the Disillusioned kid: Public Transport Ate My Life
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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Public Transport Ate My Life

I don't (can't? won't?) drive. Therefore if when traveling around the country to visit friends and family or to get to some demos or conferences I typically find myself using the trains to get there. This was the case over the last weekend and as a consequence I feel inspired to make a few comments on the state of the public transport system and the trains more specifically.

I still have a lingering fascination with trains; a hangover from my childhood. I also consider myself something of an environmentalist and understand the damage cars inflict on the planet. Unfortunately when these instincts impact with the reality of the rail system, they tend not to come of so well. It's quite hard to remain positive about the idea of train travel when there aren't enough seats on your train, which is running late anyway, and as a result you find yourself perching on a bin. For an hour and a half. As if that weren't bad enough, you apparently can't go directly from London, the UK's capital city, to Birmingham, the second city, on a bank holiday and on returning home I calculated that during my 5 hour journey I had been traveling at a breathtaking average speed of 34 miles an hour. All very impressive, I'm sure you'll agree.

There is a serious point to this, quite apart from my own irritation about the not inconsiderable chunk of my life lost to the rail system. Global warming is one of the most serious problems humanity will face over the coming century, much more serious that the threat from terrorism. There is no panacea which will miraculously save us from the problem which we have brought on ourselves, but a reduction in car usage would be a sensible and constructive step. The best way to achieve this is to encourage people to make greater use of public transport. Climate change network Rising Tide argue that we should seek a 90% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and have called for a 90% reduction in the price of public transport as a way of moving towards this. Reducing the price of public transport would certainly be a positive step, but we should also ensure that the system is reliable and convenient.

A few weeks ago I caught part of a programme on Channel 5 called something like "Ultimate Trains". You know the sort of thing, lots of big toys for the boys, all dripping with superlatives (safest, fastest, best etc.) and packed with detailed technical specifications. Anyway, this looked at the rail systems in various other countries, many of which were far better than our own. The French, for instance, have the TGV system which has specially built tracks and can reach hundreds of miles an hour. The German variation on this system is not only fast, but also safe, having only had one accident in its history. In Japan, they've even begun building Maglevs which operate using electromagnets and so do not actually make contact with the rails, allowing them to reach dizzying speeds. None of this is inconceivable in this country. We can apparently find the money to build roads all over the country, much to the chagrin of green campaigners. Why not develop a new rail infrastructure instead? This would surely not cost much more (the Maglev system, being a likely exception) and might actually go some way to reducing the proliferation of cars taking over the roads.

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