the contemplates ... All Change Please!


The Department of Transport set itself some pretty stiff targets when it published its 10 year transport plan in 2000. A 50% increase in rail use, 10% increase in bus journeys, and 80% increase in rail freight.  Improvements in service quality: more punctual and reliable trains, less overcrowding, new trains, more attractive stations, better transport integration and up to 25 new local rapid urban transit lines - doubling light rail use.  A vision of public spending matched by private investment underpinned its bright shiny strategy.

Noble objectives included promoting sustainable transport, boosting economic development, enhancing opportunity and access, reducing social exclusion and sharpening the competitiveness of British industry. But, leaving aside the failure to attain many of these aspirations over the last 10 years wonders what the next 10 years will bring. Given the pre-election focus on infrastructure spending will a new Government change track once elected? Is Crossrail really a sure thing?

To be fair to the DfT a world economic meltdown could not have been foreseen all those years ago, but the contractual naivety of some PPP models has not exactly helped the situation. Despite Network Rail’s promised £5.25bn investment in stations and TfL’s massive 30 year infraco deals we appear to be suffering from problems many in the industry claim are related to inadequate TOC franchises and critically flawed Tube PPP contracts. In the last 10 years the Government has been forced to take control of the runaway East Coast Main Line franchise run by National Express, while TfL has found itself holding the wheel as Metronet jumped ship. Meanwhile commuters have come close to demonstrating on the streets as a result of First Capital Connect’s reluctance to employ more drivers. Bus use may be significantly up by over 45%, but is our transport system any more integrated or sustainable than it was 10 years ago? It’s surely far from what the DfT envisioned when it published its plan.

A new government might would do well to consider the words of the Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Rifkind, MP for Kensington and Chelsea in the early 80s when, as John Major’s Secretary of State for Transport, he was handed the job of privatising British Rail. Later, as Railtrack slid beneath the waves, he reflected:

“I became increasingly persuaded that the split between infrastructure and trains was a mistake, it was foolish. Forty per cent of an operator’s costs are infrastructure. And to remove an operator from influence of his activities is a very poor way of running any business.”

TfL executives in particular will be ruefully reflecting on these words as they deal with the fallout from Metronet and confront Tubelines across an increasingly battle-scarred landscape. If we did not know it then, we certainly know it now - Transport does not reward short term fixes, and is the most fickle and unforgiving of mistresses when things go awry.

“It’s the most miserable job in government.” Rifkind later commented after he had stepped down” Anything you do right  nobody is going to know about for fifteen years. Anything you do wrong they know about immediately.”