Transport innovation: slowing to a standstill

New Labour’s deep-seated hostility to popular mobility is holding back advances on roads, railways and in the air.

James Woudhuysen

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Is the New Labour government concreting over the countryside, as greens suggest, so as to appease the all-powerful road lobby? Does it also pander to what one green columnist has referred to as ‘anti-social bastards who believe they should be allowed to do what they want, whenever they want, regardless of the consequences’, to the ‘extreme libertarianism now beginning to take hold here’, to an individualism that ‘begins on the road’? (1)

Well: between 1997, when New Labour came to power, and 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, Britain opened 284 miles of new major roads and motorways. That’s a grand total of 40 miles a year (2). Not too impressive, for the world’s fifth largest economy.

Don’t expect chancellor Gordon Brown’s November pre-Budget report, or Sir Rod Eddington’s late-running transport review, to bring about the swift, massive, nationwide renovation of short- and long-distance transport infrastructure most people want. Brown has already hinted that Eddington, ex-CEO of British Airways, will favour new transport within cities more than between them (3). That would anyway fit with general government policy, which is to confine new housing, and the working class, within cities, on brownfield sites (4).

In practice, the Eddington report will probably boil down to more bus lanes in cities and more cycleways, too; as well as more road tolls, pay-as-you-drive road pricing, urban congestion charges, urban parking charges, and general gas-guzzler charges. Already environment secretary David Miliband has sent Gordon Brown a letter recommending higher vehicle excise duty for fuel-inefficient cars – along with a rise in air passenger duty and the extension of VAT to flights.

Don’t expect Department for Transport (DfT) secretary Douglas Alexander to dissent from this mania for new pricing schemes in road transport, rather than capacity expansion or technological progress. On 26 May, Alexander told Tony Blair he would be ‘seeking innovation and opportunities across all transport modes’ (5). But by 27 June, he announced that only a tiny part, if any, of his Transport Innovation Fund would even improve major roads, let alone build new ones (6).

TIF money will rise slowly, from about £275million in 2008-9 to £2.75billion by 2015 (7). Initially, at least, most of it will go not on new roads, but on tinkering with traffic management, road pricing schemes, and the enhancement of gauges on those railway lines that carry freight. And like Crossrail, the ‘schemes’ that Alexander says will now be ‘taken forward’ will be taken forward for…‘business case development and appraisal’ (8). In the same spirit, Gordon Brown says that the Eddington report will ‘feed into’ his own spending review ‘from 2008-11’ (9).

Well, let’s not be too hasty! For the Department Against Transport (DAT), innovation means cutting car journeys, taxing them, and subjecting them to state surveillance through IT. Road congestion and the pollution that attends it are to be solved not through building more roads, for it is thought that selfish motorists will want to drive on them. Instead, New Labour innovation in road transport is now about cramming motorway drivers on to the hard shoulder.

The government has a deep-seated hostility to popular mobility. Of course, it justifies its coercive campaign to change motorists’ behaviour in terms of the CO2 issuing from use of conventional petrol. But what does it propose to do about petrol use in terms of new technologies? In March, Brown’s Budget ordered transport fuel suppliers to make five per cent of their product available as carbon-friendly biofuels by 2010/11. But the Department Against Transport has since found a new, more important worry. It frets about the ‘serious risk’ that biofuels could themselves be developed ‘from highly unsustainable sources’ (10).

Yes, though biofuels take just 0.25 per cent of the UK transport fuels market at present, the government sees their further development as dangerous. And genetically-modified super-cellulose as the best possible substrate for biofuels? New Labour will never support it.

Government shows a similar disdain for innovation in Britain’s major rail links. Germany can hope to put its recent accident with magnetic-levitation trains behind it. China can hope to spread its own version of maglev westwards, to Tibet. But Britain is different. As the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the country’s only new major rail line for many years, finally nears completion, the government has allowed Eurostar to strip Ashford, near the Thames Gateway mass housing development, of high-speed trains to Brussels – the political capital of Europe (11).

Still, in London, there appears to be a positive development. The government has decided to grant legal powers and planning consents to Network Rail in respect of its ‘Thameslink 2000 rail enhancement scheme’ – better north-south railways for the nation’s capital. But take a closer look. As DAT minister Stephen Ladyman stressed to parliament, ‘It is important to note that these decisions do not amount to a final go-ahead for the projects’ (12).

If it is ever finished properly, Thameslink will be improved less around innovation, and more around tunnels that were built back in 1866. The whole atmosphere surrounding rail is steeped in lethargy. For proof, take Transport for London (TfL), the Ken Livingstone bauble that has just found £363million for Balfour Beatty and Carillion to extend the East London line by…2.25 miles… by 2010. Never bashful, TfL continues to protest that ‘concerns’ about Thameslink raised by London Transport back in June 2000 ‘are still valid’: the link’s ‘strong emphasis on outer suburban services’ means that it has few benefits for Londoners. For broadminded TfL, Thameslink is therefore of little value (13).

With air travel, too, New Labour runs a campaign to denigrate technological innovation. Earlier this month, Douglas Alexander told flying enthusiasts in Washington, DC:

‘We need to develop a coherent strategy encouraging and promoting technical improvements and operational gains – not just in aircraft design and fuel technologies, but also in areas such as air traffic control, which can have a significant impact on emissions.’ (14)

With its 787 Dreamliner, a long-haul, mid-sized plane to be flown for the first time next year, Boeing is struggling with composites and engines that, it hopes, will make a machine 20 per cent more fuel-efficient, per passenger, than previous models (15). Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson has said he will invest £1.6billion to try to put biofuel, not kerosene, into his jets. Some complain that these technological developments are all too little, too late. But what did Douglas Alexander add in the next sentence of his speech? ‘Relying on technology alone is not enough.’ (16)

Maybe so. But relying on new technologies would make a refreshing change from New Labour’s ceaseless, tech-lite, authoritarian attempts to wean us stupid, selfish babies from our alleged ‘addiction’ to the car and plane. It would make a change from promises of innovation in rail that amount only to recycling the underground tunnels of properly ambitious but physically diminutive Victorians. It would mean funding more and better international research into higher fuel efficiencies on the road and in the air, not hating motorists and plane users enough to want to tax – or ration – their every movement.

Technology alone is not enough. But state controls on personal transport behaviour are always too much. To make people feel guilty every time they drive or fly will be the final triumph for British parochialism.

(1) George Monbiot, ‘They call themselves libertarians; I think they’re antisocial bastards’, Guardian, 20 December 2005

(2) Department for Transport, ‘TSGB Chapter 7: Road lengths – data tables. Public road length: by road type: 1994-2004’, 20 October 2005, Table 7.8

(3) See Lionel Barber and James Blitz, ‘Brown spells out his economic strategy’, Financial Times, 26 October 2006.

(4) James Woudhuysen, ‘The dangers of Brownfield Brutalism’, spiked, 20 September 2006

(5) Douglas Alexander, Letter to the Prime Minister from the Secretary of State for Transport, DfT, published on 11 July 2006

(6) Transport Innovation Fund (Productivity): Written Statement to Parliament by Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander regarding Productivity TIF, 27 June 2006

(7) DfT, The Future of Transport: a network for 2030, July 2004, p134

(8) Transport Innovation Fund (Productivity), op cit.

(9) Lionel Barber and James Blitz, op cit.

(10) DfT, UK Report to the European Commission on Biofuels 2006, 30 June 2006, p3

(11) ‘New station means Eurostar change’, BBC News, 12 September 2006

(12) See DfT, Written Statement to Parliament Minister of State for Transport, Dr Stephen Ladyman, 18 October 2006

(13) Transport for London, ‘Initiatives and projects: Thameslink 2000

(14) Douglas Alexander, Speech to Washington Aviation Club, 4 October 2006

(15) See Boeing, ‘Boeing 787 Dreamliner Will Provide New Solutions for Airlines, Passengers’; Doug Cameron and Kevin Done, ‘Carriers to review Boeing design’, Financial Times, 10 September 2006, and Doug Cameron, ‘Boeing admits weight problems for 787’, Financial Times, 26 October 2006.

(16) Douglas Alexander, Speech to Washington Aviation Club, op cit

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