When the new ministerial team at the Department for Transport took over after the brief interlude of the Truss premiership, they quickly realised that the railways were in a state of crisis. There had been much unfinished business left by the previous administration and the impact of the pandemic had been compounded by the seemingly interminable industrial action.
The legacy left by the Johnson administration was fraught with paradox. Boris Johnson was a great lover of the grand projet and as the recent book Johnson at No 10 by Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell shows, HS2 was very much his project which he pushed through against fierce opposition from many Tory MPs and his formidable adviser Dominic Cummings. Johnson was less interested in reforming the railways, and that aspect of policy was left to his transport adviser, Andrew Gilligan and the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. There was, of course, uncertainty over every aspect of the railways. Franchising was dead or was it? Great British Railways was the future or was it? Investment was to be at record levels spearheaded by Northern Powerhouse Rail but what exactly was it? HS2 was to be supported except various bits kept falling off. And was it really going to be back to the 1960s by reversing Beeching?
The new transport secretary appointed by Rishi Sunak, Mark Harper, was, yet again, a tyro, whose only knowledge of the railways seemed to be to confined to knowing the toilets are situated at the end of carriages and that British Rail had lousy sandwiches. We have been here there before, but fortunately his rail minister, who was also given responsibility for HS2, is Huw Merriman who had spent several years questioning the minutiae of rail policy in his capacity as chair of the Commons Transport Committee. The agenda was multi-faceted and daunting. Five areas were identified as key: Delivering HS2; sorting out the industrial relations to stop further strikes; kickstarting the enhancements programme; improving the passenger experience; and reforming the structure of the railways.
As we approach the midpoint of the year, it is timely to offer a scorecard on the ministerial achievements towards these aims and, spoiler alert, it does not make happy reading for the government. HS2 is clearly in a wretched state. I bumped into a senior figure involved in the scheme the other day and he told me that much of the problem was down to the nature of the contracts which had been granted to the construction companies which were ‘far too soft’ and ‘open ended’, giving them a blank cheque when changes were made. A familiar story. I have every sympathy with Harper and Merriman trying to get to grips with the scheme but cutting back the project to a shuttle service between Old Oak Common and Birmingham Curzon Street cannot be the right answer. I have been informed by two separate sources that the decision to postpone construction to Euston is being reconsidered because it risks turning the whole project into a white elephant. Difficult, therefore, to give anything better than 3/10
On industrial relations, even that would be too high. As I have reiterated in this column several times the unions would accept a no strings attached pay rise of well below the rate of inflation to solve the dispute. Sure the unions are not blameless in being obdurate, and the train drivers are rewarded generously which ironically is a result of rail privatisation leading to operators competing against each other for the scarce resource of experienced drivers. But ministers have failed to do the obvious, which is acceded to a pay increase, which no one could argue is undeserved given the high rate of inflation, and then negotiated matters such as closing booking offices, driver only operation and chasing work patterns later. Instead, they have tried to impose these conditions on workers as a quid pro quo of pay rises, which has led to this seemingly endless stalemate (I never want to do another radio interview on striking rail staff ever again!). So a very kind 2/10 on this one.
As for enhancements, where is the promised programme of enhancements. The promised ‘pipeline’ of schemes is clearly only going to come long after Godot has arrived. Instead, we are getting piecemeal schemes with no overall strategy. For example, the Department has just made a great song and dance about the start of work on the new South Cambridge station on the new East West route but the lack of coherent policy has resulted in that new line not being electrified. Ministers will argue that it is better to get these smaller schemes done without wasting time on creating a strategy but the need for coherent thinking is demonstrated precisely by the fact that the whole scheme does not accord with the overall decarbonisation strategy. Actually, I am quite a fan of Northern Powerhouse Rail and the report behind it showed a more intelligent approach than demonstrated elsewhere in the industry but even so I can only give a generous 3/10 given the absence of the long promised pipeline of projects.
As for improving passenger experience, that would be funny if not so tragic. Yes, there have been shiny new trains on some parts of the network, notably Greater Anglia, and progress in technology undoubtedly leads to improvements. There has, too, been a reduction in the endless ‘see it say it sorted’ announcements that could make passengers seek psychiatric help after a long journey, but overall precious little thought is being given to make journeys a more pleasant experience. Catering is minimal, ticket machines provided a limited and unsatisfactory service, staff numbers are being cut back and, of course, as I revealed recently, wifi is being scaled back on trains despite the fact that it has become an essential part of travel. Ministers are unapologetic about that, arguing that people should use their own data, even though it has been explained to them that not only this is not always possible but also that trains are able to capture signals from a far wider range than individuals. So 4/10 just because there should at least be one score above 3!
And finally rail reform. Despite promises that much could be done without legislation, little seems to have moved on this. The promises made by Harper in his Bradshaw lecture in February have not materialised into action. Meanwhile, Great British Railways Transition team with its staff of 235 trundles along without producing anything except promises of a better future. Ministers are committed to reform but are unable to explain precisely what that means, except more private sector involvement – despite franchises having been scrapped – and greater connection between track and train. It is clear that there will be no legislation and that effectively it will be up to the next government to sort out a new structure for the industry.2/10 again.
In a way it is possible to sympathise with ministers given the fact they inherited a messy situation from their predecessors. But they have not introduced a single exciting initiative or change since assuming office. The complex ticketing system remains untouched and there are various cuts in the offing that will only make the passenger experience worse. Moreover, even ensuring that there is a proper financial system, with a clear profit and loss account, has not even been created, despite promises by Harper in the Bradshaw lecture that it would be. Progress has not been just slow, but non-existent, and surely the hope for the second half of the year is that things will get better.
Indian rail crash raises false stereotypes
The terrible rail disaster in India brought out the worst aspects of journalism in several media outlets. A lot of the coverage was of the ‘here we go again, another Indian rail disaster’. In fact, there are far fewer of these accidents in Indian than there were in the final decades of the last century. Safety standards have been improved immeasurably with the introduction of a system equivalent to TPWS aimed at avoiding signals passed at danger, and the tracks are far more reliable than previously. The rate of accidents per million miles has fallen dramatically to around a tenth of the level in the past century and continues to decline.
Yet the images of passengers sitting atop trains or clinging on while standing in open doorways were prominent in the coverage and there were even suggestions that people were packed in ‘like sardines’. There are still local trains that run with open doors and there is a terrible death toll of people falling off trains or walking on the tracks. But the safety record of the thousands of long distance and regional services that run daily is pretty good.
In fact, the trains involved were precisely these long distance services in which people were either sitting or lying down in relatively roomy carriages – I happened to have travelled on that particular line in 2016. The terrible death toll is partly as a result of the heavy use of the Indian railways, but also the length of their trains which are routinely 24 carriages long.
I wrote a piece in the Sunday Times which tried to debunk some of these facile tropes (available on my website https://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/2023/06/the-story-behind-the-indian-rail-disaster/) but sadly the casual stereotypes still remain. The modernisation of the railways is, in fact, part of much wider changes across Indian which is developing at a fast rate, becoming a modern if somewhat eccentric state with, unfortunately, a rather despotic ruler. The railway remains a very important part of the country’s infrastructure and this accident should not put tourists coming to India from using it, especially as the roads remain particularly perilous.