Leading Article: There is no transport crisis. But Mr Prescott has run into difficulty
Tuesday 30 November 1999
That is not to say there are no problems, merely to point out the need to keep them in perspective. London, our worst-afflicted city, has not become Mexico City or Kuala Lumpur; it compares favourably even with cities elsewhere in Europe. Where there are problems they are often problems of success, not failure.
Take the much-maligned London Underground system. Certainly, the Victorian infrastructure is now creaking under the strain. But billions of pounds' worth of investment is flooding in for the first time in years; even the Northern Line has begun to improve. The Jubilee Line extension has finally opened, its awesome design an architectural triumph. Passengers remained packed like sardines in rush-hour; but this will always be the case unless there is a savage recession.
Complaints about the state of the national railways are another staple. These have risen in recent years, but the problem is partly one of success. The number of passengers has gone up by a quarter in the last three years, and continues to grow. There has been massive investment here too, especially in new rolling-stock. While delays are still frequent, things are getting slowly better, although one result of the badly handled privatisation is the absurdly complex ticketing system.
Buses remain, as ever, the poor relation. There are justifiable concerns about the fate of rural bus services. But in some areas bus use has increased by 40 per cent. There are hundreds of new buses on the roads. Technology, such as smartcard ticketing and electronic indicators, will help to make the use of the bus more attractive.
As for traffic congestion, that has been a familiar complaint for decades - first noted in London more than a century ago. However much is done to keep cars off the roads, a certain norm of "acceptable" congestion will return. The important thing is to ensure that there is a viable alternative, which is why substantial investment is vital to improve public transport - to provide choice, and for those without cars.
Only in one respect is the crisis real: in the political world. John Prescott's elementary mistake was to be too boastful in giving the impression that he could solve everything at a stroke. Transport problems are always with us, like death and taxes, and they are always the cause of moaning, like the weather. Once Mr Prescott had intervened, given the timescale involved in solving the problems, a popular irritation was converted into a crisis. Almost half the population now say the Government has done a bad or very bad job on transport.
Mr Prescott has achieved the remarkable feat of being vulnerable to attack from two diametrically opposed points of view. On the one hand, the name "Two Jags" Prescott has stuck, because of the perceived hypocrisy of his devoted use of the car; on the other hand, he is attacked for his "vicious vendetta" against the car. Poor Mr Prescott. If he had not boasted so, this need not have happened. Instead, he has made a crisis out of a problem. A little modesty might go a long way.
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