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 shadow minister for transport.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.