Enjoying and enduring public transport

I knew it was going to be difficult. Taking a train to Gloucestershire and then relying on taxis and lifts to get five people to a wedding in the countryside would never be as easy as jumping in a car. But while we did enjoy parts of the experience, the majority of it was painful, forcing me to accept just how ill-prepared this country is for reducing car ownership.

We took a total of 11 trains last weekend, hired three taxis, relied on family to provide lifts, spent around two hours waiting on platforms and depended on passengers on busy trains give up seats for our tired children. The taxis we used were mostly unreliable and expensive. One arrived far too early, which meant we changed for a wedding in a panic and asked to be left on a muddy layby down the road from our hosts’ house so we didn’t arrive obnoxiously early. Then train cancellations on Sunday meant we returned home annoyed, exhausted and well past our children’s bedtimes.

So it was difficult, but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up. We have to accept that cars are essential for some journeys and either hire or share cars from London or, better still, take trains and then hire cars near our destination.

It’s sad that so few consider doing this. RAC data estimated that five million leisure journeys were made by car on the last August bank holiday Monday in the UK, up by nearly 1 million on last year. We now expect roads in London to be clogged every weekend as drivers pile out of the city. Reducing these traffic levels should be a priority for reducing gridlock in cities and on motorways, and improving air quality and emissions. Surely it should be absurd to send so many people in separate cars on such similar routes.

And we all stand to gain from getting out of cars on these long journeys. Sure you can tune in, zone out on the motorway, emerging from the trance only to visit a dull and formulaic motorway service station. But a train journey promises more fun, more life. On our journey to Lydney last Friday night we talked to more people, we paid more attention to the changing countryside, noticed the towns we moved through, we read books, shared drinks and actually looked at each other while conversing.

Of course, the reason most people don’t make the switch is because our rail system is so appalling: fares are too high and the service is unreliable, understaffed and overcrowded. Passengers in this country pay the highest fares in Europe, and the costs of public transport are rising at a dramatically higher rate than the costs of driving.

Our five train tickets last weekend cost £200. This wasn’t a last-minute fare. I bought these tickets ten days before we travelled, invested in a family railcard and spent a great deal of time fiddling with a confusing system to get the cheapest tickets. It couldn’t help but feel they were making it as difficult as possible for me to find the cheapest fare.

(It was telling that a taxi driver in the Forest of Dean said he’d drive our family to London for the same price as our train tickets– and he would drop us at our front door. Great Western Railway should be ashamed that a private taxi service could compete with its prices.)

Considering these exorbitant prices, you’d think you get an impeccable service. But we didn’t. On Sunday our train between Gloucester and London was cancelled, as were three or four other trains that day. Whatever the reason for those cancellations, whatever ‘staff shortages’ really means, it was clear that GWR handled the situation badly.

They offered no warning about the cancellation (even though they had my phone number and email address) and no assistance on the day, whether that was via train conductors, station staff, their Twitter feed (as if) or even their customer service phone line. And it’s not just us passengers feeling the frustration – as one member of station staff said to me with a sigh, ‘you’d think we’d be able to send alerts to passengers in the 21st Century’. In the end we had to work out an alternative route home ourselves using our smartphones – which we can’t assume all passengers have access to.

This level of service has come to be expected across our national rail service. There was an air of jaded resignation among the regular passengers on our trains, rather than the shocked outrage I was feeling as an infrequent passenger. I spoke to one woman — who stood for most of the journey with her sleeping daughter in a buggy — who told me both her outward and returning trains had been cancelled that weekend.

But this isn’t good enough. I support Labour’s policy to bring railways back into public ownership. Despite huge increases in rail fares in recent years, private operators have failed to invest in the infrastructure. If we ran services on a not-for-profit basis, we could ensure fares are kept down and investment is secured.

Time is running out. Unless we get people hooked on train travel now we will lose yet another generation to the car.

Giving up our unloved yet beloved car

I’ll admit to a love-hate relationship with my car. The hate part is easier for me to rationalise: the evidence is clear that cars are destroying our environment; taking control of public space; and killing and injuring far too many people.

The love part, however, is a guilty secret. Despite the fact that we rarely use it[1], the car has become part of our family world – my husband and children have devised a song about it; we have become fond of its technical idiosyncrasies; we moan about its smells and crumbs but they are ours; and once the doors are shut, this is our universe, with our stuff, our music and our conversations.

But I’m convinced that I’ve been duped into this way of thinking. Billions have been invested over the last century selling the car as a symbol of status, desire, freedom and necessity. As soon as we earn enough money, or as soon as we have children, there’s an assumption that we should get a car. And once we have it, it becomes very difficult to give it up.

Surely it is time for city dwellers to think differently. Surely we can discover greater freedom and happiness when walking or cycling the city, or switching off on public transport. Surely we can gain economic freedom by selling our cars altogether and greater enjoyment of our public spaces if we free them of parked cars.

Yet I have the feeling London isn’t ready for this shift. I’m mindful that there aren’t enough incentives for families to sell their cars; that public transport over longer distances is too expensive; that the car will always beat other options if it’s parked outside the house on a rainy day; that hiring or sharing cars is still too troublesome; and finding a hire car equipped with three children’s car seats (that we as a family need) is not always straightforward.

But maybe I’m wrong. To see if we can cope without this safety net, my family is going to give up its car for the rest of 2017. If we survive, we’ll sell up in the new year. We’ll test out public transport over longer distances, car sharing, and new types of car hiring. We’ll analyse the costs, the effort and the pinch points where the car is hard to beat.

The first test comes this weekend for a trip to the countryside for a wedding and a stay with (grand)parents in Gloucestershire. Before children, I always made this journey on public transport, but this will be the first time we tackle it as a family. Our assumption has always been the train would be too expensive and too troublesome with three children in tow. But let’s see.

[1] It’s brought out for visits to family in the countryside; trips to the zoo or the seaside; the odd trip to the dump; the occasional trip to Westfield; and a couple of camping excursions every year.