1,000 drivers on strike. 156 stations, in a part of the country stuffed full of commuters, rendered useless. More than 600,000 journeys disrupted. This week the biggest rail strike since privatisation, 22 years ago, has led to a collapse in the operation of Southern Rail’s vast network, causing turmoil on some of the most economically important rail services in the country.
The strike has been organised by Aslef and the RMT Union, whose head, Mick Whelan, will enter into talks with Transport Minister, Chris Grayling, to attempt to find a resolution to this carnage. If unsuccessful, more industrial action can be expected next week, the week after Christmas, throughout January, and for “ten more years” according to Whelan. Unfortunately for Grayling, who previously denied Boris Johnson’s proposal for Transport for London (TfL) to take over suburban rail services on the ground that it might give more power to a Labour mayor, there remain very few companies that demonstrate any kind of confidence in the Department for Transport—and rightly so.
Even before this fiasco, the list of errors that the ministry had made since the Conservatives came back into power in 2010 was vast. Under Phillip Hammond, the current Chancellor, the government decided to adopt Labour’s vague plan for a high-speed train linking London and Birmingham, proposing to spend £42.6 billion on the project. Likewise, under Hammond’s successor Justine Greening, the department cost the taxpayer some £40 million by making, what was later admitted to be, a “terrible mistake” in awarding the West Coast rail franchise to FirstGroup, stripping Virgin of the contract. Under the leadership of Hammond, Greening and recent incumbent Patrick McLoughlin, the department decided to continue to convert several major British motorways into ‘smart motorways’, at immense cost, despite safety risks.
Whilst the recent controversy surrounding the department has rightly focused on the railways, the ‘smart motorways’ proposals should not be allowed to slip under the radar.
These ‘smart motorways’ have seen hard shoulders converted into permanent driving lanes in an attempt to ease congestion on some of Britain’s busiest routes. However, breakdown companies, such as the RAC and the AA, have expressed safety concerns about the scheme, and an inquiry by MPs on the Commons transport select committee suggested that the proposals had not been properly considered.
The Department for Transport has insisted, throughout the running of these schemes, that the move towards ‘smart motorways’ is “an incremental change” that has “almost halved” journey times on some of the routes on which it has been implemented.
But the AA’s president Edmund King has retorted, saying “right from the outset, the AA raised substantive safety concerns, also voiced by our members, over the dangers of breaking down on a motorway without a hard shoulder or with an inadequate number and size of lay-bys. Whilst we need to increase capacity and reduce congestion we must ensure that we are not cutting corners, which compromise safety just to reduce costs.”
The current roadworks on the M3—a motorway which links London to much of the South including Guildford, Woking, Basingstoke and Winchester—are examples of the ridiculous nature of the Department for Transport’s policy.
In January 2015, a £129 million contract was awarded to an infrastructure company to upgrade a 13.4 mile stretch of the motorway. This has resulted in a 50mph speed limit on much of the road, as well as consistent closures of the whole road at night and the build-up of traffic jams, which often stretch for several miles. Somewhat inevitably, the project is set to miss its initial completion date of January 2017 by a minimum of six months, due to “additional unforeseen works.”
With questions being raised about the safety of ‘smart motorways’, it is entirely possible that, by the time these roadworks are completed, the Department for Transport will have been forced to introduce a new set of schemes to extend the width of the M3, and that the Hampshire/Surrey area will be further plagued by delays on its most important road. This would not only be an inconvenience to millions of road users, but yet another huge waste of public money.
The Department for Transport has an annual budget of £5.3 billion and it is the role of John Hayes, the current Transport Minister and potential future Transport Secretary, to co-ordinate with Highways England to make sure that England’s roads are as safe and efficient as possible. But the current state of the whole department, with regards to both roads and railways, demands investigation. This is not an issue that should be focused on one administration—its work under the Blair/Brown governments was equally poor—but instead on the department itself. Someone within the department must hold the ministers accountable for their shoddy work over the past decade, and sort out the mess in which British transport finds itself.