On the Orbital (1)

Launched in the early 2000s as a response (partially) to concerns that the Royal Preston Hospital was too difficult to visit for people in the outer suburbs, the Preston Bus’ “Orbital” is formed by buses travelling either clockwise or anti-clockwise through the city and into the outposts.and fringes. It is popular, although specific passenger numbers are not easy to confirm.

Whilst succeeding in linking some parts of Preston with some other parts; I don’t think the “Orbital” has quite mastered  convincing people of the benefits of a journey which could last over 40 or 50 minutes (the entire loop can take ninety) and cost £3.30 if buying an all-day ticket, as Hospital visitors may find necessary to do. Logic dictates that people living on the anti-clockwise route can get to the Hospital far quicker, and far less expensively, by taking the dedicated Hospital service. Nonetheless, the “Orbital” has patched over gaps in the original services to the northern communities, particularly the new-build estates encroaching into the rurals and greenbelt, turning into a regular commuter service for some.

Taking my lead from such blogs as Diamond Geezer and London Buses:One At A Time, I chose to spend an early Friday afternoon taking the “Orbital” on its clockwise route. Unlike those blogs however, I broke up the journey in three places – I trust that one of these being for the purchase of a Morrison’s salad bar selection is considered both valid and not an “accidental Partridge.”

I don’t think anything else has to be said about THAT BUILDING other than to confirm that, yes, it has been awarded Grade II Listed Status, and that beauty is 20131011_144528in the eye of the geek (or, to quote the Leader of Preston Council, the nerdy sociopath).

Preston Bus Station is the start and end of the “Orbit”, for both clockwise and anti-clockwise services. They run very regularly, and one follows the other, to allow for the limited number of actual buses to maintain the service even when rush hour and Preston’s notoriously cramped roads conspire against them. One complete loop probably could cost less than £3.30, but my decision to break up the journeys into chunks meant there was little choice but to pay the full amount for what is a “hop on, hop off” ticket.
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From the building of which I will no longer speak (….for now) the clockwise 88C makes its way into the city centre towards the Docks.

This first jaunt should give an adequate indication of the myriad problems of travelling through Preston – stop/start, juddery, slow, plagued by congestion, traffic lights and inadequate road layout. Praise be to the heavens, mind, for something is in place to be done! Whether this will work is a point most moot, however, and critics and cynics alike consider the proposals to be inherently flawed. Shared space can work, it has been proven to do so. Not perhaps as Lancs CC envisage, particularly as they foresee each and every existing bus stop congregated outside the railway station, which I see as being just asking for trouble. But what, as so many people are wont to ask, do I know.

Two Mormons(es?) on this bus, incidentally, chose not to use their audience for rapid-fire conversion techniques. One actually fell asleep, his head slowly, slowly dropping down as the rest of us (teenage girl texting her driving instructor, two Cissie and Ada types gossiping, two others keeping themselves to themselves) bobbed about. The Mormons left only five or so minutes later (the fast asleep one waking up as a puppy might, head flicking from window to window in momentary confusion) and by the entrance to the Docks, every seat was taken.

Preston Docks was not future-proofed when it was regenerated for what was, in the 1980s at least, the brave new future of shopping and living. The only road into the Docks sucks everything onto it, cars often  backed up for a mile or longer. There are no passing points along the entire site and no public crossings, for that matter, which forces anyone from child to pensioner to play chicken at day and night. Solutions for either problem? Nothing.

One Morrisions salad later (too few slices of beetroot, too much potato) I wander to Ashton Park, where many of the trees stand taller, prouder and fatter than they were when I was a lad, throwing conkers into the road and whatever else passed for high jinks in my day. The “Orbital” from here takes in the first of the major residential parts, that of Ashton and then Larches, the latter showing all the signs of typical post-war sprawl. This 88c is standing-room only, school children and families at the back, elderly couples up front, and love’s young dream somewhere in the middle.

We pass under the Blackpool railway, one-time site of Lea Road train station. Beeching would say, I assume, that this specific example of bustitution proves his theory right, although, of course, he was not blame for that particular station closing.

Cottam’s well to do and getting by home-owners left for their chocolate box houses with earphones and page-turners close to hand. The change at Cottam has been rapid and remarkable – from grass to garages, from fields to crunchy-gravel driveways, and all within the most boom of all boom times in the British economy. From here the service runs through the comfort of Cadley, all bungalows and two-ups and the church of St Anthony of Padua. This is Fulwood, which strangers can get to by travelling up the A6 and turning left when they feel house prices shooting up. By now I was travelling almost alone, with three gossips and a headphone-guy for company. We passed Fulwood Academy, newly renamed and entirely rebuilt, looking like an office for call-centres and companies that offer ‘solutions’, all curved walls, spot lighting and silver-grey tinted windows.

From here the journey reaches, by and large, its half way point. And so, I suppose, should this post.

Platform alterations…

I don’t need to tell you that I’m a fan of the railways, having walked an abandoned line from Southport to Preston, and joined blogger Michael Holdsworth on a similar walk into Preston from Grimsargh. That’s just scraping the surface; I grew up fascinated by trains, travelling on them, with them, and with an almost autistic attachment to the stations along each route. No need to wait for a muffled announcement about the train now approaching, as I can rattle off the poetry of station calls on my own; Leyland, Wigan North Western, Bryn, Garswood, St Helens Central…

My love of the railways extends to defending (to a point) the ramshackle approach towards infrastructure and spending in this country. We don’t do it particularly well, and never have. As romantic a view as I’ve always had about them good old days, it doesn’t take long to find contemporary reports from passengers in the 1950s and 1960s that remind us today that British rail has always been crowded, under-funded and bloated with management. The Government department in charge of looking after the whole thing has not been a champion of rail for generations, preferring roads and cars and the motor industry millions that goes with it. Rail has suffered not just because of our love of the car, but because it’s simply far sexier for an MP to sign off another motorway junction than it is a train station.

Which is where we find ourselves with the “HS2” scheme to build a new railway line – “the biggest amount of rail infrastructure spending since the Victorians” – from a new hub outside Heathrow into Birmingham, thence to Manchester in the West and Leeds/Sheffield in the East. A highly controversial and contentious piece of infrastructure spending, and exactly the kind of “pay now, yield the results later” long-term planning for which the DfT has a reputation of shunning in normal circumstances. In its hope to poke economic growth with a stick, the DfT has become the main cheerleader for “HS2” and connected purposes, claiming that the line is vital to bring economic growth to the country, bring northern England new employment opportunities and to free up capacity on the creaking, over-capacity WCML.

And I’m against “HS2”.  Used to be quite neutral, then moved towards being broadly in favour, and now against. Typical LibDem, right?

But the case for “HS2” was always quite flimsy and liquid. I just can’t say that it’s looking particularly strong enough now to justify the strength with which so many fingers are crossed.

One of the best economic cases against “HS2” comes, oddly enough, from tech-site The Register, which blasts the cost-benefit analysis by using its own level headed approach towards the assumption that the commuters of 20-years hence will be the same as those today. The numbers from the Government side don’t add up very well.

The Government assumes that high-speed, long distance travel has to be needed in the 2020s and 2030s because jobs will always be in offices down south, and workers will always be in commuter homes in Solihull and Hazel Grove and Normanton. Link the north with the south, they say, and jobs will be “secured” and growth will be “encouraged”. But what jobs and what growth? There’s always commuters willing to travel, only not from one end of the country to another, and if the percentage of people who require a flight from Manchester to London City Airport is X today, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be “X+” in 2030. As The Register points out, the business traveller who is used to justify the cost is already spending days working from home and hours working en route; what cost analysis exists to prove they’d be happier scrapping all that for a traditional 9-5 in 30 years time?

No such case exists.

A screenplay for “There Will Be Billions” is being drafted. Work at London Euston alone is estimated today to be somewhere around £1.2 billion and will only go higher. The total spend across the network can only be considerably higher than £2 billion. Public expenditure on the project could be in the area of £900 million by the time of the general election, and there’s almost no chance of Parliamentary Scrutiny outside painfully awkward appearances in front of the Public Accounts Committee. The existing proposed route from London into Birmingham and then beyond has already been altered – at cost – due to the “they’ve used a flat map!” approach to deciding on the route. New stations have had to be proposed to placate complaints, much in the same way as unnecessary junctions were added to the M25 to stop people complaining about their back-gardens being ruined in the 1980s.

As you might have heard, the M25 still gets congested quite a lot, despite the amount of extra junctions and numerous extensions.  “HS2” is exactly the same – lots of new stations (slowing down a supposed High Speed line in the process) without improving the existing network.

At the time of writing, the cost/benefit analysis of “HS2” has plummeted to 90p in the pound (source ), and that’s not likely to get any better. Three times as many journeys are into London, not from it, sucking money away from the very outer regions towards the very conurbation Ministers claim needs no further help. Building a new “HS2” station in central Manchester will require existing track to be re-routed, creating a shambles of delay and construction chaos which can only be repeated twenty-fold across every part of its proposed — and as yet unconfirmed — route.

We already have some of the highest fares anywhere in Europe, and those can only grow higher and higher. My love of the railways means there’s only one way to save the network from itself. Scrap “HS2” now to focus on specific regional issues. Force franchise holders to update rolling stock, build new stations, and work on expanding the existing lines such as the WCML. Hard love is admitting that the best way to save the thing you love is not to do the obvious. “HS2” is too obvious, and too clearly flawed. To save the railways, it needs abandoning.