What's all the excitement about?
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DURING the 1970s or at any rate for the coming year it would be a relief to have a moratorium on the use of the word "exciting" to describe practically every development from computerized journeys to the Freightliner and from tachographs to the 44-tonner. Excitement has for a long time been the favourite promise of the politicians, especially those in power, who would apparently have us believe that they live in a state of chronic euphoria.
More recently the word has become popular even among the people who have to bear the consequences of Ministerial excitement. Only the other week, in the unlikely environment of an Industrial Transport Association conference, both Mr. Frank Woodward, transport executive, Plessey Ltd., and Mr. Alistair Tucker, BRS marketing executive, were heard prophesying on the exciting changes that the new decade would bring.
Incidentally the changes mentioned on that occasion included a likely reduction in the number of small operators who might be pardoned for not feeling particularly exhilarated at the prospect; and an imminent unavoidable rates increase nicely calculated to start the customers' adrenalin flowing although not with the emotional concomitant that comes so naturally to such people as Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn and Mrs. Barbara Castle.
EXCITEMENT dies down even more quickly than a New Year resolution. For the• past 18 months—since plating and testing began and the Transport Act was passed—operators have been urged so often to get up and go that it would not be surprising if a reaction set in. In view of the substantial body of legislation with fuses timed to explode at various dates the coming year cannot avoid being eventful. But the people chiefly concerned will find the events drab at best and in most cases fraught with possible misfortune.
In road transport more than any other industry environment and people continually threaten to negative the effect of technical and operational improvements. Higher speeds do not help productivity when congestion and delays increase at terminals. The benefit of containers is largely lost when dockers refuse to handle them at the ports or insist that they alone should be allowed to fill or empty a container. .
Problems of this kind are being tackled and with patience can be solved. Progress may be too leisurely. While discussions drag on other problems become bigger and new problems arise.
To the road operator the equivalent of the factory floor is not merely his own premises. It includes the whole of the road network, the transport yard and other facilities of his customers and incidental items such as parking and resting places for his vehicles and drivers when away from home. The prospect for the next year or even 10 years is not encouraging.
Road construction and improvements are going ahead. The rate is not nearly fast enough and perhaps it never could be. The number of vehicles clamouring for space increases many times more quickly even than the celebrated and dreaded population explosion which according to some of' the more 'gloomy prophets will make it impossible by the and of the century for anybody to sit down.
Road operators are not primarily to blame. Over the past 20 years the number of buses and coaches has remained fairly constant at around 80,000 and the increase in goods vehicles from just under lm to just over lfm is not unreasonable. The car population which was 2+m in 1950 is now over 1 Im. It has doubled itself each decade and surpassed most of the forecasts.
WHAT seems less than just is the refusal of the public to read any significance into these figures. The chosen scapegoat is the heavy lorry. In recent months it has been tried and sentenced in a way that is new and disquieting. Previous outbursts were sporadic. They could rely on under-cover support from the railways who were still a power in the transport land and they may sometimes have been encouraged by Ministers wishing to demonstrate strong public support for strict legislation.
The less dominant position of the railways has now been established and the new controls put into effect. The attacks on road transport continue as if Mr_ Ernest Marples and Mrs. Castle had never been, and are winning approval from many sections of the public. The starting point has been the proposal to increase permitted maximum weights but the critics have made it plain that their real target is the lorry in general.
Whatever the Minister of Transport may originally have had in mind he has clearly decided to postpone a decision on a weight increase for a year or more. To that extent the attack has been immediately successful. Time will show whether the wider complaint has any effect.
Clearly there is no going back. Without the lorry, trade and industry would disintegrate. The Government know this as well as anybody. On the other hand public opinion, however badly informed, cannot be ignored. It may have to be placated and the process is bound to be awkward and even damaging to the offenders.
N. example of what can happen is provided by the current battle over the development plan of the Greater London Council. The normal public inquiry is to be supplemented by a Government investigation which will mean more delay and probably considerable changes.
There is another side to the question. People whose lives may be adversely affected by the GLC plan have a right to be heard and to bring all the evidence they can to show that the plan is wrong. There is a ready-made fund of sympathy from other people who can visualize what they would feel if they were less fortunate and who are always prepared to help the little fish against Leviathan.
The road transport equivalent is the Juggernaut, a well-chosen symbol to attract the widespread body of opinion that little is good and big is bad. Many operators themselves in their capacity as private citizens or as motorists will constitute a kind of fifth column in support of what is against their livelihood.
Ultimately the main attack must fail because of the inherent Contradictions. The members of the Society for the Preservation of Rural England probably know that the preservation must depend on the flow of supplies to the farmer and on the speed and efficiency with which he can get his produce to the market. Without road transport he "would be helpless. But one can also appreciate the shuddering vision of a countryside scarred with main roads instead of sheep tracks and intolerably noisy with traffic instead of bird song.
Here is sufficient reason for politicians and experts to refrain from calling exciting what so many other people find hideous. Possible improvements in the coming year are numerous and it is worth calling attention to them. But it cannot be overlooked that the limiting factor is going to be the space in which the improvements can be carried out and that the provision of this indispensable item is tagging more and more behind the demand_