To live outside London and not drive a car is an exercise in resilience and stoicism. In the north-west of England, where I live, public transport exists mainly to drive people bonkers. If you’ve lived in London or the south-east, as I did for many years, the effects of extreme regional inequality are plain to see as soon as you step on to a bus or train.
Distances that took half an hour to cover in London can take three times as long and cost twice as much. I’m lucky: I can afford £2.40 for a single bus fare (as opposed to £1.50 in London). Yet everyday journeys on public transport are blighted by car-oriented planning, deregulation and a lack of investment, none of which apply in the capital. If that doesn’t illustrate how underinvestment reduces productivity and destroys quality of life, I don’t know what can.
To drive from the centre of Liverpool to the centre of Manchester using the M62 at 8am, you would need to allow two hours to travel 35 miles, such is the level of traffic congestion. If you go by train, it’s about 45 minutes – with one significant caveat: the trains have to be running, which can’t be guaranteed, with 30-year-old Thameslink castoffs and third-hand diesel engines forming the bulk of Northern Rail’s rolling stock. Last May’s timetabling fiasco, in which Northern Rail cancelled hundreds of daily services for weeks due to a lack of trains and staff, proved the extent to which the railway can’t be relied upon. Commuters would rather set out early and brave the jams than not arrive at work at all.
By contrast, if I want to travel to Skelmersdale, a mere 20 miles from my home, it’s a 25-minute drive or an eye-watering hour and 55 minutes by public transport.