End of the line? Photo: Getty
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What's wrong with Britain's railways?

The coalition government have no plan for Britain's railways - the only way to change their future is to change the government.
 

To watch ministers promise a Northern transport ‘revolution’ you could be forgiven for thinking that the Government has a record of untrammelled success. The truth is very different: evening fares have been hiked by up to 162%, modern trains have been transferred from overcrowded routes in the North to Oxfordshire and the only new funding announced last week was for a further study.

On top of these setbacks, there is another story that the government is desperate to keep quiet.  While George Osborne gives his best impression of a man scattering largesse on the North, in reality, the Government’s rail investment plans are falling apart.

Across the network, budgets are being stretched to breaking point as projects are delayed or cut back. The problems are especially acute on the electrification programme. The estimated cost of electrifying the Great Western Main Line has more than trebled from £548 million in 2011 to £1.7 billion in December 2014, and the Transport Select Committee recently warned that other electrification plans ‘should not be put at risk due to the projected overspend on the Great Western Main Line.’

The Great Western project is reportedly delayed by over a year, and – as Labour first warned in May 2014 – a new generation of ‘Intercity Express Programme’ trains could be left without electrified tracks to run on. In that situation yet more taxpayers’ money would be wasted, as the Government would have to pay compensation to the private consortium that has delivered the new trains.

Lib Dem and Tory ministers used to claim that they would electrify 850 miles of rail track by 2019, but at least 200 of those miles have been quietly delayed beyond that date, and only 18 miles (or 2%) of the Government’s target had actually been completed by the end of last year. For all the warm words about improving East-West transport, electrification of the North TransPennine route from Manchester to Leeds has now slipped into the ‘early 2020s.’ A key component of the Northern Hub project – a new section of track directly linking Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria - is also set to be pushed back, due to the Department for Transport’s failure to reach a decision on whether to award planning permission.

The situation is far worse that the government admits, and there are indications that it is deteriorating further. It is an open secret in the rail industry that hard words have been exchanged in private between Ministers and Network Rail, and in November Network Rail started to compile a list ‘of those items/projects that would be stopped or refused in order to live within the capital constraints.’

Why has this happened? Network Rail has serious questions to answer but make no mistake – Ministers are directly accountable for the scandal that is now unfolding. Two years were wasted after the last election as major projects were put on hold, and as a consequence, according to the Regulator, most of the schemes announced in 2012 were based on ‘limited development work.’ As the Transport Select Committee succinctly put it: ‘key rail enhancement projects—such as electrification in the North and North West of England—have been announced by Ministers without Network Rail having a clear estimate of what the projects will cost, leading to uncertainty about whether the projects will be delivered on time, or at all.’

It is now apparent that ministers grossly underestimated the cost and challenges of their plans for upgrading our existing Victorian lines (in contrast to the record of new-build projects like HS1 and Crossrail). Reforming the way we evaluate major infrastructure projects could have avoided many of the problems we are now facing, and which is why we need a better plan for improving the railways.

After 1997 Labour invested more in the railways, in real terms, than any previous government. We finally addressed decades of underinvestment and tackled the appalling safety problems created by the Tory disaster that was Railtrack. We have a record to be proud of, and the next Labour government is committed to legislating for an independent National Infrastructure Commission and reforming the railways to put passengers first and secure value for money for the taxpayer. It’s clear that passengers need a change of government to get the railways back on track. 

Lilian Greenwood is Labour MP for Nottingham South. She was formerly shadow secretary of state for Transport. 

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.