Monday, February 12, 2007

Road Pricing - It's All Our Fault

On the two days a week that work takes me to Dundee, I often think that I must have one of the nicest commutes anywhere. I start by leaving my house and looking out over the Forth from Portobello Beach, before setting off through a UNESCO World Heritage Site on my way to the sweeping span of the Forth Road Bridge.

Looking right as I cross the Forth, I have the magnificent Rail Bridge and to my left, the Zeebrugge ferry. Then begins the long climb from North Queensferry, passing Loch Leven and the Lomond Hills, through Glenfarg and over Balmanno Hill, where the carse opens up below. From there, it's a fast, downhill bit of motorway across the River Earn towards Perth.

On a clear morning, the sun glints off the bare rock face of Kinnoul Hill and as you head over the Friarton Bridge, there's often just a little bit of mist hanging over the Tay hundreds of feet below. And from there, it's a 20-minute thrash along the side of the Tay and through some of the most fertile land in Europe until I reach the office, just off the Kingsway in the north of the city.

I suspect if I had to do it every day, the novelty would soon wear off. And being honest, despite the views, it is a bit of a trek, taking as long to get from my flat to the Forth Bridge as it does to get from there to Dundee. It was for that reason that a few months ago, in a fit of self-righteous middle-class greenery, I sat down and worked out how much it would cost me if I were to dump the car and take the train instead.

The results were surprising. In the course of my research, I found that the Edinburgh-Dundee route is about the only one operated by First Scotrail where you can't buy discounted tickets in advance. Since a season ticket would be no use to me, that would have meant buying a full-price ticket for each journey at nearly £20.

In fact, the only difference in cost between the two modes of travel was the annual depreciation on my car, for which I got in return the convenience of four wheels for the remainder of the week. But then came the time factor - the choice between spending 3 hours of my day in a car, or nearer 5 hours door-to-door on public transport. It was, in the end, a complete no-brainer.

Now, I don't think anyone could reasonably claim that the cost of motoring is too low. I pay £150 road tax each year, a 75% rate of tax on the fuel which goes in my tank, a tax on my compulsory insurance premium and at least one bridge toll (two if I come back by the Tay Bridge). Yet in spite of all that, the public transport option still ended up dearer. From that, the only conclusion you can draw is that the cost of public transport is simply far too high.

Trust Labour, then, not to come up with a way to improve our railways, but instead to come forward with their own gimcrack road pricing scheme, designed to clobber commuters like me. The scheme, we are told, would involve a 'black box' being fitted to every car, which would then feed back information to the authorities on where you were, where you'd been, how long you'd been there and how fast you'd been going in between times.

Environmental and economic concerns aside, just stop for a minute and consider the enormity of what this would entail. It means that the government and their employees, whom you may or may not trust to use such information benignly, would be able to track your every move around the country, and no doubt in time would be able to send out automated speeding tickets if it looked like you'd been making better progress than you perhaps should have been.

If this went ahead, it would represent a monsterous intrusion into our daily lives, which probably goes some way towards explaining why the e-petition lodged at Downing St against road pricing now has well over 1 million signatures. But according to my favourite New Labour cyborg on Radio 4 this morning, although it's great that so many ordinary members of the public are engaging with the political process in this way, there's been so much disinformation about the government plans that those taking part don't really understand what they are voting against! And once we have been properly informed and had a balanced debate, he's confident that the government plans will enjoy widespread support!

Move over Hazel Blears and Patricia Hewitt - learn at the feet of a graduate egregia cum laude from New Labour's Ministry of Truth.


Osama Saeed said...

Nice view? Keep your eyes on the road!

Richard Thomson said...

I try to, but it's difficult when you're trying to respond to blog comments on your mobile at the same time ;-)

(If Douglas Alexander is reading, that was a joke. This blog in no way endorses the use of hand-held mobile phones when driving...)