Transport Minister Grant Shapps has announced his candidacy for the position of Prime Minister and with two others yesterday the field is getting quite crowded.
But Shapps has a very poor record as Transport Minister. Among his negative contributions has been the promotion of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) to tackle the Covid epidemic – a totally misconceived policy and implemented without local consultations; support for HS2 – an enormous white elephant; a rewrite of the Highway Code which makes some people more equal than others on the road; a £2 billion investment in cycling and walking to promote “active travel” and “behaviour change” and he keeps bailing out Transport for London (TfL) allowing Sadiq Khan to continue to run an uneconomic service instead of reforming it. His response to the national rail strikes has also been to line up for a fight with the unions while committing £1 billion to “modernisation” of the railways; basically throwing more money at an uneconomic and outdated transport technology.
Meanwhile the road transport network gets ever more congested and drivers pay ever more in taxes and road charges such as in CAZ and ULEZ schemes.
I certainly would not support Shapps for Prime Minister. But what of the other candidates? A number wish to cut taxes. A laudable policy but to be able to do that without increasing public borrowing means a reduction in public expenditure. None seem to be promising that (for example Shapps wants to spend considerably more on defence).
We would all like a cut in the price of diesel/petrol which might help to stimulate the economy as high prices impact the delivery of goods and services. But most of the increase of late has come from the market price of oil not from taxes (Fuel Duty rates have actually been reduced recently).
Rishi Sunak seems to be one of the few candidates who is wisely not promising hand-outs to the electorate if he gets the job.
But no doubt we will learn more about the other candidates over the next few weeks. As in previous Conservative Party elections, it may be a case of who avoids the most gaffs and who is least disliked by MPs that wins the day. Boris Johnson only got the job because he seemed likely to break the deadlock over Brexit but there should surely be no rush to appoint a replacement.
The national rail strikes this week have been incredibly inconvenient for those who rely on trains to get to work or for essential trips such as visits to hospitals. In London the strike has also extended to the London Underground. Commuters have been badly affected although the ability to work from home (WFH) has softened the blow and reduced the impact.
Why are RMT union members striking? It’s partly that they want a pay increase to offset the impact of inflation. But it’s also about whether rail management have the power to decide on jobs and working practices. For example, they wish to block any forced redundancies such as the closing of ticket offices. In London they are even intervening over the outsourcing of the contract for underground cleaning by TfL.
It should be a business decision as to whether ticket offices should be closed. There are now generally alternative ways to buy tickets although a few people might be inconvenienced. But if it saves money then management need to decide on a commercial basis whether to close offices.
National Rail Chief executive Andrew Haines said: “We cannot expect to take more than our fair share of public funds, and so we must modernise our industry to put it on a sound financial footing for the future. Failure to modernise will only lead to industry decline and more job losses in the long run.”
In reality the national railways have lost money for the last 100 years and have been massively subsidised by the Government (i.e. by you and me from our taxes). It’s exactly the same in London. With reduced passengers on all services due to the Covid epidemic and more WFH all rail services need to cut their costs to get revenue and costs more into balance.
The rail system is an enormously labour-intensive operation to maintain the track and signalling. Railways are also enormously expensive to build – just look at the cost of HS2 or Crossrail (about £100 billion and £19 billion respectively) – both projects are late and over budget.
The big problem is that railways use old technology and are operated using archaic working practices. The rail unions are trying to protect their pay, their jobs and working practices which is simply unjustifiable. They need to accept that passengers have alternatives and if they are unwilling to use the railways as much as they used to do then management has to retrench.
The unions need to face up to reality or they will go the way of the dinosaurs (like the coal miners did when faced with the Government being unwilling to subsidise perpetual losses).
But the core of the problem is a confrontational approach from both sides. There should be a consensus about how to run the railways profitably for the benefit of both the owners and the workers.
There is now a new petition on Change,org against the removal of this valuable facility. Although there may be a demand for more housing, this is surely more about TfL crystalising the value of the land and increasing their profits while ignoring the needs of their customers.
The new petition emphasises that car parks are essential resources for women to get back safely at night to their home in the quiet suburbs of London. Likewise, the station car parks are essential for older people and people with disabilities (not just blue badge holders, but also the many hundreds of thousands of people that have disabilities, but do not hold a blue badge) to be able to access London’s transport network.
The Government has published the Williams Review of proposals for how Britain’s railways should be reformed. The existing franchise system for the train operating companies with a separate company managing the tracks which was introduced in the 1990s has proved to be a dismal failure.
Network Rail went bust and although the franchise services have been improved in some regards, the recent collapse in ridership due to the Covid epidemic has meant the Government had to step in to keep franchises afloat. The franchise system was also exceedingly complicated with horrendously complicated contracts to supposedly provide the right incentives to train operators. It did not stop arguments over who was to blame for delays to services. But the Government (i.e. you and me via taxation) ended up providing even bigger subsidies and in ways that were not that obvious.
Train delays are common. The report says that one third of trains were late in 2019/20 and this has barely improved in the past five years.
Now the Williams-Shapps Plan is now proposing a brave new world of Government control. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said: “Great British Railways marks a new era in the history of our railways. It will become a single familiar brand with a bold new vision for passengers – of punctual services, simpler tickets, and a modern and green railway that meets the needs of the nation.”
That sounds remarkably like the old British Rail does it not?
New flexible season tickets are promised that will help those who are now only commuting into offices a few days per week and simpler and less confusing tickets are foretold. Paper tickets will disappear and there will be a new app to enable easy booking (this will compete with companies such as Trainline on the web).
Train operating franchises will be replaced by “Passenger Service Contacts”. It is not clear how that is different though. More fine words from the report are: “Under single national leadership, our railways will be more agile: able to react quicker, spot opportunities, make common-sense choices, and use the kind of operational flexibilities normal in most organisations, but difficult or impossible in the current contractual spider’s web”. One claim is that Great British Railways will make the railways more efficient, long the complaint of those who have looked at the finances of the system.
Comment: There is certainly a desire for change as the existing franchise system and separate rail track maintenance system was clearly inefficient. Rail passengers still do not pay for the real costs of running the trains and building/maintaining the tracks except on heavily used commuter lines in the London area. But the essential problem is that the cost of operating trains is high when passenger usage is concentrated into a few hours per day while the public expects a service 18 hours per day or longer. Another problem is that the cost of building and maintaining the tracks and signalling is enormously expensive in comparison with roads.
For example, according to articles in the Guardian (a keen supporter of railways), the cost per mile of building a motorway is £30 million per mile. Does that sound high? But the cost of a new railway such as HS2 is £307 million per mile!
Railways are old technology that intrinsically require expensive track and expensive signalling systems to maintain safety. If a train breaks down or signals fail the whole network is disrupted while this rarely causes a problem on roads. The breakdown of one vehicle on a road makes little impact and traffic actually flows through broken traffic lights quite easily while they are easier to repair.
There is a very amusing section in the report on the “blame culture” that operates at present, and how arguments thus generated are resolved. That’s very worth reading alone.
Changing a rail timetable normally takes 9 months apparently and there have been some big problems as a result in the past. For example in 2019 Northern Rail missed more than a quarter of million stops allegedly after a botched timetable change and generated thousands of customer complaints. You don’t hear of such problems with bus services which are intrinsically more flexible.
How will Great British Railways affect services in London, where commuter surface rail lines are operated by separate companies at present. This is what the Williams report says: “In London and the South East, a new strategic partnership will be established to support housing, economic growth and the environment across the highly interconnected transport network in that part of the country. This will bring together Great British Railways, TfL and local authorities and businesses to coordinate timetabling and investments and to provide a consistent passenger experience in areas such as accessibility, ticketing and communications”. Sounds wonderful does it not, but the devil is surely in the detail.
Ultimately the Government will still be in control of the railways under this plan, so it’s effectively a renationalisation under a different name. That may please some but no nationalised industry has ever been an economic success or pleased their customers. I foretell disappointment.
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