Earth calling Redwood…

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.



Filed under Blogging, Conservative Party, Department for Transport, Economy, Labour, Politics

40 responses to “Earth calling Redwood…

  1. Simon R

    Great post – course the other interesting thing about John Redwood is his campaign against regulation and regulatory bodies. Didn’t he head a policy team for Cameron which called for an end to red tape in the City?

    Got that a little bit wrong didn’t he? I think the man has zero credibility.

  2. John

    Great you’ve actually found the time to ‘listen’ and respond to a commentor in great length. Well done, not many would.
    I get the impression from JR’s Blog that the government recommends preferred modes of transport that civil servants and MP’s should take if practicable i.e. one is cheaper or more enviromentally friendly?
    Is this correct Tom?

  3. Brian Hall

    Very good post Tom. You point it out as it is, private sector is great for things that should be private. Public sector is there for things that should be public.

    One of the reasons why Scotland may yes or no to independence but we tend not to go Tory.

  4. RedStarBelgravia

    Yep, good post. It seems bizzare to me for a Conservative to attack this Government on the issue of transport services and infrastructure, especially starting with the rail network!

    There are still challanges which you have pointed out. Capacity on rail, road and air (hopefuly sensible airport expansion along with a more efficient European air traffic management system can ease the current carnage) is often at breaking point but can you imagine the squeeze we would be facing without the huge investments stated?

  5. Johnny Norfolk

    Very interesting Tom, but as usual you have covered all sorts of other issues as a smoke screen. How much new track has been laid to increase local capacity. New carraiges are not the answer as in many cases they just replace old ones.All you have done is tax congestion not provided any where near enough road building. It wont matter now as we move deeper into recession the requirement will decrease as we move into slump.

    What a mess no long term plans . Why have you not re nationalised rail and busses, water electic , BT, etc if it was so good before , sold off Nuclear to the French, why have you done that. What you say and what you do. do not add up.

  6. Johnny, I know it must be hard to admit you’re wrong, but please give it a try – you might find you like it.

    New track doesn’t provide a square centimetre of new capacity unless it’s accompanied by new rolling stock. And the 1300 additional carriages will be additional – not replacements for old rolling stock. Sorry to disappoint you.

    As for renationalisation – as I said in my original post, I have no problem with rail being in private hands, so why would i want to renationalise it? My issue with the Conservatives is the incompetent way in which it happened, with no forward planning and no judgment. As usual.

    Long-term plans? Well, the Tories’ long-term plans when they were in office were to manage the decline of the railways, and that worked out well, didn’t it? Labour, on the other hand, is planning for a 22.5 per cent increase in patronage in the next five years, a doubling of capacity in 30 years’ time, the building of Crossrail and Thameslink and a new generation of inter-city express trains.

    What else you got?

  7. Do I detect hidden malice after Redwood beat you to the Total Politics Best MP blog prize?!

  8. “Earth calling Redwood…”

    Don’t you mean “Mars calling Redwood…”?

  9. Freeborn John

    As someone who has made the commute that John Redwood refers to (from South West of the Capital to either Paris or Brussels) on numerous occasions, I can confirm that even when the Eurostar left from Waterloo it was a service for novelty value only. If you are travelling central London to central Paris or Brussels then perhaps the Eurostar wins, but between businesses destinations in the M4/M3 corridor and those in Paris or Brussels the plane typically won even when there was a convenient connection at Waterloo. Now that one has an extra leg from Waterloo to St. Pancras it is no contest; the plane wins every time. No doubt many people to the north or east of London benefit from the high speed link into St. Pancras but it is not an improvement for John Redwood’s constituents.

    For many living South or West of London a simple rail spur from the Reading / Waterloo line into Heathrow (which is just a few miles from the existing stations at Egham or Staines) would be far, far more useful than HS1 and far lower cost too. Such a rail spur was reportedly considered as part of the planning process for Heathrow Terminal 5 but was unfortunately dropped.

  10. er, Tom

    Under M*rg*r*t Th*tch*r passenger growth was as fast as it has been since 1997. And there was substantial investment in the railway. As PM she let BR get on with it. None of the nano-management we get from your department today

    Then the Lawson boom ended and ridership fell away, as it always has in recession. But it was a downswing, not terminal decline.

    But, if the aim of privatisation was to manage decline, why did the clever civil servants arrange franchises so that the only way to make money was to increase ridership?

    What I thought was most apposite in Redwood’s pretty naff piece was this. I quote:
    “All too often in the Commons we hear Ministers who have not read or understood the brief they have been given, who clearly have not engaged in the details of the policy they are presenting and who do not have control of the regulation or law they are introducing. In many cases it is because they have not spent the time on preparatory reading and meetings to master the detail. No wonder things work so badly, and no wonder they find it impossible to get the things done that they say they want done’.

    As a trade and technical writer this sums up my experiences with ministers – going back two or three decades and present company not excepted. The 1300 vehicles refers.

    Oh yes, when the Vulcan referred to least favourite form of transport I think he was referring to carbon footprints not any specific airline.

    But he’s not really worth your firepower.

  11. Johnny Norfolk

    How much new local track ?

  12. dreamingspire

    Roger Ford says its either 1174 additional vehicles in the HLOS, or maybe 1156. Read him tomorrow in Modern Railways (or maybe tonight – sometimes WHS at Victoria station puts it on the shelf a day early).
    Anyway, its over, Ruth is barn yam (dialect from my childhood), and we hold our breath until we can start again with the new team.

  13. You have misread the bit about “the government’s worst form of travel, going by air.” – the point was that it was only the world’s worst in political-correctnessspeak. In fact in his instance it turned out to be the best in the real world.

    I wouldn’t quite agree with you that “today’s railways are a success story”. The subsidy is very much greater than it ever has been before. I would class something being unable to work without billions poured into it without end as being a sign of failure but this depend on whether or not that is the objective.

    1400 new carriages in 6 years may be the height of progress (at least if they happen rather than just being promised) on the other hand the number of cars profuced in the same period will be more than 10,000 times greater.

    The real problem with rail should not be about which party would be willing to subsidise it more but on finding ways to encourage technological in provement. If cars had improved in the last century as little as railways we would not yet have made the breakthrough to the Model T.

  14. Blackacre

    I know it was a throwaway in the context of a blog on railways primarily, but you really ought to think a bit more about the third runway comment here. I can go on a bit about this so will keep it shortish.

    Please could you say why it will be a disaster for the economy not to have the 3rd runway. I have seen no evidence of that, only that it will fall very foul of environmental health concerns.

    If we need to keep up with the CDGs and Schipols of this world, we need 4th and 5th runways. Where do you suggest we put these? In Hounslow town centre? Aesthetically I approve but economically and socially barmy.

    The recent Heathrow plane crash which due to a combination of luck and great pilot skill resulted in no casualties could have been a disaster for swathes of west London under the flight path. This will happen one day.

    Heathrow is in the wrong place. Boris knows this hence his (I think serious) look at the estuary option. Gatwick is also well placed for expansion with decent connections and far fewer people adversely affected. The sooner the transport industry bite that bullet and apply the investment to an airport in the right place to expand the better off the economy will be.

    And no I do not (now) live under the flight path nor under the proposed 3rd runway path so am not a nimby, I just think this whole idea is so full of vested interests and in need of some serious thoughts and answers. And if John Redwood and the Tories can apply that veto then they might just get my (marginal constituency) vote next time.

  15. Just for the record the subsidy is three times what it was in 1987/88.

    Train miles, which is what causes wear have gone up by only 35% since then.

    Total income needed to run the railway (fares plus subsidy) has doubled.

    Something wrong somewhere.

  16. Pingback: Inside the warped mind of John Redwood : Conservative and Unionist

  17. dreamingspire

    I too agree that the LHR 3rd runway would be disastrous. But also I remember objections to the Thames Estuary proposal a few years back: vast numbers of birds live there. Does that affect the Boris proposal?

  18. a

    It says something about the world that Mr Harris is a minister while Mr Redwood is not even in the shadow cabinet. Nothing good, I hardly need mention.

  19. Errr….

    You said “New track doesn’t provide a square centimetre of new capacity unless it’s accompanied by new rolling stock. And the 1300 additional carriages will be additional – not replacements for old rolling stock. Sorry to disappoint you.”




    Actually new track does provide new capacity by allowing better utilisation of exisitng scarce rolling stock.

    EG higher throughput of trains through sections, shorter headways, greater flexibility of operation etc…

    Witness your own Department’s funding for redoubling of lines in the Chilterns and Cornwall as well as providing turnbacks, additional signals etc…

    Meanwhile the industry remains confused about the veracity of the claim that there are 1,300 new vehicles.

    Any chance DafT could pay to have this figure verified by an independent source?

    As to the substantive point about Redwood; happy to confirm his understanding of railways is as great as his knowledge of the Welsh national anthem.

  20. Blackacre

    The birds are an issue in the estuary, but I understand controllable. It is less of a problem on reclaimed land than the old Cliffe Airport proposal. The new “green” jumbos that the government’s 3rd runway “consultation exercise” is dependent upon are rather less controllable as no one has yet thought up the technology to make them work.

  21. “Fact” Compiler: so we don’t have enough rolling stock as it is, but new track alone would allow the “better utilisation” of what we’ve got? Personally, I would say that if there’s a shortage of rolling stock, we should maybe buy new stock to relieve congestion, rather than spend money that’s not there on laying new track and then finding there’s nothing left in the kitty to buy carriages to run on it. Because with 1.2 billion passengers, congestion inside carriages is more pressing (ahem!) than congestion on the tracks.

  22. For an example of what the Fact Compiler is getting at, just consider the West Coast Route Modernisation which supports the new Virgin High Frequency timetable which allows Virgin to get more journeys out of its existing fleet of Pendolinos – creating (as you must have said in a speech somewhere) more seats with no extra trains.

  23. Brian Hall

    I would say the rail network in this country is seriously lacking and sadly the further you go from London the worse.

    I used to live in horror of horrors, Hamilton. Now to commute to Glasgow is great; railway goes straight in and out.

    You want to go North to Coatbridge/Airdrie or even, heaven forbid Cumbernauld? Hoho, that’ll be a trip IN and OUT of Glasgow! Remember this is pretty much an urban area with approximately 7-8 towns with about 20-30 thousand people each; but the only way to travel between each town is by car or bus.

    Okay I’m being economical with the truth; one can go from Hamilton through Motherwell to Coatridge about once an hour (a trip which is 10-20 minutes by car).

    So I used to think this was a bad situation. Turned out its pretty good.

    I now live in Aberdeen. There is ONE single railway in a CITY. ONE stretch of track! One Lane up, One Lane down! Thats it. Thats your services for 250k during the week and 150k at the weekends when the commuters go home. There is no way to go north to Ellon or Peterhead; simply put, no railway exists. You can only go to Inverness.


  24. Brian Hall, you could have journeyed to Ellon and Peterhead in the early Sixties (pre-Beeching’s axe).

    This lovely map (I have a copy in my collection!) shows how many railway lines we had not that long ago.

    Imagine all those steam trains chugging round. Beautiful.

  25. Tom,

    Captain Deltic makes a very good point about the WCRM and what that extra capacity allows Virgin to do. Three trains an hour to Manchester instead of two adds 33% extra capacity with the same size fleet.

    Of course, further electrification would allow greater fleet utilisation too….

  26. 1.2 billion passengers.

    The great NuLabour achievement will be to add 1,300 carriages by 2014. Now I know it isn’t really 1.2 billion it is most of us 60 million several times over but nonetheless 10,000 passengers per carriage is not going to reduce the cruch much.

    Also boasts of this figure is an implicit acceptance that traveller numbers are not going to rise.

  27. SomersetChris

    With reference to the new track. This would be a great advantage as it would give more pathways for freight trains. There is a great shortage of room for freights on the rails at the moment, why not assist in making more room. For example, Boris has scaled down the NLL works at Camden, removing the pathway for at least one east bound freight per hour. You should step in and demand that he does the original work as planned (which I think was going to be paid for by the Olympic Delivery Authority). This will be even more important when the new Thames Gateway comes to fruition. Therefore taking lorries off of the roads. The less lorries on the roads is better for the environment.

    More rails means more capacity for freight as well as passenger.

  28. dreamingspire

    Fact Compiler: in June or thereabouts, Tom said in a written parliamentary answer that industry sources have details of rail vehicles. So read October Modern Railways (should be out now).
    And, Blackacre, thanks on the birds.

  29. “John, remember, is probably the only Tory MP who still thinks Railtrack was a good idea! ”

    Sorry, Tom – he was critical of the setup at the time and you recognised that fact in the House in a debate on January 9 2008.

    Your words:
    “In spite of myself, I am enjoying the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution. It is good to know that we do not have to wait for the publication of his memoirs to see that he disagreed with his Cabinet colleagues on the nature of the privatisation of the railways in 1993. Before he goes on to the consequences of that privatisation, would he mind sharing with the House his specific reservation with regard to the financial structure of Railtrack, the rolling stock companies and the passenger franchising system?”

    Link to Hansard:

    The same link has you on video.



  30. Matt – you’re right – I should have called JR “Railtrack’s last defender”, not its supporter. He was certainly the only MP in that debate who defended it. If I have unintentionally accused him of supporting anything the government of which he was a member did, then I apologise.

  31. Thanks for that link, Matt Wardman. If you keep the video rolling to 2.10:08, the following exchange occurs (Hansard):

    Mr. Harris: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way once more. Would he like to share his thoughts on the fact that European legislation prevents the ownership of trains and tracks together?

    Mr. Redwood: I am not an expert lawyer on that issue; nor am I any kind of lawyer. However, my understanding and reading of the situation is that European legislation does not prevent that.

    Which is it please, Minister?

    It seems successive governments have given away so much of our sovereignty that we are all confused and bemused (but not amused).

    The idea of track and trains being operated by separate companies has always struck me as being ludicrous. Does it achieve anything other than providing a few more highly-paid company directors paid for out of the pockets of the rest of us?

  32. Tony Miles

    OK Tom, so whilst we’re digging out things that politicians said in the past and bringing it to everyone’s attention here’s Tom Harris writing to Railway Magazine (May 2008):
    “The position is straight forward: 1300 new carriages means exactly what it says….. But none of this alters the fact that, by 2014, 1300
    genuinely new carriages will have been built and will be in operation on the network.”

    You will no doubt be ready to defend this before Mr Redwood pops up with it – and we look forward to a detailed breakdown of the 1300 NEW carriages as promised and a strong rebuttal of Captain Deltic’s suggestion that the real figure is somewhat smaller.
    (just to help you – TPE confirm that the figure for them should be 24 and not 42, and that someone got their fingers in a tangle when typing up the list. – the comment “Of course it’s only 24, if it is 42 we’d have nowhere to park them” – given to me by First Group a few metres away from you at the National Rail Awards helped us to confirm that little mistake.. so 1282 at best?!!)

  33. Tom,

    “Matt – you’re right – I should have called JR “Railtrack’s last defender”, not its supporter. He was certainly the only MP in that debate who defended it.”

    Perhaps you would care to point out, in that speech, where he does so? Because Redwood actually said, before your intervention, “As someone who was involved in the decision for railway privatisation but who did not recommend the scheme that was chosen, I have no need to defend that scheme.”

    Since Railtrack was the scheme that was chosen, it seems to me pretty clear that he did not, and does not, defend Railtrack.

    Perhaps you would care to elucidate?


  34. “We are also led to believe that Railtrack failed because it did not invest enough. If the Minister looks at the figures, he will see that there was a quantum leap upwards in the amount of investment going into the railways after privatisation compared with pre-privatisation performance under Labour, Labour-Liberal and Conservative Governments at the time of the nationalised industry. In the last two years of its existence, before it was so rudely terminated by the Government, Railtrack had invested £5 billion, and then £5.3 billion in successive years. That shows that it was making a substantial commitment to the improvement of the railways, bearing in mind the fact that in the last couple of years of the nationalised industry the investment level had been about £2 billion.”

    Hansard, 8 January 2008, column 196.


  35. As per earlier post:

    “As to the substantive point about Redwood; happy to confirm his understanding of railways is as great as his knowledge of the Welsh national anthem.”

  36. Tom how exactly does Redwood saying that Railtrack’s failure was not because of a shortage of money, which it got in dollops, but for other reasons count as a defence of the system.

    The problem was & remains that rail is a very backward system. In a period when cars have gone from Stanley’s Steamer to the present, railway stock is visibly similar to its ancestors. There is no technical reason why rail should not be a fully automated system of light (bus & single container unit size or under) running at a lower cost & far greater regularity & flexibility than the current dinosaur.

  37. Can we also debunk that old canard about TOCs paying more in premia than they used to. That’s only because more of the funding goes direct to Network Rail rather than through them.It’s the overall subsidy figure that counts.

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