Transport was put on ice during Theresa May’s tenure, but there are big decisions to make that won’t be easy for the new prime minister

 

 

So Boris Johnson is our new prime minister. I can hardly believe I am writing that, and my fingers are definitely meeting resistance from the keyboard.

Are we going to look back at Theresa May’s tenure as a period of maturity and serenity? It is a sign of how far to the right we are going that I find myself in agreement with politicians I used to oppose, like Michael Heseltine and John Major, and now I am cheering Philip Hammond as one of the few grown-ups in the room. We live in strange times and they are, I fear, about to get stranger.

There is a school of thought that says the opportunity for Johnson to do very much with transport, or indeed anything else may be limited. Like Theresa May before him, Brexit swamps everything else. In his case, he has boxed himself into a corner by promising we will leave by October 31 – deal or no deal, as Noel Edmonds might say.

To achieve this, something needs to give and I predict nothing will. The Brexiteers will not back off their opposition to the backstop, the EU won’t reopen negotiations on the withdrawal agreement, parliament won’t pass Theresa May’s deal and MPs will continue to block no deal. The Gaukeward Squad are limbering up and the Tories are about to see their wafer-thin majority reduced further by losing the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election to the Lib Dems. That all points to a general election, not that this would necessarily solve anything. But it could leave Johnson with the unenviable record of the shortest ever tenure in Number 10.

But assuming Johnson survives, what can we expect from him in the transport field? It is instructive to look at his record in London, where transport is a big part of the mayor’s responsibilities.

That his tenure seems to have been reasonably successful is, to be honest, largely down to the excellent support he had from Transport for London chiefs Peter Hendy and Leon Daniels, as well as a healthy transport legacy from Ken Livingstone. Where Johnson took an initiative himself, it invariably turned out badly.

There was the whitest of white elephants that was Boris Island, his pie-in-the-sky plan for a new airport in the Thames Estuary where the only thing that took off were the bills for London taxpayers.

More money was splurged, or spaffed up the wall as Johnson might crudely put it, on a cable car link that has never come even close to breaking even. He doesn’t seem to have much luck with cable-based transport systems – remember the extensive international coverage generated by the infamous picture of the mayor becoming stranded halfway across a zip wire in London’s Victoria Park, waving his Union Jacks and dangling in the air like in some bad Benny Hill sketch.

And let us not forget his signature New Routemaster buses, vastly more expensive than normal double deckers, and specially designed to operate with an open platform and a conductor. Until Johnson discovered that the conductors were too expensive so were disposed of and the open platform closed, thereby undermining the whole point of the new design.

Oh, and Johnson is facing an unwelcome appearance in court, in an action begun last year, where he and TfL are accused of the theft of intellectual property, specifically, detailed plans to exploit the abandoned stations on the London Underground.

The first transport-related decision has been made – the appointment of Grant Shapps as transport secretary. He replaces Chris Grayling, the most hopeless and hapless ever occupant of the post. Shapps was among Grayling’s many critics – he called for Transport for London to take over the Great Northern line in the wake of last May’s timetable meltdown.

First up on the agenda, inevitably, are Brexit-related issues. Are we going to see more phantom ferries readied for October 31? The false alarm in March cost the taxpayer a six-figure sum, money down the drain, to pay for ferries that never sailed and to compensate Eurotunnel to the tune of £33m for the incorrect way the contract was let.

If no deal does happen overnight on October 31, he will need to remember the warning in an internal civil service paper that Dover might collapse on day one, or the warning from the Freight Transport Association that a delay of just two minutes for lorries will cause a 20-mile tailback. And as a champion of cutting red tape, he will need to recognise that leaving the single market will mean the completion of 300 million customs declarations a year compared to none at present.

Not far behind is the crucial matter of HS2 which could be decided even in a short Johnson premiership. Our new prime minister was very careful to avoid taking a definitive position on this, or indeed virtually every other issue raised during the leadership hustings so as to maximise his support in the ballot. While that worked as a short-term tactic, he is going to have to come off the fence on these issues and that is inevitably going to upset some people who will conclude that what he finally decides is the opposite of what he promised them.

There is an interesting overlap of concentric circles when it comes to those who are hard-line Brexiteers and those who want to scrap HS2

There is an interesting overlap of concentric circles when it comes to those who are hard-line Brexiteers and those who want to scrap HS2. The decision on this could end up being a political one as to which side the new PM wants to throw a bone, which is not, of course, how a matter of huge national significance should be decided.

That there is a threat to HS2 can be in no doubt. It has been enough to rouse former transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin to make public statements in its defence. Of course it does not help that the whole project, which I support, has been so badly handled.

With every reduction in scope, the justification has been reduced. The original concept was an integrated HS2 and HS1, enabling people from as far away as Glasgow and Edinburgh to travel without changing trains to Brussels, Paris and Amsterdam, or to access Heathrow Airport, so obviating the need for a short-haul flight connection. (The trains would have travelled on existing lines north of Manchester and Leeds). But then we lost the HS2-HS1 connection, then the Heathrow spur, and now there is talk of terminating the new line at Birmingham. That would severely undermine the transport case for the line, not to mention the cost-benefit ratio.

Nor does it help that the project is way over budget, and the HS2 team is clearly top heavy and paid excessive salaries. I hope, despite all this, the line will proceed. After all, the congestion issues – and the case for HS2 is made by congestion not speed – will not go away. But there is just about enough time to pull the plug if that is what the new administration wants to do.

Next is the third runway at Heathrow which Johnson once promised to try to halt in a Swampy-type protest. Except the nearer he has got to power, the weaker his commitment to oppose it has become. During the hustings, he expressed concern about the impact, but left the door ajar to give it the green light. He would face a barrage of outrage if he did, however.

Chris Grayling has managed to leave the railways in even more of a mess than he left the probation service and the prisons when he was moved from the role of justice secretary

Not much further down the track is the Williams review into the railways. Chris Grayling has managed to leave the railways in even more of a mess than he left the probation service and the prisons when he was moved from the role of justice secretary, if that were possible. We have franchises extended in a haphazard and arbitrary way, and companies either barred from competing or simply deciding the game is not worth the candle.

Meanwhile, the electrification programme has been scaled back with Grayling championing bi-mode, which is not only more expensive but inefficient. What is the point of curtailing the Midland Main Line electrification only to then have electric trains carting round diesel fuel for when they reach a part of the line where Grayling has pulled the plug. It is ludicrous to end the electrification at Market Harborough. In addition, the new transport secretary will urgently need to look at the disconnect between the availability of electric rolling stock and the lines which are equipped to take that stock.

There is also pressure building, and quite rightly, for a national bus strategy, something which is long overdue. Every other mode has a strategy, even maritime.

I fear however that this is just the sort of important innovation for which there is simply no bandwidth in a government trapped by Brexit. We can expect phantom ferries to take precedence over actual buses and trains.

 
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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