This green light for public transport could help to put New Labour back on track

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It is long overdue, but none the less welcome for that. The huge injection of cash that John Prescott announced yesterday for the transport system could play an enormously important role in the continuing revitalisation of Britain. The Conservative spokesman on transport, Bernard Jenkin, complained that it was only "promises, promises, promises". Well, yes. What did he expect? A wad of cash to appear on the floor of the House of Commons? Were new trains supposed instantly and magically to appear from nowhere, as if in Harry Potter-land?

It is long overdue, but none the less welcome for that. The huge injection of cash that John Prescott announced yesterday for the transport system could play an enormously important role in the continuing revitalisation of Britain. The Conservative spokesman on transport, Bernard Jenkin, complained that it was only "promises, promises, promises". Well, yes. What did he expect? A wad of cash to appear on the floor of the House of Commons? Were new trains supposed instantly and magically to appear from nowhere, as if in Harry Potter-land?

For almost two decades, Conservative governments drove the public transport system into the ground. Margaret Thatcher loathed trains, and it showed. So, it takes some nerve for a Tory spokesman to complain about the Government "only" promising to spend £180bn on trains, buses and roads. Friends of the Earth was right to talk of a potential "rail renaissance".

The announcement of an injection of cash can sometimes seem a mere distraction from tackling the most difficult issues. In the case of transport, however, while the proverbial joined-up thinking is clearly essential, money, money, money is the bottom line. Major transport improvements cost money - lots of it.

Mr Prescott is right to boast of new investment "on a scale not seen before" (although cynics might say the credit for the plans announced yesterday should go to Lord Macdonald, his deputy). But the very fact that the Government is planning 10 years ahead is a welcome sign that it is at last taking the problems seriously. Admittedly, one could argue that it smacks of a touch of arrogance; in the light of the events of recent days, why should we think that Labour will be in a position to make spending decisions in two years' time, let alone 10 years' time?

But let us be generous. The British economy, and London's place as a world city in particular, has been undermined by the clogged roads and decrepit railways. Now the light has changed from amber to green. A 50 per cent rise in passengers and an 80 per cent growth in rail freight over the next decade sounds ambitious - and depends on the economy's continued health. But the framework for such a change is being put in place. The modernisation of the East and West Coast main lines, 6,000 new carriages and trains and improved safety protection throughout the network: all those changes are separately welcome. Put together, they could have a marked effect, as part of a virtuous circle: if more people travel by train, then the congestion on the roads will be less heavy. Everyone can be happy.

There are other implications, too. London's transport system alone receives £25bn over the next 10 years; even the long-talked about Crossrail could finally become reality. Ken Livingstone, who asked for £3bn in the next three years, received £3.2bn (although he is right to be miffed about having the outstanding Jubilee Line payments dumped on his budget). Finally, there is hope that people may once again be able to move about freely in the capital.

After a week in which the silly season appeared to have come early, it is good to be able to greet something that could make a difference. They are indeed merely promises. But sometimes even the promises of politicians can be transformed into a welcome new reality. They could even help to put the Government back on track.

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