Monday, March 4, 2013

Planes, trains and automobiles

I was recently in England again, with a rental car. A VW Golf Bluemotion as it happens - a nifty little 1.6 diesel engine that returned an easy 88mpg (UK) or about 73mpg (US). Think about that for a moment while we apparently struggle to get anything over 40mpg here in America. But that's a topic for another post.
The point of this is that owning and running a car in England is monstrously expensive. To half-fill that Golf on the way back to the airport cost me $75 - so we're looking at close to $150 to brim it from empty (thanks to a nearly 500% tax rate that the UK government levy on fuel). There's a bevy of taxes when you buy a new or used car (delivery tax, luxury car tax, sales tax, showroom tax and so on and so forth) and the annual taxes and costs of running are similarly high. Yet it's increasingly common for families over there to have two or more cars - something unheard of 15 years ago. Why is this?
I'll tell you why - because public transport in the UK is as broken as it's ever been, and even more prohibitively expensive. We needed to get in to London one day whilst there and I wasn't about to pay the extra road tax to get in to London by car (I think that's up to £8/$13 or more per day now) so we chose to take the train. To travel 49 miles to and from London Victoria station cost me £38 in train tickets each - so £76 for the pair of us (about $105). The journey was 90 minutes, averaging a whopping 32mph. Half way there the train broke down and we had to stand around at a station waiting 20 minutes for the one behind us to catch up, thus meaning double the number of commuters all jammed into a single train.
When we got to London it cost another £17 in tube tickets to travel - wait for it - two stops on the tube. They don't do single tickets any more - you need to buy an all-day TravelCard even if you're only traveling one station. Tip: if you get the TravelCard when you buy the train ticket, it's much cheaper. I found this out when I got home. Nice that the guy at the station ticket hall didn't bother to tell me this when I bought the tickets.
This situation hasn't improved since we left the UK in 2001 when it was already expensive and inconvenient to use public transport and/or run a car. Since then the cost of fuel has doubled; the underlying price-per-litre for petrol has only gone up about 20p but because of all the taxes on top, the end price to the customer goes up exponentially. In the same time the cost of public transport has doubled while the number of services have been slashed.
So it's really a case of the lesser of two evils. Sitting in your own car with your own music, even if it is in endless lines of traffic, paying through the nose for fuel, taxes and the "priveledge" to use roads that haven't seen proper maintenance in years, is still a much better option than being abused in a smelly train.