All change?

The transport situation is so different now than 30 years ago that it suggests transport policy has undertaken a complete revolution. However, but dig below the surface and, in many ways, in terms of policy little has changed with the same dilemmas and issues posing intractable problems for politicians.

Examining the scale of the changes is quite easy. They are characterised by, in particular, privatisation, but also deregulation and globalisation, influences which have affected all modes. Just consider the transport scene in the 1970s which had evolved gradually as the dominance of private motoring increased annually since the war, in contrast to the revolutionary changes that have taken place since.

The motorway network was all but complete, and all roadbuilding was carried out through conventional contracting arrangements. In terms of policy, the emphasis was on increasing capacity. British Rail was an arms length corporation owned by the government which determined its budget on an annual basis and, essentially, picked up the bill whatever happened. BR even owned a variety of subsidiary business, such as British Transport Hotels and Sealink ferry services, all sold off in the 1980s, and was in complete control of the rail network, although in the Metropolitan areas, Passenger Transport Authorities, created by Barbara Castle’s 1968 Transport Act, provided the funding for many services.

London Underground was controlled through London Transport by the Greater London Council until its abolition in 1986 (which resulted in the bizarre side effect that the Tube became Mrs Thatcher only nationalisation).

British Airways, too was government owned and dominated the British aviation scene through bilateral agreements with other countries which kept fares very high and competitors out. There were no low cost airlines and the Department of Transport defended these cartel arrangements vehemently, for example by trying to prevent Freddie Laker’s Skytrain, which finally started operating in 1977 after a decade of trying, from offering flights across the Atlantic.

On the buses, local services were provided largely by municipally-owned monopolies, whose routes and frequencies were determined by elected councillors who also decided on subsidy levels. In London buses were under the control of London Transport. Apart from the heritage trams in Blackpool, there were no light rail systems, a name, incidentally, which had not yet been invented.

Today, on the surface, the situation could not be more different. While the road building now consists of only the odd by-pass and improvement such as dualling, many contracts are let through Private Finance Initiative or Design, Build, Finance and Operate (DBFO) schemes where part of the risk is transferred to the private sector. Toll bridges funded by PFI schemes are the norm, but there is only one road, the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, which has been funded entirely by private interests and paid for by tolls.

Most crucially, though, road pricing which had been talked about as early as the 1970s is definitely on the agenda and endorsed by successive transport secretaries, although the development of a national scheme faces many obstacles. The London congestion charge, though, marks a radical departure from any previous policy but it is difficult to see it being replicated in other British towns and cities.

The railways, too, look completely different. Instead of a unified British Rail, operating a vertically integrated system all through one organisation, we have a framework that involves more than 20 train operators, half a dozen private freight companies, a separate infrastructure organisation, Network Rail and three rolling stock companies. There are two regulators and a fantastically complex set of interrelationships governed by contracts and legal agreements. However, appearances are slightly deceptive as government is still very much in control. Network Rail is effectively a nationalised company, as it has no shareholders and has access to cheap government-backed borrowing and the Department for Transport’s Rail Group pulls most of the strings in the industry. Therefore while the structure has changed completely and the industry now costs £5bn per year in taxpayers money, five times the level British Rail cost at the height of the last economic boom, the role of government remains very powerful. The PTAs retain a local role but it has recently been weakened through the 2005 Railways Act.

Bus deregulation and privatisation in the mid 1980s means that most bus companies are now in private hands, dominated by a handful of big players such as Stagecoach, FirstGroup and Arriva. In the provinces, local authorities have very little role apart from subsidising loss making services which they contract out to private operators. The private companies can operate whatever services they like, provided they give eight weeks notice, a completely different situation than 30 years ago when there were local monopolies. In London, the buses are now operated by private companies but the routes and the fares are still controlled by local government, which is now the Mayor’s transport arm, Transport for London.

London Underground is part privatised with the maintenance being carried out under a Public Private Partnership, a highly controversial 30 year contract which leaves the operations remaining in the public sector but it is back with local government, as it now comes within the ambit of the Mayor.

Aviation, too, has changed radically with British Airways having been sold off in 1987 but, even more crucially, the opening up, through the European Union, of the market, allowing a range of low-cost operators, notably Easyjet and Ryanair to start flying. It is a situation that must have seemed unimaginable 30 years ago, with daily flights at giveaway fares being offered to a host of obscure destinations across Europe.

However, while shifting the delivery of most transport to the private sector represents a massive change, transport policy itself remains an area of confusion and muddle. The role of government remains strong in all areas of policy and while privatisation has led to a completely different form of delivery, policy seems little different and is characterised by the absence of any genuine political debate on the issue.

Indeed, There is, in reality, very little transport policy as such. The privatisation of the industry was more about shifts in ways of delivering services, like tendering of services in local councils, than a transport issue per se. Motoring, for example, remains very heavily taxed which damps down demand but that is for fiscal rather than transport considerations. The one way system and the roundabout have been recognised as inimical to urban landscapes but precious few have been taken out of service, with the notable exception of Birmingham’s Bull Ring. There is a tad more attention paid to walking and cycling but in truth they are still largely ignored.

The fundamental question remains unanswered: is it right to encourage mobility and therefore the growth of the transport industry, given the increasing awareness of the environmental damage that causes? While roads policy is no longer governed by the raw ‘predict and provide’ philosophy of the 1980s although there is still an emphasis on boosting capacity through tackling bottlenecks, aviation policy, as expressed in last year’s White Paper retains that philosophy. It is only in the past few months that climate change and environmental considerations seemed to have become dominant in terms of transport policy thinking, though as yet few concrete policies have emerged. There is no doubt that when the 60th anniversary issue, that will have completely changed and climate change will be the dominant issue of transport policy.

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