Westminster Watch: Coming down the track

Forget the consequences of Brexit; it’s the railways that will be the ongoing issue of the year

A consequence of Brexit is that it dominates all other issues. There is limited interest in the media in other “stuff”. However, many of these other issues are dependent on Brexit being resolved to make headway, or No.10 and delivery departments just have no bandwidth to deal with them.

There is one issue that won’t be denied though: rail. This is partly because it keeps going wrong and forces its way on to the agenda. This is the period when the annual fare increase kicks in, so I am sure readers are in the mood for considering the remarkable number of ways in which the wheels have been falling off.

Remember 2018 was the year in which Virgin Trains’ East Coast franchise gave the keys back to the government. It misjudged its bid (and the dividends that it would have to pay government) so badly that it was better to walk away from it. Unfortunately, this is the third time this has happened in just over a decade and the political and media backlash has been significant. 

This has forced No.10 to order a review that will play out in 2019. It will examine the franchise system to get to the bottom of why it keeps going so wrong, so often. Keith Williams, deputy chairman of John Lewis & Partners and former chief executive of British Airways, is leading this work.

Crossrail has gone from being the poster boy of British infrastructure delivery to, in a matter of a few months, being delayed until the autumn of 2019, then delayed again to 2020 and needing a bailout of £2-3 billion. 

The HS2, which is talked of as being a £56 billion project, but is estimated in some quarters to be now in excess of £80 billion.

Then we saw the sector embroiled in consistent failure to provide the service that customers need. The persistent strikes on the South Western network as a result of the row over driver-operated doors and the massive disruption to Northern Rail customers following timetable changes have broken the faith of many commuters. Reportedly, there has been an increase in car use in the North and people are selling their homes because they cannot rely on trains to get to work.

There should be better news because there is lots of new rolling stock – trains and carriages. However, in train circles there are rumours of these being less reliable than the stock being replaced, to the extent operators won’t release old trains in case new units fail.

It is no surprise the Opposition feels nationalisation is a key policy. It polls well and every time there is a failure they get another chance to pontificate about how it could all be so different.

The government might hope its rail review puts the issue of nationalisation to bed or that the new trains and carriages will make a difference… but I wouldn’t bet on it – 2019 will be the year of the railways again.

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