Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Dependent On Our Cars?

I often get into discussions with all sorts of people about "car dependency". I'm acutely aware of the need to make the public transport "offer" as good as it can be.
Working on both sides of the fence in the world of public transport helps me to see the issues from all sorts of angles. Sometimes, we need the big schemes, like the new Wolverhampton bus station. Other times, we need to make sure that the travelling public receives the very best we can offer, especially when things go wrong.
"Car dependency" is often a challenge to define. You could say that even I am "car dependent" - for when I'm on an early shift that begins at 5am, there's no public transport to get me to Stourbridge Junction, in order to drive the first train on the Shuttle. For people who work all sorts of strange hours, public transport often doesn't work for them. We can't expect public transport to be there at every moment around the clock. It isn't a personal taxi service. Public transport is about moving numbers of people around when demand is there. There is a debate to be had around "demand" - even one about "creating demand" too!
Hats off then, to the Campaign for Better Transport, who have created a report entitled the "Car Dependency Scorecard". It gathers research from all sorts of different areas and gives us something to get our teeth into! The main thrust of the document creates a "league table" of towns and cities that are least through to most "car dependent".
The least car-dependent areas are:
1. London
2. Brighton & Hove
3. Nottingham
At the bottom of the league are:
24= Colchester
24= Peterborough
26. Wigan
Reading the report throws up some strange conclusions, such as the average Londoner needing to spend only 2.5% of their weekly wages on a bus pass, car ownership in Nottingham is just 35%, 1 in 10 Colchester people can only access their place of work by car and in Wigan 60% of all commuting is done by car. The good and bad starkly laid out before us.
It is simple to ask "why"?
We know that London has excellent public transport, but it comes at a cost. In the example of our capital, you really do get what you pay for. But London is often seen as unique.
What is more curious, and fascinating is why, say, Brighton is so good, and Wigan bottom of the pile?
There is no simple answer, of course. But it is clear that the likes of Brighton & Hove, and the ever excellent Nottingham, have some kind of transport "gold" going on, whereas Colchester appears not.
Politics? Maybe. Investment? Or lack thereof? Definitely. Vision? It's worked in Nottingham. Whenever I'm in the East Midlands City, I try to work out why it's public transport is good. Yes, they have a tram - that's always a good start! But the buses are clean, efficient and well-presented. There is more than one operator, but here there is a battle of quality going on. You get the impression that, for example, Nottingham City Transport and TrentBarton don't want to be upstaged by the other. Win-Win for passengers.
The CBT report urges the reversal of recent cuts to bus service funding and more partnerships, which are bringing better services to the people of the West Midlands, for example.
When it comes to cycling and walking, Cambridge comes out on top. But perhaps surprisingly, Dudley reaches the top 5 as an alternative to the car. Birmingham, more unsurprisingly comes out bottom but one - beaten only to the wooden spoon by Gateshead. Still work to do to convince Brummies that 2 wheels are important.
When it comes to car use, however, Dudley sinks into the bottom 3. Here, well over a third of all children are driven to school. That comes as no surprise when the local roads are severely congested in the morning. Only Leeds and Milton Keynes are worse. In MK, 97% of people of driving age own a car. But is this surprising, given that the whole feel to this town is that it was designed around car use?
One example to give us hope is Southampton, which has been rising up the league. New partnerships in South Hampshire and significant project funding from the Better Bus Areas and Local Sustainable Transport Funds show what can can be achieved.
Dudley's problems are highlighted as it's relative lack of railway stations and the effect of the Merry Hill Centre - although major public transport improvements and bus priority are coming soon here. It suggests Bristol is being "contradictory" for both having good policies on travel plans, parking and a proposed workplace levy on parking to pay for better public transport, but also for progressing a long list of road schemes around the edge of the City. ("Induced traffic", it says, is a well-known consequence of road-building and widening).
All in all, it is an interesting publication that creates as many questions as it answers.
But it is clear that public transport needs to keep on improving - with the help of local authority partners - if it is to seriously challenge the damaging effects of "car dependency" with its twin negatives of congestion and pollution.

The Report - "Car Dependency Scorecard 2012 - The Top UK Cities for Sustainable Transport" can be downloaded as a .pdf from the Campaign for Better Transport's website at

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Bamboozled By The American Dream

When Leyton Orient's football match with Hartlepool was called off yesterday because the visitor's coach was stuck in gridlock on the M11, an American (now living in the UK) joined in the discussion on Eurosport's website. This is what he had to say, and it's a refreshing view from one of our US friends......

The real tragedy is that the Brits don't realise how they've been influenced–and ultimately bamboozled–by the "American dream" of car ownership. As a Yank who has lived for years in the UK, I've been amazed by friends' and colleagues' willingness to sit in traffic–often for hours, the above being a case in point) when the train will drop them off at the door with less headache and angst. The argument that trains are more expensive doesn't hold, because when you factor in the gas/petrol, car park fees, the value of one's time which can be spent on the train catching up on reading or sleeping…driving, unless at least three people are going at once, just ain't worth it. The UK doesn't have the roads to support the number of vehicles on them and, unlike the US, you have public transportation that actually works. I bought a Beemer when I arrived and shortly thereafter got rid of it.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Signalling The Future

You might consider it a faithful old Grandfather. Rail travellers passing through Stourbridge Junction might barely notice it. But from the halcyon days of steam to the air-conditioned trains of today, Stourbridge Middle Signal Box (to give it it's correct title - there used to be 3) has faithfully served the railway for 111 years. 
This weekend, however, the old faithful is finally being retired, as a new signalling system, controlled from Saltley in Birmingham, is commissioned. 
For the travelling public, nothing will change. Likely improvements will follow, with reductions in delays should problems occur. For rail enthusiasts - and people like me who work at Stourbridge Junction - it is the end of an era. 
Built in 1901 to accompany the "new" Stourbridge Junction station (the original "Stourbridge" station was slightly north of the original site), it was one of 3 (Stourbridge North closing in 1978 and Stourbridge South in 1973). It was responsible for an area just north of Hagley to Jewellery Quarter. 
Sister boxes at Blakedown, Kidderminster and Hartlebury are also closing as part of the scheme and the national roll-out will include closures in Walsall, Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Stafford in the coming years. Some 19th Century signal boxes, with mechanical levers, are listed, and will remain in situe, but Stourbridge isn't one that has listed status. It is understood that the building may remain however, under the ownership of Chiltern Railways, which has a maintenance facility and staff based at Stourbridge Junction, although this isn't confirmed at the time of writing. The name plate, attached to the side of the building, will be auctioned off for charity. 
It's all progress, of course, but, like all old buildings, it has such a fascinating history, both functional, and of course for the people that have worked there over the years. 
As someone who had to visit the signal box as part of my duties driving the Stourbridge Shuttle, it will be strange not to have to climb the steps first thing in the morning or last thing at night. The building has a special aura to it, and of course being an important working building played a vital role every day in the running of the local railway. 
Nationally, more than 800 signal boxes will be replaced by 14 new signalling centres, and we will be more reliant on heritage railways like the Severn Valley Railway to see images of our proud railway past, still in working condition. 
Of course we can't stop the tide of progress. And if it means more efficient railways, would we want to? 
But it was nonetheless a moment to pause for reflection after I finished my shift on the branch line last night, to the continuous achievements of signalers, who have worked continuously at Stourbridge Junction for 111 years, keeping our trains running safely and efficiently, from a wonderful old building. 

Please note that the photograph was taken with special permission. Access to the area from where the photograph was taken is not available to the general public. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The First or Last Time?

Ever since Victor Meldrew uttered the immortal phrase "I don't believe it", battle-weary Brits have borrowed it to express their incredulity at a situation. Or merely as a substitute to a sigh.
There's been much observing this week in the railway world at the news of FirstGroup's trumping of Virgin for the West Coast mainline franchise. Much of it centered around the Meldrew phrase - even seasoned commentators wondering just how the Barbie operation could promise the Earth to the passenger and the taxpayer more gold at the same time.
I recall the early days of rail privatisation back in the 90s. The railways had yet to hit their "golden" period. The West Coast mainline was as popular as the famous old BR sandwich. Virgin had "mission impossible" to achieve, but Branson and co were up for the challenge. In a strange combination of the man responsible for introducing the World to "Tubular Bells" and the rags-to-riches busman Sir Brian Souter, Virgin Trains helped to change the face of travel on the WCML. From 10m passengers per year in 97 to 31m today, tilting high-speed Pendolinos replacing stock inherited that was over 30 years old, and a 91% customer satisfaction rating, few would argue that Virgin Trains did good.
FirstGroup, however, are offering candy. More of it. 11 new 6-car electric trains. Major refurbishment of the current fleet. Free wi-fi. New routes from Blackpool (from 2013) and Shropshire to the capital (planned from 2016). Cuts of 15% for some "walk-up" fares. The promises roll on.
Tim O'Toole, FirstGroup's CEO, is a shrewd operator. Since taking control of the transport giant in turbulent economic times, he would appear to know what he's up to. The bus division - long seen as being in need of serious review - is far from being out of the woods in that respect. But the challenge is being taken up, and I believe that, in the long-term, First's buses will improve. The Group's rail operations - including the long-distance Great Western - have inevitably had their critics, but have settled down.
So why do we view the awarding of the WCML franchise to FirstGroup with such suspicion and, in some parts, outright derision?
Have we seen this all before, particularly on the other side of the country, with the East Coast? GNER handed the keys back early, followed by a similar tale of woe from National Express. Maybe we can't exactly see how First can deliver all of these promises of better services, given the ambitious promises of much higher premiums back to the taxpayer. Does Branson have a point, or is he merely a sore loser? Has Tim O'Toole a brilliant masterplan that can deliver over the next decade and beyond, or has he ambitiously overbid? Make no mistake, this is a gamble for both FirstGroup and the Department for Transport.
The incredibly complicated world of railway franchising is not for the faint-hearted. It has already resulted in the East Coast having to be retaken back into public control following the disastrous National Express tenure, although one could argue that the breaking of the economic crisis put paid to the over-ambitious aspirations of Richard Bowker's outfit at the time.
Nevertheless, this is arguably an even bigger risk for FirstGroup. Fail with this one and there will be nowhere to hide. Both for them and the DfT. It would be no consolation for Branson to shout "I told you so" from the sidelines. As for the Government, the DfT's reputation would be in tatters.
But many are predicting a fait accompli. Just because it's happened before doesn't mean it's necessarily going to happen again. Challenging? Definitely. Achievable? Quite possibly.
We must hope, ultimately for passenger's sake, that First and the DfT have got it right this time. Or it could be the last time we see such examples of ambitious bidding for such a big prize.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Team GB Transport - The Silent Heroes

Whilst all the hype, plaudits and glory went to Team GB's athletes, when we reflect on the wider outcome of of London 2012, a huge lesson to learn was the successful implementation of the "car free games".
This had never been achieved before. An event the size and importance of this - including all the logistics of moving competitors, officers and media - to be operated largely private car-free, was an enormous task - and years in the planning.
And, like Team GB itself, it was a spectacular success.
The booming tones of London Mayor Boris Johnson had been heard in railway stations across the land, imploring us to "get ahead of the games" (dot com) as London threatened to grind to a complete standstill for Games fortnight. In the end, everything ran mostly to plan, and the collective efforts of "Team GB Transport" can be viewed with a sense of pride. Britain, of all places, proved that life goes on without the car.
Records were broken not only on the track, but on the tube. On one day, usage was up 19%. The Docklands Light Railway carried 70% more than it's normal daily levels, and Boris's cycle hire was also a success - recording 1 million journeys for the first time.
Further afield, a good news story in Sheffield, home of the Queen of the heptathlon Jessica Ennis. First has reported encouraging passenger growth on some routes in the City as people took to the buses to go to watch events or to celebrate with a trip to the pub. Special fare offers on 8 key routes have proved so popular that the operator is extending them beyond the end of the Olympics into September and possibly beyond. Fare cuts aren't always the simple answer to get more bums on seats and revive routes, but, coupled with the spectacular success of the London Olympic transport experience, there are encouraging lessons to be learnt here.
If public transport can deliver - as it most certainly has in this example - it is a win-win for everyone. The over-riding lesson appears to be partnership working and co-operation. Again, this won't and can't work everywhere for all sorts of reasons, but it has always been the case that where different organisations share the same vision eg forward-thinking bus operators teaming up with like-minded local authorities, great things can happen.
Making public transport work seamlessly so that the public don't even think about it is the ultimate goal.
Director of Transport at the Olympic Delivery Authority Hugh Sumner was asked how he might define transport success at the games.
"As long as it says sport on the front pages and not transport, we will have done our jobs" he said.
And the job has been done. Efficiently, successfully and quietly.
So whilst we bask in the glory of a successful Olympics for Team GB, let's also raise a glass to everyone involved in "Team GB Transport" - the silent heroes!

some background information in this blog provided by Passenger Transport magazine