The DfT's big heart
24 Jul 2007 - Bruno Prior
The Department for Transport (DfT) announced this morning that "Yorkshire commuters [are] at [the] heart of strategy for rail growth". Cleethorpes and Northallerton stations will be refurbished, bottlenecks around Leeds and Manchester will be tackled, extra carriages will be made available for Leeds and Sheffield suburban services, capacity on some routes of the Trans-Pennine Express will be increased by 30% by lengthening trains, and by "53% for peak hour commuter trains serving Leeds". Lucky old Yorkshire, being at the heart of the Government's plans.
Three minutes later, the DfT announced that "East Midlands railways [are] at the heart of strategy for [rail] growth". This strategy is now a bicardiac beast, which tends to be an unstable condition. But nevermind. They'll get longer trains in Nottingham and Leicester, faster journeys on the Midland main line, and "passengers will also see more punctual services as the Government is buying improved reliability". Very cheering, I'm sure, but what quality of service did the Government think they were buying before?
Another two minutes later, and the East has been added to the heart of the strategy. This beast's physiology is starting to look curious indeed. Guess what: longer trains, more capacity, better punctuality... At least this big heart will be beating as one.
Another two minutes pass, and regular as clockwork, the heart of the strategy is further expanded, this time to include the £5.5bn modernisation of the Thameslink line.
Then the heart missed a beat. It took a full five minutes before the North East was included within the heart of the strategy. More carriages, more punctuality... You know the score by now.
Now the strategy was back in its stride, the North West joined its heart two minutes later, the South West two minutes after that, and Birmingham New Street (although not the rest of the Midlands, note) shortly afterwards. In fact, that's whole swathes across the English land-mass at the heart of our rail strategy.
But not the Welsh. They are merely "-part- of [the] strategy for rail growth". England, it seems, is one, giant, sprawling, thumping heart, while Wales is merely an appendage attached loosely to the English life-force. At least the DfT didn't follow Europe and leave them off completely. They should be grateful for any consideration they are shown.
What I want to understand is (a) how much is this going to cost in total, (b) who is going to pay for it, and (c) in a supposedly privatised rail network, why is it the Government deciding and announcing how many carriages will be operated how frequently on which services?
(a) £10bn in the next five years on top of the £5bn already committed and the £18bn spent in the past five years (and that is according to Government projections, so you will want to allow a good 50% headroom for the real cost),
(b) taxpayers and commuters on "competitive" routes, and
(c) it's not a privatised system, it's as state-run as ever it was, but with the capital costs hived off to private companies so they don't show up on the Governments books, and responsibility palmed off onto these companies and a network quango, so the Government doesn't get the blame for anything that goes wrong. In exchange, the companies get to make some supposedly low-risk profits on what is effectively a regulated financing scheme, although low-risk is a relative concept when relying on the Government to behave honourably.
Meanwhile, fare-increases on monopoly routes (i.e. the uneconomic routes to deprived areas, usually Labour strongholds, whose fares are artificially held down by the Government for reasons entirely unconnected with their electoral prospects) will continue to be limited to 1% above inflation (i.e. less than the historical growth-rate of our economy), while fares on the other routes, from which the railway companies must make up their losses from the artificially-suppressed routes, will be set at whatever level those companies see fit.
This is a splendid scheme to defeat the natural operation of the market, which would otherwise concentrate its investment on those areas that offered the best return (e.g. overcrowded commuter routes into London and some other major cities), thereby easing the most intense overcrowding, rather than on those areas that the Government deems to be deserving of investment. But Government knows best, right? Or at least, it knows best where its voters are. They are all close to its heart.