Rail 952: The agenda for a new transport secretary

Given world events that have managed to put even Partygate on the back burner, it is difficult to focus on what might seem a parochial issue such as the fate of the railways. However, the decision to go ahead with rail fare rises and the preliminary work towards the setting up of Great British Railways show that even with all these distractions we need to keep on focussing what is happening in the industry.

Away from Ukraine, which is rather beyond the scope of this column, there remains the issue of Partygate. My belief is still – and this is not wishful thinking – that the war has only given Boris Johnson a temporary reprieve. The famous report by Sue Gray, the imperturbable civil servant, will eventually come out with devastating findings. The Prime Minister will not be able to survive and he has not been helped by the failure to offer help to Ukrainian refugees which again has run counter to public sentiment.

The relevance of all this to the railways is that when Boris Johnson goes, so will his Cabinet. It is difficult to see the worst performers – we are spoilt for choice here – will survive and that means pretty much a whole new Cabinet. Grant Shapps has had no interest in the transport job apart from ridiculous but high profile initiatives such as restoring Beeching and reining back on public announcements and therefore he will not stay. However, he is one of the few Cabinet ministers to perform well on the media and he is bound to get a move to a higher profile and probably less onerous job.

Therefore, we can expect a new occupant of Great Minster House as soon as the present crisis on the war is finished. Even in the unlikely event that Johnson does not get pushed out – his only hope really is that the May local elections prove not to be as bad for the Tories as expected – Shapps will most probably be moved on. No senior politician is going to take the job as they will be well aware of the difficulties that lie ahead and therefore we are likely to end up with a tyro  – which may not be an entirely bad thing as they will be eager to make their mark.

Indeed, there are good reasons for Shapps to escape the Department for Transport at this time given that it is about to face a crisis given the clear difference between  the expectation generated by the rhetoric and the reality given the economic situation.  Shapps will be all too aware of this and will be in a hurry to the exit door as soon as possible.

But it ain’t going to be easy for the new incumbent who will immediately be stuck between a rock and a couple of hard places. The number one problem is the lack of money to continue subsidising the trains – and indeed the buses, for which a promised programme of improvement has been announced.  The targets set by the Department for cuts and the expectations of higher incomes will simply not be realised.

I have long argued that recovering from the pandemic will take years, not weeks or months. Indeed, there has been a permanent shift away from business and commuter travel which will mean that even if numbers recover, income will still be down. Add to that the damaging effects of the big fares rise and there is no hope of reaching ‘normality’ any time soon. Yet the Rail Delivery Group reckons passenger journeys in 2025 will be 4.7 per cent higher than pre-pandemic which ignores the fact that growth had begun to tail off in 2019 and season tickets were declining steadily. That seems to be optimism with very little basis in analysis, produced aolwly to satisfy the Department for Transport in the short term.

The last thing a new minister will want to see massive service cuts being imposed under their watch. But what is the alternative? Either they will have to persuade Rishi Sunak – or his successor – that the level of subsidy that the railways require will remain massive or they will have to preside over the biggest public transport cuts since Beeching.

The hapless new minister faces another problem, too. The rising cost of fuel, which is unlikely to be reversed any time soon given the conflict, will accelerate the move to electric cars and reduce the tax take as people drive less. Road transport will quickly lose its status as cash cow over the next few years forcing the Department for Transport to start thinking about how to make up that deficit. It is wishful thinking to hope that many of these motorists will will transfer to rail because the cost – especially the often misleading headline fares that are publicised – remains a deterrent. The effect of a decade of rising fares in relation to relatively static fuel prices will not be reversed by this recent hike in motoring cost.

There is only one way out, and that is road pricing. The revenue from it could be used to subsdise the railways, keeping fares down. Given the new stress on sustainability, that is a no brainer but unfortunately time and again we have seen governments postpone the day when they will have to bow to the inevitable and create a new taxation system for transport. The recent report into road pricing by the Transport Select Committee concluded that there is no other viable response to the loss in tax take from the shift to electric cars. That bullet has to be bitten sooner or later, and the present crisis should precipitate acceptance. The disappointment is that the Committee suggested the tax take should be the same as now when, in fact, in order both to fund the railways and to achieve sustainability goals, taxation on motoring should be increased. As the MPs said, it is time for an honest debate on the issue, and this should be top of the agenda for the new Transport Secretary.


Beeching lives on

It is fascinating how the shadow of Beeching has stretched well into the 21sts century. He is such a defining figure in railway history that there is an almost endless stream of books covering the impact of his relatively brief period at the helm of British Railways. Indeed, my forthcoming book on British Rail, due to be published by Penguin in June, has a couple of chapters on Beeching – who although he did more than just close lines, was ultimately a greatly damaging influence on the railways.

Now a couple of excellent new books adding to the Beeching story have landed on my desk. One is a long awaited biography of Ernest Marples, the Tory minister who appointed him knowing that he would swing an axe through the rail network. Marples, too, though undoubtedly a villain and pretty overtly corrupt, was a more complex figure, having been responsible for, among other things, Subscriber Trunk Dialling – effectively the creation of a national telephone network – and Premium Bonds. But there is no doubt, as this book, Ernest Marples, The Shadow behind Beeching by David Brandon and Martin Upham (Pen & Sword) demonstrates, Marples and Beeching worked together to ensure that the size of the railway network was reduced substantially while much investment went into the road network.

The other book, by David Spaven who was one of key campaigners for the reopening of the Borders Railway – and wrote a book on it – highlights the way that the Beeching cuts were pushed through in Scotland without any proper consideration of the alternatives. Scotland’s Lost Lines, where Beeching got it wrong, is a very detailed analysis which highlights not only the damage caused to local communities but the lost potential of these branch lines that could, now, be amazing resource for Scotland’s tourist industry and for local communities cut off from the network. His key point is inarguable: ‘Beeching had a blind spot in his approach to loss-making lines, eschewing the scope for sensible economies short of closure in the headlong rush to deliver a turn-round in BR’s financial performance’. As both books – and indeed mine – argue, that turn-round never happened and, indeed, was always a Holy Grail that could never be found.

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