The suspension of politics for the summer has left the railways in limbo. We have a zombie government eeking out its days with little purpose other than criticising the opposition and trying to ensure that it will not have a smooth succession. Nowhere is that truer than in the matter of the railways.
A serious government would have created a clear route map to sort out the railways. Ministers might not have managed to create the right long term structure but at least they would have set out the parameters and made a start. Instead, we have been left with a half baked scheme that has not been given legislative time, overlaid with a series of deeply damaging cuts insisted upon by the Treasury. Worse, we still have a financial system for the railways which means that every penny spent on investment or routine operations has to be begged from the Department for Transport, while the revenue from ticket sales goes directly to the Treasury. In other words, in business terms, there is no proper profit and loss account for the railways, despite the fact that hapless Harper, the Transport Secretary, promised to address this in his Bradshaw lecture six months ago.
A serious government would, by now, have passed the legislation it sought to bring forward to establish the new structure for the railways, notably the creation of Great British Railways. After much speculation, it is now highly likely that there will be no such legislation in the King’s Speech scheduled for the autumn. This is indeed strange. It this had been a serious government, parliamentary time for what was a relatively simple piece of legislation, with perhaps a mere half a dozen clauses. Now we are getting into fantasy land. The core of the plan was for GBR to be the ‘guiding mind’ for the railways. In other words, it would set out the broad strategy for the railways and then leave the details to the private operators and the publicly owned Network Rail. However, without legislation GBR cannot carry out its key function, the specification and the letting of the contracts with the operators.
So, and this is where we are heading for the parallel universe in which ministers seem to live, they are now spending a vast amount of lawyers’ fees to see if they can create a ‘virtual’ or ‘interim guiding mind’. This idea has been knocking around Whitehall for the past few weeks but keeps on getting dismissed as impossible by the lawyers who argue that it cannot be done under existing legislation.
Meanwhile, Labour watches this from the sidelines, seemingly powerless to intervene. In fact, the party has the opportunity to wield real power. I understand from a very senior political source that one of the reasons for the government’s failure to put forward the legislation was the fear that Labour would wreck what was supposed to be a simple bill by turning it into a blueprint for renationalisation.
Labour should, indeed, resist any attempt to be drawn into the Great British Railways fiasco, not least because the Government’s failure to legislate suggests the whole idea is not being taken seriously. In an interview for the Rail Industry Association’s magazine, I made the point very strongly that the concept of GBR, whether virtual or real, does not mean bringing the railway into effective state control. Quite the opposite. As I said, ‘GBR is not a renationalising of the industry, but rather a kind of reconfiguration of the same franchising model’. In fact, the whole GBR concept seems to be more a vehicle to reprivatise the railways rather than to sort out the multiple problems of the industry’. The Tories know they only have a year or so remaining in power and they want to create as much difficulty for their successors as possible. GBR on which tens of millions have been spent is a cumbersome overlay on the railway, introducing an additional layer of interference into an already complex structure. Labour must oppose its creation to ensure that it has a free hand to establish the kind of structure which will deliver the most benefits for passengers and fit within its priorities on aspects such as decarbonisation, fares reform and innovation. There is no need for a GBR. That has been shown by how well the in-house franchise such as LNER and Northern have done because both operations and the infrastructure are in state hands. GBR would simply add complexity and cost. Historically, ministers have always been the ‘guiding mind’. The next government will have to make the decisions which would have been under the aegis of GBR and set the priorities for the railway, most notably on what the railways are for and why they are worth paying for.
Labour has yet to define what it means by its commitment to ‘renationalising the railways’. As I pointed out in the RIA interview, that is a slogan, not a strategy. We need the detail fleshed out and I understand that the Labour front bench has taken on a researcher to develop its policy. That is welcome news but that person has a lot of heavy lifting to do as there are so many details to work out in a very short period of time.
Take, for example, the present insane plans for the closure of booking offices, a policy that is part of the Tories’ strategy to make life as difficult as possible for its successors. Opposing the proposals is a no-brainer and Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary has made all the right noises in that regard. However, there is actually a need to modernise not just the ticketing system but the way it is delivered. There may well be stations where it is a good idea to get people out from behind the glass. There is, too, scope to extend the idea already trialled in a few places to combine ticket sales with a wider retail offer. Innovation is key here. Labour must not be seen merely to defend the status quo, but also needs to develop progressive policies for the railway of the future. Some policies could be real vote winners, such as promising people that the lowest fare will always be offered even if that involves split ticketing. Another idea would be to promise that no fare would cost more than £100, whatever time of the day, and there should be a railcard for all regular users to encourage them to make rail travel the default transport mode. A commercially driven state owned railway would have the power to try out these innovations without having to go through the Treasury or produce ridiculous business cases – which seem to have been the only achievement of the GBR Transition Team so far.
Take, too, decarbonisation. If railways are to be at the heart of the decarbonisation strategy, then encouraging people to use trains must be at its core but also, the system needs to reduce its carbo use. Clearly electrification must be at the heart of this in line with Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Strategy, which is effectively a rolling programme of electrification. No serious government would have scrapped electrification half way to Oxford, leaving naked masts standing as an illustration of the failure to implement a coherent investment strategy.
We need to hear from the Labour party on all this. We need a clear expression that they are not going to go along with the GBR concept and they need to show, instead, how a Labour government would create an integrated railway with ministers as the ‘guiding mind’ who would set out a broad strategy to be delivered by a genuinely independent, commercially driven and socially responsible rail organisation.
TfL should step up
The escalators are being replaced at Kentish Town Underground station, and as a result the station is being closed, as TfL argues allowing the stairs to be used would interfere with the work. Indeed, more and more across the network, there is a reluctance by TfL to allow stairs to be used, citing ‘elf n safety’.
This is a mistake born of a failure to assess the real risks in society. I am a bit of a fitness freak and always walk up the stairs at Underground stations despite the warnings that this should only be done in an emergency. The much more fundamental risk in society is the obesity crisis and all the other poor health outcomes caused by lack of exercise. The NHS was created on the basis that people would make an effort to keep healthy while in exchange they would received free healthcare. That contract has been broken as such a large percentage of the population now suffers from health problems and that threatens the very ability of the NHS to cope. So a public organisation like TfL could make a big difference by posting at every exit, something to the effect of ‘Use the stairs if you can and you will use up xxx calories.’ There could even be sponsorship for these notices from relevant organisations (not Coca Cola or Mars) which would pay for the change.
I can already hear the objections. Some people may get heart attacks, or trip. Yes, indeed, that will happen but also many people will find they get fitter and possibly even decide to take more exercise as a result. It will, too, send out a wider message about exercise. I will be writing to London’s transport commissioner Andy Lord to try to get this idea taken up – please support it by also doing so.