Draft Rail Reform Bill will not fill policy vacuum

The rail industry is now operating in a policy vacuum, with no coherent vision for its governance or its investment strategy. It’s clear that senior Ministers regard the industry as little more than an expensive nuisance, with limited economic importance. There is no sign of resolution of the low-intensity industrial disputes between RMT, ASLEF and the train operating companies which have already been going on for around eighteen months. Senior managers within the industry are openly cynical and absurdly micro-managed by government. The situation is extraordinarily corrosive.

Regardless of the pledge accompanying the King’s Speech for the Government to introduce a Draft Rail Reform Bill, Great British Railways has in truth been shunted into the long grass. Despite this, the large GBR Transition Team is still in place. The GBRTT website is till advertising new posts, for example two exciting opportunities for Senior Communication and Engagement Managers”, posted on 24th October. Engaging and communicating what to whom one wonders?

It’s clear that the costs of High Speed 2 – the UK Government’s big strategic infrastructure project over the last ten years – have been out of control. There were credible, detailed accusations in The Sunday Times on 22nd October that emerging massive cost increases were concealed by HS2 management at the highest level to keep the gravy train on track, on occasions using highly aggressive tactics to silence whistle-blowers. Despite this, the scope of the project has been progressively reduced. 

Firstly, the connections to HS1 and Heathrow were chopped, then the eastern leg north of the East Midlands and the Golborne spur, and now the remaining sections beyond the connection with the West Coast Main Line north of Lichfield.  This leaves a rump from Old Oak Common to the West Midlands which will decant high speed trains just south of major route capacity pinchpoints. 

Ministers still claim that the route will eventually reach Euston but this will be dependent on a private sector project related to property development, which looks to say the least improbable. Even if HS2 does eventually reach Euston, there will only be six HS2 platforms, permanently limiting the capacity of the route. It appears that there are now expected to be only eight trains an hour, as against the eighteen originally envisaged. 

There are major problems with the rolling stock order too. Fewer trains will be needed but the order is based on 200 metre length trains which have will have fewer seats then the existing “Pendolino” units. These issues can be fixed, but at a cost: contract variation is always a major profit opportunity.

Cutting back HS2 was the Prime Minister’s big announcement at the Conservative Party conference, supposedly sweetened by the oddly titled “Network North” announcement, which includes a rag-bag of schemes spread across the country, many of which were little more than lines on a map designed to catch a quick headline. Much fun was had at the Government’s expense, for example the commitment to extending Manchester Metrolink to Manchester Airport, a project completed in 2014. Bradford is to have a new station, with a new connection via Huddersfield, “almost halving journey times to Manchester”. But this implies an entirely new section of route, ploughing through the city centre. Good luck with delivering that as a “quick win”! 

There is a ritual nod to Beeching reopenings, for example reopening the Oswestry – Gobowen line. Oswestry is a town of 17,500 and would surely welcome a direct link to Shrewsbury and the West Midlands but the route goes in the wrong direction and would require reversal or changing trains at Gobowen. The alignment also has a level crossing over the busy A5, one of the roads the Prime Minister promised would be upgraded. 

In short, it’s not a sensible scheme, and will almost certainly never happen but it filled in a gap on the map for the policy advisor in Number 10 who is widely suspected of having developed this list, without discussion with either the Department for Transport or Network Rail. There is of course a get-out clause, a footnote stating, “as usual, individual projects…will be subject to the approval of business cases”.

The first part of the Network North paper, before the list of half-baked schemes, is actually a more serious, measured statement of the case for regional investment in infrastructure, comparing UK connectivity against comparable European cities and making the case for achieving agglomeration benefits within regions rather than accelerating links to and from London; this is essentially a restatement of the 2006 Eddington report. These are serious, thoughtful arguments and it’s a tragedy they were not properly considered fifteen years ago.

In reality, links between London and the major cities across the country are generally good. Average speeds between London and Edinburgh are broadly the same as for Eurostar to Amsterdam, despite the latter route using high speed lines except for the approaches to Brussels and Amsterdam. And Manchester has a London train every twenty minutes, taking around 2 hours 10 minutes. Would the economic performance of the city really be transformed if the journey time was reduced by 45 minutes?

The tragedy is that, if the money spent on HS2 had instead been invested in the Midlands and the North, both regions could by now have had fully electrified networks with faster, more frequent services, delivering real “levelling up” benefits.

However, we are where we are, with a government apparently in its death throes, most unlikely to win the next General Election and devoid of any serious transport policy other than a simplistic, populist “stop the war against the motorist” message. The important issue now is the strategy and policies pursued by the next government. As yet, apart from taking train operation back into the public sector and bus franchising, Labour’s policies are unclear.

A good start would be to dust-off and re-read the Eddington report, combining that approach with the imperative of meeting net-zero. For the rail industry, I suggest a properly thought through rolling electrification programme, starting with in-fill projects for freight, such as London Gateway and Ipswich – Felixstowe, then focussing on key regional routes, with an approach which delivers synergies and maximises overall benefits. This would be much more rational than the random list of electrification schemes in Network North, for example Manchester – Sheffield but not Manchester – Liverpool via Warrington, which is where the trains actually go!

While public expenditure will inevitably be highly constrained, there is an opportunity for a new, fresh government to start to develop high quality networks throughout the North and the Midlands knitting them together to drive jobs and prosperity across the regions.


Photo credit: Paul Bigland.

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