It's time to review how transport has fared during the five years of the coalition government.
We should start with safety. The UK has a great road safety record, up there with Sweden, but figures for the first half of 2014 showed a disturbing upward spike against a continuing background improvement. According to Kit Mitchell's analysis for CIHT, the number of cyclists killed or seriously injured was up more than 20% on the year before (increased usage being a factor perhaps), but how could road deaths rise more than 5% on the first half of 2013? Worrying.
Rail safety has continued its extraordinary long run without passenger fatalities (none in the last five years). Policymakers should note that this was achieved during a period of organisational stability. It's also a better safety record than railways in continental Europe. The last five years have been a period of payback for the upheaval of privatisation in the 1990s. These things take time to settle.
In a welcome display of common sense, we've tried learning from our successes and so Highways England is to be set up as a near-carbon copy of Network Rail, complete with the same regulator. Just two things to note on this: it was the previous government that invented Network Rail; and Network Rail itself, now thirteen years old, is showing signs of stress.
In part this is because the Government got used to making commitments to invest in rail over the last five years (until last September, this had no impact on measured public debt). So the rail sector built up a huge programme of work: five major route or area electrification projects, several major station rebuilds, lines redoubled or to be re-opened, plus smaller schemes such as new chords and junctions, phasing out of nearly all signal boxes, a level crossing replacement programme... Until Christmas 2014, there was a strong pattern of successfully completing projects in tricky circumstances, including emergency reconstruction to deal with weather damage on an unprecedented scale.
But the roads programme suffered, with virtually every capital road project put on hold back in 2010. This had nothing to do with the Government's cutbacks, since the theology was meant to protect capital investment. But the outcome for highways on the run-in to this general election is not just a return to previous commitments but a major increase in spending, and it builds on another success – managed motorways.
What remained numbingly familiar in the past five years was a reluctance to countenance charging for road use – although it was thought about for the A14. And while deferring fuel tax rises was understandable when prices were high and incomes remained flat, there has been no sign of correction since fuel prices started to fall significantly. Maybe the state of the public finances isn't so precarious after all. Or maybe this will change at the start of the next government, when unpopular measures need to be taken. Increased fuel duty could be dressed up as a "green" policy: but this would be novel because for five years there has been no interest in carbon or sustainability.
No luck either for local government and local transport budgets. In county after county, cuts in rural bus service support have been severe. City deals may have been welcomed, but the idea that local government might be trusted to raise its own funding and decide on priorities has slipped further into the mists of history. Manchester's dramatic devolution package last autumn merely represents a return of powers that existed pre-1986. London and Scotland pull off transport schemes and policies that the rest of England (and Wales) can only dream about. The attritional battle to devolve power has scarcely advanced.
Through this period, while ministers come and go, the Department for Transport has had its purpose clearly defined. Deliver HS2 is the number one target on DfT's business plan and there has been really strong progress, with phase one negotiating its committee stage in the Commons. Ministers challenged that HS2 would abstract spending from other worthy transport projects have been able to point to the stream of rail investments in defence.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the last five years in transport has been a chancellor of the exchequer who understands the value a good rail network brings to the national economy.
He has been helped by the evidence. Rail demand kept on rising year after year, driven by growth in employment in the knowledge economy in city centres.
But this meant more pressure on performance reliability. On some lines, the timetable simply can't be achieved in peak periods – passenger boarding times at the busiest stations play havoc with line capacity and timing, a sign that network capacity is at its limit.
Not that the same isn't visible in London's airports, where we are not allowed to know the answer until the next quinquennial.
Reference: Transport Times - March 2015 Issue
THE GREAT TRANSPORT DEBATE will take place 11th March. The Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP, Lilian Greenwood MP and Baroness Kramer have all confirmed their participation – to book your place follow the link below.
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