Lilian Greenwood: “There’s a real danger that transport becomes about engineering. It isn’t, it’s about what it enables”
With the DfT facing questions over the failures on the East Coast Mainline and the decision to scrap rail electrification upgrades, Transport Select Committee chair Lilian Greenwood is determined to find answers. She talks to Sebastian Whale
Christmas was two months ago but someone forgot to tell Lilian Greenwood. Ed Miliband-themed wrapping paper is still blue tacked to the walls over the desk of one of the Labour MP’s aides. Red bus baubles, distributed at a December party, reside on a bookshelf that contains a copy of ‘Comrade Corbyn’, which is hurriedly moved out of sight as Greenwood poses for pictures.
In fairness the Transport Select Committee chair has had a packed schedule since the turn of the year with a fresh set of inquiries and a steep hike in rail fares to contend with.
“Adjusting to being chair of a committee rather than a member is quite a difference,” she says. “A bit like when you see ducks going along the surface of the water and it all looking still while they’re frantically paddling underneath, I don’t think I’ve got to looking like a calm, serene swan while frantically paddling.”
She looks slightly panicked. “That wasn’t a suggestion that’s it’s all chaotic. You’ve seen other people chairing committees and you hadn’t maybe appreciated the massive amounts of work that goes into making that as effortless as possible.”
Greenwood, born and raised in Bolton, first entered parliament in 2010 as MP for Nottingham South, where she had lived since 1999. She served on the committee she now chairs in 2010, before being appointed shadow minister for transport under Ed Miliband in September the following year after a stint in the whips’ office. Greenwood was appointed Shadow Transport Secretary under Jeremy Corbyn before standing down in protest at the operations of the leadership office in the summer of 2016.
How does committee chairmanship compare with a frontbench gig? “I suppose as an Opposition spokesperson, you’re always looking for the holes in the government’s agenda where you think they’re making mistakes, where they’re getting it wrong,” she says.
“In that sense it’s different, but it’s a bit more rounded. You’re not just looking for the things that are wrong, you’re looking for the positives as well, you’re looking for the evidence of the government having the right approach to particular issues, policies and topics.”
Her team of MPs hold to account Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport. And they’ve seen quite a lot of him in recent months, with the recent uproar over the East Coast mainline and the cancellation of rail electrification plans in south Wales, the Midlands and the Lake District.
The decision to shelve the upgrades was especially pertinent for Greenwood, whose constituency had a vested interest in the electrification to the Midland mainline. Grayling has argued that passengers would benefit from “modern bi-mode trains” instead, which can use electric and diesel power, rather than face “years of disruption” through engineering works.
But Greenwood remains frustrated that the business case for this decision has still not been presented to her committee and, given Grayling’s conclusion, questions why the electrification plans were authorised in the first place.
“A really important part of our job is ensuring that there’s transparency around the decisions that the government makes so that we can understand why they’ve made particular decisions and the evidence base on which they’ve made the decisions,” she says.
“On that issue we’ve find it quite difficult to see how those decisions were made to make people feel confident that they were made on the basis of strong evidence.”
Greenwood says the committee is considering calling for more material to be sent their way. “Some of the information we’ve received we’ve only had as a result of freedom of information requests that members of the public had sent to us. It felt like we were having to drag information out of the Department for Transport, rather than them willingly coming to us and setting out an explanation for how they’d reached decisions on the electrification work,” she says.
“I hope that that will improve and I hope that we can properly understand how those decisions were reached.”
And she highlights the “mismatch” of cancelling electrification with Jo Johnson, the newly appointed Rail Minister, earlier this month talking about the need to eliminate diesel trains from the UK network. “Trying to marry those two things up… you kind of wonder what the long-term strategy is.”
Cancelling the upgrades before last year’s summer recess was also timed alongside “positive noises” from the government on Crossrail 2, Greenwood reflects, playing into the notion that ministers prioritise London and the south east. “All of us recognise us that [London] requires its infrastructure to be up to scratch to accommodate the vast numbers of people who live and work in the capital. Certainly, people in the Midlands and the North felt very let down by that sequence of decision-making,” she says.
“If you constantly end up giving more money to places that have already had investment, then perhaps you don’t use the opportunities of investment in infrastructure to prompt economic regeneration and rebalancing of the economy. There’s a discrepancy between the two.”
In recent weeks the government’s approach to rail has also come under scrutiny with its handling of the East Coast mainline. The London-Edinburgh route was re-privatised in a joint venture between Stagecoach, which holds 90% of the franchise, and Virgin Trains back in 2015. But the company that runs it (Virgin Trains East Coast) is returning its right to run the line just three years into its eight-year £3.3bn franchise.
It is the third franchise to fail on the East Coast mainline, with the last being in 2009. Greenwood’s committee has since launched an inquiry into the failure, which has sparked a renewed debate into the franchising model and emboldened those in favour of renationalisation.
“We want to get to the bottom of it and we also want to look at what the Secretary of State should do in these circumstances. On the face of it, it seems to be a very similar situation to that faced by the Labour government back in 2009 and we want to see what lessons can be learned and how should you deal with this situation where an operator isn’t able to deliver what they promised just a few years ago,” she says.
Grayling told MPs that the government could take direct control of the line through an “operator of last resort”. The other option under consideration is for Stagecoach to continue to operate services “under a very strictly designed short-term arrangement”. Critics have suggested the current system amounts to corporate welfare.
“There are a number of problems with the current franchise system that are well known… Like the fact that there aren’t that many bidders in the market, the fact that we’ve seen on this line the franchise-holding operators not being able to meet the promises that they’ve made to the government and to taxpayers and passengers,” Greenwood says.
“I don’t think it’s surprising that people are saying well, what happens when you fail to deliver what you promised, should you be able to walk away with no real penalty? Obviously they’ve had to forfeit their parent company guarantee, but that’s £165m compared to the maybe £1.5-£2bn that would have been expected to be paid back to the taxpayer over the next couple of years.”
Does she think it is right that both Stagecoach and Virgin can continue to bid for current or future rail contracts? “That’s one of the questions we’ll be looking to establish. It does call into question, if there’s no penalty for over-bidding, then how can the system possibly operate effectively?”
She adds: “One of the shames of what has happened on East Coast, is actually there was an opportunity to retain that franchise in the public sector and see how it compared relative to other franchises when it had the certainty of knowing that it was going to run it for a period into the future. I think that’s a bit of a shame.”
As with all things these days, the Transport team have also been looking into Brexit and its implications for transport, particularly aviation. “Brexit looms large as context for all the decisions that the Department for Transport is making,” Greenwood says.
Airline and airports representatives appeared before MPs at the end of last year, and were optimistic about reaching an agreement to replace the current arrangements. Was Greenwood satisfied with assurances that fears of grounded flights would not come to pass?
“We heard the industry saying they were confident that the [Department for Transport] was doing the right things,” she says.
“But the nearer we get to the Brexit date, there’s a lot of plane tickets being sold now for post-Article 50 coming to an end.
“If the aviation industry doesn’t start to see some certainty – they will get increasingly anxious because presumably people buying tickets will get increasingly concerned about whether there’s going to be certainty about their flights operating as they expect.”
And with a vote on the vexed issue of a third runway at Heathrow due in the first half of this year, the Transport team has been taking evidence on the Airports National Policy Statement, and will report ahead of the vote to ensure MPs are well informed. Greenwood says that while she understands expansion at Heathrow is a controversial decision, her “instinct” has been that it is “almost inevitable” to expand the south west London airport given its hub status.
“But you do have to look at it afresh and not bring your preconceptions into the role and look at the evidence that’s been presented and be prepared to challenge your own thinking, as well as challenging the information that’s being presented to you,” she says.
While Greenwood’s team is carrying out inquiries into more high-profile aspects of transport infrastructure, she is determined that other areas are not overlooked. She highlights that more than twice as many people who get into work and about on a daily basis by bus than by rail. It’s for this reason that she laments the collapse of local bus services, illuminated in a recent BBC report that found Britain’s bus network had fallen to a near 28-year low, as a result of rising car use and cuts to local authorities.
“That has very wide implications; for employment, for access to education, for the ability of older people to get to hospital and doctors appointments, for social isolation, social exclusion, issues that perhaps aren’t so much picked up on,” she says.
“It’s really important to join those dots up and to see how there is interrelationship between transport and other things. There’s a real danger that transport becomes about engineering, and it isn’t, it’s about what it enables. It enables people to get to see their family and friends, it enables people to get to work, to get to education opportunities, to access local services, to access local culture.”
Suddenly, the red buses on her bookshelves make more sense. “Coming back to the politics of the select committee, one of the areas where we are not party political, but political, is in what are the things that we are going to choose to examine. I’m quite keen that we examine things that matter to our constituents, including those constituents who don’t really have a political voice, or not a real loud one.”