Sunday, July 18, 2004

The endless bloody queue

Should anyone near you come out with that tired whinge about the trains being awful, bundle them into a car and force them to try rush hour in any one of Britain's urban sprawls. Best of all, make them try the Midlands where the roads are like worms fighting in a ditch. It is unbelievable that there are people who take one train a year and then complain when it arrives ten minutes late (as it always does for these whiners), yet every day they start out hours early to plunge themselves into a nightmare of queues, roadworks, stupid one-way systems: all of them spread so thinly apart that it takes them hours of their precious lives to get where a train could take all of them in fifteen minutes.

Each hour the traffic report comes on again: every major road in Britain clogged, forget getting home. Feverish efforts to redraw pigeon-like navigation plans: quick, get off this road and find the fastest way round the problem, but it will never work: killing yourself is the only way out. And yet instead of remembering the misery and hell of commuting by car, the times they were nearly reduced to tears by another ridiculous lane system, car-lovers talk about enjoying their own space and privacy that they couldn't possibly get sharing their journey with the ugly public transport users.
The horrific nature of traffic jams is what gives Britons an entirely different view of travel times to Americans, as Bill Bryson has pointed out in one of his books. If, US readers, you're bored of asking your local Englishman to say 'sugar', point to a map of their country and ask them how long it would take them to get from one side to t'other, which in your eyes would be about the same distance as a trip to the nearest candy store. Laugh as they suck their teeth and say 'ooh, about a day if you avoid that nasty three-year road improvement scheme near Birmingham'. But don't laugh too hard, pity them, for they are probably right.

But you can't blame car-users outside London for this mess, as some 'thinkers' are inclined to do from their Islington roost. Blame whoever decided to shut down all the train stations in most of the villages in Britain for  starters. Then blame the planners who made it impossible to cross urban areas by foot or bike with vast roundabouts. But having blamed and forgiven them, the government should start pouring money into public transport with all the missionary zeal that got Ken Livingston re-elected, to the surprise of all newspaper editors who have never tried the world's finest public transport system.
Every village should link to a town by rail, at least one train an hour but more if the demand is there. Run it like the tube - have some ambition! Everyone who can't walk to a train station should be able to get a bus and the buses will all zip along in their own lanes. All the basic tickets for these services should cost as much as the petrol would, with more expensive tickets available for those people who like to sit in first class and who's money should be taken whenever possible. Give them a croissant and smile at them a little brighter, for they will subsidise us all.
When, and only when, all these measures are in place it will be time to slam the car user. What the hell are you doing? Ask them as they continue to creep about in rush hour. There's perfectly nice trains you can get, say to them, handing them a newspaper and a set of headphones. Look, you can even listen to music on the new trains - take your laptop, do something productive, you will holler. Oh, personal space is it? You want to sit in your immensely powerful car crawling along at speeds the manufacturers never thought possible in such a finely engineered machine? Want to massage your toes on the pedals, do your make-up in the mirror and enjoy your Me time? Think that your children would be better protected in the vast enclosure of a people carrier than on a bus, talking to other children and catching their lice? Well, get over it or pay up. Everyone should be allowed a small allowance of free journeys into the rush-hour abyss for those times when you really need to carry stuff. All the rest of the time, you pay to queue. Car ownership would become cheaper for everyone, as there will fewer cars and no longer improvements to fund from crumbling roads, there will be less pollution to counter from crawling cars and everyone will be moving faster and more efficiently. The super-rich can pay for clear roads, but most of us will be on trains, reading: what a well-educated country we could become.

And I will never have to suffer driving through a rush hour again.

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