Rail 943: Cop-out on the railways

Promises, promises. There’s quite a lot of them about. The railway structure is to be reformed, some version of British Rail recreated, the northern wastelands are to be revitalised, the new high speed line is definitely going to be built and a new fares structure is in the offing. Look at it all more closely, however, and it is clear that there are contradictions everywhere.

I am writing this just before the Budget and  spending review speech but we already have a Treasury announcement about transport projects for the regions. Most of these actually focus on trams, buses and even cycling, though a few railway schemes such as upgrades to stations have apparently been included. But it is unclear whether any of this is new money – certainly most is not as it consists of reheated or previously announced schemes – and it may well all be a sop for the fact that HS2’s eastern leg is about to be put on ice, quite likely for a rather long time – which is forever in practical terms. Moreover, none of it represents a plan. It is all bits and pieces from various funds and allocations from different ‘pots’ of money but there is no serious intent behind it. Any plan would, actually, included investment in London since as the spending on Crossrail so clearly indicates, much of the money is spent around the country, notably in manufacturing in the North. So squeezing investment in London where people use public transport to a far greater extent than anywhere else, may suggest levelling up but is, in fact, the opposite.

Moreover, at the same time as we get promises about investment in rail, we are about to get the biggest series of cutbacks to services since the seventies when British Rail was trying to cope with double digit inflation rates  and was under pressure to make massive savings. Services are about to be ‘thinned out’ and as has now been widely trailed, redundancies are in the offing. My sources suggest we will have a railway with about 15-17 per cent fewer trains being operated but how that pans out is, as yet, unclear. If politics were not involved, the logic would be to scrap the least used services, which are often on branch lines or serving particularly deprived areas. Given ‘levelling up’ and the emphasis on the North, this is not feasible and instead we are likely to get reductions in off peak capacity and reduced frequencies. But that, again, reflects the lack of any coherent thinking in the Department for Transport – or rather the Treasury which is dictating policy.

In a world where rail is perceived to be at the heart of the decarbonisation policy, the courageous thing to do would be to stick with it. Cuts are only going to make the railways less attractive and as Stefanie’s editorial put it in the last issue of Rail, it is only by providing a better service that will induce people to come back to using the train. Reducing frequency, making carriages more cramped at a time that the pandemic is by no means over and cutting back on ancillary services such as catering and staff on platforms is the exact opposite of what is needed.

This patchy approach is a pattern across transport. As I write, COP 26 is about to open and is the biggest inter governmental event to be held in the UK in recent years. There is a lot of noise about it but precious little strategy. Yes, we are all suppose to be greener but there is a reluctance to make any hard choices. It should not, according to the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, cost anyone extra money to adopt to the new realities of climate change. The BBC reported ‘Kwasi Kwarteng said it was “not true” to say that the move to more environmentally friendly transport and energy production would “cost us”’. But if that were correct , then the market would have ensured these policies would have been adopted far earlier.

COP26 is another missed opportunity to be radical. Rail has such a central role to play in the Green agenda and yet It has been left to Vivarail, the company set up by Adrian Shooter to recycle old Underground trains, to take the initiative and demonstrate a new version of its battery powered train at the conference. It will be running a daily train service from Glasgow to Barrhead to show off the new technology thanks to support from various other private sector partners. Welcome that this is, a government seriously interested in highlighting the importance of rail at such an important event would surely have organised a range of events to demonstrate the potential of the industry. Indeed, I liked the suggestion from Manuel Cortes, the boss of the TSSA union, to make train travel in Scotland free during the Cop 26 conference as a way of boosting the sector and demonstrating its green credentials. But that would require imagination, something in short supply in the Treasury.

There is the same lack of coherent thinking about the new Great British Railways structure being created.  I have already written about the many questions (Rail 933) raised by the Shapps Williams report published earlier this year but it is surprising how few have been addressed, let along resolved, in the intervening six months. Again, there may be some news by the time you read this but the key issues in the report, such as, just to name three of many, the supposed enhanced role of the private sector in a structure controlled by a publicly owned body; the contradiction between open access being encouraged while Great British Railways will determine the timetable and much else, and the supposed redundancy of the 400 delay attribution clerks on a railway that will be shared by a number of players including freight operators and open access providers who will need to know who is delaying their trains in order to claim compensation.

At the root of the government’s muddle over the Shapps Williams report is that in normal circumstances, one would have expected that legislation for such a major change would have been prepared well before the announcement was made. However, it is clear that there is not even a framework for the legislation which means that, as ever, the Department seems to be muddling through with no clear road map.

There are real positives in some of the policies being put forward by the Department but they are all about politics rather than representing a consistent policy thread. After all, remember that any spending on the railways is dwarfed by the £27bn planned spending on new and widened roads, a programme that harks back to the 20th century rather than the 22nd. I wish I could say that Labour was pointing out the pitfalls and coming up with coherent ideas of its own, but sadly, at the moment, that does not seem to bve the case as witnessed by Sadiq Khan’s support for the Silvertown Tunnel, a £2bn road scheme in London’s suburbs which will do nothing for the environment or for relieving congestion. There is no doubt that green issues are going up the political agenda, but there is a long way before they are accepted as the starting point for policymaking. Cop 26 will hopefully result in some fine words, but action will trail rather far behind, if early pointers are anything to go by.


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