UK: Transport and distribution - Will Britain remain the slowcoach of Europe? (2 of 2)

UK: Transport and distribution - Will Britain remain the slowcoach of Europe? (2 of 2) - But if the frustrated road user wants to turn to rail, as Transport Secretary Malcolm Rifkind is now advocating, Britain's rail infrastructure is barely up to scratc

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

But if the frustrated road user wants to turn to rail, as Transport Secretary Malcolm Rifkind is now advocating, Britain's rail infrastructure is barely up to scratch. As every London commuter knows, British Rail has less money lavished upon it than any European railway. The French, Germans and Spanish are busy operating, building or planning new lines capable of 186 mph-plus trains. By contrast, the last major line built in Britain - the Great Central - was completed in 1906. The French TGV network will eventually cover nearly 5,000 miles of track, while the Germans are busy linking their major western cities and planning ambitious extensions into the old East Germany.

Although the Government is now planning a more positive approach to rail transport than was evident under Mrs Thatcher, there is a huge backlog of investment to make up if we are to reach European infrastructure levels. Britain, for example, spends just 0.14% of its gross domestic product on its rail network, compared with Germany's 0.67% of a much larger GDP, or France's 0.66%. In fact Britain is bottom of a Euro league of a dozen countries in terms of rail spending (see table).

Rail spending as a percentage

of gross domestic product 1988

UK (BR) 0.14

Germany 0.67

France 0.66

Italy 0.89

Belgium 0.98

Spain 0.73

British Rail's one virtue is that its subsidy is far less than any other European railway's, reflecting the emphasis on cost cutting and a tough investment regime imposed by the Treasury. The Treasury demands an 8% rate of return on any BR investment project. While this has cut the cost of the railway to the taxpayer, it has meant that worthwhile projects are often held up for years because the figures do not apparently stack up. The £400 million electrification of the east coast mainline, which has just been completed, was only authorised in 1984 after some 30 years of debate. And while councils in the East Midlands are agitating for a similar upgrading of the line from Bedford to Sheffield, BR simply cannot make the sums square to satisfy its Treasury paymasters.

No such inhibitions have blighted the German railway, where its new high-speed line has had so much money lavished on it to satisfy a vociferous environmental lobby, that the whole railway faces near bankruptcy.

This is one reason why BR has not yet been able to start work on a high-speed line from London to the Channel mouth, while the French are forging ahead with a purpose-built line from Paris to Calais, capable of taking trains at a top speed of over 180 mph. It will be the late 1990s, at the earliest, before the matching BR high-speed line will be ready through Kent.

In urban transport, too, Britain lags far behind. Some two thirds of Western European cities, with populations of quarter of a million or more, have some form of urban transit. Outside London only Newcastle with its Metro and Glasgow with its tiny underground can boast anything to match the Europeans, though many British cities are now planning such systems. It is a question of too little too late.

The London Underground, once the envy of the world, is now regarded as a national disgrace. Even its chairman, Wilfred Newton, recently admitted that it needed some £10 billion of spending to bring it up to scratch. New lines are planned, but these will take some years (and considerable disruption to London traffic) to build. Yet through the 1980s, when ridership did soar to new records, not a single metre of new deep-level tube tunnel was dug in the capital.

But this is the city which faces a highly competitive challenge to its lucrative financial services business from Frankfurt and Paris, both of which have invested heavily in new transport facilities in recent years. It was significant that Olympia and York recently put the second stage of its Canary Wharf development in the Docklands on hold, as prospective tenants were wary of committing themselves to a project which lacked easy communications with the rest of the capital.

By contrast, France is ensuring that Charles de Gaulle airport will be connected to the TGV network. Ironically, this could mean that when the Channel tunnel is open, Charles de Gaulle might prove to be a handier airport for Kent residents than Heathrow or Gatwick, both of which are likely to face severe congestion problems of their own at the turn of the century.

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