Rail 514: Darling: the devil we know, but a ditherer on decisions

The reappointment of Alistair Darling as Transport Secretary proves the Prime Minister is putting a ‘safe pair of hands’ before a long-term vision for the railway, maintains CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

Well, we knew we would have four more years of Blair, but few people expected another four of Darling. In truth, of course, there is strong whiff of ‘muddling through’ about Tony Blair’s new Cabinet, and Darling seems to have been left where he was for reasons that have nothing to do with the world of transport. He felt that there was no point moving elsewhere in what would have been another sideways switch.

This was not because of his deep love for transport, but for baser political considerations. He likes his Scottish job – remember he is Secretary of State for Scotland, too – and there was nothing to be gained by a transfer that was not an obvious promotion.

The logic is convoluted but understandable: since he was seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ who had got transport off the front pages, then he could quietly continue doing that while waiting for Gordon Brown’s accession to the premiership when Darling is seen as the prime candidate for becoming Chancellor.

Now there are lots of potential pitfalls in this happy little programme for the future, not least the fact that there is no guarantee that Tony Blair will leave before 2008, that Brown will gain the party’s endorsement or, indeed, that Darling is up to the job of Chancellor. But clearly it is the scenario to which Darling is working and therefore we may expect him to stay for some time at transport – if not for four years, then at least for a couple on the assumption that Brown is not sharpening the knives behind Blair’s back.

This has both positive and negative aspects for transport policy and rail. On the plus side, to have continuity for once in transport is nothing short of miraculous. The constantly revolving door at the department has not been helpful to the transport industry, given that new ministers always take months to master the subject. Darling knows the score and clearly has some understanding of the problems.

He has been won over to the idea of road pricing and is prepared to push the agenda on the issue, knowing that it will never be implemented during his watch. To be brutally frank, however, the negatives far outweigh the positives. Darling may have successfully avoided any major Byers-style gaffes while at transport and managed to ensure that his department had the low profile which its political masters want, but that is about the sum of his achievements.

As one long-timeWhitehall insider, a leading Labour loyalist, put it to me when Darling was appointed: ‘He has managed to leave no trace of any achievement in the course of all his previous jobs, and expect the same in transport.’ Darling’s departing press officer, Simon Wren, used to enthuse about his boss’s achievements in a way that went far beyond the normal utterances of a paid civil servant spokesman. No one else, according to Wren, would have been brave enough to address the rail issue through the review and subsequent White Paper, nor to have published the AviationWhite Paper.

Well, the over-excitableWren was being a tad optimistic. The Aviation White Paper is a shameful document that gives the green light to a massive expansion of an industry that is fast becoming one of the most environmentally damaging on the planet and yet there was scant consideration of its negative effects. Darling seemed to have swallowed the aviation industry’s special pleadings whole and there was no examination of whether rail could absorb some of the increase predicted for aviation.

Moreover, I remember asking Darling at a RAIL conference last year whether the more environmentally-friendly mode of rail should be encouraged rather than air, and he argued that it was not government’s business to attempt to make people decide between modes. However, that is just nonsense and economically illiterate ; governments help determine the price of various modes in many ways through taxation or subsidy, hidden or overt, and to suggest that there is no role for the state in that process is little short of dishonesty. What else did Darling do during Blair’s second term?

Well, he put all light rail schemes on ice, saying that the costs had spiralled, while doing little to balance this with any attempt to encourage alternative procurement models that would be cheaper than the P F I / PPP schemes which have become mandatory. He consistently failed to take account of the wider benefi ts of light rail schemes in terms of regeneration.

Darling has a reputation among his civil servants as a ditherer and a man who avoids making decisions until the last minute. Indeed, on all the long-term decisions, there has been hesitation or complete indecision.

Just to take a few examples: Crossrail has been the subject of endless reviews, and even though it is now the subject of a parliamentary Bill, there is no sign of the money to finance it ( and, indeed, Darling was decidedly lukewarm about the scheme in Cabinet committee); the idea of a North- South high-speed railway has also been in and out of fashion more often than the colour brown; and the rail review turned out to be an uninspired fudge, a further bit of stealth renationalisation, while Darling privately long ago realised that reintegration is the only long-term solution.

Even on the schemes that are being built, there has been endless dithering. While the Channel Tunnel R ail Link is proceeding well – a decision taken before Darling was inoffice – there were still ludicrous delays over the decision to build the Northern ticket hall at King’s Cross, an essential component of the scheme, which held it up for a year until an extra £400 million was found; and, even more ridiculously, the box for the Thameslink station has been built but not fi tted out for use because of the need to find the comparatively small sum of £70m.

So we are in danger of having a brandnew Eurostar terminal, with domestic trains running to it by the end of the decade, and yet with a completely inadequate Thameslink station. As for the domestic trains themselves, no fi rmdecision has been taken on purchasing them – though the fact that there is now a string of marginal seats in Kent held by fewer than 1,000 votes is likely to ensure they are ordered – and the replacement of the HST remains in the long grass as well.

Moreover, the East London Line Extension on London Underground was only given the go-ahead by transferring the scheme to Transport for London. Now, if Darling has sought to return to his old job in order to make decisions on all these matters, and really get to grips with the agenda for rail, well and good. But I think it is about as likely as seeing a highspeed monorail network in the UK during my lifetime. Darling has never previously shown any vision and that is one of the problems of having him at transport for another couple of years.

There are real questions to be answered about the role of rail, and tough decisions to be made, which may mean, for example, transferring resources from the regional rail network to inter-city or suburban services. With Darling, we have the devil we know but no vision and little capacity for decision- making. But maybe the whole idea is to leave rail alone and just hope that his friends in the Treasury don’t moan toomuch about the money the industry is costing.

One indication of the importance – or lack of it – that rail is being accordedmay be gleaned from the fact that a third-tier minister, Derek Twigg, a parliamentary undersecretary rather than a minister of state, has been given the rail brief. Stephen Ladyman, the new minister of state, knows a thing or two about the railways as he was on the old Commons Transport Sub-Committee, as it then was, and therefore may have felt that he did not want the hassle.

Alternatively, he could have been told that nothing much is going to happen on rail, so he may as well not have it, and, instead, should take on the potentially sexier areas of highways and road charging since, after all, most transport is by road.

Now the question is: are we better off with a minister who is not going to do very much but will probably not push through any major cuts; or would it be better to have someone with vision and imagination who may take decisions that some of you might not like? For me there is no question which I would rather have, but I suspect that most rail executives will have sighed with relief when Darling was reappointed.

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