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Railwatch 084 - June 2000

Choked by perverse policies

Air quality in the UK during 1999 was the worst on record with the number of days in which air pollution exceeded official health standards rising by 20% in urban areas and 53% in rural areas.

The figures take into account combined levels of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, particulates - produced mainly by traffic, especially diesel engines - and carbon monoxide. The figures were compiled by Friends of the Earth, using Government data.

Bad air affects all of us but for the increasing number of people with asthma it is critical. "Over 80% of people with asthma say that traffic fumes make their symptoms worse," said Martyn Partridge, chief medical adviser to the National Asthma Campaign.

After three years in office and despite many promises, the Government still appears reluctant to act decisively. It would do well to give the Strategic Rail Authority funds to allow rail to make a bigger contribution to solving congestion and pollution.

Rail is still not adequately rewarded for the environmental benefits it provides.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is reported to be considering pumping £2billion into the railways in the run-up to the next election. Currently Government investment in rail is running at £1.3billion but it is scheduled to drop to £900million by 2002 and to nothing thereafter.

There are also signs that rail could lose out in the Government's coming comprehensive spending review and its 10-year transport plan to be announced in July. There are even rumours that the 10-year transport plan will give the go-ahead to a big priority programme of road bypasses instead - a particularly perverse way of tackling pollution. It has already increased the likelihood of future pollution by preparing to approve 44-tonne lorries for general use.

Car makers and drivers still seem to command far too much attention. The Longbridge car factory alone has been given £3.5billion by the Government since 1975 in a series of desperate bids to keep it going.

We need more positive action from Government, the Strategic Rail Authority and Railtrack. Rail has the answers to many of the transport problems Britain faces but it is not being allowed to function properly.

At least Sir Alastair Morton welcomed the prospect of a TGV-style upgrade of the East Coast main line, suggested by Virgin. "High speed trains can accelerate the growth of inter-city travel, relieving our congested trunk roads and air routes," Railtrack's network management statement also includes some very positive schemes, including of course the East-West rail link.

But it is still reluctant to commit itself to electrification which provides real and far-reaching improvements to services.

There are now so few rail electrification experts in Britain that Railtrack is having to draft in Indian designers and Australian engineers to work on the West Coast main line upgrade. "The problem is that, since the East Coast electrification project finished 10 years ago, there has been very little electrification work in the UK," said Rob Boulger, managing director of Balfour Beatty Rail Projects.

A note of optimism comes from London Underground's plan to extend the East London line to East Croydon. The power of trains to tackle road congestion is revealed by new figures which show that since the opening of the Jubilee line extension in London, the number of car commuters arriving at Canary Wharf has nearly halved. As many as 16% of people drove there last year but now the figure is down to 8.9%.

The Docklands Light Railway, which also serves Canary Wharf, has a punctuality rate of 98%. By comparison, buses are truly appalling. London Buses have been told to improve their reliability to a pathetic 55%! Instead of trying to introduce busways on rail lines, the Government should allocate more road space in towns and cities to allow buses to run to a timetable.

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