Rail 659: will cross party agreement on investment hold

Philip Hammond’s announcement on rolling stock plans which confirming new trains for Thameslink and Crossrail, together with electrification for the first section of the Great Western, marks a key point in railway history. Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate its importance as it demonstrates that there is a remarkable and unprecedented cross party agreement on the need for rail investment.

 Sure, there’s lots details that one can quibble with. Extra delays in the delivery of rolling stock and key trackwork have been built into the programme in order to help balance the books. In particular it is a shame that the full electrification scheme devised by Hammond’s predecessor, Andrew Adonis, has not been given the go-ahead, though Mystic Wolmar thinks it will be confirmed, but possibly  to Cardiff or Bristol rather than Swansea. The future of the InterCity Express is still in the balance, but the depth of commitment to the railways expressed in the statement is far more significant than the dithering over parts of the investment programme.

 The key fact is that the Con-Libdem coalition has bought into the idea that rail investment is crucial to the future of the nation. In fact, more precisely the Government has taken on Labour’s investment programme for the railways devised by Labour’s last transport secretary,  Andrew Adonis, with very little amendment. It is noticeable Lord Adonis has taken a very low profile during the recent period of rail reflection by the new government, presumably because if he pointed out that all his ideas were being filched, it would put his legacy at risk.

 Adonis’s scheme was a very clever worked-out programme which, at the time, prompted me to write that he had been acting like a one man British Railways Board because he had worked out a whole cascade process for the next decade. It was prompted by the need to replace the trains on the Great Western suburban and regional network but by cancelling the proposed order for new diesel trains, Adonis saved money which would help pay for electrification, as well as finding a home for the Thameslink 319s that otherwise would have been mothballed with at least a decade of useful life left in them. Adonis used all his knowledge of the railways to devise and push through the scheme, and, to his credit, Hammond has recognised that the whole scheme makes sense and therefore has retained it. Hammond himself would, I’m sure, be the first to accept that he would never have been able to work out such a complex programme himself, and that is why one reason why it has been left largely unscathed.

 A less canny politician than Hammond, however, might well have started tinkering with the plan and put it at risk. The way that all the parts – Thameslink, Crossrail, the new fleet for the old Thames franchise, electrification – were interwoven made it very hard to unpick. So just as Network Rail’s investment programme – Control Period 4 – would have been difficult to cut without causing much collateral damage, it was easier for Hammond to retain the Adonis plan than to start amending bits of it.

 Hammond has also, virtually unamended, taken on Adonis’s scheme for high speed rail, and indeed firmed it up with speeding up work on the two ‘branches’ from Birmingham International to Leeds and Manchester. Again, the logic was irrefutable. There was no case for the route going through Heathrow, as had been heavily promoted by Theresa Villiers when she was shadow transport secretary, nor for the crazy S shaped line that would have run to Leeds via Manchester which made no sense whatsoever..

 So what is going on here?  Why has the Coalition government endorsed both plans for rail?

Much of it is down to Hammond himself. He came into government clearly sceptical about the value of rail investment and ready to question all aspects of his department’s spending. He also banged on – goaded by the Daily Mail – about ending Labour’s war on the motorist, and did some daft things like cut spending on speed cameras and announce the abolition of the M4 bus lane. In fact, though, these are peccadilloes – at least in terms of cash as a rising death toll on the roads is not a trifling matter – which satisfy the appetite of the ever voracious roads lobby but mean little in practice. Far more significantly, he has taken an axe to road spending and left very little apart from motorway widening and the odd ‘improvement’.

 On rail, he looked at the case for investment and found it compelling. He has the mind of an accountant and therefore looked at the figures carefully, concluding that there was real value for money, though rightly he questions the efficiency of an industry where subsidy has soared. There were too, several other factors, notably the fact that George Osborne is supportive of rail investment. Osborne’s father in law is David Howell, who was an adviser to one of the Japanese rail companies and took Osborne over to Japan see the Shinkansen a few years ago. David Cameron also sees high speed rail as the way to modernise Britain. Thameslink and Crossrail both have strong City support and there would have been an outcry if either had been cut back significantly.

 All this made it easier for Hammond to win the argument in the Treasury which, in any case, can be quite sympathetic to big rail schemes. Hammond is a pragmatist, but one who is ready to listen to arguments. He will never win a prize in the charm school but he is proving effective in his no-nonsense manner. I loved the way he swatted aside John Snow’s suggestions on Channel 4 News that army helicopters should have been sent in to rescue a few people stuck overnight on trains. He rightly said, in a completely unapologetic way, that it was the stuff of fantasy to even to consider it. 

 Moreover, as mentioned above, unpicking the rail investment programme would have been difficult and messy. Therefore far better to endorse it wholeheartedly and forget the fact that actually the plan was drawn up by the Opposition.

 Therefore this moment needs to be savoured and exploited by the industry which faces the immediate test of responding to the suggestions in the McNulty review. There are other battles to be fought, too, notably over ticket prices and over the future direction of Network Rail, particularly in Control Period 5, the five year investment programme that starts in 2014. History has some  warnings. The last time there was such a political consensus over rail investment was in the 1950s when the Tory government launched a modernisation programme which cost the equivalent of £25bn today that should have transformed the railways into a modern effective industry. Instead much of the money was wasted on developing over 50 types of diesel locomotive and building huge marshalling yards that were never fully utilised. The same mistakes must not be made, and that means responding to McNulty in a positive and coherent manner.


Railways freeze up again

Predictably, the industry has taken a lot of stick over the delays and cancellations caused by the big freeze in late November. There is no doubt some of this is deserved, while much is not. It is irrelevant to compare the performance in the UK with say Switzerland or Sweden where Arctic temperatures and conditions are the norm every winter. Neither passengers nor government would be prepared to stump the billions that would be necessary to pay for the equipment and manpower needed to ensure that all but the most serious eventualities could be dealt with. In any case, there actually has been disruption in several other European countries which are normally seen as better at coping with the weather than we are.

 While I have had several complimentary comments about the operators on my website, there have been numerous critical ones too. My own experience is patchy, too. I did manage to get down the East Coast main line on a trip to Hull on Friday December 3rd without much delay,  but when my daughter and I tried to leave the next day we found a station with no staff and all the screens, except one slightly dodgy one, not working. Moreover, the information was inaccurate and it was only by luck that we found a late running train to catch to Doncaster as our original one, we discovered later, was cancelled. Thankfully, the conductor on the East Coast line accepted our tickets without hesitation although we were on the wrong train.

 It is on information that the industry has failed completely. Radio 5, for example, was giving out of date information and I suspect that’s because the reporters were not being properly informed. By coincidence, the Office of Rail Regulation issues a press release saying that operators were failing to give information about delays and not following the voluntary code of practice which is to alert people within ten minutes of an incident and then give regular updates every 20 minutes.

 That is all very well, but the trouble is that the ORR has no jurisdiction over the train operators. It is the Department who should ensure they follow the code of practice but in fact this does not seem to be happening. It reinforces the argument that there should be some type of independent monitoring of franchises, as this is not a suitable role for a government department. Moreover, let’s hope it happens before we get another bout of freezing weather.