My stomach was in knots as I headed to Paddington to catch the Heathrow Express a few days ago. Not a fear of flying, as you might presume. Rather a fear of not flying in case I couldn’t get to the airport.

If that seems unlikely, consider that just a few days before that, I made this same journey to see off my sister who was flying back to Canada. After paying the extortionate cost of a one-way ticket to Heathrow, she boarded the train while we stood on the platform for a final wave good-bye.

The minutes passed. Five, seven, nine of them before my husband asked the driver the reason for the delay. No idea, she replied with a shrug. Then my sister emerged from the train to say they’d been informed that there was a power outage near Heathrow. My husband and I approached another Heathrow Express staffer who told us he had no idea when and if the train would leave. His advice was to find ‘some other way’ of getting to the airport. His manner told us just how irrelevant the outcome was to the rest of his day.

Arguably, this is just another tale of traveller woe more suited to proverbial water cooler chit-chat than the national media. After all, in ordinary life, unexpected hitches abound. A traffic accident that causes miles-long queues on the expressway, a hard candy that chips a tooth, a splash of coffee on a white shirt before a crucial meeting. And mostly we try to roll with it.

What makes it hard to roll with London’s endless transportation punches isn’t so much their frequency. It’s the utter lack of concern bordering on hostility of the customer-facing staff who run the so-called services. It’s the view that every journey is optional. Most disturbingly, it’s the smokescreen of ‘choice’ and the language of ‘free markets’ that offload responsibility for the failures of the system onto the backs of people trying to use it. These attitudes pervade the system, from the tubes run by Transport for London to the Heathrow Express operated by the BAA.

A while back, I was kicked off a bus heading up Whitehall with the driver’s helpful offer of a transfer to ‘anyone wishing to continue their journey’ [my emphasis]. Hmm, now that you mention it, maybe I’ll just head home instead.

On that particular day my journey wasn’t optional, though, so when I spotted another bus heading the same way, I jumped on board and flashed my transfer. Not so fast, lady. Turns out this bus – using the same bit of road and following precisely the same route as the one I’d been on two minutes before it – is run by a different company than the one I’d been on. A call to London buses elicited the astonishing information that 33 different companies run the buses in London, and while they accept the same Oyster cards and bus passes they have yet to negotiate the apparently-complex treaties required to mitigate each others’ unexpected interruptions. That’s up to you and me.

A similar structure prevails on the roads themselves. One day, I was waiting for a bus on Victoria Street when a lorry pulled up. A couple of guys jumped out and – without even a glance at me – threw down cones on the road in a wide arc that included the bus stop I was standing at, taking it out of service presumably in preparation for road works.

When I rang London buses, I was told that I might want to ‘try’ another bus stop. I was also advised that road works are the responsibility of Westminster Council, and that I should contact the council. Surely this was their responsibility, I asked, since their bus stop had been taken out of service and one of their paying customers had been inconvenienced? The representative was perplexed by my rationale. As far as he was concerned, I was the one with somewhere to go so it was my job to negotiate my way there.

And there’s the crux of London’s transportation nightmare: it combines the worst aspects of public service culture – wherein the prevailing attitude of laissez faire is occasionally punctuated by an irritated exchange with a dreaded customer – with an unthinking free market zealotry whereby ‘stakeholders’ are supposedly ‘empowered’ to negotiate the minutiae of every journey with a web of private operators, public service employees, and local councils, all exploiting the narrowness of their remit as a pretext for passing the buck.

What’s more alarming is the dispiriting way in which notions of ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘choice’ are cynically deployed to equate engaged citizenship with the micro-management of the most mundane aspects of daily life. Indeed, whatever grim satisfaction we derive from the ‘successful outcome’ of these time and energy-sapping encounters, in reality they assure its opposite: we’ll never fight the bigger battles while we’re stuck on hold.

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