After a seemingly endless stream of ‘last ever’ Wembley events, this week the pitch is finally being cut up and auctioned off for charity. The bulldozers will move in on November 2nd after a concert by – inevitably – Elton John and the whole thing will be redeveloped into a new Super Wembley, ready to astonish the world on its reopening in 2003. My guess is that the world will indeed look on open-mouthed. Not with awe though – more likely with gales of laughter as another high profile British project falls flat on its face.
Too cynical? Maybe so and I hope I’m wrong, but it does seem like nothing in this country quite works properly anymore. From the tedious farce of the Dome’s opening night and subsequent long running flop to the complete non-event of the ‘River of Fire’ to the pure slapstick comedy of the wobbly bridge, London’s Millennium celebrations have been embarrassing for all concerned. It’s often forgotten that even the bizarrely magnificent London Eye didn’t actually work until March. Given this recent record it may be wise not to book your tickets too early for the 2003 Cup Final.
The failure of the Dome is doubly disappointing. An interesting exhibition or event there would have been worthwhile in itself, but massive global interest and a larger than usual influx of foreign tourists would have also done us the favour of highlighting to the world (and thereby perhaps shaming the government into some action) an accepted but absurd reality of life here – it is ridiculously difficult to get anywhere, particularly in and around London. Whilst not agreeing with William Hague that the Dome is in the middle of nowhere, I must say that it can however be seen from there. This though doesn’t excuse the utter nightmare of trying to get there. It is illegal to park anywhere near it – laudable in theory as it ensures people take buses and tubes…which are unfortunately unreliable and appalling. This sums up transport in Britain perfectly.
London’s (and other cities’) roads are permanently congested. With railways in no way providing a quick, comfortable or even safe alternative, out-of-town car commuters can quickly construct a persuasive argument as to why they are they are blocking your city every day. They can also point to financial considerations. The cost of a return train journey from say, London to Leeds can approach three figures, whereas the same journey can be done for as little as £40 by car, even allowing for the supposedly extortionate price of petrol. The environmental consequences of unrestricted car use are well documented and more than justify the reversal of the above two prices, but this will never happen given the current fragmented state of our privately owned, profit-driven public transport.
A radical solution needs to be found quickly for all our sakes. Taking public transport must become a hugely more attractive option than using the car. Different forms of transport must be made to work together to create a seamless method of journeying around the country. Bus and train timetables must be rationalised so that they complement, rather than compete with each other. Operational control of the entire system must be given to one all-powerful body (instead of John Prescott’s lightweight and toothless DETR). Getting the country moving should be the most important criteria for success – profit can be made if possible, but it should not be the sole motive as it appears to be now. Sure, there will be problems – it will take years to organise, cost a fortune and things will get worse before they get better. But as things currently stand, things will get worse before they get worse again. Given enough time and money the right team can change things for the better. As long as we don’t call it the Millennium Transport Commission…