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

I know we are entering the festive season, which is meant to be a time of good cheer, but I fear I have to end the year on a cautionary, if not grumpy, note. For all of the government commitment to rail investment, as reflected most recently by the Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands, cuts are still in the air. The Treasury has, for example, apparently blocked our planned £30bn investment programme to electrify Britain’s railways, which rather drives a coach and horses through our transport decarbonisation agenda.

But I can’t say I’m surprised. After all cuts have to be made in order to address the colossal debt mountain we now have, and with patronage down and unlikely to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels, I just don’t see how the electrification programme can be justified, at least in its entirely. There simply has to be some real belt-tightening. In that context I’m surprised that the Rail Plan is as generous as it is. And we all know that service cuts are coming, the only issue is by how much.

It’s interesting in this context that Great British Railways has issued a Call for Evidence to inform the development of the Whole Industry Strategic Plan. What’s wrong with that, you might ask.Nothing, at one level. Except I am not entirely clear how industry can answer many of the questions posed in the Call for Evidence. For example, stakeholders are asked how rail passenger expectations will evolve over the next five, 10 and 30 years and what will be the driving causes of changing expectations. In the light of significant uncertainties about future demand for rail travel how can this be answered?

Is the devolution agenda now dead?

I’m just not sure there are that many rail organisations or stakeholder groups that would know the answers to many of the questions in the Call for Evidence with the detailed evidence base that is asked for. And it had me thinking that surely it’s for this department and Great British Railways to tell the industry what its views are on these issues and to seek reactions to that rather than to ask for opinions and views in a vacuum. That said, I can see there is one stakeholder group that will have views on many of these issues – namely major transport authorities and the Combined Authorities. And there is one question asked which plays directly to these authorities’ agenda – namely how can the rail industry become more responsive and more accountable to local communities? There is a one-word answer to that – devolution. Yet nowhere in the Call to Evidence is there any direct acknowledgement of the devolution agenda, an issue on which this department and Great British Railways were totally silent on in the industry briefings about the new Passenger Service Contracts in November. Is the devolution agenda now dead?

I’m also not entirely clear why some of the issues raised in the Call for Evidence weren’t covered off in the William-Shapps rail white paper. The Call for Evidence seems to me to be just going over a fair amount of old ground. Still, cynical as I am, I suspect there is a strong desire for this department and Great British Railways to be able to say that the Whole Industry Strategic Plan was written in full consultation with the wider industry rather than behind closed doors in ivory towers. I totally get the politics of that. But it doesn’t make the Call for Evidence any less odd, in my view.

I will end with a New Year prediction. Boris Johnson won’t be prime minister by August next year

It’s been an uncertain year for the rail industry, and for public transport more generally. Let’s hope that 2022 is more stable and encouraging for us all, even if the current Omicron variant may make the first few weeks of next year somewhat difficult. But I will end with a New Year prediction. Boris Johnson won’t be prime minister by August next year. The electorate of Shropshire North have given their damning verdict, stripping the Conservatives of a seat they have held it since 1832 – yes, 1832 – and a majority of 23,000.

Coming fast on the heels of the major backbench rebellion on the new Covid restrictions and rules, Boris Johnson’s authority is waning fast. Boris is fast becoming an electoral liability, not the winner he once was. All the gossip in Westminster and Whitehall is now “when not if” he will be challenged for the leadership of the party. It may be a pretty miserable Christmas and New Year for Boris Johnson from a political perspective but I hope all regular readers of this column have an enjoyable and relaxing Christmas and New Year. Compliments of the season to you all.

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This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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