Take a look at any other European country. Germany, France, Belgium and the rest. There is one recurring theme which astonishes me. The infrastructure. Railways, roads, buildings, lifestyle, everything. It’s brilliant. Take a look at Britain. It seems we are a country still stuck in the middle ages. Everything about the British infrastructure is a complete age behind the rest of Europe.
Whenever I visit European countries I am always, without fail, taken back by the astonishing networks of public transport. In Germany, not only do the S-Bahn and U-Bahn run on time and like clockwork, the carriages that transport the population combine the traditional in a modern environment. It’s the same story in Italy where I encountered a stunning and comfortable “double decker” train which left the platform at Rome at exactly 15:36. No earlier and no later. Taxi’s are a booming business, with the amount of tourists that visit, as are the amount of buses on the roads. And what’s even more astonishing is the fact that everything works. Buses are the right size, comfortable and actually suit the roads and passengers that utilise them. Whilst we’ve witnessed the economic crisis grip the globe, it was fascinating to see the cost of mass public transport costing very little. From one side of Berlin to the other, it cost 4 people around 8 euros.
Take a look at Britain in comparison. Trains are old, overcrowded and not suitable for the amount of people that now use them. Buses are majority single decker’s and often result in a stand up journey in some of the largest cities. Neither run on time either. Cancellations are frequent, delays the norm. It beggars belief as to how tourism can boom in Britain with such a miserable excuse of a transport network. Whilst continental fares are fairly low, the price of using a train here is rising for the eleventh year on the run. Even on a journey from Warrington to Liverpool (a short journey), it cost me nearly £10. And what do I pay for? A train that arrives ten minutes after it should have done. A train that is old, uncomfortable and the heater fixed on full. It can take up to 45 minutes to travel such a short distance. Ministers may promise on new trains arriving, but at the moment the majority are unsuitable for the capacity. It is no wonder that the European nations are taking the lead when it comes to modern modes of transport.
What is even more fascinating than all of this is how long it has taken for the rail network to be upgraded in Britain. The Liverpool – Manchester line is to be electrified in 2014, a project which will bring many benefits say the government. But why 2014? If Britain needs new trains, quicker journey times and a more reliable network, why has it taken until 2014 to begin an overhaul of such a tiny proportion of the railway world. And furthermore, the new HS2 railway line won’t be completed, if it ever gets started, until after 2030. It’s baffling how the HS2 website cites that “high speed rail has dramatically improved inter-city transport all over the world in the last 50 years” yet Britain has very little to show for such a sustained project to rival great rail networks in Germany, Switzerland, Japan and so on. Even more confusing is that the new line won’t be open for around another nearly twenty years, by which time the UK will be lagging behind once again.
Whilst the infrastructure of continental countries is certainly miles ahead of Britain, here there seems to be very little incentive to improve what we already have. There have been failed schemes such as the scrap your car programme and some local councils offer incentives to sell a car in return for public transport costs. None of the ideas really work. There has been an extraordinary boom in the number of cyclists on Britain’s roads. It’s cheaper, healthier and you don’t have to sit in rush hour tailbacks. All very good, but there is nothing to persuade me to take up cycling. Bicycle lanes seem to be no wider than the bike itself and then they only last around 100 yards. There is still a culture of cyclists being shunted to one side by aggressive drivers. If only we could take a leaf out of the Europeans book.
I first came across the cycling frenzy when I visited Bruges, Belgium. The amount of cyclists was completely breath taking. All types of bikes, from new ones, sports bikes, old bikes, motor bikes, you name it. Little roads at the side of the main carriageway are designated for cyclists only. And if there is a collision between a car and a cyclist, the cyclist has the right of way. It is completely eye opening when you see it. What’s better is that it actually works. Why? Because everybody knows the rules. Nobody seems to be in a rush, unlike the UK lifestyle, but Belgium, Germany, France and beyond have all acknowledged the sudden surge of cycling and have responded. So why can’t Britain? For one, roads are too narrow. If London was to become a cyclist friendly city, bike lanes would be running through office blocks. Secondly, the cost of just about everything in the UK has gone through the roof and so the pay needed to employ people to create new lanes would probably be extortionate. Although there are pledges to build new style of cycling paths and new designs to roundabouts, the plans are worthless. Still in existence is a culture of ignorance towards cyclists and that is hardly likely to change. Britain was built for horse and cart, not for cars, buses, lorries and cyclists together. It is rather sad.
A similar story beckons on the major roads, i.e. motorways. Autobahns in Germany are reasons why the Germans are so far advanced than us and it’s similar with the main highways in Belgium and France. The roads are smooth, wide and genuinely nice to drive. Here, motorways are things of nightmares. Traffic, tailbacks, car accidents and workers who aren’t there. The moment even a sound of car horn is heard on the M25, Sally Traffic has the unfortunate job of telling us all we can’t move anywhere in Britain. The culture of health and safety on the roads have gone too far. Not once when driving in Europe did we come across an accident or a queue on a motorway. In the UK, every drop of blood and molten plastic has to be cleared up by the so called “traffic wombles”, as described by Top Gear, who insist on closing the motorway for a year and a half. Whilst half of Britain’s imports and exports are sat in a queue on the M6, nothing is happening. It is an embarrassment to welcome Europeans to a country that to them is probably still stuck in medieval times.
There are some impressive ideas about British infrastructure, however. The approval of the new bridge to cross the River Mersey, easing congestion on the Runcorn Jubilee Bridge, will be a huge benefit I’m sure. But at a cost and at no benefit to local industry, since the steel is likely to be sourced from overseas. Other road improvements, tunnelling and bridges are in the pipeline to ease congestion around major cities and improve import and export travels. The 4G network will inevitably help businesses with internet connections in touch with the rest of Europe and the government is promising new flood defences in coastal risk towns. One thing is apparent. Time. Nothing ever seems to be underway or wanting to be completed soon by ministers and governments. The ideas are great, but there has been talk of a new bridge over the Mersey for years. Yes it’s been approved, but that work isn’t likely to start until 2014. Flood defences are promised but there is no real time scale as to when and what these will be. There never has ever been a sense of urgency and presence by these projects and so it really is no surprise when commentators talk about Britain falling behind.
It might seem a bit of a moan, but how can the rest of Europe, on the verge of bankruptcy, continue to provide and excel in their infrastructures. Mind you, there is one thing I have noticed on my travels that appears to be better in Britain than in the rest of Europe. Airports. My visit to Berlin’s national airport was underwhelming and so I hear are other European city gateways. One thing we can be proud of in Britain is the gateways in and out of the country. Manchester airport is a fantastic, modern environment with shops, eateries and space to relax. Even Liverpool’s airport, once a shed on the banks of the river, is now one of the busiest and most welcoming in the country. More people than ever are flying and so first arrivals on our soil need to impress. Plans to expand one of the world’s busiest airport, Heathrow, has been met with criticism. I say go for it. If we can’t expand then we can’t develop and so will be stuck in a timewarp for a very long time.
I always arrive back in Britain thinking how good our airports are. It’s strange, but if you compare ours to the Spanish, the Italians and others ours are far ahead than our continental counterparts. It’s a real shame that the rest of our infrastructure is just not up to the scratch of our European friends.