DeHavilland Policy Consultant Michael Cameron has produced a transport round-up from last week’s Conservative party conference.
- Industrial action plagued the Conservative party conference, with attendees’ arrivals slowed and delayed by Aslef strike action on the Saturday before conference.
- Though at fringe events, the subject was not front and centre. Instead, there was only one question on anybody’s lips: would the Prime Minister cancel the Manchester leg of HS2, and when would the Government confirm this?
- There was broad agreement in the sector that rail has an opportunity to modernise and drive growth after the pandemic. Mr Harper and Mr Merriman linked this need to modernise with the industrial disputes.
- The Transport Secretary said that the Government would publish by the end of the year a “forward look” at rolling stock replacement, following a programme of work with train operators and Transport for London.
Talk at conference could not go on for long without transport – and specifically rail – being off of the agenda. The decamp to Manchester started with attendees having to rearrange their travel around major disruption on the railways. Indeed, over a year on, Aslef and the RMT are continuing to hold rail strikes while negotiations with Government seem to be no further along.
While the subject didn’t come up at fringe events frequently, Chris Loder, Conservative MP for West Dorset and member of the Transport Select Committee, described how the Aslef dispute was “grounded in greed”. Speaking at “The future of rail” event, organised by the RSSB and the IEA, Loder suggested that the Government should take firmer action against the trade unions, including threatening job losses.
The Transport Secretary aired similar frustration at “The Rail Interview”, hosted by the RIA, where he expressed anger and concern over the persistence of trade unions. Mr Harper called on the RMT to put a pay offer to its members with train operators and suggested that Aslef members were already well paid, often earning £65,000 for a 35-hour four-day week. He did not, however unlike Mr Loder, give any indication that the Government would move to a different position to end the dispute.
Conversation over industrial action was, naturally, overshadowed by chatter around HS2. The Conservatives came to Manchester without a clear line on the project and Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, and Huw Merriman, the Rail and HS2 Minister, spent most of Sunday and Monday repeating the same line: they could not comment on speculation but that spades were already in the ground.
Speaking at “the Future of Rail” event, Greg Smith continued his vocal opposition to HS2. Mr Smith suggested that land currently used for HS2 construction could be repurposed, including by putting roads through the new tunnels in the half-dug Chilterns. Furthermore, Smith described how the project has caused “abject misery” for his constituents.
Indeed, with the impression that the scrapping of phase two was a fait accompli, attendees wanted to hear about other parts of the transport portfolio, such as decarbonisation or rail modernisation. This did not stop at least one question on HS2 being asked in each transport fringe.
Finally, during his conference speech Sunak confirmed that he would be cancelling the rest of the HS2 project and in its place would reinvest £36 billion in hundreds of new transport projects in the north and midlands – a new “Network North”. Sunak described HS2 as the ultimate example of the old consensus; repeatedly delayed, costs doubled and the economic case weakened post-covid.
There was much talk over what the rail industry could and should do to modernise coming out of the pandemic. One of the few firm commitments emerging from conference was from Mr Harper, who said that the Department would publish by the end of the year a “forward look” at rolling stock replacement. He outlined that the Government is working with train operators and Transport for London to understand what rolling stock will need to be replaced and what replacement criteria should be in place.
Earlier in the year, Alstom and Hitachi expressed concerns that there has been a drying-up of rolling stock orders, which could threaten jobs and factories in the UK. Mr Harper suggested that this plan would give the industry some confidence over a future order book.
On wider rail reform, Mr Harper repeatedly said that the Government is committed to taking through reforms to ticketing and passenger services that do not require legislation. His non-committal to Great British Railways comes as the sector appears increasingly concerned that a Transport Bill to establish GBR will not feature in next month’s King’s Speech.
Finally, there was an agreement within the sector that state subsidy – which had topped £30 billion during the pandemic – had to be reduced. Andy Bagnall, Chief Executive, Rail Partners, described how rail could drive a post-covid recovery, with a better contracting model and increased rail freight being key pillars of this. For this, Bagnall called on the Government to set a rail freight growth target.