Does The Train Take The Strain? (Or Shall We Take The Car?)

Ideally everyone would use public transport; but of course they don’t. Perhaps however this is not simply because of the usual overt issues – cost, frequency, reliability etc – but also because of less easily measured human responses to uncomfortable contexts such as isolated platforms, cold and wet waiting areas and a general feeling on insecurity about the ‘transport offer’ overall.
Trains play quite a significant part in my life. Given the choice, I would always go for public transport; though often of course I can’t.
But I do whenever possible choose to travel by train, both long distance and for commuting. This strategy is not however without snags. Whatever enthusiasts claim, train travel can sometimes feel uncomfortable or even unsafe.
When you’re on the Intercity it’s hard to realise how fast you’re travelling through small stations; when you’re commuting from one of these points, it’s even harder to believe that trains – enormous vehicles by anyone’s standards – are permitted to rush past where you standing on the platform at such breakneck speeds. It’s like standing on the slipway of the motorway; and just as scary.
Then there’s the lack of shelter and the isolation. Train stations on commuter routes, outside London at least, tend to be vast unpeopled wind-tunnels, away from the road and houses, which expose one to rain and cold, and, potentially, to being alone in very lonely places. No matter how many CCTVs, it can be unpleasant to realise you’re the only one on the platform – at the moment. Add to this the rudimentary and sometimes solid brick, unwindowed, covered stands which may afford the only seating, and you begin to feel very vulnerable indeed.
My guess is that many people feel this environment hostile. Panic buttons, good lighting and visible CCTV can go a long way to sustaining the excellent safety record of most train stations; but it doesn’t always come over that way. And when people don’t feel safe, they find an alternative – for preference not noisy and jumbled up buses, but their warm, locked cars. (I checked in the office yesterday; every women there said her car was first choice for just these reasons.)
Thus perhaps do barriers to easy use of public transport in our non-capital cities arise; and this is before we even start to ask whether it’s straightforward to buy tickets (not all systems have the equivalent of Transport for London’s Oyster Cards), whether the signage is good (why do noticeboards ask ‘Have you bought your tickets?’, when they mean, ‘Here is the machine, by the wall, which will sell you a ticket?’), and whether the train will actually turn up as promised, and is actually going where you planned to go.
In my more radical moments I am tempted to suggest that no public transport employee, in the public or private sector, should ever be permitted to claim a car allowance, though of course claims for use of public transport would always be allowed. This would apply even more to managers and planners than to everyday workers.
but this is obviously not going to happen, so maybe the next best thing would be to encourage transport companies to have ‘exchange away days’, where a member of staff from Company X is invited to travel difficult journeys around the area of Company Y, with nothing except a tenner, a notepad and pencil and a train timetable in his or her pocket.
What seems perfectly logical and simple to people who do use a trainline all the time, often seems far more problematic to someone new to the scene; does the tram have a special name? where’s the ticket office (and are there different ones for different services)?; why is such and such a line cancelled with such regularity?; does this service feel equally safe for all types of passenger?; can you work out how the various routes interconnect?
Uncertainties arising from these sorts of questions probably go a long way to explaining why public transport is far from always the method of choice. Getting people out of their cars and onto the train or bus is a big priority environmentally, but for success it has to be done in ways which the punter finds comfortable.
And if comfortable and safe-feeling public transport doesn’t happen, problems will also arise for wider regeneration and renewal, especially in areas without high car use to start with. The action of choice may be no action – just stay put and don’t bother.
It would be interesting to know how much research has been undertaken into which aspects of comfort and safety most reassure travellers, and which of these are the most cost-effective, in all senses of that term. For many of us, how the train and other public transport systems are run is of only marginal interest; but how we feel about using the systems determines at a very fundamental level whether we actually choose to make use them.

Posted on November 4, 2005, in Politics, Policies And Process, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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