Rail 996: The fiasco to end all fiascos

 In over a quarter of a century of writing this column, there has been no end of scandals, mishaps, errors and general cock ups resulting from ministerial incompetence. Yet, the fiasco over the booking office closures tops them all for ministerial incompetence and, ultimately, dishonesty. And that is after compared with a very long list over the years of such events, stretching from the insane contract given at the outset of franchising in 1996 to Virgin which was based on developing a type of signalling system that was not in use on a busy main line anywhere in the worldt; through to the bizarre ‘anyone but Virgin’ policy inside the Department for Transport at a time of reletting the West Coast contract 15 years later, to the May 2018 timetable which proved to be unworkable.

Yes, granted there is the HS2 debacle but that cannot be blamed on any single minister but has been the responsibility of a succession of players who thought they belonged in the Premiership but would not grace Hackney marshes. I will spare their blushes but not those of the current ministerial team in charge of the railways, Hapless Harper and his Merriman.

As the much missed Nigel Harris used to remind readers, us transport journalists are blessed – if that is the right expression – by getting to know the succession of transport secretaries who go through the frequently spinning door of Great Minster House. I can’t say that many impressed me, but even the likes of Chris Grayling and at a stretch Grant Shapps had the odd redeeming feature (Grayling was actually a likeable and intelligent character was simply an ideologue, while Shapps, a charlatan in every respect does at least have the gift of the gab).

Harper, though, has managed to outdo all their ‘achievements’. The ditching of the northern part of HS2 and its supposed replacement with a lot rehashed schemes was a bad enough but clearly ultimately the decision was above his pay grade as it was made in Number 10 with no room for discussion. The ticket booking office fiasco however, was all his doing, a testimony to incompetence and dishonesty.

While I initially thought that the whole idea had been cooked up by the Department and then presented to the operating companies, the true story is a bit more complicated. The original idea came from the train companies as a way of saving money. They suggested to the Department that many booking offices could be closed in recompense for making these cuts, they wanted to keep half the savings that resulted. Hmmm, said the ministers, good idea but actually we would like to have all the money. But guys, you go away and draw up plans for these closures, and we will support you.

The train companies then drew up proposals which in many instances were unworkable. No one seriously would think that closing the likes of Euston and Birmingham New Street was ever going to happen. Clearly it was a negotiating bid with the hope that they would be allowed to close some of them but they were encouraged by the Department to put forward these radical proposals.

It seemed a cunning plan by ministers. Nothing to do with us, guv, they would be able to say once it was endorsed by Transport Focus which had the job of assessing the proposals. But Transport Focus did not play ball. Indeed, once more than 700,000 people had responded to the consultation process – and even the most uninformed guess would suggest that a tiny, miniscule even, percentage were in favour – the whole idea was doomed. Transport Focus under the leadership of Anthony Smith who is stepping down after 25 years in the job, however, went rather further than expected and basically ruled out any of the closures.  This was ultimately the correct decision since the whole ill-thought out process smacked of a back of the envelope exercise, though as I have mentioned before, there may be a few stations where a ‘front of the glass’ staff member might be more useful. Nevertherless, Smith and his organisation deserve a pat on the back for standing up to a disgraceful plan.

And it was all made worse by the response of ministers. Running up to the consultation process, Harper presented this scheme as the potential saviour of the railways, enabling their finances to be turned around.

 

Yet, when the assessment of the consultation process from Transport Focus was published, Harper and his Merriman could not run away faster. Their statement was an exercise in political obfuscation: ‘The proposals that have resulted from this process do not meet the high thresholds set by ministers, and so the government has asked train operators to withdraw their proposals’. Oh, but hold on a minute – we were earlier being told by the Prime Minister, no less that ‘it is the right thing to do’. But suddenly it isn’t. And moreover, ministers told the train companies not to darken their door with any dastardly such ideas again.

Now I hold no candle for the train operators and I think that in the ain they have been far too craven about any government proposals. But in this instance they have been badly traduced, led up the hill and then chucked back down it. Ministers have performed a massive U turn while trying to pretend that it was just an appropriate response to a consultation. The Conservative party prides itself on supporting the private sector but this betrayal will ensure that few companies involved in rail will ever trust them again.

The lessons for HS2 campaigners

 

As regular readers well know, I was never a fan of HS2, as a result of several key objections. Most fundamentally, I do not think the scheme was drawn up coherently as all sorts of compromises were made about the route without sufficient debate or consideration. In particular, there was no clear environmental advantage which given the concerns about climate change was an enormous gap, and the choice of stations, with several out of town locations always appeared to me sub optimal.

However, whenever I pointed out these weaknesses to the supporters of the scheme, they would never address them but, rather, stress the importance of ‘just building it’. I think in retrospect many of those most fervent proponents of the idea must regret that.

Just to give a couple of examples. There is no doubt that the aim of providing a 400 kph railway added greatly to the cost. I do not buy the notion that this was necessary to future proof the railway or that in reality it was only 360 kph as that was the maximum that would ever be run. We are a small country and the boast that this would be the world’s fastest railway was barking up the wrong tree. The high speed, remember, led to concerns about the noise which in turn led to the ridiculous construction of 10 mile tunnels through the modest Chiltern Hills at a cost which was ten times higher than simply building on the surface.

The objections of the people in the Chilterns, ably led by the late MP Cheryl Gillan resulted in huge extra costs which a more measured approach could have bought off. Building a station between Old Oak Common and Birmingham, perhaps at the crossing of East West Rail which is due to connect Oxford and Cambridge, would have done much, at far less cost, to have appeased this opposition. At root of the reluctance to have a station and, indeed, to have a very fast railway, was that the business case is based on time savings. Therefore to ensure the scheme had a positive benefit cost ratio, HS2 Ltd had to tailor its design around maximising these supposed benefits, rather than actually doing what was most practical and perhaps cheapest. Even with all those efforts, the business case was pretty poor anyway, another weakness that the supporters did not challenge. They should have challenged the very methodology, and pointed out these flaws in the scheme.

Most fundamentally, too, there was the issue of cost. You cannot simply say that the scheme was worthwhile whatever the expense. Here again a more measured approach from supporters might have resulted in a proper appraisal of various expensive aspects of the scheme. The lesson from all this is clear for campaigners of other projects. Take a good honest and thorough look at what your scheme involves, and try to address the weak points as well as touting their benefits.

 

 

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