Transport shunned in election yet again

Transport barely gets a look in at election time and it was not any surprise that no transport issue was even touched on in the first of the leaders’ TV debates. I even got excited at one point when Alistair Stewart said the next question would come from a train driver, but sighed when he asked a question about care of the elderly.

 The lack of any discussion of transport issues is because politicians know that few of the electorate make up their minds on who to vote for on the basis of transport issues. Even when the hugely controversial plan to privatise the railways was put into the 1992 Tory manifesto, it triggered off no serious debate and, stupidly, Labour did not even campaign much on the issue. For their part, politicians tend not to mention transport in the hustings, even though it affects everyone and it is one issue on which there are real differences between the parties.

 Transport does seem to be one of the areas earmarked by the Tories for major cuts. You don’t have to be that adept are reading between the lines to notice that they have said they ‘support’ projects like Great Western electrification and Crossrail but do not commit themselves to them, even when pressed. Theresa Villiers, their rather anonymous shadow transport secretary rather gave the game away in an interview for Railnews when she said: Take electrification. It is easy to make promises, and I am certainly a supporter of railway electrification in principle. But the real issue is affordability, and I cannot give a guarantee that any scheme would go ahead under a Conservative government until we have applied the Value for Money test. The government certainly sounds committed to these plans, but the real question will be whether it will be able to come through on its promises.” She would not even give any firm commitment to the Thameslink scheme, where work is underway.

 That is a clear indication the Tories will scrap projects and the Crossrail team must all be terrified that the Tories would call time on it. They might, though, realise that not only would they get a lot of stick, but it would represent a terrible waste of money. Around £2.5bn of work has already been committed and while the Treasury is slated to put in £5bn, the bulk of the rest of the money is due to come from a special rate levied by Transport for London. So scrapping Crossrail at this stage would probably not save much.

 Labour’s manifesto, while not offering any new commitments, is, at least, unequivocal on proceeding with Crossrail and other major schemes. It says ‘we will complete the new east-west Crossrail line’ (at least they know which direction it is going, something which apparently George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, did not when Boris Johnson met him to discuss committing the party to it) and ‘will press ahead’ with the rail investment programme that includes electrification, though Thameslink is not mentioned specifically.

 The Tories, too, need to be watched on franchises. They want longer ones, but which are ‘more flexible’ which suggests that the operators would be able to cut back on services that are poorly used, irrespective of the fact that they were part of an overall service. There is a crisis brewing on franchising, which I am researching at the moment, and will write about in a future issue or my blog.

 All three main parties support the construction of a new north south high speed line, a remarkable turnaround since the previous election hustings when the subject was barely mentioned. The Tories plan, however, is rather less worked out. Not only would they build the line in a crazy reverse L shape, starting in London, heading for Birmingham and Manchester and turning over the Pennines to Leeds, but they would also want the line to go to Heathrow. The hugely impressive report produced by HS2 Limited, the government company set up to assess the scheme, makes clear that diverting to Heathrow would require an extra 50kms tunnel for which there was no economic justification.

 The Labour scheme, involving a stop at Old Oak Common to link with Crossrail, and the Y shape from Birmingham, with lines to both Manchester and Leeds makes far more sense but in a way the debate is theoretical since there is no prospect of any work on the ground starting by the end of the new Parliament. So talk about high speed comes cheaply for the politicians, which explains the universal support even though the case is by no means proved.

 The oddest part of Labour’s transport policy is the party’s continued support for the expansion of Heathrow, in the face of the environmental consequences. While the Tories, during Cameron’s brief green phase, came out against the plan for a third runway, Adonis has retained support for it despite mounting evidence that it is utterly unsustainable. I suspect, though, it will never happen as the economic rationale is thin as set out in Grounded, a pamphlet by the New Economic Foundation which found that many of its proclaimed benefits do not stand up to detailed scrutiny. When I interviewed Lord Adonis recently for an article for the New Statesman – available on my website at  http://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/2010/04/adonis-in-a-hurry/ –  it was clear that he was most discomfited when discussing the

 As for the Libdems, they went into woolly hat territory with the notion, from their spokesman Norman Baker, that thousands of lines of closed railway could be reopened with £3bn diverted from the roads budget. Nevertheless, it was a welcome expression of a pro-rail policy and crucially the Libdems are promising to push down regulated fares by one per cent per year, rather than raising them.

 All of this suggests that it is a great shame that there is no debate on transport matters. Not only are there real divisions between the parties, but transport policy is vital from social, economic, and environmental aspects and the absence of discussion means that the policies put forward by the parties are not properly tested. As just one example, all transport experts agree that road pricing is inevitable given the growth in car use and the impossibility of building more roads on this crowded island. Yet, none of the three parties are suggesting it as a policy for the new Parliament. Labour suggests it is too early because there is not public support and not technically possible – yet Germany has a sophisticated lorry charging scheme – a view with which the Libdems broadly concur, while the Tories are against the notion. So if any candidates come knocking on your day in the last few days before the election, quiz them on these issues.

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