A major cash boost aimed at improving public transport in the U.K. has been announced in a recent government budget speech. Yet, major problems remain for the funding of credible public transport in the country.
Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown announced the additional cash during the country’s annual announcement of fiscal estimates (known in England as the "Budget"). The extra money represented a major boost for transport and the environment, according to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. He claimed it struck the right balance between the needs of transport, the environment and the economy and would deliver real benefits for everyone.
The amounts, however, are small in comparison to the total amount of government spending, which is well in excess of $300 billion (US $500 million). The Labour Party was elected to govern in the U.K. in 1997 and was widely expected to improve public transport, yet this has not been the case. Like the United States, a center-left administration has pursued right-wing economic policies and thus kept public spending on a tight rein.
Ironically, the last urban transit system to enter service in England, in Croydon, an inner suburb of London, was given the go-ahead under the previous Conservative government. Instead, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has advocated making more use of buses. Meanwhile, Britain’s towns and cities have proliferated separate driving lanes for buses and cabs.
The most obvious example of the U.K.’s public transport system in crisis can be seen in the London Underground. The British capital’s metro system is the largest in the world and one of the few to make an operating profit, but it cannot pay for major capital investment on its own. Nor is the government prepared to come up with the money. The issue has become a hot topic in London’s forthcoming mayoral contest with all candidates devising new methods of funding the capital’s transport network.
There is some evidence that the country’s new privatized railways are making some headway as investment is finally seen by way of new trains and more customer-focused service provision. However, fears over safety following privatization have been expressed in the wake of two major train disasters over the past three years. These took place in the London area, at Southall and Paddington stations.
Infrastructure is the responsibility of a company called Railtrack, which has been heavily criticized in light of these events, although so many companies and agencies are involved in the nation’s railroad network nowadays that identifying blame may prove to be an impossible task. The British government recently stripped the company of its safety monitoring responsibilities. These will now come under the auspices of the Health and Safety Inspectorate.
So the UK still has a long way to go before it can boast a properly funded "integrated" transport system, the repeatedly pronounced aim of the current government.
-- Gordon Welsh