Authors and academics Jon Shaw and Iain Docherty give their view on the Coalition government’s performance in the area of transport. With some strong investment on the inter-city infrastructure, it’s not all bad news, but they suggest we should be asking our UK General Election candidates some tougher questions about their plans for developing international links and putting local transport control back in the hands of its passengers…
Has transport has been slowly but surely creeping up the political agenda at Westminster? When we first sat down to startwriting The Transport Debate in 2010, just after the last election, the prospects weren’t particularly encouraging.
As a policy area, transport had for a long time been largely forgotten. Spending large sums of money even to stop the quality gap between Britain and other European countries getting any more glaring had been anathema to successive ministers.
Over lunch one day, a Treasury official explained to us that if the UK could achieve about the same GDP as France without a TGV system, a comprehensive motorway system and a very rapidly expanding programme of urban tram re-openings, why bother spending the money?
Five years on, it all seems rather different. It’s not particularly fashionable to praise the Chancellor, especially in academic circles, but the view that we might well be better off if we do invest heavily in our transport networks seems to have gained traction in Whitehall since George Osborne took over.
Despite the worst economic downturn for generations, we are witnessing the most investment in our railways for, well, generations.
Crossrail and Thameslink are being taken through to completion; HS2 has been supported enthusiastically; hundreds of miles of electrification have been approved; thousands of new train carriages have started to arrive; the ‘Northern Hub’ is being built and a raft of major station improvements (e.g. Reading, Birmingham New Street) are progressing nicely. New tramlines are opening up in Nottingham and Greater Manchester.
On the roads we have witnessed a revitalisation of reasonably large-scale road building and a medium-term funding commitment to the newly created Highways England. ‘Smart motorways’ are cropping up all over the place and a network of ‘Expressways’ – upgraded ‘A’ roads with controlled access and grade-separated junctions – has been announced.
Looking to the future we now have on the table more new roads, Crossrail 2, further railway electrification, a new western rail connection to Heathrow and an ambitious proposal including HS3 to link up the cities of the North of England. We of course will have to wait and see if these and other vaunted schemes ever see the light of day, but we’d be tempted to lay a tenner on at least some of them coming to fruition.
It is not entirely clear why transport investment has all of a sudden become fashionable again (we quite like the story about George Osborne’s dad coming back from Japan waxing lyrical about the quality of their railway system) but, whatever the reason, we should celebrate it while it lasts.
Although our transport system is functional, it is by any number of measures poor in relation to those of, say, Germany, France and the Netherlands. We are probably in a minority among our colleagues in embracing the DfT’s current road building proposals, but surely there is no excuse for perpetuating a poor quality inter-urban road network.
The trick will be to ‘lock in’ the benefits of better roads – less congestion, more reliable journey times, a reduction in pollution and so on – so that traffic is not induced onto improved sections. In any event, we should remember that the amount of rail investment dwarfs that being spent on new roads.
Does all of this mean that we’re going to be popping up in one of those election adverts on YouTube giving an academic thumbs up for Dave, George and the troops? Not exactly.
The truth is that neither Coalition party would like the message we’d have to give them. Even after all the hard work, after all the ‘difficult decisions’ that have enabled transport investment to take place while cuts are made elsewhere, Coalition ministers have only got the their approach at best one third right. That’s 33%. We’d fail a student for scoring less than 40%.
As geographers, we can think of the problem as one of scale. Building lots of new inter-city infrastructure is certainly helping to make good past mistakes at the national level, but there’s been precious little happening to promote our international links.
The only discernable policy making for aviation has been the decision to set up the Davies Commission. This is a shameful fudge.
The government should long ago have decided either to build new runways (Labour supported expansion at Heathrow) or to have a more ‘sustainable’ aviation policy by forcing the airports to work more efficiently (bigger planes, fewer short haul flights and so on). Perhaps better still, it could have decided to do both. In the context of previous governments’ ceaseless dithering, putting everything on hold for five more years is an abrogation of duty.
And outside of London, at the local level there’s arguably an even bigger problem. Investment in our provincial urban transport networks has fared worse over the years than our inter-city ones. Assuming people’s final destination lies beyond the main railway stations, local transport in Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Bristol and so on will become swamped with the hugely increasing number of passengers disgorging from new HS2 and other electric trains. And this will be on top of the rise in demand associated with population growth in each of these centres.
We might think Manchester’s and Nottingham’s trams are great – and indeed in the British context they are – but they are pretty small beer in relation to what others take for granted. Consider also that there is not one English city outside of London with an underground network, and most provincial centres except maybe Birmingham and Manchester have rather under-developed urban rail networks by the best European standards.
While our Second City has a patched-together Victorian urban rail system on a single light rail line, Frankfurt, its smaller twin, enjoys nine S-Bahn and several other urban lines (including a cross-city tunnel with trains every two minutes), 11 tramlines and fully nine underground lines.
English urban transport systems are mainly the preserve of deregulated bus services with their ever-changing routes and fares – and, in Liverpool, virtually no priority on the road network.
There are moves afoot to introduce smart ticketing across the large conurbations, and to regulate the bus network in Tyne and Wear and maybe Greater Manchester. Perhaps the large private bus companies are starting to realise that their effective control over local bus policy might be coming to an end. How novel that the passenger rather than the shareholder might be placed at the centre of urban transport operations.
Transformation of transport investment
We have seen from across the Channel how it is possible to change the direction of transport policy. Like Britain, France used to be heavily reliant on the car but over the course of the last 40 years – no-one is suggesting change of this magnitude can come quickly – has completely transformed the focus of its transport investment, predominantly (but not exclusively) to benefit the public modes.
Transport for London is now into the second decade of a transformational investment strategy, but some of the seeds for what’s happening at the national level were sown only a couple of years before Gordon Brown was ejected from Number 10.
The Coalition has been delivering on a commitment to significantly improve inter-urban railways and roads, but is it realistic to expect the next government to continue this and get to grips with aviation and local transport? Given the need for heavy investment across the country’s public services in a climate of continued austerity, despite all the recent good progress we are not sure we’d lay a tenner on that just yet.
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