We have to talk about Net Zero. Seriously. And what it really means in terms of transport. The dismal contest for the Tory leadership is a sad reflection of the politics of our times. It is a race to the bottom, with virtually no discussion about issues other than tax cuts in which, in reality, few people outside the membership of the Conservative party are particularly interested.
In fact, the two Tory leadership contenders are underestimating the extent to which the membership of their party is supportive of the idea of doing more about the environment. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have been competing to see who can be more dismissive of green concerns and yet, according the Guardian reported on 1st August that research by the Onward thinktank suggested ‘Conservative voters are notably keen on the target of net zero emissions by 2050, with a quarter saying that they would no longer back the party if it was ditched’.
Liz Truss, rather surprisingly given that she wants to cut swathes out of the tax bill, is seeking to reinstate the supposed £34bn cut to Northern Powerhouse contained within the Integrated Rail Plan
But in other respects, her green credentials are found wanting as she wants to suspend VAT on energy bills, a policy later endorsed by Sunak who has also ruled out any on shore wind farms in England.
Both, unfortunately, have been silent on transport, which is a key area for the decarbonisation agenda as it is responsible for 22 per cent of carbon emissions. Now here’s the problem. Is there any coherent strategy within a Tory agenda that could deliver substantial reductions in that 22 per cent figure? Car use is responsible for 61 per cent of transport emissions and there is clearly some potential there to reduce that figure. The most obvious would be to improve the relative price of driving and using public transport such as trains. In fact, for many years the opposite has happened. In his excellent book on the current state of transport policy, Good to Go, Decarbonising Travel After the Pandemic, David Metz quotes the Department for Transport’s own figures which show that in the first two decades of the twenty first century, the cost of motoring fell by 15 percent in real terms (i.e. disregarding inflation) while rail tickets went up by 20 per cent and bus and coach fares by more than twice that.
As Metz concludes, ‘to achieve significant behavioural shift away from the car, some increase in the cost of motoring will surely be needed’. Of course, since he finalised the book in February this year, there has been an increase in the cost of motoring but the deadly duo Tory leadership contenders are doing their best to mitigate that with suggestions of duty or VAT cuts.
Yet, few may remember this, but it was the Tory government which in 1993 introduced the fuel tax escalator which raised duty every year by more than the rate of inflation with the aim of reducing pollution from cars and funding road construction. There is another benefit of reintroducing such a tax – it will push more people into buying electric cars, which are an important part of the decarbonisation agenda. Road pricing, too, could have a similar effect if set in the right way such as penalising drivers on congested roads, while allowing much cheaper or free motoring in rural areas. While none of these ideas are likely to be discussed in the hustings, whoever wins the keys to No !0 will be faced with a series of such dilemmas and it may well be that Sunak or Truss may be forced to consider them.
Rail policy which has also been a no go area for the two candidates may offer. Again, thinking up a policy that might be acceptable to the new Tory government is not easy. The focus on attacking strikers and the misinformation about Victorian work practices from the present transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has not been helpful in resolving the strikes or in developing new thinking on the railways. Perhaps, and I am being optimistic here, the new incumbent, influenced by growing pubic disquiet about chaos on the railways, will be prepared to take a fresh look at what is happening on the rail network.
Remember, at the moment, the two candidates are playing to the very narrow audience of Conservative party members. Once they are popping in weekly to see the Queen, they might realise that the current situation is not helping anyone – the public, the workers or the ministers. They will need to. If the think tank evidence is correct, and even Tory party members are concerned about the environment, there is no doubt that the wider public certainly is. Net zero is a policy that is quickly becoming enshrined in the national psyche and presented as a key part of any party’s platform in the same way as universal education or the NHS.
This is good news for the railways but not necessarily HS2. The best way that railways can contribute to net zero is through the better use of urban rail, whether trains or trams. Look at the success of the London Overground which needs to be matched by regional services in other major cities. That is possibly an area where Tory ideology, through ‘Levelling Up’, might accord with rail investment. But don’t hold your breath.
Lost Property loss
Silly old granddad taking his seven year old twin grandsons on holiday in Wales on Saturday 23rd July left the bag with all their clothes on the train when changing at Birmingham International onto the Cambrian Coast service. It was not till the old duffer got to his destination at Pensarn (two stops south of Harlech) that he realised that the bag had been left on the Avanti train.
Quick phone call to Molly, my not very pleased daughter who, without her little darlings to look after, at least had time on her hands to try to sort it out. Or, rather, try to. As she was in the vicinity, she dropped into Euston to ask about how to get it back. The good news was that there is a combined Lost Property and Left Luggage office at Euston – but the bad news was that the Lost Property section is only open Monday to Friday business hours. So the Left Luggage person was not able to help her, other than to give her a couple of phone numbers to ring. One did not work, and the other gave her a further two numbers to phone – one was Avanti and the other Network Rail – both were recorded messages and asked her to fill out forms. Both said that if anything were found, they would advise her.
She had been advised that the train terminated in Edinburgh but when she tried to call Network Rail Lost Property there, it was again only a Monday to Friday service. Later that evening, she got an email from Edinburgh saying it was not there. Silly old granddad tried Twitter and was also told that no bag had been found there and ‘there’s very little we can do’. When I queried this and wondered it the bag had been left on the train, ‘Miles’ responded: ‘It’s not likely, Christian, as our cleaners will have walked through the train when it terminated and handed anything to the relevant people. It is always possible that a public member took it and handed it in elsewhere’. Euh, except that was wrong.
The Avanti website information on lost property requires a good knowledge of the railway system to understand. Which company might have the property depends on where the train terminates, something which must seem very strange to anyone unfamiliar with our crazy rail system.
My daughter, though, kept going. On the Monday, she tried to ring Euston but there was never any answer and nor did her emails get any response. As she works near Euston, on the Tuesday she popped in and lo and behold, there was the bag. It had been found alone on Platform 5 on Sunday morning, presumably having stayed on the train at Edinburgh and then found by cleaners at Euston. Molly had not been advised it was there and suspects that had she not been persistent and simply turned up, the bag would have simply been disposed of after three months and she would never have heard of it.
If any rail manager or civil servant in the Department or indeed minister thinks this is sensible or customer friendly or, indeed optimal, then they are living in a fantasy land. This is poor, uncoordinated, dismissive service that reflects badly on the railway. Lost property should surely be an integrated service, coordinated centrally. Memo to GBR: there are now websites, email and social media platforms available to provide this kind of service which should be set up as soon as you start work’.