council has a £3.7m fund to spend on moving children around to match potential with opportunities and this case of a young girl going to dance classes in Scotland’s only centre of excellence looks like a no-brainer decision to me. If the local councillors know that the family are multi-millionaires or the little girl can’t dance for toffee (unlikely if Scotland’s leading dance school is welcoming her in), then they should state their arguments accordingly but throwing mud in the hope that it sticks just because Labour happens to be distantly involved really does undermine any complaints that the Nats may have regarding any mudslinging coming their way, particularly involving Brian Souter.

I can’t see any problem with the taxpayer helping to make sure this girl gets the best chance to dance and, if the SNP wants to really have the positive vision for a better Scotland that it regularly claims to, I’d be surprised if they had any real problems with it either. But then, I would say that, because I really can’t dance for toffee.

Celebrating motorway closures.

M74 monsterToday the roads lobby, the construction industry, and their cheerleaders at Holyrood celebrate the opening of the M74 Northern Extension. They got what they and their forebears have argued for since the 1940s – another barren strip of tarmac cut right through Glasgow. They even got the chap who’s 20th in line to the throne along to show how important it is to The Firm: Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Disappointingly, not this one.

The scheme remains an overwhelmingly bad idea, whatever the cost and timescale, matters I’ll come back to shortly. The other arguments against the project – it won’t help with congestion, journey times or jobs, and it’ll be fantastically polluting – were accepted by the independent reporter, who ruled against it in 2005. To quote just one paragraph from that report:

11.100 Inevitably this recommendation will be subject to considerable criticism by those who support the road. The opposite recommendation has been considered with equal care. It is concluded that a recommendation to approve the construction of the road and the compulsory purchase of the affected properties would depend on setting aside the very serious disadvantages of the proposal in terms of objectives for the improvement of public transport and traffic reduction, CO2 emissions, the very serious environmental impacts along the route, and disregarding the potentially devastating effects on the local and wider economy due to the dislocation of existing businesses and services; and placing an unreasonable degree of confidence in employment forecasts that have not been demonstrated to be robust, and which at best would bring a relatively small number of new jobs to Scotland, the vast majority of the prospective new employment being transferred from other areas of Scotland, including other parts of the Clyde valley area. Even if a more positive view of the economic benefits were to be accepted, it would still be doubtful if this aspirational and uncertain prospect would justify the acceptance of so many negative effects.

Now even some former cheerleaders for the project have changed their tune, notably in an outstanding front page in the Scotsman yesterday. As Boris would say, this elevated motorway has already been demonstrated to be nonsense on stilts, literally, and Tom Greatrex should know better.

So for those of us who dream of a better urban Scotland, one that’s built to meet people’s needs not one that builds ever greater dependence on the car, this is a sad day. Yes – fighting it in court and through direct action delayed the scheme, and my only regret is that we didn’t do more.

SeoulBut there is, as the phrase has it, a better way. From Seoul to San Francisco, the urban motorways are coming out (thanks to Jonny for that link).

The road to the left is the 1970s Cheonggyecheon Highway through the heart of Seoul, and the river to the right is what replaced it in 2005.

The city got a new park (the river was under the motorway, believe it or not), lower traffic levels across the city, improvements in biodiversity, and better public transport.

The post above has three more examples, and this one talks about more discussions about motorway removals in Syracuse, Buffalo, Seattle, Louisville, Cleveland, New Orleans and Dallas.

That’s right. Dallas is ahead of us. We’re still building these 1960s barbarities, but Dallas, the world’s fossil fuel capital, is already talking about taking them out. Can you hear the music in your head?

The New Orleans example is also interesting. To quote the Architect’s Paper:

Decades before the hurricane, the construction of I-10 in the 1950s precipitated Treme’s decline from one of the city’s wealthiest African-American neighborhoods to an area with high poverty and vacancy rates.

And in Glasgow, both the M74 and the M8 have certainly damaged communities like Anderston Cross (h/t @geopoetic for that pic). Sooner or later, given the future shape of oil supply if nothing else, these job-killing, time-wasting and polluting roads will have to be taken down and the city rebuilt in the gaps that remain. We should treat that as an opportunity, and, depressing as it is that Ministers have wasted hundreds of millions of pounds on them, I look forward to the day that the ribbon is cut and the JCBs go in to undo all their hard work.