GOVERNMENT'S RAIL REVIEW
By Tom Harris, Senior Counsel, Message Matters
It is a mystery of modern politics that the transport brief is still seen as one given to politicians either as a rung on the ladder leading upwards, or as a consolation prize for demotion. In fact, our transport infrastructure contributes just as much to our quality of life as almost any other public service: unlike the health service, we use it almost every day of our lives, and unlike education, we use it for the whole of our lives.
Which poses another obvious question: why are our transport systems still the cause of so much complaint?
As a former railways minister at a UK level, I am perhaps biased in my fondness for trains. That bias is shared by our media, which loves to report every detail of every rail delay and cancellation, every fare rise and industry failure, but which pays scant attention to buses, which every day carry vastly higher numbers of passengers.
The bus industry today is a legacy of the Thatcher government’s most Thatcherite of reforms: bus deregulation. Unlike other privatisations, where former nationalised industries were subject to robust regulation and accountability, “bus deregulation” meant exactly what it said on the tin. Private bus companies could – and continue to be able to – provide or remove services on any route they please, at any time of day or night they please, and charge any fare they please.
Whether this was directly responsible for the dramatic fall in bus passenger numbers since 1985 is debateable: an even greater fall in patronage was experienced by the industry over a similar timescale before deregulation. Nevertheless, the continuing deregulated model means that the ultimate prize of all public transport planners – integration of services with other forms of public transport – remains elusive.
Meanwhile, significant changes are heading down the line towards our railway system. Last year the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, set up a review of the railway industry. Unlike other similar reviews that have produced reports that did little more than gather dust after their publication, this review is expected to produce the biggest changes since privatisation in the mid-1990s. I was invited to become a member of the Expert Challenge Panel advising the review’s independent chair, Keith Williams.
So far we have spoken to a lot of people, heard a lot of evidence and come to absolutely no conclusions at all. Those will emerge in the summer and will be published, not in the usual form of a report, but as a government White Paper, paving the way for our recommendations to be enacted from next year.
The railway’s customers – including passengers and, crucially, freight – have a great deal to be unhappy about, and they can hardly be blamed for their scepticism about this latest review. Fares have gone up faster than wages in the last ten years, while reliability and punctuality have started to decline. New trains that were promised at the start of franchises are being delayed and work to repair and renew our tracks is still causing unjustified delays to commuters.
But before we write off privatisation and the franchising system that followed, we need to recognise the tremendous achievements of the railways in the past 20 years. The political motivation for privatisation at the time was to manage the decline of the industry: no minister would have believed that within two decades, passenger numbers would have doubled, more services would be running than at any time in our history and that private Train Operating Companies (TOCs) would be handing £700 million of their profits back to the government.
But the weaknesses of the system are not hard to identify and it’s fair to conclude that while franchising has played its part in the revitalisation of our railways, it’s time for the next chapter.
The costs to companies, both in terms of the money needed even to compete for a franchise and in reputational terms, are discouraging to the point of prohibitive. Fares are not only too expensive but too complicated. We need to find a way to make the separate owners of the track and trains work together once again, and bid farewell to a culture of perverse incentives where TOCs depend more on compensation for disrupted services than they do on the revenue raised from running trains.
Our railway network provides massive benefits, not only to the travelling public but to the wider economy. This is an opportunity to bank the gains of the past and build a new model for the future.
By Tom Harris, Senior Counsel, Message Matters
RAIL REVIEW, BBC, PLANNING BILL, TRANSPORT IN EDINBURGH, AND MORE PLANNING
It’s here. After much hype, much anticipation, and much expenditure, the new BBC Scotland channel is now in its second month and the political bubble has been active in debating the good and bad, rights and wrongs, fair and unfair.
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