Saturday, 25 August 2007

Transport and Mr Bateman

My friend Norman Bateman has written an interesting letter in the Morpeth Herald (23rd August “Rail: Time to think again”) attacking Government policy on fuel and road tax duty and the prohibitive cost of rail travel. Characteristically he makes a provocative aside claiming that the Green Party policy on CO2 emissions is anti-car to the exclusion of all else.

I have, of course, written a rebuttal letter for the Herald – but I can develop some of the ideas more here.

Transport does generate about a third of CO2 emissions in the UK, but it is the only sector where emissions are growing – and growing fast. And of course, air travel is the most damaging because not only does it generate high levels of CO2, it emits them in the upper reaches of the atmosphere where the ‘greenhouse effect’ occurs. So policy needs to focus of emissions arising from transport.

Mr Bateman is quite correct is saying that the first focus must be on reducing the need to travel. We should be decentralising our provision of health, education, shops, work, leisure etc facilities. And we should be insisting on local produce whenever possible. If we’re serious about planning ‘sustainable communities’ – then we should be providing far more than just houses – even if they are ‘eco-friendly’.

And Mr Bateman is correct in saying that current fare structures militate against using lower emission modes of transport. It is ridiculous that short hop air fares are cheaper than rail fares; that a shared taxi is cheaper than travelling by bus or that road freight is more cost effective than rail freight.

Unfortunately, Mr Bateman then succumbs to the popular usage that spending on rail infrastructure is ‘subsidy’ while spending on roads in ‘investment’. In fact, the train operating companies actually pay the Government for franchises to operate and pay Network Rail for use of the track. It is these payments and the notion that the trains should be run to make profits for shareholders that keeps train fares up, while the road network is almost entirely operated as a state-funded public service with the result that the real cost of operating a car has decreased by around 10% in the last ten years.

He also comes up with some curious ideas about discounting fuel tax on heavy lorries and increasing Vehicle Excise Duty. Since the real problem is vehicle use, not vehicle ownership – it would seem a better idea to minimise Vehicle Excise Duty and maximise fuel tax. But – not before investing in public transport – bus and rail - to make it an adequate alternative to car use, and making it easier and safer to travel by bike or on foot.

Unfortunately at present, Government policy on transport – be it aviation, rail or road – is totally at odds with Government policy on climate change and reducing CO2 emissions.

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