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Railwatch 077 - October 1998

Golden opportunity for rail

By Jonathan Bray

Reading the Government's long-awaited transport White Paper was to mix elation and frustration - elation that at long last we have a transport policy that reflects and endorses the pro-public transport arguments that we have all campaigned on for so long; frustration over the failure to take so many of the tough policy decisions that naturally flow from the White Paper's recognition that the tide of growth in road traffic has to be turned.

But the chief significance of this document is that the seal of the Crown has now been put on the shift in attitudes on transport that have taken place over the last five years or so.

Cast your mind back and remember that only a few years ago we had a Department of Transport devoting most of its resources to an epic roads programme designed to widen motorways to between eight and 14 lanes and transform most major 'A' roads into what would pass for a motorway in much of Europe.

We had a public transport policy that saw bus and rail as troublesome drains on the public purse - industries destined for inevitable and painful decline. Cycling was perceived as a safety problem not a serious form of transport and as for the idea of a policy for walking - laughable.

Contrast that with a White Paper which sets official targets for increasing cycling; wants to make it easier to walk rather than drive; brands the bus as 'racehorse not workhorse'; leaves the road programme in tatters and expects rail to thrive not just survive.

As ex-transport minister Steve Norris put it, this is "the most profound change to any Department of State in any sphere of Government over the last thirty or forty years." The ideological battle over transport policy is over - and our side won.

The political battle for transport policy is now under way. That's what the White Paper is all about - trying to make the new consensus on transport policy politically acceptable to ordinary people - and particularly swing-voting 'Mondeo man'!

So what are the major features of the White Paper? First and most importantly, local authorities are where the action will be over the next few years. The Government is not yet prepared to push through radical ideas like road pricing at a national level. It wants go-ahead local authorities to experiment first.

Every local authority will produce a five year transport plan. If it meets the Government's criteria for tackling traffic then increased funding will follow.

Cities like Edinburgh, Leicester and York will be given their head to go further and introduce local parking taxes or road pricing to fund better public transport and priority measures for cycling and walking. It cannot be over-emphasised how important it is for local authorities to get it right.

If we have several British cities with popular, working radical transport policies - polices that combine more cycling and walking with excellent public transport and measures to deter car use - then it will give the Government the courage to make the same moves on a national basis. If local councils make a mess of it then we could all be back to square one.

The bus, pedestrians and cyclists are the biggest winners from this White Paper. I don't want to upset Railwatch readers, but the bus is the Government's most favoured form of public transport. Why? Because improving bus services is relatively cheap and quick.

The buzzwords are Integration and Partnership. The White Paper wants all forms of transport to work together and it wants transport schemes to be the product of consensus and partnership.

What does this mean for rail campaigners? The local authority five-year transport plans will be crucial. Make sure your rail projects are integral to your local authority's transport strategy.

Build consensus and wide support for your rail plans. Think 'Partnership'. Focus on the most cost-effective rail schemes. The Government and local authorities will be comparing rail with the number of cycle and bus priority schemes they could get for the same money. Make sure too that rail schemes include excellent interchanges and are plugged into wider bus, pedestrian and cycling networks. New rail schemes stand the best chance of going ahead when they are seen as both the spine for, and symbol of, wider transport changes.

For all its faults the White Paper will be the foundation for all the transport changes we will see over the next few years. If advocates of radical transport policies can begin to turn rhetoric into a reality that is popular at a local and regional level then A New Deal for Transport could turn out to be the forerunner of a more radical national transport policy after the next General Election.

Jonathan Bray is a member of the RDS national executive and campaigns director of Save Our Railways.

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