Roads and Railways: Mondeo man is still in the driving seat

In the third part of a major series monitoring the Government's promises to improve Britain's public services, Michael Williams and Nicholas Pyke find that where transport is concerned, we're going nowhere fast
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The Independent Online

"There is a clear mood for change and I'm in the mood to deliver it," pronounced a beaming John Prescott when he unveiled the Government's 10-year transport plan on 20 July 1998. The Deputy Prime Minister went on to boast: "After 20 years in the wilderness, this is the day that transport policy bursts into a new dawn."

Nearly five years on, Prescott's optimism seems almost laughable. Many users of our creaking transport system – whether nose to tail on a crowded motorway, paying expensive fares on dirty and late trains or waiting for a scarce local bus – might take the view that the system is actually worse than when New Labour took over.

What were the problems?

New Labour inherited the newly privatised railway, which had been badly bodged by John Major's over-hasty legislation. The idea that Railtrack, the owner of the infrastructure, could act as a profit-making company was undermined as the public lost confidence after the high-profile accidents at Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield and the company made increasing demands for public money. The motorway network, which carried the bulk of the nation's freight, had hardly improved since the pattern was laid down in the 1970s. Congestion in cities, especially London, was worsening. Our European competitors, particularly France and Germany, were busy building new high-speed rail links and toll roads but in Britain investment was worsening and there was little attempt at an integrated transport policy.

What did New Labour promise?

A lot. "Mondeo man can breathe a sigh of relief," said Prescott in 1998, "and breathe a little easier because [New Labour] will give him cleaner air, less congestion and better transport choice ... there needs to be a better balance, so that people are encouraged to use the car less and public transport more." Recently, this rhetoric has been heavily downgraded. Alistair Darling, the current Transport Secretary, says: "There are no quick fixes or easy solutions ... it will take time."

What have they done so far?

Any attempt to rein in the car on environmental grounds was quickly scuppered after the white flag was raised to the fuel protesters in September 2000. Scandals over the way the rail network is maintained led to the replacement of Railtrack with a new not-for-profit company, Network Rail, and a beefed-up Strategic Rail Authority. Nearly £1bn-worth of new trains have been introduced since 2001, albeit leased from private firms, and the first phase of the high-speed Channel Tunnel link through Kent has been completed. But ministers' terror of the motorist has led to a volte-face in the latest strategic plan, with some £312m less being spent on railways than originally envisaged and more on roads. Rail electrification schemes have been quashed, train frequencies cut and fares are being allowed to rise. Some argue that the only radical thing to happen in the past five years has been Ken Livingstone's London congestion charge – which ministers publicly turned their back on.

What do they need to do?

Be bold. The Mayor of London has proved that motorists will take the pain if they perceive some benefit. Livingstone has also been successful in getting bus usage up after decades of decline. Congestion charging and road-pricing schemes should be accelerated. If London, why not Manchester and Birmingham? If the M6 (now to have a tolled bypass), why not the M25? Attitudes to the privatised railway need to be both tough and passenger-friendly. Stop dishing out money to failed franchises like Connex. And stop dithering about the two big projects for the South-east, Crossrail and Thameslink 2000, which would cut the misery for millions crossing our capital at a stroke. Paris would have built them decades ago. And the Crossrail line could still be the clincher in our bid for the Olympics.

Death of the 'brain train'

You might think in the 21st century that it would be possible to take a direct train between our two ancient university towns of Oxford and Cambridge. You certainly could more than 100 years ago when Lewis Carroll was a don. But not in the Alice in Wonderland world of the modern railway, where the rhetoric is of expansion, but the reality is about cuts.

Ever since the line was closed over most of its length as a victim of Beeching in 1967, campaigners have hoped it would reopen. When New Labour was elected they believed John Prescott's promises about getting people out of their cars and back on to the railway. And local authorities along the 77-mile line through Bicester and Bletchley have spent millions of pounds in feasibility studies to get it running again. But their hopes have been dashed by the head of the Strategic Rail Authority, Richard Bowker, who has refused to back the reopening.

Travellers hoping for the return of the "brain train" are not the only ones disappointed. Mr Bowker has also backtracked on other schemes, including electrification of the line from Hastings to Ashford in Kent, and an electrified through-route from London to Lewes in East Sussex. "They've strung everyone along since 1996," says Chris Wright, a careers officer and secretary of the Oxon & Bucks Rail Action Group, which has spent the last two decades campaigning.

The only remaining stretches of the Oxford-to-Cambridge line run from Bedford to Bletchley and from Bicester to Oxford, although the track remains for much of the rest of the route, used by a single freight train a day. From today, passengers on the 13-mile stretch from Bicester to Oxford have lost their through service to Bristol. Worse still, the last five trains of the day, from 7pm onwards, have been axed by Thames Trains which runs the line. The service that remains is patchy and dispiriting. One of the passengers, Dave King, a farmer who lives near Bicester, has his own reasons for getting traffic off the roads. "When I'm in the tractor it only takes five minutes before there's a queue of cars and lorries up my arse," he explains. But at 30mph the train is feeble competition and when it pulls alongside the A43 you can watch the traffic roar by at twice the speed.

Then into Bicester, with its two neglected platforms and half a station building. The gables and upper floor were demolished before the authorities realised it was listed, according to Dr Ian East of Oxford Brookes University, another exasperated passenger. So now there is 15 feet of bricked-up stonework and nothing else. The former coalyard, round the corner, would be ideal for car parking. Instead it is up for sale on the internet.

There seems to be no shortage of demand. Oxford and Cambridge are expanding fast. Milton Keynes is scheduled for huge growth and Bicester is expecting thousands more houses. The port authorities at Ip- swich and Felixstowe want a freight link to escape the north-south stranglehold of the current network. Local authorities are demanding action and 30 of them have joined development agencies and regional assemblies to form the East West Rail Consortium.

Studies suggest 5,000 people a day would use the 77-mile line. At £230m, the cost would be comparatively modest, the main problem being to rebuild the railway between Bedford and Cambridge. The rest of the line already exists and the first step is to reopen the 20 miles from Bicester to Bletchley at a cost of only £31m.

At Bletchley, the brain train would also serve the Open University, Britain's largest, whose headquarters and key research centres are nearby, as well as feeding Milton Keynes and the London-West Coast Mainline

Two Oxford academics were on the train last week, waging a seemingly futile campaign against today's cuts. Henrietta Leyser, a medieval historian at St Peter's, and Dr Sam Fanous, a medievalist at the Bodleian Library, use the line every day. Both should go to Cambridge more frequently to meet fellow researchers and use the libraries, but they are daunted by the three-hour journey via London and the Underground. It might be less arduous on horseback.

'I know travelling by train is frustrating, but it is improving'

Alistair Darling tells Jo Dillon that there's no quick fix

Like every secretary of state for transport, Alistair Darling is a man with an unenviable in-tray and a place on the same hot seat that led to the demise of his predecessor, Stephen Byers. "There's no quick fix or simple solution that resolves all the competing demands," he says. "You have to strike the right balance."

Train travellers – and the environmental pressure groups that insist public transport must be improved to get polluting cars and lorries off the roads – have long complained about under-investment in the railways and the consequent problems with the service. But as things continue to be far from perfect, people are legitimately asking: what is happening to the £73m a week that's going into Britain's railways?

Mr Darling insists it's not as clear-cut as it looks. Two examples: first, this year, 740 miles of track will be replaced, more than three times as much as in the mid-1990s. The new tilting trains, which will help reduce journey times, are ready to be introduced. But passengers on the West Coast Main Line are still on the existing trains which, they complain, are too slow. "A lot of money is going in but someone using it today would say it doesn't look terribly good."

His conclusion is simple: "The work should have happened years ago. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with what we're doing. It's just going to take longer and cost more than people thought it was going to do."

While the costs of it all are a "huge concern", Mr Darling is also keen to see some of the rail companies pay more attention to the quality of their management of the service. And he says there are complications for plans to extend the network, particularly in London and the South-east, with planning appeals and objections in court. The laughably named Thameslink 2000 project, for example, is still mired in litigation.

As for the promised Crossrail project to link east and west London, there is no way that will be ready in time for the Olympics if the Games end up coming to the capital. Mr Darling insists, however, that London's existing transport infrastructure can cope.

He is all too aware of the irritation this causes. "I travel by train and know the frustrations, but it is getting better. An awful lot of the improvements will take time." Mr Darling must also juggle calls to bring in road-pricing plans, motorway tolls and congestion charging to take the pressure off Britain's roads, as well as cutting air pollution.

Despite the clamour both for and against such schemes, he has yet to be convinced either way. So he's holding a meeting with motoring and road-haulage groups next month to discuss their ideas.

But if Professor David Begg, the country's biggest fan of road pricing, or London Mayor Ken Livingstone were hoping schemes building on the capital's congestion charge would follow its introduction, they will be disappointed.

Although the 10-year plan's targets for cutting congestion on trunk roads are not being met, Mr Darling said: "I am not saying road pricing is the answer ... If we don't look at it people are bound to ask why, but I don't think generally there is a simple, universal answer to our problems."

He concedes that the London scheme worked "far better than anyone thought" but adds that it remains to be seen if the "odd sign that there are problems" around the edges of the congestion zone will amount to a serious issue.

As for other cities and towns adopting similar programmes, Mr Darling insists "no one is knocking on our door" with a plan to implement. He says the smart technology for such schemes is not ready.

The in-tray never empties and the criticisms continue, but Mr Darling is "pragmatic and patient". Not radical then? "I've always been pragmatic and haven't needed to prove myself. I've been pragmatic for the first 49 years of my life. And if I'm spared, as my mother would say, I intend to spend the rest of it being pragmatic. If you're not, you will end up deceiving yourself, or others, or both."

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