Transport shunned in election yet again

Transport barely gets a look in at election time and it was not any surprise that no transport issue was even touched on in the first of the leaders’ TV debates. I even got excited at one point when Alistair Stewart said the next question would come from a train driver, but sighed when he asked a question about care of the elderly.

 The lack of any discussion of transport issues is because politicians know that few of the electorate make up their minds on who to vote for on the basis of transport issues. Even when the hugely controversial plan to privatise the railways was put into the 1992 Tory manifesto, it triggered off no serious debate and, stupidly, Labour did not even campaign much on the issue. For their part, politicians tend not to mention transport in the hustings, even though it affects everyone and it is one issue on which there are real differences between the parties.

 Transport does seem to be one of the areas earmarked by the Tories for major cuts. You don’t have to be that adept are reading between the lines to notice that they have said they ‘support’ projects like Great Western electrification and Crossrail but do not commit themselves to them, even when pressed. Theresa Villiers, their rather anonymous shadow transport secretary rather gave the game away in an interview for Railnews when she said: Take electrification. It is easy to make promises, and I am certainly a supporter of railway electrification in principle. But the real issue is affordability, and I cannot give a guarantee that any scheme would go ahead under a Conservative government until we have applied the Value for Money test. The government certainly sounds committed to these plans, but the real question will be whether it will be able to come through on its promises.” She would not even give any firm commitment to the Thameslink scheme, where work is underway.

 That is a clear indication the Tories will scrap projects and the Crossrail team must all be terrified that the Tories would call time on it. They might, though, realise that not only would they get a lot of stick, but it would represent a terrible waste of money. Around £2.5bn of work has already been committed and while the Treasury is slated to put in £5bn, the bulk of the rest of the money is due to come from a special rate levied by Transport for London. So scrapping Crossrail at this stage would probably not save much.

 Labour’s manifesto, while not offering any new commitments, is, at least, unequivocal on proceeding with Crossrail and other major schemes. It says ‘we will complete the new east-west Crossrail line’ (at least they know which direction it is going, something which apparently George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, did not when Boris Johnson met him to discuss committing the party to it) and ‘will press ahead’ with the rail investment programme that includes electrification, though Thameslink is not mentioned specifically.

 The Tories, too, need to be watched on franchises. They want longer ones, but which are ‘more flexible’ which suggests that the operators would be able to cut back on services that are poorly used, irrespective of the fact that they were part of an overall service. There is a crisis brewing on franchising, which I am researching at the moment, and will write about in a future issue or my blog.

 All three main parties support the construction of a new north south high speed line, a remarkable turnaround since the previous election hustings when the subject was barely mentioned. The Tories plan, however, is rather less worked out. Not only would they build the line in a crazy reverse L shape, starting in London, heading for Birmingham and Manchester and turning over the Pennines to Leeds, but they would also want the line to go to Heathrow. The hugely impressive report produced by HS2 Limited, the government company set up to assess the scheme, makes clear that diverting to Heathrow would require an extra 50kms tunnel for which there was no economic justification.

 The Labour scheme, involving a stop at Old Oak Common to link with Crossrail, and the Y shape from Birmingham, with lines to both Manchester and Leeds makes far more sense but in a way the debate is theoretical since there is no prospect of any work on the ground starting by the end of the new Parliament. So talk about high speed comes cheaply for the politicians, which explains the universal support even though the case is by no means proved.

 The oddest part of Labour’s transport policy is the party’s continued support for the expansion of Heathrow, in the face of the environmental consequences. While the Tories, during Cameron’s brief green phase, came out against the plan for a third runway, Adonis has retained support for it despite mounting evidence that it is utterly unsustainable. I suspect, though, it will never happen as the economic rationale is thin as set out in Grounded, a pamphlet by the New Economic Foundation which found that many of its proclaimed benefits do not stand up to detailed scrutiny. When I interviewed Lord Adonis recently for an article for the New Statesman – available on my website at –  it was clear that he was most discomfited when discussing the

 As for the Libdems, they went into woolly hat territory with the notion, from their spokesman Norman Baker, that thousands of lines of closed railway could be reopened with £3bn diverted from the roads budget. Nevertheless, it was a welcome expression of a pro-rail policy and crucially the Libdems are promising to push down regulated fares by one per cent per year, rather than raising them.

 All of this suggests that it is a great shame that there is no debate on transport matters. Not only are there real divisions between the parties, but transport policy is vital from social, economic, and environmental aspects and the absence of discussion means that the policies put forward by the parties are not properly tested. As just one example, all transport experts agree that road pricing is inevitable given the growth in car use and the impossibility of building more roads on this crowded island. Yet, none of the three parties are suggesting it as a policy for the new Parliament. Labour suggests it is too early because there is not public support and not technically possible – yet Germany has a sophisticated lorry charging scheme – a view with which the Libdems broadly concur, while the Tories are against the notion. So if any candidates come knocking on your day in the last few days before the election, quiz them on these issues.

  • an ordinary bloke in london

    You make several mentions of Crossrail. So I looked carefully to find any reason for your backing it.

    Couldn’t find any.

    The only reason – not – that I could find was this:

    “Around £2.5bn of work has already been committed and while the Treasury is slated to put in £5bn, the bulk of the rest of the money is due to come from a special rate levied by Transport for London. ”

    How could spending money on an unjustified scam be called reason for spending even more money on it while still struggling to find the economic rationale warranting the huge, £ multibillion expenditure?

    Surely you can do a lot better than that Mr Wolmer!

    So many of your appearances on the media as an expert about ‘the rail’ system are like that. They leave too many gaps. You appear to be definitively dealing with the core of the matter: the funding of it and the need for it. Then you go off the core.

    The competent and cost effective use of public money is very important. Especially as most opinion backs the view that ‘deficit reduction’ is a priority.

    Finally, I think you were unjustifiably harsh on Ms Villiers. Now that Mr Hammond has been stating banalities after being preferred for the post that Ms Villiers should have been offered, perhaps you would say sorry to Ms Villiers.

    15 May 2010

  • Dan

    The Lib Dem thing will be interesting – in a year or twos time it will be acceptable to ask which if any of their manifesto committments on any particular policy area (eg transport) have been deleivered on as part of this coalition.

    I suspect it will be precisely zero – although I’m happy to be proved wrong – in which case it will be justifiable to ask why they went in to the coalition (as opposed to supporting a minority govt on a case by case basis). I suspect it will show that they wanted to be in the coalition to get a sniff of power, but will have been unable to deliver on any policy proposals they had – thus suggesting their high minded rhetoric about the ‘new politics’ is absolutly nothing of the sort.

  • RapidAssistant

    Now that the transport budget is going to be hit by £600m+ cuts (and that IMHO, is just the beginning) – perhaps time now to reflect again on one of the original objectives of privatisation – which was to make the industry supposedly immune from such cuts. The uncertainty over whether the TOCs will now get their shiny new trains, or whether major infrastructure projects will go ahead (Crossrail now being low hanging fruit) serves to remind us just how dependent the railway is on the public sector to the point where having any private sector involvment seems totally pointless.

    Take rolling stock for example – why do we have the ROSCOs – which for years have been raking in tens of millions off the back of decades-old assets that were originally paid for out of the public purse now probably quite happy to keep the cash to themselves instead of leveraging their own financial arrangments to invest in new rolling stock themselves, instead of waiting on a handout from the DfT?? Wasn’t that the whole point of creating these companies in the first place?

    Instead of cutting rail funding (which looks inevitable) – it is clear that doing something about the bottomless money pit that is Network Rail seems like a far more effective way of making savings than cutting the up-front funding.

  • Peter

    As expected, the men from the ministry have taken the easy way out and just shaved bits off various budgets.

    So what we will get is the same old disfunctional and wasteful ‘private’ rail industry, but now starved of funds.

    It would have been much better if they’d looked at the structure first. Obviously, it makes no sense having Roscos, Tocs, NWR and various contractors trying to muddle through. This is a political structure which bears no relation to how a railway actually operates – and it is slowly strangling the industry.

    NWR in particular is a notorious money waster and its ‘management’ shows no sign of even recognising that anything is wrong.

    But of course Hammond hasn’t a clue about railways and he will likely do nothing to improve the situation. If he gets some bad headlines he’ll be out. If he gets some good ones he will get a better job soon.

  • Amir

    Why don’t we just start again by scrapping everything and then decide who runs the railways whether private or trust (not nationalised) as BR mk II wud still be told cut £1 billion or else!

    Every train operator would have to run track and train and have profitable routes and un profitable routes extracting money from the profitable ones to the unprofitable ones.

    Freight should have been ran by these companies but by creating separate freight companies this would lead to a problem.

    We’ve tried everything in this country and nothing works. Because no one has a clue. Not even the nationalised British Rail who thought if we close every line down in the country then we solve the problem.