James May

Public transport illustration

Fare game

This arfticle was first published in June 2006.

It must be ABOUT thirty years since Jimmy Saville told us that ‘this is the age of the train’, but maybe, finally, it is. Just as the last of the Inter-City 125s he trumpeted so memorably terminates in the long, rusty siding at the side of a scrapyard somewhere, things are looking pretty good on the ‘permanent way’.

I’ve been on three trains in the last month. Two between London and Manchester operated by Virgin Trains, and one from there to Hull operated by Northern Rail or something like that. I must admit that I preferred the era when one simply turned up at ‘the station’ and got on ‘the train’ instead of arriving at a retail and dining complex with some rails attached and then standing for an hour in front of a massive flickering monitor trying to work out which of a countless number of operators will accept the brightly coloured £135 stub in your hand. But still...

Apart from that, the whole experience was rather good. These were the new Pendolino trains; sleek, stylish and very cool. I know some have criticised them for their weight and thirst, but they strike me as a Lexus amongst rolling stock. They are quiet, draft-free, smooth riding and very fast in an unflustered sort of way. The seats are very good, the upholstery subdued, the announcements intelligible. It’s some years since I’ve been on a proper train and I was very pleasantly surprised.

For example, I’d reserved a seat. In the olden days this would mean there was a bit of cardboard wedged under the antimacassar, or was until some pissed pikey removed it, chucked it on the floor and then filled the table with empty Carlsberg cans so you felt better off in the concertina bit between the coaches. Not any more. A little dot-matrix display above my place read ‘Reserved, Mr May’ so there was no argument about that.

There was still a chance that a zealous vicar or malodorous railway enthusiast would sit next to me but again, I was lucky. For two of the journeys I had two seats to myself, and on the third I was joined by a woman who not only smelled nice but didn’t speak to me at all, which was marvellous.

Crikey, even the buffet has improved. Once there was a slimy carriage offering the following range of sandwich fillings: cheese. Now there is a trolley piled high with fruit cake and pies and a big samovar thing for making hot drinks, a sort of wheeled five-star hotel tea and coffee-making  facility. More wine with your meal, sir? Why, yes.

What a pleasant and, as widely claimed, efficient way to travel up the sceptered isle. London to Manchester takes just two-and-a-half hours during which one may, of course, work on a laptop, read important documents or hold an impromptu meeting with colleagues. Obviously I did none of these things. I looked out of the window for a bit and then fell asleep with my head resting on the seat in front, dribbling on my trousers. But if you did work in IT or a customer relations role, you could annoy everyone else on the train by talking in a loud voice about managing expectations or tapping noisily on your Strawberry personal organiser. You can’t do that in the car.


“Until public transport stops outside my door in the space where I keep my car, it’s not really any good”  

I said London to Manchester takes two-and-a-half hours. Unfortunately, it’s a place in London where I don’t live, to a place in Manchester where I don’t want to be. And here we arrive at the crux of the public transport conundrum.

Obviously, long-distance communal travel makes sense. You wouldn’t fly yourself to America in your own Cessna – you’d get on a big aeroplane with lots of other people and complete the bulk of the journey very rapidly. You wouldn’t sail your own dinghy across the North Sea to Norway. You’d get on a ferry and stand around a bar with a load of lorry drivers and pimps. Lots of people seem to want to go from London to Manchester at any time, so they can all go together.

It’s the little bits at either end of the journey that cause a problem, yet it’s in the towns and cities that public transport is presented as the solution to all our woes. It’s rubbish. If I’d had to find my way from Manchester Station to whichever hotel I was staying in using the local buses, I’d have given up and gone home again.

You can bang on all you like about trams, light rail, bendy buses and maglev, but until such things stop outside my front door in the space where I keep my car, they’re not really any good. My local underground station – and the estate agent told me I was buying a property ideally situated for local transport facilities – is still a good 10 minutes’ walk away, and with a big suitcase that’s just too much trouble. No matter how comprehensive the public transport network becomes, there’s always going to be a little bit of the journey requiring a fair amount of personal hassle. 

And let’s be honest here. Posh Inter-City trains are generally full of respectable people, but local public transport isn’t. I’m sure London tube commuters are largely upstanding pillars of society, but there are still enough of them that smell of old pants to make the journey unsavoury.

I have the solution. In my vision, I step outside to find something like a Fiat Panda or Smart Car that doesn’t belong to me but is open and started with a simple button. There are no keys. I drive it to the station and leave it. Someone coming from Manchester then uses it to get to the offices around the corner from my house. Then someone else uses it to go to the shops. Occasionally they might pile up in one place or another, but in that case the people who we currently employ as traffic wardens are used to redistribute them a bit.

And no, one can’t nick them, because they are electronically tagged to prevent them straying beyond a radius of a few miles. This is a simple matter, one of utilising the technology so readily used to punish us as a means of liberating us instead.

I can’t really see why it wouldn’t work. This is the age of the true city car – a car owned by the city.


James May, Column

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