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Let the private sector tame transport chaos

Comment

Which ever way you look at it, the UK's transport policy is in chaos.

Even the reappointment of Gwyneth Dunwoody to chair the transport select committee puts little gloss on the situation. Gordon Brown and the Treasury seem intent on banning spending on frivolous things such as transport infrastructure.

Last week transport minister Stephen Byers effectively halted investment in the railways by shelving new long term franchises and blew Sir Alastair Morton and the Strategic Rail Authority out of the water by ignoring their advice over the East Coast Main Line franchise.

No matter how keen, train operators cannot invest in new infrastructure projects without the prospect of longer term returns for their businesses.

Meanwhile Railtrack is stymied. With no capital base behind it there is little sign that it will ever be able to deliver any real improvement in the rail network - even if Byers is adopting a softer approach.

And this week London Underground is in court battling with government over the planned public private partnership to redevelop the Tube. This action is clearly the culmination of years of Treasury dogma, confusion and poor leadership. The result is likely to see either the private sector chased off completely or else left unable to deliver real value for money.

The private sector is already disgruntled by the return on its transport investment, with developer Canary Wharf seeking compensation for poor performance on the Jubilee Line Extension.

And confusion does not stop at the railways. Hastings residents are just getting used to the idea that their bypass will not happen. Delivery of new roads as discussed in the 10 year transport plan is turning into one long consultation process, so much so that we will soon run out of consulting resources.

Arguably the one positive note is construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The trouble is that this project had to be bailed out by the Treasury after it became clear that the prvate funding model did not stack up. Important though the CTRL may be politically, as far as the nation's infrastructure needs go, it certainly seems to have jumped the queue.

Other more important projects are left in limbo. What about Crossrail, Chelsea to Hackney or Thameslink, and that is just in London. What about the numerous smaller local transport improvements?

What about, dare I say it, Heathrow Terminal Five?

Interestingly most of these have proven business cases capable of pulling in private cash. And it is clear now that the private sector is going to have to recreate Britain's increasingly decrepit transport infrastructure so it can support the country's economic development.

The way UK society and taxation is set up means that, in the short term at least, there will never be continental European levels of public cash available for infrastructure.

But the private sector is ready and willing to get stuck in, sensibly not at any price, but very willing nonetheless. The government may have given up on putting into effect any coherent, long term transport strategy, but surely it has not lost the nerve or inspiration to use the resources of private sector organisations and let them get on with the job.

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