Rail 853: ‘Hydrogen’ Johnson makes it up as he goes along

There is a constant refrain from my conversations with people in the railway industry managers or frontline staff about how to run a railway well. The key, they say is simple. You have to learn what works and then repeat it. Every day without fail.

It is not rocket science. Nor is it always exciting. In other words, it is a bit dull, even a tad boring but very rewarding when things run smoothly. People want change and diversity when in reality consistency is the key. And that’s the problem. Enter a new minister like Jo ‘hydrogen’ Johnson who seems to have landed in the Department for Transport rather unwillingly and unwittingly and all he can see is an industry with its roots in the 19th century that needs to be brought into the 21st. His previous experience of the railways had probably been limited to journeys between his Orpington constituency and Charing Cross, an unexciting trip at the best of times.

So, bored already, and annoyed at having been shoved sideways in a ministerial reshuffle that was the result of a misplaced loyalty to Toby Young, the bad boy of the Tory establishment, he has decided that he needs to make a noise to attract attention.

So first we got ‘diesel trains to be abolished by 2040’ which he announced in February. It is jolly easy to announce policies for 2040 and there is one certainty – Joe Johnson will not be the rail minister then, or even in 2030, and even 2020 may be pushing it. This made headlines, inevitably, and most of the national press missed the point that this announcement came hot on the heels of expanding the programme of building bi-mode trains which, euh, have diesel engines. Johnson had clearly been briefed enough to damp down the headline by saying ‘diesel-only’ trains, thereby saving the bi-modes for future generations, but really this was all shooting from the hip of the worst kind.

He was clearly taking lessons about how to attract publicity from his brother Boris (I will refrain from mentioning Boris often when writing about Jo because he did not choose his siblings) meanwhile had speculated a couple of weeks previously about a bridge over the Channel in a bid to grab attention from his boss who was meeting the French President Emmanuel Macron at the time. That is another certainty as there are absolutely no plans to build that very expensive and probably unviable (due to shipping concerns) piece of infrastructure

Then secondly we got the mystery of the hydrogen train which is apparently running on the Windermere branch and which, of course, is merely at the ideas stage. You can forgive a man for not knowing all the answers after a few months in a difficult job, but, really, this was a humdinger of an error. This was just the low point of a performance at the Commons Transport Committee which revealed the depth of Johnson’s ignorance. He kept on looking at his brief, which clearly he had not sufficiently read beforehand, and was all over the place in answering questions about regional inequalities.  A Treasury analysis of regional spending had clearly not reached his desk. It was not surprising, therefore, that Lilian Greenwood the chair of the Committee and clearly well on top of her brief, made mincemeat of poor Jo (why is it not Joe – is not Jo for women?). And she did so with a constant smile and total calmness, an object lesson in how to use these committee hearings to good effect.

OK, maybe one can forgive Johnson for finding it difficult and not quite knowing his hydrogen from his hybrid.  His latest error, though, should really send him to the confessional booth in the Church of the Railway. The Guardian has recently run a series of articles about Network Rail’s vegetation reducing policy. This series has apparently been prompted by a tree clearance programme near the reporter’s leafy home and has been embellished by various calculations suggesting that as many as two million of the 13 million trees on Network Rail’s land could be felled. Apparently, too, Network Rail is spending £800m in the next five year control period on swinging the axe.

The facts are rather more banal. There is no £800m programme, merely a continuation of an existing strategy with a slight change – the 5m boundary will move to 6.5m where there are overhead wires. There may well have been the odd tree felling exercise where Network Rail has not consulted sufficiently or been a bit cavalier about timing, though since the railway has been in the vegetation culling business since 1830, the company is well aware that chopping trees in the nesting season is a no-no.

It must have been a slow news day or news editors were bored with Brexit, and so The Guardian’s story got picked up and I even appeared on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 where I attempted to instil some common sense into the discussion. Clearly Boy Jo was not listening as he responded by, according to the Department’s press release, announcing a cull to the culling with ‘a review of Network Rail’s tree cutting and vegetation management’. It went on: ‘the Rail Minister has asked Network Rail to suspend all felling during the current bird nesting season, except where safety critical.  The review will consider how Network Rail can best ensure the safety of our railways, while also protecting wildlife and preserving trees’. As the Fact Compiler, a well known railway tweeter, put it, ‘Oh Jo’.

Of course politicians are sometimes tempted into making daft announcements but this takes the biscuit. It even gives populism a bad name. Let’s hope that Network Rail ignores this request on the basis that all felling and cutting is ‘safety critical’. Otherwise, there could be dire consequences. What will happen if the failure to cut back trees on a key part of the line leads to a long slide through a red signal or worse a tree plunges onto the line during a winter storm. Will Johnson then be the first to get up and criticise Network Rail for failing to keep the tracks safe?

Johnson is apparently sharp and engaging, according to those who have met him. Clearly, though, he has not done homework on the railways before trotting out a lot of rather off-beam ideas. And, just maybe, he has also got his brother’s great weakness, which is laziness. He needs to sharpen up his act because there is a lot more nonsense coming down the line.

Joe Johnson must learn to be clear about the potential and limits of technology in relation to the digital railway. The recent announcement on ‘digital railway’ suggests that Network Rail is, once again, veering towards fantasy despite the efforts of its digital boss, David Waboso, to rein back on expectations. In truth there was very little new in the announcement and much re-iteration of what was happening already. Of course, the railway is ‘going digital’ given the advance of technology but that does not mean adopting every new fangled invention. For example, forcing rolling stock companies and train operators to fit every with ETCS – European Train Control System – Level Two, an idea that is being mooted, may simply be a way of imposing costs with few benefits. Level Two may well be out of date before it can be introduced widely. Full in-cab signalling is Level Three, and that is where real benefits kick in, but it is still a very long way off.

The minister will have to try to make sure that massive amounts of money are not spent on schemes that bring little benefit or which are technological dead ends. The problem with the railway as constituted is that Network Rail is a law unto itself and attempts to control it have so far failed. Ministers are an important part of that structure and Johnson, who was previously science minister, should be perfectly placed to distinguish the hype from the reality but not if he still can’t tell his hydrogen from his hybrid.


Eurostar on the slow line


The introduction of a direct rail service, albeit one way, between London and Amsterdam has taken nearly a quarter of a century to come about since the start of Eurostar services in 1994. To put that in perspective, within 25 years of the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830, more than 5,000 miles of railway lines had been built.

It is great that, at last, the management of Eurostar is looking beyond the very limited routes it has operated during this period. Railways are less flexible than planes, and there is no doubt that the advent of the low cost aviation market has stymied opportunities for Eurostar to expand its network. Moreover, the fact that the Channel Tunnel Act requires ridiculous levels of token security for the trains does not help their competitiveness.

Nevertheless, there has been a lack of imagination among the top echelons of Eurostar and hopefully this is now changing. At the moment, the trains and the tunnel are rather wasted resources.

The Deutsche Bahn initiative has stalled and perhaps Eurostar needs to pick up the mantle to introduce German destinations. Brexit may damage passenger numbers but it could be a useful tool to persuade the politicians to be more flexible in relation to regulations. Eurostar could push the case that since we are very keen on keeping good ties with Europe despite Brexit, then more and quicker train services would be a good start.