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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 July, 2004, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK
Government backs roads shake-up
The M6 Toll motorway, which was opened in December 2003
Could drivers soon be paying per mile to use busy roads?
Car tax and fuel duty could be scrapped and replaced with a system of road charging under new government plans.

Unveiling plans for the next 10 years, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling announced the launch of local road toll schemes where drivers pay by the mile.

But he said it was not yet feasible to have a national road pricing scheme.

And legislation to enable the Crossrail railway network to link east and west London using private and public cash will be tabled as soon as possible.

Computer image of Crossrail train
The idea of a cross-London rail link has been kicking around for decades
Crossrail spokesman

The most radical vision for road pricing would see a satellite tracking-based system, with drivers charged variable rates per mile depending on how busy the route they used was.

Revealing the results of a feasibility scheme, Mr Darling said "a lot of work" would have to be done before such a scheme could be established nationally, perhaps taking 10-15 years, although local schemes would be possible.

He added: "Moving to a national scheme would be fraught with difficulties. Introducing this scheme would be instead of the present [taxation] system.

"What we are not talking about is piling one tax on another."

Jam forecast

But Mr Darling stressed the consequences of ignoring the road pricing option would be "irresponsible and would condemn future generations to endless delays and increasing environmental damage".

His five to 10-year plan assumes traffic jams could be 40% worse in the next two decades.

I love my car, and will not have that freedom taken away from me by government
AJ, Wakefield, UK

Tory transport spokesman Tim Yeo said motorists faced worse congestion despite rising taxes and that the government's 10-year transport plan had been a "disastrous failure".

Although Crossrail will not be ready in time for the 2012 Olympics, for which London is bidding, Mr Darling also said the government would contribute 340m towards projects associated with the games.

The transport secretary admitted the Crossrail project was a huge challenge, and said the government will work with the Mayor and London businesses to work out how it will be funded.

The route had been expected to run between Heathrow, and Richmond and Kingston in the west, and Shenfield and the Channel Tunnel rail interchange at Ebbsfleet in the east.

Proposed Crossrail route in full

But Mr Darling said there was a "relatively weak case" for the line to run to Richmond and Kingston and that a change to go to Maidenhead in Berkshire might be better.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone welcomed the go-ahead for Crossrail and an agreement on Transport for London's borrowing that allowed the East London line extension to be undertaken.

RAC Foundation chairman David Holmes said road pricing might be acceptable to motorists if it helped ease congestion.

But he added: "Motorists do not want to pay more to use the roads. Governments ignore this at their peril."

Environmental campaigners said the new strategy concentrated too heavily on accommodating more traffic and not enough on getting people out of their cars and onto alternatives.

Friends of the Earth transport campaigner Tony Bosworth said: "Alistair Darling has chickened out of producing a transport strategy to cut traffic levels and tackle climate change.

"Support for CrossRail and local transport are welcome, but the continuing attachment to road building leaves a black cloud hanging over the countryside."

Meanwhile, a report by the left-wing thinktank Catalyst said much more needed to be done to ensure effective public control of the railways.

It advocated direct public ownership of infrastructure body Network Rail and a moratorium on the refranchising of train operations to the private sector.

The BBC's Simon Montague
"Frankly, we're all in a jam"

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