UK Government’s transport policy struggling

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has admitted that the Government cannot meet its targets on congestion. The Government’s latest figures indicate that road congestion could increase by 11-20% by 2010, but at the same time trains are becoming more unreliable.

In answer to a question in the House of Commons, Darling noted that “overall, levels of congestion will be higher than we thought two years ago”. This reflects a similar report in August last year (see related story).

Road congestion cannot be blamed entirely on economic growth, Conservative MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale Tim Collins noted. There has only been a 5% growth in the number of jobs in the past five years compared to a 16% increase in journey times, he explained. On top of this, the Confederation of British Industry has estimated that the cost of congestion to business has grown by 33%, while congestion on motorways has increased by 40%, noted Collins.

As far as trains are concerned, the Department for Transport’s latest figures show that the percentage of trains arriving on time across all the operators in April this year was 10 points lower than what it had been two years earlier.

In response, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has called on the Government to make it clear that it intends to introduce congestion charging on motorways by the end of the decade.

The prediction that congestion targets will not be met is unsurprising, says IPPR Associate Director and former transport special advisor, Tony Grayling. “The 10-year transport plan has been blown off course by events, including the fuel tax protests and the Hatfield train crash.” A declaration of motorway congestion charging would help get the Government back on course, he said.

“There should be no major new motorway widening without tolls to manage congestion,” said Grayling. Ministers should get off the fence and support Ken Livingstone’s congestion charging plans in central London, he added.

Problems with public transport are due to decades of underinvestment, according to the Prime Minister’s official spokesman. However, when the £180 billion 10-year transport plan was first announced in July 2000 environmentalists warned that it would not cut congestion as promised. Commuters’ troubles will not be solved in the short-term, said the Prime Minister’s official spokesman.

Much has been achieved in the 18 months since the launch of the Government’s 10-year plan for transport, said Darling (see related story). “However, we are under no illusions that things are going to get better overnight. There are no quick fix solutions here.”

Successes include the establishment of Network Rail, 90% completion of the first phase of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, and the introduction of £1 billion worth of new rolling stock, says the Department for Transport.

There is also still more investment to come for the railways, said Darling. Over the next few years the Government will be doubling the £12 billion that is currently being spent on the railway system, he told MPs. However, the industry must also cut its costs on major projects, and must deliver better standards of reliability and quality of service.

The revised figures for the availability of rural bus services were also published on 12 December. According to DfT analysis, 48% of rural households are now within 10 minutes walk of an hourly bus service, or better. This is compared to only 35% in 1996/1998.

The DfT had reported in July that 55% of the rural population were within 10 minutes walk of good public transport. However, this was a miscalculation, they say.

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