One of the more depressing aspects of yesterday’s announcement of delays to Network Rails modernisation plans was the predictable reaction of Labour’s Shadow Transport Minister, Michael Dugher.
“Since 2010, passengers have had to endure a catalogue of failures on our railways. Ministers may try to shift all the blame to Network Rail, but this has happened on the government’s watch and the responsibility for this mess lies squarely with the government.
“Labour has warned time and time again that there needs to be fundamental change in how our railways are run. But the Transport Secretary has dithered and delayed.”
Irony is not Dugher’s forte. He lambasts the Government for ‘shifting the blame’ onto Network Rail whilst he shifts the blame onto the Government. Because, let’s be clear about this – Labour has as much responsibility for this mess as anyone.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog. The problem with electrification schemes is they’re like buses. There’s nothing for ages then they all come at once. We have Great Western, Trans-Pennine and Midland Main Line – along with a rolling programme of schemes over the border in Scotland. That’s a huge amount of work. But why does it all have to be done now?
Because the last Labour government did bugger all, that’s why
Between 1997 and 2010 Labour approved one measly scheme of less than 20 miles, the minor link line between Crewe & Kidsgrove. Contrast this with the previous Tory administration which managed to electrify the East Coast & Great Eastern main lines, amongst others. Not bad for a party whose leader (Margaret Thatcher) supposedly ‘hated’ railways.
Labour sat on its hands & let the DfT pretend that there was no need to electrify as some new technology was just around the corner. This faith in what Roger Ford of Modern Railways coined ‘bionic duckweed’ was bonkers- but it suited Labour as it meant they didn’t have to spend any money. It was only when Lord Adonis came along that the position was reversed & a tranche of schemes was announced. But by then it was too late.
Starved of work, the skilled engineers who’d electrified the East Coast had scattered on the four winds & the industry lost the ability to carry out major schemes. That skills shortage still exists – and not just in OLE. It’s the same in signalling & in design.
Dugher conveniently ignores this and Labour’s role in sowing the seeds of today’s problems. We’ll get no ‘mea culpa’ from him. But then this is the man who’s said Labour has “too many pointy heads & not enough street fighters” when clearly, the opposite is true. Attack dogs like Dugher got Labour into this mess in the first place & they’re one of the reasons why Labour failed to win the 2015 election. To be frank, people are sick of this style of politics, but Labour isn’t listening. Mary Creagh outlined the problem in her interview with the Guardian when she withdrew from the Labour leadership contest. In it she highlighted why Dugher replaced her – Labour wanted to ‘pick a fight’
That went well, didn’t it? Instead of gaining support, Dugher rapidly lost it. He managed to alienate many people in the rail industry – and quite a few of them were Labour voters!
Following their election defeat, Labour said they would listen to people & analyse what went wrong. Sadly, there’s little evidence of that happening. Dugher is still Shadow Transport Minister & now he’s running Andy Burnham’s campaign for the Labour leadership.
If Labour really DO want to listen, then I have a few suggestions.
Ditch your obsession with who owns the railways & concentrate on what you want the railways to deliver.
A bit of humility & understanding wouldn’t go amiss. How about admitting your part in past problems & actually come up with some solutions instead of grandstanding?
How about committing a future Labour administration to a rolling programme of investment that will even out the ridiculous peaks & troughs that have led to a skills shortage? This will have several benefits. It will create skilled jobs and save money through economies of scale. If the train builders know that over the next 10 years they’ll have orders for thousand of new electric trains we can get them for a decent price – oh, and prise the DfTs dead hands off train specifying & ordering train. That’ll save a few bob too..
Also, how about supporting the industry instead of using it as a political football?
In fact, there’s a whole host of ways the industry could advise you on. But that means listening, not lecturing, something you’re not good at. Contrast Dugher’s approach with The Tories Claire Perry, who does listen and actually had the sense to ask the industry what it needs from Government. Novel, eh?
Sadly, I’m probably wasting my time typing this. Dugher has stuck his fingers in his ears & Labour’s promise to listen & learn from its mistakes is looking increasingly hollow. We’ll end up with a new Labour leader but the same old problems will remain. I don’t see anything that will bring people back to Labour & Labour back to power.