Posts Tagged ‘Christian Wolmar’

The Reason WHY – part 1

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The Cinderella Syndrome

Have you ever wondered why British and American railways get such a raw deal from their governments? A question that’s very relevant in Poland as the Government here seems determined to copy the UK’s disasterous privatisation. There’s tons of stuff published on what’s wrong with our railways, but precious little on why they are so underfunded and mismanaged in the first place. I don’t always see eye to eye with Christian Wolmar (see photo), the UK’s most famous railway pundit, who tends to focus on technical and managerial issues, rather than the political environment within which decisions on the future of our railways are made. However, in republishing the core of Alex Marshall’s article King of the Road on his blog, he has done a great service to those of us who argue that rail transport deserves a greater slice of the transport budget cake. So in case you didn’t read either version, I’m republishing Christian’s article here.

Why are roads favoured by the right and trains by socialists?

Sunday, 6 April 2008

An article on an American website asked a question which has long intrigued me: why does the Right favour roads given they require a massive subsidy from the state as well as the direct intervention of government in order to be built, and yet is suspicious of public transport spending? The article, by Alex Marshall, argues that building roads is a manifestation of state power and that they require some $150bn of state funding annually, enough to wage a war on Iraq.

Marshall points out that a whole host of right wing think tanks in the US lobby strongly for increased spending on roads, while simultaneously trying to kill off public transport systems, arguing they are inefficient and expensive. In trying to work out why the Right He asks a leading lobbyist, Robert Poole, why his Reason Foundation supports roads given its general dislike of government involvement. Poole is completely flummoxed: “I’d never thought about it that way”, he says, and is unable to give a coherent answer, arguing that they are not anarchists seeking to allow anyone to build competing roads everywhere.

I remember asking pretty much the same question of Digby Jones at a press conference when he was head of the CBI. I questioned why the CBI was always asking for more money to be spent on transport when generally it was constantly lobbying for reduced government spending.Much to my pleasure, he totally lost his rag and spoke for 10 minutes without really answering the question. There is indeed a contradiction. As Marshall points out, ‘our national road system would never have been built if every street were required to pay for itself’.

Indeed, one could argue that many small country roads are totally uneconomic by any criteria and should be closed down, in the same way that railway branch lines should be shut. Or they should be allowed to decline with no maintenance, leading to the imposition of 20 MPH speed limits, as happens on little used parts of the railways.

More widely, though, Marshall raised a fundamental point. What is it about roads that attracts the Right? Surely they must, by now, realise that the freedom afforded by the car is illusory, since, as usage rises, the extra societal costs of more people getting on to the road outweigh by far the benefits. And the simplistic view that roadbuilding is the answer has been widely discredited. There is a gaping intellectual gap in the Right’s thinking which environmentalists and public transport supporters should be more adept at exploiting.

Too see the interesting comments spawned by Christian’s article you’ll have to go back to the original.

On yer bike!

Wednesday, 2 April 2008


Groningen Railway Station just look at all that
space allocated to pedestrians and cyclists!

I’m grateful to Christian Wolmar, Britain’s rail pundit, for giving me the idea for tonight’s post. What with saving the planet on Saturday and trying to save the Krosniewice Railway on Monday, recent posts were going to be a hard act to follow, and I was really stumped. Then I read Christian’s blog about his trip to Holland.

I am in Holland for a ten day speaking tour to local groups of the Anglo-Dutch friendship society and I plan to post regular items on the blog on my thoughts. Whenever I go to Europe and spend a bit of time there, it amazes me just how different each society is from Britain, and indeed from each other. I hope that the growing dominance of the European Union does not change that.

I went for a run this morning in the suburbs of a small town called Hengelo… Just on this short run, it became so apparent the way that life is organised around the bicycle.

I ran along a Fitspad, a bike path, for a couple of miles, and when I ran outwards, there were just a few students and the odd youngster on their bikes, but on the way back, the cycle path was full of kids, parents with kids on bikes, parents with kids on the back, and groups of teenagers. It was cycle rush hour just before school was starting and it was so nice seeing all these children cycling to school… (more… )

11 days later Christian was in Groningen where 57% of the journeys in the city are made by bicycle.

Staying in a small town 10 km from Groningen, I borrowed my host’s bike and rode in to town to see how it managed to become the place with the greatest modal share of cycling in Holland. I had been there five years ago and discovered that it was not just happenstance, but a deliberate result of keeping cars out of the city.

Riding in, it was noticeable how car traffic thinned out as I got closer to the rather badly reconstructed main square, which had been badly damaged by heavy fighting in the war as the Canadians chased out the Germans in 1945. The inner ring road has virtually no cars and, of course, lots of space for cyclists. Inside that ring, there are virtually no cars. Indeed, the crucial decision to encourage cycling rather than cars had been made in the 1970s when that ring had become chock full of traffic.

The reason for the town’s success in achieving a modal share of over 50 per cent for cycling is nothing very complicated. The crucial point is not only being pro-bike but to some extent being anti car. That is the stumbling block for policymakers in this country. You need both the carrot and the stick. (more… )

Christian’s posts got me thinking, maybe we could reduce our CO2 emissions in a way that would actually make our towns more pleasant to live in and would be beneficial for our health? I started Googling ‘Groningen cycle paths’ and discovered another interesting post on the On the Level blog.

Groningen was amazing. I travelled of my own volition– something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, to experience the city with the highest percentage of cycling in Europe. 57% of all trips are made by bicycle in this student town in the North of the Netherlands. It surely did not disappoint. As soon as I arrived, I was a little overwhelmed at the numbers of people on bikes. It was like Critical Mass everyday. The way it should be. Paradise on wheels.


Railway station, cycle park!

The City of Groningen’s 21st century solution to the problem of cycle overcrowding at their railway station – the brand new underground bike park. The station now has room for more than 4000 bicycles, all of them monitored 24 hours a day and many of them valet parked. There is bike repair, rental, and sales, and the facility is linked to other bike stations through a membership scheme. Cycling in Groningen, and indeed much of the Netherlands, is just the norm. By prioritizing cycle traffic over cars, the Dutch engineers have managed to balance the roadway’s playing field and allow a blossoming of bicycle transport as a practical network useable by just about everyone. (more… )

So what has Poland learnt from European mistakes and European best practise? Very little I’m afraid. The country as a whole is still hellbent on ‘catching up’ Western Europe, even if that means copying faithfully all of Western Europe’s stupid mistakes. Warsaw is a mess with motor car traffic snarled up for 12 hours. There are few decent cycle paths and – instead of converting the City’s tram system to a semi-metro, which could be done relatively cheaply and quickly – the city authorities are very slowly building a Russian style classic metro at the rate of one new station every couple of years. (A semi metro goes underground only where it has to, and runs as a fast tram elsewhere.)

Vistula Cycle Path.png

Wawel Castle and Vistula cycle path, Craców

Cracow, which has always been the intellectual capital of Poland is different. Here new cycle paths are an integral part of new road developments and several fast tram routes are being built across the City. But the Warsaw City authorities are too proud to learn from another Polish city. Perhaps someone should arrange a trip for them to go to Holland instead?