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Wednesday, 29 May, 2002, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Darling's mammoth task
New Transport Secretary Alistair Darling
Darling must produce the goods

It may have taken five years, but Tony Blair has finally accepted that the task of sorting out Britain's creaking transport system is a big enough job on its own for any one person.

So new Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has been relieved of the burden of local government and the regions and will be able to concentrate all his efforts on the job in hand.

And that is about re-examining the government's entire 10 year transport plan, which has been torn to shreds by experts and ordinary travellers alike.

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling
Not the most charismatic
The emphasis of the plan has already shifted away from hammering the motorist towards improving public transport.

And it will be Mr Darling's job to refocus the policy and, more importantly, deliver the goods.

Good choice

Most believe the 10 year plan needs more than a bit of tinkering at the edges and that radical surgery is required.

It is not an enviable task but Mr Darling has a reputation for being able to grab hold of a brief, do the detail and simply get on with it.

He is not the most charismatic man in the cabinet and appears to be one of the few ministers to concentrate his efforts on policy development rather than how to get himself on the TV, probably wisely.

The fact that most pundits overlooked him when it came to predicting who would replace Mr Byers speaks volumes about his personal style.

Railtrack HQ
Railtrack decision ahead
But that makes him a good choice for what is arguably the most difficult and personally dangerous job in the government.

What is needed in the department of transport is someone who can knuckle down, ignore all the distracting flak and come up with workable solutions.

Charges and tolls

Mr Byers likes to claim that he took some of the difficult decisions over transport and to some extent that is true - the apparent re-privatisation of Railtrack being one of them.

But the job is not even half done and the problems ahead are as great, if not greater, that those he has already tackled.

His successor's in-tray is overflowing with problems including sorting out the successor body to Railtrack and keeping up the pressure on the railways to improve performance and safety.

On top of that he has the task of tackling growing congestion on Britain's roads, amid demands for congestion charges and tolls, while still keeping motorists on side.

Then there is the new air traffic control system at Swanwick which, after huge budget and timetable over runs, appears not to work.

Long term

In London there is the continuing row over the part-privatisation of the underground system and the battle with the capital's mayor Ken Livingstone.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
Prescott faced criticisms
And, last but far from least, Mr Darling has to sort out the mess at the heart of his new department which has seen chaos ruling.

No one expects Mr Darling to come up with instant solutions, sorting out the transport infrastructure is a long term task.

But travellers will want to be convinced that, after all the talk, the government actually knows what it is doing to put things right and is ready to commit the resources necessary.

But the department is littered with the remains of good intentions.

Get on with it

First John Prescott was given the job, and came up with the 10 year plan.

Then Lord Gus MacDonald was ordered to kick it into shape after complaints Mr Prescott wasn't up to the job.

Mr Byers followed in their footsteps but was then being second guessed by Blair-appointee Lord John Birt whose "blue sky thinking" came up with the "new" idea of tolls.

There will be much debate, and no shortage of advice, about where Mr Darling should take policy but everybody agrees he must be allowed to get on with it.

The last thing the prime minister can afford is another disaster in this area.

Transport post
What challenges lie ahead for Darling?
See also:

29 May 02 | UK Politics
29 May 02 | UK Politics
28 May 02 | UK Politics

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