Why the future of British Transport is brighter than you think
Britain has always been at the forefront of transportation technology. Railway travel was pioneered in this country during the days of Trevithick and Stephenson; our trains, tracks and stations remained, until the 1930s, the envy of the world. Much the same is true in aviation: the first commercial jet plane, the Comet, was built in 1949 by De Havilland – one of over a dozen aerospace companies once active in Britain; two decades later BAe co-created the legendary supersonic Concorde.
But British expertise was not limited to prestige projects: in 1958, Gatwick Airport became the first modern airport in the world, with covered terminals and a direct rail link. Seemingly mundane to us now, too, are the road-building achievements of the 1960s: in less than ten years, more than 1,000 miles of motorway were built in England, Scotland, and Wales. Yet these former glories have faded now into distant memory, replaced in our minds by the present realities of late trains, jammed roads, and overcrowded airports. Every year, train delays amount to nearly 4 million wasted hours to passengers; traffic congestion costs the economy nearly £4.3bn in wasted time and fuel; and the largest airports in the country are operating at up to 98% of their capacity.
It has taken thirty years of neglect and indecision to reach this point: in the 1980s, the Thatcher government had drawn up ambitious plans for the construction of ‘Roads for Prosperity’ – a £23bn programme to double the capacity of the road network. The Labour governments that succeeded it not only cancelled 70% of these projects; they also failed to bring forward any alternative schemes of their own. Between 1996 and 2006, the road network only grew by 1.6% in the face of around 15% more traffic on Britain’s roads.
The result, predictably, was a massive increase in congestion. Since then, investment has recovered, and some major projects – from the construction of the M6 Toll to the ‘Smart Motorway’ programme on M1, M4, and M25 – have been completed. The coming years are looking brighter still: the current government has committed to investing £3bn a year into the road network to render it once again fully fit for purpose.
These direly needed £3bn would be halved by a Labour government. Rather than use these funds for vital maintenance, Corbyn instead announced in April that the money would be used to provide free bus passes to under-25s. The sheer transparency of this thinly-disguised electoral bribe would be cause for shock and outrage – if such bribes were not so common in Corbin's Labour manifesto.
Instead Labour offers alternate solutions. The re-nationalisation of the railways remains, for example, one of Labour’s most enduringly popular pledges; it promises to bring low fares and punctual trains to a system allegedly tormented by the insatiable greed of the ruthless train operating companies now running it. In truth, of course, train operating companies are doing an excellent job considering their very limited resources. They are, rather, victims of their own success.
Since privatisation, passenger numbers have more than doubled, from 750 to 1750 million. As a result prices have increased, though impressively this rise has been less than that of petrol prices in the same period. Furthermore Britain’s railways remain the safest in Europe. Yet the railway’s best days are on the horizon: billions of pounds are being invested in electrifications, re-openings, signalling improvements, and entirely new lines. These include the construction of Crossrail and the completion of the Thameslink Programme in London. They also extend to the whole country: from the re-doubling of the Aberdeen-Inverness line all the way to the electrification of parts of the Great Western, which will benefit passengers as far afield as Penzance. There is scarce a railway line that will be left untouched in the coming years. This, in the long term, will increase efficiency thus reducing costs for train operators, allowing rail fares to be reduced. All without the need for crippling subsides.
Nationalisation would derail all these projects currently in train, setting our railway back decades. Labour’s proposal to re-nationalise the railways smacks of financial incompetence, historical illiteracy, and, above all, of putting ideological dictum ahead of the national interest.
This is not to say that the government’s policies on infrastructure have been without fault: the decade-long vacillation over the expansion of Heathrow Airport has been ruinously expensive for the country, and terribly divisive for the Party. But let us not forget that, since 2010 – under successive Conservative-led governments – 98% of national priority infrastructure projects have been completed successfully; that public infrastructure investment has now reached £62.5bn per annum; and that this all-time historic high is growing still. So long as the Conservatives stand by these bold initiatives to improve transport the choice is clear: it is between uncertainty, populism, and ideology under Labour or accountability, investment, and pragmatism under the Conservatives.