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Last Updated: Friday, 26 December, 2003, 03:24 GMT
Difficult journey through the year

By Tom Symonds
BBC transport correspondent

Concorde
An old favourite flew for the last time
In 2003 the railways went through a reality check.

Drivers started to pay for the privilege.

The weather helped and hindered.

We celebrated our love of flying, and counted the cost.

There was confrontation over one of Britain's biggest killers.

And we said goodbye to a much loved old lady.

Buzzed with fury

On 17 February, at exactly seven in the morning, 50,000 people began paying for something they had never even considered was for sale in the past. A bit of space, on a road.

Ten months on, the London Congestion Charge barely rates a mention in the media, a fact that would suggest it has been a success.

Rails began buckling as temperatures soared in August and many train services were put on a go-slow

Drivers now pay 5 to enter central London and risk being caught on a network of number plate-reading cameras if they don't.

In the weeks before the charge, internet websites buzzed with fury and frantic discussions about the best way to avoid it.

But on day one London's traffic levels fell by a quarter and residents talked of hearing birdsong for the first time.

They could also hear Ken Livingstone's sigh of relief.

That drop in traffic has persisted.

But there have been rows about mistakes made in the payment system, and the tiny number of offenders brought to book for not paying.

There's also a big question mark about whether London's economic health has been affected.

Quieter roads

This month a second major pay-as-you-drive system was introduced - the opening of the M6 toll, which offers an alternative to the severe congestion of the existing M6.

The M6 toll road has cost nearly 900m
Therefore this year the principle that we might pay extra for quieter roads has been established.

We're being asked to pay for better railways too, in spades.

Before 2003 the railways were recovering from a crisis.

Trains were running later than in the days of British Rail, money was disappearing fast, and passengers were fed up.

Nothing has changed.

But at least the railway industry has realised what's going wrong, and is trying to put it right.

The stream of big decisions, shock announcements and fundamental reviews has continued unabated.

Rail costs rise

In February the BBC revealed 100 train services a day were to go to make the network more reliable.

To save money it was announced maintenance of rural rail routes would be cut back and more spent on busy lines.

Network Rail, which has now taken over the track from Railtrack, spent the year trying to cope with its exploding budget and disappointing maintenance record.

And so this autumn the company took the surprise decision to scrap the whole system of private track maintenance contracts and do the work itself.

The hope is that this will raise standards and save money. We shall see.

Network Rail plans to spend 27.8bn over the next three years
It was also the year when the man in charge of regulating the railways finally decided how much a better train service would cost us.

After weeks of midnight negotiations Tom Winsor emerged to blearily present us with the bill - an extra 7bn over the next five years.

His forthright style has put several noses out of joint, but more money for trains should lead to a better service in future.

Openly hostile

The year has also been marked by the growing debate over road safety - not a subject that gets as much coverage as the 3,500 deaths on Britain's roads each year warrant.

There has been constant sniping between road safety campaigners and vociferous groups angry at the proliferation of speed cameras across Britain.

The pro lobby insists speed cameras save lives, the anti that they're roadside, pole-mounted money-generation devices.

It is a confrontation that's becoming openly hostile.

As well as paying congestion charges, and watching out for speed cameras, drivers have also had to get used to not using their mobile phones, following the introduction of a ban.

Drivers face a 30 fine for using a mobile phone
But hands-free kits remain legal.

Road safety experts believe its holding the conversation that's the problem, not the phone, and have criticised the government for not going the whole hog.

No review of British transport would be complete without talking about the weather.

In January a failure to grit parts of the M25 and M11 in southern England led to thousands of motorists spending a freezing night in their cars.

By the summer the problem was heat.

Rails began buckling as temperatures soared in August and many train services were put on a go-slow.

But this autumn the weather actually helped train companies keep to timetable.

It was much drier than normal and the dreaded 'leaves on the line' were easier to clear away, so the normal drop in punctuality was averted.

Runway rows

Throughout the year one question has dominated the aviation industry.

What should we do about our desire to fly?

Concorde could have flown for another decade but its fate was sealed by airline accountants

After all the fast-growing airline, Ryanair, started the year boasting of a record increase in passenger numbers - five million more than 2002.

Certainly the post-9/11 downturn seems to be ending.

The government decided this month to build new runways at Stansted, Heathrow, Birmingham and possibly Edinburgh.

But this decision almost raises more questions than it answers and anti-expansion campaigners at these airports will spend next year trying to stop construction of new runways.

And in November was saw the end of an era, as Concorde made its final flights.

On a cold, bright afternoon three British Airways Concordes swept into Heathrow with crowds lining fences and rooftops.

It was a genuinely moving day for so many of those involved.

Concorde could have flown for another decade but its fate was sealed by airline accountants.

This beautiful British creation was simply too expensive to keep in the air.

So goodbye Concorde, and goodbye 2003.


SEE ALSO:
End of an era for Concorde
24 Oct 03  |  UK
The cost of running a railway
17 Oct 03  |  Business
Stansted heads airports expansion
16 Dec 03  |  Politics
M6 Toll road opens
09 Dec 03  |  Staffordshire
Drivers face mobile phone fines
01 Dec 03  |  Politics


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