I think I should keep returning to criticism of our new Secretary of State for Transport because at the moment I see little sign that he has anything pro-rail to say. Now of course this is because I am pro-rail and want him to do positive things for the rail industry. Truth be told, I can’t drive, so my view is naturally going to be skewed by my self-interest and I can’t expect every Secretary of State to naturally take the position that I want. This said, Philip Hammond has repeatedly shown himself to be ignorant of rail issues. Christian Wolmar, Britain’s most noted Railway commentator, recently did an interview with Hammond for RAIL magazine and came out with the conclusion that he was a man that saw everything through a car-shaped prism (RAIL 647 pp.44). Indeed, my own Blog entry of the 11th June showed that Hammond has a history of being a pro-car voice in parliament. Therefore, while I do suffer from an obvious bias in my perspective, I think that it is vitally important that railway commentators, journalists and anyone else with an outlet, criticises him and his policies so that he understands that the railways of Britain are not just an expense which has parts that can be cut, chopped and disposed of willy-nilly.
A few days ago I came across comments he gave to the Transport Select Committee on the 26th of July. His appearance in front of the committee was a good thing as it showed us how competent he was with his new responsibilities two and a half month in. I started to read the comments with an open mind, and I suppose I can’t be too harsh when critiquing his development. Before new government was formed he had never held a shadow transport brief and therefore his learning curve was naturally going to be steeper than other individuals who could have taken the job. This said, he does have the full resources of the Department for Transport, and serving under him are the former Liberal Democrat and Conservative shadow transport secretaries. So, it isn’t like he didn’t have any help, and he should, by now, be up to speed on the major and important issues facing the railway industry. I have to be honest; the man just came off as vague and evasive. This was shown particularly in reference to the questions he received regarding the rail industry.
Early in committee the chair asked Hammond ‘One of the commitments [in the coalition agreement] is, "We are committed to fair pricing for rail travel." It is a bit vague, is it not?’ Hammond replied that the government was facing a huge public deficit (yes we know that) and that ‘it is clear that we have to be prepared to look at all possible options in addressing the challenges of tackling fiscal deficit and also sustaining investment in our railways because it is clear that there are important investments in the railway, including investments that are directed at improving passenger comfort and passenger convenience, that it would be very unfortunate if we were to lose...’
So basically Hammond answered the question by not answering the question. So the questioner had another crack at him. ‘Q7 Chair: ....You are committed to fair pricing. Fair to whom?’ Again Philip Hammond did his best to avoid answering the question directly. ‘I think there are two aspects on this. First of all, there is the question of overall fairness policy on the railway and ensuring that any increases in fares can be justified in terms of improvements in the service that passengers receive. [....] It is not just about fares; it is about value for money for passengers. [...] It is about making sure that [passengers] are given proper information about the most advantageous fare available to them, that the information that is published is clear so that passengers can get the best deal that is possible within any given framework of any given fare structure.’ This is ridiculous. He is not only did not answer the question again, but he is also confusing quality of service with fairness.
Indeed, in the context of his recent RAIL magazine conference keynote speech, I think that he was avoiding the question because he has little intention of making rail prices ‘fair.’ He said that “we will face some stark choices, and it would be irresponsible at this point to rule out even considering an increased contribution from the fare payer as part of the solution to protecting investment in the railways.” If we consider that at the moment a large section of the population are priced out of using rail transportation because of the cost, and that the prices currently can in no way be considered ‘fair,’ then it seems that prices can only become more unfair. In the mind of the Hammond, putting fares up is all that can be done with them. Indeed, I think that the concept of ‘fair’ in the conventional sense does not seem to register with him. This was essentially because it was part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto to introduce ‘fair’ rail pricing, and hence why it made into the coalition agreement. For him, a dyed in the wool Conservative, fairness is not the underlying principal, the bottom line is. As such, Hammond avoided the committee’s question as he knows that it is a commitment that it is untenable to maintain. If only he’d have come out and said “yes, sorry, that one was the Lib Dems sticking their awe in…forget it,” then I might have had a bit of respect for him.
He was then asked about the cuts that would inevitably come, ‘The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills said last week that the UK needs to spend £42 billion per annum on infrastructure investment, including transport. How is that going to be achieved in current circumstances?’ Philip Hammond again didn’t answer the question effectively. He stated that there would be no reduction in any capital expenditure that had been pencilled in by the Labour Government. Yet, I think the word ‘pencilled’ is very telling. Combine this with the lack of specifics and there is a case for saying that he did not answer the question in full, again, because he knows that he cannot actually commit to cancelling projects that this point. This is another case where I’d really just appreciate some honesty from the man, yet, he says he will be keeping the investment. In no world is that really a reality and most rail commentators have pointed out the department will have to make cuts in capital expenditure.
Of course there is one area where costs could be reduced effectively, namely at Network Rail. NR does cost between 30 and 50 present more in maintenance per mile than continental railways, and Roy McNulty will report on how the not-for-profit organisation operates and can reduce the debt. At the RAIL conference Hammond said that he had received a ‘scoping study report from Sir Roy. I suspect that this gave him a number of preliminary conclusions about the state of NR’s finances. Yet, at the both the conference and in front of the committee he couldn’t give a cogent response to question as to where the NR may be scaled back. In fact there were no specifics. I’ll just post all of his response to the question here, so that you can get the full force of his evasion.
Q24: “Just thinking on my feet, it is not something that has been talked about actively in the department in the time that I have been there…Clearly, because of what I have already said about the way we will, in every day working terms, think about Network Rail’s debt, we will not be able to take the attitude that the previous administration did to ever rising Network Rail debt. We will have to look again at how we finance the capital investment in the railways. The mere fact that it may be borrowing by Network Rail does not mean we can ignore it. We will want to look at that as capital spending in the same way that we would if it was financed by public capital investment directly. That will mean that we need to look at the model once we have Sir Roy McNulty’s conclusions and hopefully have come to some conclusions before we begin the negotiations around the next control period, control period five.”
Did you read any ideas within that? No, I didn’t either. I find it hard to believe that a man who has been doing the job for nearly three months has no ideas whatsoever about where NR could make savings. I suspect that he is avoiding answering the question of where NR will have to cut back because to do so would reveal changes he wants to introduce that may actually go against the coalition and which would break promises. Either that or he is out of the loop to the point of incompetence.
You can read all of Hammond’s responses to questions HERE, but I suspect it won’t get you far because he never gives an informed response to a question regarding Britain’s railways.The reality is that he hasn't had that decency to tell the travelling public what he is really keen to do, put up fares and cut back services. He comes across as a man who is evasive but has an agenda that he is not keen to reveal. That, I’m afraid, is simply not good enough!
Philip Hammond's full keynote speech at the RAIL conference can be read in the latest issue of RAIL Magazine pp. 34-37.