Magazine article Management Today

British Transport Muddles through in a Great Rail Age

Magazine article Management Today

British Transport Muddles through in a Great Rail Age

Article excerpt

Britain's lack of vision over new European road and rail links is alarming.

The sign simply read 'M20 closed this weekend'. Its message turned a late summer journey from south-west London to Folkestone and back into a dour, congested struggle.

Admittedly the M20 was closed for some of the final works linking it to the Channel Tunnel terminal on the edge of Folkestone. But the jams created by the closure were a sharp reminder of the fragility of Kent's transport infrastructure. Dover is not linked to a motorway and the M2 is mostly only two lanes. The railway which will bear the Channel Tunnel traffic is slow and congested. There are no efficient transport links along the south coast to the West. Traffic heading in this direction must join traffic heading north via the M20 to join the already overburdened M25.

Yet this hopelessly inadequate transport infrastructure will be the carrier of what is already the country's biggest trade flow. Over the last 30 years, trade with our EC partners has increased from 22% to 60% of all imports and exports. Much of this has to traverse Kent. But a recent report from the Chartered Institute of Transport only reinforces the conviction that present levels of traffic, never mind the anticipated growth, will be badly served when the tunnel opens next year.

Britain, says the report, faces the danger of becoming 'peripheral' as Continental economies look east to the reviving eastern states or south to the Mediterranean sunbelt for its growth opportunities, leaving Britain's economy as a declining economic branch line. In what seems set to become a second, great European railway age, Britain is being left behind. The institute's report, Slow Progress to a Fast Link, which has been sent to the Secretary of State for Transport is deeply critical of the lack of coherent planning for the opening of the tunnel.

First of all, British Rail has to catch up on a massive backlog of under-investment before it can contemplate major new projects. Although on many indicators BR is very efficient in comparison with its European counterparts, it operates in a financial straitjacket. The proportion of income it receives through grant is 21.6% - the lowest of any other principal EC railway-compared with an average of 40% for all of them.

The British approach to planning is just as big a handicap as the lack of money, says the institute. Planning is characterised by long and detailed project appraisals which seldom have any linkage to funding - even if they are approved. This is a good description of the dilemma BR now finds itself in over the high-speed rail link to the tunnel: years of detailed study confounded by a lack of funds.

Our EC partners approach such issues far more constructively. France, for example, has a five-year railway investment plan endorsed by the government with funds either committed or available through access to the capital markets.

Continental planning is more visionary. Studies take a longer view. They are better co-ordinated at national and local level (avoiding, for example, the embarrassment of the number of clashes between BR and Kent county council over the tunnel link) and rather than taking a narrow, financial view, they consider economic and environmental benefits on a wide scale. 'The contrast with Britain appears both considerable and invidious,' says the institute. One issue that really baffles the institute is the UK government's ambivalent approach to transport planning. …

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