Lib Dems ducking the issue on railways
The Guardian: Christian Wolmar 6 April 2010
Plans to reopen rail lines are small fry compared to current investments, and ignore the need to reform the system itself
The Liberal Democrats are back in woolly-hat territory. You can't really go wrong if you propose reopening railway lines and reversing Beeching cuts. Indeed, mere mention of the B bogey figure is guaranteed to attract the support of thousands of rail supporters across the country.
So Norman Baker's proposal to open swathes of the railway shut down by Beeching hit all the right buttons and received a surprising amount of coverage, which was largely favourable except, of course, from the roads lobby because he proposes to shift most of the spending on roads to rail.
While he should be commended for daring to support rail rather than road investment, there is an element of fantasy around his figures. Spending an extra £3bn on the railways will get, at best, a hundred or so miles of track reopened, not thousands of miles, and that is not necessarily the priority for the railways – although his constituents in Lewes would love the Lewes to Uckfield line to be reopened, creating a direct service to London and relieving pressure on the Brighton mainline.
The initial task for whoever sits at the head of the Department of Transport after 6 May – and it is not inconceivable that it might be Baker himself – is ensuring that existing commitments on the railways are adhered to. Baker is being rather churlish in criticising his friend Lord Adonis, the current transport secretary, for concentrating solely on high-speed rail, as we are in the middle of the biggest rail investment boom since the 1950s with Crossrail, Thameslink, the electrification of the Great Western line, major station redevelopments at Reading and Birmingham, and countless smaller enhancements by Network Rail.
This is big-bucks stuff, with perhaps £40bn being committed to these schemes if they all see the light of day and rather more important than reopening a few branch lines, welcome though that would be. Therefore Baker's suggestion that rail investment has been neglected in recent years under Labour is misleading. Sure, there are not many reopenings being promoted by the current government but while there is a good case for a few, most of the easy ones have been done: since Beeching, 200 miles of track and 350 stations have been reopened. The pace has slowed greatly since privatisation because of the cost and the complexity since train operators have to agree to changes in their contracts if a new station is opened or section of track is reinstated, and the bureaucratic nature of Network Rail has pushed up costs enormously.
Baker, too, ducks the issue that the whole system needs radical reform. Ditching the failed franchising system should, therefore, be the first priority as the current structure makes rail investment far too expensive. Decision-making needs to be devolved. The real issue is not only ensuring that the current huge programme of rail investment is maintained, but also working out a way of drawing in money for smaller schemes like those proposed by Baker.
The clue is to be found in where current investment is going: London, Scotland, Wales, even Northern Ireland – all places to which considerable power over transport matters has been devolved. Wherever power is given to local people over transport decisions, rail schemes are favoured over road projects. This is why there are far more coherent local transport policies in Europe than in Britain. To bring about Baker's dream of new and reopened lines, transport spending needs to be devolved to regional government rather than being centrally controlled from Whitehall.