In Your Face

In Your Face
Thought provoking opinions on topical issues.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Commuting Hell

Those of you in the UK who have the misfortune, like I used to have, of commuting to work by rail on a daily basis; will agree with me that it is an unpleasant, soul destroying experience. Common complaints include the following:

 The trains are often late.

 The trains are overcrowded.

 The interior of the train is often filthy.

 The safety aspects of overcrowding are, to say the least, questionable.

 The ticket prices keep going up, but there is no discernible improvement in the service.

The government claims that it intends to improve the situation; yet, from a user’s perspective, they have yet to make any discernible impact.

The question, as to why are the railways in such a mess, provokes a myriad of answers; including:

 The railways have suffered from years of underfunding.

 The government price controls prevents the rail companies from charging an economically viable fare.

 The privatisation of the railways emasculated management’s ability to manage the system.

These are all very plausible excuses. However, I offer an additional explanation. The system in operation cannot cope with peak time demand because, the number of people wishing to use it during rush hour exceeds its capacity.

This excess demand is brought about by a number of factors. In my opinion, the two key ones are:

 The population of the UK keeps growing, it is now approaching 60 million. I would suggest that this is unsustainable both in terms of absolute numbers, and the level of growth, for such a small island.

 The “desk bound” working population concentrates itself in and around the major city centres, such as London. The majority go to work at the same time each day, and consequently clog up the system.

In my opinion, the problem can be addressed by adopting a “twin track” approach; whereby the government, and the population, work together to improve the situation. I recommend the following:

 Price controls on fares should be removed. The extra revenue earned by the rail companies should then be invested on structural improvements of the network.

 The government should “fast track” planning permission for extending stations and lines in and around major cities; this will allow extra/longer trains to be used by the rail operators.

 The individual citizen, working in tandem with their employer, should cast aside the institutionalised “nine to five” mentality that pervades office culture. Why should the working day only fit into this narrow parameter? Firms should pro-actively encourage flexi-time and home working.

 Instead of clock watching, the length of the working day should be based on the completion of defined tasks. I have worked for many years in offices, and witnessed an inordinate amount of time being wasted by people taking coffee/cigarette breaks, gossiping, going to the pub for lengthy lunches and chatting on the phone. They do this because they are bored, and have little to do to fill their day. Therefore, it should be custom and practice to allow people to go home when they have completed their tasks. This will mean that people will stagger their journeys from the office; thereby easing peak time congestion.

The above suggestion also has the additional benefit of showing exactly how underemployed many office workers are; and should stimulate a much needed re-evaluation of the ways of working in the office environment.

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