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
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.
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.