Transport Policy – maintenance expenditure

Is the UK spending enough on transport maintenance?

People blame potholes in British roads on exceptional floods, droughts or frosts, and the government offers a few hundred million every year to fix the latest winter’s floods or frosts. But any road engineer will tell you that the real work-driver is the volume of traffic in southern Britain, which far exceeds original design capacities. The AA says sums of £5-10bn may be required to overcome the road maintenance backlog, though obviously this lobbying organisation has an axe to grind.

But isn’t there a lesson from railways? Pre-privatisation governments didn’t believe British Rail when it said there was a backlog of maintenance on the railways – until the 2000 Hatfield rail disaster revealed cracks in the high speed rails all over the UK and trains had to be slowed down on all lines for periods of up to a year. Then the Treasury started to release another £5 billion a year or so for maintenance – a sum that isn’t declining after ten years, particularly as passenger rail demand has doubled since the 90s, and more trains, bulging with people, wear out the tracks. Aren’t roads similar? Shouldn’t we be honest with ourselves and admit we need to spend significantly more on all forms of transport maintenance ? In America they waited until the noughties to repair and maintain roads and bridges built in the fifties, and had some spectacular deaths before Congress released the money. In Britain are we simply going to wait for our own series of ‘Hatfields’ on the roads?

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