Yesterday I was pencilled in for a meeting in Docklands, which, if you’re unfamiliar with the nation’s capital, is in East London.
As our office is based in Kingston-upon-Thames, in the south-western-most corner of London, I assumed without really thinking about it that I would be getting the train.
It’s an interesting assumption to make when you think about it. Successive mayors and vast swathes of professional moaners have been insisting for a while now that we should all be using public transport and, based on the perceived volume of traffic alone, I’ve never thought to argue with that.
For a laugh (it’s a crazy house, here) I decided to check Google Maps, and by default the first route offered was a driving one: up the A3, through Battersea and Southwark, through the Rotherhithe tunnel and a gentleman’s jaunt through the tunnels to Docklands. It estimated a 72-minute journey in moderate traffic while avoiding the Congestion Charge.
I then viewed the public transport route and, not including the light stroll to the station, the journey would take 88 minutes.
In the grand scheme of things, 14 minutes isn’t much of a difference, so naturally I turned my attention to cost. Where I was going meant I had to pay £6 for parking, and the fuel use would be no more than £3 owing to a low average speed and shrewd use of gears. Indeed, the insurance and tax cost worked out to less than £1, too. The entire process would cost about £10.
The train would cost £15.60 (and I would then still need to drive home to Cranleigh, mid-Surrey, on top of that).
On paper the situation was quite simple: driving was cheaper and quicker, not to mention more comfortable and peaceful, than taking the train.
I’m sorry, but doesn’t that completely undermine the purpose of public transport? Why would I willingly spend more money and accept a longer journey, not to mention taking of the risk of someone sneezing on my face?
I did end up driving, and do you know what: apart from the several million sets of traffic lights I encountered I didn’t get caught in any notably bad traffic. It wasn’t even that slow-moving. It was comfortable. I had the heating set just so, the radio at an agreeable volume, and at no point did anyone sneeze on my face. And, much to my amazement, it was indeed about 72-minutes.
I am by no means an environmentalist. I find the movement often brings out the very worst in some people, and that annoys me. However, I do understand that cars expel a level of harmful emissions, and that that toxic air in London is a very real problem.
But, and here’s the thing, people aren’t going to leave their cars at home if public transport is not a viable alternative. You can forgive a slightly longer journey, I suppose, but if commuting via train is more expensive then why bother?
Think about delegates heading to a meeting somewhere in London: if their company is paying their travel costs then, more often than not, they will source the cheapest option. What if that happens to be driving – be that across a city or from one to another?
How much is a train fare from Birmingham to London? According to thetrainline.com, an off-peak return ticket for one adult next Monday is £28.50. You would spend less than that on petrol, even in an older, less efficient car (my Ford Focus is 17-years-old and I can confirm this round-trip recently cost me around £15 in fuel). In fact, you could get to most European capital cities on a budget airline for less.
Solutions? Well, I’ve never been much of a campaigner but if the authorities tried to make motoring any more expensive than it already is I would be chaining myself to City Hall quicker than you could say “Congestion Charge”. Making driving more expensive will hurt those who really need to do it, so that’s not an option. Besides, wealthier motorists will pay anyway and the more modest earners like me will be the ones who end up suffering.
Never discount cycling, but the reality is that it is not a viable option for a lot of delegates in suits. Besides, it’s neither quick nor comfortable. And then there’s ever-present threat of rain…
So we need to make rail travel cheaper, then. It’s the only option. But does anyone know how that might be done?