Posts Tagged ‘Department for Transport’

Lord Adonis replaces Geoff Hoon

Friday, 5 June 2009


Lord Adonis (2nd from left) talks to Swanage Railway staff on 14 April 2009. From a photo © Andrew Wright, Swanage Railway

(Click to read the full story behind the picture on the Swanage Railway website.)

Lord Adonis, until a couple of hours ago Minister of State at the Department for Transport, has been promoted to Secretary of State for Transport replacing the Rt. Hon. Geoff Hoon who has resigned from the Cabinet.

Lord Adonis will be the first Secretary of State for Transport who believes passionately in the future role of the railways since the railways were nationalised in 1949. Sadly, with the Labour Party in turmoil and the Government extremely unlikely to survive the next election, he may not be in the post for long enough to make any impact upon the Department for Transport’s anti-rail policy.

In a move that will send shivers down the spine of those who remember how – despite the outward trappings of democracy – in communist times Poland was really ruled by a succession of ‘first secretaries’ of the Communist Party, Gordon Brown has just announced that Lord Mandelson is now ‘First Secretary’.


A departmental disconnection

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

With the all UK mainstream media and much of the UK blogsphere focussing on MPs expenses and the resignation statement of House of Commons Speaker, Michael Martin, Behind The Water Tower cannot entirely ignore the matter, so if – in spite of the everything already published – you still want to read more about MPs and Michael Martin, just skip to very end of this post for a few links to some material that you may have not yet read.

Now back to railways. It seems that only The Railway Eye and Behind The Water Tower consider the report on Rail Franchising by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committe worth reporting.

Though railways have not escaped completely from the media’s gaze. The Guardian reports that 2.2 million railcard holders such as students and pensioners face fares rises of up to 50%, while The Daily Mail predicts that 1.6 million train travellers face misery because of line closures during the bank holiday weekend.

Incidentally a year ago, we reported on the complexity of UK rail fares and that only the Internet-savvy could find good deals. It is encouraging to see that the Public Accounts Committee has come to the same view.

Here is the Conclusions and recommendations section of the Committee’s report. If you want to download the full report, just click on the picture at the head of the article.

Conclusions and recommendations

  1. Since taking over from the Strategic Rail Authority, the Department has shown itself capable of letting rail franchises to the planned timescales and protecting the taxpayers’ interests. The Department has procured passenger rail services that live within the public funding available and improve railway performance, although passenger satisfaction continues to pose problems. The Department cannot be complacent and should provide regular analysis and assurance to demonstrate that rail franchising developments are consistent with the Government’s wider objectives.
  2. The Department does not consider damaging side effects for passengers from its rail franchising approach. The Department sets requirements for service frequency and punctuality but does not, for example, measure the impact of rising car parking charges, complex fares and crowding on travellers, including on vulnerable members of society.
  3. Although the Department consults widely, regional transport bodies are not involved in selecting the bidder who will operate services in their area. The Government plans an increased emphasis on a local approach to transport decisions, with Integrated Transport Authorities providing oversight to a number of Passenger Transport Executives in the regions. The Department should invite local and regional bodies to second suitably qualified staff to join the Department’s bid evaluation teams so that details of the services, as bid, are checked against local needs.
  4. The present economic crisis may well put additional pressure on the commercial skills of the Department’s staff. The Department’s franchise management and monitoring will only be effective if there are enough staff in post with the necessary skills to interpret and question financial and commercial information. The Department should be flexible in its recruitment, remuneration and use of staff with commercial experience. Pressure to reduce administrative budgets should not undermine its ability to negotiate effectively with train operators.
  5. The Department promises of bringing 1,300 new rail carriages into service by 2014 look over-optimistic. There are only 423 on order so far, and another 150 carriages are the subject of negotiations. It takes 30 to 36 months to mobilise the supply chain, suggesting deliveries running into 2011–2012 for the current work in progress.
  6. It is unacceptable that low cost fares, which should be available to all rail passengers, are most readily found by those with access to the Internet. This approach undermines the whole basis of the railways as a public service available to all. It excludes those people without access to the Internet, without the time to search or who decide to travel at short notice. There is no reason why the Department should favour a system which supports such perverse and unwarranted exclusion.
  7. The Department must do much more to simplify fares. The Department has made a start in simplifying fares, but some complex fares still exist and the best fares are hard to find without access to the Internet. Fare structures should be simple, fares should be accurately named, and the lowest priced fare for a journey should be publicised and readily available at station ticket offices, as well as on the internet.
  8. In the economic downturn, the Department intends to hold train operating companies to their financial commitments. The Department hopes that, by 2010– 2011, direct subsidies to train operators will be eliminated as companies increase their revenues. But the recession may trigger a reduction in rail travel and fare revenues, and some train operating companies may ask the Department to relax their contractual obligations. The Department should hold train operators to their contract terms although, in some cases, including National Express’s bid for the East Coast franchise, the original bid might have included over-optimistic revenue assumptions.
  9. In the short term, there is an increased risk of train operator financial failure. Although the Department has effective arrangements for monitoring the operational and financial viability of train operating companies, there is a risk that some companies could fail as their revenues fall. In some cases problems that are temporary in nature will be managed through parent company support for additional bank finance. The Department should explore all options and develop robust contingency plans to keep train services running in the event of multiple failure.
  10. In the short term, there is also an increased risk of financial failure by banks that have issued performance bonds. The Department requires train operating companies to issue performance bonds, backed by banks, which the Department can call in the event of the failure of a company. The bonds cover about 5% of the annual cost base of each franchise holding company and have been issued by a selection of banks. The Department should review the ability of the issuers of performance bonds to respond to a call as often as necessary, potentially even on a daily basis.

MPs and Michael Martin

Gordon shunts Thomas into a siding

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Thomas at Bressingham Gardens

(Click on picture to see it in its original context with details of attribution and licensing.)

Tom Harris, who until his phone call from Gordon Brown on Friday evening, was the Under Secretary of State in the Department for Transport, has been sacked. It would be hypocritical for me to shed crocodile tears. I bayed with the rest of the hounds for Tom’s blood when he supported the DfT line that the Department should be modally agnostic. Yet it would be dishonest of me not to record that although I disagreed with Tom on many matters of policy he also had many good qualities.

He was well liked by the UK railway heritage movement and enjoyed a good working relationship with David Morgan, the chairman of the Heritage Railway Association, and Fedecrail – the UK and European umbrella bodies for museum and tourist railways. He was well respected by the Railway Industry Association, whose Director General, Jeremy Candfield, posted a tribute on Tom’s blog. Paul Martin, Director General of the Railway Forum, posted another.

Tom was the son of a lorry driver who actually travelled by train! He treated those who worked for him with respect and was respected by them in return. On the other side of the balance sheet there are those who felt that he had never completely managed to wrest rail transport policy out of the grip of the dead hands of his department.

It is the manner of his passing that is a shock. It means that with Ruth Kelly’s departure, two key positions in the Department are being rotated at once. Geoff Hoon, who takes over from Ruth Kelly as Secretary of State will not have a Minister who can advise him on the Byzantine nature of British railway policy and politics. Nearly 48 hours after Gordon’s phone call to Tom, the DfT website is still showing him as the man in charge of Britain’s railways, trunk roads and ports. Nor has Tom’s successor yet been announced.

Our own reading of the tea leaves is that the decision to sack Tom was not planned as part of the original reshuffle, but is a last minute afterthought. Tom had published a gushing tribute to his former boss, Ruth Kelly, on his blog. Ruth – although nothing has been said officially – had somehow contrived to become persona non grata with the Prime Minister. Since her departure from office she has nailed her colours firmly to the mast of David Milliband’s political ambitions. In the paranoid atmosphere that surrounds No. 10, Tom’s tribute to Ruth was seen as a coded attack against Brown, so the guns were out for Tom.

Planning to make a plan…

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Yesterday in Parliament… (photo Adrian Pingstone, via Wikipedia)

It gives me a warm glow inside to be able to report that Tom Harris’s team at the Department for Transport are working at “full steam ahead” to urgently adapt UK transport policy to take into account the effect of sky rocketing oil prices and accelerated global warming.

Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Transport; Lewes, Liberal Democrat)

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when she expects to produce for the railways a specification for the control period from 2014 to 2019.

Tom Harris (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport; Glasgow South, Labour)

The High Level Output Specification for the railway for the years 2014-19 is due to be published in 2012, as part of a long term transport plan.

Source Hansard.

Harris spins his way out of high speed rail

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Tom Harris, Under Secretary of State for Transport
responsible for railways in the UK

It is not parliamentary language to accuse a UK government minister of lying, so instead BTWT accuses Tom Harris of ‘being economical with the truth’. A host of press articles in May about a new high speed line from London to the North gave rise to speculation that the UK government might at last be about to commission a feasibility study for the new line. BTWT bided its time before commenting, waiting for a signal as to the government’s intentions. Now Mr Harris has given that signal and it is firmly fixed in the stop position. Yesterday’s Times reports.

Despite repeated promises to consider the benefits of a dedicated new line capable of carrying passengers from London to Scotland in less than three hours, ministers are thinking again.

In a letter obtained by The Times, Tom Harris, the Rail Minister, said: “The argument that high-speed rail travel is a ‘green option’ does not necessarily stand up to close inspection. Increasing the maximum speed of a train from 200kph [125mph – the current maximum speed of domestic trains] to 350kph leads to a 90 per cent increase in energy consumption.”

Mr Harris was responding to an appeal by Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat MEP for the North West of England, asking the Government to make its position clear. Mr Davies pointed out that France had already built 1,000 miles of 190mph line, was planning another 500 miles and was considering raising the top speed of trains to 225mph.

Mr Harris claims that Britain has less need for high-speed rail than other European countries. He said: “The economic geography of the UK is very different from other countries with high-speed lines. The main challenge for the UK’s transport network is congestion and reliability, not journey times and connectivity.”

Mr Harris’s comments contrast sharply with Labour’s 2005 election manifesto, which pledged to “look at the feasibility and affordability of a new North-South high-speed link”.

The fallacies on which Mr Harris’s conclusions are based were quickly pointed out by Chris Davies.

Mr Davies said that Mr Harris had failed to acknowledge the environmental benefits of persuading domestic air passengers to transfer to high-speed rail. He added: “It is very disappointing to see the minister scrabbling around for excuses for the Government’s inaction on high-speed rail, especially when those excuses are so weak.”

A high-speed train produces about 90 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger-kilometre, compared with just over 50g/km for a conventional electric train. But a domestic flight produces 225g/km.

Inter-city lines are severely overcrowded and there is strong evidence that future demand has been underestimated. The total distance travelled by train is growing by about 10 per cent a year, but over the next five years the Government is planning to increase capacity by only 22.5 per cent.

In January Iain Coucher, the chief executive of Network Rail, told The Times that by 2020 Britain needed at least three domestic high-speed lines to add to the 68-mile link between London and the Channel Tunnel.

Richard Brown, the Chief Executive of Eurostar, also added his weight to the debate in a letter published yesterday in The Times.

Sir, Any useful assessment of the environmental benefits of high-speed rail must rely on far more than a simplistic comparison with the energy consumption of conventional trains (“High-speed rail travel is not a green option, say ministers”, June 6).

To start with, no one except the Government is proposing that future high-speed trains would operate at 350km/h (217mph). The current European maximum is 300km/h (186mph) with an emerging consensus that 320km/h (199mph) is the practical maximum in future — so the increase in energy would not be as great as the Government suggests.

Secondly, the actual passenger load factor on Eurostar services is twice as great as that assumed for high-speed trains in the recent rail White Paper, thus halving the Government’s estimate of energy use per passenger journey.

Furthermore, high-speed rail has a proven record across Europe of enabling very significant modal shift from plane to train, delivering a vast saving in carbon dioxide emissions generated by people who would otherwise fly. Research has shown that a Eurostar journey generates less than one-tenth of the carbon dioxide emissions of an equivalent flight.

Electric trains can also be switched to even lower-carbon sources of electricity as soon as these become available under the Government’s energy plans, unlike aircraft and road vehicles which are likely to remain very largely wedded to fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

Finally, any assessment of environmental impact should also be based on the next generation of high-speed trains, which are about 25 per cent more energy-efficient than current fleets such as Eurostar.

With domestic main lines running out of capacity, and with the current rapid expansion of the continental high-speed rail network, the case for further high-speed lines in Britain should be properly and fully investigated.

Richard Brown
Chief executive, Eurostar

If you live in the UK and feel as strongly as we do that the UK is the railway Cinderella of Europe, perhaps you could write to to your own MP, pointing out the fallacies in Mr Harris’s comments, and asking them to obtain details of the basis on which Mr Harris made his extraordinary claims?

You can obtain your MP’s name and address as well as all sorts of other interesting information from TheyWorkForYou.

You may also enjoy playing with L’EcoComparateur, a very nice CO2 emissions calculator for different transport modes. Sadly, it doesn’t do London to Warsaw just yet and, in fact, seems to work best when the journey originates or ends in France. On 25 June, the International Union of Railways is running a workshop to launch the ‘UIC Eco-comparison tools for European routes‘. Perhaps UK Transport Minister, Ruth Kelly, should make sure that Mr Harris attends.