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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 18:04 GMT
Is UK transport the worst in Europe?
The UK's railways are the worst in Europe, a government minister has admitted.
Europe Minister Peter Hain said the government had invested in the UK's transport system "far too late", and improving the railways was an "intractable problem".
Mr Hain's comments come as further strike action is set to cause misery for commuters in the south of England, Scotland and the north of England.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has come under attack from opposition parties for concentrating on foreign diplomacy in South Asia while the UK's rail network descended into "farce".
Does the UK have the worst railway system in Europe? How can the system be improved?
This Talking Point is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
I holiday in the UK annually and ride
the trains. In the 1960's I was in
the UK with the US Air Force, rode
perhaps twice weekly, and could not
then understand the complaints about
BR. I imagine most would like to go
back to those days.
I do not understand the complaints
about slam door carriages. About the
Time of the Clapham Junction crash
it was said the railways were spending
far too much money on paint schemes
and new signing at stations instead
I would rather see money to be spent
on new rolling stock used instead for
train protection systems, signalling
and tracking, leaving refurbished
slam door stock in service.
The trains may well be the worst in Europe; has this got anything to do with the fact that as a nation we pay the least percentage of GDP as tax? Of course it has - we want what the mainland Europeans have but we cant get rid of the Thatcherite mentality which says 'pay less tax'. We can't have it both ways. This also applies to all other areas of the public service. We need to grow up, nationalise and pay more tax!
One reason that people find car travel cheaper than rail is because road transport does not pay the full cost of road and its effect on society and the environment. Why is it that money spent on rail is termed "subsidy", yet (far more) money spent on roads is called "investment"?
Tory policy was to run BR into the ground then privatise it. A lot of people, especially ex-ministers, made a lot of money out of the process.
Blaming Stephen Byers now is comforting but it can't change the fact that we ignored this and must now pay the price.
The rail network in this country has been in decline since it was privatised. It's ridiculous to assume that 20 or so companies can co-ordinate themselves and put the quality of service before profit. It will be difficult to renationalise the rail system but without that, or a merging of the zones run by the companies, we will continue to see the demise of our rail network. Even with a handful of companies running the network, they're unlikely to want to invest the billions of pounds required to put right the mess we have at the moment.
Stephen James, London, UK
Recently, my journey from Dundee to Bristol became a series of breakdowns, electrical faults and other such delays. In the end, what was supposed to be a direct connection became a farce as I was herded onto six different services before reaching my destination several hours late.
During the summer I thoroughly enjoyed an Inter-Rail trek around Europe, taking in 16 different cities over 5 weeks, and travelling by rail between each of them. Even during the busiest travelling period of the year, none of those rail networks had any memorable problems whatsoever.
Is Britain's Rail Network the worst in Europe? By far.
The rail system in the UK is easily the worst in Europe. I have lived in Switzerland and the Czech Republic, and even there, a place that no doubt conjures up images of crumbling infrastructure from years of communist neglect, buses, trains and trams are cheap, clean and reliable! After enduring two years in London I now live in Sydney where life on public transport is a breeze.
As an accountant I have seen the inside of many UK ex-state run giants. These beasts are the most horribly inefficient money eating machines on earth. Throwing money at existing management is not the answer - first and foremost these businesses need to be turned upside down, clear out the deadwood management and the free-riders. Money needs to be used to hire an army of talented people from the UK or overseas before any further infrastructure investment is even considered!
Whenever the media start to analyse the UK rail system, it always gets compared with the French TGV. It may amaze some readers that the rest of SNCF is not like the TGV. It is not appropriate to compare UK rail with the TGV, but it is more appropriate to compare their "normal" (TER) train service with ours - and last time I was in France, all of the TER trains at a major station were running at least 15 minutes late. Sure, the TGV is amazing, but we don't have a system like it in the UK, and it will take many years of major upgrades before we could. Oh, and if you think our trains are overpriced, try America's Amtrak trains - $80-$100 for a standard class advance ticket on the express from New York - Philadelphia (about the same as London - Bristol, which costs £25 advance single on the express train).
I lived in the UK in 1995 and at that time the rail system, compared to that of France, was dismal. But I think it is quite unfair to blame Labour for a problem the Tories were unwilling to fix for over a decade. Place the blame squarely where it should be, at the feet of the shopkeeper's daughter and what's his name who came after her.
Our rail/tube system is appalling and not simply because of under-investment. Action which could be taken very quickly by the government would be to vastly increase financial penalties on companies running sub-standard services and to legislate against the ability of unions like the RMT to strike for trivial reasons (and I include only getting a decent pay rise rather than a huge one as trivial!).
You only need to travel to North America to find public transport in true dire straits. I live 100kms from Canada's largest city and until recently there was one commuter train in the morning. Several cities with populations in excess of 1 million people have no rail service whatsoever.
The only answer to getting large numbers of people about in heavily populated areas is public transport/walking and cycling. Note that far more people cycle in European cities than in the UK - that's down to a better cycling infrastructure and less aggressive driving habits.
Ted Kerr, Guildford, Surrey, UK
There is little doubt that the transport system is in chaos. But rather than try to figure out how to fix it our elected officials are happy to put all of their efforts into political posturing. I am continually astounded by the lack of any real action that successive governments take on any matter, let alone transport. I find it particularly offensive that politicians are constantly in election mode. Stop the bickering and sort it out - that is all the tax paying public want.
It is left to managers and accountants who are warned occasionally that trains must run on time. Another problem is that even if the government had the courage to step in and sort out the railways it wouldn't have the rail experts needed to run it as most of them have been sacked already. I'm personally very pessimistic for the future development of UK transport policies and have thus decided to work from home as it saves me a lot of aggravation, frustration and a fortune of money.
I use the Docklands Light Railway and it's great. They currently want to extend it but the plans have been with the government for over a year pending approval. The rest of the London system is a disaster. I don't use the train for long trips as it is too expensive - why pay £100 return to York when you can drive for £40?
At least in the UK you have a railway network. There are only about a dozen tracks in Ireland and absolutely none of the trains ever seem to run on time.
Rather than despairing over the state of our shambolic transport network we should all be taking more direct action. Lobby your MP, work out how long your journey should take according to the laughable timetables and invoice the relevant transport provider for time delays. If we do not make a stand the issue will be given a cursory glance by the government and then put on the back burner. It is simply unacceptable that we have to wait for years for the government to make any form of decision on public transport.
Martin, UK has hit the nail on the head. Commuters do have a choice as to where they live and work and it might be worth us all reflecting on whether people who can afford to commute by train in the first place are really entitled to demand almost unlimited amounts of public money to make their journeys more tolerable. Our transport system may well be the worst in Europe but are the patterns of commuting the same? If less people commuted, the pattern and frequency of services could be made more regular leading to efficiency savings all round. I choose to live only four miles from my work but even I have given up on the buses and have taken to my bike. So that's one less passenger and therefore one less seat that needs to be provided at peak times!
I travelled extensively by rail in England last year on holiday with my mother. It is a pity that porters are no longer employed or that very few stations have lifts. Additionally on one Thameslink train the toilets were out of order. My mother is elderly and has asthma and at the end of our holiday we were exhausted and made up our minds not to do it again.
It's not true that British railways are the worst in Europe. I went inter-railing recently and I can say with some authority that Spain's railways are the worst. They hardly go anywhere in the country, and they don't go more than about twice a day. By contrast, British railways look good.
Population density or vehicle density is not an excuse the UK can hide behind. The Netherlands is far worse for both, yet manages to have a better road and rail network.
I'm a Londoner living in Berlin, and
have travelled around Germany and
France (via ICE and TGV respectively).
I never fail to be impressed by Berlin's
public transport, the punctuality, the
cleanliness, the lack of rush-hour
cramming that I'm used to on the
tube in London. As far as national
travel is concerned, the German
speed services generally cost more
than in England, but its worth it, and
with the German Rail Management
(Die Bahn) committed to some 40
Billion Marks (around £13 Billion) investment over the near
future, I can't see the UK's public
transport improving drastically without
a similar commitment to investment.
And driving isn't as bad as many make out - yes there are hold-ups if you drive at peak times, but no worse than I've experienced in a dozen European countries, and it would have been better if New Labour hadn't stopped every major road improvement scheme the moment they got into power.
If you were to transport animals in conditions even approaching those on the Tube your operation would be shut down. Ditto commuter suburban trains around London. A single delayed train results in chaos, and why does it take 45 minutes to get from A to B by train when the same journey by car takes less than 10? Our transport network is nothing more than a sick joke.
I feel a need to say that the London Underground is a brilliant, well run and quite cheap transport service. I travel to London twice a year and are always surprised how well the service is. Most stations have been done up the last ten years, cctv makes the underground much safer to travel in. They are slowly introducing new trains and I rarely have to wait long for a train. Obviously it's an old train system but it works well. Be proud of it! I am!
It is, with the possible exception of Ireland. Investment is surely the key to improvements, so long as this is co-ordinated into planned and truly integrated new transport infrastructure. The high population density of the UK, however (59 million giving a density of 238 sq./km) inherently causes potential congestion problems, especially for a nation that is the world's 4th largest economy and simultaneously starved of investment is sustainable public transport year after year.
I live in a village of about 3000-4000 people, ten miles from the nearest town and five miles from the nearest cash-point. It is a area of high unemployment, so many people rely on the bus service as they do not have cars. Up until two years ago two bus companies operated in this area, until a well known bus company lowered their prices so much that it drove the other local company out of business.
In the space of a year since then, the number of buses operated has halved (not including the company that went out of business) and the prices have tripled.
It is companies like this that degrade the service by driving out the competition.
Britain has the highest density of cars per square km of any country in the world (barring the city state of Singapore). One car for every 1.3 sq km of land. When you take into account the hugely under populated areas within the northern parts of the mainland this density in the cities and southern part of the country must shoot through the roof. Every time someone finds themselves "having" to buy a car to make up for the deficiencies of the existing transport system the problem gets exponentially worse. We end up paying about £3500 per year up front to subsidise the status quo.
Having recently done the same, following a successful 6 years of car free living, but finally being defeated by nippers and their clutter. It annoys me to have to pay to own a car when I could achieve my transport needs with public transport and car rental, IF the government had the courage to charge a decent level of tax to provide this. Instead we all pay more to achieve our aims individually because our government lacks the courage to tax overtly and argue the case with us.
We need higher taxes now! All these European countries have better transport networks (Health systems, standards of living etc) because they pay for it! Everybody always complained about BR, but that's because it never had enough investment. Don't forget that SNCF is the French equivalent of what was BR, and you don't see all the French people complaining about poor a transport infrastructure. It seems an incredibly obvious point, but one that the British electorate seems to forget time and time again, with tax rises continuing to be a taboo word in British politics!
A simple journey for you all to ponder, completed in every way possible by myself at some point in the last year - Pontypridd to Cardiff Bay, a journey of 17 miles approx.
By car - at worst 45 mins to 1 hour at peak rush hour. £20 per week for 10 journeys (there and back, AND there's petrol left over!)
By bus - 3 hours (includes hanging round waiting!) - cost £47 a week (maybe a bit more now!)
By train - 1.5-2 hours - cost £60 a week (if they turn up! - a lot of the time, buses are used!)
I think I'll stick to the car thanks very much! Even with the ever growing threat of having to pay for parking, it'll still be cheaper!
Although the British system is under funded and leaves a lot to be desired, don't think that the grass is always greener! Here in Paris travel by public transport is dogged by strikes which occur with a frequency I have never known elsewhere. Yes, the transport infrastructure may be better here, but that doesn't mean a more efficient service for travellers...
I'm sure that many commuters using public transport have suffered bad experiences, but then, how often does a smooth, punctual bus service stick in your memory? And, for the record, the transport operators don't put the chewing gum there, it's the travelling public...
Nathan Trace, Suffolk, UK
Time and again I see new traffic developments on my journey to work, that give very marginal benefit to a few dozen pedestrians or bus passengers but at the expense of creating major delays for literally thousands of motorists.
There appears to be no concept of bringing the greatest benefit to the greatest number in transport planning - just a desire to attack car users.
A transport policy should be about making journeys easier not attacking people who very often have no choice at all in how they get to work.
If the UK has the worst system in Europe, at least it has a system. The US, for all it's wealth, is so poorly served with public transport it's laughable (if you're not crying about it). The UK may need to fix it's system, but the US must build one.
I am a car driver because I have no alternative, however my biggest complaint is with the railways. I am now unable to go to London for a day, the drive is too long, and I don¿t think I would be able to park. I used to go to art exhibitions, and other cultural events as you know these things all take place in London. I now feel that the capitol is inaccessible, to those of us that live up north.
There is obviously a big difference of views between people who have to rely on our transport system everyday for commuting, and those who just use it from time to time for pleasure, such as tourists. Yes, if you come from a country with hardly any public transport it might seem marvellous that you can get somewhere without a car. But if you compare like with like, ie the UK with the rest of western Europe, we are way behind in terms of efficiency, cost, reliability, investment, and innovation. Just because we are better off than some, doesn't mean we don't have a serious problem.
When will all the politicians realise that the majority of congestion on Britain's roads is caused by lorries. Wise up, get freight back on railways - once the pride of a nation, now just a laughing stock.
Britain at least HAS a public transport system. There is room for improvement, but don't forget that it is the oldest system in the world. The first ever train ran from Stockton to Darlington in 1825 and London was the first-ever city to have a subway, with the opening of the Metropolitan Line in 1863. Given that Britain was the first country to have public transport, mistakes were made in its development, which other countries learned from, but Britain is stuck with its old infrastructure. It can't simply shut down its entire railway system for one massive overhaul, or the country would grind to a halt. The next best option is to repair the system in increments and in phases.
I was a bus driver for many years in the Greater Manchester area, people who have never done this job, do not understand the situation. Many drivers are robbed and attacked, plus missiles thrown at buses. There is only limited control over passengers, who wish to incite trouble. The drivers are on their own. The worst mistake companies made where to remove guards. I myself originally used to love my job, but under no circumstances would I drive a bus today.
Okay, so the British transport system isn't perfect (years of Tory neglect of public transport probably being the main culprit), but compared to California it's great. Here in the Bay Area we have to put up with cluttered freeways and limited bus and rail services which become practically non-existent in the suburbs (though this is admittedly better than most of the States) Britain has the infrastructure, and with government investment (after all the rail privatisation fiasco shows this can't be trusted to private business) can relatively quickly get one of the best transport systems in the world
What I can't understand is why the Government bothered to commission a report into the state of British transport when we all know how bad it is!
Each day I travel from the South Coast to London on 40 year old rolling stock - you can hardly expect it to be fast, efficient and comfortable.
And as for "paying high taxes like the Europeans do", never have a British government had so much money from taxation, and as with health and education, I have to wonder just what are they doing with it all?
It was only when I left the UK to live in another country, experiencing the joys of its transport system as part of my daily life, that I realised what a complete and utter embarrassment the British transport system really is. Very expensive, extremely unreliable and simply a waste of space. Is it any wonder why the roads are congested?
Sometimes, we Brits get so insular about our island and we think that only we know best. Well, if our European neighbours countries can manage to run a decent transport system with apparent ease, isn't it about time we woke up and made some fundamental changes?
After living and working in London for 4 years I moved to Hong Kong. I've been here nearly 2 years and still marvel at the public transport. Buses, trams and tubes run on time, are clean and, apart from the trams, are air-conditioned. The system works so well. Could someone from the Government take note? I am loathe to return to the hellish commuting I put up with while living in South London.
Having just returned from yet another miserable school break trip, I can assure you the British system is considerably more organized and effective. This is the eighth time in a little over a year I've taken Amtrak (national rail company) from Boston to New Jersey (scheduled to be about 5 hrs), and I have yet to arrive on time - twice I've even had to ride the next day because the trains were so late.
In comparison, when I went on a choir trip to England two years ago, we managed to get 45 people (about a third between the ages of 9 and 14) quickly and rapidly through the London tubes, as well as on the regular rail system to Bath and other stops. Certainly more work could be done on public transport systems, but I know that a number of people over here (who have also been to England) envy the simplicity, logic and forethought so absent on America's rails. Kudos to those pushing for more mass transit and bike riding - more often than not, cars just make the place untidy, pollute a lot and make travel hazardous for those who want to walk or ride.
Gurmail Gill, USA
Absolutely no comparison. I lived in Germany and have travelled extensively throughout Europe. The transport infrastructure in the UK is a shambles. It is dirty, unreliable, uncomfortable and an absolute disgrace to the country.
The answer is simply: quit spending billions on over-ambitious futuristic train and tube stations and just get those trains running on time. That's all we ask.
I don't use public transport. It doesn't work for me. I live about two miles from work so the commute is short and when I go away for the weekend I leave at 6am and there is no traffic. I find the road infrastructure to be fine at these times. Of course if you wish to work in a different town to the one you live, expect inconvenience when getting to work.
Chris Brown, Canada
The transport system in Scotland is absolutely atrocious. Where I live the first bus in the morning starts at 8:00am and the last bus back is at 5:00pm, if they run at all; no wonder so many people use cars! This winter road gritting has been privatised so the number of gritting trucks has been reduced - parents are already threatening to keep their children away from school because the roads are being gritted AFTER the school bus leaves. Transport (buses, rail and roads) should be in public hands as the private sector have shown themselves to be useless at running public services time and time again.
I commuted to London for a year from Epsom in Surrey, all through the disruptions after Hatfield. Every day was the same story of run down stations, over crowded trains, crawling along stretches of unsafe track and unpredictable delays and cancellations. But the worst thing was not knowing how safe you were, whether the train beside you was going to run into you or if there was another commuter train rushing towards yours on the same track - it was worse than fear of flying!
It wasn't worth working in London, the hassle, headache and stress of commuting. I left the country and I'm glad I don't have to suffer British transport. And the only solution ever offered by government? Investment, chuck more money at it and hope some of it helps. Yeah, right, because that really worked with BR & Railtrack didn't it.
British transport, you're welcome to it.
Peter Mork, Ireland
I moved from London to the most congested part of Germany (Essen, middle of the Ruhrgebiet) just over a year ago. The best thing about being here? Hardly any traffic jams. Motorways with no speed limits (and the majority of people still drive more slowly than in Britain - there is no limit to "aim for"), wider roads and low speed limits in residential areas (many areas have a 30kmph limit) which means you feel safe on foot and get around fast in the car. Plus public transport here works well if I ever want to use it (seldom, but it can happen...). What's wrong with the British system? The assumption that everyone will always drive if roads are good. That's just not true... as long as there is a decent alternative. So there's no excuse not to build good roads, but work on the other systems too.
I am sick and tired of reading and hearing about yet another aspect that makes up the scandal that is the United Kingdom. Despite all these unacceptable failings, the 'British public' seems to accept it. I would say that nothing short of a total overhaul and revolt is necessary in protest.
Lorenzo Martinelli, UK
Leon Reilly, London, England
I worked from home, as a consultant, for several years. Eventually I had to move my practice back into London because otherwise it was difficult to develop professionally. The price, though, is 2-3 hours per day commuting, on crowded, unreliable, underground trains - and I live only 10 miles from central London! Driving into the centre is no quicker, and even more expensive.
Of course the UK has the worst transport problem in Europe. We under invest in public transport and insist on trying to cram as much of our population and jobs into London and the South East as possible! We already have one of the mostly densely populated countries in the western world without trying to put 30-40% of our population into 10-20% of our land. Even massive investment in public transport infrastructure can't overcome the reality that the South East is reaching its population capacity and the ability of public transport and roads to cope with it! Companies need to be encouraged to create jobs outside of London and the South East. We need to integrate work and home spaces more closely, negating the requirement for long commutes. Other countries manage to spread the load of their populations more evenly why can't/won't we? Or am I simply being too Utopian?
Tony Sheerstone, Netherlands
It is not possible to have a worse transport infrastructure than here in the Emerald Isle.
I cycle 20 mins to my station, catch the train to London (about 50 mins), and then use the underground (25 mins) to get to work. Journey times have varied by about 1% for my bike, 100%+ on the train and 50%+ on the tube. It's getting worse. I'd use my bike in London but can't take it on the train. By the way, I have two cars and a motorbike but don't use them for going to the station because I am trying to do my bit. From the number of people I see on bikes it's a pity that few others are.
I work for a small business and increasingly need to travel to meet and pitch to clients. Extortionate rail tickets during commuter hours are greatly increasingly my "cost of sales" and reducing my profits - but if I got a company car I would be stung on tax!
I would like to know why, if you buy a return ticket on a bus, you cannot use the return on another day? And in some areas of Britain, why you cannot even get a return before 9am in the morning? It's a rip-off.
I don't mind delays so much, but when the station is freezing cold, the staff are not so much rude as uninformed, and the train, when it does turn up, smells faintly of urine and some other unidentifiable vegetable products, it's probably time to have another look at the situation. [rant ends]
In response to Michelle Rossignol's comments, I agree that France's rail network is much more efficient than the UK in terms of investment however it is worth pointing out that serious disruption occurs frequently due to strike action by the (state employed) SNCF members, sometimes with only a few hours warning. Sadly, this has come to be an accepted feature of French life. As for the French being good drivers, I suggest she has a look at the European road death statistics where in 1999 there were 8487 deaths in France compared to 3564 in the UK. If this is the kind of civilisation that she is referring to, then I'll say "Non merci".
Here in France, I use the new, efficient, electric trams whenever I can, or the TGV (world's fastest passenger train) if I'm going further a field. The UK mindset is to mock anything successful, but they could take a few lessons from other countries.
Jeremy from England is absolutely right - enforce good driving. I know UK-ers mock French driving, but the French are much more tolerant drivers than Brits - they let other cars into gaps, they don't hog the middle lane on motorways, and I have NEVER felt that someone wants to kill me because I'm driving too slowly. Every city in the world has traffic problems, but there are ways of solving them - if there's a will. So come on, Britain, catch up with other civilised countries. The rest of the world is in the 21st century, not the 19th with Victoria!
Mark Thornton, UK
If the taxation at the pump was invested into our travel infrastructure as it should be, we would have the finest travel infrastructure bar none in the world. Instead, we pay the most for the least.
"I'm confident that over the next period, we will see a real improvement in our transport system."
I was forced to use public transport for a couple of months, the buses were terrible, I got off the bus stinking of exhaust fumes or picking the chewing gum of my backside! The chosen routes are also a joke. For instance, I had a journey of 13 miles which takes half an hour by bus but by car it takes 15 minutes. Why pay more for a poorer service... Do they think we are stupid? - I go by car now.
Royston Wilson, UK/living in the US
The transport system, chiefly rail, is quite unbelievably dire. The winter has not yet begun and the trains are in chaos. Part of the blame must be laid at the door of the Railtrack disaster. So many rail employees had money invested, it's no wonder their morale is low. In the mean time, we cope with delay after delay...
On a recent visit to London I was amazed at the high price of train travel.
Does Britain have the worst public transport in Europe? YES! Does Britain have the worst public transport in the world? YES!
It's not just the worst in Europe, but trails most of the rest of the world too. I recently travelled a lot in Malaysia, where gleaming airports, efficient commuter trains, and beautifully maintained French-style highways all serve to put us to shame.
No wander the UK has one of the worst public transports systems in Europe. Far too much time is spent dithering over the future of transport, and not enough action is being taken. Just take a look at Terminal 5 at Heathrow - it took 8 long years for that to get the go ahead. If the public transport in the UK is to improve, decisive and appropriate action has to be taken at a much earlier stage.
Having lived in Budapest (1992), Paris (1993-7) and London (1997-2000) I can state that London is by far the worst as far a public transport goes. During that time I have travelled in Europe quite extensively, and London gets the lowest score in every possible aspect - price, frequency, reliability, cleanliness. Privatisation a good idea? I don't think so. The total destruction of what used to be one of the best transport infrastructures in the world is the result of bad management, lack of investment and user complacency. Wake up you Brits and do something about it!
Dave Whyte, UK
I put the whole blame on deregulation act of 1986. We need an integrated policy for public transport, and to put it all back into public ownership
It is not a simple picture, the UK has some of the best road infrastructure in the world. The issue of congestion is extremely complicated though, with no solution on the cards, we just clearly have more traffic than the continent. When it comes to trains though...
The British transport system puts Britain firmly in a third-world category. I lived in France for a number of years - there the roads are free-flowing, trains on time, and the Paris Métro frequent. Yes, taxes are higher there - but then the French standard of living is higher than ours too. It's time this country acted like a modern State instead of trying to fake it and failing dismally!
Ian Lowe, Scotland, UK
Overall, the countries that have better road systems are not as densely populated as the UK.
If the railways and trains were not in such diabolical shape, much more people would travel by train and therefore ease congestion on the roads, that's one way of improving things!
Yes it does. Our transport is dire. The reason is simple: lack of Government willingness to do anything about small problems that accumulate to big effects.
25 Nov 01 | UK Politics
British transport 'worst in Europe'
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