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Thursday, 30 May, 2002, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Six Forum: Transport

  Click here to watch the forum.  

Alistair Darling has been named as the new transport secretary, replacing Stephen Byers who resigned on Tuesday.

Mr Darling takes over a post that is seen by many as the most difficult job in government.

Public confidence in the railways is at an all time low, with disgruntled commuters and Railtrack shareholders laying the blame firmly at the door of the Department of Transport.

While Mr Darling will only take over the transport side of Mr Byers' portfolio, he is expected to have a busy schedule ahead, as he attempts to improve Britain's road and railway infrastructure.

What challenges lie ahead for the new transport secretary? What should his priorities be?

Your questions were answered by Vicky Cann, the assistant director of transport and environment lobby group Transport 2000, in a live forum for the BBC's Six O'clock news, presented by Manisha Tank.

The topics discussed in this forum were:

  • Congestion
  • Infrastructure
  • Transport links
  • Environmental damage
  • Road tax
  • Fares
  • Comparison with other countries
  • Renationalisation

    Manisha Tank:

    Obviously transport needs to get going again now that Stephen Byers has resigned and Alistair Darling has taken up the helm of the government department. He has a huge task ahead of him. So what does he need to tackle - how is he going to tackle it? How will we get the system back on track? We're going to be speaking to Vicky Cann, she's the assistant director of Transport 2000, the transport lobby group.


    We've had a huge response to this subject. Guy Chapman in the UK has written in to us: Why is the press so successful in portraying congestion as the fault of the Government when clearly congestion is the result of individual choices. How can it possibly be the fault of any government if two-thirds of journeys under two miles are made by car - the school run comes to mind?

    Vicky Cann:

    I think Guy has got a very good point there. Congestion is an issue for governments to solve but obviously with all of us in society behind him we need to look at how we can encourage people out of their cars - particularly where there are alternatives - routes to school, journeys to work, journeys to the shops - we do need to look at alternatives. Congestion charging is going to be one way of doing that.

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    Manisha Tank:

    Apart from charges, some of our viewers have written in about the idea of infrastructure and how that affects the transport system. Stephen in the UK has written in saying: Surely a better way to deal with the transport crisis is to spread the traffic around the current infrastructure and this means perhaps a 10 to 15 year programme of moving businesses away from the south east and hence relieving the pressure. Would this not be a better way?

    Obviously this is a very big picture scenario.

    Vicky Cann:

    It is. There's definitely a role obviously for infrastructure in terms of new rail and new light rail schemes. The 10 year plan, which is what the Government's been following in terms of its transport strategy for the last year or two, was very biased towards favouring London and the south east. We certainly would like to see much more emphasis on regional rail - perhaps reopening some of the lines that were closed in the 1960s and 70s - reopening stations. Looking at how we can improve the infrastructure and the transport systems - not just in London and the south east but in the other parts of the country as well, including rural areas.

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    Transport links

    Manisha Tank:

    John Rogers writes in saying: Most travel at peak time is to get people to work, but most of the growth in jobs around London has been away from existing rapid public transport routes - no new rapid transport routes were being created. Transport 2000 is against car use, but getting people to work is the key issue not the environment and not congestion. Have you any ideas on how to help people get to work?

    Obviously what we're getting at here is a lot of businesses development that's going on nearer the green belts outside many cities around England.

    Vicky Cann:

    That's definitely a problem and certainly at Transport 2000 we would like to see much closer links within the transport department between the people who deal with planning and the people who deal with transport because where we site our business, where we site our shops, where we site our houses is fundamental to the transport issue. In terms of turning around our need to travel and how we travel, that is really a priority and something which over the next 10 or 20 years must really be tackled.

    But there are a number of things that can happen in London - particularly, I think, in London and in city areas that can help people on their route to school. Ken [Livingstone] today has announced a couple of new tram links and some new guided bus routes in London which is great and obviously not all of those are going to come on stream immediately.

    But even in the next year or two, there are things that can be done. For example, working with employers and employees to set up work place travel plans where we sit down and think about alternatives to people driving in. That might be car sharing, it might be cycling instead where the employer will provide showers and proper cycle racks - all sorts of different measures. When you really look at where people are coming from and where they're going to in terms of their workplace, you can develop a package of measures that can lead to substantial traffic reduction and that's ultimately what we're about. So I'd be a bit more positive than the e-mailer about what could happen there.

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    Environmental damage

    Manisha Tank:

    Obviously from everything you've just said, you know a lot about cars and about the environment and Matthew Hall will be interested in that. He's written in from Scotland: What future do you see for the car in Britain or indeed the world? Why do we persist in ignoring the fact that the increasing use of the car is killing the planet?

    Vicky Cann:

    There is a role for the car in society, no one is suggesting that there isn't. But the point is of getting the balance right. Perhaps we all need to look at the way that we travel, why we travel in the first place, how we travel and particularly when we get into our cars, we need to think about do I really need to make this journey, is there another way that I can make this journey - is there an alternative. It certainly is true that the car has a massive impact on the planet and on the environment - in fact, road transport is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. So it is important and we do need to, as a society with the lead of government, come to some sort of understanding about what is the role of the car in society and to really think about how we can all start to use the alternatives a lot more.

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    Road tax

    Manisha Tank:

    Here are a couple of e-mails from some car drivers who definitely do believe that the car has a role. Stephen Smith has written in saying: Surely the best solution to our transport problems is to improve not only public transport but also build more roads and bypasses. The Treasury collects billions in taxes from car drivers and only a small fraction is spent on new roads. I believe the car driver is being ripped off as extra costs are imposed.

    We have another e-mail which has come in from Mark Starr: The first task of Alistair Darling is to invest money in our roads. Roads carry far and away the majority of our freight and passenger traffic. Roads are the only feasible method of transport for 95% of the people and the motorist is already being taxed to the hilt.

    Vicky Cann:

    Taxation is a very important issue and there is a common misnomer that motorists are unfairly penalised. There are a lot of costs to society of using the car that aren't currently included within the price that you pay either for your petrol or on your tax disc. There are things like the cost to the NHS, for example, for asthma and wider pollution issues and road casualties. There is the cost to the economy of things like congestion. The CBI have got figures quoting how much the economy loses as a result of congestion and delays in terms of deliveries etc.

    So it really is wrong to say that the motorist is currently being penalised. When you look at what has happened say in the last 20 or 30 years, public transport fares have comparatively risen in cost in real terms, while the cost of motoring has actually remained static. Government advisers reckon that motoring costs will actually fall in the next 20 years. So I think we really need to rectify this misunderstanding about the cost of different forms of public and private transport and we need to try and balance that out.

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    Manisha Tank:

    We've had an e-mail from Suzanna in the UK: As train journeys are more environmentally friendly than car use, shouldn't the fare structure actually reflect this? Why can't the fares be zoned say covering a mileage radius? For example, an annual season ticket should be valued wherever you are so long as you don't exceed your mileage radius.

    With that we've had an anonymous text message which says: I would like to see more trains running to time and cheaper rail fares and more free bus travel passes across the UK particularly for the old and disabled.

    Vicky Cann:

    I think that's absolutely right - I think those two points really get to the crux of what the issue is. One of the things that we're promoting is perhaps a national rail card where families and individuals will be entitled to reduced, off-peak fares. The price of the public transport is rising in comparison to the cost of motoring so public transport users are really being penalised and we need to think about imaginative ways of reducing public transport fares so that people will see that it is a viable alternative to using the car.

    In Wales, in the last few months, there's been a scheme introduced to offer free bus passes to all people over 65 and disabled people and that's a brilliant example of what could be done with a little bit of thought and imagination .

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    Comparison with other countries

    Manisha Tank:

    Steve Jelly has written in from Canada saying: As someone from a large country with half the population of the UK, could someone explain why you have a problem with your rail system? The UK's GDP per capita is only slightly smaller than that of Canada and with such a small country to service, you should have no trouble in having the best rail system in the world.

    We've also had a text message: Why is it that when I went to Amsterdam at the weekend they have clean double-decker trains, they were on time and they were also full?

    Vicky Cann:

    I think we can learn a lot from transport specialists and what governments have been doing in other parts of Europe. There are some very good examples, particularly in Holland and places like Germany, of good public transport that really works and I think we shouldn't be afraid of learning from those examples. We don't need to reinvent the wheel here - it's not impossible to have a public transport system that works and particularly a rail system that works - other countries are managing it. I think we need to look at how they do it and to see what lessons can be applied. Certainly we are suffering from years of massive underinvestment in the railways but there are other issues in other ways that we can learn from colleagues overseas.

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    Manisha Tank:

    David Mitchell in the UK has written to say: Do you think it's time to renationalise our bus and rail systems so that our country can go forward towards an integrated, modern transport system?

    Vicky Cann:

    I think we need to set out clearly what we want out of public transport systems. There are issues between regulation and privatisation which I don't want to get into. But I think there's certainly a role for setting out what our end point is - what do we want to achieve out of our public transport system and then thinking about the structures that can be put in place to deliver that.

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