Democratising mobility

Shortly before parliament rose for the summer, an unusually large audience tuned in to the entertaining spectacle of Prime-Minister’s Question Time in a week when a scandal-rag had sunk in its own great scandal. I don’t suppose anybody noticed the interruption of David Ward, the hon. member for Bradford East. Ward, a Liberal Democrat backbencher loyal to the coalition (who voted for the higher university tuition fees and previously spoke against education maintenance allowance), who stood on this occasion to ask the PM a friendly question about what he was doing to help young people in need:

Mr Ward: …perhaps we can just have a pantomime interval for a moment. Is the Prime Minister aware that there are now young people in Bradford being quoted, without convictions or claims, £53,000 to insure their first car? These ridiculous premiums are being driven by insurance companies selling fresh details to personal injury lawyers. What are we going to do to outlaw—

Mr Speaker: Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister:My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the problem of referral fees that are driving up the cost of insurance for many people. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has made some very powerful points about this. There was a report to the Government calling for referral fees to be banned. I am very sympathetic to this, and I know my right hon. and learned Friend the Justice Secretary is too, and we hope to make some progress.

The nation just can’t afford to support young people who want the luxury of further and higher education — there is the human right of the personal motor car to be supported.

After all, if the government doesn’t support the driver, what else do you suggest young people do? Become a freeloading cyclist who doesn’t pay for the road? Use that heavily subsidised public transport?

David Ward’s question referred specifically to the referral fees paid by lawyers for personal injury claimants (and we could perhaps be permitted to question whether the ability to claim compensation for the loss and hardship caused by the actions of others isn’t, in fact, a good thing) but these fees are, of course, just one of many factors which contribute to the cost of insurance, and insurance is, of course, just one of many factors which contribute to the cost of motoring. And the cost of motoring was, at least up until the economy tanked, at a historic low.

The problem with the cost of motoring is not that it is high, but that so many people think, rightly or wrongly, that they have to pay it. That individuals say they can’t find work if they don’t have a car, and business can’t grow without a fleet of vehicles for moving stuff around. The prime-minister should not be concerned by the fact that it is so difficult to get around by car. He should be concerned by the fact that it is so difficult to get around without one. The fact that this issue is championed by the member for Bradford East, a dense urban area with all of the West Yorkshire conurbation inside a ten mile radius, only highlights the scale of this scandal.

Volkswagen once boasted that the Beetle had “democratised mobility” by cutting the cost of owning and running a car. But mass motoring has achieved the opposite: enslaving those who have, and taking mobility away from those who have not. The most deprived and disenfranchised have never owned cars, and the rise of mass motoring merely took away their options — the bicycle, the bus, and the local shops and services.

The Tories think that the solution to unemployment and rioting is to “get on your bike and look for work.” In a sense they’re right — albeit, not the crude one that they meant. The economy tanked because we’ve built ourselves into a tight dependency on an unstable resource. If we made the changes that would give people the choice to use the bicycle again, our economy would be healthier and more stable, and our society more egalitarian. Not because people could get on their bikes to look for work, but because we would be less dependent on the wasteful use of an expensive and diminishing resource, and because, if we could all make more of our journeys by a mode that costs almost nothing, mobility would truly be democratised.

Friday photo: Ribblehead

Princess Elizabeth

As in so many of the things that the Europeans do better than us, the model by which our railways came about is shared with the Americans rather than our continent. When the railways arrived in the middle of the 19th century, most European governments saw the need for their own guidance in planning the railway network, to ensure that it was rational and efficient. But in Britain and America, anybody who could raise the capital could build any railway they liked. Our railway network is the bizarre product of mad Victorian capitalists fighting over real and imaged markets. For the first hundred years, three railways competed for the London-Scotland market — the routes that are now the East and West Coast Main Lines, plus a third, the Midland from St Pancras. Extending the Midland Mainline from Leeds to Settle, the third railway then climbs up the 16 mile long drag to the top of the Yorkshire Dales, the highest point of the mainline network, and down the other side to Carlisle, through 14 tunnels and over 22 viaducts along the way — amongst them the 24 arches of Ribblehead, 100 ft above the boggy valley.

In the 1950s, the future of transport was the motor car and the truck — or so the car and road haulage lobbies told us. The civil servants and politicians — especially the ones who owned road construction companies — knew that railways were the past and there was no point drawing out their death. When the line and station closure notices went up in the 1950s and 1960s there was opposition — from the by then falling numbers who relied on the trains, and from the unions. But the fight for many was a half-hearted gesture. Harold Wilson’s Labour government stopped the closures short of the Tories’ plans, but it was only the extent, not the principle, of the closures that Labour opposed, and much of the closures happened on their watch. Only the core lines of the railway could be saved by their white heat of technology. The Settle to Carlisle line scraped through, but without its trains to London and Scotland.

From there the railways trundled along, neglected, run-down, and resented, while road transport erupted and then settled into the mundane and equally resented mess that we’ve had for the past thirty years. Cars were still the future — even more so having transformed from exciting to mundane, liberatory to burdensome. And the British Railways still operated under those 1960s terms. The Settle-Carlisle line, wasn’t part of the future. The new “advanced” trains would use the West Coast line, and local traffic already went by road. It was ignored during the 1970s, carrying a token few passenger trains each day. By 1984, BR couldn’t ignore the maintenance of those tunnels and viaducts any longer. The neglect had damaged Ribblehead, and the repair bill was huge. They applied to close the line.

But BR had missed the change in mood that came with the reality of the future.

Like the closure of Mail Rail, the run down of the Settle to Carlisle was essentially closure by stealth: the deliberate under-use and dampening of demand — no accommodation of freight trains, no marketing of the passenger services — that cut income, and the deliberate lack of maintenance that clocked up the repair bill. BR wanted to close the Settle to Carlisle because the theory of the day stated that it shouldn’t be useful. They simply had to make reality match the theory first.

The Friends of the Settle to Carlisle formed in 1981 — three years before the closures were announced — because the closure by stealth project was not all that stealthy. It was obvious that the railway was being mistreated, and the Friends could guess why. Alongside exposing the dirty tricks, they did BR’s marketing for them — the spectacular engineering and views of the national park make it an obvious tourist attraction if nothing else — and patronage quadrupled. The justification for closure that had been carefully manufactured disappeared, though it took eight years before the government finally stepped in prevented closure.

Today the line takes several freight trains a day between the Clyde ports and Yorkshire, and passenger numbers have now more than recovered from the neglect. Everyone recognises that the received wisdom of the 1950s-1980s, that the railways were not the future, was at best short sighted. The powers of that time were stuck in a mass delusion about the sustainability of road transport growth, and it took some effort to pull them out of it. But it can be done.

The friday photo theme is an excuse for plugging my photography stuff.