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Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 14:02 GMT
Transport: Lord MacDonald quizzed

With a general election looming, Labour continues to grapple with its transport policy.

Lord MacDonald, minister responsible for transport, joined the BBC's transport correspondent Simon Montague and answered a selection of your questions in a live forum.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:



Dave Walton, Abingdon, Oxon:

I believe privatisation has been a disaster for the railways, and has made it nearly impossible for any Government to implement a coherent transport policy. The only solution is to take Railtrack back into public ownership - like every other country in the world. If the Government is not prepared to do this in one go, they should insist on being given shares in Railtrack for every pound of taxpayers' subsidy that it receives over and above the original Tory plans.

Lord MacDonald:

I have a lot of sympathy for what Dave has said. It was a privatisation that clearly was bodged and broke the railway into more than one hundred different entities and it has been very difficult to bring coherence to that. After five years, we are beginning to try and get the system sorted out with the new strategic rail authority and with a tougher regulator. However, we are still looking at another couple of years of upheaval while legislation is put through. It would not be a simple matter to take the pieces of the fragmented network and put them all back together again - it would cost upwards of 5billion just to re-nationalise Railtrack alone and that is only one part of the whole network. I believe that that money would be better spent on investment in the railways over the years ahead. But I do agree that where there has been this fragmentation, we must have coherence.

Andy Millward, Broxbourne, UK

Sunday night's Panorama programme on the railway system made it quite clear that the commercial pressures and lack of confidence in the rail system make the assumptions for 34bn of private funding behind the Government's rail investment programme unrealistic, and that Railtrack is actually cutting its projects. If the Government is committed to the railways, why not fund it directly? With a large budget surplus surely there has never been a better time.

Lord MacDonald:

Just to put it in context, we inherited plans from the previous government that virtually eliminated any public investment in the railways. What we intend to do is to maintain public investment over the next ten years. A lot of that investment will go into what we call revenue investment that will go through the strategic rail authority and it also goes to subsidise the social aspects of the train operating companies.

Tony Chamier, Crawley, UK:

Integrated transport means "joined up". Why have we not made the modest investment in quality station car parks across the rail network? My local station car park is just a sea of mud and we still have to pay to park my car there.

Lord MacDonald:

I agree with that. I am told that there are over 400 car parks that now have safety cameras etc. on them - but we have been trying to go for a much more integrated systems. We have currently got 120 park-and-ride schemes in our new local transport plans. If you look at the ten year transport plan we have - 180 billion over ten years - two-thirds of that goes to public transport and one-third of it goes to roads. But to stay on the public transport side, 60 billion in total goes into the pubic transport sector and we believe that will make a huge difference, especially to local councils. What that buys is the sort of integration that you are after at local level.

Rob Newall, London, UK:

I travel to work on the tube everyday and can see that it could be a wonderfully convenient and efficient system. Why is it that after four years the Government has yet to make any significant investment in the tube?

Lord MacDonald:

I think he is simple wrong about there being no significant investment in the tube. The figures, from memory, are about 500 million a year of government money going into the tube. I think in total there has been about 3.4 billion going into the tube since we came into power in 1997 until the end of this year. However, if you look at the figures that we inherited, the previous administration were trying to phase out that investment in the tube. We have completed the Jubilee Line - which was done at the end of last year and that has made a difference to the capacity of the tube.

It is still a difficult time but the key problems we are dealing here is the problem of growth. Since coming to power we have created a million jobs - that means a million people trying to get to their workplace - that is a million more journeys ever morning than there was four years ago. It is very demanding but we have come at it with the public/private partnership. We are in discussion with Bob Kiley, who has been brought in as a commissioner for transport in London by the new mayor and we are trying to work out with Bob Kiley as how best we go forward inside that public/private partnership.

Robin Clark, Toulouse, France:

Will Britain ever have a decent public transport system?

Lord MacDonald:

There are a lot of very admirable things about the British transport system with the tube being still very highly regarded by Londoners. I saw a survey recently where the public transport system in London came third or fourth when people were asked to list the best things about London.

About 50 or 60 per cent of Londoners travel by public transport into the centre of town whereas if you go out to the provincial cities in Britain it would only be about 15 per cent. People are very dependent on public transport and some of the systems work pretty well for people. So I don't accept that we have got a dreadful public transport system. I accept that it is one that has to be improved and that is why that two-thirds of the 180 billion in our ten-year plan is going to improve public transport.

Darren Hector, Poole, Dorset;

John Prescott said that if there weren't fewer journeys by car within five years he will have failed. Given recent events have driven even more traffic onto the roads, has he failed?

Lord MacDonald:

That is a disputed quotation. Sometimes these things are put in quotations as though that is exactly how it was said. John Prescott would argue that what he was talking about is reducing the rate of growth in traffic.


No he didn't. He said he would have failed in five years time if there were not far fewer journeys by car - he said it was a tall order but urged people to hold him to it.

Lord MacDonald:

We have many other statements - in our manifesto and also what we said in our White Paper. If you look at all the formal documents of the party, it is quite clear that the Government statements have referred to the rate of growth in traffic and John Prescott has been trying to make that clear for a long time.


He wishes he hadn't said it you mean?

Lord MacDonald:

It is one that keeps recurring because whatever the context of it, we want to make it quite clear we were talking about reduction in growth. Now the truth is that in a lot European countries people own more cars than they do per head in Britain but they use them less and that is partly because they might have better public transport systems, their countries are built differently and so on. But what we are trying to do is reduce traffic growth - in the last year traffic growth is below one per cent. Now in recent years it has been running at two per cent and we thought that was pretty low in comparison with the kind of rates we had in previous periods of economic growth which were four per cent and eight per cent under the Conservatives.

So we are bringing traffic growth down and also we are concentrating on what is bad about the car. Make no mistake, we are pro-car - cars are very convenient and it is not an accident that 90 odd per cent of journeys are made by car. It is because they are very convenient, they are safe and people feel secure inside them and therefore we are not challenging people's right to use the car. What we are saying is that we will try to improve the choice and we will reduce what is bad about the car - accidents associated with the car, congestion and pollution. So it is the bad outcomes of car ownership that we are against - we are not anti-car per se.

Toby Kubitz, Erfurt, Germany:

Isn't the real problem that the public will to achieve a significant reduction in car use doesn't exist? The pollsters tell us that a majority of voters want "transport sorted out" but individually people say "I can't survive without my car". What ideas does the Government have to try and change this?

Lord MacDonald:

Yes and again understandably because the car is a very convenient way of travel and for many people living in the countryside or living in the peripheral areas of town there might be very few options. What we are trying to do is to reverse the concentration that we have had on cars and road building over the last half century and try to invest again in public transport.

The railways were obviously neglected for decades. Mrs Thatcher had a personal hostility to them; she saw them as a kind of embodiment of state-ism because they were rigid, centralised and trade union dominated and so on. What we want to do is invest in the railways and have 50 per cent of more people travelling on the railways in ten years, invest more in buses and try and make sure that we have got an extra ten per cent of people travelling on buses at the end of those ten years.

We also want to invest in integrated transport - transport interchanges and park-and-ride schemes- and at the same time we want to make sure that the congestion and pollution caused by the car is reduced. We can do that through a roads programme that is not about new roads and certainly not about roads that will do any kind of severe damage to the environment - it will be about trying to make our roads flow more freely and reduce congestion and reduce pollution. Incidentally, I should say that that British roads are about the safest in Europe - we have the safest trunk roads and motorways in Europe and apart from Sweden overall we have the safest roads in Europe.

Craig Nelson, Aberdeen, UK:

In the recently published first instalment of the Government's ten year transport plan it is clear that road building is back on the Labour agenda - how far has this move from "no new roads" influenced by public opinion and possible loss of seats in areas such as Hastings?

Lord MacDonald:

We have reviewed the road schemes of the previous government and we killed off many of the these road schemes because we didn't think that they were value for money or that they would be damaging to the environment. However, we kept a targeted programme of improvements with about forty major schemes at trunk level and at local road level too as we were under a great deal of pressure from local communities about by-passes and improved safety measures on the roads, better junctions and so on.


Do you think you are going to reduce congestion by building extra roads? Surely by building any new roads more traffic appears because there is so much suppressed demand anyway and the roads just fill up again and we get back to what we had ten years ago when the Tories cancelled their road building plan.

Lord MacDonald:

Go to our ten-year plan, look at the methodology we have used there and you will see that the investment that we are making on all forms of transport - public transport as well as improving our road system. The ultimate outcome of that across ten years on our figuring is a reduction of five per cent in congestion across the country as a whole. Now if on reasonably empty roads there is more traffic and it is still flowing freely, I have got no problem with that. But it is where the traffic is causing real problems of congestion and pollution that is where we want to apply the money to try and reduce the problems for health and the economy.

Mark Strong, Brighton, England:

How does Lord MacDonald intend to deliver on the Government's target of trebling cycling journeys by 2010, given that to date there has been no concerted effort to meet this target and indeed the target has already been changed once?

Lord MacDonald:

We haven't changed the target - what we have said is that we will quadruple journeys inside fourteen years - in 2012. I was talking to cyclists in Westminster a couple of weeks ago and they were delighted by many of the prospects that were coming through - the cycle lanes etc. So I think you will see cyclists have got a good deal out of the local transport plans.

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See also:

13 Dec 99 | UK Politics
Macdonald: Unelected but respected
08 Dec 99 | UK Politics
Angry Prescott fights back
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