Rail 1006: What do we want from the railways?

In my youth I would go on demonstrations and sometimes wonder whether I  really supported the cause we were protesting against. Inevitably, the chant of ‘What do we want?’ would soon be ringing out and those around me always seemed confident of the answer which they shouted out with relish. I could never quite join in, even for obvious causes like unseating Mrs Thatcher or freeing Mandela. Knowing what you want is more difficult than knowing what you don’t want.

And that’s where the Labour party is today with the railways. Their mantra is that they will take the franchises back in house by not renewing the contracts as they expire. That is well and good, but it

is really at the ‘Maggie out out out‘ stage of those long forgotten demonstrations. We know they don’t want the private sector to run the franchises, but what do they want?

I do understand all the caveats. I do not expect a line by line critique of the present situation (though the Williams Shapps report did a pretty good job on that) nor a detailed explanation of precisely what they are going to do.

But I do want to know the overall direction of travel which involves defining what the railways are for and what we want from them. The election of a Labour government will be a ground breaking moment in history, one that will be looked at by historians of the future as a turning point. That’s not only because we will be getting a change in the party running the country but because, more widely,  of the uncertain times we are living in – climate change, the end of the neoliberal consensus, the advent of technologies we do not know how to control, the ubiquity of social media and the Brexit decision all combine to create a maelstrom of uncertainty.

Given the fraught nature of these times, the railways represent a beacon of stability. Next year they celebrate their 200th anniversary and there is something reassuring about their survival over two turbulent centuries. Without going into the nitty gritty of precisely how the new structure of the railways will be established, Labour needs to think about these wider considerations on the future of the railways. Precisely, the party has to set out what it wants from them. Keep buggering on, the favourite strategy of countless politicians and administrators over the years is not an option. The party’s politicians must start thinking about the potential of the railways, and, indeed, look at ways of exploiting it.

The railways are in the doldrums precisely because they have been seen as an irritating nuisance, rather like an unwanted third child. Instead, the railways must be seen as part of the solution for so many aspects of government policy. First, of course, they are a major component of the transport system. They are essential for regional and long distance travel for many people. Try find a coach to take you from Ipswich to Wrexham, for example, and you will find that it is an almost impossible journey. Yet by train it will be relatively simple. The railways are not a nice add on to the system, but an essential part of ensuring people have the ability to travel around the country relatively cheaply – that by the way is why LNER’s decision to do away with cheap unbooked off peak tickets is so outrageous.

But the railways are so much more than simply an aspect of transport policy. And here the incoming politicians must understand their importance. They should never repeat the sentence, used so often by their opponents, that only a small proportion of the public benefit from railways. This a basic misunderstanding of economics, more precisely the failure to recognise the importance of the concept of ‘externalities’ which should be taught to every child at school. In other words, they need to understand how non users of the railway benefit because it reduces congestion on the roads, provides job opportunities that would otherwise not be possible, has huge environmental benefits over other modes and so on.

One key aspect that Labour should emphasise is that railways play a major role in reducing inequality, which surely must be one of the key aims of a Labour administration. By providing the core of the public transport system, the railways are essential for people without a car who are mostly in the lower income groups. But it is more than that. By providing a good public service, the railway helps create a sense of community. It is called ‘public’ transport for a good reason. Driving is an individual experience setting us all against each other as we compete for the limited space on the roads. Taking a train by contrast is a shared, communal experience that brings people together.

There is already a sharp distinction between the two main political parties on transport and that makes it all the more important Labour begins to articulate a wider vision for the railways.

As I mentioned at the time, I was infuriated when Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, criticised the notion of 15 minute cities in his speech as his party conference in the autumn. Harper is not, like Lee Anderson, a daft kneejerk populist, but an intelligent man who knows full well that no local council was thinking of stopping people from travelling more than 15 minutes away from their homes. He knew full well this was a completely dishonest way of describing a policy whose intent is to ensure that amenities are near enough to people’s home to allow them to walk or cycle, rather than drive there.

At the time I wrote that I felt that Harper had gone beyond the realm of accept political debate into a dangerous politics that could have serious implications by trying to deliberately inflame public opinion. And now, the eminent Professor David Begg, one time chair of the Integrated Transport Commission, has echoed my thoughts by referring to the criticism of the 15 minute concept: ‘Being able to access work, leisure and shops easily without having to drive by car was always seen as a desired holy grail by transport planners. Now it’s ‘big brother’ local authorities telling us where and when we go Soviet style.’

He goes on to say: ‘In my view this has crossed a line. If I were working as a civil servant or in one of the Government’s transport agencies I would not hesitate to call him out for it. Its fine to have legitimate debates about ownership and control and the merits of HS2, but to resort to fabricated rhetoric that you would associate with Putin or Trump is unacceptable and not something we should have any truck with in our country.’ This is a very important point. Of course I am not a Tory and often make that clear but, as I mentioned in the last week, having a half hour chat with former Tory transport secretary Justine Greening made me realise what we have lost in recent years. As Begg argues, disagreements are fine, but  now the Conservative party has gone rogue and it is very important that it comes back into the fold.

This has had a disastrous impact on railway policy. It is this type of populist thinking which has led to the incoherent decision to cut off the most cost effective section of HS2. Begg is equally critical of the Network North proposals which replaced it, arguing they are a ‘rag bag of commitments-many of them announced before and mainly unfunded and lacking any investment appraisal’.

The idea that politicians, as the egregious Mark Harper has said, ‘are on the side of drivers’ implies they are against pedestrians, cyclists or indeed rail travellers. Labour needs to be brave enough to counter this, emphasising it is on the side of people rather than cars, and that the public is best served by having access to sustainable transport, whether trains or buses, cycling or walking.



West Coast Railway fails to understand reputational risk


I was asked to write a piece for The Spectator about the fact that West Coast Railways has been stopped from operating the Jacobite service – the Harry Potter train according to the Speccie because its derogation over not having central locking on its doors was not being renewed.

I think the expectation was that I would decry this but to its credit the magazine published my piece which made clear that I understood why the Office of Road and Rail had been insistent on not continuing the arrangement which West Coast had challenged, unsuccessfully, in court.

I do recognise that the risk is low and that an incident is unlikely and that it was tempting to argue that this was health and safety gone mad. However, at the end of the day the argument seems to have come to money, with the rail company arguing it would cost £7m to install the device, while the ORR put the cost at just over 10 per cent of that estimate. Moreover, given that ticket prices are very high, at nearly £100 for first class and £65 for standard, the money could, according to the ORR, be recouped quite easily.  Moreover, train enthusiasts and excited tourists are not always the best behaved travellers and therefore taking these precautions, standard on all other trains, seemed sensible. It seems obduracy and parsimony have won over common sense.




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