Unions must play safety card with care

Will Gordon Brown be good for transport? The signs are mixed. It was Brown who insisted on the Public Private Partnership for the London Underground that has proved, as predicted, expensive and cumbersome. Moreover, Brown avoided any involvement in the detail of the extremely complex scheme and therefore refused to take responsibilty when it became apparent that the idea was virtually unworkable and costing half a billion pounds in consultants’ fees.

He should have changed course when Bob Kiley, an American with extensive experience of running metro systems, was drafted in by Ken Livingstone and suggested an alternative plan but instead Brown vetoed even meeting Kiley. Now, because of Brown’s neglect, Londoners are saddled with a hugely expensive scheme, costing taxpayers £1bn per year, under contracts that last until 2034.

On the other hand, it was the Treasury under Brown which pulled the plug on Railtrack and pushed through the idea of a not for profit company, Network Rail, taking over the infrastructure, a development that has been widely welcomed. Moreover, the Treasury has continued to pump unprecedented amounts of subsidy without making much of a fuss.

There is a delicious irony here. Both the PPP and rail privatisation were ideas which originated in the Treasury on the basis that they would get public spending off the books. In fact, both have proved extremely expensive to the public purse but the Treasury has had no alternative but to cough up the money.

However, because of this extra spending forced on the Treasury by its own dogma, many much-needed investment schemes on the national railway and several light rail projects have been ditched, often after considerable money had been spent on the planning stages.

Despite this, Brown may well seek to redeem himself quickly on this issue. The railways are booming and are seen as environmentally friendly. The signs are that transport will get a good settlement in the spending review and crucially Brown will want to be seen to be doing things in his early days in office. What better way than to give the go-ahead to the long-delayed Crossrail project, something that will please his many friends in the City?

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