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Jane Turner's opinion articles

A car of the future?

Being transported back to the future?

Musings by Jane Turner September 2010

What is the future of travel in the 21st Century?

Imagine, just imagine the possibilities… 

Cars that take off and fly? High speed rail links across the world? Personalised vehicles powered by hydrogen or electricity?  Vehicles fitted with wireless communication and GPS that can drive and park themselves? Travelling free from congestion, accidents and air pollution? Co-ordinated and efficient transport networks? Door-to-door flying?


Or maybe you think we have gone too far already and that we should stop now and stay put in order to save the planet? You might value mobility and the freedom that travel affords, and don’t want to sacrifice this for the sake of the planet or because of the recession? You may be interested in a highly mobile future rather than a low-carbon one and think that we need more flights, wider roads, innovative personal vehicles and faster trains? Or you may think that we should be travelling less, staying local and learning to love our bikes? What are today’s guiding principles shaping our future vision?


At the Manchester Salon on Monday 25 October, we will be discussing The Future of Transport with the opportunity to do a little star gazing and some adventurous thinking about the transport of the future. While holidaying in the UK this summer, my own transport experiences provided some food for thought... 

Travelling around the UK aka “Losing your mind while head-butting the windscreen when stationary behind a caravan between supersized tankers on a grid-locked road…”


When I was young and so much younger than today, I was a regular passenger on the toy train that was a popular amenity in the Pavilion Gardens in Buxton. It was operated voluntarily by my Great Grandad - doing his bit for the “big society” before we even knew there was a catch-phrase for that type of contribution.  And of course I got to go free – whenever I wanted to, which was often. Living within earshot of the real railway line which ran past the bottom of our garden, my four sisters and I - being “famous-five-wannabes” - used the tracks as our playground and the viaducts as our den. When the trains weren’t coming or going, we ran across and up and down the rail-track peering over the edge of the viaduct in awe at the height and not much aware of how big the drop or how great the danger.  In our imaginations we were some-sort-of-gang-on-the-run-on-a-top-secret-mission and when the trains sped past, we hid in the bushes at the side of the tracks plotting our next move. 


slowI didn’t turn into a train robber or spotter (thankfully), but whiling away many hours in that den, I got to observe the giant arched stone structure of the viaduct and the smooth and shiny metal on the perfectly straight lines of the well-used tracks and to this day still appreciate a decent viaduct (before sniggering, take a closer look, I assure you, they are truly fantastic structures). I recall staring into the distance while standing on the rumbling track on one foot as the train disappeared over the horizon, wondering where the trains were coming from and going to and dreaming about what lay beyond – I know, you think that’s a bit sad, but an impoverished and unfettered childhood was at least good for my imagination.


Buxton was and still often is a difficult place to get to; being high up in the undulating Peak District and regularly cut off from anywhere else by poor weather and road closures. So the trains (the real ones) were a lifeline and were fairly well-used in and out of the small sheltered town and into the “big developed worlds” of Stockport and Manchester nearby. In fact, if it wasn’t for the railway line we would have hardly left town, as nobody I knew had a car and air travel in those days was way beyond the means of an ordinary family like ours.


Spending a large part of my summer holidays in the UK this year, I went back to Buxton by car, and travelling through a soupy fog (in August!) and behind several sheep, I recalled many similar journeys; slow and winding, and wished that the roads were wider and faster or that I could at least use a co-ordinated and more efficient transport service instead. But I doubt there’s much chance of that right now in “growth-sceptic-austerity-Britain”.

From a railway carriage...

steam trainI also spent one day of my summer holidays on a sturdy old steam train on the Settle to Carlisle line. Whilst gazing out of the window at the green and pleasant land (and clouds of soot), I had plenty of time to ponder (steam trains are slow moving, especially uphill) about why many of today’s road and rail links are hardly fit for purpose and so poor in comparison to this fantastic feat of engineering and building that crosses much worse terrain than that of the Buxton hills.


But then this stretch of railway was built in very different times when anything and everything seemed possible and the benefits of development were welcomed and necessary to improve the economy and peoples lives.


The 72 mile route from Settle in Yorkshire to Carlisle in the far North of England covers a truly magnificent scenic route through the Yorkshire Dales and up to the border city of Carlisle. The line runs over many viaducts and through long tunnels blasted out from underneath the moors. It was one of the last great mainline railways to be built in this country, completed some time ago, in 1876. It took 7 years and as many as 6000 workers to complete it. They used sheer force and quite a bit of dynamite in order to blast through the terrain, and hundreds gave their lives in their endeavours. Anyone denouncing the death rate and mal-treatment of workers in developing countries should remember that many worked in treacherous conditions for meagre wages and often paid with their lives in building Britain too.


Ribblehead Viaduct

The landscape on the Settle to Carlisle route presented many challenges to test the skill and ingenuity of the engineers and builders, but they overcame every formidable obstacle. In its entirety the route encompasses 17 viaducts spanning ravines and hills and 14 tunnels that had to be blasted through the seemingly impossible hillsides. The Ribblehead Viaduct alone has 24 enormous stone arches each over 100 feet above the moors. When completed, it provided a much-needed and well-used route for passengers and trade at a time when Britain’s economy was expanding and improved communications were vital to its success.


Unlike many railway routes, this one remains open and is testimony to the skill, hard work and imagination of the times when caution was thrown to the wind, in an attempt to master the environment and utilise it in the name of progress. Unlike the scepticism surrounding growth today, when nothing gets done for fear of harming the planet or because of “the deficit”. Are we always to be held back in the quest for progress or is there an alternative?


Rambling and ambling...

As well as meandering along the 72 miles of the Settle to Carlisle railway line, I also did a spot of rambling, most recently at Monsal Head and along the Monsal Trail in Derbyshire. This pathway now takes walkers across the top of the viaduct that once carried railway lines and trains across the River Wye and makes use of the now dis-used rail tracks for footpaths, providing a neat pathway from village to town and around. Where trains once flew by, walkers now stroll at a gentler pace taking in the scenery and a breath of fresh air before getting in their cars and driving back to whatever North-West conurbation they come from.


In 1942 at the height of the railway age, there were 19000 miles of track in Britain and 7000 stations. Now there are only 10000 miles left and 2000 stations and the result is almost 9000 miles of disused railway lines at a time of increasing inefficiencies on the existing rail network and congestion on roads. For those who like to take a leisurely walk, that’s a lot of ground to cover. But it does seem non-sensical that these tracks are not utilised for transport anymore. Re-opening many of them would reduce journey time for rail users and make the rail network more efficient and possibly alleviate some of the gridlock on roads?


Road Rage

If you wanted to devise a plot to send someone round the twist, you could do worse than to pack them off to Norfolk via the coast road in high season. To call this a road is a breach of the Trades Description Act, and there were times when chugging along this insult to a road in first gear that I almost got out, abandoned the car and walked.  Once stuck on it though, you have very little choice but to stay on it, as it’s part of a relatively undeveloped network of other equally frustrating "roads" that make Norfolk a very difficult place to get to and travel around.  Now I realise why I have never made it to this part of the world until now and why, unless they make it easier to get to in future, I wont be returning and obviously not in a hurry.  Like someone said, “you never really learn to swear until you learn to drive”!  Well the air must be blue in Norfolk.


traffic jamIt’s hardly much better on the so-called motorways and with the holidays over it was back to travelling along the M56 and M60 ring-road (toll free since the voters of Manchester rejected the “tax on driving” (hurrah!) in 2008) and while the M60 was a much-needed development once upon a time, it no longer really functions as a road anymore due to the sheer volumes of traffic, except possibly in the early hours of the morning when there is a lot less of it about; otherwise, particularly in the madness of the rush-hour, it is more like it’s nickname, a car-park, with traffic often at a standstill. I calculated that my average speed on the network of motorways around Cheshire and Manchester in the last 12 months was 23 miles per hour, almost as slow as driving behind a few lost sheep on a foggy day in the Derbyshire hills and a lot slower than a steam train on the Settle-Carlisle route but not quite as dawdling as the road to Norfolk!


The M60, only completed fairly recently in 2004 already feels like it has been designed for a different age. While car ownership and usage has increased from 9 million in 1961 to almost 29 million in 2000, the length of Britain’s roads has hardly changed in the same period whilst the national rail network has significantly reduced, meaning there’s not much room on the antiquated roads for anyone to drive at speed or in comfort and remain sane!


Indeed, you might actually get to your destination much faster on a bicycle!  But the average rainfall around here is not conducive, and after pedalling for miles you’d probably be too worn out to do anything of worth when you arrived! 


cycling in rainInstead of just getting on with the job and giving people what they want and need – more roads, investment in improving infrastructure, innovative new forms of travel - we have the nonsense of government policies to “encourage” us to change our travelling habits! In the Department for Transport’s Building Sustainable Transport document the emphasis is on “influencing travel behaviour by good planning” which means providing walkways and cycle paths and reducing car parks. This flies in the face of the insurmountable evidence that most people prefer cars to walking, cycling or using public transport. 


And whilst it is true that if public transport was improved (from its non-existent, un-co-ordinated, un-reliable, expensive, overcrowded, archaic, filthy and undesirable state) some people would choose to leave the car at home and take a train or bus, it is clear that for most people, the car is the number one choice.  Cars take you from door-to-door, allow flexibility in choice of when and where to travel and who to travel with and provide a personal independence that no alternative form of travel currently offers.  It’s a backward move to try and get people to ditch their cars, and I’d tell the powers that be that they are “flogging a dead horse” but I'm worried that they would then champion the possibility of the horse and cart as a potentially planet-friendly form of travel! Gee up!


Not content with telling us what to eat, drink and do in our private lives, they - those that should have more important things to do - want to “influence” how we travel along with almost every other aspect of our very being!  I’m surprised they haven’t taken control of the “sat-nag” to have a go at us while we remain stationary in traffic… “to avoid becoming a drain on the NHS, while you are fouling the environment and clogging up the roads you could try this exercise to relieve the tension you have caused yourself – remember to turn off the engine first to avoid a fine – and then gently pirouette on the front seat flexing your leg muscles, if this fails, try cycling, it’s good for you and good for the planet too…”


It’s possible that the only thing travelling around the UK is good for these days is a study in human misery; observe faces while sitting in a jam (as I do every day), or on an overcrowded tube, train or bus and what you often see is a stressed-out mixture of anger, agony and desperation. It’s obvious to the reasonable that the stresses of travelling could be avoided and the pleasure increased if there were more and better roads with space and room to drive along and with somewhere to park when you got to your destination. But this requires renewed infrastructure and innovation in vehicle design, instead of large doses of behaviour management. 


“My soul is in the sky”   (William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream)

Seeing and experiencing the world beyond the confines of ones own back-yard is an experience that most people enjoy, made easier and cheaper for the majority in recent years with the advent of low cost airlines and the opening of new airports all over the world. Yet while more and more people choose to fly, this experience is also being wrecked by terrorist paranoia, over-zealous security checks, delays and inefficiencies at airports and the constant haranguing about ones carbon footprint. You can’t even leave the country without a lecture on your way out…


Chitty-Chitty-Bang-BangBut despite the many transport hurdles, most people have to, want to and actually like to travel; and the ability to travel, no matter how arduous at times, is undoubtedly beneficial, liberating and interesting. But travelling anywhere by whatever method in UK 2010 should really be a whole lot better. Whilst queuing bare-foot with the masses at airports, standing in the rain at bus-stops and waiting in cold, dark and deserted train stations and during the wasted hours stuck in traffic jams, I occasionally imagine taking off in a vehicle a bit like Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang and escaping the traffic torture.  But a car-that-turns-into-a-plane-and-a-boat isn’t on the market yet and I’m not quite sure of my destination…


What is the future of travel in the 21st Century?

While some other countries are forging ahead building miles of roads, laying vast tracts of railway lines, designing and building new vehicles and opening new airports, here in the UK we seem to be standing still or going backwards to forms of transport rejected and bettered elsewhere already. So, is there an alternative vision and a future for transport in the 21st century? Come along to the Manchester Salon discussion on the Future of Transport on 25 October, and help shape thinking on the issue.

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