Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

About change (in both senses)

on April 24, 2012

Having grown up in something of a backwater, where it was often quicker to walk the mile and a half into town than to wait for a bus, I count myself very lucky to live in a moderately-sized city, served by an excellent public transport network.  After 15 years I still don’t understand the buses, which seem to be a lot more frequent than those of my childhood but not at all predictable (particularly if you have a pram or pushchair with you – apparently allowing them on board is at the driver’s discretion, and that’s if you can actually get them up the step onto the bus anyway), but the Tyne and Wear Metro is, in many ways, an absolute joy.  Metro is a metropolitan railway (as its name suggests – nothing to do with the MetroCentre, by the way, which is only accessible by car, train or bus, a source of confusion to a lot of tourists!) which runs around Newcastle, out to the coast on the east, up as far as the airport in the north and south as far as Sunderland.  Most of it is above ground but it goes subterranean when it runs through the centres of Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland.

Each of the three houses I’ve lived in since moving here has been less than 10 minutes’ walk from a Metro station (I have to point out that it doesn’t run into the west of the city and I might view that as more of a shortcoming had I ever lived there!), and the trains run to a regular timetable as there’s no possibility of their being held up by other traffic.  Obviously there is the odd delay, but usually a train will arrive on time.  Users of prams and wheelchairs have no access problems, as all the stations have ramps or lifts, and the floor of the trains, when the doors open, is level with the platform so there’s no scary gap or enormous step to get over.

One of my favourite things about the Metro is that it runs in a circle.  Well, there are two lines (as you can see on this map) – the green one is a sort of reverse S-shape, but the yellow one, the one I use most often, runs in a circle.  The reason I like this is because the buses run in a sort of star shape, in relatively straight lines which cross in the city centre, so if you’re on the outskirts of the city you can’t get to another place which is also on the outskirts without going via the city centre, which can take a long time if it’s busy.  The Metro provides an alternative.

People complain about the cost, and it is relatively expensive (if all four of us want to go into town it costs £7.40 for return tickets – and would cost more if the girls didn’t have school-age discount cards – whereas we can park the car for 4 hours for that price, and Southern Daddy would never spend that long at the shops anyway!), but I do appreciate the service provided, especially at this time of the year when we’ve been having the most atrocious wet weather!  The main problem with payment for me has always been that the ticket machines only take coins, which means that if you don’t have enough on you, you have to have to do the following:

  • Find a cash machine and withdraw some money.
  • Find a shop where you can a buy something in order to break your note or b try and persuade the checkout assistant to take pity on you and change your note
  • Go to the station and buy the ticket.

By this time you will probably have missed your train.

I am not good at carrying cash and to be honest am an avid proponent of abolishing it altogether.  It’s inconvenient, encourages the spread of bacteria and illnesses from owner to owner and I can’t think of any situation in which a card or phone payment is not quicker and easier.  I love chip and PIN  – when I lived in France in 1995/1996 it was already widely used over there and it surprised me we didn’t adopt it here for nearly 10 years after that (it amuses me when assistants still insist on taking my card out of my hand and inserting it on my behalf into the machine, when in France no-one would lay a finger on your card for the risk of being accused of attempted fraud!).  I’m looking forward to contactless payment becoming more widespread as that sounds like a really useful innovation, too (my bank hasn’t introduced it yet).  So, as you can imagine, having to carry cash – and not only cash, but coins – to make sure I had enough for the Metro, has been a problem to me.

But, in the last few years, Metro has invested over £300 million in revamping and updating the whole network, and this includes NEW TICKET MACHINES!  They began to appear in February and haven’t been put into every station yet, but they are on their way.  These beautiful machines can do all manner of wonderful things: you can not only use them to buy a ticket, but you can enter the details of all the tickets you require at one time (if you are travelling in a group) and pay once for all of them.  You can buy weekly tickets rather than just single or return.  And they accept coins, notes and even credit or debit cards!!!!

This is going to make life a lot easier for me.  No longer will I have to drag my children home from school through the driving rain, saying “I’m afraid we can’t get the Metro, I haven’t the right money”.  No longer will I watch my train appear and disappear as I queue in the post office on the opposite side of the road, waiting to buy a birthday card I didn’t really need.  (And I’ll be one step closer to the day when I no longer have to carry cash for anything!)

The other great thing about the innovations in the Metro is that they are introducing Pop cards.  At the moment these don’t do very much – we have been sent them to replace the girls’ old discount cards and we have to carry them to show that they’re entitled to the reduced fares.  Metro currently doesn’t have access barriers like most inner city or underground rail networks, but works on an honesty system with the threat of fines and prosecution for those who can’t produce a ticket when required by an inspector in a random check.  Gradually, though, they are going to put in barriers or validators and the Pop cards will become more like the Oyster cards they have in London, where you can “charge” them with money and swipe them to go in and out of the system instead of buying a ticket.

I’m really looking forward to seeing all these new developments.  By the time the Bookworm starts secondary school in 2 years’ time, she will be able to travel just by using her card with no need to carry money of any description.  I like the idea of this from a personal security point of view, and if my daughters are anything like me then being able to cut down the amount they need to carry to an absolute minimum will be a real plus to avoid losing things!  I’m not generally a supporter of change but I can see very few drawbacks to this and hopefully the investment will be repaid as the network becomes more accessible and easy to use, both for locals and tourists.

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