Transport crisis resurfaces

We are in the midst of our annual transport crisis. About every twelve months, the media suddenly discovers that we have the worst transport infrastructure of any affluent nation and this stimulates a fortnight or so of hand wringing. And then, as quickly as the whoosh of a high speed train, the issue disappears because it dawns on the editors and broadcast producers that nothing is going to change and that they are flogging a dead horse.

Last year, the crisis was prompted by the failure of Stephen Byers, the then Transport Secretary when a series of strikes and the not exactly unpredictable January bad weather prompted chaos on the railways while, shock horror, the poor man was on holiday in India. The time before that was in the autumn of 2000 when in quick succession, the fuel protestors nearly brought the nation’s drivers to a halt and panic by Railtrack after they Hatfield train crash did the same for the trains.

This time the crisis was a real humdinger and was concentrated in the capital which ensured maximum media interest. First, the Tube suffered a minor derailment on the Central Line, an event so rare that it inevitably attracted a lot of attention. The cause (see box), a motor which dropped off the bottom of the train, also appeared so basic that it raised fundamental questions about this nation’s ability to provide even the most simple transport services.

Indeed, that ability was further questioned when a two inch snowfall led to gridlock on several motorways, much of East Anglia and North London. This was followed by a ‘not my fault guv’ row between local councillors and officials, gritting contractors, the Highways Agency, the met office and Transport for London which would be hilarious if it were not so pathetic.

Together, these incidents highlighted everything that is wrong with our transport system: the low level of long term investment combined with the absence of coordination between disparate agencies, both public and private, and the lack of skills and confidence to run the transport system on a day to day basis effectively.

Paradoxically, one can add an over-obsession with safety given that the Central Line will be out of action for the best part of a month simply to replace the extremely low-tech bolts holding up the motors and the safety brackets. The lack of urgency as the Health and Safety Executive meticulously and slowly checks every detail of the process exposes the lack of a coherent approach to transport safety. The closure of the line pushes people onto less safe forms of transport, notably cars, but this is not taken into account when decisions to cancel the whole service rather than to run a partial service or to undertake a temporary but closely monitored patch repair are made.

One inside source at Heathrow where there was complete chaos on the now infamous night of Thursday January 30 also bemoans the power of the HSE to compound problems by insisting on implementing ridiculously over-protective safety rules and on the failure of private organisations like BAA to plan properly for such eventualities. BAA did not have enough de-icing machines and therefore planes had to wait for long periods, clogging up the gates and then ‘enter the HSE in force on Friday morning who wanted to close Terminal 4 and other terminals soon after 9 am because of overcrowding. Eventually, the compromise was the cancellation of all BA domestic flights. The HSE contributed not a thing towards solving the many difficult problems but simply impeded everyone and made things worse.’

It is no exaggeration Labour’s record on transport is worse than in any other policy area. Political timidity and confusion, allied to a lack of direction from ministers and an incompetent department which has traditionally concentrated on its role as ‘roads’ ministry to the detriment of other forms of transport have combined to make transport a political wasteland for Labour. Tony Blair himself must bear some of the responsibility as he has never taken an interest in the subject, seeing it as a second division area.

He is, of course, wrong. Virtually everyone travels every day and the lack of vision and hope in transport adds considerably to people’s disillusionment with the ability of governments to change things even if, when it comes to voting, they are unlikely to base their choice on transport issues. Blair, as with the rest of New Labour, does not look beyond the focus groups and the opinion polls to see that transport is potentially Labour’s Achilles heel. Swathes of seats in London suburbs and the Home Counties, won on particularly large swings by commuters disillusioned with the Tory privatisation could be lost if the government does not at least look as if it is getting to grips with the transport issue.

But if Blair sought to suggest he was at last doing something about transport, appointing Alistair Darling to the role of Transport Secretary was not a canny move. Darling specialises in keeping his head so far below the parapet one is no longer sure he has one. Darling’s sole task is to take the sting out of the transport issue which had leapt up the political agenda thanks to the inability of his predecessor, Stephen Byers, to keep his mouth shut or sack his infamous political adviser Jo ‘ Bury the bad news’ Moore.

Mostly until last week, Darling had succeeded but sometimes the fact that the height of his ambition is to avoid media coverage sometimes becomes embarrassingly apparent. His speeches have all been about the lack of ‘short term fixes’ and the fact that there is no long-term transport Nirvana on the horizon. His subliminal message is that it may get a bit better, or a bit worse, but there is nothing much that he can do about it. While he has largely kept the issue out of the media, clearly there will be little to show for his efforts come reshuffle time which, for Darling, will probably mean after the next election. So the revision of the 10 year plan published in December, there will be the odd bit of motorway widening and a bit of investment on the railways (if the industry manages to control its costs) but don’t expect too much.

If there was any doubt about where Darling’s priorities lay – transport ministers generally have a bent towards roads or rail – it was exposed by the fact that while there was extra money for roads, the rail budget over the next three years was cut by £300m which has caused chaos at the Strategic Rail Authority which is having to chop 12 per cent of its budget, £240m, for 2003/4 at a mere few weeks notice. Grants to help freight transfer from road to rail and to help create transport interchanges at stations have all been chopped from the beleaguered organisation’s budget, which seems inexplicable given the government wants to boost rail usage. In fact, the target to increase rail passenger numbers by 50 per cent in a decade were quietly reined back to half that level, too.

Overall, money for transport has run out because of the high costs, resulting from a series of botched privatisations and the consequent lack of control by the state over vital infrastructure. It is no coincidence that Britain has the worst infrastructure when it is the country which has gone furthest down the path of deregulation and privatisation.

If there is any area which really exposes the Neanderthal thinking underlying Labour’s transport policy, it is on airports and aviation. Essentially, old style thinking on transport is dominated by the ‘predict and provide’ ethos. This crude theory is predicated on the idea that increased transport demand is an inevitable consequence of economic growth and that the only option open to governments is to provide for this ever-increasing demand, irrespective of the environmental damage.

Yet, Darling appears completely hooked to this agenda. In December, he told the Commons: ‘Our roads and railways are facing increasing demands on them. We are one of the largest economies in the world. In the last five years we have got 1.5 million more people in to work. People are better off and travel more often.’ In terms of the current level of knowledge and thinking about transport policy, that scores about a D at GCSE level. Predict and provide is a failed strategy which can never work on a small overcrowded island like ours where there is simply not enough room to build roads to cope with the increased demand.

Hence, the aviation green paper published late last year merely replicates much of the privatised BAA’s thinking in terms of increases in passenger demand for flying and effectively suggests a new airport in everyone’s back yard. The consequent fuss will, of course, kill off the worst of these projects but the government seems intent on greatly increasing the number of runways.

One of the barriers to a coherent government strategy has been the longstanding incompetence of the Department for Transport which has been well demonstrated over the controversy over the new runways. Not only did the Department fail to produce a consultation paper during Labour’s first term (for which ministers must bear some of the responsibility) but when it finally did so late last year, the First it issued a consultation paper which excluded Gatwick, as there is a local agreement that there should be no new runway there until 2019 but this was challenged successfully in the High Court by anti-Stansted development campaigners who pointed out that the period covered by the paper extended beyond that date and that therefore Gatwick should have been included. The consultation paper had to be redrafted, and is due out later this month, delaying the publication of the all important White Paper until late this year at the earliest.

Then, this week, the Financial Times revealed an even more staggering mistake. The paper considered a third runway at Heathrow without anyone noticing that to build it would require a sixth terminal, as otherwise the planes using the new runway would have to cross one of the existing ones, which would mean that most the new capacity would be lost.

This catalogue of failure is borne of a much bigger one at the policy level. Sure, we have ten year plans on transport and strategic plans on the railways but unaccountably, do not always meld together as one is produced by the Department for Transport and the other by the Strategic Rail Authority. Roger Ford, the technical editor of Modern Railways attempted to compare the information in the two documents and says: ‘It just makes your brain hurt. There is no correlation as the two are simply incompatible’. Moreover, these ‘plans’ do little more than set out a few vague aspirations with expected levels of investment.

After six years of Labour, there is no sign of any coherent thinking. The politicians are paralysed by the fear that any attempt to restrict growth would be seen as anti-motorist. The only rational policy is one which attempts to manage demand as well as providing bits of extra infrastructure. The pointers to a solution can be seen in virtually every Northern European town: transport improvements go hand in hand with restrictions on car use and encouragement of cycling and walking. You only have to see the fantastic difference these policies have made in a town like Strasbourg to realise that the rule of the car is not immutable.

Our deregulated system – bus companies, for example, are not allowed to talk to each other over coordinating fares structures and routes because of competition rules – does not lend itself to a coherent transport strategy. At first, it appeared that Labour, and in particular, to his credit, John Prescott, understood this but Blair vetoed any early legislation on transport and the momentum was lost. After a period of flirting with more coherent strategies (remember integrated transport policy and Prescott’s injunctions for us to get out of our cars, made rather less convincing by the regular sight of his corpulent frame in his many Jaguars?) ministers have returned to the simplicity of just trying to provide more and more infrastructure, at whatever cost, in order to meet our seemingly insatiable demand to move around more.

It need not be like this. There is another way but it requires planning, thought, a readiness for the state to exert control rather than allowing free market forces to run wild and, at times, political courage. The congestion charging being introduced on 17 February in London could be the turning point. Ministers are, disgracefully, sitting on the fence ready to take credit for its success and disassociate themselves from failure. The plan is by no means ideal and could be criticised for both being too timid and too radical. London is also probably the last place such a vast experiment should have been undertaken. But success, measured in terms of a good revenue stream spent on transport improvements and a reduction in traffic would encourage other towns to take it on. We are at a transport crossroads.

The 85 Central Line trains which have been taken out of service pending the replacement of bolts after the Chancery Lane derailment were built in the early 1990s by ABB in Derby, which later became Adtranz and is now part of the large Canadian transnational, Bombardier. The trains suffered a lot of early software problems which delayed the introduction of automatic train operation but that is now being used, which means the trains are controlled by computers and the ‘driver’ merely opens and closes the doors, and stops the train in an emergency. The incident was caused by the failure of the bolts which hold on motors that are connected to each of the 32 axles on the eight car. The safety bracket also failed, allowing the motor to fall on to the track and wedge underneath the train, causing the derailment. London Underground is replacing all the bolts – four per motor – and safety brackets with a new type of fitting.
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