Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Trains, planes and automobiles: the state of UK transport today

Yesterday that fool of a Transport Secretary Mr. Grayling announced that the Government had approved the Heathrow Extension plan. This involves building a third runway just to the north-west of the existing complex, in so doing essentially wiping three small villages off the map, and building a tunnel under the new runway for the (steadily increasing) M25 traffic flow. All this is expected to cost billions, of course, and take several years, but the Government hope to have it open for business by 2030. When complete, it will increase capacity by several million passengers per year, with many more flights to carry them, including more deaily to UK regional airports like Manchester, Glasgow and so on. Grayling says it is just the kind of capacity increase that 21st century Britain needs as it becomes again a great independent global trading nation (a clear sop to his beloved fellow Brexiteers).

I won’t cheer with excitement or indeed hold my breath waiting for it to move forward, given the whole argument over extending the airport has been going on for the better part of 20 years now. Governments Tory and Labour have proposed and cancelled plans for just such a project. There have been injunctions, court cases, public enquiries and consultations without number. Protest groups in the area have flourished, retreated and come again, depending on circumstance. In the meantime, the numbers of flights and passengers has grown year on year, until the airport is operating at something like 98% capacity, despite losing plenty of business to an expanding Gatwick and near continental hub airports like Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

Clearly, something needs doing to redress the balance, though I’m personally not convinced a third runway at Heathrow is the best option. For a start, the airport is in a heavily built up area, as you would expect as London itself continues to grow. Its proximity to the city is usually stated as a benefit, with excellent travel links by rail and underground into the city, and its close proximity to the major M25, M3 and M4 motorways. True up to a point, but the benefits are open to question – to be discussed in a minute. Against that, noise pollution and poor air quality are cited as reasons why the airport should not be developed further, and I have some sympathy with that argument. Breathing in aircraft (and for that matter petrol) fumes constantly is not good for anybody’s health, and disturbed sleep patterns, from whatever cause, are equally detrimental… a long term insomniac due to traffic noise outside my home and parenthood I know all about the effects of that!

So it seems to me extending Gatwick by building a second runway there might be a better solution, probably cheaper and easier as there are no motorways to bridge, and certainly with fewer local residents to mollify (although there are inevitably vociferous opponents to any development here as well).

Mr. Corbyn, predictably, is against the Heathrow plan, and proposes making better use of Stansted and Luton instead. From those comments alone, he makes himself look even more ridiculous than he normally does, and shows that he should get out more. Just today, a survey rated Stansted as the second worst airport in the world (only Kuwait was worse), and Luton is if anything a bigger disaster. I’ve used both within the last few months and they are appallingly overcrowded, with unhelpful and unpleasant staff, inefficient security procedures, limited seating areas and a dreadful transport infrastructure. In my view (never having been to Kuwait) I would actually consider Luton to be by far and away the worst in the world – it’s been a complete dog’s breakfast for the last couple of years and shows little sign of improving anytime soon. And before you ask, I use it at least half a dozen times a year visiting family, and Stansted perhaps three times a year for the same reason.

To put it in a nutshell, Britain’s airports have simply failed dismally in keeping pace with the increased travel demands. Successive Governments of all shades have equally failed to take the required but admittedly difficult decisions to do anything about it. This seems to me a perfect example of our political classes putting their own needs (i.e. work, and financial reward – honestly earned or fiddled out of expenses - and a possible knighthood and retirement home in the sun) before those of the country and its electorate.

Of course, it’s not only our air transport system that is in a state of disrepair – the entire transport infrastructure is broken, it seems to me, and starved of resources the same way as the health service, the police, the armed services, the fire service, the prison service…..the list seems endless. To focus on transport (since this is a travel blog, after all)……

Our road system is overcrowded. The M25 at rush hour often resembles a 120 mile circular car park. Come off the M25 onto any trunk road into London – the M1, M3 or M4, for instance, or the A2, A11 and A13, and things are no better. It’s not a new problem – 20 odd years ago I used to travel into the City from north Kent – barely 30 miles – either driving or by commuter coach, and it used take a minimum 2 hours each way. I’m told the situation is no better today – and my recent drives on those same roads on my weekend visits suggest there has been little if any improvements made since then (apart from resurfacing and basic maintenance, a seemingly endless requirement). So suggesting that the road links between Heathrow and London are an advantage and a good reason to approve the project seems to me a bit of an exaggeration.

From what I see on tv news bulletins and read in various news outlets, these kinds of problems are not restricted to London and the south east. They are happening the length and breadth of the country. We seem to have a broken (or at best severely damaged) road network to keep our broken air transport system company.

And what of the railways? Where can I start? Well, the botched timetable introduction this last couple of weeks seems as good a place as any. In a two week period well over 2000 trains have been cancelled on just two networks because of this. The operators blame late running engineering works that mean that a lot of new track and signalling was not ready to carry the hundreds of brand new trains that were due to run on them. The issue of there being too few drivers trained to operate this new rolling stock is played down or not mentioned at all (except by the unions, of course). In the meantime, while all the bickering and finger pointing is going on, travellers are stranded on platforms waiting for non-existent trains, missing job interviews, court appearances, hospital treatment and a whole range of other commitments, and with little hope of any compensation this side of Christmas. Mr. Grayling (yes, him again) expresses the Government’s sympathy and shared outrage with rail passengers, and institutes an enquiry so that “lessons can be learned”. Now where have we heard that before?

Oh yes – a month or so ago, when Grayling (sigh) stripped the east coast mainline train franchise from its operators because of incompetence and poor performance. It’s odd that he has failed to do the same to Northern Rail and Thameslink as punishment (if it can be called that) for the timetable fiasco, but there it is – he hasn’t, nor has he given any reason why not. When asked the question directly he has refused to answer. Which is typical of the man.

Again, the problems on Britain’s railways are nothing new. Arguably, they have been a mess since the Divine Margaret broke up British Rail back in the 1980s, selling operating franchises to the best bidders with seemingly few cast iron service guarantees (given the unremittingly shoddy services nationwide since then). Regular changes of franchise over the years have done little to improve things, and have ultimately led to a recently announced “root and branch review of rail fares” - badly needed where in a country of 60million people there are apparently some 50million different fare options to choose from. This review will, of course, take at least a year to come up with any proposals, which will then be studied by the Government, who may then reject them all sometime in 2020.

All I can say is that I’m glad I no longer have to rely on the British road and rail networks to get around!

Of course, all of this mess is there against the backdrop of Brexit (from which I and no doubt nearly everyone else in the country is suffering an element of fatigue).

Cast your mind back a couple of years to the Referendum Campaign. Our motley crew of Brexiteers (including our friend Grayling, a leading light in the Out campaign) were continually spouting off about “taking back control of our borders” and dashing out into this brave new world of independent trade deals with the rest of the world, who would be falling over themselves so sign on the dotted line to move goods quickly, easily and more profitably in and out of Great (emphasis on this word) Britain without any interference from the bad EU guys across the channel. This was all going to happen smoothly and quickly, within a two year period from triggering Article 50 to start the exit process.

Nobody seems to have mentioned (as far as I can remember anyway) the additional strain that would be placed on our country’s roads, railways and airports – at least until it was too late. In the event, a little over half the population voted to Leave (not half those eligible to vote: many people failed to do so, including the better part of 2million ex-pats, whose combined vote may have materially changed the decision – but that is in the past and can’t be changed now). Now, 18 months later, we are in the ludicrous situation where a minority Tory Government is being propped up by a handful (quite literally) of Ulster Unionists and preside over the process of extricating the country from the EU – when the Cabinet itself cannot agree on what it wants or what Brexit actually means. Farcically, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is in no better position, with Mr. Corbyn’s Labour Party members squabbling amongst themselves, just as split as the Tories, and completely unwilling to state clearly its own position (and lacking any credibility as an alternative Government in waiting). Of the minority parties, only the LibDem is committed to either cancelling Brexit or offering another membership referendum once the “deal” with the EU is finalised – but no-one takes them seriously any more, so that is not going to happen.

So it rather looks as though in March next, we will crash out of the EU with no deal, and plummet over the fabled cliff-edge into the waiting arms of WTO rules, which will no doubt have a major impact, either detrimental or the best thing ever depending on who you believe, and with no independent trade deals to replace those we enjoy as part of the EU.

And with a transport infrastructure that is laughably, painfully unfit for purpose.

Oh dear…….