FOR the first time, backbench MPs will today make use of a special Parliamentary procedure to scrutinise the spending of the Department of Transport, using a so-called “Estimates Day Debate”.
From the East Coast franchising to scrapping rail electrification schemes, and much more besides, this past year has seen a raft of failings on the watch of the current Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. That’s why I applied for this debate with the support of other backbench MPs from all main parties.
During the three hour debate, the Secretary of State must come to the House of Commons to answer for these failings. There are four key questions.
First, in the wake of the East Coast debacle, he needs to answer questions about our rail franchising system.
Grayling’s wavering over the Stagecoach/Virgin Trains East Coast franchise risks undermining the whole franchising process, sending a message to future bidders that they can get their sums wrong and over-bid – but still get a bail-out to the tune of billions. His subsequent decision to extend Virgin Trains’ West Coast franchise only adds insult to injury.
Last month, the National Audit Office rightly announced an independent investigation into what has happened.
East Coast is just a symptom of a wider problem. Recent years have seen fewer bids for rail franchises than were received at the start of the decade; and 13 franchises have been directly awarded, without any competition, since 2012. It’s time that Grayling came clean on this. We need a comprehensive and sensible alternative to the current process.
Second, if he is so confident about the benefits of his transport upgrade programme and the scrapping of electrification, he should spell out the exact improvements this will bring.
Last year, when the Transport Secretary scrapped many rail electrification schemes outside the South East in favour of bi-modal diesel-electric technology, he told Parliament that “we no longer need to electrify every line to achieve the same significant improvements to journeys”.
Yet Ministers have been unable to tell me exactly what travel speed improvements, ongoing financial costs and carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions passengers can expect from these bi-modal trains.
They have admitted to me that the ongoing costs will be higher than they would have been with electric trains, but have refused to tell me by how much. While I have been told the environmental impact of bi-modal trains has been “taken into account”, Ministers have evaded my questions on whether an environmental assessment has taken place.
We still do not even know the future of trans-Pennine rail electrification, as no announcement has been made since Grayling cast doubt on it in July 2017.
Without track improvements, I fear that new trains won’t be able to travel anywhere near their maximum speeds, and may even be slower in diesel mode than the trains they replace. In a debate on northern transport last November, I asked for a full, independent assessment of the impact of scrapping electrification. I will repeat this request later today.
Third, how will he act on the scathing criticism from auditors about the effectiveness of a range of transport bodies and transport projects? The National Audit Office (NAO) has criticised the performance of Highways England’s 2015-2020 Road Investment Strategy, highlighting that many of the promised road schemes are behind schedule. Network Rail’s operations have also been subject to NAO criticism, and it remains to be seen whether planned reforms will address its problems.
The NAO has also turned its sights on the Department’s role in a range of projects – not least the Thames Garden Bridge in October 2016; and, just last month, the Govia-run Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchises. The results of their investigation into the East Coast debacle remain to be seen.
Finally, where is the bold, ambitious programme to tackle the regional inequality in transport investment? The imbalance between Britain’s regions is the largest of any country in Europe and holds back national economic growth.
Increasing transport investment is essential to plugging this gap between our regions. Yet IPPR North’s latest analysis makes for grim reading: transport spending over the next few years ranges from £4,155 per head in London to £844 per head in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Last month, Grayling tried to discredit these figures by arguing that London’s spend is only higher because of Transport for London’s (TfL) ability to draw in private investment.
This is a staggering excuse. Northern MPs want a statutory body with the same borrowing and investment powers as TfL for precisely this reason. Despite some welcome progress with Transport for the North, it lack the powers to bring in private and local investment.
Chris Grayling needs to do better and come forward with a clear plan to address this inequity.
Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Hull North.