Rail 803: Transport policy, what transport policy?

Having written about transport policy for more than twenty years, it has become obvious to me that there isn’t one. Instead, policymakers keep on repeating the same mistakes, believing that transport is a secondary issue dependent on other aspects of the economy and government, and therefore unworthy of expending any great intellectual or political effort. This lack of any coherent strategy is the reason why railways have, over the years, been treated so poorly by successive governments.

One of my party tricks is to ask any new transport minister I come across the question: ‘Do we need more transport or less?’ Those who are not stumped by the question tend to instinctively answer ‘more’ without any real consideration of the issue.

In researching my new – short – book, Are Trams Socialist? Why Britain has no transport policy, I discovered why, in the near century of existence of the Ministry of Transport – there was no single ministry in charge of transport until after the First World War – it has so unfailingly favoured developing road rather than rail infrastructure.

Initially, when the creation of the new ministry was first mooted, the idea was that railways and roads would be dealt with together in a single department of the ministry. The roads lobby, already powerful by then as it is now, argued successfully not only to ensure that the legislation creating the new ministry specified there should be a separate department within the ministry to deal with roads rather than road and rail being dealt with as one. Moreover, the roads organisations, which included familiar names like the RAC and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, ensured that there would be a committee made up of representatives of highway authorities and other motoring interests to advise ministers on matters concerning roads, bridges and other facilities for motor vehicles. Remember this was at a time when there was fewer than a million vehicles on the roads and most people travelled by train or bus. Yet, this structure, and this imbalance has prevailed ever since.

In the period between the wars, the railways were consolidated into four companies which were governed by all kinds of rules and restrictions, while the government encouraged a massive expansion in road transport, especially freight.  It was, though, after the war that the failure to adopt a balanced strategy between the modes was to become so damaging to the railways. The key moment was the early 1960s. Two reports published in 1963 defined transport policy for the next decades – the Beeching report, which we all know about, and the Buchanan report, Traffic in towns. While, as a result of Beeching, a scythe was taken to the railways, the Buchanan report argued that a huge increase in traffic was inevitable and that, effectively towns and cities had to be remoulded to adapt to this upsurge. Whole streets and even big chunks of districts would have to be demolished in order to create urban motorways and clearways to accommodate the car. Many of our urban areas, from Luton to Leicester, Birmingham to Burnley are still bearing the scars of this short sighted policy while London only escaped the worst of this line of thinking thanks to the 1973 newly elected Labour Greater London Council administration scrapping plans for a motorway box that would have resulted in the loss of 20,000 homes and created a series of roads on stilts like the one section that was completed, the A40 Westway between Paddington and Shepherds Bush. The North London line, in the meantime, which paralleled part of the east- west axis of this outrageous scheme, was, at the same time scheduled for closure but saved thanks to a vociferous campaign by rail supporters.

Although there has been widespread recognition that the 1950s and 1960s, with their emphasis on car transport together with line closures, the scrapping of all but one tram network and all trolleybus lines were disastrous, the politicians still see transport solutions in terms of providing more of all kinds of infrastructure.  The lack of a coherent intelligent policy today is manifested in the ‘we want more of everything’ ethos that prevails in the Department for Transport. So, yes, a lot of money is being spent on railways and there is support for HS2 but George Osborne’s plans also encompass a series of massive road schemes. Just one project, the widening of the Huntingdon to Cambridge section of the A14, together with junction improvements, has just been given the go ahead for construction at a cost of a staggering £1.5bn (it’s not just rail schemes which are massively overpriced) despite extensive environmental concerns affecting the air quality of local people.

This spending is justified on the basis of continued growth in road transport but, in fact, there has been no growth in per capita car use for the past 20 years – all the growth has been a result of population increase. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is simple. For decades, people have been prepared to spend on average around an hour per day on transport and in recent years essentially we have run out of technologies that will allow us to go faster. We have by and large built the motorway network, the rail system and planes go no faster than they did 20 years ago. In other words, we have saturated the demand for transport.

Yet, the politicians refuse to accept this and therefore are continuing to build roads that will do little to improve transport opportunities.  If, instead of signing big cheques for big schemes, transport ministers prioritised schemes that would be most beneficial both in terms of helping people move about more easily while trying to meet our climate change targets, then they would not be building more roads. Transport planners, for the most part, are fully aware of the failings of the present system but politicians tend to turn a tin ear when offered the obvious solutions of having a rational policy to reduce car use and provide better facilities for all other modes. So while many transport policies are moving in the right direction, others are not thanks to the lack of any long term thinking on the issue. It is time for that to change.


Are Trams Socialist, Why Britain has no Transport Policy is published by London Partnership Publishing. For a signed copy for £8 post free, email Christian.wolmar@gmail.com


Wifi is essential, not an added extra


I am writing this column, as I often do, on a train. I started it on a Chiltern service up to Birmingham where the wifi worked perfectly. Very cleverly in order to stop people streaming films and TV programmes, you are limited to 20 megabytes, after which you get a much slower service, preventing people from hogging what will, for the foreseeable future, limited capacity.

However, the GWR service from Cheltenham on which I am completing this column offers free wifi but, as often happens on trains, it proved impossible to connect. The conductor was nowhere to be seen, not having bothered to come through the train and has made various fatuous announcements about reading safety cards and taking care of the gap between the train and the platform. But nothing about the service which is what privatisation, remember, was supposed to be all about. No mention of ‘would you like any information on your journey’ or, indeed, on how the wifi is provided and whether it is working.  There was, though, eventually an announcement saying no seat reservations had been put out.

I was travelling after speaking to the Tewkesbury and District Rail Promotion Group where the chairman made a similar point about the lack of customer engagement. Due to works at Worcester in the first week of June, several key services out of Ashchurch for Tewkesbury, including the much used 9 27am to Bristol, were going to be either scrapped or brought forward. Yet, no one at GWR had sought to inform local people by, for example putting  a notice up at the station, or, radical idea, informing the local taxi services, and therefore many people were going to turn up at the station to find their train already gone. The local Group had done its best to try to get the information out to regular users and so had a conductor on one of the affected services, but the lack of attention to this kind of detail is so at odds with the claims made by TOCs about being customer focussed. All these issues – wifi, announcements, guards checking passengers tickets, warning passengers about timetable changes, seat reservation tickets  – are basic facets of the TOCs’ job but seemingly beyond many of them. Chiltern, in contrast, did all these things well as well as having the most comfortable trains.


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