We are approaching the end of an era. Even the most optimistic Labour supporter will admit that the party has no chance of retaining an overall majority, and is highly unlikely to emerge from the election as the party with the most seats.
So it is worth looking back to 1997 when Labour was first elected to se whether its promises have been fulfilled. In my column in Rail 305, written just after the May election, I was suitably circumspect. Before re-reading the column, I had almost forgotten that Labour had merged transport in with environment to give John Prescott the mega department he craved. I had totally forgotten the name of the first transport secretary – can anyone remember Gavin Strang who lasted but a year in the post and was completely overshadowed by Prescott? I was concerned, too, that Glenda Jackson, who probably would have fared better in trying to rival Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave rather than playing politics, had been given a huge brief that included transport in London, integrated transport policy, railways, aviation and shipping. I suspected, rightly, that it was far too much.
But what was Labour trying to achieve? Prescott talked much about integrated transport and he took a few pops at the train operators, but, as I wrote then, Labour’s ‘rail policy is so constrained by what the Tories have created and lack of money that there is little room for manoeuvre’. Indeed, it took most of the first term to create the Strategic Rail Authority and the dysfunctional franchising system was left intact because Labour had no intention of renationalising the railways, which had become clear in the hustings anyway. Few promises were broken because, simply, there weren’t many. The truth was that Labour had very few ambitions for the railways at all since no legislative time had been allocated and no money was available. In any case, safety considerations soon attracted all the attention after the Southall accident later that year and the Ladbroke Grove disaster in 1999.
Cataloguing the series of events which have buffeted rail policy since then would take up the rest of this column but even our ardent Labour supporter mentioned above could hardly claim that it has been one of the government’s great successes. Merely listing the organisations no longer involved in the rail industry is to expose the way that the government has chopped and changed things in the industry without ever addressing the fundamental issues: OPRAF, Railtrack, Connex, the SRA, the HSE and Sea Containers just to name a few, and of course, rapid disengagement of the Department for Transport from the mega department created by Prescott. While ministers have consistently argued for the need for stability, the constant changes in the industry, many of which have been the result of external events, demonstrate that the unwieldy structure created by privatisation still gives cause for concern.
If anything characterised Labour’s timidity in relation to the railways, it was the 30 year strategic plan for the railways published in 2007 which eschewed the idea of a high speed line, argued electrification was a waste of money on the ground that we would have hydrogen cell fuelled trains and contained very limited plans for rail investment. What a shame that it is only in the last year it has taken the arrival of Lord Adonis at the head of the Department for Transport – though he had already shown intent as rail minister for a year before that – to inject imaginative thinking back into the industry.
He has not, though, managed to inject much that is new into the Labour Party manifesto. Most of the short section on railways is a reiteration of commitments that have already been made. Labour would complete Crossrail, electrify the Great Western Line, continue to develop plans for the high speed line between London and Birmingham, and, in the one surprise, allow co-operatives and not for profit organisations to bid for franchises (euh, what about all the subsidiaries of state railways which already run huge swathes of the network?)..There’s a couple of other minor goodies, such as the promise that passengers will have an enforceable right to the cheapest available ticket – which will be difficult to police and there is no commitment to simplify the Byzantine fares structure -and there will be a tripling of cycle storage at stations, but overall there are, as there was 13 years ago, precious few promises.
What you have to look for in manifestos is what is not included and the vagueness of any promises especially the use of weasel words. Thus Labour says it wants to ‘hugely’ improve commuter services in the South East, but gives no indication how, and there is no mention of rolling stock, not even to reiterate the commitment for 1,300 new carriages which has gradually been unravelling in any case. Nor is there mention of longer franchises, though since this was a very recent suggestion from Lord Adonis, one has to assume that the commitment remains.
If, though, the Tories gain control, there is even thinner gruel on offer. There is the reiteration of the plan for longer franchises, though the manifesto is silent on how this will improve the lot of passengers. We have the slightly different version of the high speed line, which goes through Heathrow, where unlike Labour, they will scrap plans for the Third runway, rather than direct to Birmingham – all of which is pretty irrelevant as no start will be made to the line during the next Parliament and ‘support for’ – big weasel word – electrification of the Great Western Line and Crossrail but clearly no commitment. Theresa Villiers, who I do not expect to get the transport brief despite David Cameron’s commitment to retain the same top team, rather gave the game away recently when she said that all rail schemes would have to be assessed in terms of value for money before getting the go-ahead from a Tory administration.
So while any new government would have difficulty cutting enormous swathes of the rail investment programme because much is committed or underway, it is clear that the Tories are much more likely to wield the axe on anything that has not been nailed down.
The Libdem spokesman, Norman Baker, meanwhile, came out with the rather ludicrous suggestion that cutting £3bn off the roads budget could be spent on opening ‘thousands of miles of closed lines’. While plans to reopen rail lines and his commitment to rail rather than road spending are both welcome, his assessment of the likely costs is, to say the least, rather optimistic as for that kind of money he would be lucky to see a couple of hundred miles reopened.
Nevertheless, if one can draw any comfort from the paucity of clear and realistic commitments from the manifestos, at least all the parties want to be seen to be supporting rail. If this really is the end of an era, then the new one will be characterised by uncertainty and a lack of clarity. With Labour, one knows what to expect, and there is a genuine commitment to rail from Lord Adonis; the Libdems, too, are supportive, though their big idea is pretty woolly. Given the disastrous state of the country’s finances, neither can be trusted to deliver but the Tories have not even made any promises that they can break. If Labour in 1997 were woolly, the Tory plans are even murkier.
Passenger’s charter needs rethinking
While on the subject of what the politicians could do for the rail industry after the election, they could start by redefining what is a late train and consequently making the Passenger’s Charter figures reflect the reality of what passengers are experiencing. Anthony Smith, the head of Passenger Focus wondered why people are still expressing dissatisfaction when over performance when their trains are arriving on time. He commissioned a survey on East Anglia and found that people were dissatisfied because while the train they used reached its destination on time, at intermediate stops it was delayed. This is partly because of the well-known phenomenon of padding the time between the penultimate stop and the final one. Chiltern Trains commonly are scheduled to take 12 minutes from Birmingham Moor Street to Snow Hill (but only three minutes in the other direction), and the latest Overground timetable shows trains taking up to 11 minutes from Kew Gardens to Richmond when District Line trains take just three. Moreover, train lateness is measured by train and not by passenger which means that the empty trains with a dozen passengers arriving in London in early morning have the same effect on the statistics as the late peak train with 1,000 aboard
Thirdly, there is the leeway of five minutes given to commuter services, and ten to long distance trains before they are counted as ‘late’. Finally, a reader, Bob Muir, points out that
all matters ‘beyond the control of the railway’ are excluded. Yet, as he points out, it is clearly right to absolve the operators contractually from these incidents, but the average passenger does not care what has caused the delay’.
No wonder the Passenger Focus survey found that only 62 per cent of passengers arriving in London were on time, and a mere 48 per cent of those travelling out of the capital. Hardly the 80s and 90s commonly reported by the train operators. So sorting out the Passengers’ Charter should be high on the agenda of the new secretary of state. In my next column, I will be listing several other ideas to be included – e.g. stopping the cacophony of announcements – so please email me with your ideas on what you would like the new government to do.