To say we live in extraordinary times qualifies as understatement of the year. Consider the bald facts that we are on our third prime minister, and third transport secretary of 2022 and there’s still a month or so left!
For the railways, this is particularly damaging. If there is one they need from government and its ministers, it is stability. That has hardly been on offer in the past few months, or indeed in many respects, recent years ever since the 2016 Brexit vote turned the world upside down, followed by the pandemic and now the collapse of the Tory party as a coherent entity.
Therefore, welcome Mark Harper, the new Transport Secretary, a man about whom even my esteemed political journalist friends know little apart from the fact he was once chief whip, a job that requires knowing about every Tory MPs’ misdemeanours. The good news is that the new rail minister is Huw Merriman, the former chair of the Commons Transport Committee which means that he knows a thing or two about the railways and has been given the rail and HS2 (why is that separate) brief . Oddly, such knowledge did not save Kevin Foster, who was rail minister for barely a monthly and seemed to know his trains as he told me he read Rail magazine in his misspent youth. Moreover, apart from Baroness Vere in the Lords and Katherine Fletcher (who she? ed) in the Commons, the rest of the nearly all female transport team have been scattered to the winds, mostly to other ministerial posts. There seems little rhyme or reason as to why particular people have been moved and it means that the railways have been in limbo ever since the departure of Boris Johnson but at least appointing Merriman is a good idea given that I was told that when Anne Marie Trevelyan became transport minister, she did not know the difference between a TOC and NR.
I have no idea whether Harper knows anything about trains either, but at least Merriman will be well versed in the intricacies of the rail industry and the good news is that top of his agenda, according to my sources, is that top of his agenda is to ‘end the industrial action asap’ followed by get a grip on HS2 and, third, ‘Provide clear decision-making & more certainty in the rail pipeline, unblock the current backlog & be more transparent with stakeholders in what we can & can’t deliver’.
That’s a great list but none of it is going to be easy and here are a few thoughts to help Merriman and his merry men in Great Minster House. From what I understand, the present transport team is going to maintain the more engaged response to the unions started under Trevelyan’s brief period in the hot seat. Within a week, she had met with the unions and kept on telling them that ‘I am not my predecessor’, a reference to Grant Shapps and his refusal to choose the beer and sandwiches approach in relation to the comrades. Harper, too has said that he is happy to meet with the unions and the fact that the RMT called off its three days of planned strikes is a sign that the tectonic plates are moving. Indeed, the unions which privately accept they are not going to get a rise anything like the 10 or 12 per cent rise which would maintain their living standards, are nevertheless pleased that there is the prospect of a mid to high single digit rise, far better than the 2 per cent maximum which seemed to be Shapps’s best offer. Moreover, the unions are hoping that there may be a little bit more money to pay for these deals as both Northern and TransPennine Express have asked the government for extra cash to enable them to buy out the Rest Day Working deals that have been the source of much of the operational difficulties
However, there is a problem – a big one. The Treasury is apparently still insisting on cuts to the train operators’ budgets for the forthcoming year of at least 10 per cent. When I asked a senior rail industry source how more generous deals for the staff can be equated with these enormous cuts, the answer was simple: ‘they can’t’ and, this person added ‘it is pure fantasy to think they can’.
The budget statement on the 17th will not resolve this dilemma. There is now a fundamental dysfunction at the heart of the structure of the railways. Since the start of the pandemic and the cancelling of the franchise agreements, all the revenue from fares effectively goes direct to the Treasury when the train operators can be bothered to collect it, an issue that must be resolved quickly. Yet, the costs are born by the Department for Transport whose budget is set by the Treasury on an inflexible annual basis. That means far from the promised land set out in the Shapps Williams report that the railways would ahve a guiding mind that would be in control of the industry’s finances. Businesses have what is called a profit and loss account, showing both revenue and costs but the current situating means that the two sides of the system are in different hands, and neither is as yet in the hands of a ‘guiding mind’.
That is the issue which ministers will have to sort out. Under the current structure there is no scope to innovate. So if, say, an operator wants to put on a couple of extra services which would cost X but gain 2X in revenue, the Treasury is likely to say ‘no’. That’s because the money mandarins do not understand that although the railways provide a social service, like roads or schools, they are also, unlike them, a commercial business which has to spend to make money. Getting to grips with that issue is crucial. Otherwise we are going to see a situation well described by the great BR chairman Peter Parker in the early 1980s who warned of ‘the crumbling edge of quality’. If all improvements to the timetable, or other aspects liked by passengers such as clean trains, shiny stations and helpful staff are dispensed with in the name of efficiency, the railway will suffer a slow but inevitable decline – which in turn, ironically, will lead to the need for more subsidy while providing a worse service.
The new ministerial team has to get to grips with a completely novel situation. The railway is now much more for leisure and discretionary travel than commuting; it is suffering from the uncertainty of the post Covid situation which has resulted in the NGAD, the Nobody Gives a Damn railway; and the industry is facing unprecedented cuts at a time when millions are being spent on a shiny new railway whose construction is widely opposed, not least from the Tory benches. Moreover, the big idea of the previous administration, the Williams Shapps report, the creation of Great British Railways, looks to end up as an empty office block in Derby.
It will be rather entertaining to watch Merriman when he first faces the Commons Transport Committee where his previous colleagues are likely to be merciless in their questioning. During his tenure Merriman was pretty sharp, which was no bad thing, and they will make sure he gets a dose of his own medicine. In turn, Merriman is likely to give his civil servants a rough time given his knowledge which means they will no longer be able to hide behind limp excuses. Let’s hope he can cut through this fog, use his knowledge to create a viable way forward and dazzle his former colleagues on the Transport Committee. Can’t say I will put money on it.
Big penalty fare not the answer to evasion
One of the bad ideas to emerge from the Grant Shapps regime was the increase of penalty fares from £20 to £100. Shapps was always one for instant initiatives which made a good headline but had as much substance as a packet of Haribo and this is one of them. Think through the consequences of this. Most fare evaders are short of money and £100 is a large sum. The idea that this will be more of a deterrent than £20 is fanciful.
Rather, it will likely to increase the tension between revenue protection officers and people who have not paid the correct fare. In the worst case scenario, it will increase the violence against railway workers, as happened to Colin Spicer, whose assailant broke his jaw and fractured his eye socket when he was working at Wigan Wallgate station in February this year. The attacker received a 28 month sentence but Spicer was left with permanent injuries. At the other end of the scale is the imposition of fines on people who have made a genuine mistake given that the rules on ticket eligibility are beyond comprehension to anyone but Barry Doe…and even he struggles at times.
Given the total lack of basic fare checking on many services I have used recently, surely it would be better to focus on that rather than bringing in punitive measures. There is a tendency in the railways to consider passengers as criminals unless they can prove otherwise. That needs to be reversed, and treat people as customers, and only punish the truly criminal.