Finding Space for the Public in Transport

This is one of those posts which makes it to the draught stage and never any further, but as I was tidying up my WordPress install, I decided with a bit of reworking it’s something I still feel strongly about. The original title had referred to British public transport in particular, but in truth there is very little specific to the British experience.

Virgin Trains

Before I start my rant, let me plainly state that I am great supporter of the principles of public transport. That is not to say that I don’t see the use or take advantage of private transport, merely that I feel the balance in society is generally wrong, particularly in the first world, or whatever the preferred term is these days. These societies should be perfectly capable of providing for the vast majority of man’s annual miles, with our regular combinations of buses, trams, trains etc. and private transport being available to fill in the gaps where required. Being able to pack your bags, grab the kids and hit the road for a weekend away seems like a reasonable thing to do, but where is the logic of moving a ton of metal to work and back five days a week?

For probably the majority of the world’s population, public transport is the only option, certainly the only affordable one. In more privileged societies it seems, that logic is largely turned on its head, with many simple journeys costing as much as would the equivalent travelling via private transport, and indeed being more expensive if the journey is shared. Car pooling saves more money than bus pooling.

Yet some of the key problems afflicting these public transport services, is that having lost even the semblance of being a service (and who can deny that they are nothing more than businesses operating within a service field?), the companies involved only through obfuscation manage to run within the guidelines no doubt prescribed by governments. Planning a trip across the country, one could easily spend hours trying to find the cheapest combination or the quickest route. The privatisation of the industry has not exactly resulted in the competition of service and price that the government suggested, but a proliferation of competing and confusing systems which has resulted in a drop in passenger numbers, as a committee found last year. And the confusion, of course, isn’t restricted to the paying customer. Pensioners in the UK can now enjoy the benefit of free bus fares, but at least according to one relative of mine, this is restricted to the local borough, outside of which a mere discount is available partially due to the competing companies – after all, why should you wish to travel away from the one shoddy town?

Paying customers, of course, have the hardest time of all. Unless you are a genius at figuring the ins and outs of the system, public transport never comes particularly cheap, what with all the advance, economy, super, mumbo, banana and toffee flavoured tickets, not to mention all of the student travel cards, young person cards, old person cards, gay person cards, regular user cards and drug abuser cards which can be used for discounts on most, but certainly not all services, particularly any of the ones you might be tempted to use in conjunction with the first. And of course, as there is rarely any integration in the transport system, you’ll probably need at least two varieties of discount card to cover your journey via bus and (shock horror) train, and these rarely come too cheaply. One begins to wonder who on earth was paid money to design the backend pricing systems to some of these services. I remember one particular journey using First North Western trains, where I was sold a Day Return ticket because it was actually cheaper than the single I required. Go fathom! Just how the train companies can manage to create something as complex as a train timetable, and yet can’t produce a viable pricing plan borders on the criminal.

British Train System

In fact, it gets to the stage now where I’m becoming suspicious that the baffling arrangements aren’t actually designed to confuse customers and reap the benefits of their lack of patience or lack of knowledge to find the right deals. There is no sense of service here, only pandering to government requirements for companies to create offers for the underprivileged. Take the various varieties of student travel card, and Britain isn’t alone on this account. Or click on the image and take a look at how asking for an earlier train on can result in a previously unavailable ticket magically appearing. Indeed, the manner in which such offers seem to disappear and reappear lends one to conclude that such websites are designed to hide offers from those who might actually take advantage of them. This screenshot even begs another question, that being of how the Value Advance tickets are still available whilst the Advance Standard C 1Slightly cheaper than the Banana and Toffee Mix I mentioned earlier. appears to have sold out – would some customers voluntarily pay almost thrice the price of the cheapest ticket for exactly the same service?

Of course, the European dream of integration can’t even get a toehold when national systems aren’t even adequately in place. Experiences like this might leave us feeling embarassed, but why should the consumer have to work so hard to pay the best price for a service that the economy cannot survive without? Public transport is not perceived to be the vital economic keystone it really is, the likes of which education and health care are often fully or partially covered through public funding. Competition in the marketplace is the basic principle behind the diversification of the public transport system, but it doesn’t really take a genius to work out that competition cannot thrive in such a market. Go onto the high street to buy a television, and not only is there a variety of worldwide manufacturers to choose from, but there may be half a dozen shops eager to offer more competitive prices and accompanied services. In theory, the consumer can make an informed choice, and vote with his wallet to get the best deal.

Now try to convert that situation into a public transport ‘market’. Queue for a bus on Manchester’s Oxford Road, pick a bus, and depending on your situation you might find yourself getting a 60p student ticket. Get on the wrong one, and he’ll tell you there’s no such thing as a student ticket, and the fare will be £1.20. So you either wait, and barge past the angry queue of people waiting to get on behind you, or more likely just throw the extra fare in the bin. And of course, just like when Dixons rip you off over that warranty on the television, you are just as able to boycott the train service which caused you to be 2 hours late for an interview, except that they’re the only train operator in the entire region.

I often try to make a distinction between individual and social rights. By this I mean to highlight the difference between what each individual by virtue of his very existence has the right to, and those rights which are bestowed upon him by the society in which he lives. One example of this is the individual and personal right of movement. By his very being, man can relocate himself, using his own body, harnessing the power of the animals around him, and since early periods used his knowledge to craft certain forms of transport from the world around him. This does not, however, stretch to man’s ability to travel by any means possible; no single man built the Volkswagen Touareg, no number of harnessed animals would equal an Airbus A380. My point in this instance is that man has the right to travel, and our rich, modern states and societies should be enabling factors to his movements, not restrictions. In return, man must relinquish his demands for the right to travel how he wishes, for these are privileges empowered by his society. Yet society must also acknowledge that a transport service should not be marketed off in chunks to the highest bidder, since which modern economy could survive without it?

Ideally, one should be able to get a route between two locations, across borders, boundaries or whatever divisions, using whatever forms of transport, for a single, logical price, without having to cross reference various travel cards and special routes. He might even be able to relax in the knowledge that his taxes or his annual, universal travel card has it all covered already. But such a dream is only possible with the enforced integration of the various transport systems, and some realistic and public oriented pricing models. Wouldn’t it be worth paying £500 a year to be able to travel anywhere in the country on any form of public transport at any time? And if that were the case, wouldn’t half of the other 60 million on the island find it equally useful? £15 milliard a year plus public subsidies says it’s not.

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1. Slightly cheaper than the Banana and Toffee Mix I mentioned earlier.

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