By Tim Montgomerie
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Over the last 24 to 48 hours news about railway fares and franchises has seemed gloomy. We've had passenger protests at stations and Richard Branson forecasting doom and gloom after his Virgin Trains outfit lost the west coast contract.
In reality the railways could be a good big picture story for the Coalition. If the party leadership adopts a compelling economic renewal narrative (see me and Bruce Anderson on this subject) the rail revolution could be a powerful substantiation of it. The Government is, after all, undertaking the biggest investment in our railways since Victorian times. £18 billion will be invested in this savings review, according to Department for Transport figures, and another £9 billion from 2014 to 2019. Plenty of Tory politicians are celebrating rail investments in their backyard that are being delivered by the Coalition:
- Boris Johnson, for example, campaigned strongly on the delivery of the Crossrail and Thameslink projects for London. Crossrail is the biggest construction project in Europe.
- And it's far from just London. Talk to MPs like Stuart Andrew, Paul Maynard, Eric Ollerenshaw and Alec Shelbrooke. They've been leading voices for the Northern hub investment that will see much improved connectivity between key northern cities including Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.
- Phillip Hollobone and Nicky Morgan campaigned hard (and successfully) for the electrification of the Midland Mainline, connecting the East Midlands and South Yorkshire, notably Sheffield.
- Cheryl Gillan helped win the electrification of the line to South Wales, including the Cardiff Valley commuter lines.
I could go on but you get the idea. Many areas are going to benefit. Theresa Villiers has argued that these investments are the only long-term guarantee of better services and long-term affordability.
It's perfectly possible that the political pain of higher fares will be greater than the promise of better services tomorrow but that doesn't mean we're not seeing a big investment in the nation's railways (and all additional to the more controversial HS2 project). In order to finance this expansion there is going to be some co-payment with taxpayers, passengers and rail operators all sharing the cost. Labour MPs were all over the media yesterday calling for fare increases to be limited and with so many families feeling the pinch it's a resonant message. But have they no shame? Throughout the boom years Labour could have invested in our infrastructure. They could have undertaken welfare reform. They could have modernised our energy infrastructure. Time and time again they failed to do so. They were years of terrible squander. The proceeds of growth were instead sunk into unsustainable levels of public sector pay and employment and also welfare benefits. We are not nearly angry enough at Labour's failures to make wise use of the boom years.
One footnote on the award of the west coast line to First Group. Unlike during the Labour years when certain private sector suppliers signed up to unrealistic bids, the Coalition has introduced a much tougher governance regime. First Group, for example, are signed up to £265 million of penalties if they fail to deliver. Unlike under Labour there'll also be less speedy support from the taxpayer if they underperform, changing franchise holders' incentive structures, forcing them to be more innovative earlier. As a regular user of the WCML I see plently of opportunities for the service to improve. Trains always seem to be either packed full or empty depending upon the time of travel. I always thought Virgin's fares and pricing policy wasn't working. First Group would appear to agree.