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Prescott: fashion victim?

ANALYSIS

This week Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott pulled off something of a coup by confounding his critics and getting a piece of transport legislation into this Parliamentary session.

The Railways Bill should give the Strategic Rail Authority and Rail Regulator stronger tools to extract more investment from Railtrack for capacity enhancement schemes. It has been met with cautious optimism by civil engineers.

That Prescott managed to win parliamentary time for the Bill against other Government priorities such as health, education and social security, shows just how far he has managed to push railways up the political agenda. His larger-than-life profile has enabled him to turn the public's gripes about the rail service from a national joke into a national obsession.

But to achieve a real step-change in the level of service on the railways, political pressure will have to be sustained. Strategic Rail Authority chairman Sir Alastair Morton has already said that the £11bn which Railtrack plans to spend on network improvement over the next 10 years is too little. The Treasury will therefore have to be persuaded to continue paying subsidies to the rail industry to fund improvements.

The Railways Bill indicates Prescott is keen to pursue this aim, but professor of transport and infrastructure at Imperial College Stephen Glaister says the industry shouldn't count on it.

'Investment in railways is a subject of fashion, and I reckon we are coming to the end of a cycle of fashion,' he says. 'The Treasury represents what the people want and, in reality, rail passengers are only a tiny proportion of the total transport market.'

For most voters the railways have little to offer. The vast majority of people go to work by car between small towns which are not well served by rail. Even pensioners, on an income of £83 a week, spend four times more on motoring than they do on train fares.

After two years of near silence on transport, the Tories have now come out fighting with a strong pro-motoring policy which will put pressure on Labour.

Glaister claims road traffic will continue to grow under any scenario of road pricing or workplace parking taxation proposed by Prescott. If the Government really wanted to stop congestion in its tracks it would have to raise fuel prices by 10% a year compound - an option it would be unlikely to take.

Instead, Glaister predicts that there will be a return to spending more on the roads.

'The rates of return are so high that no government will be able to resist the pressure to start investing more in highways,' he says.

So far, Prescott has played the environmental and health cards to great effect to justify his campaign for more investment in the railways. But unless the public is presented with a sensible cost-benefit analysis which shows that rail investment is good value for money, his vision is in danger of slipping out of mode.

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