Independent Decade : Ironies of the tie that binds

The tunnel vision
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The Independent Online
It is one of the enduring ironies of the past decade that Margaret Thatcher, despite her antipathy towards both Europe and railways, initiated the construction of a Channel Tunnel to link us with Europe by rail. The tunnel, which finally opened in 1994, is the biggest change since the Victorians began laying railways across Britain or air became a viable method of transport.

The traditional British reserve in embracing innovation means that its full impact has yet to be felt, but the consequences go way beyond the realms of transport. We have a physical link with Europe, ensuring that the political debate on our relationship with the European Union starts from a different point. Eurotunnel may be just about bankrupt, but the Tunnel will bind us psychologically to Europe in a way that Baroness Thatcher did not appreciate.

While the infrastructure projects are the most visible signs of change in the past decade, Tory policies have transformed the transport structure of the UK.

The bus industry has been deregulated and privatised, resulting in city centres being crowded with ageing buses competing for the lucrative routes while many suburban and rural areas now find themselves without a bus service. And rail privatisation has meant that British Rail is soon to become as much a part of history as the LNER or the LMS.

The full impact of rail privatisation has also yet to be felt. So far it has resulted only in new logos and a hiatus in investment and a proper assessment of whether the costly upheaval has been worthwhile will have to wait until the end of the decade at least.

In terms of transport, though, there is a development which will have a larger impact on our lives in the years to come than the Channel Tunnel or rail privatisation. It is the sheer growth in the amount of travel which we all undertake.

We are becoming a more and more mobile society. Whereas 10 years ago, each of us travelled on average 5,300 miles per year on land, now we cover 6,500, an increase of 18 per cent. For air transport, the growth figures are even higher. Last year, there were nearly 102 million journeys by people arriving or departing on international flights, exactly double the 1985 figure.

There are many reasons for the increase in transport, but it is largely as a result of the fact that since the Second World War, planning has been centred around the needs of motorists rather than pedestrians.

As more and more houses, as well as superstores, leisure centres and offices, are built on the fringes of towns, a car is usually needed to get to them. The Government allowed the large supermarket companies carte blanche to litter the countryside with barely a thought for the transport problems this would bring in its wake. Now, politicians, even the Tories, have realised that in a small country such as Britain, it is impossible to expand the capacity of the road network to meet the demand, and suddenly bicycles have become the rage, with ministers donning helmets to show the way.