An Unnecessary Obstruction

The Department for Transport (DfT) in England is currently consulting on three options that will reduce the amount of parking that occurs on ‘the pavement’ (or ‘sidewalk’ or ‘footway’ alongside a carriageway). The aim is to address the obstruction that vehicles cause when they park where people are trying to walk.

The ubiquitous habit of parking on the pavement in the UK has evolved due in part to infrastructure design, in part to outdated legislation, and in part to misguided priorities.

First, many residential streets in the UK are narrow and many houses have no off-street parking, or insufficient space. Some of this is down to history, with neighbourhoods built before mass car ownership. However, there are also many more recent developments, where narrow, winding streets and cul-de-sacs were in fashion and developers did not predict that cars would get so much bigger or that households would have so many of them.

Secondly, although the Traffic Management Act 2004 offered a much-needed update to parking management and enforcement in the country after 20 years of neglecting the issue, it did not make the process of introducing parking restrictions any less bureaucratic, and it did not directly address the prevalence of pavement parking. It allowed local governments to take over responsibilities for creating and enforcing parking restrictions from the police, but only by writing and advertising Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) with precise measurements and correct signs and road markings.

The default is that parking is permitted, even if it is on the pavement. That is why the DfT proposes Option 1: streamlining and digitising the TRO process. This would help authorities pass more TROs to prohibit parking where it is a problem, whether on the pavement or not. However, I would argue that it is unlikely to make much of a dent in the profligate habit of pavement parking seen in your average residential neighbourhood.

Why? Because the third reason parking on the pavement is so widespread is down to cultural norms: it is quite simply assumed and expected in most places that the private space a household has available for parking should not limit the number of vehicles it owns, so long as there is some unrestricted public space on-street nearby. If that street is not wide enough for traffic to travel safely between cars parked fully on the street, then the cars park partially on the pavement. There is absolutely no consideration as to whether pedestrians can travel safely on the pavement or are forced to walk around into traffic.

Thus the DfT suggests Option 2, where consideration should be given as to whether pedestrians, including those in wheelchairs or pushing children in buggies, are being obstructed by the cars parked on the pavement. In such cases, Option 2 suggests, local authorities could issue a parking ticket to the car causing the obstruction without the need for signs or road markings.

But there is a catch – parking enforcement must have some way of showing that the vehicle was not just on the pavement, but causing an ‘unnecessary obstruction’ by being there. The consultation suggests that this could be demonstrated at least in part by an exercise in measurement, as the amount of obstruction depends upon both the width of the pavement and the width of the vehicle, and how much the two overlap.

Yet how to define, let alone demonstrate the ‘unnecessary’ bit? The document undermines its own arguments by suggesting that an obstruction to the pavement may be necessary if there is not sufficient carriageway for vehicles to pass on the road. In other words, parking is necessary, driving is necessary, and only if both of these can happen safely is walking on the pavement safely a necessity.

Thus, we turn to Option 3. Ban parking on the pavement. Make pavement parking enforceable by default, unless a TRO, with all its bureaucracy, signs and road markings, streamlined or not, is officially designated to allow it. Make local authorities and local communities decide if they really want to give up their sidewalks to SUVs. If they do, they can, but only after some actual consideration.

The counterargument is that too many cars will no longer have a place to park, too many exceptions will have to be made. That is the argument of those who think parking has more rights to the pavement than pedestrians, who assume parked cars are a necessary obstruction – if they think about it at all.

In my view, Option 3 is the only one worth considering. Surely if we really thought about the pavement parking we encounter when walking around our own neighbourhoods, we would conclude that it is almost always an unnecessary obstruction we’d all be much happier without.

Staycation Surge or Back to Business as Usual?

As the summer winds down, I can’t wait to learn what September will bring in terms of transport use.

The lack of traffic, and therefore air and noise pollution back in late March through most of May was an incredible silver lining of lockdown. It meant that during the sunniest spring on record, we were lucky enough to be able to enjoy clean air and quiet on daily family walks and cycle rides either along every street, cul-de-sac and cut-through within a 2-mile radius, or through the woods that permeate and separate the towns and villages that make up our corner of the Home Counties.

Yet over the summer, traffic has returned, until, according to Department for Transport statistics, vehicle levels are almost ‘back to normal’ compared to an equivalent day in the first week of February 2020. However, are these trips for the same purposes as they were in February? Do they represent the window of opportunity closing for long-term travel behaviour change to be captured from the short-term, mass disruption?

Anecdotal, survey and big data sources all indicate that there remains a substantial proportion (20-30%) of the population who continue to stay at home, so it is hard to believe that the rise in traffic is solely due to people returning to work as encouraged by Government. Even if some commuters have switched modes from public transport to car (due to unhelpful messaging around the risk of infection on buses and trains compared to other risks, e.g. of road accidents), the rise in unemployment and ongoing telecommuting makes it unlikely that commuters are responsible for the return of pre-pandemic traffic.

Furthermore, in transport modelling, you would never compare August to February anyway. August is not an average month. It is prime holiday season, particularly, though not solely, for families with school-age children and those who work in education. Thus, traffic levels, especially in the morning and evening peaks, are usually less in August than in February. It may be that there is actually MORE traffic this August than during an equivalent day in August 2019.

I don’t know have the data to say for sure, but call it an educated guess. Holidays are usually much more spread out in time and space than they are this year. Most spring holidays were cancelled, but employers are not changing their annual leave roll-over policies. Going abroad is an incredibly risky business with constantly changing quarantine rules. And alongside staycation tourism, people are also catching up on visiting friends and relatives around the country who they may not have seen for months.

People may even be taking more leisure and social journeys in order to use up mileage on leasing contracts. There is some evidence that concerns about the ability to take occasional long-distance leisure trips unduly influence perceptions of the practicality of electric vehicle adoption and range anxiety.  So are such concerns any less likely to influence decisions on mileage allocations in leasing contracts?

The point is that traffic levels are never a product only of commuting trips, the school run, and other ‘necessary’ and ‘essential’ travel, which tends to happen locally. Leisure trips often have outsized impact and involve longer distances. Thus, my hypothesis is that the current high levels of traffic are not a reflection of life returning to pre-pandemic patterns, but rather a staycation surge. Any evidence to support this hypothesis is welcome, but the real question for transport planners wondering if the time to lock-in local, active travel patterns has passed, is: What will happen in September?

Blogs in Other Places

I did not write a blog here in July. However, I did write a brief update of my current work for the Transport Studies Unit summer newsletter.

I also wrote a blog about my time as Chair of the Transport Planning Network on behalf of the RTPI as I step down and we aim to recruit a new volunteer for this very important role.

This is now published. Please have a read, and if you’re interested in the latter, get in touch. It’s a great way to keep up to date with transport and planning policy, get involved and influence , and promote our work as transport planners.

Will-o-the-risk

I’ve been reading, thinking, and talking a lot about risk lately. So now I thought I’d write about it.

Understanding risk and using that understanding to rationally make choices and act accordingly is a challenging and tiring business. As Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel prize in economics explains in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (which I highly recommend – an excellent read), understanding probability and risk is neither easy nor intuitive. Humans naturally find these concepts hard to grasp. Even experts in statistics have to put in a good deal of mental effort to follow the advice of an impersonal algorithm that evaluates risk more accurately than their human instincts are willing to believe.

I’m not saying I’m an expert in statistics, but I have spent many of my working hours over the past four years learning how to calculate probabilities and apply quantitative methods. I also spent most of that time as part of a centre for doctoral training that had the word ‘Risk’ in its title. So I should have a head start on the topic.

Yet I didn’t start talking about risk that much until the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of humanity has been asked to change how they live their daily lives in order to reduce the risk of transmission and exponential infection, the risk of healthcare systems being overwhelmed and of excess mortality.

With the restrictions on everyday activity have come a torrent of data and statistics to help people understand why it is their civic duty to limit their mobility and interactions so severely. Yet as I said, it is not in our nature to understand this information easily. And as more data is gathered and modelled and blanket restrictions are replaced by nuanced recommendations, the messages about risk become much more complex.

So I read and think and then talk it through to try to capture the will-o-the-wisp that is comprehension of risk. I tell other mothers that the reason some children have been allowed back in school even whilst they are not allowed to stay over with vulnerable grandparents is because of the difference in the level of risk. I tell my mother that it is riskier to visit her favourite shop that has re-opened than to go for a walk with a friend even if they drift closer together than the recommended ‘social distance’. I try to balance the emotions of paranoia and complacency that I hear, see, and read about every day.

And yet, all these risks relate only to one potential cause of death. Other risks to human life are absent from the equation, something of which I was reminded in the starkest terms this past weekend when, on our first time on a motorway in three months, we passed a road traffic incident involving three cars and being attended by seven emergency service vehicles.

Thus, when politicians tell people the risks are low enough to encourage more travel for both work and leisure, but that the risks are higher on public transport than by car, they are reporting rather incomplete information. As traffic increases, so does the risk of dangerous driving and all its normal consequences. It may be that the risk of dangerous driving is actually greater than before lockdown as many people take to the roads for the first time in months and may be rather out of practice.

Understanding this and deciding how these risks should influence your behaviour isn’t easy, nor can I offer an easy solution. But neither should the conflicting risks be ignored – even if it does feel like trying to catch a will-o-the-risk.

Muddle of Mobility Messages

As the UK begins to ease its lockdown restrictions and people are allowed to move about more, I don’t have a problem with the change of message from ‘Stay at Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’. I feel I can be trusted to behave responsibly and sensibly as I encounter more people beyond my household, and I’d like to think the majority of my fellow citizens can be trusted likewise.

Besides, the first message when it comes to work activities, is to remain working from home if this is possible. And whilst the group that can work from home is not a majority and their socio-demographics have implications for equity, it turns out that far more people can work from home at least some of the time than were doing so before the pandemic. This will reduce pressure on transport infrastructure and destinations alike.

The second message is to walk and cycle where possible, and it is backed up by emergency powers to make changes quickly and funding to implement those changes. Local transport authorities around the country are reallocating road space to pedestrians and cyclists, both to enable safe active travel, and to support social distancing outside essential shops and services.

As I wrote in my last blog, with a proactive approach supported by good spatial planning of these essential non-work destinations, these facilities will help increase walking and cycling among those who are working from home as well as those travelling to work over relatively short distances. In 2018, two thirds of trips in England were under 5 miles (p19).

So far so good. But then we get to the muddle. Whilst some of the other third of trips will be to destinations that are still closed, trips to work and to exercise further from home are being actively encouraged, whilst the use of public transport is being actively discouraged. This is problematic and indeed contradictory for a number of reasons:

  • People are being asked to stay alert if they need to go to workplaces where they risk potential infection due to social interactions outside their household, often in indoor spaces. Meanwhile workplaces are expected to put into place safety measures (for cleaning, social distancing, etc) that make staying alert rather than staying home a sufficient precaution. Public transport vehicles are also workplaces. They are also expected to put into place safety measures (for cleaning, social distancing, etc). Therefore, surely the directive to stay alert should be sufficient for both workplaces and public transport, without the additional directive to avoid public transport altogether?
  • Related to this, encouraging the reallocation of road space at the same time as encouraging a return to car use could create more conflicts between motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists – both on the road and in the media. Clarity on the hierarchy of road users is preferable to the current mixed messages.
  • Furthermore, reductions in carbon emissions and air pollution has been a major benefit of reduced road traffic during lockdown. As COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, keeping air pollution down will not reduce risk of transmission, but may reduce the numbers who are at risk of becoming severely ill. Air pollution causes excess mortality from numerous respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
  • Finally, a study in NYC correlates higher infection rates after lockdown with car-dependent areas, compared to those connected by public transport. The authors suggest this could be because people who travel by car to shops and services are more likely to come into contact with more people from different areas of the city than people who travel by public transport and access what they need by foot within their own neighbourhood. Indeed, if people are returning to work by car (or visiting more distant places for exercise), they may split their essential shopping (food, medicine) across communities, potentially spreading or picking up the virus from multiple places rather than one. Such linked trips by public transport are much less likely, whilst active travellers keep everything local.

In conclusion, if a resurgence in car travel is to be avoided, trust in public transport cannot be undermined further by stark warnings, local people must have priority on local roads, and long distance day trips should be discouraged – at least until more destinations re-open and there are more economic and social benefits to making those trips. The messaging around mobility needs modification and a more strategic outlook.

On Foot Essentials

Last month, I wrote about what many practitioners of transport planning and advocates of accessibility have been mulling over: the tidal wave of telecommuting in these turbulent and yet strangely static times, and the potential sustainability and resilience of online access. Scroll down to my previous blog (or an earlier one) if you want to know more.

However, accessibility is much more than access to work, particularly as telecommuting, contract employment, and other flexible working patterns continue to grow – even before the COVID-19 crisis. Jobs and populations are unevenly distributed and dominant employment sectors and local labour skills often don’t quite match up. Thus, whilst it is important for public transport and road networks to link neighbourhoods to employment areas, it is at least as important that places where people live offer easy access to essential non-work services and activities. Especially if we want to see some lasting effects of the current reduction in carbon-emitting car travel.

Part of the problem, however, is that it is tricky to clearly define what is essential for people to continue to access outside the home. Non-work trips are usually more flexible in terms of the time of day / day of the week they could take place, and there are usually multiple options to fulfil each need in a given area, from supermarkets to hair salons. Some services are also moving online in a big way, such as shopping for comparison goods.

Still, my research using the English National Travel Survey to investigate non-work trips by telecommuters (those with an external workplace who work from home at least once a week) suggested that telecommuters make a similar number of trips per week to the rest of the working population, and confirmed that a much higher percentage of those trips cannot be defined as commuting. In other words, if you work from home, you still want to get out for other purposes about the same number of times, even if to a greater variety of destinations.

My conclusion is that if the majority of these destinations were within walking distance, then more walking and less driving would naturally occur. More walking is better for public health, for community cohesion, and for the environment.

However, other than ‘escort education’, I found it difficult in my research to precisely match land uses to trip purposes such as ‘other escort’, ‘personal business’, or ‘leisure’. Which brings me back to what is essential to have in every neighbourhood, within walking distance, other than schools.

The current situation gives us new insight. First, although it would be helpful to know what indoor leisure opportunities are best localised, we clearly could all use more access to outdoor space and nature for daily exercise, especially where gardens are scarce. Is this an argument for ‘green wedges’ rather than ‘green belts’ and linear parks rather than enclosed squares? I’d advocate further research into the possibility at least.

Furthermore, pharmacies, post offices, and banks are clearly essential, if that was ever in doubt. Such facilities need to stop closing local branches and perhaps diversify their business models to provide other essential services. Finally, there is the admittedly anecdotal evidence that local food shops, convenience stores, and takeaways have been more successful through this period in providing the basics, keeping their customers happy, and offering personalised ordering, collection, and delivery services than their bigger rivals. If there were ever signs that the large, out-of-town hypermarkets are not fit for purpose, they are now flashing red.

In conclusion, it is more apparent now than ever that places with plenty of access to nature and plenty of essentials locally are not only more attractive, but also more resilient. If we want more resilient communities, more telecommuting, and less medium-distance travel, then our goal should be walkable places for everyone.

Broadband in Extreme Demand

Resilience is often described by a number of other words beginning with ‘R’. Resistance or Robustness are two. These refer to infrastructure that is designed or an activity that is organised to avoid risk and withstand the expected impact or disruption. Redundancy and Replication are two more. These refer to equivalent or at least parallel alternatives that enable the same outcomes, even if not by the same means. In transport, it could be an alternative route or another mode that still enables access to the same destination. Finally, there is Response and Recovery, how quickly action is taken and life returns to either its previous ‘normal’ or stabilises into a new ‘normal’.

As I explored in my recently awarded doctoral thesis, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have a major role to play in resilience to severe weather events. Broadband networks are often more robust than transport infrastructure and access to some activities such as work can be replicated online. Opportunities for communication are also enhanced to speed recovery.

Yet the ability of ICT to play these roles may be constrained by the interactions between supply and demand, availability and quality. Broadband supply and availability can be limited if there are not the physical connections to support superfast services, or certain providers simply do not operate. Yet even where the supply is available, broadband quality is affected by increased demand – something the industry calls ‘contention’ or slowdown in busy periods. Usually this happens due to entertainment, and the daily peak tends to be in the evenings, when streaming video content is most popular. Other times, such as during major sporting events, capacity can be managed to some extent by Internet Service Providers.

In contrast, my research was designed to test if contention could be detected when internet activities are in unusually high demand because household members are unexpectedly home due to extreme weather events. Thus, I analysed data comprising 5 years of broadband speeds, from 2012-2016, in England and Wales, which was provided by Speedchecker Ltd, a private company that allows internet users to check their own broadband upload / download speeds, and stores every speed-check with a timestamp and geolocation. Using multilevel modelling to control for supply side variation, I regressed download speeds against daily weather records to assess how more severe weather affects contention experienced at the neighbourhood level. My results confirmed that winter weather and storm-level winds have significant, albeit small, negative effects on broadband speeds.

Yet these effects are likely to have been an underestimate – sensitivity testing suggested greater contention in subsets of the data designed to control for uneven growth in average broadband speeds or exclude spatial extremes in service. There are also divergences between weather parameters and weather impacts, with the latter dependent upon confounding variables like what type of transport infrastructure is affected and the length of advance warning. Also, the noise in this big data source and the subtleties of the assessment meant it was not easy to identify who was most likely to avoid travel risks and work from home during severe weather or where the most telecommuting activity occurs.

In contrast, we now have an ongoing disruption where everyone who can has been told to use ICT in order to be more resilient, avoid a very different type of risk, and replicate their productive activities as much as possible until we can recover. How is the quality and level of service of broadband in the UK coping with what is likely to be the most extreme level of demand it has ever experienced? I’m planning to find out!

Doris to Dennis

First, I want to acknowledge that I am lucky. Storm Dennis has done nothing worse to me and mine than drive my kids a little stir crazy and delay my train journey home from work the past couple of evenings.

But it has also given me a strange feeling of having come full circle. For just less than 3 years ago, on 23 February 2017, there was Storm Doris.

Storm Doris also had little direct impact on me, my family, or my property. I remember having to carry my then two and a half year old son the last 100 yards to his childminder because the road was blocked by a fallen tree, but that was it. I didn’t commute by train very often at the time.

Instead, I went home to sit down at my laptop and continue work on my doctoral research. But with a difference.

After about 6 months of reviewing the literature for gaps I could fill, studying methodologies that I wasn’t sure I would apply, and chasing down dead ends for data I could not access, I suddenly had a real-time opportunity. Storm Doris meant a case study. It meant data. It meant my first foray into empirical research, and eventually my first peer-reviewed publication in the Royal Meteorological Society’s journal Weather.

Three years later, I have completed my PhD, passed my viva, and, just this week, ordered hard copies of my thesis – one for the University library in Birmingham and one for my bookshelf at home. My little story about Storm Doris comprises the content of Chapter 5. Thus I have travelled from Storm Doris to Storm Dennis.

And yet, perhaps because climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of severe weather events, these aren’t the only storms that are relevant to the trajectory of my career in transport research.

Over 20 years ago, as an undergraduate, I took a seminar on environmental and climate science, and chose to write a paper investigating the likely impacts of future hurricane storm surges on the New York City subway-metro system. It was my first foray into a transport-related topic, and in 2012, following Hurricane Sandy, I learned that my paper, and the more sophisticated research of the professor that had taken that seminar, had gone from speculation and prediction to become an unwelcome reality.

Unwelcome, but not unenlightening. Hurricane Sandy taught public authorities lessons about managing resilience and emergency planning. For me, it highlighted the importance of research. Doing it, disseminating it, learning from it before reality strikes. Perhaps it even planted in me the seeds of interest in returning to academia, to research, which then bloomed a few years later when I spotted an advertisement for a doctoral researcher who would investigate a topic that included both transport and extreme weather.

Thus, although I was a PhD student for six months before Storm Doris keeping busy with plenty of preparatory work, at some level, Doris marked the start of my personal investigation into the topic. Now, it seems that Dennis marks the end. Yet I somehow doubt it is the last time a storm will take an auspicious position in my transport career.

A Future of Transport Equity?

I’ve been thinking about transport equity this month. I don’t mean transport poverty, although I’ve read some interesting literature on that too recently. But transport poverty is now and transport equity, or rather inequity, is what we are building into the future of mobility through our investment and policy decisions.

Three areas where we might be steering towards future transport inequity have been on my mind.

The first is electric vehicles. Many see a transition to electric vehicles as the solution to a low-carbon future. Yet my current research explores how mass adoption of plug-in electric vehicles might be delivered when at least a third of car drivers have no ability to park and charge their vehicles at their homes. Many of these people, who may be living in flats or small terraces or rented accommodation without private parking are unlikely to be able to afford the purchase price of battery electric vehicles anyway. Yet even if costs come down and the second-hand market grows, their lack of driveways and garages mean they would still fail to benefit from the ultra-low refuelling costs of slow-charging overnight using home electricity. There are solutions, and we are researching their social sustainability, but it is hard to see how state subsidies for private electric vehicle purchase will lead us to an equitable future of mobility. (Never mind the implications for congestion, urban environments, lithium mining…)

The second transport, or, more accurately, access equity issue that I’ve been mulling over is online access. Online access was a big part of my doctoral research, and as I defended my thesis this month, the external examiner acknowledged that I’d mentioned the equity aspect of online access, but questioned whether I addressed it directly enough. Indeed, the more I think about my analysis of the potential resilience and sustainability of telecommuting as an option to access work activities during transport disruption, the more I realise that it is an option for far too few, and those few tend to be among the more privileged. It does not have to be that way. Changes in government and corporate policy to promote computer skills and allow remote and autonomous working could enable telecommuting to be available to many more sectors of society. But there must also be investment in infrastructure that delivers both availability and quality online access to all – and I’m not sure the current preoccupation with 5G allows that.

Finally, it’s been hard to ignore recent headlines on HS2. Whatever you think about the political agenda or ballooning budget, a new high speed rail service will mainly serve relatively wealthy commuters, as, like telecommuting, rail commuters tend to be found among those with higher incomes. Especially if they’re travelling to benefit from London’s already bloated job market. One can’t help but agree with those who suggest the money might better be spent on local transport, reduced rail fares, or any number of other things. Unless there’s plenty in the coffers for both HS2 and the rest of the wish list, you’d be hard pressed to argue that this is socially-progressive infrastructure investment.

In conclusion, I am not against high-speed rail, 5G or other advanced information and communication technologies, nor electric vehicles and charging systems. Yet if this is all that policy is promoting or institutional actors are investing in, it will leave large portions of society behind and create the transport and access poverty of the future. Instead, I’m advocating for a bit more attention to transport equity when planning the future of mobility and accessibility.

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.