Category Archives: HS2

Reflections on railway renationalisation and a Tory Brexit

My apologies, firstly, to readers for the general inactivity at the blog since the middle of April. This has been down to juggling work at a new job and the completion of my journalism dissertation, which I submitted on Thursday evening.

My hope is to achieve the 2.1 that will allow me to continue my studies into Masters level, with my eyes currently set upon an MSc at Royal Holloway in ‘Campaigns, Elections and Democracy’. I should now hope to return here frequently for the foreseeable future.

In my absence, this year’s General Election has gotten under way. A portion of the Labour Party’s manifesto has been leaked, and thanks to pledges to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail and energy sector, has been described as taking the UK ‘back to the 1970s’.

It may be worth remembering for a moment that Germany, a modern and well-run country, operates nationalised rail and worker-run energy co-operatives. Northern Ireland, too, (incidentally a part of the UK) retains public control of its rail system.

For the record, I don’t support renationalising Britain’s energy sector, but local, energy co-operatives, similar to those that exist on the continent do not sound like such a bad idea. I do admit to succumbing to the appeal of democratic ownership of utilities and co-operative privatisation (worker control of industry) of Royal Mail may be popular amongst postmen and women.

As far as our railways go, the ongoing debate around public and private ownership would seem to me to be a secondary issue. The primary issue is upgrading infrastructure and investment, and cancelling the vast amounts of money we seem keen to spend on vanity projects like HS2, which stands only to increase London’s workforce and damage the rural environment of the midlands. Any strong government ought to, by now, have scrapped such madness.

Britain’s rail infrastructure is predominantly Victorian and not entirely electrified, much to our national embarrassment. The billions put aside for HS2 should be re-directed towards modernising track and signalling, and towards investing in more medium-speed, medium-distance inter-city railway lines. London is too often used as a connecting city for long-distance travellers making their way across the country (and often finding themselves paying extortionate amounts).

The question of who owns rail services is made less important still by the fact that there need not be one single system of ownership, as demonstrated by the state operating of the East Coast mainline until March 2015. Britain’s rail system is not only franchised, it is regionalised, which means that, with very few exceptions, services are all co-ordinated independently of one another. The state can retain ownership of some lines whilst allowing for others to be run privately, depending on factors like performance and quality of service.

Immediate renationalisation would not make the running of rail services particularly cheap. As I have said, it is the cost of maintaining infrastructure, due to its age, that sets the cost of British rail travel above that of the rest of the continent. Upgrades to infrastructure ought to be at the centre of any debate about Britain’s railways and present a far more pressing concern than discussions over ownership.

I will not vote for the Labour Party on June 8th, but the aforementioned leaked manifesto content doesn’t look to me as if it will take us back forty years. This is merely dishonest Tory propaganda, no doubt aided by the incompetence of figures like Diane Abbott, who do nothing but discredit the Left and its labour movement.

Meanwhile, the Tories sit firmly in the driver’s seat of this election. They are rightly standing on a platform of seeing out the Brexit process, but of course, they are doing it for the wrong reasons. Many of them do not support out withdrawal from the European Union and thoroughly resent last summer’s referendum result. My vote for them in June (if I bother or indeed remember) will be more out of obligation than anything else.

I am at least glad that the Liberal Democrat leader this time around is Tim Farron, and not a young and fresh Nick Clegg, who managed to sweet talk the country into voting for him seven years ago. Thanks to Farron’s confusing position as leader of a party with which he has profound moral disagreements, the Lib Dems are not quite the force they could be.

Knowing that I was an adamant leaver, some readers might think that I am relieved the Tories are in poll position to win this General Election. This is not quite so. Something about the party’s (and indeed the Prime Minister’s) track record over the European question is cause for concern in my mind.

A couple of days ago, David Cameron made a comment that sparked some degree of doubt in my mind. He said that Mrs May needs a big majority so that she can “stand up to the people who want an extreme Brexit, either here or in Brussels.” It is a shame that UKIP can no longer muster the strength that it did back in 2014.

UKIP formed the ideal barricade against sentiments of this kind within the Conservative Party. There are many who call themselves conservatives, despite their continued existence that Britain should not govern itself and control its own affairs, who are fanatically supportive of the European project and of ceding parliamentary sovereignty.

When these people (Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan and George Osborne to name a few others) use the expression ‘extreme Brexit’, they demonise the reasonable belief held by large sects of the country, including especially much of the Tory grassroots, that the United Kingdom should control its own trade, borders, lawmaking and judicial process, no matter the difficulties which undoubtedly lie ahead.

Mr Cameron’s comments reminded me that placing complete trust in the Tories and giving them a free hand over such an important issue might not be advisable after all. We’ve heard ‘Theresa May’s hard Brexit’ quite a lot in recent months, but increasingly my fear is that when it is all said and done, Britain will no longer be halfway in the EU. Instead, she may find herself perching halfway out in what will look like an especially embarrassing position.

Don’t get your hopes up over Heathrow

Well, at least a decision was finally made. After years of speculation and petty arguing, the go-ahead was given to those seeking to expand Heathrow airport. A new, third runway will be added to the busiest airport in Europe, with the goal of meeting both the overwhelming demand and encouraging more commerce to the capital.

I must say I never thought it would be sanctioned. Politicians pride themselves on their ability to shift old problems onto new governments, and I thought the expansion of Heathrow would be just another example of it. Of course, there is still a long way to go. We may yet see the verdict reversed or delayed at the last minute.

The first important thing to consider in the wake of the announcement is just why we spend so much of our time deliberating on white-elephant projects of this kind. Not just with airport expansion, but with HS2 too. China have invested billions in improving and building airports in the last decade, while we spent much of that time bickering over whether Gatwick would be preferable. Maybe it’s our famous British caution or maybe it is the new found influence of environmental activists. It can’t be the cost which causes so much second guessing. We were happy to host the Olympic Games just a few years ago despite the fact that British taxpayers would spend years afterwards paying off its hefty price tag.

To nobody’s surprise, quotes for Heathrow expansion vary greatly. Transport for London say the build will cost up to £15bn, whereas the airport itself maintains that the figure is somewhere close to £1.2bn. But the financial costs do not paint the whole picture. For those living in the surrounding area facing eviction or increased pollution or noise, the expansion will not be welcome news. Britain already consistently failed to meet the European Union’s pollution and emissions targets. Perhaps, then, the vote to leave removed some of the external pressure being applied to the UK’s domestic infrastructural aspirations.

What I’d also like to know is why Gatwick wasn’t chosen instead of Heathrow. Though extending an airport in Crawley wouldn’t have been wonderful for locals there either, it would have made sense for purely commercial reasons. Gatwick is the busiest single runway airport in the world and in 2015 became the first single runway airport to handle over 40 million passengers in a single year.

‘Gatwick Obviously’ (the campaign group fighting for expansion) claims that a second runway can be built entirely with private funding and before 2025. They argue that there are fewer obstacles in the way of Gatwick expansion than there are in the way of Heathrow expansion. This is probably true, but I have doubts about their pledge for no public subsidy. It may also be worth looking at northern airports, like Birmingham or Manchester; also major cities in their own right, and assessing whether or not there is sufficient demand in these cities to justify expanding there.

In short, I’m not enthused by Heathrow expansion. The upheaval it could cause to the surrounding motorway and travel links may end up being horrendous, London is polluted enough as it is and there are other airports, like Gatwick, which are not located in London but that do deserve a look in when it comes to adding runways.

At least Zac Goldsmith, a politician I’m not particularly keen on, earned my respect when he resigned over the issue last week. His resentment at a third runway at Heathrow is understandable, and you can bet it won’t be the only tough opposition the project faces in the coming years. So don’t get your hopes up over Heathrow. This is Britain: we don’t do eccentricity.