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LONDON — The recent rail crash near Hatfield, north of London, that resulted in the deaths of four people was caused by a cracked rail. The crash occurred almost a year after the even more serious crash near London’s Paddington Station. These accidents have once again highlighted the need for higher levels of investment in rail track, signaling and rail coaches.

Railways in Britain have suffered from years of underinvestment and neglect. The last government’s privatization plans were intended to halt the decline, but the way privatization was carried out worsened rather than improved the situation. The railway network is owned and maintained by a privatized monopoly called Railtrack. Rail services are operated by a series of companies who have been granted operating franchises. They pay Railtrack to use the system. The only real competition for these services comes from road and air.

Railtrack and the operating companies are overseen by a regulator and a strategic rail authority answerable to the Department of the Environment, which includes transport and is part of the mega-department under Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. The weaknesses in the system are recognized, but yet another reorganization at this stage might only make matters worse.

Unfortunately, similar complexities have been imposed on London Transport, where the government want to see the Underground track developed by a public/private partnership and the lines operated by separate private companies. The newly elected mayor of London, the populist Ken Livingstone, is firmly opposed to the proposed system and in this he probably has the support of most Londoners, but the deputy prime minister and the Treasury are obstinately refusing to give up their cherished plans.

Meanwhile, London Underground suffers from delays, faulty escalators that are often out of service and frequent train cancellations. The only encouraging development on the Underground has been the opening, late last year, of the extension to the Jubilee Line to Docklands and the Millennium Dome (dubbed by some a “white elephant”). The new stations have been praised for their architecture, safety and convenience, but the line was completed late and there were serious cost overruns.

London’s roads are becoming ever more crowded and traffic speeds have declined. Bus service has not perceptibly improved since privatization, despite the designation of more “bus only” lanes. Buses still seem to go in pairs, or even three together, causing inconvenience and delays to would-be passengers. In country districts, there are few buses and when there is public transport it is expensive.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that British people are making increasing use of their cars. Those who live in the country complain bitterly about inconsiderate and fast driving on country lanes, while town-dwellers are exasperated by congestion. Everyone moans about the high price of fuel (much higher than in other European countries) and demand fuel tax cuts.

Probably the only answer to traffic congestion is through tolls and some form of road pricing in cities, but such ideas are vehemently opposed by motorists and motoring organizations.

Environmentalists are worried about increased air pollution, which has led to a growing incidence of asthma and other bronchial problems. There are also fears about global warming. This year’s exceptional weather in various parts of the world has exacerbated these fears. Many regions in Britain have suffered from serious flooding, as have parts of Europe, Asia and Africa.

The government talks a lot about developing an integrated transport policy that will somehow balance the various conflicting factors, but there is not much sign of effective action.

There is thus a long catalog of problems and complaints and little sign of alleviation, let alone solutions. These will inevitably involve some difficult choices that will damage the immediate interests of some sections of the public. Unfortunately, as Britain faces an election within the next year or so, the government is reluctant to propose the sort of radical plans that are needed. One measure that could help the environment would be to establish a carbon tax; this would ensure that polluters pay at least part of the costs of the damage they wreak, but this too could lose votes.

A British team has been in Japan to look at the good record of punctuality, safety and service on Japanese railways and Japanese subway systems. Undoubtedly we can learn from Japanese experiences, but the high level of debts run up by Japan National Railways before privatization and the high cost of long-distance travel in Japan are not elements that Britain should copy.

Japanese investments in high-speed roads and bridges have no doubt benefited many parts of Japan, but many recently constructed roads and bridges are unlikely ever to pay their way, despite high tolls. Moreover, they do not appear to have done much to relieve traffic congestion — especially in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where “shizen jutai” (literally natural traffic jams) remain common. The waste of time and fuel caused by Japan’s traffic congestion is a huge economic and environmental burden for the country.

The vaunted “just-in-time” system has unfortunately contributed to Japan’s traffic congestion. Many companies here have adopted this system and this has increased congestion on British roads. The system also makes the whole economy vulnerable to any sudden disruption in fuel supplies. In Britain, we saw just what this meant in September, when angry hauliers and farmers blockaded refineries and almost brought the economy to its knees in a matter of days. So the Japanese example is not one that other countries should copy without thinking through the overall costs and risks.

The European single market has yet to be fully applied to transport systems. Sensitive national interests are involved in almost every issue. The most intractable is probably the need to harmonize fuel and motor vehicle duties across the European Union. European governments are also most reluctant to cede their right to control aviation policy to the Commission in Brussels. Yet if the single market is to be achieved, progress must be made on these complex problems in the next few years.

Safe, speedy, efficient and environmentally friendly transport systems are essential if our economies are to prosper and standards of living to improve. We all have a long way to go before we can boast of success.

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