The trains will remain in the factory for now. Photo: Getty Images
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The government has questions to answer over the rail fiasco

Passengers deserve better than ministers who are happy to be photographed next to new trains but then withhold the truth from the public.

Aptly, Patrick McLoughlin initially wanted to call the government’s spending on rail the “Rail Investment Programme” – until a civil servant pointed out that its acronym would be RIP. Eight weeks ago, those spending plans were still at the forefront of the Tory election campaign. The Conservative manifesto promised electrification for the Midlands and the North. We were treated to long lectures about the how Ministers were building a ‘Northern Powerhouse,’ and even a ‘Midlands Engine.’

Yesterday the electric dream died. Two major projects have been cancelled – or ‘paused,’ as the government delicately puts it – and the status of other plans is unclear. Contingent investment in new electric trains has been put off.  The economy is not going to be rebalanced after all. The Northern Powerhouse has had the power turned off. The Midlands Engine is rusting in a siding.

The most important question for the government is simple – who knew? Which of those Ministers who spent April touring marginal constituencies, reading out long lists of investment projects and hinting at more to come, knew that the axe was about to fall?

The case against the Transport Secretary and other Ministers in the Department for Transport is compelling. It has been a matter of public record for well over a year that the Great Western electrification project was in trouble – indeed, Labour first raised the issue in Parliament in May 2014. Network Rail’s Chief Executive, Mark Carne, said yesterday that: ‘We knew, already, very early on last year that certain aspects of the plan were going to be incredibly difficult to deliver.’

Ministers must bear ultimate responsibility. As the Transport Select Committee warned in January:

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.”

Claire Perry, the rail minister, conceded the point last week, when she admitted at an event for rail engineers that ‘we’ve given Network Rail the biggest challenge it has ever faced,’ and that Ministers had place a ‘massive demand on engineering capacity.’

Labour has documented how the combined cost of Midland Main Line and Great Western electrification doubled from £1.5 billion to £3 billion in just two years. As a consequence, in November of last year, 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.’

Minutes published today in response to a FOI request I made reveal that, on March 19th Network Rail’s Chief Executive said that the Department for Transport ‘had a line of sight to most of the information in the current iteration of the Business Plan,’ and went on to say the company would have to ‘close the funding gap but the Board needed to be aware that the funding gap could be significant.’

Crucially, Patrick McLoughlin was handed a report on September 1 on the state of Network Rail’s plans, which was jointly written by the Regulator, Network Rail, and the Department for Transport. He has subsequently refused to publish it. In the absence of a copy in the public domain, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that this report recommended that cuts be made in order to reduce the cost of Network Rail’s overall programme.

It is clear that ministers knew that Network Rail’s plans were in jeopardy and remained silent. As I warned on this blog back in March, the government knew that its rail investment plans were ‘falling apart’ and that this was ‘a story that the government is desperate to keep quiet.’

However, railways are hierarchical structures, and we need to ask just how far up the hierarchy awareness of these problems rose. Yesterday the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson refused to comment when they were asked when David Cameron was made aware of these cost overruns. As Michael Dugher said in his letter to Cameron this morning:

"It appears that despite you and your ministers knowing that these projects were in serious difficulty before the election, you decided to wait until after the election to reveal the extent of the problems before reneging on the commitments you had previously made.”

Passengers deserve better than ministers who are happy to be photographed next to new trains but then withhold the truth from the public, and who think that rail lines are the words they need to remember to get through their next interview. Unfortunately the Transpennine and Midland Main Line electrification schemes are not the only Network Rail projects that in trouble, and the government now needs to set out whether there are additional problems heading down the track.

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

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.