Today was opened a 2.7 mile tram link. The plush new trams will transport people to the centre of Manchester in 25 minutes. For those who normally take the car, there is a large car park, meaning people do not have to endure up to sixty minutes of heavy traffic congestion and then to face exorbitant city-centre car parking charges. For people normally taking the bus, there is a similar time saving, and a much more pleasant ride. Further the route goes via Chorlton, a route that is only served with public transport by a painfully slow bus at any time of day. People who do not use public transport now will start doing so. People who already use public transport have a much superior option.
So how on earth, with all these positives can I claim that this fantastic new tram is to the net detriment of society?
Within 400 metres of East Didsbury tram station is East Didsbury railway station. To Manchester it takes 12 minutes, half the time of the tram. Off peak by train is around £2.50, as against £3.80 tram cost I was quoted at 8pm when I took the photograph.
The bridge in the background is of the A34 Kingsway. Less than 50 metres away is a stop for the 50 bus into Manchester. 100 metres left of shot is East Didsbury Bus station. In between on Didsbury Road is a bus stop for buses from Stockport going through towards Altrincham, Chorlton and also North through Didsbury, Withington, Rusholme into Manchester. The Withington to Manchester bus corridor is probably the busiest in Europe, mostly due to serving two large University campuses. The tram route is useless to the students.
Then there is the cost. A weekly ticket on the tram to Manchester is £21.00. An annual ticket is £800.00. This compares with £12.50 for a weekly bus ticket. For students, Stagecoach (the dominant bus company) provide an unlimited travel ticket for £60.00 a term, equivalent to £5.00 to £7.50 per week.
But the biggest costs are to society as a whole. In December 10th 2008 there was a referendum in Greater Manchester on a package of measures to improve public transport, paid for by a congestion charge. There was a huge, publicly-funded website called “wevoteyes.co.uk”. The most expensive item Although the website is now suspended, thanks to the Wayback Machine, the claims can be charted. Most important amongst the claims was
FACT: There’s no Plan B. If we vote NO in December the money goes back to Government, all £3 billion of it.
I wrote on 09/11/08, a full month before the referendum:-
…..it is a false statement, as the total investment is less than £2.8bn, including £313m for the congestion charge investment. The central government is only providing, £1.5bn of this, £1.2bn is to be funded by the congestion charge and £100m is from other sources. The full £2.8bn includes contingencies, so will only be “achieved” if there is an overspend.
Anyway, the full and permanent withdrawal of the £1.5bn funding may not occur. The Prime Minister, in a response to a question tabled by Manchester Withington MP John Leech, said “If Greater Manchester came back with a revised proposition, we would need to assess it on its merits.”
Just six months later the decision was made to go ahead with the scheme. Maybe you can excuse a Government trying to cajole people into making people decide in the general interest. But they commissioned a detailed study which relied upon a congestion charge to force large sections of the community from private to public transport. That the people who would be forced to switch would be those currently only just able to afford the luxury of private transport, or that the figures ignored empirical economic evidence that undermined their case are beside the point. What is important is that the wider economic validity of the case for an expanded Metrolink to East Didsbury relied upon the “stick” of the congestion charge. Without that “stick”, the costs of the Metrolink extensions are significantly greater than the benefits, so society as a whole is worse off than if the money had never been spent. The Labour Party would have known this if they had read and interpreted the report they commissioned. Yet the spin doctors put Labour Party interest before the interest of the wider society and ploughed on regardless. If a GP had done this in regard to a patient they would have been struck off. If a business director had put personal interest before the interests of the company they would have been disqualified, with all costs falling upon them personally. But when a political party tries to hang onto power by favouring voters in areas where they are strong, or marginals where they are a close second, at the expense of the country at large, then this is not viewed as a moral issue. I beg to differ. Political decisions have wide implications. Our political masters should seek the net betterment of society as a whole. In the case of the Metrolink extensions we have a lovely service that will never justify the original outlay of £1.6 billion, but the long-term passenger revenues may not cover the operating costs, whilst custom taken away from the trains will increase subsidies and/or reduce services in that area along with bus services being diminished that currently run without subsidy.