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A to B 34 Blog, February 2003, Cycle Role Models, SRA

A to B magazine, useless cycle facilityThe mention of dubious cycle paths in the last issue brought forth an entertaining crop of poor facilities. The Mole’s personal favourite hails from the Georgian pile once known simply as Brighton, but now, one understands, reborn as Brighton & Hove City. In a rambling aside, one wonders whether the town formerly known as Brighton will be constructing a smart new cathedral to match its city status? If so, one wonders whether the good burgers of the metropolis will incorporate any of the fine ironwork from the pile of flotsam formerly known as Brighton West Pier, which got wind of the city tag back in January, and promptly fell into the sea.

Brighton, though careless with its priceless listed structures, is relatively generous to cyclists, allowing bipedular access to the promenade, unlike most other seaside towns or, indeed, cities. Away from the promenade, a considerable amount has been spent on cycle facilities, but not always wisely, as illustrated above. One cannot help admiring the ‘Give Way’ markings in advance of the pole – a masterful flourish. Our thanks to former journalist Fred Pipes for this fine example of local authority mis-spending. Many similar delights can be viewed at Fred’s one-man crusading web site: www.weirdcyclelanes.co.uk

As mentioned in this column on more than one occasion, the vast sums spent on useless cycle ‘facilities’ might yield a larger (and certainly more enthusiastic) bicycling population if re- routed into cheerful feel- good advertising. A number of interesting photographs have since arrived to illustrate this point – interestingly enough, all the recent examples featuring electric bicycles or scooters of various kinds.

A to B magazine, Geri HalliwellIn the interest of fairness, the Mole has carefully selected positive role models of both the male and female variety. Such images require little in the way of explanation, although in passing one appreciates how dancer and popular musician Geri Halliwell acquired the fine pair of legs, but how might evolutionary theory account for the manly chins of Formula One racing drivers? A by-product of unnatural G-forces, perhaps?

Incidentally, for Part Number geeks, Geri models a Heinzmann ElectricSurfer scooter, while David Coulthard rides something called a Prima Joe Fly – 20-inch wheels, full suspension and regenerative braking. Sadly, the 0 to 60 time is not recorded.

A to B magazine, David Coulthard on Electric BikeBut just a moment – is this cheerfully helmet-less David Coulthard the same Formula One racing driver who has recently become patron of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust? A well-meaning, if slightly potty organisation lobbying hard (against overwhelming evidence) to make bicycle helmets compulsory? According to the Bicycle Helmet folk, David is a keen cyclist who, ‘cycles almost every day in Monaco as part of his training regime and always wears a helmet himself.’

…The railways have done rather well, with traffic figures approaching 40 billion passenger/kilometres…

Well, nearly always. Despite all this sexy publicity, one suspects cycling numbers are continuing to decline (see Mole, A to B 30)? One is left very much in the dark on this question, for following a marked fall in cyclists late in 2001 and the damning graph in A to B 30, the Department of Transport appears to have air-brushed bicycle statistics from its quarterly road traffic bulletins. An innocent mistake, surely? Well, maybe – when pressed, a DoT spokesperson would say only that, ‘…the data for the periods you require are unavailable at present…’ Stalin would have recognised the tone.

In marked contradiction, cycle path charity Sustrans is claiming ‘a rise of up to 50% in the third quarter of 2002’, but of course, their figures relate entirely to cycle paths, and primarily to leisure journeys, including car-assisted  ones, no doubt.

A to B magazine, Richard Bowker

Richard Bowker – claims not to be Beeching Mk 2, despite cancelling grants, cutting services and considering branch lines for closure. But why is he posing under a French train?

Needless to say,   car usage continues to rise out of control, with growth of between 2 and 3% in the first half of 2002. Following sustained lobbying from the road-construction pressure groups, the government caved in (once again) after Christmas, announcing a multi-billion pound ten-year road construction programme, before admitting that traffic conditions in ten years time would be no better than today. The final solution, eh?

Thanks primarily to road congestion, the railways have done rather well in the last decade, with traffic figures approaching the 40 billion passenger/kilometre mark in 2000 – possibly the highest level ever, but certainly since Doctor Beeching was in short trousers. Unfortunately, Railtrack’s gross mismanagement, allied to the greed and cynicism of a number of rail operators and tightening of government purse strings, has brought this remarkable period of growth to a halt.

Without new passing loops, reinstated double track, re-opened lines and new trains, there really is little chance of the rail renaissance continuing. So can we expect a similar government ‘predict and provide’ spending round for the railways? Er, no. Faced with burgeoning demand for rail, the Strategic Rail Authority has been instructed to cut costs by eliminating grants for new passenger and freight facilities, and instigating ‘Tactical Service Reductions’, a masterful new concept aimed at cutting less profitable services to make room for ‘fat cat’ intercity trains.

Ironically, most of the trains to be removed from the timetable in May 2003 – including the entire Bristol to Oxford service – were introduced only recently (see Mole, A to B 7). Launched in 1998 as Stage One of a proposed Bristol-Oxford- Cambridge service (demonstrating just what privatisation could achieve, ho ho), Bristol to Oxford makes an interesting case study. The line was supposed to benefit from new trains and new intermediate stations, but the trains never arrived and – thanks to the unprecedented increase in costs since privatisation – after four years of planning work and countless budget over-runs, only one station (at Corsham in Wiltshire) actually got off the drawing board. But with the trains about to be axed, work on the ground has obviously ceased. Again… The more complicated Oxford to Cambridge bit – which would have involved real expenditure on track and signals – is now dead in the water.

…Expect a round of railway closure proposals, unless Saddam engineers an oil supply crisis first…

According to Richard Bowker, the trendy Virgin Trains man running the Strategic Rail Authority, ‘In parts of the country, the tracks are too congested… Our long-term objective remains to increase capacity through more trains and new track where it makes sense’ (A to B italics). In transport, all modes are equal, but some are evidently more equal than others.

Bowker was to return to this disturbing theme at the National Rail Conference late in January. Looking back from a hypothetical golden age ten years hence, he added a coded hypothetical warning: ‘…there was certainly some service rationalisation earlier in the decade, [but] the prophets of doom warning of Beeching Mark 2 have proved to have been totally misguided.’ Oh yeah?

We must assume that – despite the spectacular growth in rail passenger figures – such much-needed rail ‘bypasses’ as Bristol-Oxford-Cambridge no longer ‘make sense’. More worryingly, we have been warned that the SRA doesn’t have much faith in rural branch lines either.

But to be fair, Richard Bowker is nothing if not even-handed. After all, he might have been tempted to provide funding for desperately needed double track on the Salisbury to Exeter line, where the franchise is run by Stagecoach, one of whose executives just happens to be his dad… But why bother enhancing the railway infrastructure? Bowker has just wasted £29 million of taxpayers’ money shoring up the SWT share price, even as the Government was preparing to pour hundreds of millions into motorway-style ‘improvements’ to the adjacent A303 trunk road.

A to B magazine, Rover Advert

With things going very much that sort of way, perhaps a nice new Rover would make a sensible purchase? Particularly as the company appears to be offering a lifetime A to B subscription with any new Rover 25, 45, or 75 off-loaded before March 31st. What a kind thought. And just the thing for that tedious drive from Salisbury to Exeter, eh? Unless, of course, things go horribly wrong in the Middle East. Expect a round of railway closure proposals in 2003, unless Saddam engineers the mother and father of all oil supply crises first.