Is Britain a lagging country ?

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.

TRAIN

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.

groep fietsers op de Burg

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.

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All aboard for HS2 ?

A few months back I posted about the confusion of the franchising in the rail industry, with some lines being privatised, others returning to public ownership and some which are in complete limbo. But that led me to the ongoing debate about the new high-speed rail link project (HS2). The facts are great: cutting journey times, creating jobs and boosting business. However, what about the actual reality of the project. Will it actually work?

The project leaders are very good at persuading ordinary rail users into thinking the new line is a good move. HS1 is already in action. It links London with the South of England and to the Channel Tunnel. The new HS2 line will link London and Birmingham and then join the West Coast Mainline north of Lichfield for journeys to Manchester and Leeds. The HS2 website, a modern and rather contemporary document, outlines the main problems with the current running of trains, such as overcrowding, delays and the need for more freight. It further adds that the new project will create a “connected Britain” with railways of a “worldwide standard.”

On a journey between Warrington and London, I compiled a few thoughts.

Current Capacity

It is a clear fact that the railways are running at near full capacity. Ministers behind HS2 estimate that “by 2020 a further 400 million journeys will be made” on top of the 1.46 billion made last year. So it certainly makes sense to have a new rail route in order to ease overcrowding and congestion on other lines.

In 2009/2010, 59 percent of all train journeys started or ended in the London region, according to the Department of Transport. Business and management professionals are amongst those who make regular trips to the capital, the majority of whom travel from other regions. But for ordinary day-trip visitors, commuters and tourists, overcrowding is serious.

A recent BBC documentary, Railways: Keeping Britain On Track, highlighted the daily troubles that travellers face at peak times. Passengers on the East Coast Mainline were seen being crammed into carriages at near-bursting point, many commuters making their feelings known. It is impossible to determine where each single passenger would travel to but certainly the majority interviewed on TV were travelling to the suburbs of London and major towns on the outskirts of the capital. On this basis, ordinary commuters won’t benefit as much from a high-speed link between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, apart from a slight ease on crowded coaches. But surely the point is contradicted by the desire of the long-distance traveller. Like me, on my first visit to the capital, I paid to go First Class. This was mainly because it was a long distance and a reasonable deal. For business class and regular first-class passengers they will always remain in the privileged carriages which are less crowded and more comfortable. So it seems the next direction would be to make trains more focussed on the average commuter not the first class buyer.

A commuters nightmare

A commuters nightmare


Current Trains

Like the last point mentions, there are more people crammed into standard class carriages than those who used first and business class. So whilst the few may pay more, the majority will still use trains at the same time and use the same standard class everyday. This brings me to the question of whether money should be spent on the trains themselves and not a new railway line.

A recent Inside Out investigation revealed how fleets of trains operated by Northern Rail had been questioned over safety. Operating in regions across the North of England, the Pacer train, effectively a bus chassis on rails, has proved unpopular with commuters, unsuitable for disabled passengers and unsafe on the rail network. BBC Yorkshire’s Alan Whitehouse outlined how the trains had first come into operation in the 1980’s as a cheap build and a life span of no more than 20 years. Almost thirty years later, these fleets still operate on the Northern Rail network; The rail regulator has now questioned whether the trains should continue to be used. By 2019, Pacers will have to be withdrawn from the rails because of new legislation ensuring that people with disabilities can gain easy access on public transport. The Pacers do not meet the intended guidelines. Northern Rail has accepted that the trains are old and need replacing. However, they insist that passenger numbers are rising meaning the trains need to fulfil extra demand and that there are questions over how to afford replacements.

That word “afford” is crucial in this debate, as the government announced the HS2 project will go beyond budget and cost in excess of £40bn. A lot of money indeed. For the ordinary commuter whose journey takes them between towns and cities they will still use the shorter, suburban lines. So perhaps the billions of pounds worth of investment into a single new line should instead help towards replacing tired trains, not capable of driving the demands of the modern-day.

The Pacer has been brought into question over safety.

The Pacer has been brought into question over safety.

The Commuter

The person who uses the train to get to and from work, college, shops, university, meetings, holidays and visiting family will feel an impact. Why? Because the money for the new high-speed link on top of the improvements needed on existing networks will come from ticket prices. 2013 saw another consecutive hike in rail prices. The Campaign for Better Transport and Railfuture have calculated that over the ten consecutive years, rail passengers’ fares have increased by over 50 percent, whilst some areas of the UK have seen increases in fares above the national average.

I have rarely had a problem with the rail network. Even on my journey to London, the price was reasonable compared to taking a car for instance and the train was plush and comfortable. But I do understand the gripe of travellers who use the network everyday. The age-old problem of leaves on the track, crew member not available and signal problems have all added to frequent delays up and down the country. When the train eventually arrives, disgruntled passengers find carriages like a tin of sardines: uncomfortable, unpleasant and below par. One must wonder as to why an individual would dip into so much money for such a poor service. The fact is there is no other solution. The cost of living has rocketed, along with the cost of owning, insuring and running a car. Whilst public transport has seen major hikes, it is one area that can actually help someone save money.

Whilst the cost to the commuter will increase next year and the year after that, I would question whether HS2 meets the need for the majority of paying travellers. As mentioned earlier, the majority of train journeys are suburban taking people from one town to another often within the same region. Yes, there is a clear demand for the passengers who travel long-distance, but many of these journeys are “one offs” or only on “occasion”. That was the view from some of the people I spoke to on my journey. The demand is where the lines are bursting at the seams. Liverpool – Manchester is one of those lines because the tracks visit towns and villages in-between the two cities. The areas where the commuters live. It can be quite hard to explain. People I spoke to onboard the London bound train made it known they did not want a new line and instead they wish current operations could benefit from the cash. And I agree. Because who exactly is the HS2 going to benefit?

The West Coast Mainline is popular with travellers.

The West Coast Mainline is popular with travellers.

HS2 Users

It is hard to see who HS2 will benefit. It’s certainly easy to see who will be at a disadvantage. Home owners forced out of their homes, tax payers who will see increase in payments because of the new infrastructure, rail passengers who will see increase in fares for similar reasons, people who don’t travel long distance. There are plenty of groups who will be against.

One of the biggest gripes I have with the new project is availability to users. HS2 will leave London bound for Birmingham and then on to Manchester and Leeds. It would be excellent if there were actually any stations to board. Considering where I live, Warrington, I wouldn’t be able to use the new line because it would cost more in money and time to actually get to a station where I could board. Similar situations in Widnes, Liverpool, Macclesfield, Runcorn, CREWE, Bury, Bolton and plenty more. Hundreds of rail passengers will stay in the same boat, or carriage, and use operators and routes they know best. Virgin Trains on the West Coast Mainline is one of the most respected rail operators in the country. Excellent service and trains are quick. Is there actually anybody who needs to get from the North to London any quicker than what is already offered? It took me less than two hours to get from Warrington to London. I’d say that was pretty quick. Granted, there will always be someone who wants to get to the Capital quicker, but for any average user, the train is quicker than flying (when you take into account check in etc) and certainly faster than driving.

And, furthermore, it will only be the people of these large cities who will benefit. Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham. That is where the stations will be based. There are no official confirmations if there will be stations in between, but if ministers are promising a quicker journey time, there will be no chance for trains to slow down and stop for several minutes.

Cost

£42 billion. Well over the original budget. It’s interesting to note that on the HS2 website there is little mention of how much the project will cost. There is much talk about “investment” and creating opportunities. But the simple fact is that the project is an unbelievable amount of money. All of which has to be repaid or at least be worthy of value for money. There is little more to say. The government would always get a harsh backlash whatever the cost would be. The fact that it is an extraordinary amount, in such hard economic times, seems to be a laugh in the face to ordinary families and workers. But will it be a good investment? The economic benefits seem very good indeed.

The Economy

Undoubtedly very positive. The official HS2 website offers some confirmation of job numbers and investment when it comes to the workforce who will create the new track, drive the trains and operate new stations. There will be 9,000 construction jobs for the first phase, 1,500 permanent jobs and a further 60,000 jobs when it comes to phase two. The website does offer a statement: “HS2 will generate £47 billion in user benefits to businesses when the entire network is completed, as well as between £6 billion and £12 billion is wider economic benefits.”

A rail network which connects Britain better than current connections is without doubt very good. Businesses will be able to communicate with suppliers and traders more efficiently. An increase in freight on the new line, alongside current operations on the West Coast and East Coast Mainline, will improve trade, imports and exports. Furthermore, HS2 planners confirm that more room is needed for freight. “By 2030, overall volumes are expected to be 120% of current levels.” The new line, campaigners suggest, will not hold back the UK economy. Growth and connections are needed.

An impression of what the HS2 trains could look like.

An impression of what the HS2 trains could look like.

It has to be admitted that a new rail line is needed. The West Coast Mainline is already severely congested and if a new line isn’t created within a generation then commuters and the economy will be at risk. It’s a brutal fact. For me, I won’t benefit entirely from a new line, in fact I’d guess I would very very rarely use it as I am closer to the West Coast Mainline. Further consultations are needed. It’s a fact. Routes and lines do need to be altered. To destroy villages and houses is unnecessary and a sad consequence.

The whole idea is about improving Britain’s rail network. A new link should, say the government, take pressure off existing lines. It’s high-speed because trains will be quicker but they won’t stop at large towns outside the terminal cities. Furthermore, what about the far North of England? Cumbria, the North East and Scotland. Numerous points have been made about the economic benefits to an already struggling North. Why can’t the line go further than Manchester?

The plan is probably quite good on paper. I am not entirely convinced by the idea and nor are many others. I see the benefits but also see through to the problems that will be encountered. High-Speed 2 will be “high-speed” but perhaps more thinking about the execution of the project and current state of the rail network is needed.

For more information visit http://www.hs2.org.uk