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Not yet time to press the panic button


Last's Tuesday's fictional BBC documentary The Day That Britain Stopped, set at the end of this year, was sobering viewing. The producers had us believe that a chain of apparently unrelated events during the weekend before Christmas could somehow cause our transport system to go into meltdown.

The premise was that a rail strike, a couple of bad accidents involving lorries on the M25, and an England football match in Manchester - a token gesture to the north - could conspire to cause nationwide gridlock.

People died because ambulances were caught up in the chaos and failed to reach hospitals in time. Some died in their cars after being stuck in freezing temperatures overnight.

To round things off, the knock on effects of M25 gridlock on air traffic control staffing levels led to two aircraft colliding just outside Heathrow Airport, concluding a particularly bad day at the office for transport ministers. Oh, and the England match had to be postponed because the M25 nightmare somehow stopped tens of thousands of fans from reaching Manchester in time for the kick off.

Ultimately, the traffic jam from hell and its fallout cost the government a junior transport minister who, rather unconvincingly, felt compelled to resign because of the lack of funds available to tackle the problems highlighted.

Towards the end of the programme I was finding it hard to take seriously the unending and melodramatic litany of human tragedy spun out of the initial M25 jam.

OK the snarl up on the M25 kept people in their cars overnight in freezing temperatures, just as they had been earlier this year.

OK air traffic control is stressful, under manned and liable to human error. And lorry drivers will always crash, sometimes through the central reservation of a motorway, causing traffic mayhem for many hours to come.

But life is rarely like the ultimate worst case scenario.

Even when thousands of motorists were trapped in their cars on a frozen M11 in January, most people suffered little more than inconvenience and some discomfort.

Somehow circumstances conspire to limit damage.

After all, London Underground's 74km Central Line has been out of action for several months and is still only running a partial service. For a line which acts as the city's east west spine carrying more than 500,000 commuters per day you would think the capital's transport system would be stretched to breaking point. Yet somehow, the capital has kept moving.

In the end, the programme seemed more intent on highlighting the type of local management failures which, combined with human failings, might lead to transport meltdown.

Lack of public spending on transport was highlighted almost as an afterthought, as a result of the the rail strike, (which turned out to have added little to the congestions), and the rather lame resignation of the junior minister. Will it persuade politicians to take transport more seriously as a result? I doubt it.

Andrew Bolton is NCE's news editor

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