Be careful what you wish for

The reaction by many rail journalists to the publication of the Integrated Rail Plan was uncontrolled fury. They railed against the ‘betrayal’ by the government because it involved scrapping part of the HS2 and nitpicked over details of the report which made claims about journey times reduction that were probably over optimistic.

The plan was presented by the government as the biggest ever investment programme in the railways and as an important part of the levelling up agenda. This, too, attracted considerable criticism from some northern politicians who felt it did not go far enough. And it was a mistake. The fact that there were changes to previous plans for HS2 should have been recognised more openly.

But as I argued at the time, in articles both in Rail magazine and The Guardian (available on my website) the key point about the Plan was that it was an endorsement of the railway. Yes, the £96bn promised included money already allocated or even spent, and the sums did not quite add up. Yes, the plan for HS2 was changed but actually with a link to Liverpool and half way across the Pennines (a rather strange proposal admittedly) there were some actual improvements such as the reinstatement of the electrification of the Midlands Main Line.

The railways were subsidised to the tune of around £17bn in the 2020/1 and will have received a similar amount this year.  The fact that despite this huge subsidy, the government was prepared to commit large amounts of money to the industry was, in fact, a vote of confidence in the railway. Of course there are contradictions in government policy, with short term cut backs rather negating the value of long term commitments but this is not an era of Beeching type cuts.

Therefore, the reaction of some of my colleagues was clearly over the top. And moreover, that did not go unnoticed. On a Teams call with about 20 members of the trade press in early February, Andrew Haines, the boss of Network Rail was asked about the reaction to the Integrated Rail Plan. Haines is a generally mild mannered fellow but is not afraid to be blunt when necessary. And I have never seen him so angry. In reply, he said: ‘Those people who have been prepared to say that the £96bn investment [announced in the IRP] is a ‘kick in the teeth’ and an insult are doing an enormous disservice with the Treasury, particularly at a time when the economics of the railway are really challenging.  I just don’t get it – I think people have lost the plot absolutely big time on this’.

Moreover, this has been damaging to the railway cause at a high level: ‘The rhetoric that has developed around that nationally has been profoundly unhelpful, imbalanced and wrong… somehow, the dialogue on IRP has become one of “catastrophic disaster of cataclysmic proportions” and created the view that the future of our industry is utterly dire’. In fact, he said, many of the investment plans in the railways ‘were never grounded in anything like a business case that could stand alongside all the other demands for infrastructure investment’.

There is a lesson in this for campaigners. Haines is no enemy of the railway. Quite the opposite. He is one of its biggest and most important supporters. He should be listened to and his words have resonance. Of course we should, at times, complain and campaign, and inevitably this can arouse antagonism. But, and this is a big but, we must also be careful about what we say and how far we go. We should, too, be ready to claim even partial victories as wins. Occasionally agreeing with ministers, Network Rail bosses or even the Department for Transport is not a betrayal. It’s sensible.

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