Rail 532: Do-nothing Darling’s ‘Mr Hyde’ act heralds doom for LRT

Unlike his boss Tony Blair, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling seems determined to bequeath no legacy, argues CHRISTIAN WOLMAR – and tramway schemes are being axed as a result.

The most disappointing thing about our deliberately dull Transport Secretary is that he has no ambition to leave any kind of legacy. In particular, what is it about trams that Alistair Darling hates so much?

Most people go into politics to do things, make waves and leave a legacy (witness Blair’s desperate but doomed attempts to do so). Darling seems to want to ensure that no trace of his existence is left in the Department for Transport once he departs, which interestingly is what they said about him in the Department of Work and Pensions, his previous post.

The cynics suggest that this is because his next job will be as Chancellor of the Exchequer once Gordon Brown takes over at the top, and he is already trying to ensure there is no overspend in transport to upset his plans. Certainly his actions in the past months to cut a swathe through tram projects, leaving barely any still on the drawing board, demonstrate a hardnosed approach to the issue more befi tting a Treasury man than one concerned in getting Britain moving.

Take Nottingham Line Two, one of the less publicised schemes that still survives but whose future is uncertain and where, as with the other projects, delays are causing extra expense. The case for Nottingham’s extensions appears to be strong, if not overwhelming. The fi rst line, opened nearly two years ago in March 2004, has been an unequivocal success with 8.4 million passengers in the fi rst year, 1.2m (17%) more than forecast. Predictions for the second year suggest as many as 9.5m may use it, an impressive 13% growth rate.

The reasons for the success are simple. The route was well thought-out and 3,000 park-and-ride spaces were provided. As Colin Lea, the line’s marketing transport manager, put it: “It may sound obvious, but to build a decent tramway you’ve got to go from where people live to somewhere they want to go to. Our tramway penetrates the very heart of the city centre and we’ve got a system that is very accessible.”

Given this excellent track record, one would have thought the DfT would be ready to support extensions of the system, especially as they are part of the city’s strategic transport policy. There was, in fact, praise for the Nottingham scheme from David Rowlands, the permanent secretary at the department, who told the Commons Public Accounts Committee in November 2004: “At Nottingham they got everything just about right, including I think the department itself, with proper park-and-ride provision, vehicles that work, well integrated with the local bus system, and so on.” Praise indeed, and he added: “I cannot see any reason in principle why the Nottingham system should not be expanded.”

Apparently this was the impression that Darling wanted to give local bigwigs at the opening. Having got stuck in traffic, he told them at the reception: “You locally must decide what you want to do with your transport and decide quickly, as to do nothing is not an option.” (Is it not odd that for a man so intent on not making any decisions, this is one of his favourite expressions?) Nottingham City and County councils took him at his word and immediately responded with strong support for the tram extensions.

They submitted an application to the DfT within a few months and their scheme seemed to be well received by both offi cials and ministers. But since then they have waited, and waited… and waited. The DfT appears to play a bizarre game designed to avoid having to make a decision, whereby officials respond to applications with requests for more information and, when it is received, invent yet more questions.

As a well-placed source put it: “It seems that reports are being passed to ministers where all the queries are being dealt with, but caveats are still being put in by the civil servants and these are being spun at various levels to draw further questions from ministers. We are led to believe the level of detail being requested is far in excess of that normally asked for at outline scheme approval stage for any similar infrastructure projects. Roads are going through with much less certainty on the issues of concern on this project, despite the fact that costs routinely overrun.”

The scheme is a major catalyst for regeneration with, according to project insiders, some £2 billion of inward investment hanging on the decision whether to build the extensions. Even the reconstruction of the town centre is being held up. While there are some Nimbyish local opponents, notably tobacco baron and local MP Kenneth Clarke, the vast majority of businesses and residents support the plan, which seems to meet all the requirements set out in National Audit Offi ce reports on light rail.

But was Darling being a trifl e disingenuous with his comments at the opening. As I have mentioned before in this column (RAIL 487), I know from another very good source that Darling said something very different to his own team when he was leaving Nottingham. Apparently, he muttered to his advisors that he hoped this was the last opening of an overpriced, over-budget system that he would have to attend.

And, it seems, it is this Mr Hyde side of Darling that represents his true persona. His cuts have left only a couple of tram schemes with any hope of development. Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and South Hampshire all appear to be doomed as the DfT has reneged on previous commitments or invented new obstacles that schemes have been unable to overcome.

The decision to pull the Merseytram project – again a key part of that area’s regeneration – appeared so arbitrary that Merseytravel is challenging its legality in the courts. In December a judge ruled there was a suffi ciently good case for a judicial hearing to take place and this was scheduled to start just as RAIL went to press.

Usually public bodies are very wary of instigating legal proceedings against the government because it is expensive – at least £400,000 in this case – and they tend to lose. However, Merseytravel reckons its case is strong because £170m had been promised but the government withdrew this on the rather spurious grounds that costs had risen, mostly as a result of infl ation. Merseytravel also argues that the government attempted to impose an impossible new condition that required Liverpool and Knowsley councils to cover any cost overruns on the scheme, a requirement that would probably not be legal under local government legislation. Merseytravel Chief Executive Neil Scales argues that the tram scheme is not a fancy prestige project but the result of a long study of the area’s needs: “We started this project 51⁄2 years ago from the bottom up, looking at transport across the county. We didn’t just say it would be a good idea to have trams, we saw the people of Merseyside needed trams.”

Tram projects have not all been successful but many of the problems stem from the DfT’s requirements and the procurement process that promoters are forced to go through. None of the lessons of the excellent National Audit Offi ce report on light rail published in April 2004 seems to have been learnt. It cited a whole host of reasons for the high cost of schemes in the UK such as lack of standardisation, imposing the expense of moving utilities on the promoters, over-specification and, most notably, the department forcing promoters to draw up expensive private fi nance initiative projects which attempt to transfer too much risk to the private sector

Two aspects of the Nottingham scheme are worth mentioning in this respect. In a conventional supply-and-demand situation, the fact that there is such a huge patronage on the Nottingham line would enable the railway to pay for the purchase of more vehicles, which are needed to cope with overcrowding. However, because it is a PFI deal that outsourced the revenue risk, the extra profi ts are going to the consortium running the line and therefore the funds are not available to pay for the new investment required.

Secondly, if line two had been agreed quickly, all the expertise of constructing the first one would have been retained, thus reducing the cost of relearning all that expertise.

The lessons of the one ‘light rail’ network that has expanded several times, Docklands Light Railway, are there to be seen. Relatively simple procurement methods that do not try to offset risks excessively to the private sector have allowed a series of extensions to be built to time and budget.

There are alternative, cheaper forms of trams that should be considered. Look at BAA, which has recently invested in the Ultra concept – the ‘personal rapid transit’ – with the aim of installing it at Heathrow. The concept involves small automatically driven four-person vehicles on rails and was originally designed for Cardiff town centre, but the idea was abandoned.

Given this record, it is hardly surprising that there is widespread scepticism about the prospects for Crossrail, let alone any North- South high-speed line that the Eddington review might come up with. Once Darling leaves DfT, he will be a forgotten man. His main achievement, keeping transport out of the headlines, will not be seen as a triumph but as a failure of imagination.

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