Janet Street-Porter: Van drivers get a better deal than rail users

The rail network is crammed to bursting but it treats customers with total contempt
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On the same day that the Transport Secretary announced that £1.3m of taxpayers' money was to be spent on hiring 200 advanced driving instructors to give van drivers complimentary lessons in driving techniques and road etiquette, I took the train from Yorkshire to London, travelling off-peak. As usual, standard coaches were full to bursting, especially as one had been taken out of service for technical reasons. The cheapest first-class fare (booked almost a week earlier) was £42 each way, and there were no cheap deals to be had in standard class either, unless you had planned your journey at least three weeks in advance.

Yesterday, Alistair Darling announced another Government initiative aimed at motorists, which will ease the flow of traffic on to motorways at busy times. A plan by the Highways Agency to install traffic lights on slip roads at busy junctions will cost £6m, and God only knows why. If the Government can get everything from city academies to the Olympics sponsored by big businesses, why can't it ask local companies (who surely need their workers and deliveries to arrive on time) to sponsor simple things such as a pair of traffic lights, instead of the British taxpayer, who is quite likely to be a non-motorway user, not to mention a railway passenger?

When Mr Darling was appointed Transport Secretary in 2002, he poured cold water all over Blair's "blue sky thinker" Lord Birt's grandiose plan to ease congestion and create revenue by building a network of toll roads alongside existing motorways. Soon after, the Government's 10-year transport plan was heavily criticised by the Commons transport committee, and ever since, Mr Darling has tried to please too many people.

He seems too timid, too afraid of making unpopular decisions, too scared of actually activating the unthinkable; hence courtesy lessons for van drivers and traffic lights on slip roads, neither the kind of Big Idea that's going to combat the misery of travelling over the next ten years.

He has allowed plans for many more airports to be upgraded to take civil flights, increasing the availability of cheap air travel - hardly environmentally friendly. He announced that he was "not going to punish motorists", and his first priority was to improve public transport. Now, more trains might arrive on time (but of course journey times have lengthened, making it easier to meet objectives) and might be cleaner. There might be more rolling stock. But Mr Darling has been like a bit of balsa wood in the face of the might of the Treasury, who impose such huge levies with every new rail franchise it grants that fares rose on average a thumping 4.5 per cent at the start of this year.

The cost of travelling per mile in this country is embarrassingly high compared with every other EU country of similar size. There's also talk of phasing out cheap, off-peak saver tickets to allow operators to recoup their costs. Quite simply, Mr Brown is taxing one group of people more than any other in this country - rail users. And Mr Darling seems powerless to stop it.

I'm sure we'd all like van drivers to be taught how to change gears more efficiently, and cut their fuel consumption by up to 10 per cent - especially as some of the worst drivers on the roads are those behind the wheels of the fleet engaged in delivering and collecting mail. But will many businesses give their drivers a day off to learn these skills, especially one so intent on cutting costs as the Post Office? And another reason why every driver, whether in a van or not, has to change gears so often and use so much fuel, is the installation of giant road humps in suburbs and city centres all over the land. If van drivers are to be given a day off to learn how to drive, then you can rest assured that the cost of that day will be passed on to one person only, you the consumer. Another example of not very joined-up thinking by politicians, really.

If you want to understand how the Government really sets its priorities when it comes to transport, look no further than the appointment by Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown of former British Airways CEO Sir Rod Eddington as a special adviser to investigate links between transport and productivity, growth and economic stability.

Sir Rod has spent more than 26 years running airlines, from Cathay Pacific to Ansett, heading up BA from 2000 to September 2005. He is an Australian, on the board of Murdoch's News Corporation, and is non-executive chairman for Australia and New Zealand for the global financial service conglomerate JP Morgan. He's also a non-executive director of John Swire, and Rio Tinto - in other words he's a pretty busy man, even in "retirement". Under Rod Eddington, BA survived through the impact of 9/11, the war in Iraq, and Sars, and through cost-cutting, he managed to increase profits despite a loss in turnover.

But, and this is a huge but, BA's image suffered immensely in the summers of 2004 and 2005 with a series of strikes at Heathrow. Millions of passengers were thoroughly inconvenienced and the dispute over catering rumbled on for months. Now the new BA chairman faces fuel bills estimated to be £75m higher than predicted before Mr Eddington's departure.

What all this means, I'm afraid, is that Mr Eddington might be good news for profits and income-generating schemes, but bad news for humble rail passengers. Aided by just seven civil servants, he expects to complete his report, which will make proposals for the period from 2015, later this year. Mr Eddington has no formal business experience of rail travel or motorway building in this country - and don't tell me he travelled to work at BA headquarters in anything other than a company car, probably chauffeur-driven.

Ordinary people in Britain don't get up every day and have the luxury of choice about how they travel. For most of us, ease of access and price dictate whether we choose public transport or not. However, as long as rail travel in Britain is in the hands of private operators who have to make a profit, passengers will always be paying more than they should.

The railway network is a huge success story. We didn't need Mr Prescott to tell us to get back on to it, it's now crammed to bursting at all hours of the day. Given the choice, it wins hands down over the car: you can read, listen to music, doze, eat a snack, work on your laptop.

But then at weekends, the rail network treats customers with total contempt, with hours added to journey times for engineering work and frequent line closures. I still get the impression that Mr Darling favours motorists and air travellers over public transport users. And I expect that Mr Eddington's report will go the same way as Mr Birt's - straight on to the back burner.

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