Prescott admits he risks unpopularity

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The Independent Online
JOHN PRESCOTT admitted yesterday that his much-maligned strategy for transport would be unpopular in the short term.

On the anniversary of the Government's White Paper on an integrated transport policy, the Deputy Prime Minister defended his record in office in an interview with Radio 4's Today programme but conceded that the integrated transport policy foreshadowed in the White Paper would not necessarily give him instant acclamation.

"I'm sticking closely to that policy because in the long term it will be better for the country and I must risk a bit of unpopularity in order to get the case across," he said. Mr Prescott is aware that there will have to be "stick" as well as "carrot" in the campaign to persuade motorists to use their cars less. The stick will be in the form of road tolls. "There is a public transport renaissance on the way which will be better for this country, better for the motorist and better for the environment," he said.

Mr Prescott rebuffed suggestions by the pressure group Transport 2000 that he had failed to deliver anything that persuaded motorists to give up their cars. "There are many thousands of car journeys being converted on to public transport," he said. "I'm getting increased ridership on the rail. For the first time in 50 years more people are riding on buses than every before: it's a turnaround."

The Deputy Prime Minister, who has cabinet responsibility for transport, has been the butt of criticism for failing to deal with congestion on Britain's main motorways and over-crowding on the trains. Conservatives have attacked him for being anti-car. He is expected to lose some of his ministerial team as part of the government reshuffle. Later, at the Local Government Association conference in London, he revealed a populist plan to get rid of ancient "cattle truck" trains, offering commuters of south-east England hope that their journeys might begin to get better. Mr Prescott said that London commuters - a key group of voters - should not have to put up with the 2,000 "slam-door" carriages, some of which were built in the 1950s.

He warned train operators Connex and South West Trains they should get rid of the rolling stock by 2004, not three years later as envisaged when the network was privatised by the last government. He said the carriages were "symbols of years of neglect of Britain's railways and contempt for its passengers". The Clapham rail disaster had thrown into doubt the robustness of these so-called Mark One trains.

Because there was no locking mechanism, there had also been many deaths when people fell from moving trains. "In the 21st century commuters should not be shipped around in little more than cattle trucks," he said. "The end of the slam-door train will be the herald of the new railway we are beginning to build for Britain."