Yesterday’s BBC Panorama programme, entitled Train Fares: Taken for a Ride, while not quite up to their usual incisive standard of surgical reporting, provided a wealth of information about commuter travails in England and the soaring costs to those captive customers around any of their major cities. Although they did not film north of the border, the story here is substantially the same—geography is irrelevant: this is one case where the Scots and English should make common cause.
The programme interviewed a refreshingly frank Network Rail Chief Executive and tried to portray the complexity of major upgrades to the system, such as modernising Reading station while still allowing the Great Western lines that pass through it to operate. The net conclusion seemed to be that Britain’s main transport problem is that Network Rail wastes 30% of the money it is given; this was based on railways on the continent run some 30% cheaper and provide a better service.
Railways currently cost £11.4bn to run across Britain, with the state paying a £5.2bn subsidy to support the other £6.2bn revenue from passenger fares. Blame is often laid at the awkward privatisation system that the Tories invented in the 1980s where Train Operating companies lease trains from holding companies and then pay Network Rail to use their tracks. Blame gets shifted from one to another when services are disrupted: Network Rail has 300 staff engaged in explaining why such things are not their fault.
But even this Heath-Robinsonesque is not, in my opinion, the reason why our trains—despite a wheen of money being spent over 20 years and some undoubted improvements—fall short in the public’s view. It is because we don’t have a real transport system, nor has either government or those running all our trains and buses grasped that key fact.
Because people don’t usually want to travel from station to station. They really want to travel from home to work or to the supermarket or to Aunt Maisie’s with the kids. Britain is simply not set up for that. Whereas some urban areas—notably London with its Oyster system—do half-understand this, most places have their transport co-ordinated by bureaucrats in council transport departments who are more concerned with complying with bus deregulation and monopoly laws than seizing people by the lapels and driving them to make an integrated system. Even in London, little thought goes into bus vs tube vs train—they all effectively compete.
Making a system that works is not rocket science. Getting around in Amsterdam or Munich or even Majorca is stunningly easy because they link up. Munich may have the most sensible public transport on the planet. Radiating suburban trains (S-bahn) all flow through the city centre E-W and are augmented by underground (U-bahn) flowing N-S. Where there is neither, for heavy traffic street cars/trams feed into S/U-bahn stations and for lighter traffic buses. Transfers between are fast and waiting times short because it’s all planned to work together. Best of all you use the same ticket for everything.
As a result, European cities tend not to be blighted by the car to the extent that UK ones are. So many people find the public transport so easy and cheap that the major investment made is a fraction of what it would have taken to transport a similar number of people in and around the city in cars and at a fraction of damage to the infrastructure and quality of life. Neither Amsterdam nor Munich have motorways inside the city and so are not blighted as Glasgow is from the cathedral to Charing Cross. But both have multi-lane ring roads that make Edinburgh’s A720 look like a farm track.
Even in relatively simple transport patterns, such as we have in East Lothian, inefficiency and waste are the order of the day. We already have a y-shaped rail backbone in that ScotRail trains from North Berwick and Dunbar merge at Drem and run through four more stations into Waverley on an all-electric mini-network of modern class 380 trains. None of them go through to useful places like Edinburgh Park. And, because long-distance trains also serve Dunbar, ScotRail service there is patchy—there is no half-hourly service to Drem then hourly to the two termini. That would be too logical.
And then there are the buses. Most of our rural buses are First’s. They operate as if the trains did not exist because (they claim) they are not allowed to link with (First) ScotRail for fear of bringing in the Monopolies Commission. So the Route 124 from North Berwick parallels the railway all the way in to Waverley. But there are no buses to Leith or ERI or even QMU and the transfer to one is made worse because you must pay for each journey separately. And whoever sets First’s fares not only knows how to gouge but has some evil streak because they never charge £2 or £3 but it’s always £3.65 or some obscure figure that has seventeen people waiting in the rain while change is found. Even the Edinburgh-wide fare of £1.30 has a similar effect made worse by Lothian insisting on single-manning huge double-deckers so they are held at a stop while everyone pays.
If we were back in nineteen canteen when all journeys were short and direct, then our fragmented system might be fit for purpose. But we’re paying 21st century prices for this Victorian throwback that most foreign visitors find puzzling and customer unfriendly. What each city in Scotland needs is:
- a single transport authority co-ordinating all public transport services
- an integrated timetable of buses feeding train backbones
- an Oyster-type fare card system on all vehicles/station
It doesn’t look that difficult, does it? So, the sooner we get started unravelling this half-baked apology for a system that is costing us an arm and a leg and admit that our European neighbours are streets ahead of us, the better. That’s the only way we’ll get there from here.