December newsletter: deja vu all over again

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There’s rather a lot of déjà vu around. On the railways, the franchise system has collapsed and the government is desperately trying to cobble together a new structure, but seems to have stalled and has not yet published the Williams report which is now more than a year overdue.

We have, of course, been here before. There have been numerous reports on what to do about franchising ever since the system was introduced, a cool quarter of a century ago. I have followed the ups and downs of this process for all of that time and despite the endless debates about the nature of franchises, renationalisation, fragmentation and so on, no one has come up with a sensible new structure for the railways.

Over the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time talking to former British Rail staff for my forthcoming book for Penguin on how it became the most efficient railway in Europe. While the extent to which they think that BR had the right structure may vary, there is a consistent thread to their stories. They all talk about how the railway was a family, how at bad times people pulled together to try to ensure that difficulties were overcome. Of course it was not always one big happy family but time and again, my interviewees referred to the collegiate and supportive atmosphere in which different parts of the organisation worked together to provide a better service. It was essentially a structure that worked and I wrote about it for Railwatch here

The other bit of déjà vu is truly depressing. In 1986, the Conservative leader of Kensington & Chelsea, Nicholas Freeman, tore out up cycle lanes that had been put in by Ken Livingstone’s GLC which was mercilessly abolished by Mrs Thatcher. He said at the time that cyclists got in the way of the cars and therefore there was no place for them on his streets. He was also the man who tore down the old Kensington Town Hall in the High Street on a Monday Bank Holiday because it was about  to be listed and it was replaced by a soulless building on cheaper land just off the High Street.

Sharp readers will have spotted the déjà vu bit. Last week I cycled over to Kensington to take part in a protest against the ripping up of the lane which had only been installed a few weeks before. The local MP Felicity Buchan and Assembly member Tony Devenish wrote a letter saying the lane ‘did not work’ and when Nigel Havers joined in, the council quickly caved in and started ripping it up. The thousands using it every day, and the majority of respondents to the consultation process, who had been in favour of the scheme, were ignored. While some local organisations were opposed, major ones such as Imperial College and the Royal Albert Hall were firmly for it. I despair at the idiocy

And then finally, a third example of not learning the lessons. The day before the Kensington demo, I spoke at a webinar organised by the Stop Silvertown Tunnel campaign and again it felt as if I had been there a long time ago. My first ever political action was to campaign against the motorway boxes, the ringways as they were called, that would have turned London into a mini Los Angeles, demolishing some 40,000 homes and making the city entirely car oriented. Fortunately they were shelved though a section, the M41 in Shephers Bush and the Westway spur were built, demonstrating precisely why motorways are incompatible with the urban realm. Yet, here we are again with a proposal that befits the 1970s far more than the 2020s. I wrote to the deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, asking for the reasons why it is being  built and she replied with a lot of unconvincing arguments about how it would actually reduce pollution and emissions. I suspect no new road in history has ever done that!

Maybe the news today that Uber has abandoned its much-touted plan to create a driverless car does not fit into the déjà vu framework but I reckon there is a good case to argue it does. For several years, I and a very small bunch of driverless car sceptics, have being stressing that the proposed Uber model just does not seem to make sense. Taking away the driver is both extremely hard but also expensive – who would pay for all those cars without owner-drivers? But then most of the hype emanating from that over-funded industry makes no sense either. In this age of fake news, conspiracy theories and ideology-driven politics, being rational does not seem to be fashionable any more. But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that I was right about Uber being some kind of massive Ponzi scheme. Now it is simply a loss making taxi firm.

There’s quite a lot more on my website, including Rail articles on innovation and Crossrail, reviews of my new book in the Telegraph, Times and Spectator (where are the leftie papers when you need them?) and the promo for the book.

SPECIAL OFFER: if you order my new book Cathedrals of Steam for £18 plus £3 p and p, by emailing me at, I will throw in a free copy of my short book on driverless cars, Driverless cars: on a road to nowhere  

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