Our Whitehall insider imagines what’s going on inside the minds of the mandarins at Great Minster House, home of the DfT

The railways are never out of the news these days! The publication of a pretty damning report by the National Audit Office on the merits of, and case for, high speed rail will give considerable comfort to those who oppose the project and who have long argued that the business case for the project is weak, if not non-existent. But lest they get too excited, let’s make one thing very clear. The government isn’t going to back down from this project now, or ever.

The NAO can bash on about the absence of a business case as much as it likes, but it won’t make any difference. Sometimes I do wonder about our parliamentary scrutiny processes. Rather like select committee proceedings, rarely does the NAO have any material impact on policy as all too often its inquiries take place after the event, not before. The government is now committed to high speed rail, as indeed are all the main political parties, with the sole exception of UKIP (yes, I think UKIP is entitled to be described as a main political party, for the moment at least, after its showing in the recent local elections!). Mind you, it wasn’t all that long ago that UKIP was backing the idea of building three high speed rail lines, so Nigel Farage’s decision to oppose HS2 must represent one of the quickest u-turns in political history!

The NAO’s inquiry into HS2 should have been conducted from the very outset, not some three or four years after the project was kick started by the previous administration’s last secretary of state for transport, Lord Adonis. What is the point of these inquiries if all that happens is that the report gathers dust on civil servants’ bookcases or gets used as a door wedge? Still, it could make the inevitable hearing by the Public Accounts Committee quite entertaining, if nothing else.

Then, of course, we have the saga of the new see-through tops for the female members of the Virgin Trains train crews. This is all a bit of a storm in a tea cup (or is that a D Cup!) if you ask me since, as I understand it, Virgin Trains has offered to pay for any changes to the uniforms that anybody requests. Trust the unions to make a fuss about, frankly, very little, and I’m told that most female members of the train crews are really quite relaxed about it all. Mind you, I hear it is causing a bit of concern among some of my railway colleagues as I hear that now Virgin Trains is operating under a management contract, the bill for all of this ultimately falls to the taxpayer at the end of the day! I wonder what the National Audit Office will make of that!

Actually, on a serious note, we should be worried about the unions. As I write, there is the risk of industrial action on Northern Rail for the its use of agency staff – an issue that could easily spread as Northern Rail is not the only TOC to use agency staff. Nor should we forget that the McNulty Review said that the introduction of driver-only operation should be the default option for the industry, and heaven knows what kind of industrial action may result if there is a serious move in that direction – as indeed there must be at some point. And we should also bear in mind that as the prospect of driverless cars being introduced is rising up the technology agenda, so the technology that enables driverless trains is also available. The unions will love that if we ever go down that route!

The trouble is, I don’t sense that ministers have the appetite for helping the rail industry tackle some of the really serious and contentious issues that can drive costs out of the industry without impacting adversely on service quality. Transport minister Norman Baker’s recent decision to refuse London Midland’s application to close a dozen lightly-used ticket offices, agreeing to the closure of only four, is surely a case in point. All 12 ticket offices met the criteria for closure, I’m told, but the application was turned down on what seemed to me to be narrow procedural grounds. I can’t help but feel that if ministers really wanted to help the industry drive out costs, a way could have been found to approve this application in full. But closing ticket offices is politically contentious and so, in the main, the application got rejected.

When the really big ticket items land on ministers’ desks – driver-only operation or even driverless trains, more widespread ticket office closures – they really are going to have to step up to the plate and stand four-square alongside the industry. Meanwhile, it’s see-through tops that are troubling us right now!


This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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