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December 17, 2008

Britain's broken back

As President-elect Obama promises to invest in the United States’ infrastructure during the recession, here there’s little sign of progress.

A depressing Friday-night journey from Nottingham to Southampton last week gave me plenty of time to ponder the uselessness of Britain’s transport network. In fact I only had to go about ten miles down the M1 before it became a car park.

We’re a long, relatively thin country with a large proportion of the population spread along a spine running from London to Liverpool/Manchester.

But the spine’s broken.

As of last weekend we’ve now got one medium-speed rail line running from North to South. It’s not bad, but it’s nowhere near enough. It’s also ludicrously expensive, hence why I was sat on the M1.

We’ve got two North-to-South motorways, the M1 and the M6. They are renowned, probably across most of Europe, for being over-stretched.

And then we’ve got internal flights, the use of which ought to be a national embarrassment.

No-one really knows how to solve the problem, and there certainly isn’t a consensus. We’re building Crossrail at the same time as considering putting the brakes on Heathrow’s expansion. We’re widening motorways at the same time as encouraging people to use public transport. It must be the least well-planned area of public policy in Britain. Nothing adds up.

One decision ought to be a no-brainer. We need new railways, stretching from the North to the South. They don’t necessarily need to be TGV-fast – in some ways making them as cheap as possible might be the most important priority.

And it actually makes more sense for them to be freight lines than passenger ones. Anyone who’s tried overtaking a lorry which is itself overtaking another lorry will tell you what causes most of the congestion on the roads.

But we’ve not built the country for rail freight. I spent much of the summer listening to people fight for or against a Tesco Megashed in Hampshire. It was to be bigger than T5 at Heathrow, and would have served most of their supermarkets in the South-East of England. It was right next to a railway line, but they had no intention of ever using it.

Personally I’m not a fan of expanding Heathrow, as it seems obvious to everyone that it was built in the wrong place. The more we expand it, the more we compound the problem. The Thames Estuary idea apparently favoured by Boris Johnson seems a good idea to me, and is worthy of investigation by the government.

Unfortunately it’s all a bit too late. A recession is the ideal time to do some of these things (it’s cheaper and employs people). But it’ll take decades for anything to be done.

We’re in real danger of becoming a country of motorway-bound I-Spy players.


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