The cult of the car gains new devotees every day and there is little doubt that Birmingham in particular and the West Midlands more generally has pledged everything at the altar of four wheels.

It is one of the principal reasons why there has been so much derisory snorting at suggestions that a London-style congestion charge could be introduced in Birmingham.

There are still many who believe that in the city where the car is king, imposing such a charge simply wouldn’t work. Such a head-in-the-sand attitude is fairly typical of the type of people who would scoff just as loudly at the prospect of swapping their car for public transport for just a day.

But the government certainly seems determined to see whether the London scheme could be copied elsewhere (http://icbirmingham.icnetwork.co.uk/birminghampost/). Local authorities in the Midlands are being offered funding to trial congestion charging schemes in return for further government grants to improve public transport.

It is a carrot and stick approach many feel uneasy with but clearly needs to be adopted as too many local authorities prefer to pass the buck when it comes to solving congestion problems or simply ignore the spectre of gridlock that looms large with increasing frequency. It only takes a minor accident during rush hour at a key point in Birmingham for the entire city centre to remain snarled for hours.

This is clearly unacceptable and yet for so many, no matter how much they grumble and gripe when stuck in motionless queues of traffic, it remains a much more attractive proposition than taking the bus, train or Metro.

There are many cultural, historical and plainly unfathomable reasons for this, but equally certain is that public transport providers are often their own worst enemies.

The introduction of the now annual “leaf fall timetable” on the Cross-City services bisecting Birmingham is the perfect illustration.

Central Trains has looked to provide a proactive solution to the seasonal problem of falling leaves by offering a revised timetable – the fallen leaf mulch causes slippery rails and so braking and other mechanical problems for trains. This is undoubtedly a sensible solution and preferable to cancelling trains at short notice, which was the previous response and was bound to infuriate passengers.

Yet the leaf fall timetable only achieves a partial solution as it has also managed to create an additional problem.

Reducing the frequency of services has added flexibility to the timetable and caused far fewer cancellations. But by also cutting the trains at peak times from six carriages to three – presumably for additional safety reasons, although this remains unclear – the operator has ensured that by the time the service gets just two or three stops down the line it is already standing room only. Those living closer to New Street but still wanting to take the Cross-City line into work invariably find jam-packed carriages and are forced to wait in the vain hope that the next service will offer more room, or more likely will find an alternative way in to the city that usually involves four wheels.

It has taken a fortnight but Central Trains now seems to have rectified what every single passenger felt was a blindingly obvious fact – reducing the number of trains and the number of carriages overnight will lead to overcrowding, frustration and anger. Those of us who are regular commuters will not be holding our breath, however, as past experience has shown you cannot take anything for granted. It is a lottery as you wait on the platform whether the train approaching will have enough carriages to cope with the number of passengers.

Public transport can and does offer a cheap, efficient solution to the grid-locked roads, but often that is in spite of the companies operating the services not because of their best efforts.

Equally pertinent in The Birmingham Post was another story suggesting that the proposed expansion of the Metro services around Birmingham could be delayed still further. 

Often it is difficult to locate the truth of these stories amongst all the political point scoring and hidden agendas. But if the government is determined to improve public transport provision in this country then it should be prepared to simply ignore petty local difficulties and remain focused on the bigger picture.

Personally, I still prefer to take the Cross-City line than succumb to the stresses of driving into Birmingham. But the leaf fall farce has forced me to stiffen my resolve.

During that initial two weeks how many others have been persuaded to go back to the car instead of grinning and bearing it?

More crucially, will they return to the trains once normal services have resumed?

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