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19 February 1999

Prescott kicks butt on transport

The Deputy PM is furious at the rail companies' performance. But if he wants real improvement, advis

By Christian Wolmar

The trouble with transport is that nothing happens quickly. John Prescott is finding that out the hard way. Next week he is going to attempt – again – to bang the heads of the train companies together to get them to improve their performance.

His frustration with the rail companies, which peaked at the Labour Party conference when he called the railways “a national disgrace”, is palpable. The performance figures issued earlier this month show that things are getting worse, not better; at the same time, the sale of Chiltern Railways, the last management buy-out operating company, created yet more railway fat cats. All Prescott could do was hiss from the sidelines.

Other things have not gone his way, either. The plan for Public-Private Partnership (PPP), devised to bring in investment to the London Underground without calling on the public sector borrowing requirement, has run up £10 million in consultancy bills and found no takers from the private sector. The Treasury, reneging on a deal between Gordon Brown and Prescott, has balked at the idea of giving local authorities carte blanche to retain revenues from road charging in urban areas. Finally, Prescott’s cherished “integrated transport” remains a nebulous concept that has resolutely failed to climb up the political agenda.

Then there are the day-to-day items of bad news, like this week’s 48-hour London tube strike, the recent announcement of the partial closure of two tube lines this summer, the risk that the £3 billion Jubilee Line extension will not be completed in time for the opening of the Millennium Dome and the rumours that all is not well on the West Coast main line, where Railtrack and Virgin are supposed to deliver a new railway by May 2002. Don’t be surprised, given this news, if Prescott takes the opportunity to kick butt at next week’s “summit” meeting.

Prescott is a genuine rail supporter and easily rattled on the issue. Last week, he responded to criticism in an editorial in Rail magazine with a half-page letter setting out his achievements. These do not amount to much: a pledge to set up a Strategic Rail Authority and a “ten-point action plan”. The plan promised little that was new: 800 new train drivers (not much more than the replacement rate), 500 new vehicles (ordered a long time ago by the rolling stock companies) and various vague concepts such as a joint “hit squad” and troubleshooter team to tackle the worst delay blackspots.

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Prescott should change tack. The railways are booming, with a 14 per cent rise in passenger numbers in two years. He would be better off celebrating this, rather than publicly slagging off the rail companies. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, he should devise a better structure for the railways after 2003 (when most franchises are relet) and a way of squeezing Railtrack by the balls, because it is by far the worst offender in the underperformance of the railways.

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If things have not gone Prescott’s way on the railways, it is the Underground that has posed the worst problems. Prescott’s attempts to justify the London Underground PPP were as unconvincing as Harriet Harman trying to justify the cuts to single mothers last year. The PPP was the price he had to pay for the Treasury allowing road charging revenue to be kept by local authorities, and for the financially non-viable Channel Tunnel rail link. (The link, amazingly, is being backed by government bonds which do not count against the PSBR – thanks to a brilliant piece of negotiation by the Deputy Prime Minister.) In truth, Prescott would really like to renationalise the railways, particularly Railtrack. His boss will have none of it, though.

The PPP is a bad idea for other reasons, however. If you want to privatise part of the Underground, the bit to sell off is the operation of the services, not the Tube equivalent of Railtrack. Railtrack’s failure to spend its subsidy on investment, preferring to reward its shareholders for non-existent risk, demonstrates the flaws in the concept. Worse, the Underground’s century-old tunnels are a risk which the private sector will only take on at great extra expense to the government. Far better to keep that in the public sector, contracting out services as necessary.

Away from the high profile of the railways and the politically charged issue of road pricing, Prescott is not doing too badly. Lynn Sloman, deputy director of the pro-public transport group Transport 2000, gives him a rating of about seven out of ten. His white paper, published last summer, may have lacked vision, but it included most of what transport campaigners wanted.

The way to change the transport situation is not through a couple of huge projects like the Channel Tunnel rail link (into which the government is pumping £1.9 billion) but through thousands upon thousands of tiny measures combined with an overall perspective of where we are trying to go.

This type of work is the responsibility of the local authorities and Prescott’s guidance to them is clear: either spend the money on environmentally friendly schemes, or your allocation will be reduced. This is excellent policy, but benefits on the ground will not be immediate.

Prescott needs two things: vision and money. He has never articulated quite how transport policy will develop over the next decade or two. Is he really trying to achieve a shift away from the car and towards public transport?

If so, radical measures, both carrots and sticks, are required. To achieve a major shift in policy, he needs to win over hearts and minds with a promise that our cities will be better places to live in, the air will be cleaner, and our countryside will no longer be cluttered up with vehicles.

He also needs money. While government propaganda claims that spending on transport is growing, this is not so. With a sleight of hand, transport expenditure has been divided into two sections in the government statistics: a general “transport” figure and an additional miscellaneous column which includes things like the Channel Tunnel rail link, franchise payments to train operators and London Transport. The first figure shows a 37 per cent rise from 1998/89 to 2001/02, but add together the two and you find that, thanks to declining rail subsidies, spending on transport in that period will be steady in real terms, with rises to allow for inflation.

No wonder Prescott is so tongue-tied. Boosting rail and bus use, creating cycle networks, unblocking bottlenecks on the rail network – all need government investment or seed-funding. Prescott may have an alliance with Gordon Brown, but he has, so far, received scant reward from it.

Christian Wolmar is the author of “Stagecoach: a classic rags-to-riches tale from the frontiers of capitalism” (Orion, £18 99); he also writes a fortnightly column in “Rail” magazine

What Prescott should do:

1 Adopt a traffic-reduction target which is accepted across all departments and becomes a guideline for all ministers making decisions over amenities such as schools and hospitals.

2 Reverse the decision not to impose a tax on parking at workplaces and out-of-town supermarkets.

3 Impose 20mph limits on all residential areas, allowing 30mph only on main urban roads.

4 Change traffic regulations to allow “home zones” with 10mph limits where pedestrians have priority over cars.

5 Ensure that the new Strategic Rail Authority has enough money to seed-fund investment in rail bottlenecks and that it pays subsidy to the railways direct to Railtrack, rather than via the train operators.

6 Kick the Treasury until it stops trying to claw back any money from road charging (it has presently agreed that local councils can keep the cash only for the first ten years) and, while you are at it, screw some more money out of them by, for example, keeping the savings from reduced rail subsidies.

7 Create an urban cycling network in every major town and city within ten years, even if that means taking lots of roadspace away from cars.

8 Implement a national “safe routes to school” policy quickly.

9 Persuade the Home Office and Treasury to allow the revenue from fines for speed cameras to be recycled by police authorities to install more of the devices.

10 And, most important, convince Tony Blair that transport is a potential vote-winner vital to people’s lives and the economy, and that the right choices should be made, even if that means upsetting the motorist lobby.