In the swathe of reports and events in the past few weeks, one rather important document has been lost. This is the Union Connectivity Review launched in October 2020 to look at the links between England and the other parts of the UK, particularly in terms of the quality and availability of transport infrastructure. Written by Sir Peter Hendy, the chairman of Network Rail but, crucially in this respect, wearing his more general ‘veteran transport expert’ hat, the report was published in November but largely overshadowed by the Integrated Rail Plan that came out a couple of weeks previously as well as the Salisbury train crash and the response in the industry to Covid.
Devolution has been a rather double edged sword and the commissioning and publication of this report are a result of the policy of the various governments in the past quarter of a century who have all emphasises its virtues. In terms of transport, devolution has had a largely positive effect, leading to great expenditure and investment whether it has been in Scotland or Merseyside, Wales or London. However, paradoxically, devolving various transport powers has strengthened devolved governments, especially Wales and Scotland, but even to some extent in Northern Ireland (where British Rail in all but name still lives on). Devolution in fact is a more complex issue than often argued given that there are questions of fairness and standardisation which it can exacerbate. In other words, devolution may emphasise narrow local interests over larger strategic and cross regional ones. The report acknowledges this: ‘There is no doubt that regional authorities are best placed to understand the needs of local communities and deliver real change locally to improve people’s lives. However, there is a gap in UK-wide strategic transport planning that has resulted in cross-border schemes and those where the costs and benefits are in different nations seeming to be a lower priority than other schemes which may provide greater local benefit’.
Therefore at the outset, this does seem like a rather cynical enterprise. A government concerned that it has not done enough for the whole of the United Kingdom and is seen as too Anglocentric is flailing about attempting to show that it does care about all those people living far away from the capital. Trying to prevent the secession of Scotland is clearly a major focus of the government. More and more, Scotland is beginning to appearing like a separate country having its own governance and rules. Covid, and the prominence it has given to its SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has accelerated that process and created the perception, perhaps at time mistaken, that independence is inevitable.
Northern Ireland, too, is in a state of limbo. Bookmakers may well be taking bets on whether Ireland would be united before Scotland gains independence, and I would not bet against either or both of them happening by 2040. For Northern Ireland, connectivity, as the report emphasises, may well mean improved links with the south, and that is bound to improve the pressure to establish a united Ireland.
Wales, too, led by the unshowy but effective Mark Drakeford, has also looked far more likely as a candidate for independence than it ever has. While this may at the moment be a remote possibility, there is no doubt that it is a candidate for greater devolution and more powers. Moreover, it is noticeable that Wales has recently taken a very different direction in terms of transport. Most notably, the Welsh Government has scrapped all new road schemes which most notably included abandoning the project to relieve congestion on the M4 around Newport in favour of rail and bus based alternatives. This was contained in the Burns report on which I wrote (Rail 919) and which set out a detailed set of alternatives including major capacity increases to the main railway line. Interestingly, Hendy’s report emphasises that this is a feasible set of ideas which would bring about a reduction in congestion on the M4.
Unfortunately, the Connectivity report does not apply the same logic to other parts of the country. The brief, of course, was not just for railways but all forms of transport, and Hendy has rather fallen into the trap of wanting all things for everybody, rather than, as Burns did, honing down on a few key projects with an emphasis on sustainability. Indeed, in giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on December 15, Hendy singled out the proposals put forward by Burns to improve the south Wales main line and bring about a series of related improvements.
The report goes some way to making choices this by advocating the creation of UKNET, a strategic transport network for the whole of the United Kingdom which would mainly be focused on inter-city and regional routes, However, he emphasises that this would have to be within a sustainable framework and that is where the content of the report does not quite to its apparent objectives.
While the report expresses support for a several rail projects, such as improving links between Cardiff and Birmingham, improving connections between north Wales and Merseyside, and upgrading the north Wales line, there are also recommendations which seem not, to put it mildly, fit in with a sustainable agenda. For example, there are several recommendations to improve the road network which perhaps is inevitable given the lack of rail capacity in various parts of Wales and Scotland but rather more controversially Hendy makes several suggestions on increasing domestic air travel and making it less expensive. He wants to see air passenger duty reduced for domestic journeys, which seems rather anomalous given that the railways have to pay tax on their fuel which airlines do not. Moreover, it seems totally out of kilter with the post COP 26 agenda which recognised the urgency of the climate crisis. Hendy also suggests that more slots should be opened up for domestic services at Heathrow despite the fact that many of these would lead to increased travel on routes which parallel rail services and he wants to see competition on domestic routes which are currently subsidised.
Of course this is all about politics. I suspect that Hendy was lent upon to include these suggestions as a quid pro quo for lots of sensible stuff about the more sustainable aspects of the report. Most importantly, if one can make the fanciful suggestion that this government has a coherent policy about anything other than about what tomorrow’s front pages might say, then it needs to implement the key findings of this report which was so obviously born of fear of the disintegration of the UK. Boris Johnson or, probably more important his successor, does not want to be seen as the prime minister who broke up the UK. Therefore local authorities and other funding bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships should make use of this report, picking out the schemes that it wants to push forward and emphasising their importance to the wider government agenda.
Mystic Wolmar ventures out again
Having missed last year through a mix of cowardice and incompetence, Mystic is giving it a go again. However, trying to make predictions in this uncertain world is even more difficult than previously. Who, even at the beginning of last year, would be predicting that rail use would again plunge to below 50 per cent as the new variant emerged? Moreover, even with the knowledge that a pandemic is raging, who dares to venture how it will affect the transport industry? In fact, I have long been on the pessimistic wing, suggesting that things have changed radically and permanently, and therefore rail usage will never return to the numbers nor, importantly, the pattern of pre-Covid patronage.
So in that vein, here goes:
- Rail usage will struggle to reach an 75 per cent of pre-Covid numbers and even then, crucially commuting will still be at 50 per cent and first class below that.
- None of the HS2 cuts made in the Integrated Rail Plan will be restored and there will be pressure for further reductions.
- Grant Shapps will no longer be Transport Secretary because Boris Johnson will have left the Premiership.
- The long awaited legislation for Great British Railways will not be published.
- At least one owning group will pull out of the new type of contractual arrangement and not bother to bid.
And as usual, one for QPR – no promotion this year with defeat in the play-offs.