I’m treating myself to another of my intermittent rant-y articles; it’s only fair to warn you. The subject is one I remain somewhat conflicted about. It’s the ongoing confusion between public transport’s day job and its heritage, character and tourism aspects, and what that means for the public transport industry, and the cities in which it operates.
I first became aware of the issue many years ago when I was a rail officer for Surrey County Council. You might be wondering what a county council would need with a rail officer, and several of my colleagues there would have agreed with you. But it was a far-off time of financial largesse on the part of local authorities, and it seemed like a good idea. At the time, one of the big issues on Surrey’s rail network was the replacement of the ageing fleet of slam-door trains, which served the main lines and some outer-suburban routes, and which had been introduced in the 1950s and 60s. They were completely unsuited to modern train operations, offering a passenger environment entirely out-of-step with turn of the century passenger expectations, being draughty, cold in the winter (unless boiling hot for no apparent reason as they sometimes were), not air-conditioned, rough riding, and having no on-board passenger information facilities beyond an often inaudible PA. They were also safety nightmares, with no proper head or tail lights for most of their lives, and poor crashworthiness, as the Clapham and Purley train crashes had already tragically proved. They also had manually operated slam doors, which on some trains opened directly onto seating bays, and which could be opened while the train was at speed.
But most of the correspondence I received on the subject was from a select band of commentators who wanted the County Council to oppose the slam-door trains’ replacement on the grounds that the old trains were historically interesting and had character, while the new ones weren’t and didn’t. (Making marginally more sense was another group, cyclists, who liked the large and otherwise long-since-rendered-pointless luggage vans on the slam-door trains, as they made convenient bike stores, even though the critical issue at the time was the need for more seats for commuters.) Try as I might, by letter or even at the occasional dreaded (by me anyway) council-organised Rail Forum, I could not convince such people that new trains would be an improvement, even though for most ‘normal’ passengers they certainly would be. Rail forums, by their nature, attracted people who put transport’s historical role and character before its actual day job of providing a suitable service to modern travellers.
The truth is that in order to do its job most effectively, modern public transport might not look as beautiful as old-fashioned transport, it might lack character, and it might not have the charm of buses, trains and trams from yesteryear. Sometimes, however, decision-makers overseeing transport networks get confused about the actual day job of public transport and set an agenda which doesn’t put public transport in its proper role, but seeks instead to require it do things like being characterful, or historic, or appealing to tourists.
A city’s transport network can clearly have significant tourist potential. There is no better way to see a place than from the top deck of a double-decker bus, in towns and cities which have them. London’s Docklands Light Railway is another favourite with tourists, not least because of the sheer joy you can witness amongst young (and sometimes not so young) passengers sitting at the front of the driverless trains and pretending to drive them. Ditto Tyne and Wear’s Metro, where the driving cab is only one-third the width of a train’s front end, and there’s a seat in the free space at the front.
However, the tourist potential of such services isn’t their primary purpose. It’s a useful by-product that can help fill off-peak and weekend seats. Keeping towns and cities efficiently moving is a public transport network’s proper job. Problems set in when people starting thinking that the tourism, historicism or characterfulness of public transport are its chief selling points. At that point, you start demanding the retention of ancient slam-door trains instead of their replacement with new ones.
In many cities, transport’s tourist potential is channelled into special sight-seeing routes (open-topped sight-seeing buses and the like) with separate fares regimes, which keeps the issue in check. But at other times it creeps into a city’s main transport network. Sometimes this doesn’t matter too much. Take San Francisco’s historic cable cars, operated as part of the public transport network by city transport operator MUNI. Their routes are paralleled by faster and more efficient alternatives so the absolute madness they represent (when you stop to think about it; passengers hang off the sides for goodness’ sake) is reasonably well contained.
In Lisbon, Portugal, it’s a different matter. There, historic tramcars are a very real part of operator Carris’s public transport network, winding through narrow streets where there is no easy public transport alternative. With my geek hat on, they’re brilliant. My poor partner had to put up with me bouncing on and off them when we visited Lisbon. They’re ancient, full of wooden fittings, and packed with character. But I can imagine that if I was a Lisbon resident, perhaps one with small children, heavy shopping, or not so steady on my feet any more, they would be a nightmare. With huge steps to get in and out of them, and wooden seats, they don’t exactly meet modern expectations of step-free, simple and comfortable public transport. When they’re waiting at the end of a route, in front of a modern building, you really do begin to wonder what sort of image Lisbon’s public transport is projecting of the city.
Why does this matter? Because a city or town’s character, its brand if you like, is often defined primarily (in visual terms at least), by its transport network. Take a town like Taunton, Somerset. Its bespoke “the buses of Somerset” network (by Best Impressions) is the only thing which gives the town specific visual unity. The shops all look different, because they are different, a riot of chains visually screaming at you for your custom. The road signage is consistent across town, Calvert and Kinneir’s finest, but of course it’s not unique to Taunton; it’s a national signage scheme deliberately intended to look the same all over the country. But Taunton’s buses (the vast majority, anyway, apart from the odd independent operator) all run in the green the Buses of Somerset branding, which is repeated on the specially designed bus stop flags across town, and on the publicity you can pick up at various places. As far as Taunton has one, the Buses of Somerset is also its corporate identity. The same goes for Brighton, the Isle of Wight, Winchester, Harrogate…
It’s a recent example, on a smaller scale, of the grand-daddy of such schemes, Frank Pick’s branding of London through its transport network. London Transport’s typeface, Johnston Sans, is still London’s handwriting. The London Transport roundel is graphic shorthand for London itself, instantly recognisable and identifiable the world over in terms of the city it represents.
So if your transport network is a key part of your city’s identity, what does it say about your city when a significant part of your transport system isn’t modern, efficient, comfortable or easy to use, because instead it’s being ‘historic’ and ‘characterful’? It might impress the daytrippers and tourists, but what does it do for those who stay longer and experience a city more deeply? Or those who live there all year round?
Perhaps it sends the message that public transport is a bit jokey, not to be taken seriously, not an essential component of modern living, but something which is trading on an outmoded past. You’ll understand how that worries me.
By far the worst recent offender in confusing public transport with tourism and historicism must be ex-London mayor Boris Johnson, who has thankfully left London only to continue his helium balloon-like and inexplicable rise in national government. During his time in London he oversaw delivery of the cable car at North Greenwich, surely the most useless addition to London’s transport network of which it is possible to conceive. It is a tourist attraction, no more, no less, but somehow muddled up by Johnson into being part of London’s transport network. It even appears on the Tube map, as unwelcome an interloper as a drunken uncle at a small church wedding, and about as much use, swaying unsteadily and staggering backwards and forwards without ever getting anywhere useful. Most offensively, money was taken out of the London Rail budget to pay for it.
Johnson’s greatest crime against transport was, of course, the New Bus for London a.k.a. the New Routemaster. There was nothing necessarily wrong with the idea of a developing a new London-specific bus, following the withdrawal of London’s original Routemasters, except for the fact that it was always going to be more expensive to buy than a standard bus which benefits from larger order volumes to reduce costs. But because Johnson saw the London bus network from his own buffoonish viewpoint, remembering the jolly japes to be had in jumping on and off the open platforms of the original Routemasters, he asked entirely the wrong question. Instead of asking “How can we design a new bus for London?”, he instead asked, “How can we design a new Routemaster?”. He wanted historicism and swinging sixties character, instead of the best bus for modern London. From that point on, the design was compromised.
The slavish need to create a Routemaster for the modern day meant that not only did it inherit a rear platform from the Routemaster, but it repeated many of its other design drawbacks. The top deck is by far the worst. At the back, a domed roof (á la old Routemaster) means that seats underneath have insufficient head height and you can’t see out of the windows. At the front, the need to make the top deck look Routemaster-y means small windows rather than the tall panoramic ones which grace most proper modern double deckers. The New Routemaster fails even at delivering for tourists, as you can’t see out of them nearly so well as regular buses. Meanwhile, downstairs, the open rear platform needed supervision by a conductor, adding to the costs of New Routemaster operation. Because there were to be no conductors at night, or at all on some routes, the open platform is closed off by a door while the bus is moving if there is no conductor on board, so it was pointless half the time, anyway. Having proved too costly, conductors have now been removed from all New Routemaster-operated routes, entirely negating the rear platform concept.
London buses have front and middle doors as standard, one more than most buses manage with, so the desire to have a groovy open rear platform added a third entrance onto the bus. The New Routemaster also has a rear staircase to go with its rear door, in case you wanted to fall down the stairs and straight out into the road through an open platform, making two staircases in total.
London has somehow ended up with 1,000 buses, all of which have claustrophobic upper decks, and lower decks where ridiculous amounts of space are wasted by additional doors and staircases that aren’t really needed. This is at a time when increasing numbers of passengers are elderly, and tend to be grateful for all the step-free lower deck seating they can get. It’s all because Johnson got confused between the tourist-y potential of a jolly new Routemaster because the old ones had lots of ‘character’, and the need for a new bus that most efficiently meets the current needs of London’s bus passengers. Many of the smaller details on the New Routemaster are exquisite, and the build quality is excellent, which makes it all the more sad that they are wasted on an irredeemably flawed vehicle. Johnson touted the potential for such buses to be ordered for other cities at home or even abroad. Not a single order outside London has ever been placed.
Although Johnson is far and away the most high-profile person confused about what public transport is there to do, smaller-scale examples crop up across the transport industry from time to time. It’s these that cause me to be the most conflicted. I’m talking about things like painting modern buses and trains in heritage colour schemes to celebrate some illustrious predecessor company.
The geek in me loves to see a bus or train in vintage colours. The hard-headed part of me wonders what sort of message it sends to non-geek transport users who (I have to remind myself) are actually the vast majority.
It’s fun for a transport enthusiast to go on the Isle of Wight’s Island Line and see ancient ex-London Underground trains restored to vintage London Underground appearance, serving stations with vintage-style British Railways totem signage. How amusing of GB Railfreight to paint their brand new freight locomotive in old-style British Railways two-tone green, or for Great Western Railway to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the InterCity 125 by painting powercars into British Rail blue and grey, or Intercity ‘Swallow’ livery. It adds a bit of interest to Brighton’s streets to see Stagecoach has painted a modern low-floor bus into Southdown colours.
But where does it all end? Don’t even get me started on the Lymington ‘heritage’ branch line fiasco. And what do non-geeks make of it? In other words, the regular travellers who the public transport industry is trying to keep out, or tempt out, of their cars. Do they notice at all? If it’s true that passengers or potential passengers don’t notice what colour their bus and train is painted, why do it? And if they do notice, what are these examples of historic paint schemes saying? That things were better in the old days? That modern public transport looks ugly? After all, if a vintage visual identity was less attractive than the modern one, you wouldn’t deface your bus or train with it, would you? Taking off my geek hat, I know that Stagecoach’s modern corporate bus livery is much more attractive and appropriate to today’s bus passengers (and potential bus passengers) than Southdown’s, however attractive my geeky core might find the vintage look. If you have to go historic, it can at least be done in a modern way, like Midland Mainline’s visual identity harking back to its illustrious streamline train forbears.
The town of Blackpool offers another approach. The town was the only one to keep its tramway when all the others were scrapped in the 1950s and 60s. With little serious investment in keeping it up to date, it retained its old-style trams and accidentally became a ridiculous but wonderful-for-geeks ‘heritage’ tramway. Having belatedly realised that running antiquated trams (some of them illuminated…) wasn’t really letting the tramway play a proper role in the town’s public transport system, Blackpool Council bid for government money in 2008 to bring in modern trams. Arriving in 2012, the new trams, like those on other modern tramways, are comfortable and easily accessible. For the tourists and geeks, the vintage trams operate a service over the core section of the tramway at weekends.
Similarly, London had retained vintage Routemasters on a special tourist route, the core of Route 15, and it’s a shame Johnson didn’t leave it at that.
I realise I’ve mostly been talking about public transport vehicles. The situation with infrastructure is similar, though well-designed buildings are generally capable of being modified to keep them relevant to modern needs, which is less easy with old vehicles. However, there’s a strong strand of opinion out there that historic transport buildings are intrinsically better than modern ones. I suspect this is because such older buildings have more obvious charm and character than modern ones. It’s a view held by UK transport minister John Hayes (see this recent article for more) and, I think, wrongly puts character and historicism ahead of the needs of a modern transport system. It’s one of the reasons I’m sceptical over the idea of rebuilding the Euston Arch, of which Hayes is supportive. Couldn’t we rather have something that is as good as the Euston Arch, but which also serves the needs of modern travellers, rather than recreating a not particularly useful monument from the 19th Century?
As I said at the start of this article, I’m conflicted over this whole issue, because I love the geeky historical aspect of transport, and the charming and characterful quirks of bits of the transport network. But I also want public transport to fulfill its potential by being as effective and efficient as possible in meeting the needs of modern travellers. So, how much of a problem is the confusion of public transport’s heritage, historicism, and tourism role, with its day-to-day job of providing efficient and appropriate mass movement of people? Am I over-reacting? Or do we need to keep it in check? Would anyone care to weigh in on the matter? Feel free to leave a comment…