MATTERS OF MOMENT, June 1958

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PETROL, PETROL EVERYWHERE, BUT NOT A DROP FOR SALE

The big petroleum companies command respect. With other vast industrial and manufacturing enterprises they offer employment to thousands, play a significant part in the politics of the country, and even control the destinies of foreign lands. They are enabled, through their vast financial ramifications, to do pretty much as they please in respect of policy, publicity and price-cutting. It is a curious fact that our leading petroleum refiners compete for sales in cut-throat competition, yet charge identical prices for their products.

We have one big grumble with the petrol barons, apart from the fleeting thought that a reduction in unnecessary publicity, such as the issue of free souvenirs, lavish house journals and elaborately organised economy contests might slash the price per gallon.

Our grumble concerns inconsistency in the source of supplies. For instance, leaving Aintree in a hurry after the B.A.R.C. International 200, we drove south with a falling fuel gauge. Travelling as we were on main roads we complacently imagined that it would be possible to buy petrol somewhere before reaching Oxford. Yet, on this Saturday evening in April not a filling station did we see open after leaving Birmingham. That not one appeared to be open in the historic and much-visited town of Stratford-on-Avon was an unpleasant surprise. But on reaching Oxford, a University city famous throughout the civilised world, to be told that—just after 9 p.m.—no petrol could be bought, there was a setback indeed!

This personal disaster became complete a few miles further on, when we coasted, tank empty, into the forecourt of the Dorchester Service Station, which a tin sign proclaimed as open, but which was shut irrevocably. What happened thereafter is a long story, irrelevant here. Suffice it to say that after we had been refused a room at the White Hart (no longer, apparently, does the Innkeeper make up a temporary bed for the luckless traveller when his rooms are full), we encountered hospitality in the now-darkened portals of the George Hotel; a stranger, after inquiring whether we could drive a Volkswagen(!) and receiving an answer in the affirmative; offering us the key, bidding us to set off in search of petrol. It is again significant that no filling station was open between Oxford and Henley-on-Themes, although a garage which had but recently shut kindly unlocked its pump at our request. The time was still not much past 11 p.m.

Surely the big petrol companies can think up some solution to this petrol famine that assails motorists who have to use the main travel arteries after dark ?

Shortly after our faith in human nature(if not in petrol stations) had been restored by the generous gesture of the unknown Volkswagen user, we drove through a Surrey town late at night and counted four petrol stations which were ablaze with light well past midnight. Two of these were brand-new filling Stations, virtually adjacent one to the other, erected recently, respectively by Esso and Shell.

Admittedly this town is on the main route front London to the West and carries a great volume of traffic; clearly Esso hope to make from home-going motorists what Shell gain earlier in the day from the outgoing traffic stream. But the population of this town is about 17,200, that of Oxford exceeds 104,000, and although nothing like the volume of traffic goes through Oxford, a great many routes do take drivers through the latter town, rather than round its tedious ringroads or along its by-passes. Surely, instead of indulging in cut-throat competition in one town the petrol barons could have come to a mutual agreement to build one of the new petrol stations in Oxford or to spend the money encouraging one of Oxford’s existing garages to sell petrol during the hours of darkness ?

If there is a flaw in this argument the publicity boys of we are sure the petrol companies will tell us!

THE ROARING FORTIES

Last month’s Editorial criticising the imposition of a 40-m.p.h. speed limit on two-way motor roads built originally to speed up the flow of traffic has met with universal approval. Recently we had occasion to use the North Circular Road that rings London. We were astonished to find that this road is now restricted by a 40-m.p.h. speed limit. As originally conceived it was a courageous attempt to provide a quick route round the Metropolis. Today, drivers negotiate this two-way motor road, one eye on their speedometers, and the bunched traffic, travelling at uniform speed, congests at the numerous busy crossings (which should be fly-overs but aren’t), causing decadent, depressing (and costly) congestion. One might as well take the direct route through the Metropolis itself and add to the congestion there.

THE LONDON ‘BUS STRIKE

The London bus strike has proved convincingly that it is the frequently-halting omnibuses and cumbersome trolley-‘buses that constitute the major cause of traffic congestion in busy cities. The strike has also proved that such vehicles do not contribute materially to solving the Londoner’s travel problems—the bicycle, motorcycle, private-car and the Underground between them have resulted in the strike making small impact; there is no doubt that if pedestrians were less shy and more forthright in indicating when a lift would be appreciated, the private motorist alone could keep the Metropolis mobile.

This being the case, can we have far fewer ‘buses on the roads when the strike ends? We notice, too, that the London police egg-on dilatory drivers to greater speed now the strike is in progress. As the police would never act contrary to public safety this is clear evidence that at last those in high authority have come to realise that speeding up the traffic reduces the danger of accidents by relieving congestion on inadequate roads. Let us hope that this lesson, too, will be remembered long after the ‘busmen have decided to return to work !

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