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Expert witness

Working lives - When the bombs hit London last week transport expert Christian Wolmar was one of the first to be contacted by news channels.

Slightly busy' is how transport commentator and author Christian Wolmar describes his day in the wake of the terrorist bombings on London's transport network last Thursday.

One of the country's foremost transport pundits, Wolmar was called by Sky News just three minutes after the first bomb went off, when it was still thought to have been caused by a power surge.

'After the bomb on the bus, the story soon changed to terrorism and the security angle, ' he says. He believes that the main challenges facing the transport system in the wake of the attacks relate to security rather than engineering.

Like most of the nation, just a few hours earlier Wolmar had been caught up in the euphoria of winning the 2012 Olympic bid. 'It's great news. I was surprisingly excited and even shed a little tear, ' he says.

Wolmar has no doubts that engineers will rise to the construction challenge to deliver spectacular venues and a well oiled public transport system.

'There'll be some sweat, but if the Greeks can do it, I'm sure we can. And I think it will do good things for transport, ' he says.

'The only thing I worry about is whether investment in the north will reduce significantly.' This is a surprisingly uncynical view from someone who has been searingly critical of rail privatisation, the London Underground public private partnership and, recently, the planning decisions that enabled construction of a new Tesco supermarket above the rail lines Gerrards Cross - scene of last week's tunnel collapse (NCE last week).

In an article for the Evening Standard last week Wolmar attacked the way deputy prime minister John Prescott had overturned public opinion and allowed 'big business' to exploit a loophole in planning legislation to build a store in a small town centre with limited road access and parking.

But Wolmar reserves his deepest criticism for the privatisation of the rail network - the subject of his new book, On the wrong line, to be published later this year.

'You can't exaggerate the impact of privatisation on the rail industry. Most of the extra costs are a result of that, ' he says.

'The fundamental problem is that it ought to be vertically structured. You have to have somebody in charge of all the cost factors of running the service, the infrastructure and investing in the long term, and it all needs to be balanced out, ' he argues, adding, 'the future is not a rosy one.' 'Nobody is thinking about the industry as a whole. There's this iterative process between the rail regulator, Network Rail and the government. We've got this mad idea that an outside regulator can set charges over the next five years and it just doesn't make sense.' Although a fan of the congestion charge, Wolmar believes the government could do much more to alleviate the UK's congestion problems.

'The answers are all there. There are all sorts of environmental measures available, and yet the government never recognises that. There are examples of best practice everywhere. Holland has hundreds of 'home zones' and play streets where the dominance of the car has been reduced. Zurich has a fantastic public transport system. Brazil has a fantastic bus system, ' he says.

One might expect a man with such clear political views to go into politics himself.

'In a way I slightly regret not having gone into it. But writing is easier and I like being able to continue to say what I really think, ' he says. 'Politics is my passion. But transport brings together applied politics, economics and sociology. It's fascinating. And it's a very neglected area.'

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