Mr Prescott - rescue me from Scotland

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The Independent Culture
NO ONE, and I'm prepared to lay money on this, is better qualified to judge Mr Prescott's much-vaunted integrated transport policy than I am. It might have been tailor-made for me. Take the journey that I'm planning tomorrow, a test case for integrated transport if ever there were one.

As it's a Sunday the island post bus isn't running, so I shall have to cadge a lift from the fisherman next door or the farmer down the road to the ferry seven miles away. I could cycle - we usually do - but with two kids and three cases, I'd be a bit pushed. I have to get the 10 o'clock ferry to connect with the 11.45 bus at Ballachulish, which is a pity because someone will definitely be going to the 12 o'clock to pick up the Minister, who comes straight from morning service at the village kirk on the mainland to tend his island flock.

A couple of Sundays ago he didn't make it. The wind was blowing from the wrong direction churning up the intervening waters into such a lather of white horses that the ferryman said it was too rough to cross in the tiny relief boat that the council have laid on while the normal ferry is being refitted.

This is a sore point among the islanders because it is less a relief boat than a large, floating pram. It's an open boat with a small blue hood at one end, under which the passengers (12 maximum) jostle for shelter when it rains. The normal ferry can hold up to 20 passengers; the decision to put it in dry dock during August, the island's busiest month, when battalions of German cyclists in heavy-duty anoraks come over, and the island farmers are to-ing and fro-ing to sheep sales and agricultural shows, was not the best example of an integrated transport policy. But then, transport has never been the council's strongest suit. Drains, education, housing - they're good at all those, but they somehow haven't got the knack of transport.

Take the famous solar-powered flood warning road sign they installed on the way to Benderloch some years back. In the old days, if a particularly high spring tide threatened to flood the road, someone from the roads department would come out and put up a couple of hand-written signs directing motorists to use an alternative route. It worked perfectly until someone else in the council heard about this exciting new solar-powered automatic flood warning system. I think it was wind-powered as well - you can't rely exclusively on sun in Scotland.

The idea was simple. When the tide rose above a certain level road signs on either side of the affected area would automatically light up, alerting motorists to the danger. Trouble was, they didn't. Tide after high tide, hapless drivers would round the corner at speed and find themselves bobbing about seaborne, fronds of seaweed floating from their windscreens, lobsters stranded on their bonnets, because the exciting new pounds 30,000 flood warning system had failed.

Then there was the year the roads department hadn't used up their budget and had to think of something quick to do with pounds 30,000. A couple of lollipop ladies? New traffic lights in Oban? No, a lay-by with a litter-bin on the only stretch of road for miles without a view.

Once on the mainland, I have to get myself to the Inverness to Glasgow bus stop 15 miles away. The Oban to Fort William road and its bus service, one on Sundays, is three miles away but, since this solitary Sunday bus misses my connection at Ballachulish by nine minutes, I'm going to have to get a taxi from the ferry anyway.

One aim of Mr Prescott's integrated transport policy is to persuade drivers to give up their cars and use public transport. To further this ambition generous government grants to support community bus services have been dished out. The local village got pounds 30,000 (everything up here seems to cost pounds 30,000) to run an experimental community bus for a limited period. Its schedule was haphazard; it didn't tie up with any of the existing ferries, trains or long-distance buses; and in the end it was scrapped. Its only two regular passengers didn't exactly fill Mr Prescott's sacrificial motorist brief anyway, since they didn't drive.

If the Glasgow bus is full, I'm sunk. It's the only one from the Highlands that stops at the airport. Last time it was full the driver said don't worry, a relief bus is right behind, and so it was. Unfortunately it forgot to stop.

Seasoned Highland travellers have asked in surprise why I don't take the Fort William sleeper direct to London. Listen, it takes a week to get through to the sleeper and when you eventually find someone to talk to, the single second-class sleeping-car is always full. Please Mr Prescott, integrate a few more carriages on to that West Highland line, and we'll all be in business.

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