Cat Smith on rail promises and reality

Following the passing of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 and the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, the Government has been keen to move onto its domestic policy agenda. We have seen legislation on the NHS, speeches on climate change and, in late January, two announcements in two days on our railways, not to mention the go ahead for HS2.

Firstly, we had the announcement that the Government would be restoring some rail lines lost under the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. Once I’d stopped groaning over the irony that a butchering of our railways authorised by a Conservative government obsessed with roads and motorways was being slammed by this current Conservative government, I was keen to make the case for my local lines. This is an issue of interest to me as I have been campaigning for some time to reopen the rail line between Poulton-le-Fylde and Fleetwood, the latter of which is in my constituency. 

I was surprised to learn from the media and Department for Transport that this announcement was being made in Fleetwood as I had not been notified in advance of this by the Secretary of State, as would be the usual practice. Having tried to contact the Department to no avail I was eventually informed by local campaigners that the announcement was not in fact being made in Fleetwood but in Poulton-le-Fylde at the other end of the line. Sadly, once the details of the announcement became clear, the Secretary of State not knowing where he was in the North West would turn out to be the least of my concerns.

Despite how it was portrayed by Grant Shapps and some in the media, what has been announced is not the investment needed to reopen the lines closed under Beeching. Rather it is £500 million to fund feasibility studies, £100 million of which would be used for a study into the Poulton to Fleetwood line. Anyone who knows anything about the railways will know £500m isn’t going to get you very far; it might get you a dozen miles if you’re lucky. Not much of an impact in reopening thousands of miles of route lost since Beeching’s fateful report.

More concerningly the Secretary of State seemed to indicate that the Poulton to Fleetwood line is at the top of the queue when it comes to reopening because the existing pre-Beeching stations remain in place. This simply isn’t true. There is no longer a station at Fleetwood and creating a new one at the old site would involve the demolition of homes and businesses. When I pressed Ministers on this point in the House of Commons, they had no answers. It is clear therefore that, while this announcement does represent a step towards the reopening of lost railways, we will need to overcome the Government’s continuing commitment to austerity as well as their general incompetence if we are to make the reversal of the Beeching cuts a reality.

A day later we had the announcement that Northern Rail was to be brought into public control. A cynical reader might think the previous announcement was to distract from this forced acknowledgement of the failure of rail franchising. This is another issue of importance to my constituents who have suffered substandard commuter services for far too long. Delays and overcrowding are a routine occurrence. Again, while the decision to terminate the existing franchise is a welcome development, it has been done in such a way that has bailed out Arriva after already significantly increasing subsidies to the company in recent years.

The problems on Northern, while unique in their severity, are not dissimilar to the problems faced elsewhere on the rail network: ageing stock, poor infrastructure and the separation of track and train resulting in a lack of joined-up decisions. Having already had to take control of the East Coast Main Line and with rumours of other train operating companies in difficulties it is hard to conclude anything other than that the franchising model has completely failed. Only an ideological commitment to privatisation can explain Ministers’ stubborn refusal to acknowledge this and take the entire network back into public hands.

So, two days, two announcements, one lost Minister, a poor grasp of details, continuing commitment to austerity and a bailout for a failed train operating company. It almost makes you long for the competence of the Grayling era!

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