Regular readers will know that I am a Labour supporter but my political allegiance has nothing to do with the anger I feel over the events at the Conservative party conference. While clearly the scrapping of much of HS2 was the most significant event, the conference started badly for anyone who believes in the integrity of politicians. The utterly dishonest use of red herrings such as Labour’s purported support for ‘meat taxes’ and forcing people to share cars brought down politics to a new low, the kind of tactics that Orwell highlighted in his writing.
And hapless Mark Harper, a truly awful transport secretary, comes out of this particularly badly. Our transport secretary, a man who is supposed to have some understanding of the need for balance between the transport needs of the nation and the environmental consequences of our desire for travel. But no. Not a chance. Harper backed the ‘Plan for Drivers’, a plan cobbled together on the basis that the Tories’ retention of the Uxbridge seat in a by election was achieved because Labour had supported the plan to extend the ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) charge to outer London. Ignoring the fact there was a big swing anyway and the Tory majority went down to under 500 votes, the Conservatives now seem to be basing their whole election strategy for the forthcoming general election on breaking the former consensus on net zero and turning the environment debate into one big culture war.
While it is perfectly legitimate to have a debate over environmental policies, Harper crossed the line into dishonest populism when he addressed the issue of 15 minute towns as he was prepared to stand up in conference and claim that there were attempts by some councils to zones which would prevent people from leaving their homes without permission of the local authority. This is a reference to the 15 minute towns, an idea put forward by planners to try to site every amenity local people need within a short walk or cycle ride. Harper, who must have a few brain cells given he is a qualified accountant, clearly knows that he was criticising something that had never been suggested.
What has this go to do with the railway? Well, it illustrates the tenor of the people who are running our transport system. The Plan for Drivers represented a shift away from a general political consensus that reducing the impact of car use should be a societal objective. Now, by prioritising driving over other types of transport, the message from our masters is clear. All the rest is insignificant, only roads matter. This of course has major significance for the railways and underpins the decision over HS2.
The reallocation of money from the scrapping of the northern leg of HS2 reveals the fundamental trend we are now seeing. Billions has gone on filling potholes, and on extending roads, and the announcements of all the rail projects are just that – announcements of possible schemes to be implemented in years to come and quite possibly never.
I recognise that the cost overruns of HS2 made any decision difficult but what they have done is to make an announcement and then patch it up with a back of a fag packet announcement – and then banned fag packets! I have thought a lot about what is the best way out of the HS2 mess. There were, in fact, no easy answers. I was opposed to HS2 right from the start, seeing it as the wrong way to boost capacity on the railway but we are now 14 years and £28bn down the line. I have, indeed, been criticised on Twitter for stimulating opposition but hey, I am a humble journalist and am not responsible for political decisions. Moreover, having visited a couple of the sites recently and seen how much work has been carried out, it is impossible to conceive that the first leg, between Old Oak Common and Birmingham Curzon Street can be abandoned. Yet, that does mean something like at least another £20 bn, probably £30 bn, will be spent on completing this phase. Moreover, that does not pay for the Euston section which now apparently requires the private sector to be involved, a very unlikely scenario unless a developer was given a huge swathe of the available land – indeed, in any case a private developer was already involved in the now defunct Euston scheme and still could not make the sums add up.
Old Oak Common to Curzon Street, or Acton to Aston as it has been dubbed, would be the whitest of white elephants. It would attract few users given the inconvenience of reaching Old Oak Common even with the Elizabeth Line, especially as road access is incredibly constrained. Therefore continuing the line even to a more modest station at Euston is essential, requiring another £6bn or so. Even this leaves something of a stub of a line, but at least it will continue to Handsacre, and therefore enable trains to head further north, but with only six platforms at Euston, the number of services will be far below the 18 trains per hour for which the line was designed.
Abandoning the northern section was probably inevitable and would prove to be the right thing provided that the alternative projects were a viable and well thought through alternative. But nothing could be further from the truth. The list may have sounded impressive as Rishi Sunak rattled them off in his speech, but it did not take more than a cursory examination to reveal that the fag packet had been used to draw it up. This became immediately apparent when I rang Network Rail soon after the announcement and discovered that no level of the organisation had been consulted over the plan. I was, frankly, gobsmacked, but when I tweeted it out, most of the responses (from the more than one million viewers) were ‘what do you expect from this shower’?
The plan was drawn up in Number 10 by Andrew Gilligan and some other advisers without input from either the Department for Transport or Network Rail. Gilligan does know a bit – but not everything – about the railways which means that there were several real howlers in the plan and within hours parts of it were being ditches as too expensive.
There were obvious errors and rapid retreats. This would all be laughable if it were not so serious. The funniest mistake was that Sunak included building the Tramlink to Manchester Airport, where it has happily served the public since 2014 and as the local MP Lilian Greenwood has pointed out, another promised ‘extension’ to Clifton south in Nottingham was opened eight years ago. Another gem was in the accompanying video when he said that services between Sheffield and Leeds would be quadrupled, and the travel writer, Simon Calder, pointed out that since there were already five hourly services in each direction, this would amount to one every three minutes – suggesting the trains would be waiting for passengers rather than the other way around. Then there was the confusion over Littlehampton. Therefore it was hardly surprising that within 24 hours, two of the major commitments, a new transport network for Bristol, and the reinstatement of the Leamside Line in the North east had been junked.
There is, therefore, likely to be worse to come. Sunak and indeed Harper have demonstrated that they neither care about the railways, nor think they are important. They have devised a slipshod plan for drivers, but rail passengers do not even get that but, instead, no wifi on trains and nowhere to buy their tickets. Even those of you who are not Labour supporters must hope for better after the next general election.
An accolade for Scotrail
I have been to Scotland twice recently and have been impressed with the way that Scotrail retains a focus on revenue collection, even late at night. My wife and I took a train into Glasgow Queen Street at 10pm from a tiny little suburban station Kelvindale which had no facilities to buy tickets. I had expected that we would not be able to pay for our tickets at all as there would be no one to collect the fare,but, lo and behold, at Queen Street, the barriers were closed and we had to cough up £2 each to a very friendly but firm lady get through them. Then, the same thing happened a couple of weeks later at Edinburgh, where we arrived at 9 3-0pm with the wrong tickets as it was the day before a strike but which nevertheless they were checked.
Contrast this with similarly late arrivals recently at King’s Cross and Euston where the barriers are open and there is not a ‘revenue protection officer’ in sight. Yet, the sums of money involved would be far greater than the couple of quid I was asked for in Glasgow. The Scotrail experience shows that it is perfectly possible to collect fares efficiently and effectively – and their example should be part of any new contracting arrangement with private sector operators.