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Issue 43, November 1999

Transport policy after Paddington

THE HORRIFIC PADDINGTON rail disaster has sharply posed the issue of transport safety. Ten years after the Clapham rail crash, the train protection systems recommended then have still not been installed. Rail privatisation has split the system into dozens of different companies, each interested in their own profitability. They all aim to reduce their individual costs and no one takes overall responsibility for safety. The government gives the rail companies £1.8 billion in subsidies each year yet they continue to reduce staff levels and have not invested in safety. The immediate issues are the introduction of proper safety equipment, an end to the long hours of drivers, and the return of the railways to public ownership.

People are rightly angry at the failure of private ownership. The crash has brought together wider discontent at the consequences of privatisation. On the railways, regular cancellations and late trains, a lack of maintenance and poor facilities, are normal. Last year there was a record number of complaints - at over one million this was equivalent to one complaint every 30 seconds! This is part of the general understanding that privatisation has produced massive profits for a handful at the top while workers' jobs have been slashed. The companies are not interested in public service - passengers are now 'customers', with their importance measured by profitability not need. This issue spreads far beyond transport to education, health, and services such as gas, electricity, water and communications.


New Labour has continued the Tory policy of the private provision of services. In a frightening disregard of the evidence of failure, they still aim to privatise London Underground, with Railtrack a possible part-owner, and Air Traffic Control.

The commitment to privatisation is not about better services but about providing rich pickings to business. New Labour claims that privatisation will allow more investment and there is no doubt that the underground needs massive investment. But instead of direct government investment and at least the possibility of public control, private industry will provide the capital - for a price. In fact, using private finance will actually cost more in the long run. In many cases it is like a reverse mortgage - you pay the building society or bank for 25 years and at the end of it they own the house.

Road transport is one area that has seen decades of priority to private profit, but with a twist that reveals an important role of the state under capitalism. The government has built the roads and society has paid all the additional costs of car dominated transport - while big business, the private car and freight users, have got the benefits.

John Whitelegg in his book Critical Mass contrasts the government's willingness to build roads with the funding of health provision. For most of the post-war period the Department of Transport has concentrated on building roads based on the idea of 'predict and provide', where estimates are made of future car traffic and roads are built to meet the expected need. At the same time public transport has been cut back. The inevitable result is a growth of car traffic, roads become congested, and pressure grows for more roads. In health provision there has been, and continues to be, a different approach. Provision is based not on needs but on what the government is willing to spend. If the Department of Health's attitude was transferred to roads then road maintenance would be reduced, small unbusy roads would be closed as 'uneconomical' with road use concentrated in a few big roads, and road provision would be restricted to what 'the country can afford'.


In fact the road building programme has been a total failure even by its own aims. There is no evidence that increasing road provision helps economic regeneration, while congestion costs an estimated £15 billion a year. The simplistic answer to traffic jams is build more roads. More roads do not reduce congestion, however, but encourage traffic. The M25, rather than relieving traffic pressure, has generated traffic and now is regularly congested. The recently completed Newbury by-pass only reduced congestion for a couple of years and now the town and the by-pass are both suffering traffic jams again.

Transport provision for people has been based on aiding car drivers, which are a minority of the population, to the serious disadvantage of the rest of the population, the old, the young, women and the poor. These people generally have much reduced access to cars and rely on walking and public transport to get around.

The claimed purpose of road building is to improve mobility. However, this ignores the reason people want to get around. The key issue in people's lives is not so much mobility as access and today access has become more difficult - the distances between work, home, school and shopping places have increased. To maintain access, people are forced to use a car. Where shops were once a few minutes walk, for example, they are now miles away. The car has increased distances for all but access only for a minority.

The emphasis on easy mobility is dominated by the needs of business. Bus services are concentrated on getting people to and from work with much less frequent services outside work hours and on routes that are not used for work. While the mainline train services are now faster, largely to aid the travel for business, services on other routes have declined. In 1910 it took 90 minutes to travel by train between Bradford and Morecombe, now it takes 136 minutes. In addition there has been the widespread closure of lines over the last 35 years.


The increased distances that individuals have to travel to reach the same facilities is paralleled by the increase in journeys for goods. Industry and retail now ship goods all over the country. In 1992 it took 25% more transport miles to produce the same goods as in 1952.

As well being a failure as a transport policy, the priority on cars has many wider costs. Road transport devours enormous amounts of space. In the UK some 3,500 square kilometres is used by roads and parking. In Germany 60% more land is used by roads than all the housing. As well as the land directly consumed, the noise, pollution, and danger mean that alongside of many roads there is a further blighted area of land.

Cars world wide directly kill 420,000 people a year in accidents, in Britain around ten a day. In addition car pollution causes 24,000 premature deaths a year in Britain. The costs of the road policy including building and maintenance, congestion, accidents and damage to health and pollution, are estimated at between £30-£45 billion a year.

John Prescott has talked of a 'radical change', but there is little sign of action. A socialist transport policy would give top priority to safety. The transport providers now almost all privatised, with the underground and Air Traffic Control soon to go, would be returned to public ownership and control. Massive investment would be made in public transport. This would include a shift of resources from the many direct and hidden costs of the present road policy.


In the major cities a programme of high quality rapid rail networks are needed. This combined with a good bus service would offer a real alternative to car dependency. This in turn would rescue a great deal of the 30% of city space presently controlled by cars. This public space could be used for cycle ways, pleasant and safe pavements, parks, squares and other uses. A major policy of freight on rail is also needed. Rural areas need a big improvement in bus services.

As important as direct investment in transport, changes are needed in land use to end out-of-town development and instead have local services in the communities. The policy of shipping goods all over the country could also be reduced. This change raises wider issues about the priorities of our, predominantly urban, society. (See Socialism Today No.36 for the beginnings of a discussion on a socialist urban policy, which is closely linked to transport policy).

It is absolutely clear that private ownership cannot be trusted with safety. It is not even capable of providing a good, integrated and healthy transport system. The workforce on the railways have pointed out for years the need for improved safety. Public ownership and workers control of transport is urgently needed.

Bill Hopwood

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