It was always going to be a momentous year. But 2009 has exceeded expectations with far reaching changes that for the most part a new government is going to find hard to reverse. Just listing all the events in the past year would take up much of this column, so I’ll just analyse the implications of a few of them.
Crucial to many of these developments has been one man, the transport secretary Lord Adonis who has done more in a year in the job than Alistair Darling did in four. The headline setter has been the reversal of the government’s position on high speed rail instigated by Adonis. After commitments to a north south high speed line had been made by the Tories and the LibDems, Labour looked out on a limb but Adonis has done more than merely promising a study. He instigated one very quickly, creating HS2 and showed real commitment to the plan, with a report on the possible route and funding due to be published within the next few weeks.
Actually, I remain of the view that the UK has missed the boat in terms of building the line, as broader issues such as the price of oil, climate change and the need to reduce mobility rather than encourage it, as well as practical considerations such as finding a suitable route and the cost at a time of economic constraint, mean that it will never happen.
Therefore another U turn by the government, the decision to electrify a section of the Great Western line is actually a more important development since, unlike the high speed line, it will undoubtedly happen. The reluctance of the Department to endorse electrification in its 30 year strategy published in 2007 always looked like a severe case of myopia given that the British rail network has a far smaller proportion of electrified lines than our European counterparts. Electrifying one of the two remaining diesel main lines out of London was, therefore, in many senses a no-brainer but again it took a transport minister with a thorough knowledge of the railways to work out a way of doing it relatively cheaply by instigating a complex cascade of rolling stock that saved having to introduce a new fleet of commuter trains for the Great Western network.
The other headline stealing event of the year was, of course, the much predicted collapse of a franchise as a result of the recession. It was no surprise that it was National Express East Coast that proved to be the victim since it was the most vulnerable, unproteted by the cap and collar arrangements that has prevented a series of other franchises from collapsing. Again, though, there have been surprises. The Department stuck to its guns in not renegotiating the franchise, unlike both the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising – OPRAF – and the Strategic Rail Authority which could always be tapped for a bit of extra cash by struggling operators in order to prop up the franchising system.
However the Department has found it rather more difficult to implement the cross-default arrangements and remove the its other two franchses from National Express. It was, indeed, strange that National Express had been allowed to proctect itself against this eventuality by creating a separate subsidiary for the East Coast franchise. Surely such a crude device must have been spotted by the Department before it signed the deal and should have made civil servants ask their lawyers whether it meant that National Express was protected from cross default?
The other interesting aspect of the takeover of East Coast by the government is the seriousness with which the Department has gone about running the franchise. Not only has it appointed a high profile and respected train operator, Elaine Holt, to run the franchise, but having a press launch and creating a new brand with great haste suggests that Adonis wants to make an impact in running the franchise. Of course he maintains the line that it is impossible for the government to retain the franchise beyond the two year time frame he has imposed and says he has no desire to do so, but there was a distinct feeling on the inaugural train that Adonis was rather enjoying running trains. I am still trying to get to the bottom of the assertion that franchising is obligatory, which seems to have no legal basis but at the time my legal friends are still on the case.
Another change that may prove to be more significant in the long run than the other more widely publicised events was the announcement that a branch line would be turned over the the local county council and run as a tram service. The line between Watford and St Albans, a fortunate survivor of the Beeching cuts, will now be operated as a tram service – light rail in the rather irritating modern parlance – enabling a cheaper and more frequent service. Again, it requred knowledge on the part of the minister to realise that second hand high floor trams would be widely available as many towns in Germany are transferring to low floor stock, and therefore they would be cheap but be suitable for a line that has platforms. This is an example that could be widely followed, a template for running other branch lines in a cheaper way while providing a better service.
Probably the most unexpected aspect of the year has been the pace of change. Adonis has shown that with energy and commitment, a knowledgeable minister can get the wheels of government turning far faster than normal. The speed with which, for example, he changed policy on electrification and the high speed line, instigated and acted on the stations review or, to give a minor example, got bike parking increased at main line stations in London, shows that the Yes, Minister type of resistance from civil servants can be overcome. He has created a fantastic momentum for investment and change in the rail industry. It is a great shame that he is unlikely to be in post this time next year, but any incoming transport secretary should learn from the way he managed to kick start a normally slothful government department into action. However, he or she will have their work cut out to make 2010 anything like as momentous as 2009.