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Thursday, 28 October 2010

No Plan and lots of Groping - Rail Policy so far under the Coalition

So, at the moment the Department for Transport (DfT) isn’t really sure what it is doing with regard to investing in important rail projects. Well, that is my impression. On Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond, stood up in the House of Commons and outlined a many of the department’s plans regarding transport. The railways did not, sadly, receive top-billing. Indeed, the majority of the projects that were announced were concerning investment in the road network.

In four categories, Hammond outlined the level of commitment the government had to various projects. Firstly, those investments that were cast in stone were upgrades to sections of the M1, M60, M6 and M25, as well as 12 other road projects. Yet, languishing in the second tier of projects, which are subject to ‘a best and final submission,’ were the extension to Midland Metro and a new southern entrance to Leeds station. These were guaranteed provisionally, but not with certainty. In a third tier of works, were the Leeds Rail Growth Project, the Rochdale Interchange and new vehicles for Sheffield Supertram. These will have to fight out with other road projects for a share of a £600 million pot of money. Lastly, there were another group of projects that are in a ‘pre-evaluation’ group, such as the Croxly Rail Link (linking the Metropolitan line to Watford Junction). These will be subject to further review.

And everyone went “hmm,” stroked their chins and exclaimed “hang on a minute.” Many planned large railway projects, which did not get a mention in last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), were also absent from Hammond’s announcement. The CSR did vaguely outline some funding of big projects, such as Crossrail, the second High Speed Line and Network Rail’s Station Improvement program. However, in the CSR and Hammond’s announcement we did not hear a peep regarding the Intercity Express Programme (IEP), which was to deliver replacements for aging high speed rolling stock; nor was there a croak about the electrification of the Great Western and Midland Main Lines; neither was there any announcement regarding new rolling stock for Thameslink. This was like Hammond saying that everything was fine, when all the while everyone is looking at the house behind him that was on fire. We all could see as plain as day what he was leaving out. Indeed, all he did say about the IEP, in response to a question, was that it was under review.

What this all amounts to, is that investment in Britain’s railways under the coalition is still very uncertain. Firstly, while many projects were confirmed in the CSR, there is no way to know whether they will be developed in line with their planned formats as the announcement was vague. Additionally, this status can also be applied to Hammond’s second tier of project’s that are ‘subject to a best and final submission.’ Further, other large projects that were planned are nowhere to be seen. Lastly, there is no certainty regarding many smaller projects that will have to vie for money.

I would suggest this is because the DfT doesn’t know where they want to go with regard to railway infrastructure projects and investment. Take for example the IEP. This major investment has been mulled over since Sir Andrew Foster’s report on it in July. But, there is another factor that is in play. The progression of the IEP would be heavily dependent on the electrification of the Great Western and Midland Main Lines, and vice versa. This is because the new trains will have to run under the newly electrified lines. Therefore, to cancel one project would imperil the other because they are interlinked. As such, the DfT have to consider the two projects together; but this means that it will take longer to decide on whether they go ahead as planned or in an altered format. Additionally, consider the number of rail projects that are not confirmed, but are still in the ‘provisional’ categories listed above. This evidences a lack of conviction regarding rail investment within the Department, as they are still open to review. HS2 is also not a certainty, as technically we are still in the planning phase and the actual work on the line would not start until after the next election. Thus, as it stands, after 6 months the coalition still has no firm commitments to rail investment.

Overall, it strikes me that the DfT has very little direction regarding investment in major projects on the railways. But this is a severe problem. Railways are different from roads, in that they require vast amounts of planning to make investments because of the high capital costs and the technology involved. Thus, Hammond and the DfT quickly need to develop a plan for major capital projects on Britain’s railway network, that moves them beyond such vague terms as ‘growth’ and ‘efficiency.’ It needs to be long-term and must encompass the wants and desires of all those that demand a modern rail network. Without a plan, they will be groping their way forward for the next 5 years, making one ad hoc decision after the other. This has the potential to lead to erroneous investment, poor management decisions and ultimately higher costs for the taxpayer and the travelling public. This has been a problem for the railways in the past, and it can’t happen again.

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