You know it’s going to be an academic sort of conference with a title like ‘Using innovative transport technologies to stimulate regional development: sustainable, cost-effective solutions to improve accessibility to, from and within peripheral regions in North-West Europe.‘ Still, I was excited about the opportunity to hang out with planning guru Sir Peter Hall, and having written about some of Europe’s transport projects (Eurotunnel and SNCF’s ambitions to make France the centre of a European fast train network), I was interested to hear what the various EU commission officials and transport planners had to say.
SPH (Sir Peter Hall: usually I use the journalistic tradition of referring to people on second reference by their surname, but reverence for the man is so great he is never referred to without the Sir) introduced his latest project: Sintropher. One of the most ridiculous acronyms I have ever come across, it stands for Sustainable, INtegrated, Tram-based tRansport fOr periPHeral European Regions and it’s basically about tram-train connections in outlying European areas such asw Blackpool (which – interesting fact – has had a tram since 1885).
We also heard how the EU commission wants to use its billions (1.5 trillion euros over 20 years to be precise) to create a coherent European transport network that will help meet its convergence objective: connecting the periphery to the core will help struggling regions raise their GDP.
In the ‘masterclass’ session, I heard Michele Dix, head of planning at Transport for London, talk about how she runs the 24 million trips a day in the capital. I asked her why London’s answer to making it easier to switch from one mode of transport to the other is not to make the timetables match up, but rather to increase the frequency of services. Surely, I was thinking, there must be a more intelligent way. If they can do it in Zurich, then why can’t we do it here. But no, not when you can’t rely on services arriving when they should.
Most interesting was the presentation by Dominik Bruehwiler, head of transport planning for Zuercher Verkehrsverbund (which I think means Zurich transport system). I discovered that making trams wait for trains does not require some super complicated mathematical formula (as I had suspected). They simply make all journey times coming into Zurich multiples of fiveteen minutes (Switzerland is a small place) leaving at 1, 2, 3 or 4 minutes past the hour and arriving at 53, 54, 55, 56 minutes to the hour (or equivalent time for quarter and half past), meaning everyone can make their connection. A photo of Zurich station at 20 minutes past the hour shows a deserted place: all the activity happens around the 15 minute mark. The speed of the trains is not fast on international comparisons, but the total trip time is competitive, he said. Plus timetables are easy to memorise. The system works because the average arriving delay is 70 seconds (and the system is built to cope with delays of up to 180 seconds). The system is used intensively: if the journeys were made by road they would have to build a 14-land motorway, Bruehwiler said. Where the Swiss struggle is working with other train networks. Their timetable for 2019 was set to the minute in 2007. But France and Germany decide only (!) one year before. Lots of international trains (many of them late) are integrated into the Swiss network, sowing un-Swiss and headache-inducing impredictability. Interestingly, the Swiss seem to prefer that their tax money subsidises public transport rather than roads. Government is often by referendum in Switzerland and since 1982 all proposed railway and tram systems have been approved wheras all new road building has been rejected.