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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 December 2006, 10:54 GMT
Transport policy
On Sunday 03 December, Andrew Marr interviewed Douglas Alexander MP, Transport Secretary

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Douglas Alexander MP
Douglas Alexander MP, Transport Secretary

ANDREW MARR: Well, now we know - the government's transport advisor wants us to pay to use the roads, to pay more to use the busiest roads and to pay a great deal more to drive during the rush hour.

But just how will these charges be organised?

How high will they be, and soon will they come in?

And another thing, what guarantee is there that the public transport alternative - bus and rail travel - will be more reliable and affordable.

The government minister with responsibility for all this is the Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander who joins me now. Welcome, Douglas Alexander.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Good morning Andrew.

ANDREW MARR: Let's start with road pricing. We had the report but what we haven't really had is a response directly from government about what you think.

So can I ask you first of all, in your view, outside London where it already exists in a form at the moment, is road pricing inevitable?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well, let me say I think it's a debate we need to have and I welcome the Eddington study that we had this week as a major contribution to that debate. I think that debate needs to be taken forward on two levels. First of all we need to have discussions like this.

But secondly people need to have more experience of what road pricing actually means in practice. That's why we're encouraging a number of major conurbations, places like Manchester and Birmingham, to bring forward solutions to the congestion challenge that they face.

ANDREW MARR: So we start it in small places and see how it works?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well I think we need the lived experience of drivers informing this. I don't believe that simply the demands of politicians and speeches of transport secretaries would be sufficient to convince the British public who I understand are still sceptical about the merits of road pricing, this could actually be the way forward for the country.

ANDREW MARR: Nonetheless you are Transport Secretary, down there in the old tum, do you think it's going to happen?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well we need to do something. The number of vehicles on our roads have gone up from, what, 26 million in 1997, now it's 33 million. Unless we're going to face the alternative of US-style gridlock with some of our busiest roads simply becoming car parks then action is necessary.

ANDREW MARR: Some people say well actually what we should be doing is building far more roads, because as you know road building has almost stopped in a major way over the last few years.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well the Conservatives tried that and I think most informed commentators realise we can't simply build our way out of the challenge of congestion.

ANDREW MARR: At the moment we've got an economy where almost everybody, one way or another, relies on cars. And that's lots and lots of low income people - nurses who have drive five or ten miles to the hospital, teachers and so on.

To get away from that and into a different economy where we relied less on cars it's going to be incredibly painful and difficult. Do we have to do that, or do we just wait until low emission or no emission transport eventually turns up?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: No. I've always believed that the only circumstances in which road pricing could be judged a success would be if it was partnered with proper investment in public transport, so that people have a real choice as to whether to use their car or to use alternatives.

That's why we've doubled the amount of investment in our transport infrastructures since 1997, we're spending about 33 million and more on our railways and on other systems every week at the moment.

That's why we've seen a massive increase in the number of people choosing to use the railways. Indeed we've seen a rise in bus patronage as well. So public transport is a very, very important component in the overall transport solution we're looking for.

ANDREW MARR: Let's come onto the railways in a minute, in particular. But, still on road pricing, have you any sense of how much it's going to cost, what sort of proportion of a journey is now going to be, would be accounted for by road pricing, and how widespread it would be.

It is something that ultimately you would expect to cover the whole country, even if it starts off in individual cities like Manchester, or Birmingham, or wherever?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: We would be looking at these regional pilots within a timescale of about four to five years, with the possibility of a national scheme in about a decade's time, in the middle of the next decade. In terms of the structure of those schemes, we're working very closely with the regions involved at the moment and they'll be putting bids to my department about July next year.

But ultimately in terms of what a national scheme could look like, that's years away and ultimately we'll have to continue to work on that in the years ahead.

ANDREW MARR: Now, some people watching will be saying, probably shouting at their television screens, hold on a minute, the only way I can get around at the moment is by driving because when I try to use the trains they're absolutely crammed and phenomenally expensive and getting much more expensive.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Of course capacity in our railways is a very considerable challenge. As I say, we've got, what, a billion passengers-plus railway now, the fastest growing railway in Europe. The answer to that as Eddington began to demonstrate this week, I think, is to take forward the kind of sustained investment that we've seen in our railways in recent years.

That means looking at solutions like longer platforms, longer trains, even double-decker trains in part of the country. That's exactly the kind of work that we're taking forward in the department with the industry at the moment.

ANDREW MARR: And how much power do you really have to do that? Because we have, at least in theory, a privatised railway system. Is it not up to Sir Richard Branson and the individual operators to decide whether they're going to have double-decker trains, or have you got the levers and the carrots and so on, to make them revise the way that they run their businesses?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well the merit of the system that we've got to after the botched privatisation of the Tories is that alongside the public investment, very considerable sums that we're putting into the railways now, that is often matched by money coming in from the private sector. I think most people watching this programme would recognise that we need investment both from the public and the private sector if we've to rise to the challenge of capacity as you describe it.

ANDREW MARR: But, can you make them get more people on their trains?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Yes, actually, some of the biggest criticism directed toward the franchising system we operate at the moment, is that we're extracting too much money from private sector companies in terms of the process of taking forward our railways. So it's certainly about money, but it's also about the guidelines that we put down for individual companies bidding for franchises.

ANDREW MARR: And again, I asked you about the timetable on roads. For those people sort of desperately unhappy about their overcrowded, incredibly expensive train journeys at the moment, when can they start to hope for some improvement?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well we're working on this issue all the time, and I fully recognise, although we've got, what, nine out of ten trains now running on time, for people who are frustrated either by trains arriving late or being overcrowded, tomorrow isn't quick enough.

I can assure you within the department we're working on this issue. In the course of next summer when we've got the comprehensive spending review I think we'll have a longer view in terms of the amount of money available to us.

One of the big challenges and changes that we've seen in recent years is that we've now got multi-annual budgets in transport. In the old days of BR which is often romanticised, you were only able to plan on the basis of one year and then the next year. Now we're looking at a much longer time rise which means we can have the infrastructural investment we need.

ANDREW MARR: Let's turn to aircraft. One of the implications of the Eddington report was that you might expand some hub (?) airports like Heathrow which are very important for the economy. But do you see therefore the vast expansion that's planned in these endless regional airports being curbed and brought back? Because if you don't will we just see more and more air travel?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well of course we've seen two major reports in recent weeks, not just the Eddington report, but also the Stern Review. I think they were very closely aligned in their understanding that we do need to both support the needs of a growing economy but on the other hand recognise our environmental obligations.

ANDREW MARR: Fewer flights in the end?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: In just a few weeks' time I'll be setting out to the House of Commons an update on the air transportation White Paper which my predecessor Alastair Darling gave to the House of Commons back in 2003. At that point I'll set out how we strike that balance between our environmental obligations and the needs of a growing economy.

ANDREW MARR: But, you know, for people who travel at the moment. Higher taxes, a higher level of taxation on their tickets is going to be inevitable, isn't it?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well that's ultimately a matter for the Chancellor, in terms of any fiscal measures that would be announced. I think what Stern and indeed Eddington reminded us, this is an international challenge. China's building, what, more than a hundred airports at the moment. You're seeing expansion in other European cities.


DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Carbon doesn't respect international borders.


DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: One is why we support emissions trading as the way forward for the European Union.

ANDREW MARR: One final aircraft-related question. You sit on COBRA, the emergency committee. How is it possible that toxic radioactive substances can be put on British planes and taken from Moscow here, given all the extraordinary security gubbins that we see at every airport. How can that be?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well we have a layered system of security at our airports. Some of which are visible to the public, some of those layers appropriately are not visible. We do have methods by which we can identify radioactive materials, that is only one dimension of that layered security.

ANDREW MARR: But, but somebody seems to have brought radioactive materials onto these planes and shaken them here.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: You'll appreciate I wouldn't want to comment on what's an ongoing police investigation, so let me speak in generalities rather than specifics.

ANDREW MARR: All right.

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: In general terms, of course, as the threat evolves we, in our terms of our response also evolve our response. So I can assure you that we are both conscious of this challenge. We have steps, some of which aren't in the public domain which we're already taking.

ANDREW MARR: OK, can I ask you whether you're stepping up the level of security, given what's happened?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: No, as I say there's a police investigation ongoing at the moment. In terms of what we do at our airports that's a matter which we keep under constant review regardless of individual investigations that are underway.


DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: And I can assure you if we felt there were any steps that needed to be taken we would without hesitation take them.

ANDREW MARR: And are you getting any co-operation, any real co-operation from the Russians?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: Well we've asked for that co-operation and have received assurances. Well Margaret Beckett when she met Foreign Minister Labrov again sought those assurances and received them. When you sit on the COBRA committee you appreciate that quite a lot of the speculation that you read in your newspapers is spectacularly ill-informed.

I think the appropriate response for ministers while this investigation is being taken forward is actually to let the police take forward their job, follow the evidence and the trail where that evidence takes them. And at the same time make sure that we take all necessary steps to maintain the safety and security of the public.

ANDREW MARR: OK. There was an extraordinary column by Will Hutton in The Observer today, I don't know if you saw it, taking about remodelling Whitehall under Gordon Brown, and possibly even breaking up the Treasury, recasting the whole way that we're governed. Is that news to you, or is that the kind of thing you'd quite like to see?

DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: It doesn't surprise me that Will writes these kind of pieces. He's a very fertile and fecund commentator. But I'm not sure he's got the inside track on exactly what any future prime minister might be like..

ANDREW MARR: Oh dear, I rather hoped he had done. OK, well listen, thank you very, very much indeed Douglas Alexander.



NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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