Government sets eyes on transport’s future

The Future of Transport paper produced by the government in July is a timid document which does not really address the fundamental issue of what to do with ever growing demand for transport.

There are, of course, two possible solutions. Demand management or providing extra capacity. In the document, however, both are effectively kicked into touch. Sure, in terms of restricting demand, there are to be studies about a nationwide congestion charging scheme and councils are to be encouraged to introduced local schemes. In truth, though, the national scheme is so far in the future and there are so many questions to be answered before it could be introduced that it barely figures on the radar, while on the local side not many councils can follow the London example because they do not have a highly developed public transport system as a viable alternative.

On the infrastructure side, the document highlights the fact that we don’t do infrastructure well in this country. In fact, we hardly do infrastructure at all. As one Civil Engineering Contractors Association spokesman put it, ‘this is not a review of the 10 year plan. In fact where is the 10 year plan? It has gone’.

A few motorways will be widened, and a couple of large road schemes have been given the go ahead, and on the railways East London Extension is to go ahead. But the much larger Crossrail scheme is in doubt. While the government has given the permission for a hybrid bill, the funding remains uncertain and project insiders are tearing their hair out over the government’s inability to commit itself to the scheme. They do not see this as the green light for the scheme which ministers have implied. Moreover, one of the little reported aspects of the transport plan was the mothballing of three major light rail schemes for Manchester, Leeds and South Hampshire which are now unlikely ever to happen.

There are three inherent problems in the way we approach the construction of infrastructure compared with our European neighbours, rising costs, complexity and lack of vision.

The first two are linked. Alistair Darling, the transport secretary, in his speech to Parliament pointed to rising costs as a reason for mothballing these schemes and he is right, but that is because his government insists on ridiculously complicated funding schemes, as demonstrated by recent National Audit Office reports into light rail and the Underground public private partnership which cost a staggering £455m in fees from consultants and lawyers before the scheme was finalised. Yet, oddly, we have an example in this country where costs have been reduced thanks to strong control and direct public investment using relatively simple financial instruments – the Docklands Light Railway which has built a series of extensions relatively cheaply.

And finally, British governments have never recognised the wider value of major improvements in public transport systems, which have a greater regeneration effect than any other type of investment. In my forthcoming book, The Subterranean Railway, a history of the Underground, I point out that this failing stretches right back to the start of the Underground in 1863 when the scheme almost never happened because of shortage of cash and the refusal of the government to get involved. This scenario was repeated throughout the history of the Underground. Basically, since 1906, a year which saw the opening of the Piccadilly, the Bakerloo and a section of the Northern, only two tube lines have opened in the capital, a shameful record. The East London Line will effectively be the third but that should have been built 15 years ago.

Indeed, we could have led the world in having a transport friendly capital city but instead the failure of imagination means we have today’s wretched overcrowding. Oh, for a bit of vision…..

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