Leading article: The car should not be the only option


Late on Christmas Eve, there was a 30-car pile-up on the M62 in bad weather. Regrettably, and to the ruination of the festive season for those involved, there will be more bad weather and more accidents before this extended break is over. And we cannot help asking how many of these could have been avoided if public transport, national and local, had been operating even a reduced service across the holiday period.

Britain is practically alone among developed countries in the completeness of its seasonal transport shutdown. Services are wound down through Christmas Eve. Most rail services do not operate for two days; national buses, local buses and the London Underground stop altogether for Christmas Day. Pretty much the only public transport is to and from the airports for flights abroad. If you want to visit friends or family in this country, or if you have to work, you must drive - or pay for a taxi.

Now it is incontestable that everyone who works deserves, and is entitled to, a holiday. And for many people, Christmas is the great family occasion. But it is also true that big cities especially are operating increasingly around the clock, around the week and around the year. Britain is growing more culturally diverse: not everyone celebrated Christmas yesterday. Tourists visit the year round. More people are choosing to eat out during the holidays, and more doubtless would, given the opportunity. Many of the big stores begin their winter sales today or tomorrow.

Given these social changes, it is surely time to ask whether the total annual shutdown of public transport is in anyone's interest - except that of the people who work for it. Certain services, not just hospitals and the emergency services but hotels, catering establishments and sections of the media, are staffed across public holidays. Once upon a time, such services included public transport.

Introducing change will not be easy. In cities such as London and New York, which cannot function without public transport, the trade unions are all too aware of their power. New York was without public transport for two days in the peak shopping period of the year because of a strike over benefits. London Underground drivers are exercising similar brinkmanship in the run-up to the New Year in a dispute over shifts and staffing.

In an effort to fend off a strike, a London Assembly official described the Underground as an essential service and warned that drink-driving could increase if the Tube did not run on New Year's Eve. The selfsame arguments apply on a national basis over Christmas. Public transport is an essential service. It is needed 365 days of the year.

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