We live in strange, indeed confusing times. In the wider political economy, we have a Chancellor of the Exchequer who was a firm Remainer now trying to extol the virtues of Brexit. Moreover, on the other side of the spectrum, we have Keir Starmer, another arch Remainer suggesting that he can ‘make Brexit work’. Yet, in the real world, not only is the economy suffering from the madness of our extreme version of leaving the European Union, but the people at large are starting to realise it was all a big mistake.
We also have a chairman of the Conservative party who did not feel it was appropriate to resign even though he has been fined by HMRC for not paying the right amount of tax and a past Prime Minister who makes Viv Nicholson (of Spend, Spend, Spend fame) look positively parsimonious while the rest of us suffer from the cost of living crisis. This is a crazy topsy turvy world and it is no wonder that trying to uncover a coherent strategy in government thinking is like trying to find a penny piece in a hopper full of ballast.
It is a world in which nothing can be taken for granted, and where words seemingly no longer have their usual meaning. This is particularly true in our new Nobody Gives a Damn railway. We are supposed to be getting a new ‘guiding mind’ for the railways which was going to be called Great British Railways except now, apparently, it is to be known as ‘the reform process’ and the name GBR is no longer to be mentioned. We have, too, a transport secretary who says he wants to resolve the industrial dispute in the railways but then allows his boss, who has little interest in transport let along rail, to insist that unrealistic conditions have to be attached to any pay offer, such as suggesting that ultimately Driver Only Operation should become the norm. Now anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the rail network and of union feeling on this matter will have realised that this was another way of saying ‘no deal José’.
I will, of course, return to all these contradictions over the next few months which promise to be full of incident and excitement, but let me dwell for once further afield and look at what is happening to Eurostar where again, the gap between words and action is all too apparent. The company sent out a lengthy press release and briefing to mark its merger with Thalys, which runs high speed trains linking Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, Eurostar. As part of the announcement, Eurostar said it would increase passenger numbers in its combined 51 train sets from 19 million in 2019 to 30 million by the end of the decade. In fact, this is even more ambitious as in 2022, the companies carried just 14.8 million. We have been here before. When Eurostar was launched in 1994, it predicted that it would have 10 million passengers by the end of the century, a figure it did not reached till 15 years later.
And at the moment Eurostar is struggling to boost numbers as it has just admitted that it is capping the number of people on its trains to two thirds of capacity, leaving 300 seats empty, because of constraints caused by Brexit. British passengers, who make up 40 per cent of the ridership, have to get their passports ‘wet stamped’ by French border police. And their numbers are limited as there are only four booths, each with two officials, and the mere act of stamping the passports leads to delays. Another booth has been opened in the arrivals hall but apparently it is rarely used because there is a shortage of border officials and I was told that it is not possible for Eurostar to simply pay for more – even though it is majority owned by SNCF, the French state railway company. In fact, Eurostar’s bosses have been putting out whingeing press release about the impossibility of improving this situation. There is no doubt that Brexit has led to problems and that the very lay out of the stations in Paris and London is an issue. But, and it is a big but, the Brexit vote was seven years ago – how come preparations were not made, negotiations conducted and change implemented?
Technology is clearly the answer. When you fly on Easyjet or Ryanair, you check in online and then present your bar code at the gate along with your passport. There are now plans to introduce this, but to really speed things up, it would need the French to also accept the arrangement, allowing you to board with only one check. It is quite extraordinary that it is only now that behind the scenes negotiations are taking place over this.
So in the meantime, Eurostar is promising a doubling of usage over the next seven years while constraining usage with little hope of an imminent solution and, charging the highest fares in its history as a result, with very little opportunity for cheap deals (I have just tried to get one and they are extremely limited), effectively exploiting its monopoly position.
As part of the changes, Eurostar is to be given a new identity with the name of, euh, Eurostar. Now I suppose you can have a new identity with the same name but personally I would not stick with Christian Wolmar if I wanted to start afresh after committing some major misdemeanour. Nah, I would probably go for some exciting new moniker such as Count Waldermar von Rheingold…in fact, I may ask Nigel Harris if I can use that in future for this column when I start singing the praises of rail privatisation and HS2. Or perhaps not.
Eurostar has just appointed a new chief executive, Gwendoline Cazenave, who comes from an SNCF background. Hopefully that will allow her to push for improvements to the current impasse over passenger numbers and for initiatives such as new routes. She needs to focus on issues rather more pressing than changing the name to the same one.
There are two in particular which should top her agenda. First, revamping St Pancras. Before Covid hit, High Speed One which operates St Pancras as well as the line to the Channel tunnel, was considering plans to make use of the huge space at the end of the buffers and in the downstairs arrival hall, both of which are totally underused, to improve the flow of passengers.
Secondly, Eurostar needs to be ambitious and develop new destinations. Given its huge advantages over other forms of travel to the Continent, the fact that in more than a quarter of a century of operation it has managed to develop just one major new destination, Amsterdam and has lost other minor ones such as Disneyland Paris and Avignon as well as currently making the word ‘International’ redundant at three British stations – Stratford, Ebbsfleet and Ashford – is a terrible long term failure.
Above all, Eurostar needs to be proactive in improving the service, reducing fares and getting back to a post Covid normal despite Brexit. Or is it that SNCF just feels London is on a branch line from the rest of Europe and not worth bothering about?
HS2 costs coming home to roost
As both regular readers of this column know, I have been a bit, euh, sceptical about the value of HS2. One of the questions I have persistently asked its supporters is: ‘What is the maximum that you think it should cost before the scheme becomes poor value?’ It is, of course, one that has never been answered. A project that was originally costed at around £20bn – though that was optimistic – is now probably running into three figures of billions. The first phase, which has a budget of £44bn, is now widely expected to cost at least £60bn and that is optimistic.
These are incredible figures and though I am generally sceptical of cost benefit analysis, in this case I do feel that there is some validity in looking forensically at the possible costs and benefits. And crucially there is a big opportunity cost. Supporters have always argued that the investment in HS2 would not be at the expense of other railway projects. This is patently not the case. Even if there is no direct link, politicians unsympathetic to the railways are all too keen to point out how much money is being taken up by HS2 and consequently it undermines support for other projects.
I cannot, however, concur with my good friend Lord Berkeley that the whole scheme should be ditched. Leaving the Chilterns scarred with half built tunnels and unused cuttings and embankments is not really feasible. The optics ultimately determine the politics. Nor does it ultimately make sense that it stops at Old Oak Common rather than Euston. There is simply not the capacity there and it would be the worst of all worlds to complete a half-baked project. Even just completing the project only to Birmingham makes little sense because it is precisely the added connectivity for the North which is the biggest source of benefit.
So there is no easy solution or any way out for the politicians. This is a flawed expensive scheme that will deliver little benefit, but the only solution is to soldier on with it. They should, however, try to get a grip on the spending by taking more of the project management in house and asking more questions about where the money is going.