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Transport for Europe is a failure

AGENDA Viewpoint

We are being let down on transEuropean links, writes Peter Heathershaw

FEW WILL have missed the news that Britain is now holding the presidency of the European Union.

Tony Blair's turn at the helm comes after one of the most challenging periods in the past half-century of European political development, one which has brought many of the functions of the EU and its overall direction into sharp focus.

An EU aim has been to take a pan-European perspective on transport. From the first steps of the European 'project' in the years after World War II, the idea was to bring the member states into close political and eventually economic co-operation.

Creating a single market and enabling the free movement of goods and services across the expanding union would be a pipe dream if there was no transport infrastructure that linked EU areas.

There has, in general, always been a certain European outlook among the Continental member states when it came to transport. The great waterways such as the Rhine or the Danube knew no national frontiers and it made sense to make roads and later rail networks link the centres of population.

But not until the advent of the EU, maybe not since the Roman empire, has there been a perspective on transport that comes close to being truly transnational. The Essen Summit in December 1994 endorsed 14 priority Trans-European Network transport projects, which were described by the Irish prime minister at the time as underpinning the coming together of economies.

By 2001, though, only 20 per cent of the infrastructure planned in that TENs programme had been built, due to lack of funding and cross-border priority, and the EU Commission adopted a 'filling in the missing links' approach.

The UK is as guilty as any government of letting the TENs programme down. Of the three of the 14 projects agreed in Essen that cross our territory, only the Channel Tunnel Rail Link element of the ParisBrussels-Cologne-Amsterdam-London high-speed rail network remains on time and on budget. The upgrade of the West Coast Main Line has been allowed to slip, and its cost has escalated, although it does now seem to be on track for completion in 2010.

Less encouragingly, the Ireland-UK-Benelux road axis project seems to be well off the radar, with several key elements still awaiting decision, including most importantly how to increase the capacity of the M6 in the Birmingham-Manchester corridor. That was agreed in principle in December 2002, but then public consultation was launched in 2004 and there is as yet no word of its conclusion.

Despite having conspicuously failed to deliver that project in its entirety ? or even to acknowledge its existence ? in 2004 the Government agreed to another cross-UK TENs priority project among the 16 that were last year added to the original list. This is the Ireland-UK-continental Europe road-rail axis project, which supposedly involves improved road and rail freight connections between Hull and Liverpool, and the Felixstowe-Nuneaton strategic rail freight enhancement project that was shelved last year.

The Government, and the prime minister personally, urge us to believe that their policy is to put the UK at the centre of Europe. How is it possible for them to justify that claim when they have been and still are so dilatory over the delivery of the UK components of the programme of TENs priority projects that is such a key component of EU development?

Peter Heathershaw is chairman of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association