» New government, set on fiscal austerity, could limit transport expenditures in face of the recession. New minister declares an end to “the war on motorists.”
In power for thirteen years, the British Labour party had a mixed record when it came to transportation investments. While it greatly expanded funds committed to public transportation operations and maintenance, especially in London, it did so while pushing private ownership of bus lines and PPP control over construction programs. While it brought the nation’s railroads back from the abyss caused by John Major’s hugely problematic privatization of British Rail, it made few investments in high-speed rail even as virtually every other developed country was doing so.
Only last year, after enduring intense pressure from the rival Conservatives, did Labour finally come around, agreeing to fund a new line heading north from London. In March, Secretary of State for Transport Andrew Adonis finally revealed that program’s first phase, which would according to that government’s plans connect London and Birmingham by 2026 at a cost of more than £16 billion. Future extensions would head north to Manchester and Leeds, with eventual future phases to Glasgow and Edinburgh. It would have no direct link to Heathrow Airport, allowing the Crossrail commuter rail program that’s currently under construction to fulfill that role.
The British national elections held earlier this month, however, may have permanently altered the government’s strategy in relation to its rail program. The newly ruling coalition of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, putting Labour into opposition, has meant the definitive end of the proposed third runway at Heathrow (certainly a big step forward), but the former government’s relatively well thought-through high-speed rail plans are also on the cutting block. The Conservatives’ obsession with connecting Heathrow directly to the rail line — not, in my estimation, a particularly useful idea (and an expensive one, since it would require a detour) — will mean that the environmental reviews Labour had already performed will have to be restudied, potentially delaying the project.
But at least both parties now in power are in favor of the continued investment in the project. But at what cost?
Setting a new message, new Transport Minister Philip Hammond staked out his government’s position on transportation rather starkly at his first press conference. Arguing that Labour had given too much of a priority to transit during its more than a decade in control of the House of Commons, Mr. Hammond declared that he and his compatriots would “end the war on motorists.” While the high-speed rail project may be moving ahead, other future public transportation projects may be under threat — especially since the new government has committed to putting Britain on a fiscal starvation diet.
According to Christian Wolmar, a prominent British transportation commentator, the announcement by Mr. Hammond, who was previously the Conservatives’ “Shadow” Chief Secretary to the Treasury, means that there will be little influence of the Center-Left Liberal Democrats in the new government’s transportation strategy. That party, unlike the right-wing Conservatives, had been in favor of substantial measures to increase use of the country’s abandoned railroad rights of way and exert increased fees on motorists. Yet Mr. Hammond has refused to introduce any road pricing under his mandate, a significant problem if his government is to commit fully to the public transportation programs Labour had pursued.
Potentially the most affected immediately will be the £16 billion Crossrail program, which was supposed to be a RER-type commuter relief line for London. Though the Conservatives have said they would complete it, they haven’t promised that they would do so on schedule, despite the fact that it is vital for the stability of this crowded city. Does this mean funding for Crossrail — whose own completion was holding up Labour’s high-speed rail construction schedule — is to be extended and re-prioritized for high-speed rail?
Will funds currently allocated to rail projects be moved into the construction of new highways?
What is clear is that the Conservatives expect to find new sources of funding; Mr. Hammond said that “the era of easy public money is over” — a reflection of the fact that the kind of mammoth improvements seen in the U.K.’s transport system over the last ten years may be a relic of the past, lost to different priorities in a new government.
It may be too early, however, to guess how the new government will approach the complicated issue of funding high-speed rail and other transportation projects already underway. But the new coalition certainly won’t have it easy attempting to assign priorities in the midst of a major downfall in revenues.