George Bathurst is a former Conservative Councillor and lead member at Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. As well as promoting better transport solutions he works in IT infrastructure and cyber security.
A Conservative government has renationalised the railways, having suspended all the commercial franchises as the Coronavirus lockdown began.
On the face of it, this is a big setback for ConservativeHome readers who believe in the value of free enterprise. The Daily Telegraph thinks that there is no way back. There is, however, a better version of the future available to us.
First of all, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the partial ‘privatisation’ of the railways in 1997 was botched, rushed through by a badly discredited John Major at the very end of his term. The reform was undermined from the outset by Tony Blair, who seized on the Hatfield crash to semi-renationalise the tracks. This further bodged a complex and opaque system that might have been designed to give privatisation a bad name.
After ten years of promoting one, I have personal experience of how the system works to stop rail improvements.
Link many other opportunities across the country, the Windsor Link is a small break in the network – just 300 metres in our case. Connecting this would take two dead-end lines that have been stealthily downgraded for decades and create a through line, connecting east Berkshire with Surrey.
There are no alternative orbital links west of London and a typical car journey, such as from Slough to Woking, can take over 60 minutes at peak times despite being only 13 miles. The route runs parallel to the busiest sections of the M4 and M25, a strategic road pinch point just west of Heathrow and one of the most polluted areas of the country, so there’s both obvious demand and an environmental case.
Despite being in one of the wealthiest areas of the country, the existing lines need continuous subsidy, whereas the proposed through line is proposed to be revenue positive to the taxpayer over its lifetime, with construction risk taken by private investors. Better still, the line creates multiple opportunities for new homes in sustainable, brownfield sites. Public support in Windsor, where there would be most disruption, is over 70 per cent.
So what’s there not to like? Why hasn’t it been built already?
If you speak to Network Rail – and you’re persistent enough – they’ll tell you that improvements aren’t really their decision; their job is really to manage the existing network. So they recommend you speak to the Department for Transport. Getting a response at all from the Department will usually require the help of your MP… and officials will politely write back explaining that you should speak to Network Rail.
If you suspect that, in fairness to either of them, big decisions are really made by the Treasury, they also deny it. I have a pile of letters cheerfully admitting HM Treasury knows nothing about railways and that perhaps you should talk to the operators… and so on around the circle you go.
This hasn’t just happened to me but to almost anybody who has tried to enhance our rail network, even rail ministers. At first the ‘blob’ will explain why a link can’t be built. If you insist, it will produce a report explaining the same in greater detail. Then, if you really insist, it will eventually build something but make it massively late and over-budget, making it even more difficult next time.
You can understand why the system exists: it protects both civil servants and ministers from blame, because nobody is responsible. But this is also the reason why I, as a private rail promoter, am pleased that Grant Shapps has effectively nationalised the railways.
There are two things that can happen now. The worse is that the crazy system continues, just wholly inside the government. The political issue with this is that there is now nobody else to blame. The the inability of the existing, over-centralised system to deliver for today’s passengers, let alone expansions to the network, will soon overwhelm the current Secretary of State just as they did his predecessor.
The better outcome is that nationalisation serves as a temporary step, not just for the Coronavirus crisis and not just before reverting to the status quo ante, but as a clean slate for a far more fundamental change to the way we build transport infrastructure. This is the opportunity for local government, communities, and the private sector to step up.
If the first problem was the bias towards inaction that the franchise system created (which is unlocked by nationalisation), the second problem is to resolve the conflict of interest that makes officials (and ministers) look bad no matter how hard they work.
Edmund Burke said that no man should be judge in his own cause. But this is exactly what DfT officials are: they advocate new rail schemes and they judge them. Proposals on the approved list are good, by definition. Other proposals are ‘not invented here’.
For example, some enterprising people once suggested a ‘Brighton Mainline 2’, to run in competition with the existing line and to address the dreadful problems on that route. Who did they ask to assess this idea? The officials in charge of the existing Brighton Mainline!
We need, therefore, to separate out the functions of the designing and building railways from approving them. The DfT needs to have a role more analogous to the Planning Inspectorate for buildings. That is, it is responsible for approving new transport infrastructure, but not for proposing or delivering them, let alone operations.
In retrospect, I was over-optimistic that the Government had begun to recognise this two years ago when I was partly responsible for the ‘Market-Led Proposals’ initiative. It was being inundated with rail ideas and needed a consistent way to deal with them. It turned out to be a trap, and all 35 of us that submitted formal proposals had our time and money wasted, being turned down for one reason or another.
The stumbling block was that the Government was fixated on perfect competition. It wanted, as one official explained to me, to compare apples with apples. I responded that comparing apples with oranges is what we all do every time we go to the supermarket and we do it just fine.
We need a similar ‘competition of ideas’ for the railways: where you don’t need to be an existing incumbent to propose an improvement; where individuals are treated equally regardless of background; and their ideas are considered on the same basis as officials’ own ideas. Crucial to making this work is putting responsibility for delivering the promised improvements onto the same people who propose them.
This might sound like a radical proposal but, in the very best traditions of Conservatism, it is actually learning from our history: this is how our greatest railways were built in the first place.