Dark clouds are gath­er­ing.

CHRIS­TIAN WOL­MAR re­views the year, look­ing back at how his pre­dic­tions for 2017 have fared, and looks ahead to how Brexit, in­vest­ment and di­min­ished de­mand may af­fect the in­dus­try’s for­tunes in the next 12 months

Rail (UK) - - Con­tents -

THE clam­our for Mys­tic Wol­mar to get out of the busi­ness grows louder every year. But ac­tu­ally, while he has made some whop­ping mis­takes, his crys­tal ball has also yielded sev­eral im­pres­sive pre­dic­tions. His per­for­mance is as­sessed at the end of this col­umn, but al­low me first to take a step back, re­view the past year, and con­sider ar­eas of con­cern for 2018.

There are un­doubt­edly some pos­i­tives to be taken from the past 12 months. In­vest­ment in ma­jor pro­grammes - Ed­in­burgh-Glas­gow elec­tri­fi­ca­tion, Thames­link, Cross­rail, the new route be­tween London and Ox­ford and the Ord­sall Chord to name but a few - are all de­liv­er­ing or about to de­liver step-change improvements.

Po­lit­i­cally, the rail­ways re­ceived a big boost when the amount of money that the Gov­ern­ment is mak­ing avail­able for Con­trol Pe­riod 6 (the five-year in­vest­ment pro­gramme start­ing in April 2019) was far higher than ex­pected - at £48 bil­lion.

HS2 looks as if it will be built, which many (but by no means all) in the in­dus­try think is a good idea.

Most im­por­tantly, it is now con­ven­tional wis­dom among politi­cians that the rail­ways are a ‘good thing’. The idea of closures, cut­backs, re­duc­tions in ser­vice and all the other hu­mil­i­a­tions foisted on the rail­ways for much of the post-war pe­riod are a thing of the past.

Yet there is a cloud - or in­deed sev­eral clouds, some of them very dark - hang­ing over all these pos­i­tives. Over­all, the past year has not been a good one for the rail­ways. There has been a de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in per­for­mance, and pas­sen­ger num­bers are be­gin­ning to drop a bit af­ter a cou­ple of decades of almost con­tin­u­ous growth.

Then there has been the de­ba­cle over elec­tri­fi­ca­tion. If any­thing shows up the fail­ure of Net­work Rail to have a grip on the in­dus­try’s in­vest­ment pro­gramme, it is the fact that the whole pro­gramme has been mired in over­spend­ing, de­lay and cheesepar­ing. The re­sult has been the ter­ri­ble gov­ern­ment de­ci­sion to go for more bi-mode trains - a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of a solution reached by a com­mit­tee, rather than bit­ing the bul­let and drag­ging the in­dus­try into the 21st cen­tury.

Fran­chis­ing, too, is clearly a busted flush (as I men­tioned in RAIL 842). As its per­sis­tent critic I should wel­come that, but it does cre­ate un­cer­tainty in the in­dus­try, and the fail­ure of the model has left trans­port min­is­ters scrab­bling about for a com­pro­mise that seems im­pos­si­ble to find. Ei­ther they pass on risk to the pri­vate sec­tor or they don’t. And if they don’t, then there is no point to fran­chis­ing.

As for 2018, let me get the pol­i­tics out of the way first. This is rather in the way of a Mys­tic pre­dic­tion, but there is very un­likely to be an elec­tion in 2018. Much as I would love to see one (it would be an op­por­tu­nity to put an end to a dys­func­tional gov­ern­ment hang­ing on by dint of a dodgy deal with the DUP), I can­not con­ceive of a sce­nario which would bring one about.

There­fore, Jeremy Cor­byn’s prom­ise of re­na­tion­al­is­ing the rail­way re­mains, for the time be­ing, an ir­rel­e­vance (although things can change quickly, as hap­pened in 2017 with an elec­tion and a hung Par­lia­ment).

On Brexit, I am slightly more op­ti­mistic. Let’s make this clear: Brexit is a disas­ter for the rail­ways, or rather for the train op­er­a­tors who have bid on the ba­sis of con­tin­ued growth. Train man­agers across the net­work have told me that it is Brexit (or more pre­cisely the sense of un­cer­tainty cre­ated by Brexit) that has caused the re­duc­tions in pas­sen­ger num­bers.

For the rail­ways, there will be some ter­rific news if the Cross­rail tun­nels are opened up on time (as they are sched­uled to be) in De­cem­ber 2018. This will cre­ate enor­mous in­ter­est and lots of pos­i­tive public­ity, but let’s hope there is no sim­i­lar prob­lem to the con­tin­ued teething prob­lems of the Hi­tachi trains. The oc­ca­sional break­down on the Great Western is noth­ing

com­pared with ma­jor hold-ups to thousands of London com­muters who might find them­selves stuck in Cross­rail tun­nels. For­tu­nately, the trains will be well tried and tested by then, as they are al­ready be­ing used on the east­ern sec­tion.

Thames­link should also start op­er­at­ing more trains, although the full Monty has been de­layed (sen­si­bly) for an­other year. As the var­i­ous improvements men­tioned above bed in, there should be plenty of good news sto­ries around the net­work, so by and large 2018 should be viewed with op­ti­mism.

On the neg­a­tive side, there is the con­tin­u­ing dif­fi­cul­ties with Net­work Rail and its con­trol of projects, about which I have writ­ten sev­eral times this year. Fran­chis­ing is in limbo, the de­crease in pas­sen­gers may well con­tinue given the high fares rises and chang­ing work pat­terns (as well as Brexit), and per­for­mance will only im­prove if money is brought for­ward from Con­trol Pe­riod 6 to make up the short­fall be­tween now and March 2019 caused by Net­work Rail’s over­spend­ing.

Mys­tic’s pre­dic­tions for 2018 will be in the next is­sue, but let’s as­sess the cack-handed Cassandra’s per­for­mance for 2017 (do con­trib­ute your sug­ges­tions to my web­site ad­dress, see be­low right). His crys­tal ball sug­gested:

1: De­spite prom­ises to the con­trary, no spade will be turned on HS2 as op­po­si­tion grows and con­fu­sion over routes re­main. There will also be dif­fi­culty in find­ing a new chief ex­ec­u­tive.

2: The South­ern Rail­way dis­pute will still be go­ing on at the end of the year…

3: …for which Trans­port Sec­re­tary Chris Grayling will pay the price as he is shown the door.

4: Fran­chise bid­ders get even thin­ner on the ground, and sev­eral con­tests have only two com­pa­nies in­ter­ested. As a re­sult, sev­eral fran­chises are fur­ther de­layed and ques­tions are asked over the fu­ture of the pro­gramme. Peter Wilkin­son, the head of fran­chis­ing at the DfT who will not be in his job at the end of the year, will re­sort to the tin­ker­man ap­proach knock­ing on doors: I’ve got a load of tar­mac here, do you want your drive done cheaply?

5: The per­for­mance of the rail­way will con­tinue to de­te­ri­o­rate as pres­sures mount, be­cause of high pas­sen­ger num­bers and bad weather af­fect­ing the net­work.

6: Pas­sen­ger num­bers will not in­crease dur­ing the year as the ef­fects of Brexit and un­cer­tainty be­gin to hit the economy.

7: Oh, and Don­ald Trump will be up for im­peach­ing or al­ready gone.

8: And in­dulge my foot­ball pre­dic­tion - QPR will not go down or up, Brighton, New­cas­tle and Leeds will be pro­moted, while Liver­pool will chase down Chelsea for the Pre­mier­ship ti­tle.

Well, No 1 was wrong, although the pre­vi­ous chief ex­ec­u­tive has been in dif­fi­cul­ties over his gen­eros­ity to former staff. No 2 is right but Grayling is still with us, as is Peter Wilkin­son (memo to self, don’t pre­dict peo­ple’s sack­ings un­less you are very sure, as they don’t like it, fun­nily enough).

No 5 is sort of right, and so is No 6, but sadly Trump is still with us and my foot­ball pre­dic­tion was half right as I got two of the pro­moted clubs cor­rect. So a rather pal­try 3½ out of 8 or 43.75%, the sort of ‘could do bet­ter’ I al­ways got at school.

STEVEN FRASER.

Wol­mar says there were un­doubted pos­i­tives from the past 12 months, high­light­ing the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of Ed­in­burgh-Glas­gow as well as other projects in­clud­ing Thames­link. On De­cem­ber 13, ScotRail 380020 and 380113 wait at Croy with the 2000 Ed­in­burgh Waver­ley-Glas­gow Queen Street.

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