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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 29 May, 2002, 14:59 GMT 15:59 UK
Darling faces daunting in-tray
Alistair Darling
Darling must find a solution to traffic congestion

It's easy to imagine this morning's conversation with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street.

"Morning, Darling, I'd like you to do transport. Good luck, you're going to need it"

A grimacing Alistair Darling: "Thanks, Tony.... thanks a LOT."

The new transport secretary has inherited the most poisoned chalice in government.


Alistair Darling can't possibly solve Britain's transport problems by the next election

The in tray on his desk is piled high with issues requiring difficult decisions. And all of them are marked "urgent".

Alistair Darling must review the government's 10 Year Transport Plan, which was savaged by a Labour-dominated committee of MPs earlier this week.

They said the government's failure to face up to the falling cost of motoring was "incomprehensible", if ministers were serious about persuading people to switch to trains and buses.

He must replace Railtrack, a job now months behind schedule, with the newly created Network Rail, a not for profit company set up by his predecessor Stephen Byers.

Upgrades needed

Railway modernisation is in a strategic vacuum, until the new infrastructure owner finds its feet.

London Underground is another problem. The government has pushed through its public private partnership to upgrade the network, in the teeth of fierce and widespread opposition led by London's mayor Ken Livingstone.

Now the capital's politicians want Mr Darling to take a fresh look at what they say is a "fundamentally flawed" plan.
Stephen Byers
Darling replaces Stephen Byers

And more problems are just below the horizon.

This summer the government is committed to publishing options for additional runway capacity in south east England.

It will mean proposals for extra runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, as well as for a new airport near Cliffe, on the north coast of Kent.

A third runway at Heathrow could mean knocking down 4,000 homes. Opposition from residents' groups is inevitable.

Choices about which options should be built are due to be made in an Aviation White Paper around the end of the year.

Air traffic crisis

The recently privatised National Air Traffic Service is another crisis area. The company, which is still half owned by the government, has already received an emergency bail-out of 30m of public money.

But NATS remains in serious financial difficulties, because the Civil Aviation Authority has turned down a request to raise landing charges.

The biggest problem of all facing Alistair Darling is traffic congestion, the issue that underlies the need for a 10 Year Transport Plan.

The plan assumes that congestion charging - tolling roads into city centres - would be in place in 20 towns and cities by 2010.

But fuel protests have left the government wary of a backlash, if motoring costs rise.

New cars have become cheaper, vehicle excise duty has been reduced, and fuel costs are expected to fall over the next few years.
traffic jam
Experts say tolls are the only way to alleviate jams

Cheaper motoring might sound great, but it means more cars on the road and more congestion.

Transport experts have all told the government that increasing the cost of motoring through tolls, alongside public transport improvements, is the only way to tackle the jams.

One of Stephen Byers's last remarks was that he did not want to punish the motorist through higher costs. But not tackling congestion will punish the motorist anyway, through more delays.

Let's face it. Alistair Darling can't possibly solve Britain's transport problems by the next election.

But Tony Blair, and the voters, will be hoping for a lot more progress and a lot less drama, than under Stephen Byers.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Simon Montague
"The big dilemma is whether to discourage car use"

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Byers resignation

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 VOTE RESULTS
Was Stephen Byers right to resign?

Yes
 84.15% 

No
 15.85% 

13895 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

See also:

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

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