Trains of Thought

First things first. This is not a blog about the general election or Brexit – others have done that. Besides, I write about transport planning, and transport issues were barely mentioned in the news programmes I saw, the articles I read, and the leaflets through my door. Not even Heathrow expansion, which tends to be favoured in this Berkshire constituency, which is far enough away to avoid any bulldozers, but close enough to house many of the airport’s employees. I think it was mentioned during the climate change debate on Channel 4, but any statements were eclipsed by the melting Earth sculptures that stood in for the two main party leaders.

So if not Brexit or the election, then what topical transport news story is there to comment on? How about train fares? Every December, the train operating companies announce their planned January fare rises, often alongside bulletins about Christmas engineering works, and major timetable changes. Impotent outcry regularly ensues. Partly this is in response to the ever increasing costs of travelling on what is already one of the most expensive networks in Europe. But this is far from the only frustration.

The fares pay for a service that often is far from comfortable, punctual, or perfect. And at no time of year is it more obvious than in the run up to the fare rise. Having recently started commuting by train again, although thankfully not every day, it feels like everything that can go wrong on the rail network has done so in the last 6 weeks. Which is, maybe, (shh!) just a bit like the general election campaign and the political hot topics which the Conservative manifesto studiously avoided.

First of course, there is the strike on Southwest Trains. Its cause cuts to the heart of the nation’s economic anxiety. Once secure jobs, in this case of train guards, are at risk of being lost, not until the next time the economy grows, but forever. Whether the decline of secure, well-paid work, particularly for those without higher education, is blamed on austerity, automation, globalisation or migration is the subject of many political fall-outs between friends and family. But there is much less discussion around how jobs might be re-framed or renewed, or how in-work, economic security might be redistributed. For example, what if the guards’ role was redefined as customer service? Train travellers could use a bit of that.

Second, there are the normal weather problems this time of year that cause delays and disruptions, signalling failures, and slow track speeds. Leaves on the line, high winds, trees on the line, train crew unable to get to work. As climate change increases the frequency and severity of storms, such problems also occur with greater frequency and severity. Never mind heat buckling in the summer. Even after the events at Dawlish in February 2014, which cut off the whole of Cornwall and most of Devon from train services for eight weeks, Extinction Rebellion and school children have highlighted the completely inadequate levels of interest and investment in climate change policy for mitigation or adaptation. We could do a lot more to make sure our rail network is part of the solution.

Finally, problems of trespass, and then, last week, a fatality on the line. The cracks in our social infrastructure are wider than ever and people are falling through. The lyrics of Runaway Train by Soul Asylum play in my head, a pop song that made me cry when I first heard it on the radio. Mental health, shelter, food, people who care about you – they should be for life, not just for Christmas. We do need more unity, more governance in this country, but it won’t happen if vulnerability is stigmatised and equity is worthy only of lip service. Can we turn our Runaway Train into the Polar Express? Optimism is in short supply this holiday season, but maybe, just maybe, we can find a way to reignite our belief in our power for positive, progressive change.

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