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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Election issues: Transport
Analysis
By Tom Symonds
BBC News transport correspondent

Traffic jam
How can we cope with ever-increasing road traffic?
Transport is a bit like the troublesome teenager the government don't like to talk about.

It is always hanging around, not helping much (politically), and demanding a vast amount of mum and dad's money.

At this election, Labour will probably say a lot about all the other public services, except for transport.

QUICK GUIDE

But in the list of things that would improve your life, would getting around more easily feature quite highly? Quite possibly.

It is not a big election issue, but that doesn't mean transport is not a big issue.

IS IT DEVOLVED?
Scotland: Devolved
Wales: Devolved
NI: Devolved
Devolved issues are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, or NI Assembly

Labour's 2001 manifesto offered to "improve and expand rail and road travel".

But it is on the roads and railways that the government has been failing to meet two of its key targets on transport.

What did Labour promise?

In 2002, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling conceded the aim of cutting traffic congestion by 5% by the end of the decade was unrealistic.
Passengers check train times
Rail punctuality is a concern for passengers

Now he is simply trying to stop the jams getting any longer, rather than promising to make them shorter.

And though rail travel is growing fast, the target of 50% more passengers using trains by 2010 won't be easy to meet either.

The reason it has been hard to radically improve road and rail travel is that to do so, you have to improve the costly road and rail network and infrastructure.

Rail problems

The money is there.

This government has thrown vast amounts at the railways since 2001, and it is worried about the cost.

But on the railways, it is the way they are run that is the problem.

Labour has now decided that leaving the whole thing to private companies, within a structure set up originally by the Conservatives, is not going to work.

It is planning to centralise control, so ministers and their civil servants will have a greater role than they've ever had in running the railways.

We can only wait and see what will happen.

Progress in improving train punctuality has been painfully slow, but by re-jigging timetables, working together more, and cutting under-used services, train companies are getting there, partly because the government has been snapping at their heels to do so.

Road building - and charging

Many believe improving the punctuality of drivers requires improvements to the road network.

The government tried its best to tread a careful line between demands for more tarmac and concerns about the environment.

Many motorways are being widened, and a new one is likely to be built north of Birmingham.

But some green-bating plans, such as the dual carriageway through the Blackdown Hills in Devon have been scrapped.

Labour also wanted to charge motorists to drive in the hope of driving them out of their cars.

Apart from London, that policy has largely failed, so far.

Towns and cities are not exactly racing to introduce congestion charges, with Edinburgh rejecting such plans in a referendum.

Party debate

The other parties are not far away from Labour when it comes to many transport issues.

For example, they all agree that fundamentally changing the way the railways are run will do more harm than good.

The Conservatives will focus instead on what they perceive to be a Labour war against the motorist.

Their policies include more privately-financed road-building, a review of speed cameras, more traffic police, a clampdown on uninsured drivers, and even removing road humps.

On the railways, the Conservatives wants to give train companies more freedom to decide how they run their services and longer rail franchises.

And they promise to renovate 100 of Britain's shabbiest stations.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats want to tackle road congestion and encourage motorists to drive less by charging them to use their cars, something Labour is also keen on, but not until the next decade.

Under Charles Kennedy there would be cheaper car tax for those with smaller cars, again building on a current policy.

The party also wants to invest more money in adding extra railway lines, including high-speed links it believes that will encourage drivers to leave their cars at home.

Improvements

Take it as read that all the parties believe they can improve public transport.

But it is easier said than done.

They will all have to spell out more clearly exactly how they intend to get us moving more easily.

As for voters in Scotland and Wales, most transport functions are now devolved, and when it comes to the railways, the UK government will this year give up control entirely to Scotland, and partially to Wales.

Roads and local transport are already controlled by the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly (where North-South transport links are a continuing issue).

But Westminster still regulates aviation and safety in the air, as well as some aspects of driving regulations, such as driving tests.



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