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The Insider: A dystopian future

By / 3 years ago / Comment / No Comments

The suggestion that UK cities could have devolved powers to run their transport infrastructure fills me with dread. This seems to be on the grounds that if one national body can’t get it right, multiple users will.

Wrong! While the vision is no doubt for devolution but with a national guiding hand, rather than revolution, one can only wonder what carnage will result from different interpretations of that guidance.

In my grandmother’s day, people were born in a village, grew up in it, worked, married, had children and died within its rural boundaries. So what went on in the rest of the country didn’t really matter so long as there was a roof over their heads and food on the table. OK, I may be over-simplifying that slightly. But now the model has changed, and the ability to travel quickly, and provide and receive nationwide services, means many of us regularly visit numerous different locations.

At fleet level, try understanding, communicating and managing the requirements for differing speed limits, multiple congestion charge zones run on differing bases, private toll roads and idiosyncratic niceties brought in by some well-meaning but misguided mayor of pioneering spirit. Can you imagine having to deal with the consequent penalties incurred by drivers as they misinterpret the rules? OK, now outsource your fleet and add another layer of complication.

I’ll use UK toll charges as an example of the confusion and extra administration this could bring. The Dartford Crossing and the London Congestion Charge Zone are really only a stone’s throw apart, and both are used regularly by many of us. Yet I can register all my cars with Dart Charge for free, so they are all covered all of the time. But a car must be registered specifically for London Congestion Charge, at a cost of £10 per vehicle. Why the difference? And in addition to that, through my LCC account I can autopay ad hoc charges for cars going into the zone on one-off occasions – but I can’t do the same with a hire car we have for a few days which needs to use the Dartford Crossing. Then it seems I have to put the car on the system and remember to take it off again. I can register for a Severn Tag and it needn’t be allocated to a specific vehicle; but if I buy M6 tags, they must be used by one designated vehicle. So there alone are four tags, and four inherently different systems to remember.

You would think, with ANPR and other technology, that one could dispense with tags and run all tolls using that, or perhaps through the use of vehicle telematics. But even that has to be complicated.

As telematics become standard across all cars, whose systems will be used? Could multiple systems still be used, provided they all conform to certain standards and who will lay down those standards? Will that be a UK ruling, or European? What happens if the controlling provider goes out of business; or there is a major system failure or hacking (will that become known as a cloud-burst?) and all data is lost or misused.

I can be quick to see the pitfalls, and quite resistant to change. People say that comes with age, but I think maybe it’s through bad past experience.

If, as a result of devolved powers we end up with an affordable, clean and efficient local public transport system in all our regions, or improved park and ride facilities, then that’s to be applauded. If we end up with one system for all tolls, albeit owned by different bodies, that’s fine. But don’t let them mess with some of the other stuff. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather everything was laid out centrally, one set of rules for all. Just so long as the rule makers don’t turn our future into something out of George Orwell’s 1984.

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