If you walk down the evocatively named Litchurch Lane to reach the Bombardier works in Derby, you can almost smell the long-gone steam. The high redbrick walls that once protected the railways from the hungry eyes of generations of trainspotters, along with the humpback bridges over the lines, evoke a world where the railway was king, Britain’s biggest industry and employer.
Now Litchurch Lane is almost certainly heading the way of the big railway works in Swindon, Doncaster, Crewe and countless other towns created by the railway; and its closure, after the current order for London Underground trains is fulfilled in 2014, seems inevitable. And utterly unnecessary.
The accusation by Philip Hammond, the transport secretary – justifying the failure to give the big Thameslink contract to Bombardier by suggesting it was the Labour government’s fault for the way it framed the contract – is narrow political posturing of the worst kind. While Labour bears some of the responsibility for the demise of the British railway manufacturing industry, with a bit of nous Hammond could certainly have saved the day by steering the contract Bombardier’s way.
The roots of the problem stretch back into the history of British industrial policy – or the lack of it – and the shoddy dismemberment of British Rail at privatisation in the mid-1990s. Ministers argue that they have their hands tied by EU rules and cannot favour home-based industry, even a Canadian-dominated multinational such as Bombardier, without risking a reference to the European court of justice.
Not so, according to Chris Bovis, professor of European business law at the University of Hull, who says there is a long tradition of British failure to understand the finer points of European legislation. “The British tend always to go for the lowest bid but actually they could take into account many other considerations,” he says. “The key criterion is to accept the tender that is most economically advantageous.” But he goes on to point out that this can include many considerations other than the lowest price: quality, security of supply, social cohesion, industrial policy and even – one unlikely to be a factor for penny-pinching Tory ministers – aesthetics.
The European court of justice has upheld decisions relating to all these factors and numerous others. For example, it is quite possible to argue that the inspection process is much easier with a home-based company than a foreign one. Yet successive UK governments persist in considering only the narrow cost element, without taking account of wider considerations such as unemployment.
The French and Germans know how to play the game. They ensure that virtually all the orders for new trains go to home-based companies, with Alstom and Siemens respectively being the main beneficiaries. Certainly they indulge in a few sneaky tricks, such as providing regional grants that may pay for a new workshop or a bit of R&D – but overall European companies are simply better at reading the legislation and complying with it.
The European firms are helped, too, by the wider policies that favour public transport and therefore ensure there is a steady flow of orders for trams. Bombardier and its predecessors have been hampered by this lack of a home market and by the feast-and-famine approach of the Department for Transport, which has consistently failed to understand the needs of a capital-intensive industry.
Giving the order for the 1,200 Thameslink coaches to Bombardier would, at least, have safeguarded the future of the plant for the long term, although the job losses would have happened anyway. That’s because of the failure of wider transport policy. At privatisation there was a hiatus in train orders of nearly three years, which put paid to several manufacturing plants. Bombardier’s Derby plant has, ironically, enjoyed its best period for many years, thanks to the London Underground orders, and it even built trains for South Africa; but without a solid home market, a spokesman told me, there is no chance of any export orders. There has now been another train-order hiatus of 800-plus days, and there is no prospect of any major contracts, apart from trains for the new Crossrail line in London – not due until 2015 at the earliest.
It is difficult not to be pessimistic and see this as the end of an era stretching back nearly two centuries. However, the failure to give the contract to a home-based company is playing badly in the Tory party. It gives the lie to Cameron’s promise to support British manufacturing jobs. Train travel is booming and there is an obvious lack of rolling stock. With a bit of will, extra carriages could be ordered to lengthen existing trains and possibly give hope to Bombardier that it should hold on with the prospect of getting the large Crossrail order in the middle of the decade. It is not a lost cause, but it will take a fierce and vocal lobby to effect another Cameron U-turn. Steam will never return to Litchurch Lane, but perhaps, just perhaps, train manufacturing may remain there if enough pressure can be built up.