Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Roger Eglin.

The most that can be said of this country's transport ministers is that there have been a lot of them, they do not stay very long and they have achieved very little. The question is whether the latest in the line, the agreeable John MacGregor, can reverse the trend. There are grounds for hope. MacGregor is an intelligent and capable man. He has also had direct work experience in the Treasury, that bleak financial institution whose determination not to distinguish between current and capital spending has done so much to thwart MacGregor's forebears.

Transport in this country is a shambles and likely to get worse. One prime reason is that providing transport infrastructure requires long-term planning. New motorways, runways or railway lines require a decade or more from the start of the planning process through to construction. Ten years happens to be the lifetime of two governments and this country's short-term political process is not up to the management of long-term transport planning. Nor does the Treasury's habit of manipulating long-term capital spending to balance the ebb and flow of short-term public spending help the process. The French, who have been caught up in this muddle since joining the Channel Tunnel project, are appalled by what they see. Our only saving grace in their eyes, according to Alastair Morton, the boss of Eurotunnel, is that we have become reasonably adept at damage limitation when it comes to sorting out the muddle.

If he sticks to the manifesto, MacGregor will focus on privatising BR. This is certainly a good policy to adopt. The best justification for privatisation is that businesses rescued from Whitehall's dead hand usually fly aircraft and make steel or jet engines better than before.

Privatising BR is not the most urgent priority however. The pressing issue is that Britain's transport system has yet to make the adjustment to the new economic geography of Britain. The national transport infrastructure was developed to reflect Britain's historical maritime trading role. Upgrading the west coast main line serving Liverpool and Manchester is still one of BR's priorities; both cities in turn were early in the queue to get good motorway links.

There is no harm in this. The battered North West deserves a boost from better transport. But the urgent priority is making sure that Britain is well and truly linked to the Continent. So far this reorientation is taking place so slowly and painfully that our economic prosperity is in jeopardy. Even now the M20 motorway has only just reached the coast; the M2 has yet to complete the journey. The long overdue Tunnel link will soon be complete but its rail connections will be unsatisfactory for many years to come. The Channel Link terminal taking shape at London's Waterloo station makes an elegant gateway to Europe but the same cannot be said for the clapped-out rail lines that link it to the Tunnel mouth.

While Britain argues, the French are developing high speed rail links with incomparable elan. They need no convincing that economic prosperity follows transport investment. We do - and increasingly risk being left in economic isolation on the periphery of Europe as investment flows to the centre. Anyone who believes that this is alarmist and that complacency can continue to prevail should ask why Disney chose the outskirts of Paris for the site of Europe's biggest single job creation project of the decade. Britain is demonstrably losing out already.

If it were not so tragic, the scene at the Tory party conference in Blackpool last year would have rivalled the Marx brothers for comedy. Malcolm Rifkind, now yet another former transport minister, is poised to announce the route of the high speed rail link between London and the Tunnel. Minutes before he speaks, Morton gets a telephone call at Eurotunnel to say that the announcement will not be what he expects. Sir Bob Reid, the chairman of BR, does slightly better; he got a day or so's warning. What's happened on the way to the microphone is that Rifkind has been railroaded by Michael Heseltine, then the environment minister, who wants the line to go north and revive his flagging Dockland's project.

This is annoying for Morton and Reid but what infuriates them is the statement that the line will not be needed before 2005. Behind this lies the work of the arch-mugger of Whitehall, the Treasury. The argument as it is presented deftly attaches the blame for the not-needed-until-2005 argument to BR. The truth as Morton and Reid will vouch is that, without the new line, the railways of Kent will be in chaos by 1995-96.

The irony of the Tunnel project is that it was driven ahead by Mrs Thatcher who disliked both railways and Europe. If anything, she backed it to show what private rather than public capital could achieve. MacGregor's task is to prove he can complete the job and sort out the planning chaos. He must also convince the Treasury to adopt some more creative financial engineering, particularly when it comes to using public spending as a lever to attract private investors. If he fails, we risk being cut off from our most important market.

Roger Eglin is managing editor of The Sunday Times.

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