The Government must have a strategy for deciding transport priorities if it is keep up with its Continental counterparts.
When the first train a grande vitesse (TGV) leaves Paris for London later this year it will zip across the countryside of northern France at speeds not far short of 200mph.
About an hour-and-a-half later it will enter the Channel Tunnel. Half an hour further on it will emerge into the Kent countryside and crawl past the hop fields and converted oast houses at an average rush-hour speed, straight out of the steam age, of 50mph. It is a speed that hasn't changed since the Golden Arrow was the cutting edge of British technology.
To the French President, Francois Mitterrand, it is a joke: France has a high-speed rail link to connect Paris with the tunnel; Britain does not. And it will not have one this century. It will give, as Mitterrand ironically observed, 'the lucky passengers lots of time to look at the scenery'.
In France the high-speed link for the TGV-nord, the line that links Paris to the Channel Tunnel, opened in June last year. The tunnel, dogged by a row between Eurotunnel, the company which will own and operate the tunnel, and the contractors that built it, is due to have its inauguration ceremony on 6 May. There will be a phased opening throughout the summer - more than a year late. The British high-speed link is a decade late. Its earliest opening date is 2002, although this could slip still further. Michael Roberts, the CBI's transport policy adviser, says that the absence of a high-speed link demonstrates 'in microcosm a lack of a strategic approach'. He says the CBI wants more money to be spent on transport infrastructure of all kinds but he condemns the flawed process for deciding transport priorities: 'We feel that a more strategic approach is needed to develop these priorities.' The problems of Britain's high-speed link began with the approval of the Channel Tunnel. During the abortive attempt to build the tunnel in the 1970s the high-speed link provoked widespread opposition among the defenders of Kent. In parliament, a coalition of environmentalists, shipping interests, Eurosceptics and right-wing Conservatives with a dogmatic dislike of government support for the railways forced through a clause in the Channel Tunnel Act which banned public finance for the link. While Britain agonised about its high-speed link, across the water in France the chief argument was between the citizens of Amiens and Lille: both towns wanted the link.
Building work on the tunnel itself began in 1987. British Rail initially planned a route for the high-speed link which approached London from the south. It was essentially the same route that had proved so unpopular in the 1970s. In 1988 Mrs Thatcher, with one eye on the opinion-poll ratings, personally intervened to pledge extensive tunnelling in an effort to curb the link's unpopularity. One tunnel alone would run for 13 miles from Swanley to King's Cross. The extra tunnelling increased the cost and by March 1989 the cost of the link had gone up from £1.2 billion to £1.7 billion.
The Government also decided that, although the link would be planned by BR, it would be built and financed by a private sector consortium. By March 1990 Trafalgar House, which was heading the consortium selected to build it, said it would need £1 billion from the Government.
In June the then transport secretary, Cecil Parkinson, rejected the scheme and Mrs Thatcher reiterated that there would be no public money for the link. The private consortium collapsed. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Channel, Lille had won the battle to have the TGVs and the French high-speed link was under construction. In Britain another year passed. BR continued planning its link but without any prospect of finding the finance. By 1991 the British government was worried about its unpopularity with a general election approaching. When it realised that several marginal constituencies in south London lay along the original route, it decided to opt for a different one, which approached London from the east. That decision set the planning of the link back by at least three years.
The next stage in the saga was a protracted dither over the London site of the main terminal for the link. BR's original choice was Waterloo. In 1991 it announced that the main London terminus would be King's Cross, which was in the process of being redeveloped.
The new international station at Waterloo would be relegated to a secondary role. A station at King's Cross would enable trains from the Continent to pause in the capital and carry on north to destinations such as Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, with privatisation looming, BR went through a process of reorganisation. A subsidiary, Union Railways, took control of planning the link. At the beginning of 1993 the Treasury began to push for a terminus at St Pancras with an approach along existing overground lines, instead of the tunnel to King's Cross, to cut costs. In his 1993 Budget speech the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, announced that the terminus would be at St Pancras. Several more months passed as the railway engineers refined this route. In France the high-speed rail link opened. In Britain the much-revised plans for a link were presented to transport secretary John MacGregor in October 1993. In January this year MacGregor finally ruled out King's Cross in favour of St Pancras. Trains from the Continent for the north of England, instead of pausing underground at King's Cross, will now have to reverse at St Pancras.
Announcing the link, MacGregor said: 'The project will go ahead on the fastest possible timetable.' Eurotunnel chairman Sir Alistair Morton sounded a note of caution saying: 'I prefer to believe John MacGregor when he says this finally is the route.' For there are still pitfalls. The link has yet to be approved by parliament. It will also cost up to £3 billion, with a substantial - and still unknown - sum coming from the public purse.
The lack of a high-speed link is currently the subject of a legal dispute between Eurotunnel and the British, Belgian and French railways. The issue is not the speed of the trains but the lack of spare capacity on the crowded commuter lines of south east England. The railways signed a contract with Eurotunnel in 1987 to take half the capacity of the tunnel.
The absence of the link means that there is not enough room on the existing tracks to run enough trains to use half the capacity of the tunnel - short of throwing Kent commuters off their trains. Under the terms of the contract, Eurotunnel has taken this dispute to arbitration.
Andrew Pharoah of the British Road Federation points out that the French have built three motorways to serve the Channel Tunnel and argues that more money should be spent on both roads and railways. 'The real European lesson is that they give a higher priority to transport than we do,' he believes.
But while the rail link has been shunted from siding to siding the roads have been built with barely a hitch. In Britain many of the roads were built in the 1970s, in time for the last Channel Tunnel, which was cancelled in 1975. There was one missing link - the M20 motorway between Ashford and Maidstone. This stretch was shelved in the early 1980s because, without the Channel Tunnel, there was not enough traffic to warrant a motorway. Once the tunnel was approved the plans were taken off the shelf and accelerated. The Ashford to Maidstone section of the M20 was completed in 1991 - two years before the tunnel was then due to open.
Even with this road the lack of any strategic thought shows. New motorways are often sited next door to railways to minimise disruption to local communities and to reduce any loss of land. When the DoT approved the M20 it knew that a high-speed railway link was being planned on much the same route. However, the line of the road is not one that can be followed closely by the rail link because motorways can follow tighter curves than railways can. Consequently, when the link is finished there will be narrow strips of blighted waste land between the link and the motorway.
The core of the problem is that Britain does not have a transport policy. The last White Paper on transport was published in 1977, under a Labour government. However, Britain does have a road-building policy, with clearly defined objectives, designed to meet a forecasted increase in traffic of up to 142% (from 1988 to 2025). Britain plans to spend £23 billion on building new roads under this programme. In all, the country is currently spending just under 1% of its Gross National Product on its roads, about the same level of expenditure as Italy and West Germany and substantially more than France. On the railways it is a two-speed Europe with Britain firmly lodged on the stopping service. Since 1981 the French have built three completely new lines for their TGVs. Italy has built one new line. In 1992 Germany opened two high-speed lines. In 1993 Spain opened its first high-speed line from Madrid to Seville. Britain has not built a comparable new line since the first world war.
Investment in Britain's railways is extremely low by European standards. In some years in the 1980s there was more railway investment in the Paris Metro than in British Rail. The Netherlands and Switzerland invest more in railways than Britain does. In 1991 France and Italy invested roughly six times more and Germany nearly five times more.
Stephen Joseph, the director of the public transport pressure group, Transport 2000, points out that all of Europe's railways have their investment plans. But there is one crucial difference that marks out Britain from the rest. In France, for example, the SNCF's current five-year plan (which finishes at the end of this year) envisages spending nearly £10 billion on investment. British Rail, too, has its investment plans. It wants to spend £10 billion over 10 years. Joseph says that the difference is not just that BR's plans are more modest than those of France, Germany or Italy, but, unlike the others, BR's plans do not have any government endorsement. Britain's only railway policy is privatisation.
Joseph says that an important difference between Britain and Europe is that Europe 'not only has a planning framework but there are also the financial mechanisms to carry out the policy'. The British government has been trying to create one such mechanism: it wants to inject private finance into transport. Roberts says that the CBI supports this proposal, provided that the private sector is providing new money, in addition to - not instead of - the public sector's contribution.
Since the late 1980s the Government has made private sector finance a condition of any major investment in public transport as well as trying to attract money for new roads. There has been one notable success, the Dartford bridge, a couple of mixed results - the Channel Tunnel itself and the Heathrow Express - and two resounding flops - the high-speed rail link to the Channel Tunnel and the London Underground Jubilee Line extension.
The Heathrow Express is being financed 70% by the privately owned British Airports Authority. But despite this success, the story of links to Heathrow has uncomfortable parallels with the saga of the high-speed rail link to the Channel Tunnel. Heathrow is one of the world's biggest airports, handling 48 million passengers a year. With a large volume of traffic moving from the airport to central London - and the majority of passengers using the airport do not have cars - this transport corridor is ideally suited to public transport.
Ever since London's airport moved to Heathrow after the second world war there has been talk of a rail link to London. Yet, like the Channel Tunnel, the roads came first. The M4 arrived in 1963; the M25 opened in 1986. In the 1970s the Government turned down an exclusive rail link in favour of extending the Piccadilly line two stops to Heathrow. But the Underground is far from ideal. It is slow - taking three-quarters of an hour to travel the 13 miles into central London - and the space for luggage is inadequate.
The British Airports Authority says that it wants to encourage more passengers to use public transport to reduce the airport's impact on the environment. The Government belatedly approved the Heathrow Express. It succeeded in raising finance from the private sector but at the cost of delaying the project while negotiations with the BAA were finalised. The Heathrow Express, once expected to open in the early 1990s, will not now open until 1997.
Private sector finance for transport raises two problems. First, as Roberts points out, it is going to be easier to involve the private sector when the users are the chief beneficiaries - as in the Dartford bridge. It is likely to be more difficult when the beneficiaries are not users. A new underground line, for example, raises property values along the route, but there is no mechanism for setting this benefit against the cost of construction. Second, private sector finance could end up dictating transport policy.
When the redevelopment of Docklands was first mooted everyone agreed that public transport in the area had to be improved - although one of the first acts of the new government in 1979 had been to axe the extension of the Jubilee Line to Docklands. Instead the Government approved the spending of £77 million on a new, cut-price, high-tech railway: the Docklands Light Railway.
The property firm, Olympia and York, decided to build Canary Wharf in 1987. Even before the deal was signed the London Docklands Development Corporation had approved a new highways strategy, of building some £650 million of new roads in Docklands by 1993, including the one-mile Limehouse Link which, at £340 million, is the most expensive road ever built in Britain. In all the Government and the Corporation are spending around £2.5 billion on new roads in the area.
The best of many jibes about the light railway is that it is better suited to toy town than to Docklands. From the moment the Queen got stuck in one of the trains at the ceremonial opening the railway has acquired an unenviable reputation for unreliability. For the last five years it has not run at night or at weekends. Its cost has soared to almost £800 million. It is on its second computer, its fifth managing director, its second owner and has had a completely new set of trains. Top civil servants from the MoD have been drafted in to try to sort out the railway. Even so the railway is among the most heavily subsidised public transport services in the country. It costs 62p in subsidy to carry each passenger one mile.
The Docklands Light Railway was not capable on its own of providing the public transport service that the large-scale office development required. The answer was to resurrect the Jubilee Line extension plans. But the Government insisted that there would have to be a contribution from the private sector towards the £1.7 billion Jubilee Line. The discussions produced further delay.
At the height of the property boom. Olympia and York was willing to pay £400 million towards the cost of the line. Then came the property crash - and more delay. It was not until the autumn of 1993 that the administrators, who are currently in charge of running the development, agreed to pay £100 million now (financed by a loan from the European Investment Bank) and the remaining £300 million spread over 24 years, in the hope that the prospect of the line opening in 1997 may help them let the rest of Canary Wharf. This insistence on private finance has delayed the high-speed rail link, the Heathrow Express and the Jubilee Line by about five years each.
Again there is a marked contrast between France and Britain. The superiority of the Paris Metro over London's underground system is a cliche. But in the past 30 years the French have built four lines of an entirely new express metro network, as well as countless extensions to the metro itself. These express metro lines link suburban rail services by burrowing under the city centre. During this time London has extended the Piccadilly line to Heathrow, it has built the Docklands Light Railway and it is extending the Jubilee line to Docklands. The only development comparable to the Parisian express metros is BR's Thameslink service.
When aeroplanes arrive in a country the captain routinely tells passengers the local time so that they can adjust their watches. When the first travellers from Paris arrive in London later this year on the TFVA (train a faible vitesse en Angleterre) they might easily be told to set their clocks back 50 years.