The government continues to support the wasteful and discredited rail franchising system. We must do betterby / January 25, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
In rhetoric, if not in practice, the Conservative Party is showing signs of realising that borrowing to invest has some benefits. In the United States, even Donald Trump has seen the importance of investing in the economy. I am delighted to see these late adopters following the lead set by the Labour Party.
Investment in transport was a key pillar of our manifesto last year. We recognise how the sector will transform and decarbonise the economy. Transport isn’t just about mobility and tonne-miles freighted. It enables access to jobs, training and other opportunities.
For all Chris Grayling’s upbeat talk, Britain languishes near the bottom of the international tables of infrastructure investment, particularly transport. As recently as 2014, UK spending on transport was a quarter of the OECD average.
Despite high-profile projects such as Crossrail and HS2 the government is not investing enough and its regulatory oversight of Network Rail has been weak. Last summer saw swathes of vital rail electrification upgrades in the Midlands, north, Wales and southwest cancelled. Promises were made and those promises were broken. Not only was this decision bad news for those areas, but it entrenched the existing inequalities in regional transport spending which are so damaging to those regions’ economies.
The government continues to support the wasteful and discredited rail franchising system. The recent multi-billion-pound taxpayer bailout of Stagecoach on the East Coast mainline last November bears testimony to this. And the private sector financing of new Intercity Express rolling stock resulted in the UK buying the most expensive trains in the world.
The expansion of airport capacity in the south east has been bogged down in a quagmire of consultation and reviews for years. Elsewhere improved access to ports has been deferred because of the Department for Transport’s failure to plan properly. The headline-grabbing target to double the number of cyclists by 2025 is off track, and despite automated and electric vehicles being a centerpiece of the Autumn Budget they make up just 1.3 per cent of all new vehicle registrations.
These failures are a serious impediment to the modernisation of the UK’s transport system and wider economy. They restrict our ability to adjust to technological changes like digitalisation and big data, both of which are so important to the future of rail, buses, roads and aviation.
The uncertainty of technological change raises questions about where transport investment should be focused. Battery technology is evolving in ways we can’t anticipate. Batteries will be appropriate for some forms of transport, hydrogen more apt for others. Declining revenues from fuel duty and road tax will impact upon future road funding, as will the phasing out of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040. Autonomous vehicles present many challenges for the transport system.
Unlike Grayling, I don’t believe this can all simply be left to the market. The government should be providing the strategic oversight and planning to ensure transport delivers the best outcomes for all users of the system including freight, as well as taxpayers.
The supply chain and workforce have lost out from government’s lack of a consistent and co-ordinated approach to transport investment. Peaks and troughs mean firms don’t invest in apprenticeships and training with the result that much of the transport sector’s skilled workforce is in short supply and can cost more. These shortages are likely to be compounded by Brexit.
We can also see the impact of digital disruption on transport with the row between TfL and Uber and the wider debates about whether tech companies are transport companies or not. Similarly, technology is changing employment patterns with more people working from home a few days a week. This, and the insecure nature of so much work, reduces demand for season tickets. The government is not doing enough to reform rail ticketing and offering more flexible and less rigid fares and this is borne out in declining rail use.
The next Labour government will prioritise investment in transport to transform the British economy. We will invest significantly across our regions, closing funding gaps and modernising rail services and improving connectivity between regional ports and airports. Better regulated bus services can help drive the levels of use we see in London. Backed by £250bn for infrastructure spending through the National Transformation fund, Labour will ensure transport is accessible, affordable and sustainable and supports our economy in the decades ahead.