This year, to borrow a timely term from our late Queen, has been the annus horribilis for the railways. Just as she thought that 1992 sparked a possibly existential crisis for the monarchy, many in the rail industry are equally worried about the railways very future.
While I don’t think that a raft of Beeching style cuts is on the way, I do fear that this year will mark a turning point for the railways where, after a period in which they benefitted from a continuous period of growth that resulted in sustained support from government, things are going to be very rocky indeed. Of course, that investment was never quite enough, and certainly was never the ‘biggest investment in the railways’ since Victorian times, which was always the government’s claim but there was a sustained commitment that was translated into hard cash. Indeed, while, as regular readers know, I am no fan of Boris Johnson, there is no doubt he was a great supporter of the industry and his transport adviser, Andrew Gilligan, was given a lot of leeway to push through his pet schemes (which did not include HS2!).
Not only was there a coherent investment programme, but the biggest infrastructure project this country has ever seen was to build a railway line. In addition addition to HS2, we got the Integrated Rail Plan which promised £96bn worth of investment in the Midlands and North. Of course much of this spending seemed to come from the magic money tree but nevertheless this was a well worked out paper that at least tried to relate investment to outcomes. The subsequent scorn poured on it by various commentators – I and one or two others were exceptions- was, I have repeatedly been told by people close to the Government, enormously damaging to the railways’ reputation in Whitehall and turned the Treasury against railway investment.
As a result, that era may well in future be viewed as the rail’s heyday, even though the various plans were a bit of an Eton mess. But at least investment was on the agenda. Now, the state of the industry can be described as blanchmange, an incoherent muddle without even a cherry on top. That has not gone unnoticed. The Sunday Times on December 11th ran a very well informed piece by Ed Conway, Sky’s economics editor, arguing highlighting the lack of leadership in the railways. And, as he pointed out, there is little sign of any sense of direction emerging with a tyro transport secretary and a Prime Minister who, according to my sources, does not like railways. Indeed, the attitude of Nobody Gives a Damn starts in government and percolates downwards.
Of course the railways’ difficulties have been compounded by Covid and the cost of living crisis which has led to the industrial disputes. But remember, the downturn in the industry’s fortunes really started in May 2018 with the timetable chaos and the realisation in government circles that no one was in charge and that the fundamental idea behind privatisation, the split between operations and infrastructure, was at the heart of its difficulties. That was four years ago and as has been pointed out, it only took John Major’s much-criticised government precisely the same amount of time to legislate for and carry out the break up the industry and its sale to the private sector. Yet, four years on, we have a report, the Williams Shapps (the Shapps bit is being quietly dropped now the great man has gone and instead railway insiders talk of ‘reform’ instead). Great British Railways is, as long reported in this column, as dead as Elon Musk’s hyperloop and no one has any idea of what might happen next.
And look at what has happened to the funding arrangements for the railways. At the beginning of December, the Government announced the High Level Output Statement and its accompanying budget, the Statement of Funds Available which is supposed to set out the proposed programme for the next five year Control Period, which starts in April 2024. In previous times, these were serious documents, setting out possible alternatives for spending and at least approximating to what was likely to happen. Reading this latest HLOS is an insult to intelligence as it is not worth the paper it is not printed on. Essentially it admits that: ‘This HLOS does not set out objectives for infrastructure enhancement, nor does the SoFA cover its funding. Whilst (sic –should be while) the Government remains fully committed to the delivery of a programme of investment in enhancing rail infrastructure, decisions relating to the funding and objectives for enhancements are made through the Spending Review process and the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline’. That pipeline, is the one which for the current Control Period has still not been pub lished. In other words, don’t bother reading this document since it doesn’t mean anything. And the SOFA is equally sparse, merely giving a total of £44bn which is pretty much the level we knew already but is meaningless given the railways are at the mercy of future spending reviews
None of this begins to answer the key question for the future of the railways, which is what are they for? Given the new trend towards leisure travel, it is tempting to suggest that they have become even more marginal to the overall transport infrastructure than before. But that would be a mistake. There was an interesting recent column in Passenger Transport, by Alex Warner, a long time transport professional who does not drive. He had to go from his home in Shepperton to Derby and then Birmingham on days of train strikes, and found it was virtually impossible as coach services are either non-existent or so slow as to be unbearable. He expected, for example, to find that National Express would run coaches regularly between Birmingham and Heathrow, and between Derby and Birmingham, but this is not the case. In other words, it is the railways which are the glue which hold the country together for those without cars and for those of us who want to get between major cities sustainably and rapidly. The railways are not a nice to have extra but a key component of our infrastructure. I think that many in the industry, the Nobody Gives a Damn lot, have forgotten this and think that they run an optional service. For many people, it is not. That is the starting point for working out the railways’ future.
Mystic Wolmar’s vintage year
Dear old Mystic has had a rough time of it in recent years, not least when he actually forgot to make any predictions. But this year, he has hit the jackpot and should buy a lottery ticket. Here’s a reminder of his predictions
- Rail usage will struggle to reach 75 per cent of pre-Covid numbers and even then, crucially commuting will still be at 50 per cent and first class below that.
- None of the HS2 cuts made in the Integrated Rail Plan will be restored and there will be pressure for further reductions.
- Grant Shapps will no longer be Transport Secretary because Boris Johnson will have left the Premiership.
- The long awaited legislation for Great British Railways will not be published.
- At least one owning group will pull out of the new type of contractual arrangement and not bother to bid.
And as usual, one for QPR – no promotion this year with defeat in the play-offs.
Well, leaving aside the football prediction, I think Mystic deserves a full five out of five for that. Yes, railways have reached 80 per cent on some days, but passenger numbers have certainly struggled and the strikes, alongside the failings of Avanti, TransPennine Express and others are not going to help that. While some of the HS2 cuts were sort of reinstated by Liz Truss, that has been reversed by Rishi Sunak and there is a lack of clarity about long term plans. Moreover, this year the Golborne link north of Manchester was also chopped out. Grant Shapps has certainly left the Department for Transport, but even the most brilliant Mystic could not have forecast that Johnson’s successor, as well as the man himself, would have gone by now. Great British legislation is now unlikely ever to be published and Abellio has withdrawn from the industry. So if I say so myself, Mystic is a genius, no doubt! Do offer me your 2023 predictions via firstname.lastname@example.org