Transport System: Failings Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Transport

Transport System: Failings

Lord Birt Excerpts
Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Birt Portrait Lord Birt (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I too commend the noble Lord, Lord Snape, for initiating this timely debate, from which I suspect a fair amount of consensus will emerge, at least about what is wrong.

In the noughties, I worked as Tony Blair’s strategy adviser, and among my tasks was to lead a study by officials of the UK’s transport system—road and rail. It was a sorry, chastening experience. We identified that the UK had, by a country mile, the least developed road and rail network of any major country. The core reason for this was that, for the previous 50 years or more, the UK had invested—under both main parties—a lower share of GDP than other major countries. At the first sign of economic reverse—it happened time and again—capital spend was cut in favour of current spend. Frankly, the Treasury appeared not at all to value the payback that comes over time from investing in more efficient transportation. Germany’s GDP per hour worked is 23% greater than the UK’s; France’s is 17% greater. Of course, their superior performance is not all down to their superior infrastructure, but it surely helps.

Tony Blair gave an in-principle go-ahead to a high-speed rail network linking Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds to London. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, picked up the baton. It is nationally shaming that, 20 years later, no part of that vision is operating, and that, ridiculously, after multiple revisions, only the Birmingham to London section of HSR is now under construction.

At the time of Tony Blair’s go-ahead, China had no high-speed rail network at all. Now, incredibly—it is very hard to believe this figure—China has more than 40,000 kilometres of HSR in operation. As we meet today, the UK has 113 kilometres of high-speed rail. A World Bank study identifies how China has achieved this remarkable transformation: a well-analysed long-term plan, standardised design and construction, and a competitive supply network, and all at two-thirds per kilometre of any other country. Since 1990, China, with a GDP per capita of around $12,000, has also built 130,000 kilometres of motorway.

The UK’s transport system is not remotely fit for purpose, as we have heard over and again in this debate. I visit the north regularly. Many industrial areas in and around the Pennines are criss-crossed by small, narrow roads—the legacy of earlier eras. These now carry commuter traffic, and at peak travel times are severely overloaded. Recently, I was trapped on the M62, not by an accident but by a gridlocked major junction. As a result, it took me just under three hours to travel the 16 miles from Leeds station to my hotel destination. Best practice would be to design motorways to carry long-distance traffic and for secondary road networks, as in other countries, speedily to convey regional and local traffic.

The train from Liverpool to Norwich, passing through and stopping at some of our great cities—Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Peterborough—takes five and a half hours. If, rather than take the train from Liverpool to Norwich, you decided instead to fly from Liverpool to Sharm el-Sheikh, you would reach Sharm el-Sheikh more quickly than you would Norwich.

As in so many areas of our national life, we are now operating in slow motion as a country. We need to get a grip; we need massively to raise our game. In transport, we need to learn from the rest of the world and identify what kind of infrastructure is needed in a crowded country heading towards and beyond a population of 70 million. We need to accept that it will take 25 to 50 years to create, but we need to start now.