I RARELY write as a transport minister on transport issues; this is a personal political blog. However, one of my regular readers has suggested I respond to John Redwood’s piece about transport on his blog, and for once, I’m more than willing to do so.
John is an obviously intelligent bloke who has a reputation for bringing an expert level of detailed analysis to his subjects, particularly the economy. But I detect an element of emperor’s new clothes in most of his writing, and his post on Ruth Kelly is a perfect example.
John, remember, is probably the only Tory MP who still thinks Railtrack was a good idea! As we all know, it was, in fact, an unmitigated disaster for the railway network and for the country. And John Redwood was a member of the government which created it.
He starts off his attack on the railways by lamenting the absence of services from his local station before 4.00 am. And there were so many such services under the Tories, weren’t there? Is the current Conservative Party pledging to introduce them? No.
When he writes of his plans to catch a Eurostar service to Paris, he does so through gritted teeth, almost as if he believes that the money spent on creating a high-speed rail link to the continent was not well spent. When he writes: “No wonder people find it difficult doing more with the continent when such a crucial link as London-Paris is so poor”, he seems oddly ill-informed about the commercial success and popularity of High Speed 1 (or HS1) since it opened last year. Let’s remind ourselves that it was indeed the Conservative government who pledged to build HS1 but it was also the Conservatives’ finance package which had to be rescued by John Prescott after it failed to deliver the capital needed. HS1 was built because of a Labour government. I accept that that may not necessarily be an achievement that impresses Mr Redwood.
Then he refers to “the government’s worst form of travel, going by air.” I wonder which government-owned airline he meant? Which government-owned airport did he plan to use, do you think? What was he talking about? Does he regret the fact that civil aviation is, rightly, an entirely commercial business? Does he believe a future Conservative government should intervene more in such an industry? As far as I know, the only intervention the Tories want to make is in vetoing Heathrow’s third runway, a move which would be a disaster for our country’s economy.
John Redwood writes: “Ruth Kelly, like her predecessors, has failed to take decisions to expand network capacity.” And yet, I know for a fact that he is very well aware of the government’s guarantee of 1300 additional railway carriages to be delivered before April 2014. If he wants to talk about forward planning, fine: let’s talk about his own government’s record on rail.
I have no problem whatsoever with the railways being in the private sector. But can we just remind ourselves of the reasons why the Tories privatised in the mid-’90s? The first was political: John Major felt he needed to prove himself to his party’s right wing (including John Redwood) by supporting a flagship privatisation project. He needed to do so in order, partly, to emerge from his predecessor’s shadow. The second, and more important, reason was that the government wanted a way to manage the expected – and, to them, welcome – terminal decline of the railways in Britain.
Much to the disappointment of the Conservatives and, I suspect, John Redwood, today’s railways are a success story, albeit a success story with its own challenges. Performance as recorded by the industry-standard public performance measure (PPM) is today higher than than at any time since it was first measured. Safety continues to improve. There are more services than ever before and, crucially, more passengers are being carried than at any time in the history of the British rail network outside of the two world wars.
And when so much media attention is concentrated on the cost of headline advertised railway fares, it is easy to forget that regulated fares are no more expensive in real terms than they were when we came to office and that four fifths of rail passengers use either regulated or discounted fares.
Does John Redwood, I wonder, regret the fact that more private train-operating companies (TOCs) than ever before are paying the Department for Transport for the privilege of running services, rather than accepting public subsidy? The prospect of such a development would have been ridiculed in the days when he sat round the cabinet table.
But the challenges to which I alluded are significant: high demand means pressure on capacity. The modernisation of the West Coast Mainline – which Network Rail rescued from the incompetant hands of John Redwood’s Railtrack, bringing costs down from £14 billion to £8 billion – will mean a 50 per cent increase in capacity. Crossrail (which the Tories failed to deliver during their term in office) is going ahead, Thameslink is happening because of £5.5 billion of government investment, the Reading bottleneck will at last be dealt with thanks to a £425 million commitment from this government, and Birmingham New Street will at last be given the make-over for which Birmingham’s citizens have long been asking.
And that’s before the roll-out of the 1300 additional carriages.
Record investment in the railways, nationwide concessionary travel for pensioners and disabled people, new powers for local authorities to address declining bus patronage – these have all been opposed by John Redwood’s party.
His disdain for public transport speaks volumes about the Conservatives’ attempts to present themselves as even remotely concerned about the environment and their claim that, suddenly, after decades of antipathy towards passengers, they could care less about those who depend on it to travel.
Labour Party members often talk about our achievements and of how terrible it would be if the Conservatives ever got the chance to undermine them. Ruth Kelly’s departure is as good a time as any to remind ourselves that in the field of transport, our achievements are impressive and worth fighting to preserve.