In many ways, 2018 was an extremely challenging year for the transport sector. But buckle up, because 2019 will be a bumpy ride

 

In 2018, we saw the great train timetable fiasco, which Chris Grayling attempted to blame on everyone else

 

A new year is a time for optimism, to put behind us all those mistakes and embarrassments of the previous year. Or so they say.

Anyway, the good people at Passenger Transport have asked me to look back at the last year and forward to the next.

In 2018, we saw the great train timetable fiasco, which Chris Grayling attempted to blame on everyone else until he was rumbled by the evidence. Stephen Glaister, who was commissioned to carry out a review of the fiasco, correctly identified shortcomings in Network Rail, Govia, and yes, the Department for Transport.

The transport secretary also decided to keep the existing formula used to determine fare increases, leading to an average increase of 3.1% this month to the fury of almost everyone. This formula uses the discredited RPI instead of CPI, which had it been used would have resulted in significantly lower increases. But with an amazing display of chutzpah, he then blamed the fare increases on the unions and that their wage rates should be linked to, wait for it, CPI not RPI.

It is also worth noting that the fares controlled by the industry itself, the minority, actually rose slightly less than those controlled by the Department for Transport.

We also saw Crossrail, near to its opening date, suddenly delayed by another year or so, and the resignation of its chair, Terry Morgan, who also gave up his chairmanship of HS2, a role he had only recently been appointed to by, er, Chris Grayling. HS2, as I set out in a previous column (PT194), is doing its best to get itself knocked on the head through the chaotic management of this prestigious project.

We saw passenger numbers on buses contract further, particularly in supported services as central government slowly strangle local councils. Oblivious to the damage being done to rural areas in particular, Chris Grayling suggested buses could soon be replaced by Uber-type services. The chancellor and former transport secretary Philip Hammond made the same vacuous suggestion in his budget, as he threw more money at the motorist and starved the bus passenger. Self-evidently, none of this will help meet the government’s climate change targets or tackle congestion.

And on climate change, Chris Grayling promised to “lead consumer uptake” of electric cars and seemed unfazed either by the revelation last month that less than 2% of his department’s own fleet was electric, or by the Treasury’s action in cutting by £1,000 the plug-in grant for members of the public who want to buy such vehicles, and ending the subsidy altogether for hybrids.

He studiously did nothing to address calls to improve airport security by dealing with the threat posed by drones. Indeed, he blocked plans to regulate drones saying they were an infringement of the free market, or personal liberty, or some other such guff. He then seemed taken aback by the serious incident at Gatwick over Christmas.

He would breezily state that no blame for any of this should be laid at his door, of course. Why, he is only the transport secretary. He does not control the rail network, he pleads. (Except that the DfT largely does). He is not at fault over Crossrail – that’s the London mayor, or Terry Morgan or someone else. He does not run airports or manufacture electric cars. He is not responsible for buses. Bus policy? Not me, mate.

So as 2019 begins, we are very sorry to announce that Chris Grayling has not been cancelled – unlike thousands of train services last year

So as 2019 begins, we are very sorry to announce that Chris Grayling has not been cancelled – unlike thousands of train services last year. The number of cancelled or significantly late trains in 2018 was the highest for 17 years.

In his defence, it might be argued that the transport secretary has been hugely distracted by Brexit and the enormous challenges from that. So how has that been going?

Well, Chris is on the case. As just a two minute delay at Dover for each vehicle is likely to cause a tailback of over 15 miles, he has designated the M26 as a giant lorry park. Meanwhile, an internal civil service assessment suggested that Dover, which handles 17% of our exports and imports, could collapse on day one of our brave new world.

As for Eurostar services, the ability of coach operators to move freely in and out of the EU, and the mutual acceptance of driving licence, well we have ages to go yet to March 29, don’t we?

But he has not been idle. In a startlingly original – even surrealist move – Grayling decided to award a contract for contingency ferry services after Brexit day to Seaborne Freight, a company that has no ferries, indeed no ships, has never moved a lorry and has never operated a ferry service.

A quick glance at their website does not provide any comfort. The terms and conditions listed there appear to relate not to shipping, but to takeaway pizzas, advising customers to check goods before “agreeing to pay for any meal/order”.

Now I am all in favour of supporting small British companies, which was Grayling’s repeated and robotic justification when challenged on this award by reporters. I can think of a really good little restaurant in my town of Lewes that is equally well qualified. It has no ships either, has never run ferries, and moreover, their catering is such that there is frankly no need to check goods before agreeing to pay for your meal.

Overall, the government has allocated £107m to these contingency ferry arrangements, money, by the way, which will be largely non-refundable if the ferries are not needed. Just think what £107m could do to revitalise our bus network. It is, of course, just one of many huge bills being run up by the government as Brexit day approaches. Perhaps the £350m figure on the side of the famous Brexit bus referred to the extra costs to the taxpayer rather than any savings that might ensue.

Seaborne Freight will, under DfT plans, take £13.8m of the £107m being doled out. The rest will go to French and Danish ferry companies. It is called “taking back control”.

Brexit is now less than three months away, with a no-deal, however disastrous, still a possible outcome. One minister quoted in one of the newspapers, trying bravely to talk up no-deal in a sort of 1940’s Britain-can-take-it spirit, breezily observed that we could cope with the worst so long as the transport system worked well and then paused before adding: “Oh expletive deleted, that’s Grayling.”

So one safe prediction for 2019 is that, as in 2018, Brexit will be all-consuming, and will put every other issue in the shade. This is true whatever happens – the chaos of a no-deal; the adoption of the prime minister’s agreement with the EU, which in practice only opens the door to years of negotiations about trade; or a decision to withdraw the Article 50 Notice (which the European Court has ruled we are entitled to do unilaterally) and hold another referendum.

What will happen? Well it seems almost certain that the prime minister will lose the long delayed vote on her deal next week. Beyond that, nobody knows. But there are some interesting factors at play.

First, recent opinion polling shows a strong majority (58-42) to stay in the EU, and a clear majority over either no-deal or what the prime minister has negotiated.

Second, a big majority of Conservative voters and party members would rather leave with no deal than with Theresa May’s negotiated deal, despite her best efforts to scare people into backing it.

Third, around 90% of Labour party members want to remain in the EU, and polling suggests Labour would collapse to its worst election result since the 1920s if it facilitates Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn is of course in favour of Brexit, suffering as he does under the tragic delusion that if only we can escape the shackles of the capitalist EU, he can create a socialist paradise here in Britain.

Here are some scenarios. Take your pick.

1. Theresa May ramps up the apocalyptic vision, and holds a repeat of the first vote, but closer to March 29 to try to bounce MPs into accepting it for fear of no deal.

2. Parliament finds a way to prevent the government from crashing out without a deal. There is clearly a majority in the House for this, but it is not clear how this can be accomplished. The statutory position that parliament has created for itself is that leaving with no deal is indeed the default. The role of the Speaker may be crucial here, and he is generally accepted to be both pro-Remain and anti the Tory front bench.

3. Parliament finds a way to revoke the triggering of Article 50 (see above).

4. The prime minister resigns. Unlikely, but not impossible.

5. We crash out without a deal.

What will not happen is a renegotiation with the EU. Their patience with Britain is at an end, and in any case there is no time left.

Away from Brexit, the good news is that the difficult birth of the new train timetable should finally be seen to have delivered a healthy child, and the much delayed arrival of new rolling stock should ramp up. Similarly, Network Rail may be well behind with its improvement programme, and a good deal of it, at least in terms of electrification, has been cancelled, but much is still being delivered and will help. Crossrail will open and be popular from day one.

The RMT conductors’ dispute shows no sign of ending soon, and Chris Grayling’s root and branch review of the railways is likely to take a good deal of time to emerge from the long grass, and there is no guarantee anything much will change when it does.

I predict a better year for train passengers in 2019 than in 2018. Well it could hardly be much worse

But overall, I predict a better year for train passengers in 2019 than in 2018. Well it could hardly be much worse.

For bus passengers, the upheaval at the industry’s umbrella body, the Confederation of Passenger Transport, caused some jolting and jarring, but there are signs that the end result may be beneficial, particularly if the industry is able to find a way to articulate its voice more effectively.

And Chris Grayling? Well we can only hope he ‘leaves on the line’ from Horseferry Road, but somehow I doubt he will.

Happy New Year…

 

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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