Emphasising that transport was now one of its main concerns, alongside the economy, education and law and order, the Government confirmed that the Bill would establish a Strategic Rail Authority to give long-term regulation to an industry often criticised as "fragmented". The Bill will attempt to introduce "proper regulation" of buses through co- operation with local authorities and it will contain "enabling" legislation for the part- privatisation of the National Air Traffic Service.
One of the key areas of concern yesterday was the scheme to "tax" motorists to tackle congestion in town centres. Local authorities would be able to retain the revenues for at least 10 years so that they could be invested in the improvement of local transport.
Authorities would also be able to impose tolls on trunk roads where they complemented a local traffic management scheme. Charges could be introduced on trunk road bridges and tunnels more than 600 metres long.
The RAC said that any new taxes would be seen as "a poll tax on wheels" unless motorists could see they were getting something in return.
The AA's motoring policy director, John Dawson, said: "Motorists are happy to have a sensible debate on how they pay for driving, but what they will insist on is a fair system and a fair deal. They are well aware that they already pay pounds 8 in tax for every pounds 10 they spend on fuel."
According to a poll for yesterday's Channel 4 programme Powerhouse, 82 per cent of people do not think that motorists should be charged more to pay for improved public transport. As many as 71 per cent of people without cars also reject the proposal.
Ministers yesterday stressed that councils would be free to decide whether to introduce the charges and design schemes to suit local conditions, subject to government approval. The charges would also be made available to the London mayor.
Because of the disaster at Paddington, rail safety was also a vital issue. Having said that it was "minded" to transfer the main functions of the Safety and Standards Directorate out of Railtrack, the Government was still considering where those functions were best located. The Transport Bill will take on board any recommendations that emerged from the public inquiries into the Paddington crash and the fatal accident at Southall more than two years ago.
The function of the Strategic Rail Authority will be to promote and develop the network for use by passengers and freight and to contribute to an integrated transport system, according to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
Having wielded a "stick" over motorists who use town centres, the Government was also keen to encourage better bus services to act as a "carrot". Provision would be made for "quality partnerships" between bus operators and local councils whereby companies would provide comfortable, safe and regular bus services and authorities would undertake to introduce measures such as bus lanes.
Councils would also be given the authority to enter into "quality contracts" where operators would be given a monopoly on some routes. Where appropriate, bus companies would also be required to co- operate in the provision of joint ticketing arrangements and provisions to improve passenger information. The Bill will also introduce a half- fare scheme for pensioners.