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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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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.