Prescott’s transport of despair

Author: Emma Cook, Sara Bonisteel, Ian Herbert

AT LAST, the fully extended Jubilee Line – one of the world’s most expensive railways – opened yesterday. State-of-the-art signalling, stunning architecture and glass screens to stop you falling in front of the train. Progress indeed. A symbol of British achievement and efficiency to whisk us into the millennium, I hoped as I queued to be among the first passengers to experience transport at its cutting edge.

Sadly it couldn’t even whisk me out of the station, never mind this century. There I stood at Wembley Park in north west London, inspired by John Prescott’s encouragement to travel by train – and there weren’t any. I was told to get a bus. So much for the most costly British construction project since the Channel Tunnel.

This time they couldn’t blame the wrong sort of leaves or the snow. It was track replacement work, they said. Fine tuning. Which was distinctly lacking when it came to their alternative travel arrangements. We were herded onto a decrepit, unheated bus which wound through the congested residential roads of north-west London at snails’ pace. The contrast with the futuristic Jubilee Line couldn’t have been more stark. It was like paying for the latest white-knuckle ride at Blackpool and ending up on the dodgems. Except a little less comfortable.

The Jubilee Line project began six years ago when the cost was estimated at pounds 1.9bn. Its completion, due in spring last year, was held up by strikes and technical hitches. The “over-sensitive” signalling identified faults when there were none and had to be altered. Costs escalated sharply. The eventual opening yesterday seemed to fall a little flat. No fanfares and no red carpets. John Self, general manager of the Jubilee Line, said a little limply: “We are glad to announce to the public that, apart from continuing work at Westminster station, we are ready to roll.” When it is finished the final cost will be well in excess of pounds 3.5bn. Each mile of the 10-mile section of the line has cost pounds 350m, more than each mile of the pounds 10bn Channel tunnel project.

Maybe it wasn’t just me that felt let down by a train line that had promised so much on the day of its inception. After a detour over every speed bump between Wembley and Kilburn, it was too much for one Australian who stood up and shouted: “This system is f**ked. London Transport is s**t.

Some 50 minutes later we were tipped out at West Hampstead station, now packed with people, and left to wait for a further quarter of an hour. Just as I had begun to give up hope, a Stratford-bound tube arrived. Ten minutes later I was almost prepared to forget the teething problems when a screech of brakes brought us to a halt in a tunnel just outside Westminster. As we crawled into Waterloo I began to wonder if the Docklands Light Railway really was so bad after all. Thirteen minutes later we were in Canary Wharf. Just for the hell of it I stayed on to the end of the line, Stratford. The journey took two and a half hours – just enough time to get to Paris on the Euro.

EMMA COOK

RURAL BONESHAKER THAT CALLS ITSELF A BUS

GET ON the bus, John Prescott said last week. So I did. Three days travelling by Cornish bus. Easy as pie? Try tough as a cheap pasty.

The remote, largely rural county has been chosen by Prescott to test out a new “integrated transport system” including a funded expansion of the bus network and a newer fleet of buses. It can’t come soon enough.

Cornwall claims to be amazingly accessible by bus. It may be – but only with the help of timetables, noticeable by their absences from the bus stops. I spent the majority of Wednesday morning freezing in a shoddy shelter in Penzance. As the harbour winds bit my face, I cursed the 1.1a to Land’s End. I was told it was running on schedule, but was clueless as to what that schedule was.

The hub of western Cornwall’s bus operation, controlled largely by Western National, is a hotchpotch of aging vehicles. Old Mercedes touring coaches sit among double-deckers, standard city buses and large vans. Indeed, when the 1.1a pulled up it was a mammoth blue and white double-decker – an odd choice for the small numbers heading to Land’s End out of season.

I proffered my pounds 20 note. “Not on this bus,” said the driver, but he kindly waited as I changed it on another bus idling nearby.

Riding atop the double-decker with my four fellow passengers, I took in the breathtaking view of the rolling Cornish countryside. But I could also see the absurdity of rural transport. The bus had to snake through eight feet high hedges, down one-vehicle-wide lanes and up 60 degree inclines. It stopped at least three times to wait for oncoming traffic to reverse back almost to the last village.

The majority of passengers were school children and pensioners. The students complained that the service ended too early in the evening – 5pm. The pensioners were unhappy about having to pay while their counterparts in London and Liverpool travelled free. “We all put into the kitty,” said a woman from St Ives. “Why treat one part of the country different than the other?”

“It’s the drivers who take the flack,” said John Regan, who drives for the private service that picked me up at Land’s End. “When I was young, if you were a bus conductor, you were well respected in the community. Now you’re just another member on the payroll.” When he dropped me in St Just, I had one-and-a-half hours until my next bus. Rather than freeze again, I headed to the tea shop, returning to the bus station in plenty of time for the 4.45pm to St Ives. By 5.24pm it was dark and I had had enough. I took the next bus back to Penzance.

Angry, I tried again the next day. St Ives, Redruth, Truro, Camborne, Liskeard, Saltash. At each stop I waited in dirty, unheated shelters. In one, someone had scrawled a string of obscenities. Assuming the artist was referring to the shelter, not Cornwall, I agreed.

As we pulled into Plymouth on the 78 bus, a little boy stumbled to the front with his mother. He was crying and had been ill on the journey. I empathised. I was sick of the buses too.

SARA BONISTEEL

THE PLACE FOR THE COMMUTER CYCLIST: IN THE GUTTER

THERE MAY may be a designated cycle lane, but with the traffic spinning round Albert Square in the evening darkness, a cyclist has to manoeuvre through two lanes of speeding cars to reach it. Welcome to the Manchester rush hour, bicycle style.

Not that I did much rushing in my 90 minutes of pedalling between the city centre and the village of Styal near Wilmslow in Cheshire. By car the trip would take no more than 30 minutes, even at the busiest times and, timetables willing, the train can slash the journey to a miserly 15.

There are, undeniably, some advantages. The cyclist need only stick out a foot to stop for a “double hot dog” in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens and I found myself chomping one on the steps of Queen Victoria’s statue before a 30-deep bus queue, only three minutes into my journey.

I may have been well fed, but a feeling of security was not among the benefits. Riding just one pothole away from a nasty accident, cyclists are certainly made to pay for whatever safety they can muster. A trip to the cycle shop beforehand produced the depressing fact that an essential piece of equipment, the helmet, cannot be obtained for less than pounds 30.

There was also the safety of pedestrians to consider. Thanks to the many distractions I jumped two red lights at zebra crossings in the course of my experiment with pedal power.

Manchester, it seems, woke up to cyclists long since – so long since that the white paint which marks out the cycle lanes on the two and three lane carriageway from central Deansgate and Albert Square out to the A34 and Cheshire is wearing out in places. And while they still offer some protection, the lanes were blocked in parts by the girth of buses on Friday.

By 5.30pm, as the traffic banked up on the southbound A34, I cut an inside track past the wing mirrors, halting only for a motorcyclist to do the same. But at this point the heat exhaustion struck. Adding several layers of clothing in anticipation of sub-zero temperatures was a mistake, especially as there was nowhere to stow them. By the time I started the climb to Handforth, my lack of fitness was starting to tell and I had to get off the bike and push.

In the end, I reached my destination safely but it took a lifetime to conclude and my posterior will take a lifetime to recover.

IAN HERBERT

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