Transport presents Brown with a headache

Transport has largely been kept out of the news since Stephen Byers’ tenure as Transport Secretary ended five years ago. On the railways, which were seemingly never out of the news in the early part of this decade, delays have been falling and safety fears have been allayed by a record breaking period without a major accident. On the roads, while congestion has increased steadily but largely imperceptibly and road safety has continued its gradual improvement, a national road charging scheme seems always to be too far off to attract much prolonged attention.

Alistair Darling, Byers’ successor, had the specific remit of keeping the issue out of the headlines, and the current incumbent, Douglas Alexander, has mostly had a quiet time, though he has taken the brave step of suggesting a form of re-regulation for the provincial bus industry in order to stem the continued decline which has elicited some opposition from the bus companies.

Despite this mostly quiet situation, Gordon Brown would be making a bad mistake to assume that all will remain quiet on the transport front between now. There are several issues likely to come to the fore, including one in which he has had a major involvement, the Public Private Partnership for the London Underground, but other controversies could come over rail funding, the extension of pricing schemes and the one area where the ‘predict and provide’ policy still prevails, aviation.

The Tube PPP is of particular interest because it is reaching a potential crisis point just as Brown assumes the premiership. It is by far the biggest PFI scheme worth some £30bn over a 30 year period and was pushed through at Treasury insistence despite fundamental doubts about its complexity which were heightened by the fact that it cost a massive £500m in fees to develop.

Now, one of the two contractors, Metronet, which is responsible for two thirds of the maintenance of the Underground system is in trouble having overspent at least £1bn on its contract, a sum which, not surprisingly, has become the subject of a major dispute between the company and Transport for London. The matter will end up on the desk of the PPP arbiter, Chris Bolt who will have to adjudicate on just how much of the overspend is the responsibility of each party

Either way, this will present a dilemma for Brown. If Metronet gets landed with a big bill, it may collapse, raising doubts about the viability of the contract and Brown’s judgement on pushing it through. If TfL is deemed responsible for the majority, a less likely outcome, then Ken Livingstone, a longstanding opponent of the PPP, will immediately knock on his door arguing that London council taxpayers should not foot the bill for his mistakes.

The railways face a crucial period just as Brown takes over. The publication of the obscurely named High Level Output Specification is expected on July 17th and, together with the Statement of Funds Available (which has become known as the Sofa) will determine Network Rail’s investment programme for the five year period starting in April 2009, although it will be subject to examination by the ubiquitous Chris Bolt and his team at the Office of Rail Regulation. Moreover, a 30 year strategy for the network will be published simultaneously and while a few major enhancement schemes are set to be included, they are unlikely to allay widespread fears that the underinvested network, which has seen a 40 per cent increase in passengers over the past decade, simply cannot accommodate the expected growth. It will be an irony, not lost on Brown, that the supposedly privatised industry is still largely dependent on state funding for increases in capacity, such as the 1,000 extra coaches announced by Alexander in the spring.

One scheme that cannot wait much longer for a decision, since the Bill is already in Parliament, is the new cross London line, Crossrail, which Brown is widely expected to champion given that the City sees it as vital to boost capacity on the London rail and underground network. However, with a cost variously estimated at £10 to £16bn, which will have to include a substantial Exchequer contribution, that does not leave much for the rest of Britain where several major cities are clamouring for new – but expensive – tramlines.

Alexander has reiterated, several times, his predecessor’s commitment to implementing a national road charging scheme. However, not only has the idea seemingly remained ever ten years in the future, but as soon as it looms on the horizon, the opposition gets all the more fierce. The 1.8m signatures on the No 10 website opposing the concept, albeit on spurious grounds since the petition was based on precise figures that have no basis in fact, must have made ministers hesitate about pushing the scheme.

Their current plan is to provide funding through the £1.4bn Transport Innovation Fund to local authorities willing to implement congestion charging schemes. However, this attempt to export the risk of introducing such schemes has led the councils in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester to try to extract a high price for their involvement, seeking promises of massive central government funding for local public transport improvements.

Even if these areas adopt schemes, which will take four to five years to bring to fruition, it is difficult to see how this will translate into one covering the whole country. While the technology is available, and already in use in Germany where HGVs are charged by the kilometre for use of the autobahnen, the political price of implementation may just be too high. That would leave the government with little strategy on how to reduce congestion on the roads, given that a massive road building scheme, apart from the widening of the busiest motorways, is not seen as politically feasible.

Transport, therefore, presents Gordon Brown with a host of difficult issues which he will ignore at his peril. Although the Eddington report, which he commissioned, was not in favour of massive grands projets, it did stress the importance to the economy of improving the transport infrastructure for the health of the economy. The one exception was airports and here Brown faces the fiercest immediate pressure from environmentalists. Stansted where there are plans for a second runway is the immediate battleground but Heathrow is the big one, where a third runway would require demolition of at least 700 homes. With the environmental damage from aviation now beginning to put people off from flying, Brown would be in danger of going against the zeitgeist if he continues the previous ‘predict and provide’ policy.

This all suggests that the quiet on the transport front is set to be broken. Brown, therefore, will do well to choose a safe pair of hands when selecting a replacement for Alexander, who is widely tipped for higher things.

Christian Wolmar’s history of the railways, Fire & Steam, will be published in September by Atlantic books.

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