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Transport Policy: A Slow Float to Nowhere


A vibrant economy needs to move people and goods around the nation efficiently. Britain does not have a vibrant economy, neither does it have a transport policy. What Britain has is projects and cones. It has a quango, the Highways Agency, responsible for moving the cones around. It has a Department for Transport, responsible for projects. It doesn't have a transport policy.

Joined up transport

John Prescott famously said in 1997,

"I will have failed if in five years time there are not far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it."

Five years later car journeys were up 7%, another disappointment for JP. However, in Presott's favour, at least he had the nerve to talk about an integrated transport policy, no minister since has ever bothered. However, be aware that JP can get a bit carried away, for it was he who told MPs in January 1999:

"Under this government, an integrated transport system has been established for the first time. We have provided resources for that system, which will begin to be delivered this year and should be completed by the time of the next election." Hansard, 12 Jan. 99.

What Prescott did was introduce a number of schemes at the local level, mainly anti-car schemes, which had nothing to do with integrated transport. In fact, it seems that two jags just simply misunderstood the term integration, he thought it meant having a bit of everything in the mix, not worrying about whether it made travelling more efficient.

Prescott's New Deal for Transport has much in there; there's walking, cycling, traffic calming and bus lanes, and yes, lots of parking restrictions and congestion charging . Trains also make a cameo appearance. The thing about Britain's rail network is that it’s not a network, it’s a collection of 25 franchisees pleasing themselves, rolling along on a 'steady state' track of constant disrepair. Prescott called the privatized railways a 'national disgrace'. That was a Tory bequest but New Labour didn't do anything about it.

High Speed 2: Unquantifiable strategic benefits

Dave sent former Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, to Birmingham to launch what he called "one of the most extensive consultations in history" it was a strange day because the decision to build the £33bn High Speed 2 rail link, between Birmingham and London and beyond to Leeds, had already been made. (It was actually made by New Labour but they have gone off the idea now. No, wait, they now think it’s a good idea again.)

Hammond went clutching his launch document, The Fast Track to Prosperity, and a scrap of paper with mad things to say written on it, like:

"this could transform Britain's competitiveness as profoundly as the coming of the railways in the 19th century",

this could "reshape Britain's economic geography", and this could deliver "massive improvements in journey times"

and bring "unquantifiable strategic benefits".

A strange day indeed, what on earth is an unquantifiable strategic benefit? And at a deeper level, why on earth does anyone want to go to Birmingham. Once Birmingham was at the heart of small manufacturing enterprise, it was the city of a thousand trades but lack of support for small business during New Labour's time in office and cheaper foreign labour costs destroyed all that.

The HS2 plan, which requires massive property destruction in London and the despoliation of the country-side through the Chilterns, will get you to Birmingham New Street 10 minutes quicker than current services. Yes, we know the train is not stopping at New Street, the calculation takes account of your 15 minute walk from the new terminus to New Street. And while you are saving all this time on your journey, spare a thought for the 750 trains every day that will be slowed down, or scrapped; HS2 will have an impact on a quarter of the country.

However, by March 2013, the HS2 project had already started to run into difficulties, four years before any real work begins. So still at the design stage and £250m has already been spent on contracts for engineers, PR firms, property agents and market research outfits. One PR firm, Westbourne Communications, was paid £61,000 to talk up and win support for the idea of HS2. How odd, our government spending our money to persuade us that a bad idea is a good idea. Normally, government would use a charity to promote its ideas but on this occasion there wasn't one espousing a moral position on high speed trains.

Wasting money on propaganda is not all the government has been doing. For some unfathomable reason, Fujitsu has been paid £16.8m to handle the HS2 IT systems. That would be the same Fujitsu, who in 2008, was fired by the Department of Health for "non-performance" in an £896m contract to upgrade NHS systems.

So yet again the government are making a mess of the cost of a major project but the farce doesn't end there. 24 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and hundreds of other wildlife and woodland sites will be destroyed when phase 1 and 2 of the HS2 project begin.

High Speed 2, you might think, is indicative of the Coalition's boundless ambition to modernise our infrastructure but there's more - they are even planning to link up HS2 with HS1. Do visit the Dept. of Transport website for all the route maps, i.e. to see if they will be knocking your house down along the route.

Note: Mr. Hammond moved on to the MOD as Defence Secretary but before he went he suggested the motorway speed limit be raised to 80 mph by 2013, now that doesn't appear to be very environmentally friendly. Sorry, forgot to mention, being friendly to the environment must be built into ALL government policies, apparently? Hammond was replaced by Justine Greening - she didn't last long in the her new post - she was deemed to be a third run-way blocker and therefore better suited to International Development. Worth noting that Dave was also a third run-way blocker, when it suited him, that is, when he was trying to get Zac Goldsmith elected in Richmond in 2010. He’s whistling a different tune these days.

Greening was replaced by Patrick McLoughlin during big Dave's 'night of the long knives' reshuffle in 2012. However, before she left, as is the want for Tory ministers, she had a vision.


A Visionary Transport system

"Our vision is for a transport system that is an engine for economic growth, but one that is also greener and safer and improves quality of life in our communities."

Justine Greening moved into Hammond's chair at transport in October 2011, she was as unqualified to be in charge of transport as he was. Transport is only a stepping stone to bigger things for the political class.

She had a vision, not unexpectedly it involved privatising the road network. She said it was all about "the feasibility of new ownership and financing models for the strategic road network." and naturally, she found time to utter the usual Tory claptrap: "this will lead to increased investment and driving further efficiencies in the network." Put simply, Justin planned to let the private sector build new roads and put tolls on them.

It's not really visionary, is it?

Generally the plan is to encourage local authorities to “innovate and try out new ways to make traffic flow more smoothly", you know, by messing around with traffic light phasing and dealing with those awful utilities companies by imposing bigger fines for road work overruns and make utilities pay to rent the road space they dig up. They have set up a new quango, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will take decisions on major transport and other infrastructure projects - will we ever know if they make a decision?

For rail, they plan to reform Network Rail (nobody knows what this means) and they plan to provide longer and better rail franchises; better co-operation between the management of track and train, and they also plan to end Whitehall ‘meddling’ with train timetables.

And for air travel, they can't make up their mind about a third runway or a 6th terminal at Heathrow. BAA want to go ahead with both schemes, as well as, building a new runway at Stansted; the new owners of Gatwick are also keen to build another runway. Environmental campaigners and local residents are keeping the expanders at bay. Anyway, once everyone starts using HS2, space at Heathrow will be freed up - that will be around 2030 then.

West Coast Rail Fiasco

No sooner had Patrick McLoughlin taken possession of the national train set from Justine Greening the wheels came off and this time we couldn’t blame Railtrack and Jarvis. No, this time it was those silly mandarins at the Department of Transport, apparently they were fingered for making a mess of the franchising process for the West Coast Line. The line was run by Virgin but FirstGroup won the bidding process for the new franchise. Richard Branson complained that the process was flawed - he was right, the civil servants had made a mess of things - they were suspended for being hopeless, so has the franchise, leaving the taxpayer with a £40m bill, as the DfT repays the bidding fees to the potential franchisees.
And worse, the man who helped to set up franchising back in the 1990s said the cost may come out at £100m to the taxpayer, another commentator put the cost as high as £200m. Phil Marsh, a former senior executive for Network Rail, described the DfT as "robbing the taxpayer". (From the ITV Tonight programme Off the Rails? 25 Oct 2012.)

The Department for Transport was stunned into inaction. This inaction is interesting, with a number of franchises up for renewal, leaving franchisees in wonderland. Everything was in the balance while McLoughlin carried out two inquiries into what went wrong with the West Coast bid. It's worth mentioning that these inquiries will cost the tax payer more money.

In the meantime, the plan was to run the west coast using the DfT's Directly Operated Railways (DOR). And other franchises were extended without any bidding process, until McLoughlin gets his wheels back on the track. Previous Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, went to ground in order to dodge tricky questions over her handling of the West Coast bidding process, like her department number crunchers did for not taking account of inflation when accepting FirstGroup's future profit projections.

In Sum: Dave's transport policy is a patchwork quilt of projects that doesn't come close to an integrated transport system and which will let the economy down badly, if it ever becomes vibrant again. However, Justine Greening thought that the future is all about electric cars, in fact, the only vision in place is Justine's vision of a network of electric sockets up and down the length of Britain's motorways. Justine didn't explain how she would make electric cars affordable.

Crucially, the rail network is a natural monopoly, Germany, France and Spain seem to understand this but here our railways have fallen prey to the ideology of the money grubbers. For every one pound the private rail operators give to the government, they get two back from the taxpayer and every rail user is being subsidised by people who don't even use the railways. And the bill for HS2 has been reassessed, it's now £80bn. The latest (2013) cost/benefit analysis suggests the project will only return 50p on the pound.


More Cones Required

Five months away from the General Election, the coalition seem to have discovered that many marginal seats around the country are in urgent need of road upgrades. In fact, they are planning 100 projects, this will include 80 new schemes costing around £15bn. This spending was first announced in 2013 but now they have a investment strategy running up to 2021.
The man with the national train set, Patrick McLoughlin, said this was “the biggest, boldest and most far-reaching roads programme for decades”. Which in English means addressing issues that governments of all shades have wilfully ignored leading to an economically damaging third world road network. Although not announced but no doubt will be included in the investment strategy, a new supply of cones, which will be made in China.