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Railwatch 087 - March 2001

Rail, the sustainable way

Martin Smith represents RDS on the South East Forum for Sustainability, which is an umbrella organisation for over 200 environmental and community groups concerned with sustainable development in south east England. He reports on how bodies promoting development in the region are encouraged to do so in a sustainable way. The aim is to bring environmental issues to the heart of the decision-making processes.

One of the most important issues for all of us is the expansion of airports in the south east, such as the proposed new runway for Gatwick. The aviation industry forecasts that air traffic will treble in the next 30 years, requiring the equivalent of a new Heathrow every five years. Will the Government pursue the same "predict and provide" policy that has always been applied to road building? The prospect of concreting over more acres of scarce land for additional runways, more noise pollution and atmospheric pollution, and the increasing risk of mid-air collisions in the overcrowded skies of south east England is horrifying. Aircraft emissions cause more damage to the ozone layer than motor vehicle exhausts and contribute to man-made climate change.

The plain fact is that air transport is too cheap. Aircraft fuel is exempt from taxation. Landing charges are heavily subsidised by the profits from airport shopping outlets. It is obvious that the economics of transport are skewed in favour of air, when supermarkets can sell fresh New Zealand lamb imported by air freight at the same price as British lamb.

Diverting more international flights to regional airports could to some extent reduce the pressure on the London airports. However, if the railways got their act together and provided better rail links to airports, it would reduce the need for short-distance internal feeder services, and the railways should be able to compete more effectively for short- and medium-distance domestic traffic.

Channel Tunnel rail services are under-utilised and too expensive. Eurostar now has 46% of London-Paris traffic, but the Brussels trains are running half-empty.

Eurostar has failed abysmally to promote rail services for travel to destinations beyond Paris and Brussels, has defaulted on its undertaking to provide services north of London, and has decided that there is no market for overnight sleeper services from Glasgow and Plymouth to Paris. There is surely a potential market for sleeper services from London to destinations such as Frankfurt or Zurich.

South east England is considered to be a boom area, with full employment and high wages, but its economy is not sustainable. House prices and the cost of travel are so high that essential services such as public transport, hospitals and schools cannot attract enough suitably qualified staff. It is not for us in the RDS to find solutions for all the problems of the south east, but we are convinced that cheap and good public transport is an essential element of sustainable development.

The consultants on the Access to Hastings Multi Modal Study presented their final report and recommendations to the Regional Assembly on 4th December, which was to be considered by the South East England Regional Assembly planning committee on 10 January and presented to the plenary meeting on 14 February for approval as the Assembly's advice to the DETR. SEFS has expressed disquiet that such a short timescale prevents public discussion of the report.

The proposals for rail development include: a Bexhill-Ore Metro service with four trains an hour; a new station at Glyne Gap; Ashford-Hastings electrification; enhanced local rail service between Wadhurst and Tonbridge. Regrettably, the Transport Advisory Group decided to recommend Strategy 13 which includes the controversial A259 Hastings western and eastern bypasses which would cut through an area of outstanding beauty and two sites of special scientific interest, and would involve significant loss of ancient woodland.

Don't they realise carrying more traffic by rail would remove the need for new roads? The Road Traffic Reduction Act which was passed by the last Parliament with all-party support is now a dead letter, John Prescott has reneged on his promise to reduce road traffic in five years, and Lord Macdonald wants to spend £60 billion on new roads.

Currently, SEFS is concerned with three specific issues in the south east: Associated British Ports' proposal for a new container port at Dibden Bay; the Access to Hastings Multi-Modal Study and coastway traffic; and airports policy in the region.

SEFS provides a channel for communication with the Government Office for the South East and the South East England Development Agency, and has representatives in SEERA and its transport advisory group.

Our concern in RDS is to ensure that rail is the core of sustainable transport policy.

Note: contact details (postal and email addresses, along with telephone numbers) in old editions of Railwatch out of date. Click CONTACT US for latest contact details.

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