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Still waiting for the transport champion

Comment

There was something strange about seeing the Prime Minister Tony Blair answering questions on transport last weekend. Speaking to David Frost he actually seemed sincere about his desire to improve the plight of travellers in the UK.

Then, as he huddled in Downing Street for the cameras with Transport Secretary Stephen Byers this week, while Strategic Rail Authority chairman Richard Bowker explained his long-awaited strategic plan for the railways, it became clear - Blair may be sincere but he really is not that interested.

To the Prime Minister, it would seem, the whole transport subject is simply an irritating problem which pops up every six months or so when the public runs out of serious things - the economy, education, health and crime - to worry about.

What made last week different is that he thought it necessary to do the smoothing over and patching up himself, a task that in the past he has preferred to leave to John Prescott or more recently to Byers.

But let us not mistake Blair's involvement for any real shift in emphasis. Transport and the railways are still seen by the government largely as an expensive drain on public resources, which could be spent for greater political gain elsewhere.

There is no denying that the SRA's strategic plan is a step forward for the industry and shows there is government and Treasury commitment to the railways. It is good to set out what has to be done and in what order on the network and it is even better to have a single document that the whole industry can sign up to. But without substantial public cash up front, no one is going to take on the really risky jobs.

What is still lacking is a true political champion. Until we have a Prime Minister that wants to be remembered for giving the UK a proper transport system, the cash will never be available in the right quantities or at the right cost.

The irony is that if Blair took a really sensible look he would quickly realise that investing public money in transport and the basic civil infrastructure of the UK would help him achieve his more 'serious' objectives.

For example, with better transport systems the UK would become more efficient, wasting less time in traffic jams and in commuting. People would arrive at work less stressed, more enthusiastic and become more productive.

Investment in better transport would make travel - and life around transport arteries - safer, and reduce the accident and emergency burden on the health service. Less congestion would lead to less pollution and reduce long term respiratory illnesses.

More investment in transport and urban infrastructure could also help to reduce crime through better lighting, increased staffing on the networks and improved, better designed facilities.

Of course this is perhaps over-simplifying the problem.

But rather than treating the issue as an awkward pimple to be periodically lanced, Blair would do well to find out how investing in transport and infrastructure could become a major part of the solution to his problems. He might be surprised how interesting it is.

Antony Oliver is the editor of New Civil Engineer.

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