Sunday, November 27, 2016

Transport planning confusion

Westminster watchers will know that the new Government and its Chancellor is looking for ways to boost the economy and the "in"  word, "infrastructure" has caught his eye.  He is particularly attracted to the proposals in the report prepared by the National Infrastructure Commission at

This blog has said very little about infrastructure in the belief that we should be concentrating resources on fixing and sweating existing assets rather than building more that would increase the need for more fixing.  This is particularly the case in respect of road building.

The NIC report supports the reinstatement of  a rail link between the growing cities of Oxford and Cambridge, via Bedford and Northampton.  But, there is equivalent support for a new Expressway (is that a euphemism for a new motorway?).  In his Autumn Statement the Chancellor mentioned these projects in the same breath.   The first I heard of the 'Expressway' was at a meeting where one of the possible operators of the railway (Chiltern Railways, that is running trains from Oxford and Bicester to London) made some cutting remark about the (im)possibility of the rail link being completed and/or being viable if the road was also being promoted. 

The failure to resist the road building lobby (and mentality) will be just one reason for failing to meet carbon reduction targets. But even in transport planning terms it makes no sense. In 2004 the Government declared that it can no longer hope (or afford) to build its way out of congestion (The Future of Transport. White Paper, Department for Transport, TSO),  but the Chancellor committed £1.3 billion to this exercise in futility and the potential for growth in jobs and housing along this corridor proved too attractive to the Government in the face of advice that the new road would add to the congestion on the network including the A34.  The NIC refers to Science Vale UK and to the possibility of 20,000 houses in Didcot.  Without making this blog too local or parochial, this area is already very congested and the A34 is a main artery that cannot cope with existing demand.

The lesson is that roads and railways are part of an integrated system where the comparative advantages of the private car over the slightly less flexible and more expensive railway (relying on the marginal cost of journeys) must be resisted by our transport (and financial) planners.  The expressway might make the area more accessible on  a map, but the DfT knows that it would make the roads in the region more congested.  On the other hand a railway could take existing traffic off the roads in and around the area.  We should also be concerned about the growing influence of the NIC if it continues to be blind to the multiple problems associated with road transport.


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