UK transport policy: just a big Number Two


So far this week we have been treated to the news that the Government will not, after all, be electrifying various railway lines in the North of England and Wales because it has decided diesel engines can do a perfectly satisfactory job there; and that sales of all new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2040 because the internal combustion engine stands convicted of mass murder and destroying the planet.

At the same time, the Government is happy to announce that it will be backing two other schemes for new electric trains: the £31.2 billion Crossrail 2 project to shuttle commuters from north to south across London, and the £56 billion (and the rest, as they say) HS2 white elephant that was originally billed as a way to slash journey times but is now apparently all about increasing the capacity of the national rail network.

The Transport Secretary tells us that HS2 will help to regenerate the economies of the great cities of the Midlands and North, but all experience (and common sense) tell us that improved connectivity is vastly more likely to suck yet more people and wealth into the great maw of the South East.

Train travel in the UK is far too expensive, and far too unreliable; but if you are travelling to London it is not – when it works – too slow. I travel regularly from both the North East and North West, and find the current journey times perfectly acceptable except when the signals fail or some despairing soul decides to end it all on the line ahead.

Granted a spanking new £56 billion railway might not break down as often as the patched-up Victorian one, once it gets over its inevitable teething problems, but given the scale of the investment the one thing we can surely say with confidence is that using it ain’t going to be cheap.

What is really unacceptable is the risibly slow pace of trains between the North East and North West, their few and seemingly always packed carriages chuntering along in a Thomas the Tank Engine world full of ancient signal cabins and frequent wayside halts, some of them actually equipped with platforms.

Most hilariously misnamed train of all time?

HS3 from Liverpool to Hull was briefly mooted as an answer to all this, when “the Northern Powerhouse” was a thing in which at least one person in authority claimed to believe, but now we learn that we cannot even afford to electrify the pathetically slow line we have already got.

The other major limiting factor on physical and economic progress in the UK is surely our grossly overcrowded and increasingly dilapidated road network. I have dismissed the idea of sitting down and working out exactly how many hours I waste each year in traffic jams, because I am depressed enough already, but I can safely predict that it will be far the biggest drag on my own productivity – and surely also that of the nation.

A fairly typical day on the M62: the obvious alternative to the “Transpennine Express”

So why does the Government – and this is not a party political point, for I feel sure any alternative government would do the same – persist in pouring public money into grand vanity projects designed principally to benefit the South East, rather than just doing the basics of improving the existing motorways, roads and railways for the benefit of us all?

Surely the near £100 billion apparently available for HS2 and Crossrail 2 could reopen all those useful rail routes stupidly closed by Beeching, extend the motorway network and increase its capacity without half-wittedly removing the hard shoulders, dual some ridiculously congested A-roads (like the A1 in Northumberland, to pick an example entirely at random) and fill in every pothole in the land?

It might also be handy, in the headlong rush to the age of the electric car, to give some thought to how we are going to generate all the extra power these vehicles will require, and to building the charging infrastructure they will demand.

Though if the provenly mad enthusiasm for diesel engines as a way of reducing carbon emissions is anything to go by, we will be wringing our hands about the downsides of electric cars, and lobbying for scrappage schemes to take them off the road, as soon as they have gained general acceptance.

Perhaps hydrogen engines will provide the answer, or perhaps something that none of us can yet foresee. After all, the Government is trying to look 23 years into the future when it announces its arbitrary date for the death of the petrol and diesel car.

Try looking 23 years into the past and see what was neither around nor predicted in 1994 yet is ubiquitous today. Smartphones, tablet computers, Twitter, Facebook, Uber, AirBnB, tieless MPs, craft beer, Minions and Love Island, just for a start.

All we can predict with confidence is those two great constants: death and taxes. The first we will never defeat, and those hourly exhortations to change our cherished habits to “save lives” and / or “save £x billion for the NHS” are arrant nonsense, merely postponing the inevitable.

The second will also be with us forever, but we might at least reduce the burden if the Government would stop wasting money on any big, shiny, hyper-expensive project that comes along with the Number 2 attached to it.

I know that our Prime Minister is famously childless, but surely there is someone in Government capable of sharing the knowledge held by all of us with small children, namely that anything involving a Number 2 is never likely to be good.


  1. Spot on; but who ever suggested government policy was based on reason; it is absolutely lunatic to have electric trains lugging around a diesel engine + gallons of the stuff so that passengers don’t have to change trains for the final part of their journeys. it is surely a case of the classic British infrastructure patch; our European neighbours who are busily modernising their railways must be rocking with laughter. Seriously a government that bung £1bn to keep the DUP happy has not sense of its priorities. It doesn’t help that Network Rail has seriously cocked up on its Great Western main line electrification programme – too much desk work and not enough field experience.


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