Nearly half a century on, as a country we still have some quarters regretting the drastic cuts made to the British railway system by Dr Beeching. It involved the recommended closure of over two thousand (over half of) stations and 30 per cent of routes. Of course, there were solutions to help remedy the situation, including replacement bus services. In practice, these replacement bus services lasted less than two years leaving large parts of the country with little or no public transport service.
Cuts, it would seem, are always possible to justify in some way. Because only time will tell if something works, then all manner of changes are possible. Decades on from the changes, we are faced with many transport issues still to address, and fresh challenges such as over reliance upon private transport, rising fuel costs, carbon footprint and paucity of public infrastructure in some areas.
In the 1960s, it seems that the possible ageing of the population just was not anticipated. Today, we have an increasing proportion of people who will need transportation that our infrastructure cannot accommodate outside of major cities. Unfortunately, despite advances in technologies, the methods of transport are just the same as they were fifty years ago, just in different proportions. Public transport is a misnomer, as the fragmented system is privately owned and attempting to cater for a public which has little trust in it.
Reliability issues, along with a perceived rising cost are not attracting the public in sufficient quantity to make what we call public transport properly viable again. Ironically, people would rather pay far more for their own private facilities to travel and don’t add up the actual total of money they pay out to make journeys so a fair comparison can be made. Time is another factor, with some people not prepared to spend an hour and a half making a journey on public transport when they can do it privately in half that.
Had the railways not undergone such drastic cuts, we would have the benefit of fixed track in more localities, but less cycle paths, admittedly. However, we would perhaps not have such a problem today with having to persuade people to give up their private transport for at least some excursions. Contrary to public belief, train travel is far safer statistically than road travel as well. Rail travel, however, outside of the commuter zones, is a novelty, with the car being the normal form of transport and it should be the other way round.
Like it or otherwise, this is going to have to happen, this reversal. Not because of climate threats, but because of the simple fact that the road infrastructure cannot sustain the increase in traffic. Successive governments need to be more longterm in their vision for transport. In 1972, Transport 2000 was established to enable a coherent, longterm vision to be drawn up. With the millennium having past, it is now known as the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT), but still tries to fight the common sense corner it always has: standing for better public transport, lower train fares and less traffic.
We should not leave it until we have given up driving, either because of age or cost, before we wake up and take an active interest in the state of the transport system in our country. All services offered to us in future will depend upon good communication links and, unless things are to be literally on our own doorsteps, we will have to battle against whatever infrastructure is in place at that time. Instead of cutting, we need to build our transport system to make it good enough for the public to have faith in it an to use it fully. Somehow in the UK we find it hard to accomplish.