An alternative Mid-Term Review

To much fanfare, mutual backslapping, and good stage management and presentation, the governing Coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats announced that they thought they had done jolly well since agreeing to be in power. The Coalition Mid-Term Review (helpfully summarised here by the BBC for those who can’t be bothered to trawl through it) showed how they were on track for most things, and working bloody hard on the rest of them. You’ve probably seen the news, so I won’t bore you with the spin of it all again.

What we are interested in, of course, is transport. This post will review each of the pledges set out in the original coalition agreement directly relating to transport, and come to some sort of view on how things have gone. Each of the pledges is worth a blog post in themselves, so I’ll try and keep it short. Nor will it be a comprehensive analysis of everything transport related that the Coalition has done.

Anyway, onto the pledges, in order.

“We will mandate a national recharging network for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles”

Electric Vehicle Charging PointGovernment funding towards a national recharging network has been allocated and distributed through the Plugged-in Places initiative. To be fair, it hasn’t been cut yet!

Getting an accurate figure for the number of electric charging points is difficult. The Next Green Car website estimates that there are around 3000 charging points nationally, though this is likely to be a significant underestimate as many are not available for public use and some have been developed outside the Plugged-in Places initiative. A Transport Select Committee Report into Plugged-in Places estimates that c.1700 have been delivered through this initiative.

The network is still in its infancy, and it is by no means a national one. The lack of compatibility between different Plugged-in Places areas is a barrier for longer distance and inter-regional trips, and there is a stupid lack of charging points in motorway service areas and in construction standards for new developments. And, of course, there is the cost of installing and running the things.

The take-up of grants on electric vehicles, meanwhile, has been much slower. Don’t get me wrong, the number of electric vehicles is increasing, with estimates saying the number of electric cars in the UK doubled last year, but progress has been sluggish. This led to the Transport Select Committee dishing out some rather harsh criticism, such as the grant benefiting the rich and people wishing to buy second cars. Or ‘early adopters’ as I like to call them.

This was to be expected. Electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids have yet to be manufactured in such quantities and to such quality as to effectively compete with established diesel and petrol models. Issues such as range anxiety and cost will be overcome as the range of vehicles diversifies, gets more refined, and become more popular. We are already seeing this in the Toyota Prius Plug-in, Vauxhall Ampera, and the Chevy Volt. It is for such reasons, as well as the minor one of oil becoming an increasingly rare resource, that leave me in no doubt that electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles will become the standard cars within the next 20 years.

The Government has taken the correct approach to the roll-out of electric vehicle infrastructure. The motor industry has seen this support, as well as wider market trends towards more eco-friendly vehicles, and is quickly introducing cost-effective electric and plug-in hybrid cars, and tackling the range anxiety issue. What this won’t do, of course, is tackle all issues associated with the excessive use of vehicles, but that really wasn’t the point of this policy initiative.

Verdict: A good start.

“We will grant longer rail franchises in order to give operators the incentive to invest in the improvements passengers want – like better services, better stations, longer trains and better rolling stock”

Marston Vale LineThree words sum up the Coalition and rail: West Coast Mainline.

It seems that the West Coast Mainline is an eternal thorn in the side of the privatised railway and successive Governments. Rather than having to deal with a botched upgrade project with spiralling costs, this time fundamental flaws in the franchise assessment process and mistakes by civil servants led to not just FirstGroup finding out it the contract it won it doesn’t have, cancelling all other franchise processes, and awarding £40 million in costs to bidders.

The Laidlaw and Brown reviews quickly investigated what happened and the lessons to be learned from the West Coast fiasco (Laidlaw), and the franchising system more generally. The Laidlaw review is fascinating in that it shows quote how badly the West Coast Franchise process was managed and how key project management principles were not adhered to throughout. Its a good read if you want to be shocked, but of greater importance for this pledge is the Brown Review.

Brown’s overall message is clear. A lack of senior, commercially minded people in DfT results in a poor franchise assessment and management process (the lack of staff doesn’t help). Franchises need to be overseen by the authorities and economies they serve, only take on the risks they can control, and importantly for this the franchise length should be based upon the specifics of each franchise. By this, Brown means setting 5 years as a minimum length, with 7-10 years expected to be the normal, plus up to an additional 5 years depending on performance. The r-word (renationalisation) is very much ruled out.

As The Railway Eye Blog puts it, the Brown review is more radical evolution than revolution. At its heart is a fundamental truth that has a significant bearing on this policy pledge is that in order to deliver it, you need the right number of staff with the right skills to do the job. That is what has led to the spectacular failure to deliver this promise.

Though to be fair, one franchise has been awarded: the Greater Anglia Franchise that commenced in February 2012. Though with an end date of July 2014, its hardly the long-term franchise envisaged by this pledge.

Verdict: Not achieved.

“We will make Network Rail more accountable to its customers”

Network Rail’s customer base is a highly complex one. Just off the top of my head, I can think of:

  • The Department for Transport
  • Passenger Train Operating Companies (TOCs)
  • Freight Operating Companies
  • The Office of Rail Regulation
  • Private contractors
  • Local authorities
  • Local Enterprise Partnerships
  • Non-Governmental Organisations
  • Local communities

You’ll note in that list that I haven’t included passengers. This is because they are not customers to Network Rail in the truest sense of the word – their relationship with Network Rail is, by and large, an indirect one. The passenger-facing element of the railway are the train operating companies, i.e. those who run the services. It is this indirectness of the relationship with passengers that leads to problems, or lack of communication to me.

I’m not going to lie, Network Rail could be far better at engagement with passengers. But its best opportunity to do this is to improve its engagement with the passenger-facing elements of the railway – minor things like sitting in the same room as TOC colleagues along particular routes, joint disruption response plans etc. Plus Network Rail have shown at least a willingness to devolve its internal decision making to a more local and practical level.

Besides, to identify the customers that are the most important to a company, you must follow the money. And that money flow leads directly to the Department for Transport. Who that relationship is generally a supportive one.

Verdict: This will be a forever work in progress.

“We will establish a high speed rail network as part of our programme of measures to fulfil our joint ambitions for creating a low carbon economy. Our vision is of a truly national high speed rail network for the whole of Britain. Given financial constraints, we will have to achieve this in phases.”

HS2Despite what many in the anti-High Speed Two lobby may say, progress is going quite well on this. The public engagement exercises have been done, the route between London and Birmingham has been planned, technical work undertaken, and work has even advanced on extending High Speed Two further North.

But these are just the opening salvos, and the much bigger battles are to come. Of particular concern for the project is the fact that the Hybrid HS2 Bill will be introduced at the end of this year, to get Royal Ascent by 2015. That’s plenty of time for political cold feet to set in, particularly for Conservatives battling for key marginal seats, and not to see a vote split in the safe seats. And this is before the legal challenges that will inevitably happen.

It is also worthwhile noting that the transport profession isn’t entirely sold on the idea of High Speed Rail in the UK either. A topic for another time, perhaps.

Verdict: In progress.

“We support Crossrail and further electrification of the rail network”

CrossrailYeah, we know you support Crossrail. You only tell us about it EVERY BLOODY TIME YOU ANNOUNCE ANYTHING ECONOMIC GROWTH AND TRANSPORT RELATED.

You also cannot argue with the commitment shown to the electricfication of the rail network. Through the Higher Level Output Specification, between 2014 and 2019 a hell of a lot of railway will be electrified. A suprise that was thrown in was the ‘Electric Spine’, running from Southampton to Sheffield, building upon existing electrified lines, and the Great Western and Midland Mainline Electrification.

One thing that hasn’t been told is that the Electric Spine is dependant upon one condition: that the local authorities delivering the Western Section of East-West Rail (along which the Electric Spine will run) agree on how to split up a committed £30m-£50m between them to build the bloody thing. While all authorities are committed to the scheme, with local government facing austere times there will be some long and hard negotiations ahead.

Verdict: In progress.

“We will turn the rail regulator into a powerful passenger champion”

To begin with, I really didn’t understand this. Surely Passenger Focus are already the passengers’ champion? Why do they need another? Then the Office of Rail Regulation published a consulation in December 2011 that revealed all.

In a nutshell, its a largely procedural change. Simply, the responsibility for monitor TOC performance against some key passenger safeguards like Disabled Persons Protection from the Department for Transport to the ORR. From a passenger perspective, nothing changes – its more about getting all the procedures under a single entity. Makes sense i suppose, so long as its not an excuse the loosen the safeguards (some that Passenger Focus are concerned about).

The ORR more generally seems to be making a bit of a grab for more regulation. So long as industry and passenger safeguards are not compromised, and of course they are the best organisation to tackle such regulation, I see no objection in principle. What I do object to is the ORR sending me a press release every other day that simply tells me that they are doing their flipping job. Seriously guys!

Verdict: In progress.

“We will support sustainable travel initiatives, including the promotion of cycling and walking, and will encourage joint working between bus operators and local authorities.”

Picture 303v1It is about now where Norman Baker reels out his classic speech on the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, saying how its providing more money for making improvements to sustainable transport locally. Now, I quite like Norman, but this really isn’t the whole truth.

The Coalition didn’t get off to the best start. In the Emergency Budget (apparently something that was needed to fend off the end of life as we know it, or something), the Local Intergrated Transport Block – or funds to local cycle, walking, safety, and bus infrastructure improvements – was cut by 50%, and Bus Service Operator Grant cut by 20%. That meant a lot of small schemes we cut overnight, and bus routes were severely effected.

Continuing on BSOG, the decision to split how BSOG is allocated between local authorities (for supported routes) and Government (for commercial routes) has pleased nobody. Local Government is unsure of how much extra funding it will get, particularly for cross-boundary subsidised routes, while operators face the headache of claiming BSOG for several sources. The impact on the viability of bus networks, bearing in mind cuts to the supported network already resulting from reduced local government support, will not be good.

The Local Sustainable Transport Fund I will hold fire on. It has significant potential to bring about modal shift in the areas which were successful in bidding, but it has resulted in a prince and pauper approach to delivery nationally between authorities. We were lucky to secure £5m over 3.5 years, but many of our neighbours did not.

In Major Schemes, the Government has succeeded in creating confusion from certainty. In an idiotic move, the regions – who previously allocated funding on transport schemes over £5m – were scrapped. The new Local Transport Bodies seem to not follow any logical transport or economic geography, and their sub-regional nature leads one to question their value for money (not to mention the fact that they will each have less money compared to the regions). Oh, and their progress needs to be reported on to the Government. So much for devolving decision making.

Mind you, its not as if its been entirely awful. The Coalition has made it easier to establish 20mph zones, adopted Manual for Streets 2, and make it easier to reduce street clutter. The Department has also managed to secure some extra funding to tackle highway pinchpoints (and expanded it further), has made one-off pots of money available for cycle safety improvements (still woefully inadequate, mind), and re-invested underspend in community transport. So much for simplifying local transport funding, eh Norman?

Verdict: I’ll be polite – a dog’s dinner.

“We are committed to fair pricing for rail travel.”

The key word in this sentence is “fair”. It’s one that, like its predecessors, this Government has struggled with – how to fairly split the costs of the railway between the passengers and taxpayers.

My view is that Government rail fare policy to date has been a series of compromises that have benefitted neither party. Real-term fare increases, especially during times when earnings are not increasing, sting the passenger, while the Treasury has to plan for lower than anticipated incomes from passengers. The best way I can put it is “it could have been worse”.

In the end, it comes down to how you view the railway, and how you want it to be. My view is that the rail network is a national economic and social public asset, that should be treated as such. It should be invested in, expanded, improved, and fare price increases be kept to a maximum of the rate of inflation so as to encourage as many people to use it as possible. If this means that costs should mostly borne by taxpayers, then so be it. You, of course, my differ.

“We will work towards the introduction of a new system of HGV road user charging to ensure a fairer arrangement for UK hauliers.”

HGVThe Coalition have cracked on with this, to their credit. The Heavy Goods Vehicles Road User Levy Bill 2012-13 is currently winging its way through Parliament, and at the time of writing is awaiting its 3rd reading in the House of Commons.

As the policy suggests, the aim of this bill is to tackle the current disrepency whereby foreign-based hauliers do not have to pay taxes or tolls to use UK roads, putting domestic hauliers at a disadvantage. This is done by charging each HGV over 12-tonnes according to weight, type and number of axles. The best way to think about it is like the current variable VED rates for cars based on emissions – a lighter, smaller HGV will get a smaller charge than a large, heavy HGV. Domestic-registered HGVs can buy 6 or 12 month access. Foriegn HGVs can purchase a variety of access lengths from a day to a year.

I can’t help but feel that this may be an opportunity missed. In the Explanatory Notes the rationale given for the variable charge relates to one thing: degree of damage of each vehicle to the road surface. In particular I wonder if a degree of penalisation or reward could be incorporated into the charging mechanism to reward more efficient and less polluting HGVs – for example accounting for vehicle age. Also, the legislation doesn’t entirely level the playing field, as foriegn vehicles may still be exempt from certain taxes and charges (and even may get refunded this charge).

Verdict: In progress.

“We will stop central government funding for new fixed speed cameras and switch to more effective ways of making our roads safer, including authorising ‘drugalyser’ technology.”

Speed CameraTo be fair to the Coalition, they have kept their promise on this. The Department for Transport no longer fund fixed speed cameras, though it doesn’t stop Road Safety Partnerships from funding their own. But that is so beside the point it isn’t funny.

The decision behind this policy is clearly political, as it in no way is based upon evidence. Time and time and time again road safety cameras have been shown to reduce both the number of accidents and resulting casualties. A study by Paul Pilkington did highlight the lack of adequate comparison and control groups in some studies, and some more scientific rigour is needed in future experiments. But the sheer consistency of many studies means the it is unlikely that the presence of road safety cameras does not reduce casualties.

If any Government announced that it intentionally wanted to kill its own citizens, there would be uproar. But not, it seems, when it comes to road safety. Clearly breaking the law is far more important than people’s lives on this one. There are well-established procedures in place to ensure that safety cameras are the most appropriate road safety solution for a particular area, and money raised from fines goes to the Treasury.

The evidence of the impact of this policy measure on casualties is scattered. Just from a quick Google search, Swindon reports a drop in accidents, Oxfordshire a slight increase. But these are scattered press reports often based on a single year of data, and as the Guardian has shown, you can’t necessarily rely on these to paint a full picture.

Verdict: A politically-motivated promise that may have cost more lives than it has saved. But they’ve kept it.

“We will tackle rogue private sector wheel clampers.”

I really don’t understand why on earth this was a top transport priority for Government – apart from the satisfy some stupid campaign from a tabloid newspaper or something. I suppose it reflects a very strange attitude that us Brits have towards parking – where parking laws are for other people, or can be avoided by sticking your warning lights on or saying that you’ve “only been 5 minutes.”

Regardless of what I think, the Government have achieved this, but not as much of the public may think. Under the Protection of Freedoms Act (because parking wherever the hell you like is a fundamental freedom, clearly), from 1st October 2012 it has been a criminal offence to immobilise a vehicle on private land unless where one has the lawful authority to do so, such as on behalf of the police or local authority. Contrary to what many think clamping itself is not illegal. The Police, local authority, DVLA and anyone with the lawful authority (e.g. a contractor working on behalf of any of these) can still clamp a vehicle in a variety of circumstances. The notes associated with the Protection of Freedoms Act explain this far better than I ever could.

Verdict: Done.

Overall

The best way to describe progress would be a range from the woeful to the acceptable. Commitment to investment in rail infrastructure, progress on HGV road user charging, and expanding the electric vehicle charging network have probably been the biggest successes. But these have been more than offset by woeful performance on rail franchise awards and an inconsistent approach to local transport delivery.

There are lots of things I haven’t touched on in this blog post, and I hope to critique the Coalitions future plans for transport when I get a spare 5 minutes. But to put current performance in school report terms: significant improvements needed.

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One thought on “An alternative Mid-Term Review

  1. The Ranty Highwayman

    The problem with electric is that even if cars are powered by the dreams of babies, we will have congestion. It might deal with local air quality, but in essence, still subsidising private car use for short journeys and the maintenance and expansion of policies to prioritise traffic flow over people.

    Reply

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