How Britain could be gridlocked

Every day, we are always on the brink of transport gridlock. As congestion gets worse and the trains more overcrowded, and with ministers showing their desperation by allowing motorway drivers to use the hard shoulder, it seems inevitable that one day the nation will simply seize up.

That is precisely the premise of a gripping pseudo-documentary to be shown by the BBC on 13 May which follows the events of a day in December 2003 when the whole system finally cracks under the strain of years of underinvestment and political neglect.

The documentary starts, inevitably perhaps, with a train crash in Edinburgh that prompts a national strike by train drivers concerned about safety. In a nice touch, the programme makers enlisted the leader of the locomotive drivers’ union, ASLEF, Mick Rix, who was all too happy to do a mock interview calling out all his members on the grounds of safety. He and his fellow rail union leader, Bob Crow, seem to do this all the time in real life, oblivious to the fact that it forces thousands of extra people off the rails and onto the far more dangerous roads.

As the strike drags on in the pre-Christmas period, always the worst for traffic jams, a lorry jumps the central reservation on the M25. The diversionary route has unplanned roadworks, caused by the utility companies not warning the authorities about their hole-digging. The situation is made worse by both Surrey and Kent police sending diverted traffic down the same narrow road from opposite directions because of their lack of coordination over emergency plans. Then a few hours later, another lorry, with a sleepy driver at the wheels, crashes near Heathrow and there is total gridlock.

At first, the advice is to ‘stay in your cars’ but as the winter night gets colder, an emergency procedure – based on a real secret plan – is implemented, and the stranded motorists are taken to nearby schools and halls. Their abandoned cars and lorries, strewn higgedly piggedly on the motorway, the result of attempts to go on the hard shoulder and verges – Alistair Darling please note – will take days, if not weeks, to clear.

Meanwhile, at nearby Heathrow disaster looms. The blockage on the motorway has meant insufficient traffic controllers have got through to work on the late shift. There are too many planes in the air to shut down airspace and the controllers have to double their workload. A little lapse in communication between the ground controllers at the airport and those at West Drayton who look after the airspace leads to disaster. Two planes, one taking off, another executing a ‘go around’ after a failed attempt to land, collide, sending debris across a large swathe of West London. The fire crews get stuck in the traffic, London is burning…

The most compelling aspect of the programme is that it is filmed using a series of interviews with the various players such as ambulance drivers, relatives of victims, traffic police and air traffic controllers, all played in an understated way by excellent actors. There is no need for drama since we all know that the scenario is all too plausible.

Cheekily, there is even an old clip of Tony Blair, with the scowling face of John Prescott beside him on the green Parliamentary benches, saying that the causes of the air disaster will be thoroughly investigated. Mr Blair will not be pleased.

Of course, the immediate question is – could this really happen? The answer must be yes as we have nearly been there many times recently. In the autumn of 2000, it took a few hauliers and farmers to block the fuel depots and nearly bring the nation to a standstill. A few weeks later, it was the turn of the trains when the Hatfield disaster, and the subsequent imposition of hundreds of unnecessary speed restrictions on the network caused a total breakdown in the system, making the trains unusable for anyone who wanted to get to their destination quickly.

Then in January, it only took just an inch of snow combined with the failure of the Highways Agency to send out the gritting lorries, for thousands of motorists to be stranded in north London and Essex, many abandoning their cars just like in the programme. London has been close to gridlock a few other times, when a couple of events – a bomb and a lorry blocked on the Blackwall tunnel, for example – have combined to cause chaos.

Every mode of transport is under pressure from demand but the government has refused to bite the bullet. It needs to do two things – to reduce demand and provide extra capacity. In London Ken Livingstone has shown the way. Charge for congestion and many marginal users will melt away leaving the roadspace for those who really need it. Yet, all Alistair Darling thinks large scale road charging would be unpopular, even though it could result in a cut in petrol tax and therefore be tax neutral and instead comes up with is the much derided idea of allowing cars to use the hard shoulder.

As for investment, there is no coherent strategy. The Department for Transport supposed to be ‘multi-modal’ studies looking at various bottlenecks, but there is no money to implement them and no joined up government to ensure road and rail schemes are coordinated. Indeed, John Prescott’s Commission for Integrated Transport, now the subject of a ‘review’, looks set to be wound up because its criticisms have angered ministers. Meanwhile, in his new job, Prescott announces four major new development areas in the south east which will require billions of pounds of investment in transport which the government cannot afford.

Of course, it’s not all the current government’s fault though their inaction on transport for the past six years is shameful. Indeed, all the transport ministers of the past 30 years – since the great Barbara Castle – should be handcuffed to their armchairs and forced to watch this programme to atone for their lack of vision and short-sightedness. As for the present lot, they should take this programme as a warning of the fate that could befall the country if they do not begin to tackle the issue seriously. And they should note that the well-meaning but hapless transport minister in the programme, Tom Walker, was out of a job by the end…

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