(written in October and now already out of date!)
At the time of writing, Anne-Marie Trevelyan is transport secretary and while she may no longer be in post when you read this, her evidence to the Commons Transport Committee on October 19th does at least offer some indication of present government thinking on the railways. I realise that this may now change but to put it mildly, the incoming new government under Rishi Sunask have rather bigger fish to fry than the future of the railways and therefore what she has said can, at least for the moment, be taken as policy.
Let me just make the point that the chaotic situation over the past few months in Westminster has had a definite negative on all aspects of government, including the railways. There is policy paralysis, with civil servants fettered by the absence of any decision making from ministers. Grant Shapps, the previous transport secretary – now astonishingly promoted to Home Secretary, at least at the time of writing – had little interest in the railways and policy but it is clear that Ms Trevelyan starts with a blank sheet of paper. Her only transport policy in the past had been to push for dualling the A1 around her constituency of Berwick Upon Tweed, which locals tell me is utterly unnecessary as the Scots will not pay for their section and, in any case, it is not the most used route between Newcastle and Scotland, as most people use the A 68 instead.
On rail, Ms Trevelyan faced a sharp learning curve, not, for example, understanding the franchising system or the role of Network Rail when she started the job. Insiders, though, tell me she is personable and a good listener, which is a good start. And certainly she seemed right from the outset to be more prepared to talk to the unions, but also, as a hardliner, also wants to push forward the very tricky legislation that would force the railways to have a minimum service level even when there are strikes. This, frankly, is both extremely difficult to legislate for and even harder to enforce as the questions are legion: what is a minimum service level? ; who would decide on it? how can you force people to go to work?; and so on.
At the Transport Committee, she gave two key determinants of policy: ‘growth and green’. This is a tough, even contradictory, agenda especially as in her opening remarks, Ms Trevelyan said that the Prime Minister (now departed, of course) had asked her to accelerate over 100 projects, ‘the vast majority of which are roads’, adding she wanted to see a laser focus on these projects. How that squares with a green agenda seems to me for the birds. Mr Sunak has long been a great supporter of road building, having launced a £27bn roadbuilding programme as Chancellor, something that clearly appealed to Boris Johnson, that great lover of grands projets. Now, therefore, there is a risk that if any of these projects are cancelled or delayed, it will be the handful of rail schemes which were included in Liz Truss’s ill fated ‘mini’ budget.
At least all the rail functions, including rail, have been given to the rail minister, Kevin Foster, who does have some knowledge of the rail industry and even, apparently, he told me that he used to read Rail. One interesting aspect is that he is the only token male on the transport team, though, of course, it may be that this particular ministerial team does not survive the arrival of the new Prime Minister.
While confirming that there would not be a ‘big Transport Bill’, in effect kicking the prospect of a statutory Great British Railways into touch, Ms Trevelyan however did say however there may be a ‘narrow’ bill on e-scooters and the like, something that is urgently required given the prevalence of these devices on our streets and pavements. I am a fan of them, but only if they are subject to legislation as they are far more dangerous than bicycles.
Therefore Ms Trevelyan listed what could happen without legislation, as I attempted to set out in Rail 967. The answer, of course, is surprisingly quite a lot. She mentioned that there was a definite commitment to bring in the new passenger service contracts but she was not able to say when this would happen. It is clear, though, that while the whole Shapps Williams reforms will not go through for the time being, there is no going back on the franchising changes. The pre-covid model, she reiterated, is dead.
One interesting revelation was over ticket offices. Clearly she had been briefed quite closely on that, reiterating the statistic that only 12 per cent of tickets are bought in booking offices. However, a moment’s pause – and I think she had one – suggests this might be around 20 million tickets per year, which is not inconsiderable. Therefore, she rather cautiously reported that she ‘is fully committed to do a full review of all ticket offices’. That is far off from saying, as the unions have suggested, that all offices will be close, which frankly would cause a furore that she could do without. She is actually quite reassuring on this issue, stressing that at her little station – presumably Berwick – there is ‘one man or one lady team’ who are essential to help people with their ticketing needs: ‘To lose them would be genuinely impossible’.
On other matters she was less forthcoming, not committing herself to changing the policy of making Great British Railways the sole retailer of tickets which would squeeze out the private sector and on HS2 she stood firm, and her permanent Secretary, Bernadette Kelly who was also giving evidence, revealed that the Department had spent ‘considerably more than £15bn’ so far and that the spending envelope for the first section was £45bn – however, those figures are all at 2019 figures and Ms Kelly suggested this may be revised in the future.
All this however is contingent on Sunak’s government remaining in place at least till 2023 and possibly right up to the end of 2024. Frankly, with the usual caveat about Mystic Wolmar’s predictions, I think an election will come sooner rather than later. While it is not unusual to have one Prime Minister who was not the party leader at the time of the general election, to have two is unprecedented and will lead to constant questions about legitimacy especially as even the Tory membership – God Bless them – did not get a say. So he was chosen by 355 Tory MPs, and even then only by acclamation. While there is no mechanism to force a general election, the internal wrangling within the Tory party may men that ultimately the new PM will simply be exhausted by the chaos that the country becomes ungovernable. Therefore within a few months it could be all change for transport which is why I will soon focus my attention in a future column the Labour Party’s plans.
Amtrak stutters on
I have just spent a few days in the United States and used the train service from New York to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a near three hour ride that was not cheap at $190 return – around £170, despite being booked three weeks in advance. The North East corridor of the United States is the only part of the nation that has anything like a European style train service, connecting the various big cities of the region – Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston – with reasonably regular trains.
They are well used but the system is very clunky and old fashioned, kind of British Rail 1950s feel, though new rolling stock is on the way to replace the existing badly lit carriages which offer a rather bumpy ride. The trains are massively overstaffed with several ‘conductors’ for a few carriages, who check your ticket and then put a label on the rack above your seat which makes it remarkably labour intensive. The train I used, called the Keystone runs between New York and the state capital, Harrisburg, is a near four hour ride without any catering. American platforms are bleak, often narrow places, with no cafes or shops and at bigger stations you are not allowed onto them until 10 minutes or so before departure. The whole service, therefore, is perfunctory and not aimed at making the experience fun, pleasant or enjoyable.
With a bit of TLC, and some training of the staff in customer service, the whole experience could e so much better. Nevertheless, it is a great way to travel around the North East, not least because fellow passengers tend to be friendly and chatty. The service, too, shows that had the government worked to preserve more passenger services in the US when they were ruthlessly cut by the large train companies in the 1950s and 1960s (see my book, The Great Railway Revolution, a history of the US railway system), they could well have been viable and useful in this car-oriented country. A terrible missed opportunity.