Transport and the railways was never going to take centre stage in an election that is dominated by Brexit and the NHS, but with all the manifestos now published there are a pretty wide range of promises being made to improve and expand our rail services.
So, without fear or favour, here is a review of what is being said by all the political parties on the future of our railways, looking in particular at four key topics, namely ownership and control, HS2, electrification and network expansion/re-openings.
Ownership and control
Re-nationalisation is a flagship policy of the Labour Party, but is something that is also in the manifesto of the Green Party and on the SNP agenda in Scotland, albeit with its re-nationalised railway controlled by Holyrood and not Westminster.
Countering that, the Conservative Party declares that “the railways need accountability, not nationalisation…so we will end the complicated franchising model and create a simpler, more effective rail system, including giving metro Mayors control over services in their areas.”
For something completely different, the Liberal Democrats promise to “start a revolution in rail franchising by opening up the bidding process to public sector companies, local or combined authorities, not-for-profits and mutuals – which have the potential to deliver much better services than private operators.”
The Lib Dems also promise to “build into new rail franchise agreements a stronger focus on customers, including investment in new stations, lines and modern trains.” They also promise “a new Railways Agency to oversee the operations of the railway network, removing the Department for Transport from day-to-day decision-making“, which sounds a bit like the former Strategic Rail Authority.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats remain gung-ho for HS2, whatever it costs, with Labour even promising to complete the route to Scotland. But, after commissioning a full review of its potential costs and benefits, the Conservative Party is left sitting on the fence, declaring: “HS2 is a great ambition, but will now cost at least £81 billion and will not reach Leeds or Manchester until as late as 2040. We will consider the findings of the Oakervee review into costs and timings and work with leaders of the Midlands and the North to decide the optimal outcome.
Among the other parties, there is strident opposition to HS2 from both the Green Party and the Brexit Party, with the Greens instead promising a wholesale electrification programme and creation of a Government-owned rolling stock company, while the Brexit Party would use the money saved from HS2, EU contributions and a 50% reduction in foreign aid to “invest at least £50bn in local road and rail schemes in our development-starved regions.”
After being guilty of cancelling important electrification of routes to Sheffield, Swansea and Windermere, the Conservative Party predictably has very little to say on the subject, beyond one mention in a promise to support city regions “to upgrade their bus, tram and train services… with more frequent, better-integrated services, more electrification, modern buses and trains and smart ticketing.”
With its massive public expenditure commitments, it is a rather different story from the Labour Party, which promises “a full, rolling programme of electrification” across the whole country, including in Wales, and continues: “Our model will ensure continuity of skills, jobs and supply chain capacity to reduce costs, improve productivity and support the economic benefits of Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution.”
There are a raft of promises too from the Liberal Democrats, who promise to “convert the rail network to ultra-low-emission technology (electric or hydrogen) by 2035, and provide funding for light rail and trams.” In addition to backing HS2, their manifesto also expresses support for Northern Powerhouse Rail, East-West Rail and Crossrail 2, subject to “far tighter financial controls and increased accountability to ensure that these projects are value for money.”
Elsewhere, the Green Party talks about “electrifying all railway lines that connect cities”. Looking outside England, there is no mention of electrification by Plaid Cymru, while there is also no specific comment from the SNP, beyond its aspiration for “better, greener public transport” and a promise to reduce emissions from Scotland’s railways to zero by 2035.
Not surprisingly, the area where the political parties have most in common is in their promises to expand the network, support initiatives such as Northern Powerhouse Rail, and to look as re-opening lines and stations lost following the 1963 Beeching Report.
Here the most curious reference seems to be the Conservative Party, which singles out Fleetwood and Willenhall as places that have “suffered permanent disadvantage” after being removed from the rail network, but makes no mention of the many other viable re-opening schemes that have been under discussion for a long time.
Labour promises to deliver Crossrail for the North “as part of improved connectivity across the northern regions” and also promises to “consult with local communities to re-open branch lines.” Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats, who are offering a fares freeze to season ticket holders for the life-time of the next Parliament, promise to “extend Britain’s rail network, improve stations, re-open smaller stations and restore twin-track lines to major routes.”
For a country that has led the way in successful railway revivals, it is disappointing to see nothing from the SNP about schemes such as the Borders Railway extension, St. Andrew’s or Alloa-Dunfermline. In stark contrast, Plaid Cymru has grand ambitions and states: “The feasibility study into re-opening the rail line from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth should be extended to include the whole route northwards to Bangor. Re-opening a rail link to Llangefni, and on to Amlwch should be a further ambition to help create opportunities in the north-east of Ynys Môn.”
So an election full of remarkable and hugely expensive promises when it comes to transport and the railway, though if I was a voter in somewhere like Portishead, Wisbech or Ashington who had been waiting decades for my railway to re-open, only to be let down time and again by successive governments as the cost spiralled, I might well take it all with a large pinch of salt!