Shaky basis for the 80mph limit

The ‘war on the motorist’ is still raging among the Tory faithful. Or rather, the war against the war on the motorist is the dominant theme of Tory transport policy. Ending the war was the first announcement Philip Hammond, the transport secretary, made when he started the job last May and to the last, right up to his enforced move to Defence, he seemed still to be working hard to ensure he delivered a peace treaty.

There is no doubt which section of his speech at the recent Manchester conference most excited the massed ranks of his party’s members. It certainly was not the continued commitment to the high speed railway that will link London and Birmingham by 2026. Nor was it for the proposed Ordsall Curve even though, as Hammond explained, it is a new section of railway ‘right here in Manchester’.

Rather, it was Hammond’s confirmation that the government was pursuing the idea of allowing them to speed along motorways legally at 80 mph rather than 70mph that warmed the cockles of their hearts. There was the same feeling of suspicion about the new railway line at the fringe meeting where I spoke. It was, suitably enough, about the ‘war on the motorist’ but it was not long before a couple of delegates had raised the issue of high speed rail. ‘Why’, asked a vociferous woman from the Southwest of the ministerial aide, Alec Shelbrooke, who was on the platform ‘are you spending all this money on a rail line that does nothing to help other regions?’

Her feelings were echoed by other speakers and poor Shelbrooke was rather unconvincing in his response. He was clearly much happier talking about ending ‘the war on the motorist’ but he tried his best.  It was, he replied, a scheme that was vital for Britain and would bring in its wake widespread economic benefits. But interestingly that too was the reason given for Hammond’s support for scrapping the 70 mph limit. Raising the speed limit would deliver ‘hundreds of millions of pounds of net economic benefits’ and, with the sort of pun that can only be made to a friendly audience, he added that it would be ‘putting Britain firmly in the global economic fast lane’.

Though he did not say so, Hammond was using research published in 2009 by the Transport Research Laboratory (‘An evaluation of options for road safety beyond 2010’, available at to back up his case that the move would deliver substantial economic benefits. What he did not say was that to prevent illegal speeding, the research was based on the notion that 800 new camera systems measuring average speed would be needed, because, of course, speed cameras were seen to be the Panzer tanks of ‘the war on the motorist’. Nor did he mention why the researchers dismissed the idea of increasing the speed limit. They concluded that it would cause an extra 18 deaths annually, as well as 63 serious injuries, which ‘makes the proposal unacceptable to DfT as part of a road safety strategy’. Not, it seems, any more. Hammond clearly calculates that the extra deaths are worth it as the speed up of journeys – more than four minutes per hour would deliver more benefit than the cost of the accidents. It’s a cold calculation which he did not share with his audience.

There was another recent sign that the government is uneasy about the emphasis on rail in its transport policy. Paradoxically, that came in the form of suggestion for a rail line, a high speed link between Heathrow and Gatwick that was deliberately floated by ministers to achieve maximum coverage in the media. This is not, though, much to do with railways, but rather highlights concerns by ministers that they have no answer to the criticisms from business that there are no plans to increase runway capacity in the southeast. Indeed, the manifesto commitment to drop plans for a third runway at Heathrow is one of the drivers of the Coalition’s emphasis on high speed rail.  The idea seems to be that the line would, in effect, create a single Hatwick airport but that is impractical for all sorts of reasons, not least the fact that the two airports are now under separate ownership and are competing to attract the same airlines.

There is no doubt that it is fast cars and even faster planes, rather than high speed trains that whet the Tory appetite. Yet, at the moment, the government’s investment plans for transport seem to favour rail at the expense of the other two modes. That begs the question of whether the high speed rail scheme will retain the support of the mass of MPs once the going gets tougher and every yard will need to be fought over in the Parliamentary bill process due to start in 2014. Since women are less interested in fast cars, it will be interesting, too, to see if the new secretary of state, Justine Greening, pushes through the 80 mph change.

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