Magazine article Public Finance

Taking the Strain

Magazine article Public Finance

Taking the Strain

Article excerpt

In the dog days of the Christmas and New Year break, journalists scrabbling for a story suddenly hit upon transport issues. First was the fact that Labour had failed to deliver on most of the promises in the tenyear Transport Plan published in 2000. Then there was the threat of direct action by residents near Heathrow, who are to have their homes bulldozed if a third runway is built. And, finally, there were passenger protests about the 'rich man's railway", engendered by the higher than inflation fare rises.

The fare rises for season ticket holders, which are regulated to 1% above the rate of inflation, were almost 4%. But train operators, under pressure because they are paying higher franchise premiums, have increased off-peak fares by an average of 4.5%, with those on Great North Eastern Railway rising by 8.8%. Passenger groups are warning that travellers must expect such rises annually as the government struggles to reduce subsidies to the rail industry.

This brief flurry of interest in transport issues rather wrecked Alistair Darling s holiday break, as the transport secretary was forced on to the airwaves to defend his policies. Normally, Darling keeps his head well below the parapet as transport is the dog that never seems to bark Although it is an issue that affects every one of us daily and we all grumble about congestion on the roads, late trains and non-existent buses, people seem to accept transport failings as a fact of life.

Indeed, Darling must look back with great satisfaction over the three and a half years he has been in the job. True, there is no great legacy of futuristic infrastructure schemes or even much sign on the ground that things are improving. But that is not the point. He was sent to Marsham Street to get transport out of the headlines after Stephen Byers' short but eventful reign in the job and has succeeded magnificently in that limited ambition.

However, that might not be good enough any longer. Wherever you look in transport, trouble is brewing on the roads (as a national road charging scheme beckons), in the air (projected unpopular airport developments), on the trains (the soaring tax bill) and even through the Channel Tunnel (with Eurotunnel facing yet another financial crisis this year), all in the context of the global warming issue, which is causing increasing public concern.

Moreover, Darling finds himself with a tough opponent across the Commons chamber for the first time. The new shadow transport secretary, Chris Grayling, is not only a veteran of the Commons transport select committee - and therefore knows something about the subj ect - but also a hardworking young MP with an eye for detail. It was as deputy shadow leader of the House, a position tailor-made for obscurity, that he kept the pressure on David Blunkett - over the then work and pensions secretary's directorship of DNA Bioscience - so effectively that he eventually got his scalp.

It was Grayling who kick-started the attack on Labour's failure to implement the Transport Plan, having noticed that we were halfway through the decade. The Tories have shown little interest in transport over the past few years, as Grayling's predecessor, Alan Duncan, illustrated by not knowing what a high-speed train was when interviewed by a railway magazine.

The plan was a good soft target, even though the government acknowledged its weaknesses and revised many of its more ambitious targets in 2004. It had been launched as a brave attempt by the then transport secretary John Prescott to set down some priorities. But the Treasury was ever suspicious, the objectives were unclear and the costs of the botched privatisation of the railways had been underestimated. As a result, few of the promises have been fulfilled.

Some road schemes have been shelved, few railway improvements have been delivered apart from the West Coast Main Line refurbishment, which went massively over budget and, most noticeably, tram schemes have been ditched. …

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