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Moving Forward Together – the Transport White Paper is a useful Road Map for Europe

Submitted by on 13 Sep 2011 – 17:11

Maria Eagle MPMaria Eagle MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The publication of the European Commission’s White Paper on Transport has been a welcome opportunity to lift our eyes from day to day issues and look at the longer term transport challenges we collectively face across the EU.

Many of the shared challenges we face, such as climate change, do not respect national borders and it is right that the EU moves forward together. By defining ten clear goals, and suggesting some equally ambitious targets for Member States, the Commissioner for Transport has ensured that the debate generated by the White Paper across Europe will be focused on clear outcomes and the policies that will be needed to meet them.

In the UK we are one year into a new Conservative-led coalition government. Their negative response to the White Paper has been disappointing, although perhaps hardly surprising considering how so many of the policies they are pursuing are taking Britain in a different direction.

Let me take three areas of transport policy as examples – the need to decarbonise transport, the need for greater connectivity across Europe and the need to improve safety on our roads. In each of these the White Paper maps a way forward and in each the UK government is not only unwilling to engage with the EU but is reversing some of the gains of recent years.

Decarbonising Transport

Transport remains a major cause of CO2 emissions and therefore a contributor to climate change. Decarbonisation of the sector has to be the number one goal for transport policy across the EU.

We have to go considerably further in making the shift from cars that use conventional fuel to others forms of car, such as electric and hybrid vehicles. We can debate precisely what the target should be and whether we can realistically achieve a phasing-out of carbon emissions from vehicles by 2030. However, we will get nowhere near the required reductions in carbon dioxide without making a serious commitment to the affordability of electric and hybrid cars.

So far the actions of the UK’s Coalition government have been disappointing. They have abandoned plans begun under the previous government for a national network of recharging points for vehicles and reduced the funding to bring down the cost of electric vehicles from £230 million to just £43 million. It seems they simply have no strategy to meeting the scale of the challenge we face.

They should listen to Edmund King, the president of Britain’s Automobile Association (AA), who has warned:  “To even partially fulfil that aspiration, a comprehensive EV charging network will be needed in every city. There is, of course, a role for the private sector, but the government needs to take a stronger lead in terms of infrastructure if electric vehicles are to take off.”  It is a tragedy that the Government do not understand that they need to play that crucial role.

A further crucial step recognised in the White Paper is the need to transport more freight from road to rail and sea. Again, the UK government seems to be moving the other way, allowing longer HGVs on Britain’s roads. The UK Department for Transport’s own analysis suggests that 9.2 million tonnes of freight would move from rail to road by 2025 as a result of this change. Considering rail freight produces 70% less CO per kilometre than road freight and HGVs, this is a mistaken policy change.

Greater Connectivity

The White Paper also places greater connectivity across Europe at the heart of transport policy with an ambitious goal of tripling the existing network high speed rail network by 2030. In government, Labour built Britain’s first high-speed line between London and the Channel tunnel, the first major new railway to be constructed for over 100 years. We believe that an integrated high-speed network, achieved through a combination of electrification, more advanced trains and new lines where necessary, is the right way forward. It is disappointing that the UK government only intends to legislate for the necessary new line between London and Birmingham, rather than take powers to connect to the north of England. In addition, it is far from clear that the current proposals to connect to Britain’s only major hub airport, Heathrow, and to the continent via the ‘HS1’ line are adequate.

Greater connectivity is of little use if the services are not affordable to use and the coalition government are already significantly increasing fares with their decision to increase rail ticket prices by 3 per cent above inflation in each of the next three years. I believe that we have to find a way to bring down the cost to passengers, not to shift more of the burden on to them as the Government are doing. Instead we need to find a way of taking the costs out of running the industry. Labour’s own policy review is looking at alternative options for the running of the rail industry, including looking at models across the continent.

The White Paper itself talks of a commitment to the ‘user pays principle’. It is important that the affordability of accessing transport services is not sacrificed on this principle.

Improving Safety

The bold commitment in the white paper to move closer to zero road transport fatalities is absolutely the right ambition. Sadly, the UK government has just ripped up our own targets for reducing deaths and serious injuries on our roads.

By cutting funding for road safety by 40%, removing the ring-fencing of road safety grants, axing speed cameras and reducing traffic police numbers, the government is making it harder and harder to make Britain’s roads a safer place. To make matters worse they are proposing to reduce the frequency of MoTs needed, vital to ensure vehicles are road-worthy and increase speed limits on motorways. And they have decided to stand alone in Europe as the only government to refuse to sign the directive to enable EU cross-border enforcement of road traffic offences.

Whether it is moving faster in reducing the impact that transport has on climate change, improving connectivity through investment in rail or reducing deaths and injuries on our roads, in all these areas the EU is right to press us to go further and act faster.

The goals and challenges set out in the Transport White Paper are a welcome attempt to identify the priorities for transport policy in the years ahead. It is disappointing that the coalition government in the UK is moving us further away from these ambitious goals.