Thursday, June 19, 2008

Railways - a throwback.

I have spent fifteen hours in the last two days on an ill-fated business trip to Manchester.

In my work I have to travel a fair bit, in fact I drive about 20,000 miles annually on business - mostly conducting interviews for clients as part of my work as a head-hunter for industry.

Every so often I try and use the trains instead, partly because I keep getting bouts of green conscience and partly because people keep telling me I am 'mad' to drive all the time and that the train is less stressful.

And every time I do I am left with the same feelings of puzzlement. How could anyone think that a trip on Britains railways isn't more stressful than driving - or flying, even? Train times, platforms and routes were changed at will, with no warning and often no annoucements. My return train was delayed, then cancelled without apology or alternative being offered so my trip stretched from 5 hours (already an hour longer than driving) to seven and a half hours.

The entire infrastructure is ancient and out of date. The best any Government has managed to do at a cost of billions is slap paint over a few stations and smarten up the trains - it's like putting lipstick on a pig.

This trip yet again refreshed my long held view that the railways are an outmoded, inefficient, inflexible and pointless form of public transport.

We happily dumped the canals when a cheaper and more efficient form of transport arrived, so why did we maintain the railways when they were in turn superceded by the automobile and the plane?

Why do we insist on maintaining thousands and thousands of miles of ancient, crumbling Victorian infrastructure - the platforms and the rails dictate that in the 21st century we are still using heavy, steel wheeled train sets that are inefficient, expensive to run and terribly inflexible?

Most of the train sets operating today were built in the 1970's - just think how far the car has evolved since then; how much more efficient and economical thay are. Our trains are Austin Allegro's in a Toyota Prius age.

Steel wheels and ancient track signalling means massive gaps between trains for safety so while a motoroway is utilised all the time a rail line spends most of it's life empty, all that precious land wasted for 90% of the time.

Wouldn't it have made sense years ago to rip up the tracks and points, and instead lay tarmac roadways along the routes, and put large bendy-bus style road coaches on there that can overtake each other, turn round, stop quickly and where you could introduce real competition and flexibility?

Yes, we need public transport, perhaps more than ever before. But unless we are prepared to allow the public transport system to evolve properly we are doomed. Instead of letting the train take the strain we will continue to drive and let the earth take the strain instead.

And that would be much worse in the long run.

(The last time I suggested this -at a dinner- the audience went berserk with indignation. I am only partly serious but would love to hear a spirited defence of the train network from someone out there.)

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