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reviewing a year in transport policy

reviewing a year in transport policy
4 min read

It is vital that we see fast and tangible change for the UK’s beleaguered rail passengers, writes Transport Select Committee chair Lilian Greenwood

Much of our work this year has been spent trying to piece together what exactly is going right – or wrong, depending on your point of view – with our rail network.

Take our most recent report into the failure of the InterCity East Coast franchise. Labour campaigned hard to keep this franchise in the public sector, but it was reprivatised by the government ahead of the 2015 general election.

While the service has made an operating surplus and achieved passenger satisfaction ratings among the highest performing long-distance franchises on the network, the joint venture between Stagecoach and Virgin failed after just three years of operation, when the private operator was unable to carry on meeting the promised premium payments to the Department for Transport. This was the third franchise failure on the East Coast line in a little under 11 years.

Franchises should be able to withstand normal fluctuations in the economic cycle but naivety, over-optimistic expectations and a mismanaged bid process all played a role here. The revenue projections underpinning the Virgin Trains East Coast bid were set far too high and it simply ran out of money.

Had the Department for Transport conducted appropriate due diligence and identified the weaknesses underpinning the bid, we may have had a different outcome. Therefore, the train operator and the government must share responsibility for the collapse of the franchise.

Even now, with no concrete plan or timescales for the interim operator, we cannot be certain that the arrangements for the East Coast Partnership will be any more successful at overcoming the systemic difficulties presented by the current franchising model.

That won’t be reassuring to rail passengers who are becoming all-too familiar with cancelled schemes and delays to the delivery of major projects. It is vital that we see fast and tangible change for passengers who, for too long, have been bearing the brunt of poor and unreliable services while being asked to pay ever-higher fares.

I am disappointed that the opening of Crossrail has been delayed until the end of next year and that the bill needed to extend HS2 to Leeds via the East Midlands is also to be put back. Lessons need to be learned from both projects as questions mount about the government’s ability to plan, manage and deliver large transport infrastructure projects.

In June, we published our report into rail infrastructure investment, which said government must do more to help those regions short-changed on rail spending. Despite substantial additional investment in the rail network, there are still real funding gaps between London and regions in need of economic regeneration, which will worsen if they are not addressed more directly.

Possibly the biggest upset on the railways in recent times was the disastrous timetable change back in May which caused complete chaos for passengers. It was the biggest six-monthly timetable change on record, with four times the usual number of changes scheduled. Ambitious? Yes. Foolhardy? Possibly. The Transport Select Committee has been hearing from the key players involved, with a view to finding out what went so wrong. As well as seeking written evidence, we’ve invited passengers to send their experiences via Twitter.

It’s been said that the prime minister is to launch a major review of rail franchising, but there are no further details at present. If we are truly going to deliver a step-change in performance for the passenger, fundamental reform of our railways is required.

I doubt Labour and Conservative members of the select committee would agree on what that change should look like, but to have any chance of success, the review shouldn’t rule out any options and should focus on the breadth of need and provision in the UK. Mind the gap, folks, mind the gap.

Normal service is expected to resume in October when the committee will be considering the funding of local roads; the health of our bus services, and government support for walking and cycling. 

Lilian Greenwood is Labour MP for Nottingham South and chair of the Transport Select Committee

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