White Paper offers no strategy

To call the White Paper on railways disappointing would be rather like saying that the Hatfield train crash was a slight mishap for the industry. The dirty hands of the Treasury eagerly cutting back on anything exciting or hopeful in the strategy are all too clear. Virtually all substantial enhancements has been taken out, leaving a handful of schemes that are the basic minimum for the government’s fig leaf of respectability.

It would have been difficult for the government not to address the problems at Reading and Birmingham New Street, though the latter is blessed with only £128m with the promise of more to come from other government departments. Thameslink, so often delayed and now a £3.5bn project (for half the scheme), nearly ten times the original estimate, was another certainty and was much trailed by this supposedly leak proof Brown government.

As for the rest, it is all relatively minor stuff. There are to be 300 more new coaches than the 1,000 that had been announced before, a few stations will be given a clean up for a total of £150m – reminescent of the Railtrack Station modernisation programme which seems to have left little trace – and £200m on freight buys barely a dozen locomotives. These are the sort of things that British Rail would have paid for out of small change with little reference to its political masters. Now we are supposed to get excited about such bawbles.

The big ticket items are kicked far into couch, beyond any conceivable political horizon. There will not even be a feasibility study for the north south High Speed Line before 2014 with not a penny earmarked for the project, despite repeated statements from past Transport Secretaries that the idea was very much part of the government’s agenda. Crossrail is barely mentioned, but is the one exception as it will probably get the go-ahead in the Comprehensive Spending Review in the autumn since Gordon Brown recognises its importance for the City.

Electrification which would require government funding is seen as an expensive diversion, while biofuels in the short term and hydrogen in the longer term – developments which would both be funded largely by the private sector – are considered to be viable ways of improving the industry’s carbon footprint.

The White Paper, therefore, is little more than an attempt by the Treasury to rein back on the excessive spending by the industry since the Hatfield train accident and the collapse of Railtrack. This peaks at over £6bn this year but the strategy document – fortunately the name High Level Output Specification seems to have largely been relegated to an appendix – suggests this will be cut back to £3bn by 2009/10 (although this does not include Scotland unlike today’s figure) and stay at broadly that level for the whole five year Network Rail control period 4.

The aim is to put most of the burden of the cost of the railways on passengers, rather than, as now, on taxpayers. The civil servants who drew up the Strategy are gambling that there will be an increase of 22.5 per cent (note the spurious precision of the .5!) which will not be too much to cause excessive overcrowding, one of the targets set out in the Strategy, but will bring in sufficient revenue to pay for the modest investment programme. Overall, passengers will be expected to contribute three quarters of the cost of the railway, compared with just under half today. With saver fares and season tickets remaining protected, despite criticism of the inflexibilty of the system in the White Paper, it is clear that the price of other tickets will rise well above the rate of inflation.

In truth, the White Paper was always going to disappoint. The notion that civil servants would produce a true vision was always fanciful. Their loyalty is not to an industry they love and cherish, as it was for British Rail’s managers, but to the bean counters next door. Indeed, the main author of the Paper, Mark Lambirth, is off to another government department now this task is out of the way.

There is a clear mismatch between the long term 30 year aspiration of doubling passenger numbers and freight on the railway, and the short term measures where only minimal capacity enhancements are being mooted. While the concept of publishing a long term strategy for the railway, together with a detailed outline of the governments requirements and the funds available for the next control period, the lack of any real vision and long term plan is all too apparent in virtually every paragraph of the White Paper. The Treasury has triumphed again.

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