UK: British transport muddles through in a great rail age.

UK: British transport muddles through in a great rail age. - Britain's lack of vision over new European road and rail links is alarming.

by Roger Eglin is managing editor of The Sunday Times.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Britain's lack of vision over new European road and rail links is alarming.

The sign simply read "M20 closed this weekend". Its message turned a late summer journey from south-west London to Folkestone and back into a dour, congested struggle.

Admittedly the M20 was closed for some of the final works linking it to the Channel Tunnel terminal on the edge of Folkestone. But the jams created by the closure were a sharp reminder of the fragility of Kent's transport infrastructure. Dover is not linked to a motorway and the M2 is mostly only two lanes. The railway which will bear the Channel Tunnel traffic is slow and congested. There are no efficient transport links along the south coast to the West. Traffic heading in this direction must join traffic heading north via the M20 to join the already overburdened M25.

Yet this hopelessly inadequate transport infrastructure will be the carrier of what is already the country's biggest trade flow. Over the last 30 years, trade with our EC partners has increased from 22% to 60% of all imports and exports. Much of this has to traverse Kent. But a recent report from the Chartered Institute of Transport only reinforces the conviction that present levels of traffic, never mind the anticipated growth, will be badly served when the tunnel opens next year.

Britain, says the report, faces the danger of becoming "peripheral" as Continental economies look east to the reviving eastern states or south to the Mediterranean sunbelt for its growth opportunities, leaving Britain's economy as a declining economic branch line. In what seems set to become a second, great European railway age, Britain is being left behind. The institute's report, Slow Progress to a Fast Link, which has been sent to the Secretary of State for Transport is deeply critical of the lack of coherent planning for the opening of the tunnel.

First of all, British Rail has to catch up on a massive backlog of under-investment before it can contemplate major new projects. Although on many indicators BR is very efficient in comparison with its European counterparts, it operates in a financial straitjacket. The proportion of income it receives through grant is 21.6% - the lowest of any other principal 32e EC railway - compared with an average of 40% for all of them.

The British approach to planning is just as big a handicap as the lack of money, says the institute. Planning is characterised by long and detailed project appraisals which seldom have any linkage to funding - even if they are approved. This is a good description of the dilemma BR now finds itself in over the high-speed rail link to the tunnel: years of detailed study confounded by a lack of funds.

Our EC partners approach such issues far more constructively. France, for example, has a five-year railway investment plan endorsed by the government with funds either committed or available through access to the capital markets.

Continental planning is more visionary. Studies take a longer view. They are better co-ordinated at national and local level (avoiding, for example, the embarrassment of the number of clashes between BR and Kent county council over the tunnel link) and rather than taking a narrow, financial view, they consider economic and environmental benefits on a wide scale. "The contrast with Britain appears both considerable and invidious," says the institute. One issue that really baffles the institute is the UK government's ambivalent approach to transport planning. Policies endorsed by ministers at EC level, particularly those which see the tunnel as an important element of an "all European transport system", are scarcely considered at national level. The Government is even loth to take up EC grants for an environmentally friendly road/rail freight systems.

European governments already have projects under way or advanced plans to provide road and rail links to exploit the Channel Tunnel. Road links to the tunnel at Calais were completed by the start of September. Paris will be linked to the tunnel by TGV from the day it opens. There will be more high-speed routes linking other cities and an orbital TGV network around Paris.

Building new, high-speed rail routes will make way for more freight services on existing tracks where the SNCF is to spend £100 million improving clearance for large freight wagons. Even if a British high-speed Tunnel rail link is built, it is not clear whether there will be provision for freight traffic. But if it is to share the high-speed link, shallower gradients will be needed, greatly raising the engineering cost. All this remains undecided - as, of course, does the planned route.

The activity in France is only part of the story as a Europe-wide, high-speed network takes shape. By contrast, says the institute, British plans can only be described as "modest". In theory, the rail link through Kent has some capacity available for international freight and passenger services in addition to the existing commuter services. But many who know the line, particularly Eurotunnel chairman Sir Alastair Morton, believe that the slightest hitch could bring major delays that will send business travellers scurrying back to the airlines. If traffic exceeds what many believe are conservative forecasts, the line will not be up to it. MPs have already called for contingency planning but so far to little effect.

On the issue of capacity alone, we are faced with a potentially major planning disaster. But the report identifies many other problems. BR has insufficient funds to improve feeder services in Kent to the tunnel or to provide a link west along the south coast. No strategic view has been taken of the need for terminals catering for the transfer of European freight between road and rail. Some areas will get terminals; others, particularly away from the Midlands and South East, will be disadvantaged. Poor infrastructure provision will increase congestion in the South East. It means that the tunnel, far from benefiting the regions, will make the South East even more of a barrier between them and Europe.

No serious planning consideration has been given to the need to improve track clearances to allow larger Continental freight wagons to work in this country. All we have are feeble mutterings about the cost from a BR stricken by lack of cash. But why build a tunnel without taking into account such associated investment?

The report contains many more criticisms of Britain's "piecemeal" approach. It would be of incalculable value to the UK economy and industry if the Transport Secretary read it and tried to act on it. But only an optimist would expect this. As the French planners admit, the one thing the British are good at is muddling through. It's not surprising. Planning and government indifference to infrastructure needs leaves us with no alternative.

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