Thursday, October 06, 2005

Transport for England

Over at the Sharpener, John B has a post where he makes a Londoncentric plea for better public transport. I have to say, I find it hilarious when our friends from the capital start moaning about their transport system. Whenever I visit London, I'm amazed by how easy it is to travel around the city; getting to most places fairly quickly and fairly efficiently. What's more, it seems to me like there's normally a decent choice of services, too. It might not be the wonderfully integrated public transport systems of Berlin or Vienna. Then again, we don't have the traditions of city government that those places have. It's certainly far, far better than the public transport system in the rest of the country.

Whilst the image of the North as a wasteland is far too overstated, it is somewhere near the point when public transport is considered. I am fortunate that my home town is situated on the East Coast mainline, and so travelling to most of the country isn't too difficult. Trying to travel to other parts of the region by public transport, on the other hand, would be nigh on impossible. Certainly, for business purposes it would be completely and utterly impractical. To make a journey from Middlesbrough to Darlington, say - a journey of approximately half an hour by car - would take at least an hour by public transport. Going to somewhere more in the country would barely leave a businessman with time for more than one appointment in a day.

This becomes important when points are raised such as those in the comments, where it was suggested that congestion charging was a great idea. Not only has it had the environmental benefits of cutting down on car use, but it has provided extra money which can be ploughed back into the public transport system. I wholeheartedly agree with these principles. For them to work effectively, however, there needs to be a public transport system in place to begin with. Otherwise a city centre becomes a pedestrian's paradise.

That's nice, but ultimately a bad idea if you want any sort of city growth or city commerce. Even a park and ride system like that in Oxford drives many locals away from the town, because they are sick of being unable to park near the centre. (I think Durham may have some congestion charging scheme, but, if it does, this operates under two fairly important exceptions to the room - one, there is a car park that is just outside the zone, that leads you directly into the city centre; two, it has the cathedral, which is actually worth seeing, and certainly unique to the city.)

My point, therefore, is that whilst the rest of the country has crap public transport, it's a bit annoying to hear Londoners whinge and moan about a transport system that to me seems to be working fine. No, it's not super-modern, all-singing or all-dancing. I've travelled on many better systems. But, to a certain extent, as long as mass transit systems are cheap and quick, they are doing their job. Admittedly, I've never had to suffer the problems of delays on the line that you need to get home, although I have suffered at the hands of Virgin Trains trying to get home from university. And I know how frustrating that can be. But it's a hell of a lot less frustrating than actually being unable to make the journey in the first place.

When John B complains about money being spread around the regions, then he is actually missing the point (there are problems with the distribution of money, but that revolves around it being spent on the Celtic nations, and the North East, as usual, getting screwed over - and that's an entirely different point). The government should be promoting growth in regions other than the productive areas, not to mention providing those things like public healthcare and education that are, and should ever remain, a basic human right (there's another rant in that, too). That means giving some sort of public transport infrastructure to the areas that need it. In the North East, there isn't a choice as to whether to take the bus or the car. And with the environmentalists increasingly gaining the upper hand, the burden of taxation falls heavily on the North-eastern motorist. It's all very well talking about investing more money in the London transport network. That's fine, if it can pay for itself. If it can't, there are many areas of Britain that need the investment more desperately.