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Thursday, 20 May 2010

Conservative transport policy...time to be scared?

I have been thinking a lot about the new Conservative Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond. As someone interested in having better railways in Britain, I instinctively worry about Conservative Governments. They have in the past been about as useful as a bacon slicer in a cheese shop; it may do something, but ultimately you'll end up gooey and with half your finger sliced off.

This fear isn't irrational though. It doesn't automatically stem from a loathing of all things Tory, (however I do have to confess that as a disgruntled Lib-Dem I am quick to condemn them) nor does it come from a default loathing of the fee market, which history tells us they love, cuddle and, given the chance, would have coitus with. It doesn't even originate from erroneous idea that since the beginning the Conservatives have always historically been the ones to mess up the railways. Indeed, some of the greatest policy errors, including the Railway and Canal Traffic Act of 1894 and parts of the Railways Act of 1921, both of which restricted the way that railway companies could charge for their services and therefore damaged their profits, were both enacted by Liberal governments.

My worry, profuse in nature and massive in my head, is that over the last 50 years Conservative Governments have persistently damaged Britain's rail network. Now, I'm not saying that that's what Conservative Governments set out to do, but I can't help discerning a pattern of destructive policies and loathing towards the railways that was ongoing. It is my hope, however, that the new Conservative-Lib Dem Government doesn't go the same way.

The first real pain that the Conservatives inflicted on Britain's railways was installing one Richard Beeching as chairman of British Railways (BR) in 1961. He was appointed by Ernest Marples (shown), the Conservative Minister for Transport, who brought him from his position as Technical Director at ICI. It is in his new position that Beeching came to be considered a 'Railway Satan.' He was tasked with moving BR into profitability. He shared the view with the Government that BR should be run like a business and not solely in the public interest. In his 1963 report, The Reshaping of British Railways, he proposed closing 6000 of the country's 18000 miles of railway, most of which were rural and cross country lines. This would also mean shutting 7000 stations and allow BR to shed 70,000 jobs over three years. He estimated the recommended changes would make BR profitable by 1970 and as a result Marples implemented most of them.

The Beeching Report, as we now know, was terrible for many reasons. Firstly the report did not take into account the social benefits of railway lines serving communities that had no other transport links. These small communities, that still shape our view of the sleepy little English village, had existences that revolved around their railway lines. Suddenly, like a whirlwind, these services were gone. Secondly, Beeching's cuts were based on traffic figures that were gathered in the spring when some places that had heavy tourist traffic were at their quietest, such as lines on the North Cornwall coast. Therefore when these lines were closed it destroyed industry and tourism in these regions. North Cornwall, to this day, still has a failing economy. Thirdly, there was no attempt to decrease cost through other means, such as modernisation, (despite the failed BR modernisation plan of the 1950s) that would have allowed some lines to stay open. Beeching's sole cost-cutting policy was to apply the axe when a line failed to pay its way. Lastly, the cuts went too far. The plans did not foresee that roads would fill up and did not anticipate any future transport needs. These are just some of the many criticisms of the plan, and in the end Beeching's goal of profitability was never reached. What it most certainly did do was cost many people their livelihoods.

Now I am not automatically going to knock Beeching himself and I have always though that it was Marples particularly that was at fault. Firstly, Marples was a man who's background looked a bit suspect. Marples co-owned a construction company, Marples-Ridgeway, that was heavily into road building. Indeed, surprise, surprise, it was Marples that authorised the M1 be built from London to Nottingham and it was Marples-Ridgeway that built it. Further, and this is important, Beeching only made recommendations in his report, it was Marples who actually gave the order to close the lines. Therefore, when the line between London and Nottingham closed, forcing travellers onto the M1, the fishiness is plain to smell. Marples evidently used his position, and the Beeching report, to further his own business interests. Secondly, Marples brought in a businessmen in Beeching and that in itself was going to mean harsh cuts were going to be proposed. My point is that if you place a wolf in a chicken coup, don't expect that it'll imitate the chickens. Businessmen will act as businessmen if they are simply told to make something profitable. Indeed, it was Beeching's narrow terms of reference, simply to bring BR into profit, that meant he looked at things simply in terms of profit and loss. Thus, he acted accordingly. Overall I feel that it was Marples who was the man to blame for the cuts, as he was driven by a pro-road agenda. Beeching, I feel, simply did his job, even if he did it badly.

So where to next? Oh yes, the privatisation of British Rail in the early to mid 1990s. This is, in some ways, a more erroneous action by a Conservative Government that the Beeching cuts. Beeching, effigies of which railway enthusiasts still stick pins into, at least was brought in to solve a specific problem. British Railways was unprofitable, its cost tax payers money, Beeching was tasked with reversing this. However, John Major's Government of the 1990s broke up British Rail because of ideology. The free market was their God, and they worshipped it to the max. Their goal was to make Britain's railways efficient and innovative by the introduction of competition. Silly arses.

By the early 1990s British Rail was actually running very efficiently. Maggie, bless her cotton socks, had restricted BR's budget quite considerably. This had had the effect of scaring its bosses so much that the aim of Beeching, railway profitability, actually became a reality in some parts of the organisation. Certain services, such as intercity and Network South East, actually started to make money. The Thatcher Government also shocked everyone when it authorised the electrification of the East Coast Main Line and purchased new rolling stock. Everyone involved stood back and applauded. BR was, by 1994, at its most cost-effective. Then Thatcher was out and Major came in.

Thatcher, it may surprise everyone to know, was actually against the privatisation of the railways. However, Major, under the influence of the 'Adam Smith think tank,' pushed forward with privatisation in the Railways Act 1993. This created an infrastructure company, Railtrack, that maintained all the working parts (track, signals, major stations etc.), three ROSCOs that owned the rolling stock and who leased it to the 25 Train Operating Companies (TOCs) who actually ran the trains. Further, BR's engineering department was split up, as was the freight services that were now under the control of 6 private companies. This is the very basic version of how BR was split up. To go through the number of companies that were involved and the cack-handed way that BR was destroyed, would take endless Blog posts that would make me into a hermit.

The split up of BR caused many problems, and what follows were the key ones. Firstly, the track ownership was separated from the trains. This currently causes problems as there are conflicts between the operators of trains and the Network Rail. Secondly, the infrastructure maintenance was privatised , leading to cost cutting, sloppy maintenance and a string of crashes. The Southall accident in 1997, Ladbroke Grove in 1999 and Hatfield in 2000 all contributed to Railtrack's downfall. In 2001 it was placed in administration and in 2002 all of its assets were transferred to the state owned, not-for-profit company, Network Rail. Thirdly, the railways now cost the taxpayer far more money than is necessary. Because in the privatisation process someone forgot to flag up that railways don't make profit, it means that many franchises, such as South West Trains and National Express East Anglia are subsidised simply so that they have profits high enough to pay their shareholders dividends. Yet at the same time many Train Operating Companies still have to pay money back to the government as part of their contracts, and failure to do so sees them stripped of their franchises, for example National Express East Coast last year. Overall, these weird arrangements mean that we pay over the odds as taxpayers for the train services. In 1994 government funding for BR was £1,627m, approximately £2,168m in 2005 terms. In 2005 government support came to £4,593m. I could list more faults, but the general consensus is that a Conservative Government privatised the railways very badly, when they were at their most cost-effective, simply because it sat well with their ideology.

What, therefore, does the future hold with this government? Are those who, like me, are interested in having good railways quaking in their boots? Railway commentators were shocked and worried last week when the new Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond (shown), laid out a possible change in direction for the Department for Transport. I wrote a few Blogs back about how I felt that Lord Adonis was probably the best Secretary of State for the railways in a long while, and how his enthusiasm for railways should be continued. However, Hammond was quoted last week as saying that Labour's "war on the motorist" was going to be ended. Is there a war? I didn't hear gunfire. All I heard were Clarksonesque individuals who like to feel victimised mouthing off. Hammond was referring to an illusory conflict and it was a worrying portent. I read this statement as meaning the new government was taking a pro-roads stance and could hear Marples' footsteps in the background. If he was going to view transport policy through a prism of pro or anti different forms of transport then he was simplifying a complex issue.

As I speak the Government's 'Programme for Government' is being unrolled through the news outlets. In the transport section there is a lot of good news for those interested in better railways. There will be longer franchises, Network Rail will be more accountable to it customers (i.e. us), high speed rail is supported, with options to expand it beyond the basic plans already drawn up, there is support for Crossrail, support for electrification (which I honestly didn't think would still be on the cardsunder the new Government), the rail regulator will become a strong passenger champion and, lastly, there is a commitment to fair rail pricing. Some things have been left out, such as improvements to Thameslink, re-opening closed lines and the Intercity Express Program. However this plan for the next 5 years is, on the surface of things, a very good result for the railways given the financial constraints of government.

History has taught me to fear Conservative transport policies when it comes to the railways, that they are essentially a destructive party in this respect. Therefore, naturally, I suspect that many of the above policies have the Lib Dem's fingerprints all over them. Yet if the Government adheres in the next 5 years to what it has set out today, then I might start to change my opinion. I wait and see...

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