UK: Dockland transport disaster.

UK: Dockland transport disaster. - The bungling at Docklands mirrors the failure of British transport policy.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The bungling at Docklands mirrors the failure of British transport policy.

By Roger Eglin

When the French began the development of the giant La Defence complex in Paris, the need for good transport infrastructure was given priority. It needed no great planning brain to appreciate the implications of building a large office block without making provision for commuting workers. When La Defence was completed, so were the high speed metro links and it was a pleasure to travel to and from it. As the Canadian company, Olympia and York, began the development of Canary Wharf in London's Docklands, this same thought was uppermost. One important transport link was already reasonably well advanced in the shape of the Docklands light railway (DLR). But it only needed a brief inspection to appreciate how inadequate the DLR was. It was built cheaply on the cautious assumption that something like 20,000 people a 38 day would use it. Olympia and York realised it would not be able to cope and suggested delaying the line's completion until it could be upgraded. The answer was that this was impossible: the date for the official opening by the Queen had already been set.

There was no going back.

This decision proved disastrous. The DLR cannot cope.

Commuters hate it and prospective tenants are wary of moving to Canary Wharf. And this is not the only thing to have gone wrong in Docklands. Years after its airport opened, jet operations have finally been approved, even though it should have been clear from the start that it would need to cater for the British Aerospace 146 commuter jet. The arguments over the Jubilee tube line from Docklands to Waterloo main line station are not yet resolved. A new road will link the top end of the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf with the City. But how will its users penetrate the dense traffic at the multiple junction at Tower Hill? Finally, in August, one of the transport ministers spent a week in Docklands: using what public transport there is including the DLR - which was out of action for most of the time - and came up with that great British remedy: some thing needed to be done. I suspect Paul Reichmann, the head of Olympia and York, wishes he had never had anything to do with Britain and its planners.

Having an effective, accessible capital city has a bearing on the development of the country as a whole. The bungling of the transport links to Docklands mirrors the wider failure to come to terms with Britain's transport needs. The endless jams on the country's still incomplete motorway network; the stop-go approach to British Rail investment; the disgraceful state of the London underground system; the still unresolved battle over the high speed rail link to the Channel Tunnel; the policy until very recently of focusing the development of international scheduled airline routes on London's airports at the expense of the regions; the failure to forecast traffic using the all important M25, which accounts for 14% of the country's motorway traffic, by the sort of margin that would have got any private sector forecaster the sack - all of these reflect the effective breakdown of transport in this country.

Congestion adds millions to industry's costs. The CBI worries that inadequate investment in transport will make it harder for British industry, out on the periphery of Europe, to compete in the European Community market which buys over half our non-oil exports.

If money were the only issue, the answer would be relatively clear. But money is not the greatest problem. Our weakness is how we plan and manage the investment in infrastructure. Too much of the forecasting tends to be done on the basis of national trends.

By relying on figures for national traffic growth, for example, the planners misjudged the regional impact on roads like the M25.

Would it not be better to assume there will be growth and cater for it at the outset by designing motorways that have room to add extra lanes? The other vice is the extraordinarily protracted nature of planning procedures. The process of planning and building a new road can easily take 16 years, of which only two or three are for construction time. There are two culprits to blame for many of these problems. One is the transport department which seems to find a co-ordinated view of transport policy something quite beyond its vision. The abolition of the Greater London Council, leaving no single body responsible for transport planning in the capital, only made more obvious the absence of coordination.

The Treasury's role has been just as wilful. The rules governing investment by bodies like British Rail are long overdue for a shake-up. It is ludicrous that France's state-owned railways can borrow in London's capital markets, while British Rail cannot and has to depend on the public purse. If British Rail cannot be privatised quickly then its financing should be.

What its managers consider commercially reasonable should dictate its investment spending, not the Government's current stance on the level of public spending.

All this points to the need for more privatisation in financing public transport. Some privately financed projects such as the Severn crossing and the Dartford bridge have been launched but they are still too few and far between. Just like telecommunications, airports, power or water, transport is too important to be left entirely to the politicians and the whims of Whitehall.

Roger Eglin is Managing Editor of The Sunday Times.

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