Lord Adonis: The key theme of May’s legacy on transport has been inaction

Posted On: 
15th July 2019

May Days: Britain needed bold action on transport and infrastructure – May did not provide it, says Lord Adonis

A LNER (London North Eastern Railway) sign at York train station
Credit: 
PA Images

Theresa May’s legacy on transport and infrastructure can be summarised in two words: Chris Grayling. The areas that Grayling had the most influence over were failures, while those that were insulated from him fared better.

The East Coast mainline franchise is a case in point. After Stagecoach and Virgin could no longer meet the payments agreed in their contract, Grayling planned to bail them out to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. This would have meant slashing other national infrastructure projects and raising fares, and would have destroyed the franchising system which only works if you hold companies to their contracts. It was indefensible and drove me to resign from my position as chair of the National Infrastructure Commission. Fortunately, the outcry forced Grayling to U-turn and take the correct decision to renationalise the East Coast service.

Sadly, other areas of transport were not lucky enough to avoid the Grayling curse. Last year’s Northern Rail debacle shows the damage that incompetence propped up by political patronage can do. Grayling permitted timetable changes across the country without properly examining or scrutinising them, despite there being evident problems with such changes before. The result was chaos and misery for passengers of Northern Rail, with a fifth of services arriving late and 5% cancelled or at least 30 minutes late across the whole year. Worst of all, Grayling refused to accept responsibility, blaming first the train companies, then his own department, and finally announcing that: “I don’t run railways”.

On Crossrail, the positive is that he avoided scuppering it altogether but, ultimately, he did little more than that. It is still uncertain when the Elizabeth line will open and whether it will be before 2021, and the project continues to suffer from problems with planning, management and contracts that the government has failed to address.

The two clear positives of Theresa May’s legacy on transport are her continued support for HS2 and a third runway at Heathrow. It was during May’s premiership that HS2 was in its most vulnerable stage, but she allowed development to the point that work on the London to Birmingham stretch is in full progress.

Yet the overall picture of Britain’s transport and infrastructure remains bleak. Britain continues to lag behind its peers in connectivity, and getting from one place to another is still too expensive and unreliable.

Like her government as a whole, the key theme of May’s legacy on transport has been inaction. She kept critical projects like HS2, Crossrail and the third runaway at Heathrow going. But Britain needs bold action on transport and infrastructure that has still not been provided

Lord Adonis is a Labour peer