So it’s over. Brexit is going to happen and the Conservatives will dominate politics for at least another four years. The implications will take a bit of time to emerge and oddly, for the railways and the transport industry in general, not much has been resolved.
We do know, however, that Jeremy Corbyn is yesterday’s man and that all the Labour party’s detailed plans about transport will come to naught. It is worth reflecting a moment on these before consigning them, along with Corbyn, to history. There is no doubt that the idea of nationalising the railways was popular among the electorate but not only do few people vote on the basis of what is happening to the railways, but also few people understood what that really meant. In fact, as the well-informed readers of Rail magazine know, the government already owns and, to a great extent, controls Network Rail and the rolling stock was never planned to be privatised.
So taking back the franchises in house was really the extent of the Labour offer until suddenly, midway through the campaign, there was promise to cut fares by a third. What precisely that meant and who was going to pay for it was unclear, but it was actually an illustration of what went wrong for Labour in the campaign more generally. More informed voters, notably my esteemed colleague Nigel Harris on Twitter, noted that the promise to carry this out by the time the New Year fare changes were made was not just unrealistic but impossible. To recalculate the whole fares system would be difficult enough but to work out how to amend the contracts and calculate the compensation payments for foregone revenue to 20 train operators was unfeasible.
Moreover, Labour’s core strategy is to redistribute income from the rich to the poor in numerous ways. Yet, rail users especially the season ticket holders that this was aimed at are, by and large, better off than average and therefore to make such an expensive commitment without properly thinking out how best to help travellers on low incomes shows that the policy was developed on the hoof.
In sum, the policy did not make sense and the fact that Corbyn himself is an avid reader of Rail and understands the complexities of the franchise system suggests that the whole campaign was out of control and that Labour’s election team were simply making promises that they knew could not be met. The electorate, to Labour’s cost, seems to have twigged this.
Sadly, there was a lot good about Labour’s transport policy, notably shifting investment from road to rail and making a long term commitment back by billions of pounds to support cycling, a policy that I believe would pay for itself in improved health of the nation. However, this is probably the last time I will be mentioning Labour’s policies for a long time in this column.
One can but hope that the Tories will follow suit, but they seem intent on focussing on roadbuilding to ease congestion, a hopeless endeavour and one that negates promises around climate change.
Let’s instead focus on what Boris Johnson, now safely ensconced in Number 10, is likely to do in relation to the railways and transport more generally. His problem is that he might have won the election on the basis of a very clever slogan devised by his adviser, Dominic Cummings, but one thing is certain: it will take far longer to ‘Get Brexit done’ than it took to persuade the British public that this would become a reality. Remember, what Johnson meant by his slogan is that he would push the withdrawal agreement, which is nothing more than a slightly edited version of his predecessor’s plan, through quickly and then we would formally leave by the end of January.
However, there was no mention during the campaign of the alternative forms of Brexit that may be on offer, and this will have implications for both the railways and transport in general. Johnson committed himself to signing a new deal with the EU by the end of 2020 but neutral observers suggest this is an almost impossible task. There is then the concern that we may crash out of the EU which will have serious consequences for the railway. The good news is that Johnson will no longer be in hock to the crazed Brexiters of the European Research Group and therefore may be tempted to go for a softer version of Brexit.
However, even this, according to a paper produced by the Rail Delivery Group written in 2018, there are a host of issues that will need to be resolved. First, will railfreight coming through the tunnel be affected by new regulations that could delay trains and make it less attractive than the alternatives? As I wrote at the time (Rail 856), the RDG actually sent a deputation out to the United States to look at the situation on its borders with both Canada and Mexico, and its findings were not reassuring, with lots of delays for both passengers and freight. Note, too, that the latest version of the withdrawal agreement effectively means some sort of checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic which could result in passengers on the trains between Dublin and Belfast being affected. Eurostar, too, is another obvious point of concern and it is unclear whether the regulations for drivers have yet been sorted out.
The RDG at the time highlighted two other issues of concern, the immediate difficulties of finding staff as many people working for train operators are from the EU and, in the longer term, the risk that UK technical standards will start to diverge from those in Europe, therefore making it far harder to export manufactured goods. Again, the differences between a soft Brexit and a hard one – which includes crashing out – are crucial, and all the various railway bodies such as the Rail Industry Association and the RDG must make clear that a hard Brexit is likely to be damaging to our industry.
Let me end, however, on one implication of the election result that may end up having the greatest impact on the rail industry. I do not see how the union, the one between England and Scotland established in 1707, will survive in the medium term. With the Scottish Nationalists sweeping Scotland in the election on the basis of supporting Remain, it will be hard for Johnson to resist calls for a second referendum. If Nicola Sturgeon, the UK’s most skilful politician, is blocked from holding one, she may decide to go ahead anyway and if she wins, Scotland will have to be allowed to drift away and stay in the European Union. The implications for rail will be far reaching. What will happen to all those cross border trains – there will have to be something of a hard border since Scotland would be in the EU and the trains might well have to be stopped for checks. Remember you read it here first and Mystic Wolmar is not always wrong.
Away from Brexit and Europe, Johnson has two big rail issues on his plate, the Williams review and HS2. He can no longer kick these into touch but I suspect that firm decisions will have to wait until after the ministerial reshuffle which is now scheduled for February, as I understand Grant Shapps will be seeking a different permanent role in the government.
On my recent visit to India, I found the Mumbai traffic is even worse than ever but for a good reason. On almost every street corner there are works relating to the massive metro project, a scheme to build 10 lines in the world’s most populated city (well, Shanghai and Mexico City also have claims, but Mumbai is now claiming unofficially 40 million people).
I was given a tour of several of the sites by the project director, S.K. Gupta, who is in charge of building Line 3, the most difficult to build since it is the only one that is underground – the others are being conceived as elevated railways mostly running in the middle of existing highways.
Line 3, though, is challenging for other reasons, too, as it is reaches right down to Colaba, the bottom of the peninsula on which central Mumbai is built. As it will serve the airport, the two main railway stations, and the main commercial area, it is being designed for a capacity of 72,000 people per hour which Mr Gupta reckons is more than any other existing system.
It is scheduled to be finished in mid 2022, six years after work started. Mr Gupta was optimistic but rather non-committal and I suspect that is the right approach. I gave him a copy of my book on Crossrail which I now confess was a bit too optimistic about the difficulties facing the later stages of these megaprojects. In London, the tunnelling was finished almost on time but that did not prevent a delay of what now seems like more than two years. Mr Gupta who has visited the Crossrail site, did stress, however, that his line would only have one signalling system compared with the three that Crossrail has to accommodate due to legacy issues.
When I visited the Mumbai site, it was clear that there has been enormous progress, and the engineering is undoubtedly impressive, the project is still very much at the blasting and tunnelling stage. The hope that the whole scheme involving 26 stations over 33 kilometres with platform doors and countless entrances and exits could be fitted out in two or so years is far too optimistic.
However, the inevitable delays should not detract from the importance of this scheme. Mumbai, which is partly on a narrow reclaimed peninsula, is the most congested of Indian cities – and that is quite a contest. Within a decade of so, it will have a fully fledged metro system with ten lines and that will be transformational. Whether it will be enough to clear the streets and make the traffic bearable is another matter. That would probably need restrictions and a congestion charge, something which cities across the world are grappling with. Nevertheless, Mumbai’s example shows the extent to which the underground railway, started with a four-mile line in London in 1863 has become accepted as the key to resolving urban congestion problems across the world. In these hard times when we have just voted to separate ourselves from our neighbours, it is worth reflecting on lasting influence.