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Thursday, June 4, 1998 Published at 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK


Business: The Economy

New Labour, new transport policy?

Will the White Paper combat the ever increasing throngs of traffic?

John Dodgson, of the consulting group National Economic Research Associates, wonders whether the White Paper on transport policy which is due out soon will mean new Labour, new transport policy.

June will see the publication of the government's much-awaited White Paper on transport policy, as well as a White Paper from the European Commission on transport pricing.

Will they herald a major change in transport policy, or will it be "business as usual"?


[ image: Filling up going up]
Filling up going up
In Britain the transport system is under increasing strain. Congestion on the roads is a major problem, imposing additional costs, according to NERA's own estimates, of £7bn a year in increased time and operating costs for business and private motorists.

Rail traffic too is growing as a result of economic prosperity and a revival in rail freight.

But there is increasing concern about passenger train punctuality, and about the ability of the network to cope with future demands.

Economists have seen solutions to transport problems at least partially in terms of pricing, to make effective use of available capacity.

Proposals for road congestion charging date back at least to the Smeed Committee Report of 1964.

By requiring road users to take account of the congestion they impose on others, such schemes would reduce resources consumed in the road network, and create net economic benefits.

Biting the bullet

Economists have been able to convince each other that road pricing in congested areas is a sensible solution, but have had limited success with other groups. Road users can only be persuaded to travel less if they have to pay more, and no politician has yet been prepared to risk the possible electoral implications of this.


[ image: Tardy passenger trains to face tough demands]
Tardy passenger trains to face tough demands
A real test of the British White Paper will therefore be whether it leads to congestion charging in practice.

Even if it delegates powers to local authorities and permits them to retain revenues, local authorities may still be concerned that road pricing in their own area might lead to loss of business to adjacent areas.

Introduction of congestion charges as a fiscal instrument would add to this (and the last) government's use of the fuel tax to attempt to reduce road use and fossil fuel consumption to contribute to Britain's now very ambitious targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Other options

If the government swerves away from congestion charging, and if EC pricing proposals prove to have little impact in practice, what are the alternatives?

One policy likely to continue is the better traffic management measures which have contributed in the past to the growth in the capacity of the road network.


[ image: 'Traffic calming' is one way out of the jam]
'Traffic calming' is one way out of the jam
In recent years there has been a welcome emphasis on measures known as "traffic calming", which improve the environmental quality and safety of roads in towns.

Utilisation of the rail network may also improve as Railtrack gets used to a more market-based system of track capacity allocation methods.

Another solution is continuing investment. The Rail Regulator and Railtrack are continually disputing whether Railtrack is planning to invest sufficiently in the rail network.

While the government's Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment (Sactra) is currently investigating whether there are additional benefits of transport infrastructure projects which are not captured in benefits to traffic, current social rates of return from new roads are high.

It is difficult to believe that there should not continue to be significant investment in new and improved roads, subject of course to local environmental safeguards.

Less convincing are suggestions that solutions lie mainly in switches from private to public transport, and from road to rail. Both have a role to play, especially in the most congested urban areas, but neither can make a major dent in the expected growth of road traffic as set out late in 1997 in the official National Road Traffic Forecasts.

Even with significant impacts in new technology in increasing teleworking and teleconferencing, road traffic will continue to grow.



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