With the government focussed on defying the odds and clinging to power, and Labour being cautious, transport is in the long grass

The prime minister Rishi Sunak hosting a Cabinet meeting last week

And so the long run into the general election has begun. It is the period of a Parliament when only initiatives that are calculated to shift the electoral dial are taken forward, and necessary, often routine, often sensible ideas are played down or even put on the back burner until after the election has taken place. The only thing that matters for the governing party is to try to secure re-election, and everything else has to be subservient to that.

That normal pre-election pattern is particularly acute this time around with all the polls pointing to a heavy Conservative loss. So, what we are now seeing from the government across the patch is a series of disconnected almost random policy lurches in the hope that something, anything, will move the dial and open up some blue water with Labour. Flights to Rwanda, a 2p cut in National Insurance rates, longer prison sentences for this or that, new laws to clamp down on protest, a ban on smoking for young people. There is no intellectual coherence to this – it is all a bit desperate.

How does this all play out in transport? Well, there was the cancelling of Phase 2 of HS2, pleasing many Tory MPs on the route and some of our less progressive newspaper titles, whose endorsement the government seeks. The BCR for the remaining bleeding stump from Birmingham to Old Oak Common is now thought be negative at 0.8.

The HS2 decision was taken behind closed doors by a small cabal of zealots in No 10, without involvement from the Department for Transport and without consulting Network Rail, and it shows

The HS2 decision was taken behind closed doors by a small cabal of zealots in No 10, without involvement from the Department for Transport and without consulting Network Rail, and it shows. It is clear that a whole series of knock-on effects were never considered. For instance, we are told HS2 trains will join the existing West Coast Main Line at Lichfield, north of Birmingham. Except that the portion of the line from Lichfield to Crewe is already essentially full, so HS2 trains can only be accommodated if paths are removed from freight trains or from passenger trains coming up from Milton Keynes and Rugby.

Then we had the prime minister’s appalling Plan for Drivers, weaponising the non-existent “war on the motorist”, which again was created in No 10 without DfT involvement. The reaction to this was a letter in The Times, signed by all five major bus companies, decrying the document and its adverse effect on buses. DfT ministers, doubtless under the cosh from No 10, are at pains to deny that the prime minister’s move is anti-bus, but the fact remains that road space is finite and if cars are to have more access to bus lanes, then that will affect bus services.

That is why the government’s own National Bus Strategy states: “The Government expects plans for bus lanes on any roads where there is a frequent bus service, congestion, and physical space to install them. Bus lanes should be full-time and as continuous as possible.” Can someone please tell the prime minister what his government’s own policy is?

Meanwhile, relegated to the back burner is the short Bill to create Great British Railways, a concept that has wide cross-party support, strong industry backing, and even Treasury endorsement. We are instead, three and a half years on from the Williams-Shapps plan, to have yet more consultation. About what?

We have seen over the last dozen years a freeze on fuel duty while rail and bus fares have risen inexorably above inflation. I will give odds of 100/1 against the chancellor moving away from this stance in his March budget, notwithstanding the gaping hole in the government’s finances. Nor will we see any moves towards pay-as-you-drive which Treasury officials know only too well will have to come at some point, as electric vehicles replace duty-paying petrol and diesel ones, and the sooner the better from their point of view.

Any moves on ticket offices have been postponed, and the necessary reform of fares and ticketing is progressing at a snail’s pace.

The long grass is getting pretty crowded.

On the plus side, the government is unlikely to ratchet up rail fares this year by the July inflation figure – the usual determinant – though there will still probably be another hefty rise, perhaps 5%. And it has to its credit kept the £2 bus fare in place, which is beginning to make a real and positive difference. The price protection is only guaranteed until the end of next year, so the expectation is that a long term decision on this is being pushed into the next Parliament. More long grass.

The Labour response to these Tory tactics is to avoid taking the bait and to say as little as possible of substance. We know, for example, that Labour has committed to “renationalise the railways”, but what does that actually mean?


The suggestion has been that they will “take back control” of each contract as it expires, presumably loading up the Operator of Last Resort until the entire network rests with them, in some sort of recreated British Rail. This would expressly require the creation of such a body or the acceptance that micro-management from DfT officials will go into overdrive. Meanwhile, why would the train operating companies bother doing anything to improve services if they know
they are about to be defenestrated?

A better answer for Labour would be to apply the London Buses model, where there is central control of timetables, fares, train liveries etc, but contracts are let to private companies to run the services. This is of course essentially what we have now on trains, without the uniform colour scheme.

Labour has said it does not want to touch the ROSCOs, which is odd as they are the overtly private sector bit of the railways. Network Rail and the Office of Rail & Road are already in the public sector. So I am not sure overall that very much is going to change, bar a bit of rebranding and rebadging.

What we do badly need is a traction strategy, to ensure some coherence between the extent of electrified railway and the appropriate quantity of electrified vehicles. At the moment ROSCOs are having to work in the dark, and to guess what will happen next.

One consequence is that at least one ROSCO is actually cutting up electric trains for which no home on the network can be found. Other electric trains languish in the sidings. A second consequence coming down the track is the extended use of what will in due course become clapped out diesel trains, for no new diesel stock is being built. A third is an unnecessary increase in the cost of new rolling stock as manufacturers hedge their bets and cover all bases. The new CAF trains for the East Coast Main Line are tri-mode – electric, diesel, battery – extra weight and extra cost.

I would like to think that some thought is being given to these issues behind the scenes in the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties, but I am not convinced it is

I would like to think that some thought is being given to these issues behind the scenes in the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties, but I am not convinced it is. Labour’s new shadow rail minister Stephen Morgan is encouragingly enthusiastic and eagerly soaking up knowledge, so let us hope that Labour, relatively mute now, will burst forward with some detailed and well honed plans the day after it wins the election, if it does.

The government has announced lots of new transport investments, to be paid for by the re-directed £36bn from the cancelled Phase 2 of HS2. But if the expectation is that those redirected funds will transfer into votes, I suspect they may be disappointed.

For a start, that figure is an historic one from, I think, 2021, since when inflation has ravaged its value. Second, the funds are spread so widely across the country and way beyond the HS2 corridor so as to lessen their local impact. Third, nothing which is promised will be delivered before the election, not even the legendary spades in the ground. Fourth, there is a cynicism that what has been promised will ever be delivered at all, given the predilection for U-turns and cancelling of schemes.

We are likely to see nothing new from the Conservatives on transport, unless some focus group suggests some niche policy of gaining votes

All in all, therefore, we are likely to see nothing new from the Conservatives on transport, unless some focus group suggests some niche policy of gaining votes.

We are likely to see nothing much in the way of commitments from Labour as the party tries to avoid saying anything that might give the Tories, and their newspaper friends, any ammunition. We will see rather more from the Lib Dems but brutally only because it won’t register very high on the Richter scale.

So the challenge for the transport industry between now and the election is to be clear what it wants, to speak with one voice so far as possible, and to double down on efforts to influence the parties behind the scenes so that we can all set off at a fast pace in the right direction as soon as the election is out of the way.

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 story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!