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Railwatch 086 - November 2000

Reward for road lobby bullies

For the second year running, rail was completely ignored in the pre-Budget statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 8 November. Instead more than £2billion was dished out to road hauliers who stopped some train and bus services and caused widespread problems when they blockaded oil supplies in September.

Yet as the Government's own statistics show, it is rail and bus travellers who have seen their costs rise while cars and lorries have been protected. Even though the tax on lorries fails to recover the cost of the damage they do, the Chancellor has reduced their vehicle excise duty by about £750 a year and cut their fuel costs. That will make it even more difficult for rail freight to compete.

FACTS THE GOVERNMENT AND FUEL PROTESTERS IGNORE: Bus and train travellers have fared much worse from price rises over the past 25 years than car drivers. This chart comes from the Government's 10-year plan which was only published four months ago.

An official study published in September showed that each big lorries causes about £28,000 worth of damage each year while contrubuting only £25,000 in tax and excise duty.

RDS investigations show that the discrepancy is even greater if all the environmental damage lorries do is taken into account. Friends of the Earth agrees.

In the same pre-budget statement the Chancellor gave £1billion to inner cities ignoring the fact that his concessions to the road lobby will worsen the inner cities' biggest problem - pollution and congestion caused by too much traffic. European studies now show that air pollution - mainly particulates from road vehicles - kills more people than road crashes.

Last year 3,423 people, half of them pedestrians and cyclists, were killed on Britain's roads.

The pollution is blamed for causing 15,000 new cases of chronic bronchitis in adults and 290,000 bronchitis attacks in children, along with 500,000 asthma attacks*

Yet the cost of owning and operating a car is now 30% less than it was in the 1960s when average incomes are taken into account. Many car drivers are still using gas guzzlers and inappropriate four-wheel drive "play" vehicles while complaining about the cost of fuel. Rail fares meanwhile have soared by 21% in real terms from 1987.

And several other European countries are making financial concessions to road haulage despite warnings from the the European Transport Commissioner Loyola de Palacio that the handouts are undermining attempts to reduce Europe's reliance on unsustainable road transport.

Heavy lorries are more than just an ugly feature of modern life. The ozone hole over the Antarctic is the largest it has ever been - 28 million square miles, bigger than the United States. The September fuel crisis did however boost revenue for rail operators but highlighted the fact that train fares are high, there are not enough trains to cope with a big switch of people from cars and more track capacity needs to be provided. The railway did not impress many car drivers by its failure to maintain a punctual, comfortable and reliable service and its failure to provide proper public information. Drivers discovered how cramped and unsuitable many rail vehicles are.

Along with the three serious train crashes at Hatfield, Ladbroke Grove and Southall, it has highlighted the failure of the privatised railway to provide a safe, comfortable, value-for-money rail service.

Railtrack has proved itself better at generating profits than maintaining the network. What can we show for all the public money it has soaked up since its creation? There are more cost-effective ways of running the railway, and perhaps a democratically elected government should be trying harder to give rail users a greater say in how the railway should be run.

One idea is that government investment in the railway could go direct to Railtrack in return for shares. A £2.5billion investment would probably give the Government a 51% stake in Railtrack. It could then be converted into a public trust with better terms of reference.

It has been argued that the market has completely failed to come up with real answers for improving the railway. New trains are often inadequate, fares are still too high and electrification which benefits everyone has been dumped. Three years after its election, even a Government supporter cannot say that it has got its transport policy sorted out.

* The Lancet September 2000 Vol 356, pp795-801 www.thelancet.com/journal

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