Rail 511: The great unmentionable of the general election

For the political parties during the election campaign, the railway will be like the war when Fawlty Towers was entertaining German guests, predicts CHRISTIAN WOLMAR – ‘Don’t mention it!’

Here is a surefire election prediction. The railways are going to get nary a mention in the manifestos of the three main parties and will not be talked about on the hustings, except possibly in response to an odd question at a press conference.

Transport never gets much of a say in elections, despite the fact it is often mentioned in the same breath as education and health. This is because it is a long-term issue largely seen as a negative and therefore the politicians would rather we forgot about it, even though virtually every one of us uses some form every day. The railways, however, will attract even less attention because the two main parties are both smarting over their failed rail policies. While the Tories gave us Railtrack and fragmentation, Labour has given us endless tinkerings with the structure and soaring costs.

Take the Tories first. Their policy paper, A fair deal for everyone (available on the Conservative Party website), is as rusty as the average Class 37 since it was published in July 2003 and does not appear to have been updated. Its attitude towards transport is clear from the front cover which shows, oddly, an empty motorway at night.

The tract is, indeed, an ode to the car, accusing Labour of being anti-motorist, and contains such nonsenses as “The Conservatives will be protravel”, as if travel was a purposeful activity.

Most of the document is a diatribe against the Labour government’s policies and there is precious little suggestion of how the Tories would resolve the problems on the railways. There is no hint of the sort of mea culpa made by David Willetts, a long-standing Tory frontbencher, last year when he admitted that the separation of Railtrack from operations had been a mistake (see Wolmar, RAIL 479). Instead, there are simplistic promises to reduce the burden of regulation for both buses and trains, and for longer franchises, but there is precious little detail and no real attempt to address the main problem of the industry, its soaring cost base.

I suppose none of this really matters because while the Tories were in power, it was worth writing about Labour’s policies as there was some expectation that they would win the election. What the Labour politicians said may have been largely untrue – remember Blair’s promise of a ‘publicly accountable, publicly owned’ railway? – but at least it was worth listening to because they were favourites to get into No 10 at both the 1992 and 1997 elections.

The Tories, however, are so far from winning the election – especially given gaffes like the recent fiasco over the sacking of their Arundel and South Downs MP Howard Flight – that it seems heartless to analyse these muddled policies too harshly, since they will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history.

But what of the Liberals? Transport does not seem high on their agenda. I recently went to a drinks event to launch their environment paper, which included transport, and, rarely for me, I turned up dead on time. That was fortunate because the seriousness of their intent can be shown by the fact that their spokesmen soon drifted away, leaving us hacks to enjoy the rather sparse canapés and each others’ company.

Their ideas, contained in a mini-manifesto on the environment (available on their website), are as modest as the food that was on offer. At least they are not presenting themselves as the motorists’ friend, seeking, instead, to tax environmentally more damaging cars higher, but all they could muster on the railways is the following, reproduced in full: “Conservative privatisation left the railways in a mess, but Labour hasn’t solved the problems – delays have doubled, bureaucracy increased fivefold, and services are now being cut. Liberal Democrats will streamline the rail system, with fewer, larger franchises given longer contracts in return for more investment and better services. We will use savings from the roads budget to prioritise safety at stations and restore key upgrades postponed or cancelled under Labour.” Well, that will get passengers rushing to the polls!

So what will Labour, assuming they will not be sharing power with the Lib Dems, do in their third term? Having just ‘reformed’ the railways, they are hardly going to do so again during the course of the next Parliament, unless forced to do so, a possibility which cannot be ruled out given Network Rail’s unsustainable debt mountain now heading for £20 billion.

Labour’s policy promises are rather thin, too. Again, the party’s transport policy document is pretty out of date (though it has been updated to include the controversial accusation that the Tories are to cut £35bn off public spending), and has no specific commitments about the railways. It says that rail investment is twice what it was under Railtrack – but we all know that is due to the inefficiency of the system and was forced on the government by Tom Winsor’s generous settlement to NR. Labour, we’re told, is committed to “reorganising the rail industry to improve performance, drive down costs and get better value from public spending.” Well, that’s a relief then. Of course, the paucity of Labour’s policies is demonstrated daily. For example, as I write, there comes news that the ridiculous situation of the Thameslink box at King’s Cross/St Pancras is set to continue. There is still no commitment to build the new station planned to link with the Eurostar trains which will start arriving at St Pancras in early 2007, even though the box to accommodate it is being built and the existing Thameslink station is a serious hazard, given the thinness of the platforms.

Take, too, the recent bunch of franchise announcements. They show a lack of consistency and coherence. Essentially, East Coast rail passengers are going to be paying £1.3bn in taxes to the Exchequer for using a line for which there is no commitment to invest and on the same old trains which will be reaching the end of their natural lives. That is, of course, if GNER has got its sums right – and my alter ego Mystic Wolmar has very severe doubts about that, given it is predicted on 8.7% growth in revenue.

Yet GNER, in partnership with Chiltern, both award-winning franchises, are deemed not good enough to be shortlisted for the Great Western franchise, run in a lacklustre way for the past seven years by FirstGroup, which will now compete with the equally unexciting NEG and Stagecoach. The latter admittedly, thanks to a very generous settlement from the SRA, has done a good job recently on South West Trains. Chris Garnett, the head of GNER, is, not surprisingly, bemused by the apparent inconsistency.

Perhaps this time Garnett did not offer enough lucre. Past performance is supposed to be taken into account, but clearly money speaks loudest. Not, though, for Govia which has been booted out of the Thameslink franchise, where performance seems to have been a factor in the company’s failure to get on the shortlist. I hope this column’s remarks of a few weeks ago helped seal that ghastly franchise’s fate. As I pointed out ( RAIL 507), while Go-Ahead’s Chief Executive Keith Ludeman ranted on about the plethora of key performance indicators for franchises, his trains were in a disgraceful condition, and hopefully that contributed to the company’s demise. Surely Ludeman will now be unseated from the chairmanship of the Association of Train Operating Companies as a result?

The key point about the franchising policy is that it is so opaque. No one, let alone the bidders, understands the reasons for these seemingly random decisions. And it seems that far from getting clearer, the process is becoming less open. The SRA has refused to give me details of the breakdown of the franchise payments over the next decade for GNER. A spokesman told me: “I’m afraid that the decision has been taken at the highest level here not to release this information. I expect it has something to do with commercial confidentiality and the fact that this is premium and not government subsidy.”

This is balderdash. There have been other franchises in premium, notably Thameslink and ‘one’. Virgin West Coast was supposed to be paying £100m per year by now and it is possibly embarrassment over that sort of reversal which makes ministers reluctant to release information. However, right from the beginning, when the first franchise was announced by OPRAF, SRA’s predecessor, this information has been given to journalists. Indeed, it was pressure from myself and fellow rail hacks which ensured that the information was released. Railway finances, which are largely dealing with public money, should be as open as possible. An application for the information has gone in under the Freedom of Information Act and I will keep readers appraised of progress on this matter.

So watch this space, too, as the manifestos roll out. There may well be the odd extra sentence or two about the railways, but mostly, for politicians, rail will be like the war when Basil Fawlty had German guests: “Don’t mention it.”

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