Andy McDonald: Chris Grayling has presided over the most disastrous year for the railway industry in decades
The UK transport industry needs stability, reliability and clear answers on life after Brexit, writes shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald
It’s a statement of the obvious to say that the next 12 months will be the most uncertain our country has faced in many decades. Nothing is clear about the terms of the UK’s departure from the European Union. The year ahead is one of unknown unknowns.
So, it’s not easy to set out priorities as the Conservative party leads Britain towards the edge of the cliff. At this remove, the best we can really hope for from this government is some mitigation of the anticipated damage and disruption to the established transport sector environment.
The many people I speak to from across the transport industry tell me they want what we have now; that the new arrangements should be the same as the old ones. I’m afraid that is clearly not going to be the case.
The transport industry needs stability and reliability. It also needs government backing and support. The party of free markets has been remarkably cavalier and negligent in its approach both to transport businesses and wider industry.
In August, the road haulage industry accused transport secretary Chris Grayling of having no credible plan for a no-deal Brexit and “knowing nothing”. This is a grave concern given how critical that industry is to logistics and distribution across the economy.
Earlier this month, Mr Grayling wrote to Europe’s 27 transport ministers to try and cut a deal for aviation should the UK crash out of the EU next year. The need for such measures can only be regarded as a serious dereliction of duty by the secretary of state.
And, if the anxieties over Brexit weren’t bad enough, Mr Grayling has presided over the most disastrous year for the railway industry in decades. Failing franchises, broken promises on investment, timetable meltdown and falling passenger growth are all undermining faith and trust in rail.
What’s more, the secretary of state has no plan to move the industry forward. The reviews he has commissioned will recommend nothing more than further tinkering and yet another rearrangement of the industry’s furniture.
The tragedy is that a government which has run out of ideas is blind to the obvious solution. Overwhelmingly supported by the public and advocated by the Labour party is the policy of public ownership of the railway. Our structure of national integration alongside the full engagement of the devolved authorities will unite the operation of track and trains within a public company. Politicians will set strategic objectives. Railway professionals will be given the operational freedom to implement them.
Labour will take a long-term approach to funding rail investment which prioritises British business and industry. We will introduce a ticketing system which is simplified, transparent and affordable. None of these objectives can be achieved under the current model for rail.
But it is not only our railways that have fallen into decline. The bus industry has seen thousands of routes withdrawn and passenger usage plummet, as the Conservatives have slashed funding by almost half. This is an abandonment of those individuals and communities who rely on bus services. Yet the government is set against taking the necessary action – ending deregulation by franchising and municipalising services and boosting funding.
Shipping is a rapidly growing sector globally and is an economic opportunity which Britain is not exploiting to the full under present maritime policy, particularly in relation to skills. Labour has pledged to develop a port strategy to ensure we can support these vital post-Brexit gateways, not least in improving surface access.
The government’s ‘road to zero’ strategy for decarbonising road transport is unambitious and confusing. It hasn’t set out a framework on the balance between petrol and diesel for the years ahead to inform motorists and the car industry. We need a debate about diesel, not a diatribe as we move to a greener and electric future.
More widely there is a need for an approach to road investment which uses the capacity we have more creatively and gives maintenance a much higher level of prominence.
We support the commitments of the cycling and walking investment strategy. I believe it has to go much further and be much bolder in order to meet our public policy and public health aspirations.
There are many priorities ahead. Sadly, I’m not confident they will be delivered so long as the Conservatives remain in government.