Transport System: Failings - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:11 pm ar 25 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 1:11, 25 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Snape, for securing this important debate. He gave us a splendid knock-about speech to start, full of horror stories. These have been added to—stories of failures, inconveniences, cancellations and so forth—in the course of our debate. I would like to take the word “strategy” seriously. Many of the examples that have been deduced today are not pertinent to the question of strategy; they are what I would rather think of as tactical failings. You can have a large number of tactical failings without it necessarily meaning that you do not have a good strategy. That said, I do not think the Government have much of a strategy for transport, but the two are worth distinguishing.

I would like to use the few minutes available to set out some of the principles that ought to underly a transport strategy for this country and the United Kingdom. First, we need to think the right way. We need to think teleologically about transport. The purpose of transport is transport; it is moving people and goods. That movement brings economic and social benefits; these are not inherently the purpose of transport but they are beneficial consequences. Transport also brings pollution, which is not the purpose of transport but simply a negative unwelcome consequence. We need to distinguish between the purpose of what we are doing and the consequences.

Secondly, it is also not the purpose of transport to meet non-transport policy objectives—for example, net zero. As an aside, it is quite interesting that I am probably the first person in this debate to use the words “net zero”. I do not use them in a very positive way; I just give it as an example. Extraneous policy objectives are constraints on how you deliver transport policy; they tell you how you should be doing it rather than why. That is also a necessary clearing of the mind if we are to think about these things properly.

My third point might seem obvious, but it has huge consequences. Public transport works best where you have a concentration of passengers. That means that it works well, largely speaking, in cities and larger towns. Having a density of population is a necessary condition for sustainable public transport. It is possible that transport services can create density, in the way that the Metropolitan Railway created Metro-land, but our anti-development planning policies nowadays sadly make that a thing of the past.

Fourthly, as a consequence of that, we have to be realistic about what we are ever going to be able to offer rural areas in public transport services. The idea that rural areas will have transport services akin to what is on offer in London is simply unrealistic. It is to hold out a pledge that can never be met. This emphasises that, especially in rural areas, there is always going to be a very important role for the private motorcar—and, indeed, for cheap private motorcars. The whole question of electric vehicles and how far we can expect them to spread, especially in rural areas, seems to be determined by their cost. At the moment, they are far too expensive. If we want cheap ones, we are going to have to pay to import them from China. That is basically the dilemma we face. We need to be realistic about that.

My next point might be controversial. Public transport is expensive to run, particularly rail. It costs a great deal of money, and not simply because of the monopoly supply of labour and the way in which the trade unions have been able to extract enormous salaries, especially for drivers, as a result of that. It is very expensive to run and only the fare payer or the taxpayer can pay for it. The money has to come from one of those two sources. It is a profoundly political decision how that expense will be allocated.

My suggestion—unpopular though it may be—is that any national strategy should be directed at maximising fare income. This does not mean high fares for everyone, because transport is a paradigm case of where marginal pricing adds to income—railway operators have understood this since the railways started in the 19th century. The fact is that it costs more or less the same to run the train whether it has passengers on it or not. Even £1 from that last marginal passenger adds to income. Airlines completely understand this. They set and vary their prices from day to day on that basis, in order to maximise revenue—not by having high fares for everyone but by having high fares for some and lower fares for others. We should perhaps learn from that.

I am coming to a conclusion. I would like to say a lot about technology, as my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond has. That would be another speech, as there is a great deal to say on that.

Finally, I will briefly say something about the nationalisation of rail, as announced today. I am not, despite what noble Lords might think, a mad privatiser of every utility. I was deputy chairman of Transport for London, so I can hardly believe entirely in privately running things. But the announcement today will make no difference whatever. Nearly everything you can pick up and touch in the railways is nationalised already, except the trains. If you take over the train operating companies, which are already puppets of the Department for Transport, you will simply have the same people doing the same jobs. Nothing very much would change, but you would run out of capital to invest at some point. That is the great advantage of privatisation.