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Railwatch 077 - October 1998

No time to waste

By Mike Crowhurst and Nat Taplin

A coalition of environmental and other organisations is urging the Government to press on with legislation to implement the policy changes outlined in the White Paper on integrated transport.

The groups, including RDS, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair after a series of press reports that the Government was unwilling to introduce the necessary laws during the next session of Parliament.

The letter urges Mr Blair to include a commitment to set up the strategic rail authority in the Queen's Speech which opens the new Parliament in November.

The other organisations which signed are the Civic Trust, the Consumers' Association, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Friends of the Earth, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Sustrans, Townswomen's Guild and Transport 2000.

The groups warn that if the measures are delayed, the wrong signals will be sent out to local government, business and the general public. A change in travel habits would then be harder to achieve.

Although it is clear that some changes are happening without the proposed authority being set up, RDS is concerned more time will be wasted.

It is also clear that there are people within the Government who would like to nullify the effects of the White Paper.

There have been repeated reports that Mr Blair, fearful of losing votes at the next election, does not want to upset the motorist.

Even Transport Secretary John Prescott who is doing his best to usher in a new golden age of public transport has been scoffed at for having two Jaguar cars.

Welsh Transport Minister Peter Hain is reported to be an unabashed motoring fan who drives a BMW turbo car and often attends Formula One races. Let's hope the noise of screaming engines does not affect his judgment.

All those good intentions in the White paper now depend on the determination of the Government to bring forward speedy measures to put good intentions into effect.

There are already signs that a second rolling stock investment famine is looming, just like the one caused by privatisation.

The public is more ready than the Government to accept change in the transport world but needs the Government to take a lead.

The White Paper offers a reasonable balance between carrots and sticks. But much will be left to local councils which may get cold feet for fear of losing trade.

One priority for action by local transport authorities should be integrating bus and rail fares, ticketing and information services.

The national bus and rail information service will be welcomed by rail users.

Let us hope that the staff know what they are talking about! Perhaps the Government should put Barry Doe, who has published his own guides to bus and rail, in charge.

ICL has already been given a contract from the Association of Train Operators to merge three existing systems - fares, timetables and reservations - into one. The new RJIS (rail journey information system) is expected to receive 70 queries a minute.

Of course the strategic rail authority has the biggest opportunity to make a difference. At the moment, we do not have an integrated rail system let alone an integrated transport system. A job for former Network South East chief Chris Green perhaps.

The SRA might be persuaded to give grants for new trains, to improve staff levels or to provide more flexible space on trains for prams, bikes and luggage. It must also reactivate the electrification programme which has enormous potential for improving services and the environment, even though few franchisees are interested in it for their own selfish financial reasons. Even Railtrack seems to have lost interest.

The SRA will also have to give a push to reopening schemes which have been held up by bickering over costs between the Government, operators, Railtrack, the Franchise Director and local authorities.

We have also had to wait too long for the big schemes. With luck we will have Thameslink 2000 and the Channel Tunnel fast link by 2008! They should have been completed 10 years ago.

CrossRail (first proposed in 1947) and the Chelsea-Hackney line are not even on the horizon.

And the Government has not dismissed, as it should have done, ridiculous talk from the car industry about solving pollution problems with clean engine technology and electronic gizmos to cram more traffic on to the roads.

The car industry made similar promises 30 years ago and failed to deliver.

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