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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 07:38 GMT
Make or break on transport
Motorway traffic
Commuter chaos is threatening government
Nick Assinder

Tony Blair certainly cannot be accused of ignoring Britain's creaking transport system.

Virtually every other year since he became prime minister he has been forced to come up with something in an attempt to persuade travellers the government is determined to improve their miserable lot.

It seems that with transport initiatives, unlike the rail system itself, if you wait long enough another one will come along, brand new and polished until, hopefully, it dazzles.

First it was John Prescott who was going to get Britain moving with his 10 year plan - and to that end he came up with the bus lane on the M4.

Then the prime minister's old friend Lord Gus Macdonald was promoted over Mr Prescott's head to take control.

Now, in what is being seen as yet another rebuff to transport secretary Stephen Byers, it's Lord Birt's turn.

Shocked ministers

He has already delivered to Mr Blair a devastating report into the state of the country's transport infrastructure.

Transport secretary Stephen Byers
Make or break for Byers
Most commuters could have done that from their own daily experience.

But Lord Birt's report seems to have genuinely shocked ministers with its blunt appraisal of the transport chaos gripping Britain.

His next task is to come up with ways of bringing the system back from the brink of total collapse.

Downing Street sources are eager to point out that Lord Birt was given his job of doing some "long term thinking" about transport many weeks ago.

They are equally adamant there is no snub to Mr Byers and that nothing has changed.

This is despite the fact that party chairman Charles Clarke has acknowledged it is make or break time for Mr Byers.

Next big thing

At the very same time, however, the government is determined to show voters it is taking their travel misery seriously.

Opinion polls are telling the prime minister that the travelling public are past the end of their tether and are looking for ways of kicking the government where it hurts.

So, while denying that transport has overtaken education and health and now tops the political agenda, the government is probably delighted with stories suggesting it is to be this year's big thing.

Mr Byers is expected to announce extra cash for the railways in the Commons next week.

And there are certain to be a series of announcements intended to show the government is tackling the problem.

But, as with so much of the public services, it is the perceptions of those who use them that counts for everything.

Genuine improvements

Long term plans, promises of extra cash, attacks on the decades of underinvestment and the botched privatisation may all be valid.

But the travelling public want to see genuine improvements to their daily lives.

At the moment they believe things have actually got worse under the current administration.

Ministers point out that there has been a 29% increase in investment over the past year and compare that to the massive underinvestment between 1975 and 1995 which saw Britain spending 30bn less than the European average on transport.

But, as with hospitals and schools, voters appear to be treating the government's promises of improvements with extreme caution.

Unless there are genuine, visible moves forward on all these fronts between now and the next election, Mr Blair could pay a heavy price in the ballot box.

See also:

07 Jan 02 | UK
Rail misery hits UK
03 Jan 02 | England
Rail passengers let off steam
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