Transport doesn’t fit on the political agenda

Transport has slipped down the political agenda. For the past few months, as other issues such as Iraq, the tsunami and the interminable Brown-Blair conflict have dominated the political agenda, virtually nothing has been heard about the problems of the roads and railways. Even the Railways Bill, currently in Parliament, has attracted relatively little interest.

On the face of it, this seems perplexing because there are certainly problems in abundance and transport always figures high in people’s lists of concerns. Congestion both in towns and on motorways is reaching gridlock proportions, the death toll on the roads of 10 per day has gone down only marginally in the past decade and the railways are sucking up extraordinary amounts of taxpayers’ money, over £100m a week.

Far from being solved, the situation is deteriorating seemingly daily. So it would seem that transport should be an open goal for the Tory opposition, an easy way to make political points. But the Conservatives are hamstrung by their own past failings. They pushed through the unpopular privatisation of the railways and cut back their major roadbuilding programme when they realised that it was.

Therefore, the Tories keep a low profile on the issue, as do the Libdems who have made few initiatives on the subject. And so does the government. Indeed, Alistair Darling was sent to the Department for Transport precisely because it had become far too high profile under the accident prone Stephen Byers. And Darling has succeeded magnificently in keeping the subject out of the headlines, even though there has been precious little to boast about.

In fact, transport is an issue that traditionally comes to prominence for a week or so every few months, usually because of an accident or some other special event, but the interest quickly dissipates without any great initiatives being announced.

That is because transport is the ill-suited as an issue on a political agenda that is dominated by short term concerns. Transport, more than any policy area, requires a long term approach since it takes a decade to build a road and more than that for an underground line.

In the short term, for most people the situation is not much worse than say, last week or last year. Sure, the statistics point to a gradual slowdown in traffic speeds but the effect is marginal and therefore most of us do not notice the extra minute or so on our journeys. Therefore, voters are sceptical about promises on transport because they concern changes many years ahead.

On the railways, it is only when immediate changes are made that people notice the difference. For example, a set of mostly rational timetable changes was made around the network in December, particularly affecting some commuters on South West Trains. For most people, there was a slight change but for an unlucky few their train will take 10 minutes or more longer and it was that group which was most vociferous in their protests. Conversely, when a new fleet of trains is introduce, people notice the improvement but rolling stock has a life of 30 years, so it does not happen very often.

Transport is a long term business and therefore politicians are very loath to make any promises on it. To Labour’s credit, the party tried to break away from that by promising a 10 year plan published in July 2000, but the detail of the costings crumbled quickly in the wake of subsequent events, notably the Hatfield accident and Railtrack’s collapse which led to massive increases in rail expenditure, eating into all other aspects of the transport budget. With fingers burnt from that episode, Labour has shied away from making any further promises.

There is one Big Idea in transport and that is the idea of widespread or universal road charging. This has many advantages over the current petrol tax because different prices depending on the usage of particular roads, therefore employing market forces to reduce congestion. However, the charge always appears to be 10 or so years away from being introduced, and therefore outside the immediate political agenda.

That agenda is dominated by fear – of the roads lobby. And that is the other reason why the issue is rarely raised at election time. The only way of beginning to tackle the fundamental waste of resources in the transport system would be to try to squeeze the private car out of the system, in favour of public transport or, more radically, simply trying to choke of excessive demand through taxation. However, since the bizarre fuel protests of 2000, the mere thought of a few extra pence on fuel, let along more radical measures seen as anti-car, has been kicked firmly into touch by either of the two main political parties.

In the run up to every election, I am invariably rung up by TV producers asking if I am willing to advise them should transport flare up during the campaign as an issue. Yes, I say dutifully, knowing the follow up call will never come, just as in the previous three or four elections. The one exception was in 1997 when the privatisation of air traffic control suddenly became an issue, but that was more about a hole in Gordon Brown’s budget plans than a transport question. The 2005 election will be like the others. Transport is unlikely to feature unless by misfortune there were a major disaster or mishap during the campaign.

Shares