Stop: wrong PM on the line

Tony Blair regards transport as a second-division area, and it shows. But it could still turn out to

We are in the midst of our annual transport crisis. About every 12 months, the media suddenly discover that we have the worst transport infrastructure of any affluent nation and this stimulates a fortnight or so of hand-wringing. And then, as quickly as the whoosh of a high-speed train, the issue disappears because it dawns on the editors and broadcast producers that nothing is going to change and that they are flogging a dead horse.

Last year, the crisis was prompted by the failure of Stephen Byers, the then transport secretary: a series of strikes and the not exactly unpredictable January bad weather prompted chaos on the railways while, shock horror, the poor man was on holiday in India. The time before that was in the autumn of 2000 when, in quick succession, first the fuel protesters nearly brought the nation's drivers to a halt, and then Railtrack, panicking after the Hatfield train crash, did the same for the trains.

This year, the crisis was a real humdinger and was concentrated in the capital - which ensured maximum media interest. First, the Tube suffered a minor derailment on the Central Line, an event so rare that it inevitably attracted a lot of attention. The cause, a motor which dropped off the bottom of the train, also appeared so basic that it raised serious doubts about this nation's ability to provide even the most simple transport services.

Indeed, that ability was further called into question when a two-inch snowfall led to gridlock on several motorways, much of East Anglia and north London. This was followed by a "not my fault, guv" row between local councillors and officials, gritting contractors, the Highways Agency, the Met Office and Transport for London - all of which would be hilarious, were it not so pathetic.

Together, these incidents highlighted everything that is wrong with our transport system: the low level of long-term investment combined with the absence of co-ordination between disparate agencies, both public and private, and the lack of skills and confidence to run the system on a day-to-day basis effectively.

Paradoxically, one can add an excessive obsession with safety. The Central Line, for instance, will be out of action for the best part of a month simply to replace the extremely low-tech bolts holding up the motors and the safety brackets. The lack of urgency as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) meticulously and slowly checks every detail of the process exposes the lack of a coherent approach to transport safety. The closure of the line pushes people on to less safe forms of transport - notably cars - but this is not taken into account when decisions are made to cancel the whole service rather than run a partial one, or undertake a temporary but closely monitored patch repair.

One inside source at Heathrow, where there was complete chaos on the now infamous night of 30 January, also complained about the HSE, which compounded problems by insisting on implementing ridiculously overprotective safety rules; and the failure of private organisations such as BAA (the former British Airports Authority) to plan properly for such eventualities. BAA, for instance, did not have enough de-icing machines - so planes had to wait for long periods, clogging up the gates. Then, according to my source, "Enter the HSE in force on Friday morning. They wanted to close Terminal Four and other terminals soon after 9am because of overcrowding. Eventually, the compromise was the cancellation of all British Airways domestic flights. The HSE contributed not a thing towards solving the many difficult problems but simply impeded everyone and made things worse."

Labour's record on transport is worse than in any other policy area. Political timidity and confusion, a lack of direction from ministers and the incompetence of a department that has usually concentrated on its role as "roads" ministry to the detriment of other forms of transport have combined to make transport a political wasteland for Labour. Tony Blair himself must bear some of the responsibility as he has never taken an interest in the subject, seeing it as a second-division area.

He is wrong. Virtually everyone travels every day. And although they are unlikely, when it comes to voting, to base their choice on transport issues, the lack of vision and hope in transport adds considerably to people's disillusionment with the government. Blair, as is true of the rest of new Labour, does not look beyond the focus groups and opinion polls to see that transport is potentially Labour's Achilles heel. Swathes of seats in the London suburbs and the Home Counties, won on particularly large swings by commuters disillusioned with the Tory privatisation, could be lost if the government does not at least look as if it is getting to grips with the issue.

But if Blair wanted to suggest he was at last doing something about the matter, appointing Alistair Darling to the role of Secretary of State for Transport was not a canny move. Darling specialises in keeping his head so far below the parapet you can no longer be sure he has one. His sole task was to take the sting out of an issue that had leapt up the political agenda thanks to the inability of his predecessor, Byers, to keep his mouth shut or sack his infamous political adviser, Jo "Bury the Bad News" Moore.

Until very recently, Darling seemed, on the whole, to have succeeded. Sometimes, however, it becomes embarrassingly apparent that the height of his ambition seems to be to avoid media coverage. His speeches have concentrated on the lack of "short-term fixes" and the absence of any long-term transport nirvana on the horizon. His subliminal message is that it may get a bit better, or a bit worse, but there is nothing much that he can do about it. There will be little to show for his efforts come reshuffle time - which, for Darling, will probably mean after the next election. Indeed, the revised ten-year plan, published in December, promised the odd bit of motorway widening and a bit of investment in the railways (if the industry manages to control its costs) but the main message was: don't expect too much.

If there was any doubt about where Darling's priorities lay - transport ministers generally have a bent towards roads or rail - it was exposed by the rail budget over the next three years being cut by £300m, while there was extra money for roads. The cut has caused a complete upheaval at the Strategic Rail Authority, which is having to chop 12 per cent off its budget of £240m for 2003-2004 at a few weeks' notice. Grants to help freight transfer from road to rail and to create transport interchanges at stations have all been cut from the beleaguered organisation's budget: this seems inexplicable, given that the government wants to boost rail usage. In fact, the target to increase rail passenger numbers by 50 per cent in a decade was quietly reined back to half that level.

Overall, money for transport has run out because of the high costs, resulting from a series of botched privatisations and the consequent lack of state control over vital infrastructure. It is no coincidence that Britain, which has the worst infrastructure in western Europe, is also the country that has gone furthest down the path of deregulation and privatisation.

But to appreciate Labour's Neanderthal approach to transport policy at its worst, you have to study airports and aviation. Essentially, the old-style thinking on transport is dominated by the "predict and provide" ethos. This crude theory is predicated on the idea that increased transport demand is an inevitable consequence of economic growth and that the only option open to governments is to provide for this ever-increasing demand, irrespective of the environmental damage incurred.

It may be old-fashioned, but Darling appears completely hooked on this agenda. In December, he told the Commons: "Our roads and railways are facing increasing demands on them. We are one of the largest economies in the world. In the last five years we have got 1.5 million more people in to work. People are better off and travel more often." In terms of the current level of knowledge and thinking about transport policy, that scores about a D at GCSE level. Predict and provide is a failed strategy that can never work on a small, overcrowded island such as ours: we simply do not have enough room to build the roads to cope with the increased demand.

The aviation green paper published late last year merely replicates much of the privatised BAA's thinking in terms of increased passenger demand for flying. In effect, it suggests a new airport in everyone's backyard. The consequent fuss will kill off the worst of these projects, but the government seems intent on greatly increasing the number of runways.

The controversy over the new runways shows how the long-standing incompetence of the Department for Transport continues to be one of the biggest obstacles to a coherent government strategy. Not only did the department fail to produce a consultation paper during Labour's first term (for which ministers must bear some responsibility) but, when it finally did so late last year, it excluded Gatwick Airport. The department defended its omission by explaining that a local agreement existed, which decreed that there should be no new runway there until 2019. Anti-Stansted development campaigners, however, successfully challenged this in the high court by pointing out that the period covered by the paper extended beyond that date and that therefore Gatwick should have been included. The paper had to be redrafted, and is due out later this month, delaying the all-important white paper until late this year at the earliest.

Then, recently, the Financial Times revealed an even more staggering mistake. The consultation paper had considered a third runway at Heathrow without anyone noticing that to build it would require a sixth terminal: otherwise, the planes using the new runway would have to cross an existing runway.

This catalogue of failures betrays a much bigger one at the policy level. Sure, we have ten-year plans on transport and strategic plans on the railways but, unaccountably, they do not always meld together: one is produced by the Department for Transport and the other by the Strategic Rail Authority. Roger Ford, the technical editor of Modern Railways, tried to compare the information in the two documents and says: "It just makes your brain hurt. There is no correlation, as the two are simply incompatible." Moreover, these "plans" do little more than set out a few vague aspirations with expected levels of investment.

Six years into a Labour government, politicians continue to be paralysed by the fear that any attempt to restrict growth would be seen as anti-motorist. Yet the only rational transport policy is one that attempts to manage demand as well as providing bits of extra infrastructure.

The pointers to a solution can be seen in virtually every northern European town: transport improvements go hand in hand with restrictions on car use and the encouragement of cycling and walking. You have only to see the fantastic difference these policies have made in a city such as Strasbourg to realise that the rule of the car is not immutable.

Our deregulated system - for example, because of competition rules, bus companies are not allowed to talk to each other over co-ordinating fares structures and routes - does not lend itself to a coherent transport strategy. At first, it appeared that Labour and, in particular, to his credit, John Prescott, understood this; but Blair vetoed any early legislation on transport and the momentum was lost. After a period of flirting with more coherent strategies (remember integrated transport policy and Prescott's injunctions for us to get out of our cars - made rather less convincing by the regular sight of his corpulent frame in one of his Jaguars) ministers have returned to the simplicity of just trying to provide more and more infrastructure, at whatever cost, in order to meet our seemingly insatiable demand to move around more.

It need not be like this. There is another way. It requires planning, thought and a readiness for the state to exert control rather than for free-market forces to run wild.

It also calls for political courage. The congestion charge being introduced in London on 17 February (see Decca Aitkenhead, opposite) could be the turning point. Ministers are, disgracefully, sitting on the fence, ready to take credit for its success - or to disassociate themselves from its failure. The plan is by no means ideal and could be criticised for being both too timid and too radical. London is also probably the last place such a vast experiment should have been undertaken. But success, measured in terms of a good revenue stream spent on transport improvements and a reduction in traffic, would encourage other towns to take it on. We are at a transport crossroads.

Christian Wolmar's most recent book is Down the Tube: the battle for London's Underground (Aurum Press, £9.99). He can be reached at: xian@pro-net.co.uk