(Events rather overtook this column!)
By the time you read this, there will be a new transport secretary under the leadership of Liz Truss. Transport, let alone the railways, have hardly figured in the fierce Conservative hustings which have focussed on what seem like rather unrealistic promises of tax cuts combined with extra spending.
At one hustings, Ms Truss did commit to reinstating the commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail linking Hull with Liverpool which had been scaled back earlier this year by Grant Shapps, the current incumbent in Great Minster House. She did not explain how she would pay for the extra £30bn this would cost, merely suggesting that the formula for allocating central government money needed to be changed to support the North. It was, too, rather revealing that this particular hustings was held in Leeds. She might well have said something different in Tunbridge Wells.
Of course, it will be difficult to hold Ms Truss to account for everything she said during the hustings. At one point at another event, for example, she was asked about abolishing the national speed limit and she replied that this was something that she would consider. I am convinced this won’t happen. Nor will the weird suggestion from Shapps, who seemed to be pitching to keep his job, that bicycles should be registered and carry a number plate. The Daily Mail even splashed on this but it must be remembered that the suggestion – and indeed the whole Tory hustings debate – took place in August when real news stories are scarce.
Nevertheless, Ms Truss’s commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail should not be forgotten. This is an opportunity for campaigners to press their case even though the time scale is rather lengthy, stretching to 2040. The lack of any other statement of intent from the new Prime Minister can also be viewed as an opportunity to lobby for our cause.
The new transport secretary is unlikely to know much about transport or, specifically, the railways. There is much uncertainty about the immediate future. We do not even know whether the legislation for Great British Railways will be introduced Parliament in the coming session. Moreover, it is unclear whether anyone will want to take over the new contracts for operating what were once franchises. The hasty departure of Abellio from the fray, leaving their routes in the hands of a management buy out team which seemed to have been asked to take on the role in a sort of ‘offer you can’t refuse’ situation suggests that there may be other departures of the large players. The terrible state of the Avanti West Coast operation is another area of concern. It is 70 per cent owned by FirstGroup whose future is also uncertain given it was subject of £1.2bn offer from a private equity group in June. Add to this all the unanswered questions about how the new system under Great British Railways (perhaps dropping the Great would be a start!) and the incoming transport secretary will have a lot on his or her plate.
As I suggested, however, this is also an opportunity. Well-informed comment and advice from the likes of Railwatch may well be welcomed especially if it is, as much as possible, couched in non-political terms. We are living in uncertain times and a tyro transport secretary may well clutch at any straws offered to them in order to wade through the complex world of tracks and trains.