Rail 699: Spectator playing its own game on HS2

Anyone who thought that the battle for HS2 had been won will have to think again. As ever with these schemes which have a very long lead time, opponents tend to regroup and attack again even after the issue seems settled. The recent article in The Spectator (available online) suggesting that an unnamed minister has said that ‘the scheme is dead’ demonstrates the depth of opposition within the Tory party.

The article gave four main reasons for claiming the project is dead. First, George Osborne the Chancellor has turned against the project. Well, chancellors are never greatly in favour of spending money, but there is little reason to think he has changed his mind given that he has expressed support in the past.

Second, the magazine says that the present secretary of state, Justine Greening is less a supporter than Philip Hammond, her predecessor. This seems to misread her style. She is a more inclusive and conciliatory politician, as witnessed by the changes she made to the route when announcing the scheme’s go ahead. David Cameron would not have given her the job if she were opposed to HS2.

Thirdly there is a rather convoluted suggestion that since there was no mention of a HS2 bill in the Queen’s Speech, it was because of a Cabinet Office sitting on a report that was damaging to the business case. This is in fact a memorandum on the methodology of the business case mentioned in the Daily Telegraph by Andrew Gilligan which suggests that since people can work on trains, the time is not wasted and therefore time savings are not as valuable as calculated. The point about the bill is simply wrong. The HS2 bill was never promised for this Queen’s Speech and, in any case, can always straddle Parliaments since it is a hybrid bill, different to normal ones. Therefore there is nothing to be read from the omission of the bill. The argument about the analysis of the methodology does have some merit since this is a key weakness of the case, but it is too arcane to deliver the killer blow to the scheme.  Finally, The Spectator suggests there is weak public support for the scheme. That may well be the case, but the public is by and large always opposed to big infrastructure schemes.

All this has the hallmarks of an article cobbled together from disparate bits of gossip and rumour to make a point. While the scheme is by no means about to be written off, the publication of the article and the prominence given to it in an influential right-wing magazine suggests that there are dangers ahead for the supporters of the scheme. The piece undoubtedly reflects a quite widespread view in the Tory party about HS2, one which I encountered widely in chatting to delegates when I went to the party conference last year.

While the article was clearly exaggerated, it was noticeable that it elicited no response from the likes of Cameron or Osborne, though Greening did back the project on a visit to Leeds. There are warning signs, therefore, for its supporters. Given this powerful strand of visceral opposition, the HS2 enthusiasts must rethink their strategy. They must be far quicker to respond to such attacks and should try to muster heavyweight politicians to rebut them. Where are the real enthusiasts other than Lord Adonis?

The industry, too, seems to be slow to come forward. The response from within the industry to The Spectator was virtually non-existent and it was some time before a routine press release emerged from the Campaign for High Speed Rail. But where were the other supporters?

My view is that Heathrow is the scheme’s Achilles heel. There is a confusion over the role of the airport that needs to be properly addressed. Much of the anti-HS2 feeling comes from the fact that rail seems to be getting this new infrastructure at the expense of aviation. There is clearly a head of steam behind getting the third runway into the Conservative  – and indeed Labour – election manifesto next time round. There has been intense lobbying and the business pages of the national newspaper all seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet, arguing that Britain will be missing out if Heathrow is not expanded. This is a demonstration of a strong covert lobbying campaign, funded by the likes of the big airport and airline owners.

The promoters of HS2 are have got themselves in a muddle over the issue of the rail connection with the airport and exactly what it is for. Is its purpose to attract travellers who are using Heathrow anyway or is it supposed to allow journeys on HS2 to replace flights? I think that confusion has been exposed by the opponents of the scheme and supporters of HS2 should make clear that they do not consider the two schemes as interchangeable.

In a way they have been hoist by their own petard. As I have long argued, very few people in practice will transfer from flights to HS2 and the promoters of the new line should ‘fess up about that in order to emphasise that they see the two projects as complementary. By arguing that HS2 is designed to be an alternative to expansion to Heathrow in a vain attempt to justify the project’s green credentials, they have raised opposition needlessly.

While the predictions in The Spectator are, as I suggest, political kite flying, I still think that demonstrate the need for well worked out contingency plans in the industry. If this or a future government does ditch HS2 or, as is more likely, kick it into touch through, say, accepting the need for an overall transport strategy as suggested in the Eddington report,  then the industry must be geared up to obtain concessions. To retain any credibility on the environment, the government would want to show its continued commitment to rail and that would be the time to extract promises of investment.

For the short term, I am convinced the project is safe. The Libdems, who originally pushed for it and remain strongly in favour, would see it as a betrayal of the Coalition agreement. Moreover, to embark on such a major U-turn so soon after the announcement of the project would make ministers look plain daft. U-turns are currently a sensitive issue given their recent proliferation. But the old adage that there is no smoke without fire holds true for this bit of journalistic mischief.




ORR v ATOC round Two


The entry of the Office of Rail Regulation into areas previously considered as ‘no go’ for the regulator continues apace. The publication of its report on ‘fares and ticketing’ shows that it is definitely expanding its role from merely overseeing Network Rail to one of trying to improve the lot of the passenger.

The government has already announced that it is undertaking a review of fares and ticketing, although given all the other issues affecting the industry, this is not likely to see the light of day until next year, rather too late to affect the major franchises which are currently in the bidding process. There is, of course, already Passenger Focus which has long campaigned on these issues in a series of reports and it might seem, therefore, that this is regulatory overload with far too many organisations getting involved.

Not so. As I wrote in Rail 696, the expansion of ORR’s remit seems to make sense. In fact, the ORR’s intervention is long overdue as demonstrated by the report which focusses not so much on the complexity of the ticketing system, which everyone knows is a mess, but the provision of information. While Passenger Focus has been beavering away at these issues for years, it helps, as its chief executive told me, ‘to have a big hitter on your side’. There has been something of a regulatory gap since the role of franchising director was taken over by the Department when the Strategic Rail Authority was abolished by Alistair Darling and the ORR is now trying to fill it.

The provision of information to passengers buying tickets contributes greatly to the confusion which passengers experience over fares. Just to give one example, it is extraordinary that tickets marked ‘off peak’ do not specify the times during which they are valid. This, rightly, varies from place to place, but nevertheless in these days of sophisticated IT, it should not be beyond the whit of the train operators to devise a way of doing this. But apparently it is – the software is simply not available.

That is not good enough and must change. The politics of all this is fascinating.  The train operators, of course, do not like the idea of the regulator taking an interest in these issues. They have already complained about being required to improve their provision of information when there are delays and privately they are expressing doubts about the ability of the ORR to pursue ‘customer-facing’ issues.

Yet, this is clearly necessary as this simple example shows. Without pressure, the level of information is not going to improve. Yet, franchises are going to be let for 15 year periods and the train operators cannot expect to be given an entirely free hand. They want less micromanagement from the Department but clearly someone has to look after passengers’ interest. The would do better to work with the ORR rather than battle against it the whole time.

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