Terminal decline

Tim Holmes assesses the state of public transport in Wales just as a study for the Campaign for Better Transport shows up 'stark' differences between the devolved Scottish rail service and the one in Wales which is managed by Whitehall.

I like a laugh as much as the next person; but this is really a bit much. ‘It’s easy to get around Wales by train, bus, car or even domestic flight’ proclaims Visit Wales, the country’s official tourism site – apparently without irony. What sense of ‘easy’ did they have in mind? (And do they really want us to hop around Wales by plane?)

From the ground, the view is rather less auspicious. In Lonely Planet’s words:

Regional coordination of transport services is limited, nonstop bus services are almost nonexistent and many remote areas are not served by any transport at all.

Since long-distance buses are ‘thin on the ground’, ‘most longer bus journeys have to be cobbled together from a web of routes operated by some 70 private bus companies across the country’. A ‘bizarre’ rail fare system offers limited cheaper tickets; space for bikes on trains is unreliable; and major cities possess ‘few cycle lanes’. But never mind: ‘if you aren’t in a hurry, you can patch together an odyssey…’

Wales’ decrepit public transport system is a natural result of our decades-long love affair with the private car. Since the Beeching axe decimated Wales’ rail network, transport policy has operated on the assumption that most of us drive. The predictable result is that large swathes of the population are cut off, in rural areas especially; transport poverty soars; public health deteriorates; local ecosystems suffer; and millions of tailpipes pump carbon.

Public transport ought to address these problems; instead, it functions as a kind of slush fund for corporations. Bus privatisation dragged us back to the 1930s: once again, a few profitable giants predominate. Chaotically cherry-picking profitable routes, they leave the public to pay for the rest; but even these threadbare subsidies are now being slashed by a quarter. Public transport? This barely merits the title.
Privatised rail, meanwhile, is pure parasitism: a politically-constructed racket in which the public take risks and cover costs on the private sector’s behalf. As a devastating report from Manchester’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) points out, rail links send property and land prices skyrocketing: a massive, hidden subsidy to private wealth. But Network Rail also subsidises train companies more directly, by holding down the cost of track rental. It has thereby accrued a £30 billion debt, and as a consequence now spends more on interest payments than track maintenance. Though it appears on no public balance sheet, this is our debt, gained by shovelling cash into profiteers’ pockets.

Nor does the scam end there. One senior Treasury official (and ex-banker) privately called train companies ‘thinly capitalised equity profiteers of the worst kind’. Well-placed to game a complex system, they win contracts through wild promises they are patently unable to deliver. Investing little, they take little risk. But here’s the real fix: the train companies can collect profits up-front and delay payments to the government until the last minute. In practice, this means they can avoid them altogether, because they are also allowed to walk out halfway through.

You put little in, then, and get it back almost immediately. If things go well, you sit back, flush with public money, reward your shareholders, and let the good times roll; if not, you simply walk away from the table. It’s win, draw, or bail out. Thus in 2011, with three quarters of its payments still due, First Group abandoned the Greater Western franchise, ducking a reported £800 million bill. Arriva Trains Wales fared rather better: investing £5 million, it took £4.9 million in dividends after one year, then raked in a further £75 million. Since 60% of its revenue was public money, this was effectively a free ride at public expense.

The solutions to these problems are equal parts no-brainer and imaginative thinking – though many require extensive devolved powers from Westminster. Firstly, we must begin to decommission fossil-fuelled transport. To tackle climate change, we must curb demand for aviation (most of it from the rich) by two thirds, preferably through an equitable system of rations or quotas. Congestion charges, pedestrianisation and rollbacks of urban parking space can all shift us towards car-free cities. As Friends of the Earth and Sustrans Cymru suggest, we need 20mph speed limits in towns; mandatory cycling proficiency as part of driving tests; reinforced rights of way for cyclists and pedestrians; a ‘presumption of liability’ against drivers who hit cyclists; reliable space for bikes on trains and at stations (rather than car parks); and a fifth of Wales’ transport budget devoted to active travel.

Buses must be reregulated, and companies forced to cross-subsidise less lucrative routes. Building on the success of Bwcabus in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, we should radically step up demand-responsive community transport schemes – a cheap, green and efficient way of connecting dispersed populations.

Electrification and north-south rail links are way overdue. As Professor Paul Salveson argues, we should establish a non-profit body – Rail Cymru – that allows Government, staff, passengers and communities to manage Welsh railways. This would end the fragmented, short-term, profit-distorted private model; simplify the system; promote transparency; and cut costs. To reverse extortionate fare hikes, we will need new funding models: property and land taxes, for instance, can help claw back the windfall wealth that rail creates. But more fundamentally, we must exhume a buried notion: that transport is a social good worthy of public support, not an economic commodity reliant on private custom. Only then might rhetoric start to resemble reality.


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