Whitehall is pushing rail down the wrong track

Any pamphlet entitled How to be a minister is likely to have a limited audience. But that hasn’t stopped the Institute for Government with its latest primer on taking infrastructure decisions.
It’s a complex area with responsibilities divided across eight government departments (each with a cabinet secretary of state) and 18 ministers under them (and that’s just the UK government, in Scotland and Wales there are more departments and ministers looking at infrastructure).
Rail infrastructure sit most clearly under the Department for Transport but four other departments have their fingers in rail’s pie. The Treasury controls money so has huge influence over Network Rail and big spending projects such as Crossrail and High Speed 2. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) department is responsible for policies surrounding the rail supply chain. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government holds some responsible for High Speed 2 and the Northern Powerhouse. Finally, the Cabinet Office oversees the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine.
Nothing can be done in isolation and nothing can be done simply. Almost by definition, major projects cut across several areas and will provide benefits and cause harm to different degrees to different populations.
As the institute notes: “Ministers should appreciate the uncertainties, risks and assumptions that underpin the evidence presented to them. They should be aware that cost benefit analysis is more than a single, monetary figure: the analysis should produce a range of benefit-cost ratios that a project is likely to achieve, their relative likelihood, and a summary of impacts that cannot be monetised but should still be taken into consideration. This should be backed up by sensitivity and scenario analyses, which highlight the assumptions underpinning the results and what would happen if these assumptions changed. It should clearly outline the risks remaining and what steps need to be taken to manage them.”
Ministers need to understand the evidence for a project and be able to clearly explain their decisions. I’ve quizzed a few ministers over the years and, in general, they are far better at explaining decisions than the bland statements their press offices produce.
Of course, there’s a balance between ‘rolling the wicket’ to create favourable conditions for a certain project and announcing that project. Ministers should be atop their rollers before the full costs, benefits and harm of a project are known but they should smartly and openly dismount if projects fail to reach their early promise. There’s a real risk in announcing something before its costs are settled as shown by the Great Western electrification project.
Its £1.1 billion go-ahead came from Prime Minister Gordon Brown back in July 2009 (RAIL 623, 624), aided and abetted by his transport secretary, Andrew Adonis. Both lost office within a year but David Cameron’s coalition government took the project forward. However, its cost estimates proved woeful, bills spiralled upwards, delivery dates came and went and parts were lopped from the project. Today, nine years later, the project is still not complete with electric trains only running to Didcot, far short of their Oxford, Cardiff and Bristol targets.
The rail industry had been rolling its electrification wicket, slowly convincing ministers to change their department’s position. It changed very dramatically, not just with Great Western’s announcement, but also with 2012’s High Level Output Specification that proposed a massive electrification programme to be delivered in 2014-19.
Once again, it was a prime minister that announced the plan in July 2012 that would see the Midland Main Line electrified, and wires for a freight link between Southampton and the West Midlands, Cardiff Valleys and over the Pennines (RAIL 701).
It was heady stuff but also more than the railway could deliver. I recently asked an old Network Rail hand why he thought government had jumped at so much electrification. “Shiny things,” he said. But he added that NR had advised that the programme by delivered over a decade rather than five years. Ministers ignored, or didn’t hear, this advice. Had they taken it, then it’s likely the railway wouldn’t be in today’s electrification mess.
The Institute for Government comments: “Yet ministers continued publicly to state their commitment to electrification, locking themselves and their successors into targets that were very unlikely to be achieved. This has reduced the credibility of ministers and damaged government relationships with regional government, mayors and industry.”
There’s much ministers can do to cut across Whitehall’s silo mentality. They are more likely to know their opposite numbers in other departments than are civil servants. This should result in policy implementation being better co-ordinated. The institute’s pamphlet sums this up in a quote from former minister, Ed Vaizey: “It struck me as really odd, for example, that the Department of Transport was in charge of getting wifi onto trains when all the expertise about doing that effectively rested in my department… there were huge opportunities for synergies which were lost.”
Meanwhile former Transport Secretary Alistair Darling noted: “As in everything else in life, there is no substitute for sitting down over a cup of tea or a drink and discussing something. But you then need to have some formal proceedings to make it happen.”
There are examples of departments working well together. DfT’s Crossrail project created a tunnelling academy to develop skills knowing they were very likely to be needed for several other schemes including HS2, Thames Tideway tunnel and Crossrail 2.
Rail now stands on the brink of the next five-year control period. NR’s funding will concentrate in operating, maintaining and renewing the network. Enhancements have been removed in a change from previous control periods. They will now be put through their own development pipeline with only properly developed and affordable proposals receiving funding. That’s a reasonable reaction to the time and cost overruns seen on Great Western.
The same policy applies in Scotland but there it divides from England and Wales. Scotland has published the rail industry’s initial advice to ministers on what problems need enhancements to fix them and what potential fixes could be delivered. DfT meanwhile has kept this advice secret and seems keen to prevent passengers and stakeholders knowing what might be done to fix overcrowding or poor punctuality.
Secrecy is increasingly this UK government’s preferred way of working. It prevents people clamouring for particular projects, which makes life easier for ministers, but also prevents any ‘wicket rolling’. By the time DfT launches any public consultation, there’s usually only one option on the table and there’s rarely evidence to show that this is the best option.
It smacks of Whitehall knowing best which contrasts sharply with the devolution government professes to support. DfT should be more open about the problems the railway faces. It should be more open about potential answers. Some may be unaffordable but openness allows these problems to be discussed. Ministers have more chance of convincing passengers of the difficulties of solving overcrowding, for example, if they engage in the debate.
Instead we have vacuum. Network Rail has sent its Trans-Pennine upgrade report to the DfT. It remains unpublished while civil servants pore over it. It would be better published so that people can see how the route could be upgraded and at what potential cost. NR doesn’t have a monopoly on right answers and publishing its report provides an opportunity for suppliers and contractors to comment to refine and sharpen the report’s proposals. Publication allows passengers, train operators and local businesses to comment on what’s important to them, further refining and sharpening its plans.
Few disagree that ministers retain responsibility for public spending. Decisions about using that money to upgrade the trans-Pennine route remain with them. Publishing NR’s report is not a commitment to implement its recommendations. But it will show that the DfT and its ministers are serious about improving the route.

This article first appeared in RAIL 858, published on August 1 2018.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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