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A new leaf for transport?

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Could this be the UK's last Christmas with prime minister Tony Blair- Perhaps - in which case it may be time to start getting used to the idea not only of prime minister Gordon Brown but also, signifi - cantly, Chancellor Alastair Darling.

I am heartened at the prospect of an early Brown premiership, not least because it would make less likely a rush into a new (multi-billion pound) UK programme of nuclear reactor construction (and I am not going to mention the nuclear power debate again this week).

But I am less confident when it comes to transport spending.

Why- Simply because the Blair/Brown/Darling plan over the last half decade has been to keep transport, specifically transport spending, off the political agenda. And it has been implemented very successfully.

Yet when it comes to Christmas presents, the secretary of state for transport has done pretty well so far this year.

This week alone he got a 125mph West Coast train service all the way from London to Scotland - a first for the UK and certainly a feat of engineering to celebrate; plus completion of the M25 widening and spur to Heathrow T5 - five weeks early, to budget and arguably the most successful motorway widening job ever seen.

And there are many more parcels of Christmas joy nestling beneath his tree. Last week, for example, Darling presided over the early opening of the new Docklands Light Railway station at London City Airport, part of the continued expansion of this now serious rail line in and around the Docklands.

The line will of course form a vital part of the capital's transport strategy for the London 2012 Olympics.

So will the London Underground Jubilee Line, and, as Darling will be aware, this week we see that between now and the New Year the whole Jubilee Line fl eet will have been given an extra seventh car - three years earlier than anticipated and massively boosting capacity.

Add to this the substantial progress being witnessed at Heathrow Terminal 5, with its massive glass façade now in place ahead of schedule, and it would be hard for anyone to doubt - except, perhaps, lovers of the traditional Routemaster London double-decker bus - that this month has seen some high notes for UK transport.

So despite Darling's best efforts to keep transport policy out of the headlines and out of Chancellor Gordon Brown's big book of things to worry about, we have seen some progress over 2005.

But it does not take an ICE State of the Nation report (although last October's publication will certainly not have hurt) to point out to him that transport in the UK - public and private - is still not good enough.

Next year sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man who perhaps more than any lives up to the title 'transport visionary'.

Some way to celebrate his vision, you might say. Looking around the UK, there are still simply too many private and public transport problems left unsolved and too many transport solutions, big and small, left sitting on the shelf.

So if, as seems likely, this celebration coincides with the UK's longest serving transport secretary taking up the keys to Number 11 Downing Street, we must use the events to ensure that he takes with him a very clear understanding of the value that investment in decent transportation infrastructure can give back to the nation.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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