A couple of years ago I wrote a short book entitled ‘Are Trams Socialist?’. Spoiler alert, but the answer was no as the book was really not about trams but about the failure of transport policy ever since the first minister for transport was appointed just after the first world war.
In truth, the notion of transport policy has been an oxymoron. In other words, there never has been a transport policy, let alone a strategy, by which I mean a coherent approach by politicians to what we, as a society and an economy, want from transport. The problem is that transport is a residual good which means that it is mostly a means to an end. We need transport to get to our destination but the journey itself is seen as something of a negative, best got over with as quickly and cheaply as possible. The days of a jolly ride in the country or even, sadly, a train journey for pleasure – though I still love them – are gone.
This has led to a fundamental contradiction by policy makers. They see the growth in transport movements as, per se, a good thing. If more people are moving around, then it is a sign of growth, of increased horizons, of greater wealth etc… The downsides, such as the environmental impacts, the damage to local communities caused by transport networks going through them, the effect of long distance commuting on family life, the fact that increased car use results in obesity and so on are not properly taken into account.
Admittedly, it is difficult to pull all this together into a coherent strategy. Interestingly, the only transport minister who genuinely understood this and tried to do develop an actual plan was John (now Lord) Prescott, with his ten year transport plan published in 2000. It was good to see him at a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference in September, still going strong and pushing the case for public transport. Even though Prescott is famously rambly given his tendency for long sentences with the verb in the wrong place, he still makes more sense than a lot of his successors in Marsham Street.
All this was brought to mind because of an excellent presentation given by John Smith, the boss of GB Railfreight about the need for a government strategy on railfreight. Smith is one of those rare railway managers who is constantly seeking to engage with a wider audience beyond the industry in order to press his case. His offers of cab rides are legendary and great instructive journeys, not just from seeing the tracks from the point of view of a freight loco, but also for Smith’s analysis of how things could get better.
Smith speaks from experience. His company has built up from an idea tossed around with a few colleagues and an organisation with no rolling stock but just a few big ideas to one with a turnover of £180m and a staff of 850 that has given the far bigger DB Cargo – under its various past names – a run for its money. But Smith is by no means satisfied with the way his business is considered by government and the regulators. He feels there is enormous potential for growth but it cannot be realised without a far clearer understanding by ministers of rail worth. Smith cited one little known statistic – half of the building materials for the London’s booming building industry enter the capital by rail – in support of his argument. He takes great issue with the rather wild statement made last year by former transport secretary Lord Adonis who suggested that rail freight essentially got in the way of passenger trains and should be confined to night services, suggesting ‘this is the sort of thing we are up against’.
He is also greatly concerned about possible changes to the access charge regime being considered by the Office of Road and Rail. If this resulted in a sharp increase, many flows might become unviable. He points to other countries in Europe which recognise that railfreight needs support to thrive. Indeed. Just thing how much road maintenance costs could be saved by carrying more freight on rail. As Smith puts it, ‘railfreight ticks lots of boxes, yet its benefits are not sufficiently recognised’.
Railfreight has had a rough time recently given the plummeting carriage of coal but Smith remains optimistic. He points, for example, to the 34 trains per day (not all his) taking containers out of Felixstowe, a number that could be greatly increased if there were more capacity. However, it took a decade to persuade the government and Network Rail to reinstate a mile and a half of the double track on the Felixstowe branch to create a dynamic loop that will greatly improve capacity and reliability, and Smith is aghast that this cost £60m (memo to Andrew Haines, check out why). When I spoke to Smith on one of his cab trips in December 2014 (Rail 762) he suggested that perhaps the hourly passenger service linking Ipswich with Felixstowe could be scrapped but he recognised that this was unlikely ever to come about.
Politicians who suggest closing rail services would, frankly, be toast but it is precisely the sort of issue that might arise if there were some kind of national strategy. The trains can take up to 50 ‘boxes’ and so without the dozen or so branch line passenger trains, perhaps another 600 containers could go on rail, greatly relieving the stress on local rails. Other measures, such as subsidising the handling charges for containers being transferred on to rail (around £50 each, which is not paid by lorries as they can move right next to the containers they are carrying) could also help to reduce the impact of the port on local roads.
I’m not for the moment suggesting that scrapping the passenger trains would definitely be a good idea or be feasible. However, the point is that no one is making such calculations or ever likely to. Perhaps 600 fewer lorries on the road to Felixstowe and a few extra buses to take the former rail passengers would be a better use of scarce rail resources. Such a strategy might require hard choices but it is fanciful to think that the market is delivering the most optimal result for society. There are, in economist’s terms, simply too many externalities – effects brought about by external factors.
This is what Smith means when he bemoans the lack of any coherent thinking on railfreight or, indeed, transport policy generally. Smith would like to see, for example, freight brought by rail right to the heart of cities. He remembers seeing the La Poste high speed French mail train arrive on a trial run to St Pancras a few years back – which incidentally had to be towed through the funnel because of ridiculous safety concerns – but recalls talking to Nicola Shaw who ran High Speed One at the time and who told him that there were just insuperable difficulties about creating such a service, not least the fact that there were no facilities to unload the mail at the station. Again, a proactive government could break through such obstacles.
Smith also wants the government to support major infrastructure projects for freight which again requires the sort of strategic thinking that is so clearly absent from Marsham Street or indeed Whitehall as a whole. Rather tongue in cheek, too, he says he would like to see the passenger railway learn from the efficiencies delivered in the freight sector, without, he points out, any major industrial disputes. In other words, he says, the passenger railway has a lot to learn from the freight sector. Now that’s an original thought.
Handing out political leaflets is part of democracy
My various political friends are finding it harder to distribute leaflets at stations. They are being chased off by rail staff with all kinds of excuses such as the land belongs to the train operator or that they are causing an obstruction. Several people campaigning for a people’s vote and handing out leaflets for the march on October 20th have been told that such activity is illegal. This has, apparently, been happening around the country but there seems to have been a particular attempt by London Overground stations to prevent leaflets being handed out.
In fact, the government’s own advice available at www.gov.uk/permission-to-distribute-leaflets says quite specifically that religious and political leaflets are exempt from rules requiring licences from local authorities to hand out leaflets. Yet, none of the railway staff who have been advised of this and are inventing all kinds of spurious reasons for chasing people off.
Of course, I am not suggesting anything other than the law should apply equally to all political activity but given the lack of political engagement, which is such an important part of our democracy, if people are willing to stand in the wet and cold to hand out leaflets, they should be allowed to do so.