I AM a great believer in public transport. Of course I am. Not to be would be like saying I don’t believe the world is round. It would be like saying I don’t believe in love and apple pie. I mean the sort of public transport that you can afford and that doesn’t require a second mortgage for a season ticket; that comes regularly (ie. every day, ideally several times a day, not once a week or even less frequently) and makes return journeys at the time you actually want to travel; that is clean and comfortable, has enough seats or safe standing room for travellers, and helpful staff.
The reality, particularly for those of us who live in rural areas, is that without a car you are dependent on walking or cycling to get to the shops/health centre/church/arts centre/school etc, or are lucky enough to have friends or neighbours happy to drive you. Heaven help the elderly person who has had to give up driving and whose spouse or partner is in hospital for long-term treatment. The local hospital has closed. The buses only run once a day – or even once a week. If they do try the bus, they have to wait, maybe hours, before hospital visiting begins, and cut short the visit because otherwise the return bus will have left.
A concrete example of the difficulties came from a Shaftesbury resident who told a public meeting about the proposed closure of the beds in Shaftesbury Hospital that it would take four hours to travel by bus from Shaftesbury to Sherborne (where the respite and long-term care beds would have moved). You do not have to be a genius to work out that (a) this is a ludicrous amount of time for a journey of 16.3 miles (estimated driving time 31 minutes) and (b) it would be impossible to visit a loved-one if you didn’t have a car.
In my previous job, we had staff who lived about four miles from the office. There was no bus connection between their village and the town where the office was. They were forced to drive. Rural buses are often cancelled, with no notice, for no reason that anyone can see, so you are stranded where you went, or never get there to start with. In urban areas, there is often another bus coming along soon. In rural areas, there may not be one for a week.
Trains are frustrating, with the staggering complexity of ticket prices, depending on time of day, destination, train company and how many weeks in advance you can book. People who use trains a lot and have flexibility on time get a good service; those who have to travel for work buy (very expensive) season tickets. But for occasional rail travellers who live in rural areas the system is almost impenetrable. The latest timetable changes have added to the chaos for regular travellers and are hardly designed to attract infrequent rail-users..
If you want to spend the day in London, avoid overcrowded commuter trains, and, provided you don’t (for example) plan to go to the theatre or a concert in the evening, you can have a good trip, no hassles with navigating London traffic or parking, and get home at a sensible time. If you go to a matinee performance, you can get a train home. But if you want to go out in the evening, living where we do in the West Country, you have to leave before the end because there are no trains at the right time. This means that you either don’t go to the theatre or concert or you have to stay over – or you go by car. We go by car.
I am currently reading a very funny book called Italian Ways by Tim Parks, an academic who lives near Verona and spends much of his life travelling on Italy’s trains. The Trenitalia network is apparently complicated, expensive, bureaucratic, unreliable – and used by everyone. I know people who are frightened of driving in Italy – Parks’ book would make me frightened of travelling by train. Not because it is dangerous, but because in a short visit I would never master the maze of different companies, fare structures, regulations, risk of being fined for not having the right ticket or the right stamp on the ticket – and the frequent random industrial action. At least, in our own (hire) car, we are responsible for our own departure and arrival timings, travel arrangements and journeys.
I believe in public transport – affordable, properly staffed, frequent and reliable. As with the NHS, it should be a public service which is supported by our taxes – not sold to the highest bidder in the name of “choice” and “competition.”.
We would really love to travel by public transport – it is relaxing and interesting to look out at the passing landscape, to see towns from a different perspective, to catch up with emails or work, to talk to strangers if they want to talk to you, or even close your eyes and have a sleep. But as long as (in the case of buses), the service is unsatisfactory and unreliable, or (in the case of trains) is expensive, over-crowded and does not go at times that suit our needs, we will continue to drive.