Even in the 21st century, when the Internet lets people teleconference and buy cars and send reports to their bosses without ever leaving their desks, the British still love to travel the old-fashioned way. British railways ran up 35% more passenger-miles in 1999 than in 1995, the year they were privatized into a crazy-quilt of some 25 regional and national companies. Road traffic rose 9% in the same period. Transport experts and officials have long thought both the rail and road systems were creaky and underfunded. But now, in the wake of an Oct. 27 accident at Hatfield north of London that claimed four lives when a train hit a broken rail, the railroads are in a chaos of emergency repairs — and as a consequence railway refugees are driving their cars on the country's groaning highways. The gelatinous pace of travel is fraying nerves, depressing the economy and jolting Britons into the realization that at least a decade of heavy investment will be needed before their transport system approaches European standards.
At Waterloo Station in London last week, where 202,000 people flow through daily, notices warned of a landslide on one line and flooding on another, both caused by the wettest autumn since records began 234 years ago. Among the queueing passengers, Irving James, an accountant, said his daughter's daily commute between Flitwick, in Bedfordshire, and London had doubled to five hours since the Hatfield crash. "The system is already at capacity, so any disruption has big knock-on effects," he said. Alex Dalton gets to his job in the City of London via the 8:03 from Surbiton, a fast service that should take 15 minutes. Now he arrives at the station at 8:15 because the train is always late, and his "pretty unpleasant" journey to Waterloo often takes 45 minutes. Asked how customers were behaving, a South West Trains employee in a "Passenger Assistance" vest laughed, crossed himself and walked away.
Though London is the most train-dependent British city, throughout the U.K. about 10,000 out of 18,000 trains operating each day can't follow their normal timetable because of signal failures, drivers who don't show up and — especially — emergency track maintenance. Last week the new head of Railtrack, the company that owns the tracks, said disruptions would last until Easter.
It's not just the trains that are staggering. The Automobile Association says auto traffic is up 11% on major roads to London, which has choked average speeds in the capital to 16 km/h — slower than a century ago. Other major cities — Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow — report similar, though less intense, problems. "When the rail network crashes and burns, the road network does too," says Michael Johnson, spokesman for the AA. But even before the current crisis, the road network, which carries 94% of all passenger journeys, was under strain. British motorists face the worst congestion in Western Europe and spend the most time commuting. While Germany has 11,200 km of limited-access motorway and France has 8,000, Britain has just 3,200 — and the government admits that local roads are the worst they've been for 30 years.
The only solution for these deep-seated faults is "investment, investment, investment," says Sir Alastair Morton, the former head of Britain's Channel Tunnel project who now runs the government's Strategic Rail Authority. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has criticized Britain's historic pattern of low investment, agrees. His government recently announced $175 billion in transport investment over the next 10 years, split almost evenly between public and private sources, which includes money for new high-speed train lines and over 70 road bypasses to cut city congestion.
But at least on the rail side, as attention has focused on the sloppy management that allowed Hatfield to happen, there are fears that this new money could be squandered. "Railtrack as it was the day after Hatfield was not up to the task" of spending billions to modernize, says Morton. "Its new management has a very big job, and has to prove it can do it." He recommends bringing in big construction companies to manage its major projects. Just to crawl back to "normal" — let alone handle growth of 50% in rail passenger-miles and 30% in cars expected by 2010 — the people running Britain's transport system will need all the help they can get.