Mass transit commuters in the UK have a powerful ally in the deputy prime minister, John Prescott. In the past few weeks he has made a number of policy announcements aimed at improving the lot of the ordinary commuter. Unlike the US, a lot of professional workers, especially in the big cities, have to use public transport and they have been able to exert pressure to bear in political terms.
In addition to his role as deputy prime minister Prescott also heads up the Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions. His appointment in this post was intended to signify how seriously the UK government is tackling the problem of road congestion in its towns and cities.
The UK has actually been quite successful in wooing people away from their automobiles and onto trains, light rail and buses but this in turn has brought problems as higher use has stretched capacity beyond its limits. Continued overcrowding on some commuter trains was recently criticized by Prescott. He said: "We made it clear at the National Rail Summit that carrying more passengers is no excuse for poor performance. While I am pleased that numbers are increasing, the many passengers who are forced to stand every day will find it hard to understand why their services are not classed as 'overcrowded'.
"Passengers expect and deserve to travel in comfort. That doesn't include standing for the length of the journey. As passenger numbers continue to grow, there will be more strain on current capacity."
He also called on the rail regulator to take action on the issue. Rail services in the UK are run by private companies under franchise from the government and although ministers can criticize performance the real power lies with the independent regulator. Of course, the government can appoint a new regulator but not without difficulty as they serve for fixed term appointments.
The one major mass transit system still in government hands is London Underground, the largest metro network in the world. It is also the only publicly owned manned subway system that generates an operating profit. Nevertheless, it simply does not have enough money for ongoing capital investment.
Years of neglect have led to obsolete rolling stock, track in need of replacement and, in some cases, dangerously old-fashioned signaling systems. All of which has been acknowledged by its managers who have pleaded with the government for more money. Turning over GBP £1 billion, every year, the Underground is a fairly sizeable undertaking.
Prescott has therefore decided to raise cash for upgrading work through the financial markets under the 'Public Private Partnership'. This is essentially a scheme where the government allows the private sector to take all the financial risk of major projects and keeps the accounting out of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, which is the gap between what the government brings in and what it spends.
Prescott recently said: "Work to implement the PPP is going well. It makes sense to press ahead as quickly as possible. Early indications show a great deal of interest from the private sector in working with the Government, the new Mayor and London authority and London Transport to deliver real improvements for travelers in the nation's capital."
Rail journeys in the UK are soaring at the moment and the long-term decline in bus use has also bottomed out. Journeys made by bus have stabilized at 4.3 billion annually. Bus use actually increased by one per cent in the year to March 1998.
The number of passenger journeys made by public transport in Great Britain also increased by one percent over the same time scale. Travel by regional and local rail has also been increasing, with more journeys overall including an eight percent increase in those by London Underground, and a seven per cent increase in those by various light rail and supertram systems. The latest light rail system in Croydon, in south London, is set to enter service this year joining similar systems in Manchester and Sheffield.
The UK government is also strongly committed to bus use; indeed Prescott puts buses at the heart of the government's new integrated transport policy. Cynics would say this is because they provide a cheap solution without the expensive infrastructure associated with rail. Prescott enjoys holding transport summits and has said there will be a "Bus Summit" in the fall at which the industry will get together to discuss how it could "build on recent successes in reversing years of decline in passenger use."
He said: "The bus is the workhorse of our public transport system - accounting for two-thirds of all public transport journeys. That's well over four billion bus journeys a year - to work, to school to the shops or for social and leisure purposes. Buses are at the heart of integrated transport so we must work together to deliver the best modern, convenient and pleasant system possible.
"After four decades of relentless decline, passengers are finally returning to the bus. Buses represent the best opportunity for leading a renaissance of public transport in this country." This message was further rammed home in the government's annual budget where tax and duty levels are announced for the coming financial year. The UK's already high gasoline prices have been put up even further and taxes on automobile use increased.
There are as many autos in the UK as people with driving licences - around 30 million - in an island not even 1,000 miles long. The government simply had to act both to ease congestion and control pollution.
In all of this Prescott deserves credit. However, the deputy prime minister's personal car is a large Jaguar coupe. It is unlikely anyone will see him taking the bus to the Palace of Westminster to begin his day's work.