Tag Archives: transport

Abroad Thoughts From Home

Whenever I visit another capital city, be it Paris, Rome, wherever,
there is always a few hours when I get the feeling that something is
different. Something is strange.
Then you realise what it is. It is a normal working day, people are
going about their business. And there are not four or five people
within 18 inches of your face.
It is not normal, you know, this insane overcrowding we put up with in
London. Every single square foot of land built on, and costing an
obscene amount to buy or rent.
Every single piece of public transport full to capacity, and then
some. People queuing to queue to get on. Whole stations shut down
because the crowds are a threat to your safety.
Almost everyone goes around plugged into some device or other, to wall
off the sheer awfulness of what is going on around them.
No one else lives like this, in Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin or Rome, from
where we have just returned. You see very few people plugged into
their private space, because their surroundings are quite bearable.
This is the second thing you notice.
This is not normal, the way we live, but we have lived this way for so
long that we no longer realise this. Distance brings perspective.


On Southern Trains, And Brexit

Odd how unconnected ideas sometimes come together. We were travelling on Southern rail over the weekend. This is officially the worst rail franchise in the country, the operator having been given permission to scrap hundreds of services a day because there are not enough staff to man them – or because the staff are constantly pulling sickies as a form of industrial action. Depending on who you believe.

There is a long-running dispute with the union over removing the guards from the trains. You can wave to the new rolling stock all ready and standing at Three Bridges as you go past, assuming you can get onto the train in the first place.

Our train out was, needless to say, cancelled. We were told to change at Brighton – except that we were not allowed to use the next train there. Against the rules. Wait for the next one. More delay. It is fair to describe the attitude of Southern staff as unhelpful. This has been a long running scandal, with passengers stranded for hours day after day.

Go to the information desk to ask what you do now, and there are two policeman standing there ostentatiously. They are there to prevent trouble – there have been ugly scenes, demos, one man was recently escorted from Victoria Station, itself a warren of temporary barriers put up to combat the persistent overcrowding.

People are understandably angry. Lives are disrupted, for months on end now. The fares are enormous, and the recent change to the timetable is designed to prevent them from claiming refunds. We have the forces of law and order standing by to prevent protests getting out of hand, because those customers have no levers they can pull, no power to compel those who run the service to do so properly.

It is that sense of powerlessness, the sense that there is nothing people can do to change a system which is weighted in favour of those who sit in offices somewhere out of their reach and control their lives, which led to the recent regrettable referendum vote. People who feel they have no power will do anything.

Abusing disgruntled Southern staff is not the solution, but it is all they can do. Most of us have felt like that at some time or another. Equally pointless is a vote to leave an economic union they may barely understand, whose consequences are unknowable and probably self-destructive.

On Cars

I saw something quite remarkable on the street the other day which made me wonder at the sanity of some of my fellow Londoners.

My Tube station stands at a crossroads where two of the busiest roads in the borough intersect. There is one of those yellow cross-hatched grids that you are not supposed to enter unless you have a clear exit.

A car crossing this got stuck half way in and half way out. The lights changed. Between his front bonnet and a lorry stationary in front of him – the traffic was, as ever, hellish – was a gap of about five feet.

The green light came on telling pedestrians to cross, and a number began to, quite reasonably, using the gap between the car and the lorry.

The man in the car – and it was a man – put it into gear and drove slowly towards them, forcing them to scatter but thereby exiting the yellow grid. Quite deliberately. One of those crossing was a woman with a pushchair.

Everyone managed to get out of the way safely. I looked at the driver, through the side window. He looked at me, impassively.

How angry do you have to be to drive deliberately at a group of pedestrians who happen to be in your way?

On The Tube, Again

There was a fight on my Tube train the other day. At 8.30 in the morning. “Stop f-ing pushing me!” “Don’t swear at me!” No actual fisticuffs, though, because the train was too crowded for anyone to raise their hands.

Someone had got on and perforce invaded someone else’s personal space. Happens all the time, except generally without the swearing. Generally. There was a time when Londoners endured the daily commute with a degree of stoicism, even good humour.

My impression is that the mood is getting darker. Hence those unwilling to relinquish their seats to someone less able to stand, as I have written before. People’s patience is running out, because it is getting just too bad to be humorous about.

There was a crush at Stratford station the other week, and some commuters reportedly trampled. In such cases it is hard for the authorities to know what to do – keep the station open and let people leave and enter, or close it and trap them if there are no trains to board.

Stations are increasingly having to be closed because of dangerous overcrowding anyway. At mine, passengers’ entry through the barriers is rigorously rationed to prevent them piling up on the platform.

My fear, and it is a genuine one, is that there will one day soon be some awful Heysel Stadium-type disaster, which will leave the authorities with some difficult decisions.

In the early Noughties, there were a series of overground rail crashes, the latest at Potters Bar, after which it was apparent much of the network was not safe. There was weeks of disruption, but at least the problems could be fixed. Not true on the Tube, because we have been adding passenger numbers by about 3 per cent a year without increasing capacity. Like London’s insane property market, this cannot go on forever.

The only solution is more rigorous control of station entry, which means your journey, in the words of those regular warning announcements, “may take a little longer than usual”. As you queue outside in your hundreds.

All this is down to the belief, on the part of Boris Johnson and others, that every person persuaded to come to London to work is a testament to the capital’s economic vibrancy and growth. To which I would point out that some of the most vibrant, fast-growing cities on earth are known for a dismal quality of life and transport problems beyond even our imagining. Think of the polluted, traffic choked megalopolises of China and India.

I suspect there are plenty of Londoners who would swap a small degree of that vibrancy for a bit more space on the Tube and slightly less insane house prices. I suspect there are plenty of parts of the country that would settle for the same bargain in reverse.

I just don’t see how this can happen.

On Generation Selfish

This is a depressingly familiar scenario. I am sitting on the Tube, when a heavily pregnant woman gets on and stands several seats away. The rest of those seated are healthy-looking 20-somethings. They are suddenly even more obsessed than usual with their smartphones.

Not one moves, including the two in nearby priority seats, which are clearly labelled as for the infirm and those less able to stand. I get up and offer my seat. She sits down gratefully.

At this stage I normally say something loudly like, I expect all these people are far too tired to get up, even if they are half my age. This is ignored – those smartphones get even closer attention.

What is wrong with these people? Two thoughts. One, the conditions on public transport are now so horrible, so overcrowded, that in their view it’s everyone for themselves.

Two, that entire generation is irredeemably selfish, having been brought up in the belief that they are entitled to anything they can grab, and sod everyone else. They’re terribly concerned about global warming, or homophobia, or institutional racism, but unable to consider offering a simple, everyday courtesy to someone more in need than them.

Generation Selfish, then.

On Tube Announcements

There is a special corner of Hell reserved for whoever it was first decided to automate those passenger information messages on the Tube and on trains. This meant that at the push of a button we could be reminded not to leave luggage unattended, to report any suspicious objects, CCTV is in use on this train, etc, etc.

This means they can be played over and over with no effort on the part of the staff. And they are. Every one and a half minutes, on average. On a scale of irritation levels, about up with “Your call is important to us…”

Now they have started up again with advice to carry a bottle of water in the hot weather. And not to run for the Tube train. And be careful because the floors may be uneven. “Please stand well back from the platform edge, especially when using your mobile phones.” Doubtless as winter draws in we will be advised to wrap up warm and wear our wellies. This is infantilising the customers, treating them like children who have to be nagged and nannied, who are incapable of looking after themselves.

Travelling on the Tube is bad enough already.

On Calais

We should not be terribly surprised at the scenes of chaos at Calais, as strikers disrupt links to the UK and the authorities stand by, either impotent or uncaring. The French have always had an ambivalent attitude to industrial action, if it is seen as defending French jobs.

Some years ago, and this is a true story, French hauliers were blockading the Channel ports in support of…  or possibly in opposition to…  I can’t actually remember? British lamb exports? Probably.

Anyway, the time came for the hauliers to depart for their traditional two-hour lunch. Who would safeguard their lorries, parked across the road to prevent traffic getting in or out?

No problem. The police stepped in and baby-sat the lorries so no harm could come to them during that prolonged lunch.

What a country.

On Heathrow, And Skype

Time was, about a quarter of a century ago, that if I wanted to interview a captain of industry I got into a taxi, zipped across town and met him or her face to face. Today I use a telephone.

There are two reasons for this. One, the London streets are so clogged that it makes no sense to waste an hour or more travelling to and from such meetings. Second, like everyone else, my workload has expanded to a stage that, even were the roads clear, it still wouldn’t make any sense. Anyway, it is why they invented the telephone.

Now we are told that one of the reasons we need an extra runway at Heathrow, or Gatwick, or as some suggest both, is to allow a free flow of business visitors into the UK. To hold meetings. We are already building the massive Crossrail scheme to move them from their eyries in Canary Wharf to Heathrow easily.

Now we need to build more airport capacity in some of the most crowded real estate on the globe to facilitate such meetings, or the City/UK industry/tourism/life as we know it will become uncompetitive. Meanwhile turfing thousands out of their homes and making the lives of thousands more under the flight paths even more miserable.

This is even as business is increasingly being conducted via improved IT and telecoms connectivity on Skype and the like. We are busy building stables for more horses just as the internal combustion engine is being invented.

The best solution is Boris Island, shifting the whole shebang half-way towards the Netherlands and making the Dutch bear some of the pain. Except that, as we have learnt from Network Rail’s £38 billion five-year plan to drag the rail network out of the Victorian era, we don’t do big engineering projects.

We are too busy turning out graduates with degrees in marketing. Or media studies. Or golf course management. Engineering requires discipline and a degree of skill at mathematics and science, which does not come easily to the average school leaver. (As does medicine, except that this is much more lucrative. And we still don’t have enough doctors.)

So we have a shortage of skilled engineers. In a free market, this should stimulate higher wages and attract more students. Except see the above.

HS2 has no chance whatsoever, then. Thank God. And expect more airport capacity to arrive, given our knack for political vacillation, planning delays, nimbyism, project management screw-ups and IT incompetence, by about 2040. When it will probably be technologically obsolete.

On De Rothschild, And Transport

In one of the least appropriate interventions since Marie Antoinette opined on the relative merits of Mr Kipling cakes and a humble baguette, billionaire banker Sir Evelyn de Rothschild has been giving us his views on the London transport system.

Those views, as contained in the bankers’ house journal the Financial Times, can be summarised as the sheer frustration of trying to get his limo through streets packed out with other people.

Apparently without irony, he suggested that part of the problem is the large number of empty buses, and those “grinding their way pointlessly” around the 19,500 bus stops. He spotted six on the Strand once. (The reason buses are empty is that they are either heading to the end of their route or, on a road so relentlessly jam-packed as the Strand, everyone has got out and walked.)

He doesn’t like Boris bikes. (Me neither, but on safety grounds.) He doesn’t like road works. (Who does?) He thinks big lorries should only deliver at night. (Fair point.) He thinks there are too many private hire firms, rather than black cabs.

At no stage, unbelievably, does our banker address what most people see as the main problem with the capital’s transport, the obscenely overcrowded and unreliable suburban mainline and Tube services. Perhaps he has never been on one.

De Rothschild’s de haut en bas musings on transport, as viewed apparently from the rear windows of his limo, immediately generated derisive comment on the FT site. Some even wondered if this was an attempt by this old Harrovian to make Boris Johnson, the old Etonian mayor, look rather less posh and out of touch. Too cunning, I fear.

As it happens, I have a proposal that might suit both de Rothschild and most of the travelling public. Ban private cars from the centre of London. Better still, allow them in but increase the congestion charge to, what shall we say, £5,000 a day. That way bankers who can afford it can contribute appropriately. The merely wealthy can take a cab. The rest of us can get back onto those empty buses.

Transport Chaos, Again

There are no buses operating to take me to my railway station in the morning. The service has been suspended for more than a week now to allow for roadworks. Except that the roadworks are nowhere to be seen. There are still no buses.

So I walk to the station and get on the Tube. There are no Tubes. The power has been switched off. So I go to get the train instead. There are no trains. All platforms have been closed, train and Tube, because someone has jumped in front of a train.

And spread themselves across eight or ten platforms?

I ask the uniformed woman who is preventing people getting onto the train platform to confirm that today there are no buses, no trains and no Tube. She starts screaming hysterically at me, it’s not my fault, it’s not my fault.

I decide to leave the scene quickly. You never know what you might be accused of. Safer not to engage.

I manage to get on a bus that is heading to the other tube station. It stays motionless. There is a woman with a buggy who will not pay her fare. “This bus is not leaving until the woman with the buggy pays her fare.”

She is talking on her mobile phone, ignoring requests to pay. The bus finally starts off.

The Tube train goes about three stops and then lurches to a sudden halt. “If people do not stop leaning against the doors, this train will be taken out of service,” the driver warns.

They are leaning against the doors because it is obscenely overcrowded. They have no choice. This is because it is the only form of public transport now operating in south west London.

Everyone shrugs. What can you do? This is a developed, industrialised nation. Billlions and billions have been poured into our transport system in recent years, and still none of it works with the sort of reliability we could reasonably expect for that investment. We put up with it because we are powerless. Another great start to the week.