Believe me, I do have the right thoughts and habits. I know that cars are locally and globally ruinous, polluting urban air, enabling sprawl and accelerating climate change. I am a public transport user, a walker and a cyclist (well, I don’t actually cycle or have a bike, but I’m a believer, if you see what I mean).
The day before yesterday, however, needing to be in London for a meeting, I got in my car and drove. Door to door it was certainly quicker than the services of Southern Rail, even on a ‘good’ day. It was probably cheaper too (depending how you count depreciation, and the cost of parking), and certainly less stressful than the perpetual nervousness about what trains if any may be operating.
It’s not meant to be like this. We’re meant to ‘let the train take the strain’, passing our time reading, working or simply daydreaming, as the train speeds under down and over weald, delivering us to our city centre destination swiftly and economically.
But the seemingly endless succession of strike days, overtime bans and train crew shortages on Southern Rail has not just inconvenienced passengers (some of whom have lost jobs as a result), but has set the clock back decades. It has confirmed the most insidious myth pedalled by the car lobby, that only as a solo buccaneer behind the wheel do you have grown-up control over your destiny – automobile autonomy.
Southern Rail has confirmed this myth by infantilising passengers, removing all sense of agency, and reducing us to childlike states of neediness and frustration. No, sitting on the A23 in gridlocked traffic in South Norwood doesn’t bear much resemblance to the illusions of the open road that the car commercials spin, but it’s a hell of a lot more comfortable than hovering anxiously by a departure board in a packed station, being barked at by specious pre-recorded ‘apologies’, and wondering whether to take a punt of a platform in the hope of getting a seat. At least you get to listen to music you like. Loud.
If the car lobby was looking for a way to undermine the case for public transport, it could hardly hope for anything better than the current Southern Rail debacle. I just hope that is an awkward side-effect rather than a strategy.