There was, once upon a time, the concept of a transport policy. Actually, as I wrote in my short book, Are Trams Socialist? those periods when there has been a coherent government strategy on transport have been as rare as sightings of lesser spotted woodpeckers. There have only been occasional moments, such as during John Prescott’s attempts at the turn of the century to develop a ten year programme and, a decade later, the report on transport infrastructure by Sir Roy McNulty, when there has been any evidence of any type of wider thinking about transport in government circles.
Certainly, at the moment, there is precious little sign that the present government s bucking this trend. And nor is there much evidence that the government in waiting on the opposition benches is showing much sign of any coherent approach.
Let’s first look at the contradictions in the current government’s approach. The most obvious contradiction in its approach to transport is between its long term commitment to New Zero carbon emissions with its short term policies in relation to tax. It was so predictable that in the recent budget announcement by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, the rate of fuel duty was frozen yet again as it has every year since 2011. Actually it is worse than that. There was a ‘temporary’ 5 per cent cut in fuel duty in 2022 which has not been restored. Therefore, the duty which for all of the past decade was 57.95 p per litre is actually now 52.95, and frankly will stay that way as what Chancellor will raise fuel duty in the run up to an election after freezing it for so long. If it had kept place with inflation which has been 37 per cent in that period, it would be £79 34 per litre.
Meanwhile, rail fares since 2011 have gone up by almost precisely 50 per cent, and rose by 5.9 per cent last month, the highest increase since, coincidentally, 2011.
Worse, in the Budget, Hunt confirmed that the cut in Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights, proposed as a measure to help airlines during the pandemic, would kick in as planned, even though airlines are now enjoying healthy profits as passengers are returning to the air. As an example, in the final three months of 2022, usually a fallow period for airlines, Ryanair trousered a comfortable £222m in profits, essentially £2m per day. Easyjet enjoyed a similar healthy period, with expectations that it is expected to beat its profit target for the current financial year. Did either of those companies, whose basic product is the most polluting form of transport, really need this leg up? And does it make any sense in the wider context of the government’s long term environmental aims?
And then there is the muddled policy on the railways. I covered the problems with HS2 in the previous issue, but just to repeat the point that if a new railway north and south is seen as such an important part of transport policy, why is the rest of the network having to a process of death by a thousand cuts. Every time a route between two towns is thinned out to reduce costs, then many people will jump in their car rather than travel between the two. Cutting back on little used late trains may seem sensible, but then it ensures that those using it will not travel in the other direction by train either. So two journeys are lost for every person who might have used the late train.
If ministers really believe in the worth of the rail industry, they should be brave enough to keep on supporting it, despite these difficult times. If they feel too much has being spent on subsidising it over the years, then they should come out openly and admit that by highlighting where ‘savings’ should be made. And taking responsibility for them.
Labour may be in opposition and taking the easy route out of criticising whatever the government does, but their front bench has to be honest, too. If continuing with HS2 whatever the cost is the main aim, then they too will have to admit that perhaps parts of the existing network, or the level of service on some routes, are unaffordable. But rightly, they fear such honesty will come at a high political price.
What neither side is doing is setting out a transport policy. If the railways are a key part of the decarbonisation agenda, then that should be emphasised time and again by ministers. How amazing it would be to hear Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, say: ‘Yes, we are aware of the high cost of the railways at the moment, but it was the government that insisted they be kept running during the Covid crisis and we are proud of that. It was costly but necessary. Now we want to see more people use the railways, and it will take time for passengers to come back. Therefore we are maintaining a high level of service in order to ensure that people will be attracted back to the railways. And by the way, here are a few ideas for cheap fares and reform of the system.’ Instead we have had fares increases, deterioration in service, uncertainty over the future structure and reductions in timetables. It’s almost as if the government does not want us to travel by rail.
Nowhere are the contradictions in policy more apparent than in the government’s response to the report on how to reach net zero by one of its own MPs, Chris Skidmore, which was an excellent and thorough piece of work. Railways should clearly be part of any agenda for reaching the target and yet only freight railways get a mention in the response, and there is nothing about electrification, one of the key ways to reduce carbon consumption on by the railways.
By the way, the answer to the question in the title of my book is a definite no. Trams are no more socialist than any other form of transport as witnessed by the fact that across Europe regimes of both the political Left and Right support the concept. I chose that title as a reflectin of the fact that in this country, issues around transport have been so polarised. Wind farms, low traffic neighbourhoods and even electrification schemes on the railways are seen as left wing, while the right wing press is obsessed about the non-existent ‘war on motorists’. Given that developing a more sustainable transport system and reducing carbon emissions is widely – though not totally – accepted as desirable, then transport should be an area where all the main parties could work together for long term solutions. If Labour is serious about preparing for government, it should be setting out its ideas on this rather than just making bland but uncosted promises about completing HS2 and Northern Powerhouse rail.
A dream station
I am not one to always harp on about how rail services are better in Europe than in the UK. Even with the present trials and tribulations of the railway, we have some fantastic services, good frequencies, modern trains and great modern stations. But on a recent trip to France, I came across a station that was so special, I thought a brief description would provide a bit of light relief from the moans about the Nobody Gives A Damn Railway.
This was Chambéry, tucked away in the French Alps, a regional station with around three million users per year. Think Ipswich, Bolton or Ashford. From December to April, passenger numbers are boosted by a large numbers of people on winter sports holidays but it is also an important stop for the TGV trains travelling on the busy Paris – Lyon – Torino – Milano route. It was indeed the introduction of those trains which prompted SNCF to rebuild the station and they have produced a masterpiece. The new station, completed in2019, is airy, with lots of glass enabling the views of the local mountains, but also has wonderful facilities – two different spacious waiting rooms on the upper levels, complete with workstations for people using their devices and, for families, a play area for young children. It is open plan, and even includes a 9 metre high climbing wall for use of the local alpine club – though costing casual users a rather hefty 40 euros. Clearly, too, it is designed as a facility to be used by non-travellers and while I was there it was obvious that the various facilities attracted many local people. We had two and a half hours to wait there, which passed very quickly in such a pleasant environment.
There was just one sour note. In the rather Spartan and small toilets, both the urinals were blocked up which my 12 year old stepson found particularly galling. As ever, it is the small details that at times let services down. Nevertheless, any station designer should look at Chambéry for inspiration.