Heathrow third runway hoo-ha misses the point

I wish the new transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, well and hope he is in post for rather longer than most of his predecessors. His appointment may owe more to Justine Greening’s stance on Heathrow – did Cameron not realise, as I and many others did a year ago, that this problem might arise – and realpolitik than anything to do with their respective abilities, but Heathrow is actually the least of his problems.

The sustained coverage, partly galvanised by Boris Johson, of the Heathrow issue misses the point.  Nothing will happen publicly about the third runway until after the next election. Sure, there may be some behind the scenes groundwork in the Department, now that Greening has been moved (actually to a very intersting job, but that’s another matter) but waht McLoughlin thinks or doesn’t think on the question is irrevelant. Of much greater and more immediate importance is all the issues about the railways that he will find in his in-tray, some of which have been there since the days of Philip Hammond.

The most pressing will be fares – which will become a big political issue in the run up to the proposed staggering 6 per cent rise in January. There is, too, a whole host of other issues around the railways from franchising and the immediate question of the West Coast franchise, to the ongoing questions about their governance and structure, with the creation of the Rail Delivery Group and the establishment of alliances between Network Rail and TOCs. The affordability of the big investment programme and the necessity to implement reforms arising from McNulty add to the mix as well as the ORR already getting hot under the collar about performance. Add in continued opposition to HS2 and one can see that the McLoughlin is facing a sharp learning curve, even if he was a junior minister for transport when a certain lady had only just vacated Downing Street

I suspect all of this means that the new secretary of state will soon find himself knee deep in nitty gritty railway issues rather than big picture when the Third runway debate has disappeared off the front pages.



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