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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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