Britannia rules neither roads nor rail and matching Europe's infrastructure will call for vast sums, says Philip Beresford.
When the AA totted up the cumulative effect of the traffic jams on the M25 last year, it concluded that they would have stretched from London to Moscow. More ominously, Britain's newest and busiest motorway - a byword for hopeless planning and forecasting - recorded a 50% increase in the number of traffic incidents in 1990.
The M25, of course, will be the front line motorway in the brave new world of European travel beckoning with the Channel tunnel. And that particular project has moved from being a music hall joke to a certainty now that the last of its three tunnels has but a few metres left to be dug. But what sort of shape is Britain's transport infrastructure in to meet the European challenge?
In a word, appalling. On virtually ever score, Britain lags behind its major European rivals. The Confederation of British Industry, for example, estimated that in 1989 alone the congestion on Britain's roads - a national arterial sclerosis - was costing some £15 billion a year. In London and the South-east alone the figure was £10 billion. Saving this would, in turn, knock £10 a week off the average British household's bills.
There seems little relief in sight for motorists, despite a government commitment to a £12 billion road building programme. The Treasury, already facing a severe squeeze on public spending, may be tempted to take its axe to the programme, particularly if this can be dressed up as an environmentally sensitive measure.
But cutting back on road spending has already proved to be shortsighted. A spending squeeze in the mid-1970s meant that motorway maintenance was sorely neglected, needing expensive reconstruction much earlier than planned. A National Audit Office report warned that, despite Government efforts in recent years to speed up motorway repairs, the growth of traffic meant that the maintenance programme was falling behind.
Yet over the next 30 years pressure on available road space will increase. Official forecasts show a growth ranging from 83% to 142%, which would mean, at best, the M25 traffic jams in the next century moving past Moscow to reach Novosibirsk in Siberia. At worst, the Chinese border would be in sight.
Perhaps the starkest contrast between Britain's woeful infrastructure and the continent's more generous funding can be seen in the approach to the Channel tunnel. Recently Britain managed to fill in the missing link to the M20 motorway through Kent. This will actually be the only direct motorway from the tunnel to the rest of the country. In France some three new motorways are being built to connect with the tunnel by 1997. The French are planning a 250% growth in the size of their motorway network, ensuring that every corner of the country is connected to Paris by motorway.
Although European comparisons are notoriously unreliable, it does seem that we spend far less on our roads infrastructure (see table). The Germans, with their highly developed autobahn network, do well, spending some £9,849 per kilometre of road in 1987 (the latest available statistics). Against an EC average of £6,947, Britain can manage just £4,975.
Moreover, much of Britain's road infrastructure is in the wrong place for the new European markets opening up. The Merseyside and Manchester conurbations teem with motorways in all directions - a legacy of Wilson Government pump-priming - yet the much more congested South-east has to make do with the M25 and its spokes, such as the M1 and M2 etc. Missing links in the motorway chain will take years to finish.
The upgrading of the A1 will provide motorway status for its entire length, thus completing a proper motorway from London to the North-east, but the time lag involved puts the huge petrochemicals complex on Teesside at a competitive disadvantage. Similarly, decent cross-country connections to the east coast ports were non-existent for years, and even today the dual carriageway routes to Felixstowe and Harwich fall far short of motorway status.
Road spending as a percentage
of gross domestic product 1987
EC average 0.597