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This is the age of the train…

Remember those ads with Jimmy Saville in full child-molestation mode?

So they are still on about building a railway from London to Birmingham. Or specifically from Euston to New Street stations. This matters. I used to live in “London” (specifically in Mile End – which even if it is Zone 2 is probs two tube trips from Euston) and I have relatives in West Bromwich. If I still lived in London (I now live in Cheshire) and wanted to visit my cousins I might use the service but then whatever time-saving it has (and for 34 billion quid I want an away day by the methane seas of Titan rather than a can of lager with Les – much though I like Les – but 34 billion!) is nixxed by navigating the tube and then getting whatever contrivance of public transport exists between New Street and West Brom. I might as well walk. I really might as well take the car. Because dear reader unlike rail-running white elephants cars take you doorstep to doorstep. That indeed is why so many of us have them.

Seriously. If you consider the fixed costs of car ownership (major capital expenditure on the motor itself and then there is road tax and insurance and all the rest) any car owner might as well get the most out of the vehicle they can! There is frankly no point in spending several grand a year for it to look pretty on the drive and then take the bus. And it is the fixed nature of the costs which is the issue. If, as governments bleat about periodically, and they do, reduce those and people will be more likely to get on the bus.

But there is another thing in the mix that I hinted at. It’s hub and spoke vs. point to point. I can easily get into central Manchester by any number of means. Cross-town is harder unless you have a car. Same as seeing my cousin Les in West Brom. I might be whisked from London (assuming I still lived there – which I don’t) at hair-wrenching velocity but then I am on the bus or buses for the remainder (or Les picks me up in his car from the station). And nobody really thinks of transport in terms of how fast one portion is. For example. I once took an excursion from Newcastle to Atlanta (not Hartsfield airport but an apartment in Buckhead on the other side of a town the size of Greater Manchester). The flight was from Gatwick so this meant 9 hours on a DC-10 and 10 hours on the National Express to get to Gatwick. And then MARTA and a bus. I didn’t feel 100% normal by the end. The flat had a life-size cardboard cut-out of Han Solo in the lobby and I saluted it. First time I’d seen my (then) girlfriend for six months and well, considering all I’ve said, I was a bit excited about the trip so couldn’t sleep the night before (if “the night before” has any meaning in the context). I was even beginning to imagine Americans drove on the same side of the road as normal folks. I had been up for nearly 60 hours and felt somewhat “unusual”.

It puzzles me – it really does – that via car-tax (originally “road-fund” and hypothecated for road-building – yeah, right!) and such measures government wants to get us on buses… If they really wanted a renaissance of public transport they would cut the fixed cost of ownership of a car and run the old train services axed in the ’60s by Dr Beeching. Because it isn’t warp-speed for part of the way that matters.

It once took me as long to get from Levenshulme to Sale as it did from Manchester Airport to Malta. That is not so much an argument in favour of the car or A319 as one for Shank’s pony.

There used to be cross-town rail lines in Manchester. The circular (not radial) station at Levenshulme is now a shop called “Repo TV” and the track is grubbed-up and a cycle-path.

The council call this progress because it means appalling kids can chuck rocks at me and my wife from scooters. And they did. And they broke her nose and did a number on my ribs. the thing with ribs is they can’t really immobilise them to prevent pain because the alternative to engaging in gaseous exchange is death. It’s called breathing. It is somewhat vital.

I once raced my wife on roller-blades down it all the way to the Sainsburys in Student-land. I won of course but took some tumbles along the way. What I call it is almost exactly what I said during those tumbles and cannot exactly be reproduced in ASCII. Geordie cuss-words not exactly being easily coded in seven bits. Well, not in the sense as such.

15 Comments

  1. Paul Lockett says:

    “Seriously. If you consider the fixed costs of car ownership (major capital expenditure on the motor itself and then there is road tax and insurance and all the rest) any car owner might as well get the most out of the vehicle they can! There is frankly no point in spending several grand a year for it to look pretty on the drive and then take the bus. And it is the fixed nature of the costs which is the issue. If, as governments bleat about periodically, and they do, reduce those and people will be more likely to get on the bus.”

    I don’t see the logic in that.

    Once you’ve got the car, it’s a sunk cost, so on a journey by journey basis, the only cost which is relevant is the difference between the variable costs of the two journeys; if a car journey is going to cost me £50 in fuel and a comparable train journey, will cost me £20, the amount if spent before that to buy, tax and insure my car is going to be of no relevance.

    In terms of fixed costs, increasing them seems like the only logical step to take if you want to push people to take the bus, because that will tend to push people to not own a car. Once the fixed costs are paid, they become irrelevant to individual journey choices.

    As for the Fallowfield loop, it’s not the prettiest cycle track in the world, but I have used it, whereas I don’t foresee any reason why I’d use a train to go to Levenshulme, so, just based on my experience, I’m not sure that reverting it to rail would make it more useful.

  2. NickM says:

    “because that will tend to push people to not own a car”

    But my entire point is that for so many journeys a car is the only realistic way. And that means the fixed costs of a car are there so given that you might as well use it. That was my point.

    The alternative is the next time I see my mother I get the train from where I live to Piccadilly (and I am lucky I still have a station) then change at York (probs – there are some through services) and this will cost more. Not least because (as I hinted) my mother doesn’t live in Newcastle. So that means a bus and a mile walk or a taxi or my brother picking me up and if either of the final two options aren’t a car I am a Belgian.

  3. Paul Lockett says:

    “But my entire point is that for so many journeys a car is the only realistic way. And that means the fixed costs of a car are there so given that you might as well use it. That was my point.”

    If a car is the only realistic option, then the fixed costs are broadly irrelevant anyway. If you have a car then you will use the car, so the only thing which would stop you using a car is if you didn’t have one, which would be more likely if the fixed costs of owning a car were higher.

  4. MrsNick says:

    Paul,
    So you are against car ownership?

    Anyway. My point was not that not owning a car prevents the journey but makes it less likely (I could walk to Aberdeen If I really wanted to). In much the same way that the existence of the Boeing 767 made it more likely for me to go to America than it did for my Grandad in his youth on a Lockheed Super-Connie.

  5. fake says:

    You know what, I don’t even have a car, I live in a small town with shit public transport.

    And I think this is a complete waste of money.

    I ride a bike rather than have a car to save money, I don’t save that money so that it can be taken in tax to pay for a train.

  6. Paul Lockett says:

    “So you are against car ownership?”

    No, I’m not and I’ve said nothing that would lead anybody to reasonably conclude that.

    As a reminder, my comments were in response to comments such as:

    “If they really wanted a renaissance of public transport they would cut the fixed cost of ownership of a car”

    and

    “If, as governments bleat about periodically, and they do, reduce those and people will be more likely to get on the bus.”

    Those comments were about the impact on bus use of the fixed costs of car ownership. It was a statement of what was perceived to be the economic effects. I didn’t assume that those statements reflected a preference for increased bus use or decreased car use. Nor should anybody assume the same of my comments.

    I’m saying that X implies Y. That doesn’t mean that I want Y.

    In terms of what my opinion is, I have no preference for a specific mode of transport. I want transport to be efficient in its use of fossil fuels, because they are finite resources. In that respect, trains and buses are good options when lots of people are moving between two points, but I’d rather see a private car or taxi being used if the alternative is a bus or a train with hardly anybody on it.

  7. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    Given carte blance and this much cash, I could fix transport issues for ever more, or at least in my lifetime.

    Lesson the first, it is expensive to run fixed wheel vehicles on strands of metal, but when the concept was forst invented, no better option existed. Lesson the second, that is no longer the case.

    So, far from building more, tear up all the railways and build wholly private roads. If anyone is that concerned about public transport, run coaches who could actually compete on the same road.

  8. NickM says:

    Paul,
    OK, but for good or ill do you see my point about fixed costs?

    SAOT,
    I dunno. Rail has it’s uses. And frankly if you lay tarmac where the lines are you get a B road if you are lucky. As to private roads. I have to part from doctrinaire libertarianism here. Until there is a cheap, simple GPS based way of charging it would be nightmarish. Moreover it is difficult to see how we would realistically benefit from competition. Would I seriously have a choice in going to Leeds from Manchester as to Dave’s M62 or Bob’s M62?

    Oh and a puzzle. If we ignore “pleasure routes” and heritage steam railways and such can anyone name me the only railway system in England that runs at a profit? It surprised me.

  9. JQ says:

    You do have a point but it can work both ways. The first decision is whether to get a car or not. This depends on your regular journeys. If your living and working situation is amenable to a rail commute, you might not bother getting a car. (This includes things like time wasted in traffic, and if you want to work or read a book on the train, whether you want to concentrate on not being hit by trucks, or not getting pickpocketed by some opportunist fare dodger.)

    Since you would have a season ticket, you are more likely to take the train on your one-off trips rather than renting or borrowing a car. Similarly, if you have decided to get a car, then your point is true that you might as well use it, but there are still things to think about. If you live outside a bus stop, and you need to go to the bank for 10 minutes but nowhere else, why not take the bus to the bank and back, rather than wasting time and fuel looking for a parking space?

  10. Ian B says:

    This one’s a difficult one for libertarians, roads I mean. Because roads, or rights of way, tracks, what have you, have really always been public goods, or unowned goods. It’s not like they’re some recent socialist conspiracy. Once the Romans had put down the cobbles, anyone could ride their donkey along it. I think there’s a very strong “natural” expectation in people that you should have free access to the means of getting from A to B.

    Of course in the old days they didn’t need tarmacing and traffic lighting (and street lighting) and all that crap. But following doctrinaire libertarianism, you’d end up with charging people to walk down the pavement to their mate’s house, and that seems kind of batshit.

    Libertaran as I am, I have a belief in some kind of “public square”, and that is the place where liberty really counts in many respects. I’m not entirely convinced by arguments that shuffle public liberties under the carpet by privatising everything, so that we escape the problem of the State curtailing your right to stand on a box shouting “down with the King” in the marketplace, by privatising the marketplace and having the owners of the market put you in a private jail for standing on a box shouting, “Down with MarketCorp PLC!”.

    I’m not putting this very well. I’m just saying that I appreciate the economic arguments for charging for private roads, but it doesn’t seem to get us any closer to liberty, and I think most people would object to paying for them on the not unreasonable precedent that they never have done in the past.

  11. NickM says:

    Ian,
    I thought you put it very well. The point is we could take a staggering number of things into the private sphere before we even looked at roads. And, yes, any rational society has to have public spaces. One way or another. I am the warden of a religious building with extensive grounds. I’m happy with the local kids playing here as long as they don’t make a mess because they are good kids and I’m not Wilde’s selfish giant.

  12. RAB says:

    I think you’ll find that there were plenty of Toll Roads after the Romans left Ian, and they caused an awful lot of unrest.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_Riots

    As to trains and buses, if they were actually going from where I am and going where I want to get to, then maybe I would consider using them, but they never bloody are are they?

    And the cost is bleeding eye-watering! I just checked the price for trains and buses from Bristol to Bath. The train costs over twenty quid for a single, a journey which takes 11 minutes! The bus is about 20 quid for a return and takes over an hour! In the car, we can do the journey in 20 mins door to fuckin door and two quid for the parking having used fuck all petrol. People must be nuts to use public transport.

  13. Sam Duncan says:

    But Ian, privately-owned roads aren’t a new idea either. The main road near me was built by the Great Western Turnpike Company in the mid-19th century. There was a toll. And in the side streets nearby, my dad actually recalls when the local council came to him and the local residents offering to maintain them in exchange for ownership: it was less than 40 years ago (a few held out until well into my own memory). You can have a legal right of way without the government actually owning it.

    There’s a difference here between trunk roads (and motorways) and side streets: the former have to charge for maintenance as they only exist as routes between two points – they’re businesses providing a service – but people who own the street outside their homes or businesses maintain them for the same reasons they maintain the rest of their property: pride, their own use, a sense of responsibility. The fact that others can pass through part of that property by right is pretty incidental.

    You’re right of course about the “public square”, but there’s nothing in this that precludes that. Apart from anything else, the streets outside the few remaining government buildings would automatically be publicly-owned. And there’s nothing stopping the government buying land to be set-aside as public space. (Which, as the government grew over the last century-and-a-half, is exactly what happened.)

    As for competition… well, no, you might not choose between two motorways, but you would choose between the motorway, the train, air, or even by-roads. I don’t think that’s much of an argument, to be honest.

    Nick’s question: The DLR? Very low staff overheads, with no drivers and unmanned stations. As far as I know, the only inter-city rail system in the world that runs at a profit is Japan. Mind you, I read that a while back; things may be different now.

  14. NickM says:

    Not the DLR, quite the opposite.

  15. dot24two says:

    Chiltern line?

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