The New Year will bring change for Britain’s railways, a green light for HS2 and a greater focus on transport in the North of England

The Labour government under Tony Blair had progressed a tram system for Leeds, only to cancel it

 
The good people at Passenger Transport have once again asked me to get out my crystal ball and predict the year ahead for the transport sector. This strikes me as something of a mug’s game, particularly when you consider some of the earlier predictions for 2020.

Back in 1951, a magazine called Popular Mechanics predicted that by this year, we would all have personal helicopters, with at least one in each garage. Huge garages too presumably. This “helicopter coupé” would be “big enough to carry two people and small enough to land on your lawn.” So that’s all right then.

In 1957, the same magazine went one better, suggesting that by 2020 all roads would be “replaced by a network of pneumatic tubes” enabling you to be “pneumatically powered to any destination”. Well we have the tube in London, but that’s about it.

Predictions for the future are hugely varied and often wildly wrong. The Ladies Home Journal in 1900 confidently stated that by this year, the letters C, Q and X would no longer be part of the alphabet, which would certainly present a problem for Charing X, or Cross, whatever way you look at it.

So it was with trepidation that I looked back at my predictions for 2019. I note that I suggested that Brexit would be all-consuming, which certainly turned out to be true, though hardly difficult to anticipate. Less successfully, I played down the chances of the UK and EU settling a Withdrawal Agreement.

I also suggested that there was a chance Theresa May would resign, a scenario for which I would have got rather longer odds at my local William Hill. And I wrote that the RMT dispute over the control of doors would rumble on. Lastly, I stated with confidence that Crossrail would finally be open. I should have known better – Transport for London this week revealed that it may not now open until the autumn of 2021!

So what does 2020 herald?

On rail, the cry of “all change” rings out. We are set to see the arrival on the scene of an arm’s length body that will probably look like a re-creation of the old Strategic Rail Authority (SRA). While that makes sense, it will be interesting to see to what extent ministers are prepared to cede power to it, given that when something goes wrong, the buck will ultimately stop with the government. The temptation of ministers, and for that matter civil servants, to interfere in the day-to-day running of the railway will not be easily suppressed and indeed it was that itch that led to the old SRA being wound up.

There will undoubtedly be a major overhaul of the franchising regime when the Williams report, commissioned as long ago as September 2018, finally emerges, in the very near future.

Clearly the present arrangements are broken beyond repair. The regular collapse of the franchise on the East Coast Main Line was a clear sign all was not well with the system. Bidders stretched themselves to win franchises, often assuming highly ambitious growth in passenger numbers which has then not materialised. To that systemic fault we can add the recent disappearance of Stagecoach and Virgin from the tracks, a potentially costly legal dispute over pensions, an indication from the Scottish government that they want a state run track and train operation, in an echo of the old British Rail. Then there is the continuing poor, even rubbish, service from Northern and now TransPennine, and a shredded timetable on South Western as the guards’ dispute drags on interminably.

Faced with all this, we are likely to see a level of intervention not normally expected from a Conservative administration, for whom the guiding light is normally to assume that government should hold back and let the private sector deliver, that commercial interests will axiomatically deliver the best result for passengers.

That has now gone out of the train window. It looks almost inevitable that secretary of state Grant Shapps will take back control (to coin a phrase) of Northern. The suggestion is that in due course this rambling unwieldy franchise will be split into a North-West and a North-East. The Labour mayors in the north are arguing that TransPennine should also be “nationalised”. The Conservative mayor Andy Street has made similar noises about the poorly performing West Midlands Railways. It is no longer just Labour advocating nationalisation.

It is worth reflecting on the previous involvement of key players with the railways to provide a pointer for the future. The transport secretary’s constituency of Welwyn Hatfield is served by Thameslink and he will doubtless have received a huge number of complaints about the botched timetable changes of 2018, as well as moans about the above average cost of journeys from there into London. His sympathy with the train operating companies is likely to have been adversely affected as a result.

For the prime minister, he will be most familiar with the concession model that Transport for London has successfully deployed, and he will have seen the impressive transformation of forgotten and decaying lines into the slick London Overground network. It would not be surprising therefore if that London model were to be rolled out more widely across the country. It is already in effect in operation across the Southern franchise, though as one of their passengers, sorry customers, I have noticed that one side-effect has been to ease up on ticket checks as Southern have doubtless concluded that with a guaranteed income, this aspect of their operation is now rather less important.

Without doubt more rail investment will come on stream or be committed to. I predict that HS2 will be confirmed, and without very much in the way of significant changes. The Queen’s Speech included a Bill to take forward the Birmingham to Crewe leg. In London, the proposed extension of the Bakerloo Line will be taken forward.

There is going to be a strong focus on the north as this is what Dominic Cummings (who is to a large degree running the government) wants to see. Politically, the Tories have been given an “in” to the north by the results of the general election and will be keen to capitalise on this. As part of this, we are likely to see further devolution to areas outside London, with or without elected mayors, through a promised white paper on devolution. And the Treasury’s long-standing cost-benefit rules are likely to be rewritten to justify much greater investment in the north.

There has been particular attention paid to Leeds, the largest city in Europe without a light rail system, and where the bus service is seen to be failing badly

Before the election, the Tories pledged an extra £4.2bn for local transport – trains, light rail, and buses – across eight English city regions. There has been particular attention paid to Leeds, the largest city in Europe without a light rail system, and where the bus service is seen to be failing badly. The prime minister has suggested, and this post-election, that the city is in line for a metro system. Of course we have been here before. The Labour government under Tony Blair had progressed a tram system, only to cancel this. When I became transport minister, I inherited plans for a trolleybus system which I did not think was ideal but pragmatically I supported this as this was what was on the table. After my time, that too was cancelled.

All in all, this is a hugely ambitious set of plans to enhance rail and light rail, and I have not even mentioned the upgrade of the Manchester-Leeds rail corridor, the expected continued roll-out of electrification, a possible expansion of tram-train, hinted at rail reopenings such as the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, big changes to the structure of train fares and the commitment to new rolling stock. The question that arises is how all this is going to be afforded. I have no doubt that if such a programme were advanced by a Labour government, the Tories would be accusing them of financial irresponsibility.

One note of caution. The government intention to legislate to require a minimum service to be delivered during any rail strike is not a proposal likely to be meekly received by the unions. Management might be able to cobble together enough employees to cover striking guards or conductors, but the tracks will go quiet if ASLEF gets involved.

On the buses, we had the unusual sight during the election of an auction to see which party could be most pro-bus. Prime minister Johnson even talked of making models of buses out of old wine crates. Expect a National Bus Strategy to be taken forward, along with a roll-out of the London concession model.

There is much talk of a reshaped Whitehall and a cull of ministers after January 31 but I predict the Department for Transport will emerge unscathed, and still with Grant Shapps at the helm.

I fear we are not going to see the radical action needed in the transport sector to tackle climate change

Last but not least, I fear we are not going to see the radical action needed in the transport sector to tackle climate change, even if as rumoured the Department for Energy and Climate Change is re-established. Yes, we will have more electrified railway and more zero emission buses, yes the number of electric cars will creep up, but the government seems intent on continuing its intensive road-building programme. When Labour suggested diverting money from this to help electrify the bus network, Shapps termed this a new “war on the motorist.” And forget it if you think this government will act to curb the ever-increasing emissions from aviation.

Happy New Year.

 This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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