Rail 843: Dark clouds over the rails for 2018

The clamour for Mystic Wolmar to get out of the prediction business grows louder every year, but actually, while he has made some whopping mistakes, his crystal ball has yielded several impressive successes, too. His performance is assessed at the end of this column, but allow me first take a step back and try to take a look at the past year and consider areas of concern for the New Year.

There are undoubtedly some positives to be taken from the past 12 months. Investment in major programmes, such as Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification, Thameslink, Crossrail, the new route between London and Oxford and the Ordsall Chord, just to mention a few, are all delivering or about to deliver step change improvements. Politically, the railways received a big boost when the amount of money which the government is making available for Control Period 6 – the five year investment programme starting in April 2019 – was far higher, at £48bn, than expected. HS2 looks as if it will be built, which many, but by no means all, in the industry think is a good idea. Most important, it is now conventional wisdom among politicians that the railways are a ‘good thing’. The idea of closures, cutbacks, reductions in service and all the other humiliations foisted on the railways for much of the postwar period are a thing of the past.

Yet there is a cloud – or indeed several clouds, some very dark – hanging over all these positives.  Overall, the past year has not been a good for the railways. There has been a deterioration in performance and passenger numbers are beginning to drop a bit after a couple of decades of almost continuous growth. Then there has been the debacle over electrification. If anything shows up the failure of Network Rail to have a grip on the industry’s investment programme, it is the fact that the whole programme has been mired in overspending, delay and cheeseparing. The result has been the terrible government decision to go for more bi-mode trains, a typical example of a solution reached by a committee, rather than biting the bullet and dragging the industry into the 21st century.

Franchising, too, is clearly as I mentioned in the last issue, a busted flush. While I should, as its persistent critic welcome that, it does create uncertainty in the industry and the failure of the model has left the transport ministers scrabbling about for a compromise that seems impossible to find. Either they pass on risk to the private sector or they don’t. And if they don’t, then there is no point to franchising

As for 2018, let me get the politics out of the way first. This is rather in the way of a Mystic prediction, but there is very unlikely to be an election in 2018. Much as I would love to see one as it would be an opportunity not only to put an end to a dysfunctional government hanging on by dint of a dodgy deal with the DUP, I cannot conceive of a scenario which would bring one about. Therefore, Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of renationalising the railway remains, for the time being, an irrelevance, though things can change quickly, as happened in 2017. Mystic would have had to have a time machine to predict not only that there would be an election, which Theresa May had repeatedly ruled out, but that it would end up with a hung Parliament.

On Brexit, I am slightly more optimistic. Let’s make this clear: Brexit is a disaster for the railways, or rather, for the train operators who have bid on the basis of continued growth. Train managers across the network have told me that it is Brexit – or more precisely the sense of uncertainty that has been created by Brexit – which has caused the reductions in passenger numbers.

For the railways, there will be some terrific news if the Crossrail tunnels are opened up, as they are scheduled to be, on time in December 2018. This will create enormous interest and lots of positive publicity, but let’s hope there is no similar problem to the continued teething problems of the Hitachi trains. The odd breakdown on the Great Western is nothing compared to major hold-ups to thousands of London commuters who might find themselves stuck in Crossrail tunnels. Fortunately, the trains will be well tried and tested by then as they are being used on the Eastern section of line already.

Thameslink, too should start operating more trains, though the full Monty has been delayed, sensibly, for another year. As the various improvements mentioned above bed in, there should be plenty of good news stories around the network, so by and large 2018 should be viewed with optimism.

On the negative side, there is the continuing difficulties with Network Rail and its control of projects about which I have written several times this year. Franchising is in limbo, the decrease in passengers may well continue given the high fares rises and changing work patterns, as well as Brexit, and performance will only improve if money is brought forward from Control Period 6 to make up the shortfall between now and March 2019 caused by Network Rail’s overspending.

Mystic’s predictions for 2018 will be in the next issue, but let’s assess the cack-handed Cassandra’s performance this year (do contribute your suggestions to the email address on this column).

 

 

His crystal ball suggested:

  1. Despite promises to the contrary, no spade will be turned on HS2 as opposition grows and confusion over routes remain. There will also be difficulty in finding a new chief executive.
  2. The Southern Railway dispute will still be going on at the end of the year….
  3. …for which Chris Grayling, the transport secretary will pay the price as he is shown the door.
  4. Franchise bidders get even thinner on the ground and several contests have only two companies interested. As a result, several franchises are further delayed and questions are asked over the future of the programme. Peter Wilkinson, the head of franchising at the Department who will not be in his job at the end of the year, will resort to the Irish tinker approach knocking on doors: I’ve got a load of tarmac here, do you want your drive done cheaply?
  5. The performance of the railway will continue to deteriorate as pressures mount because of high passenger numbers and bad weather affects the network although….
  6. Passenger numbers will not increase during the year as the effects of Brexit and uncertainty begin to hit the economy.
  7. Oh, and Donald Trump will be up for impeaching or already gone.
  8. And indulge my football prediction: QPR will not go down or up, Brighton, Newcastle and Leeds will be promoted, while Liverpool will chase down Chelsea for the Premiership title.

 

Well, No 1 was wrong, though the previous Chief Executive has been in difficulties over his generosity to ex staff. No 2 is right but Grayling is still with us and so is Peter Wilkinson (memo to self, don’t predict people’s sackings unless you are very sure, as they don’t like it, funnily enough). No 5 is sort of right, and so is No 6, but sadly Trump is still with us and my football prediction was half right as I got the two promoted clubs correct.  So a rather paltry 3½ out of 8 or 43.75 per cent, the sort of ‘could do better’ I always got at school.

 

Glasgow Central station tour

 

It is great to be reminded of just how the public loves the railway and so many people appreciate its history. When I travelled up to Glasgow to meet the boss of the Scotrail Alliance Alex Hynes for my column in the previous issue, he arranged a little bonus for me, a tour of Glasgow Central station – or rather the three levels underneath it (if we had more time we would have gone to the roof, too). I was in effect jumping the queue because the tours are booked up months in advance as they are so much sought after.

The idea for taking people down there was the brainchild of Paul Lyons, a lifelong railwayman who realised that there was huge tourism potential down there. While still working for in Network Rail’s office upstairs as his day job, he spends much of his time conducting tours for which he charges £13 – the money goes straight into NR’s coffers though he is hoping to get a little bit back to pay for the hats which visitors are required to wear. It is at times a struggle dealing with the NR bureaucracy but Paul reckons his tours have netted three quarters of a million pounds since he started doing them four years ago.

It certainly is a treat for the money, not least because Paul is a fabulous story teller. While his knowledge of the countless famous people who have been through the station is unparalleled, it is when he talks of the first world war that the emotion comes through as he talks about the dead highlanders being brought back from France, their bodies on stretchers and how their womenfolk had to hire a couple of local unemployed for a shilling or two to take them home as the army did not help them. He has commissioned a series of murals, and there is no doubt that eventually it should be turned into a permanent museum with Paul as its curator.  It is no surprise that Paul has amassed a staggering 2,253 reviews on Trip Advisor, nearly all five star.

The other high point was when we got down to the bottom level and where Paul had found an abandoned platform, running at right angles to the buffer stops upstairs. It has been unused since before World War Two but can easily be reached by rail from the curve serving the two low level platforms under the station and consequently Paul is hoping to bring in a old locomotive to provide a permanent display.  He would be delighted to hear of any offers….paullyons2@networkrail.co.uk

 

  • Paul Holt

    CW’s assessment of MW’s predictions has a “marking own homework” feel about it. Examples follow.

    CW claims MW #2 as a win, but failed over the whole of 2017 to formulate a viable solution. CW needs to ask, publicly and loudly, how many peoples’ livelihoods have been lost because of the strikes.

    CW claims MW #5 as a win, but did he distinguish between strikes and the mentioned high passenger numbers and bad weather?

    CW claims MW #6 as a win but, given strikes and overcrowded trains, did he diligently ascribe cause, effect and blame or lay everything at the feet of the universal scapegoat?

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