Transport: The slow derailing of Prescott's grand plan

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Indy Politics

It is the policy that dare not speak its name. Mention of the 10-year transport plan, launched by John Prescott in 2000, no longer passes ministerial lips.

The Deputy Prime Minister's mission to persuade people to abandon their cars in favour of public transport has slowly been dropped.

The latest indication that it has been consigned to the political dustbin came recently when Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Transport, announced £7bn worth of investment to widen Britain's motorways.

More importantly, he indicated that it could be two or three decades before a nationwide system of tolls to dissuade motorists from using their cars could be introduced.

There was no mention in Mr Darling's statement to the Commons of local "multi-modal" plans for public transport which form the bread and butter of an integrated policy.

An authoritative report from the Independent Transport Commission argued that if present official policies were pursued, motorists would face a 25 per cent increase in the volume of traffic over the next seven years.

The biggest symbol of the failure of Mr Prescott's plan is the railway network, which has already gobbled up the £33bn worth of state investment earmarked for expenditure over the 10-year period.

One massive drain on resources has been the engineering work undertaken since the Hatfield disaster, which happened a few months after the 10-year plan was launched. The £10bn project to upgrade the west coast main line soaked up another massive tranche of the investment. The work was originally costed at £2bn.

Tom Winsor, the Rail Regulator, has warned that the modernisation may never be fully completed.

The whole of the rail network has developed into a financial black hole in which the cost of maintenance work has exploded.

Half the train operating companies are technically insolvent and receiving vast sums of taxpayers' money. Virgin Trains alone is ingesting more than £500m in annual subsidies on top of £106m from the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) in compensation for delays to the completion of the west coast main line.

The SRA's answer to all this financial mayhem is to cut services and increase fares above the inflation rate at a time when trains are arriving as late as they ever were. It is all a far cry from the promises made by Mr Prescott three years ago when he pledged to "get Britain moving again".