Saturday, 22 March 2008

Delayed, decision on C-charge

The Congestion Charge proposal seems to be rumble on like a vehicle trying to get out of Irlam before 9am. A decision was expected this week, but has now been delayed again, until after the local elections in May. This will come as a relief to those Labour councilor's who are under pressure from a local electorate dissatisfied with what appears to be a flat rate tax on mobility. Worryingly, the freaky Community Action Party are trying to cash in on Labour's failings again (I get kind of worried by political parties which don't seem to subscribe to the principles of any recognized political ideology).

Clearly the issue of sustainable transport has to be addressed - particularly in Greater Manchester - which is the most car-dependent urban area in the UK, with some 78% of journeys to work made by car. Ideally we should be moving to a third-third-third model, whereby only a third of journeys to work are by car, a third by public transport and a third by walking/cycling. We are a long way of this and will never achieve it unless there are some fundamental planning and development decisions made.

Motorists paying additional costs is inevitable - people will ultimately have to use their cars less often, unless they want 20-lane freeways crossing through the countryside and devastating our urban communities. However, the C-charge is set to be introduced at a time when the average motorist has little or no other choice of transportation. Unlike London, where the congestion charge seems to be working (with mixed results), Manchester does not have a comprehensive, frequent or integrated transport network. To get anywhere in the conurbation by public transport virtually always involves traveling into Manchester and out again, turning journeys which may take an hour by car, into 2 hour slogs. Public transport also virtually disappears during the evening and stops completely before midnight for most people - making it impossible to enjoy the attractions of the evening economy, without adding on expensive taxi journeys. In places like Partington, there is no public transport after 8pm! Further public transport in Manchester is one of the most expensive systems to use in the world. A System One Travel Card which allows you to travel on bus, tram and train, only allows off-peak travel (so pretty pointless if you want to get to work for 9am) and costs £7 a day (so more expensive than the equivalent ticket in London) and is more expensive than the C-Charge (so why bother giving up your car). Compared to other cities this is an outrageous amount of money to pay. Season tickets do bring down average costs, but are expensive to purchase upfront. Unfortunately, few employers offer schemes to purchase such tickets using interest free loans.

So what options are their for an Irlam commuter trying to get to work in central Manchester:

Car. A big problem is that the £13m by-pass Cadishead Way - has done nothing to improve journey times into Manchester. Rather it has simply moved the bottleneck from out of the town (which has benefited local traffic to be fair) to J11 of the M60, where commuters now face a 1-2 mile tailback each morning, which adds15-20 mins to your journey. The M60 frequently grinds to a halt between junctions 9-12 - thanks to the highlevel bridge and Trafford Centre and sheer volume of traffic trying to cross the Canal. When originally planned the Barton High level crossing was designed to handle some 55,000 vehicles a day. Today it is 4x that number. When leaving the M60, you have join a line of slow moving traffic down the M602 and the infamous Regent Road, a route which transport planners seem to have incorporated every known design flaw. Don't count on getting up to third gear on this stretch. Unless you possess some savvy geographical knowledge of backroads and alternative routes, commutes into Manchester can take an hour. This is despite massive investment in the road and motorway system. Clearly building more roads does not work!

Bus - we have just two services (67 and 100). The 100 makes a detour to the Trafford Centre (where there is a bus station enabling you to get various locations, therefore offering some flexibility). The 67 goes straight to central Manchester, and is integrated with Metrolink at Eccles. Both services however have to travel mainly on the same congested roads as motorists, which involves long delays on the Barton Stretch followed by entanglement in the mess of lights and bus lanes along Eccles Old Road and then Chapel Street. THey both terminate at the Shudehill transport interchange. However, this isn't much of an interchange - because unlike the trains, you then have to buy another ticket to travel on the tram - adding further time and cost to the journey. The interchange is handy for shopping, but not so much for workers - because it is located on the northern fringe of the city centre. Buses aren't cheap easy - a day saver comes in at almost £4 - more than the congestion charge! It is also pointless to get off at Eccles and pick up the tram. Again you have to pay for another ticket and the journey time is similar! Frustratingly there is a railway station at Eccles, where services take just 5 mins to get to central Manchester - but they run at a frequency of than 1 an hour, even though the line runs parallel with a motorway and the tram line. Why wasn't this line upgraded instead of adding an expensive and clunky tram line? Even off peak, buses can take 45-50 mins to travel from Manchester to Irlam. However, frequencies are good - 1 every 10mins during the day).

Trains. This is a particular problem in Irlam. The town lost a railway station (Cadishead) and non-radial rail connection (the old Altrincham and Wigan line) thanks to Dr Beeching. The town's remaining station (Irlam) sits on the Manchester-Liverpool line. Stopping services frequently have to give way to the supposedly more lucrative regional services. The Irlam-Manchester line has also been identified as one of the most over-crowded outside of London. The rolling stock is of poor quality. The frequency at peak time is 20 mins (half an hour during the day and 1 an hour in evening and on Sunday). The station at Irlam has been identified as one of the most dangerous in Manchester - no seats, poor lighting, isolated location, no staff, no ticketing, no real-time information, no seats, lack of shelter, no emergency system, no telephones, poor parking, no taxi drop-off - even though the holders of rail franchise were required to address all these factors as a condition of their contract. The state of the station has even hit national headlines.

It is also expensive at peak time (£5 return). Despite all this - with journey times of 20mins and free integration with Metrolink at Deansgate) - the train is the quickest and most reliable form of transport into Manchester. The greatest lost opportunity in Greater Manchester was the decision to invest in Metrolink (an expensive system which has done little to address transport problems in Manchester) - instead of upgrading the heavy rail system.

Of course all of above scenarios are predicated on a standard pattern of commuting, what about those people who have to drop kids off in the morning or make multiple trips for other reasons. Quite simply, public transport as it stands cannot offer anything to these people. And even if the C-charge came in tomorrow, the promised investment in public transport will take over a decade to have any real impact.

There could be short and medium term measures e.g. more rolling stock for the railways. Serious consideration has to be given to bringing back buses into public control as privatization has simply led to a decimation of passenger numbers.

Ultimately something has to be done, because with the charge in place and no viable alternatives to the car in place, surrounding town and cities, like Warrington, will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of business relocations from Manchester. Manchester is not London, is does not possess the same gravitas, nor the locational advantages of agglomeration and access to high level services which guarantees that few businesses will or can relocate.

Source: Delayed, decision on C-charge - News - Manchester Evening News

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