Will key transport projects fall by the wayside following publication of chancellor Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review later this month? Andrew Bolton investigates.
PROSPECTS FOR a meaningful improvement in Britain's transport infrastructure over the next four years look limited, despite recent government promises to boost transport spending. Later this month chancellor Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review (CSR), will set the Department for Transport's budget, and those of other spending departments, for three years up to April 2008.
It is already known that Brown faces demands to rein in public spending. Inflation is rearing its head for the first time in years, and government borrowing to fund spending is on the increase.
As a result, budgets for all areas of government spending will come under intense scrutiny and there will be pressure to axe projects which can be dispensed with without seeming to compromise policy pledges.
Brown and prime minister Tony Blair recently tried to dispel voters' fears of transport cuts with promises to increase transport spending year on year.
But as with most politicians' promises, the devil is in the detail.
Expenditure on sectors like rail will almost inevitably increase as a result of the rail regulator's decision last year to authorise Network Rail to spend £22bn over the next five years.
But rail is one area where budgets can increase while key projects are axed. The extra spend will go on maintenance and renewal work rather than on major projects like Crossrail.
Last December's announcement from the rail regulator imposed a spending programme £7bn higher than expected on transport ministers, who did little to hide their annoyance.
Even spread over five years, this represents a big chunk of DfT's budget which, according to Treasury projections, is only likely to rise to £11.6bn by 2005. So it is likely that new transport projects will be cut as a result.
Transport budgets are also competing with front line public service departments like health and education. Last week these were given a high spending priority by Blair as he sought to champion public service reform in what is seen as early electioneering.
Worryingly for engineers, this increased emphasis on health and education could well lead Brown to divert more cash away from transport.
But all is not lost for transport. After all, it is sometimes spoken of in the same breath as health and education when Labour politicians discuss public service improvements.
It is likely that the government will have to face up to the fact that transport projects in some parts of the country are vital if Britain's economy is to keep growing.
In London, population growth is strengthening the case for major projects like Crossrail and the East London Line extension, especially as several important capacity increases for the Underground are not scheduled until the next decade.
On Merseyside a second Mersey Crossing at Runcorn must be allowed to progress if efforts to introduce new investment into the region's long neglected economy are to bear fruit.
Key upgrades of the M1, M6 and M74 plus the A303 are also needed in recognition that congestion is here to stay and that public transport cannot meet all of the country's transport ills.
These projects must not be forgotten amid the temptation to throw even more money at the NHS and schools.