Wednesday, 15 December 2010

UK Cuts- Railways do Well

The previous Labour Transport Minister,Lord Adonis was probably the best we have seen in that role for some time.Approachable,genuinely able to talk to anyone at all in an unpatronising fashion, and a good listener and without a train of political or social baggage and hangups he was an unusual politician and an even more unusual Minister in that he had a deep and enquiring interest in his subject exemplified by his two week round Britain rail trip on 2008. He also produced a much needed definitive plan for the rail network, including High Speed 2,electrification of the North Western Liverpool-Manchester-Preston-Blackpool triangle,and the Great Western main line through to Wales, including its Oxford and Newbury branches, the completion of Crossrail and Thameslink (let's forget that was once called Thameslink 2000), the replacement of the veteran but excellent diesel HSTs and the addition of more carriages in various areas. It was a difficult act to follow, especially when Ministers have been told to come up with major cuts almost everywhere.

Transport and rail in particular is a difficult subject to get to grips with. Fortunately in the current circumstances it has short , medium and long term implications for social mobility (literally),employment,the cost of manufactured good, efficient distribution of goods and services,blurring north/south divides, living standards, quality of life particularly for commuters,as well as pollution levels ,and energy policy. In short it has many constituents all of whom need it to work well, efficiently, safely and as pleasantly as possible. It working- or more powerfully not working -can have a significant effect on ballot boxes all over the country.

The incoming Minister, Phil Hammond and his aide, Theresa Villiers, have wisely and successfully championed continuing as much of Adonis' rail plans as possible and almost the entire programme has survived, albeit with some timescales stretched by a couple of years and the Great Western scheme limited for the moment to London/ Hayes (already done for Heathrow Express)/Reading and beyond only to Oxford and Newbury.Two important items,the HST replacements and whether/when to extend electrification of the Midland main line north of Bedford remain to be resolved and decisions on these are expected in January 2011. The truncated Great Western and the North Western electrification schemes are far more significant than they may at first look. The Great Western project takes the wires through Reading station which is about to undergo a major track and facilities rebuilding. It would have been a great waste of future time and money not to have done the wiring at the same time. The Oxford branch takes the main line wires west as far as Didcot,over 50 miles from London, from which further incremental expensions to Swindon, then Bath, Bristol and the Severn Tunnel all become within reach and much simpler to do. It also opens the way to further progress north into the Midlands and the long electrified West Coast mainline. Similarly the relatively short distances of the 4 components of the North Western scheme , each little more than 20 miles in length and about 40 years overdue, open up the opportunity for more much longer distance electric traction -eg Manchester and Liverpool- Scotland at a low cost. A trans Pennine link to Leeds could make Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds-York link into the electrified East Coast mainline. It's all rather like positioning the first lines in a game of boxes. A clever early strategy can make for big long term gains. Lord Adonis undoubtedly saw this and knew what he was doing although at first sight some of the components may have looked unsexy. It is fortunate that despite all the financial pressures and demands from all sides ,the new government has seen the array of economic and electoral bottletops Adonis' blueprint hits and have had the nerve to stick with it.