The EU Transport White Paper sets out transport aspirations our political system is entirely incapable of delivering.
Norman Baker, the Lib Dem transport minister, gave a response to the new White Paper that was classic Bore at the Golf Club Bar. He said, and I paraphrase, “EU, eh? Brussels, eh? Banning cars? Crazy or what? Square bananas next, eh, you know what I mean? Eh? You couldn’t make it up!”
Although the reporting of the proposal (“British motorists will be outlaws in their own land“) made it seem as if the EU had decided it would unilaterally ban cars from city centres, possibly starting tomorrow, the real proposals were much more interesting, and much harder to deliver.
The White Paper looks at the future of transport in the EU over the next forty years (and that’s the context of wanting to phase out petrol-engined cars in favour of zero-emission cars by 2050). It also proposes a similar timescale for the shifting of half the longer passenger and freight journeys currently undertaken by road onto other forms of transport.
Even with no allowance for growth and increasing mobility, that is an enormous task – far greater than merely switching petrol-engined cars for electric, which might take a decade or fifteen years to do, depending on replacement cycles.
Think about the scale of the challenge. In 1952, car passengers made 58bn km of passenger journeys, while rail passengers made 38bn km. In 2009, rail passengers were making 61bn km of journeys, but car users were making 680bn. Let’s assume that some of the shorter road use shifts to electric vehicles, cycling and walking, and we only need to shift 33% of the passenger road kilometres to rail. That still means shifting 227bn km from road to rail, or almost quadrupling the number of km travelled by rail.
That means far more than building HighSpeed 2, 3 or 4 – it means a massive extension of rail and tram schemes into areas that haven’t seen them since the 1950s. It means reopening old connections, like the Lewes-Uckfield link in Mr Baker’s constituency, and quadrupling double track routes like Gatwick to Brighton. In towns, it means disruption building new tram routes to connect to rail, and closing roads to traffic to keep tram speeds high. It means – frankly – rural areas becoming less accessible, and cities becoming much more dense.
Personally, I think that’s preferable to the alternative of lower air quality, more climate change, and more congestion, but do we have the money or the political will to make any of these infrastructure changes happen? The timescales for High Speed 2 – fifteen years from plans to trains – show how much we need to do now to make change happen by 2050. The opposition around High Speed 2 is just a taster of what might happen if plans on this scale were carried out – particularly if they were done as oil prices and taxes soared, and petrol cars were being phased out amid screams of rage from the tabloids.
How do you start that national conversation – particularly starting from “straight bananas”?
- EU to ban cars from cities by 2050 (telegraph.co.uk)
- News: Rail to dominate inland transport market by 2050 (railnews.co.uk)