On the buses…and the trains


On Labour’s consultation on public transport policy

The consultation looks like it’s open to all, and closes on 28 February 2013

I randomly picked up on this via Twitter, raising eyebrows (in a value-neutral way!) over both the nature and content of this consultation. There are a few things I want to pick up on.

Crowd-sourcing policy

This is still in its infancy but more organisations (such as Cabinet Office here) are either formally or informally turning towards social media users on policy issues. This in itself is a positive step from my point of view. There are two key tests here:

  1. Framing the questions in a manner that allows you to extract the maximum amount of useful information and ideas from responses with the minimum of effort
  2. To what extent does the party policy machine want to be influenced by the responses

With general policy making, the ‘funnel model’ is normally the way things are approached. ie. start general with a broad audience then get narrower and more specific when you get to the details. At this stage of opposition, political parties tend to be at the former rather than the latter stage. The party machinery simply does not have the resources that the civil service or major lobbyists have to go into the technical details. 

Given that this is likely to be a broad high level consultation, clarity and simplicity of language is essential too. Bear in mind the number of functionally illiterate adults there are. Given the subject of this consultation, are they more likely or less likely as a group of people to feel the impact of any policy changes in this area? (If the answer is ‘more’, what steps do you need to take to make this consultation more accessible?)

The other killer question is to what extent to the decision-makers want to be influenced by the results of the consultation process? Is it one where you go through the motions anyway, have the majority opposing but then you go ahead anyway? (In which case why bother – sham consultations undermine democracy and people’s trust in public institutions. You’re better off not consulting in the first place).

What policy barriers have Labour already placed on this consultation?

What I mean by this is whether there are already things that we have to take as given? What is ‘out of bounds’ in this consultation? What are the areas that Labour want to be influenced in this policy consultation? To what extent is this genuinely a ‘party political’ one where you can differentiate this party’s policy from other political parties? To what extent is this a ‘public administration’ consultation where the broad policy is one that is accepted by the mainstream parties, but with slight differences on delivery?

Comments on the content

Some of the language feels like it’s out of Labour’s Communities in Control White Paper of 2008. But what does “[Giving] communities greater control over local transport services” actually mean to the citizen on the street who doesn’t follow politics nearly as closely as say readers of this blog? On this issue, you cannot have greater local control without some sort of interface with local councils. This automatically means it touches on the issue of improving public engagement with local councils and restoring local democracy in general.

On integrating bus and rail services, I can already hear (and with good reason) people calling for the renationalisation of rail and bus services that were privatised in the 1980s & 1990s. But is this outside the scope of the consultation? Have any impact assessments been done on the costs and benefits of renationalisation of public transport? Far better to give people full and concrete arguments of why really big policy options are ruled out rather than not addressing them at all. Proponents too of renationalisation also need to make the the detailed case for how renationalisation would impact on some of the things outlined in this consultation. (For example, to what extent and how would it improve co-ordination of public transport? What are the barriers in the way of achieving this?)

The two issues that don’t hit the headlines but which I learnt from the Campaign for Better Transport when Sian Berry visited Cambridge were information and ticketing. One of the things that has had a huge impact on the convenience for me locally is live bus and train information that I can download to my mobile phone. Live buses in Cambridgeshire and live train times through National Rail. It’s things like “When do I want/need to leave the house?” or when do I need to leave to catch the last bus/train? No one likes to be standing outside in the cold rain waiting for a bus.

Synchronising buses and trains

I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve arrived at the railway station only to see my bus leave and having to wait another half an hour for another one. Cambridge station is a horrible, cold, windy place at the best of times. I used to live with a friend from Switzerland who, when I went to visit her in Zurich showed me how the buses, trains and trams were all synchronised. Even the traffic lights were! I couldn’t understand why we didn’t have this in the UK.

Getting rid of the chugmobiles

Normally on the rail-replacement buses and buses on rural routes, but there must be an option to have something similar to the car scrappage scheme of a few years ago, or the public transport equivalent of the zero carbon target. The latter would involve stating a 10 year target to improve significantly the quality of public transport vehicles – in particular on things like accessibility and emissions. This is a particular issue in London. For me it’s also a noise issue too given my sleep problems. By giving a long term signal for public transport providers to scrap their chugmobiles, a greater amount of earlier investment into new vehicles could be made.

Getting rid of chug carriages on trains

A big bugbear of mine. One of Labour’s big failures in office was on transport policy. The failure to electrify and upgrade railway lines (not helped by regular turnover of transport secretaries which has continued into the current administration) torpedoed any long term consistency in transport policy. It would be a tragedy if future investment on new rolling stock was not co-ordinated with line upgrades.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

One of the things that I have issues with is this ‘road vs rail’ debate – similar to the cars vs cycles debate. They are all interconnected. They don’t exist in separate policy silos. There’s also the assumption that spending money on one thing is inherently bad for the other. While the state of roads – especially rural roads can best be described as variable, calling for investment in improving quality of roads should not automatically mean that money is taken from another part of the transport budget. This mindset reflects the silo mindset within Whitehall, even though at a local level it might be better to sequence infrastructure spending that prioritises transport over other things. 

Taking a local example in Cambridge, a new station in the north of the city is being funded in part through expected receipts from station use. The likely impact includes reduced congestion from commuters driving through the city to get to the main station as well as hopefully providing for better cycle routes and improved facilities.

Re-opening branch lines to tackle traffic on the roads

This is one of the dilemas on transport spending – whether to spend on High Speed 2 or on branch lines. Personally I don’t think it’s an either/or. My preference would be to part-fund HS2 with a levy on domestic and private flights on small corporate jets and planes on environmental grounds. HS2 should become the affordable and more environmentally friendly alternative to short-haul flights. If you can afford a corporate private flight, you can afford a levy on it.

In terms of re-opening branch lines, my preference involves digitally mapping the entire former pre-Beeching railway network. The map as a PDF looks like this. Get that map into a digital form where it can be used with other maps (eg GoogleMaps) to allow communities to look at what was there locally, what’s been built up since then and where it is and is not feasible to reopen closed corridors.

And finally…

An East-West rail route going via Oxford and Cambridge

Why-oh-why-oh-why-oh-why won’t any senior politician stand up and say: “It’s our policy to reopen the Oxford-Cambridge railway line.”? My first blogpost on this followed heading to Oxford from Cambridge by coachwhich took three hoursThe East-West rail consortium website shows the route swinging round to Reading with the Bedford to Cambridge link in the ‘assessing options’ pile. (They tweeted to Puffles this morning). My preference would be to connect Bedford to Cambridge and then extend the line eastwards from Cambridge to Norwich and Ipswich, and westwards from Oxford to Bristol and through to Wales. This could take a huge number of journeys out of London while at the same time stimulating parts of the country that could do with an economic boost. Milton Keynes in particular would benefit, but so to would some otherwise more isolated communities.

And East Anglia?

It may be a part of the country full of Conservative strongholds, but when it comes to transport policy, this is one of the areas where everyone is impacted. Organisations came together in East Anglia to produce A rail prospectus for East Anglia. Have other parts of the country come together to produce similar documents? One of the things that continues to strike me when I got travelling north of Cambridge is the signs of lack of investment in railways outside London’s sphere of influence.

Learning lessons from the past

One of the other things Labour needs to do is to learn the public administration lessons of what went wrong when it was in office. Only now, the Labour Chair of the Transport Committee (Louise Ellman MP) has called for an integrated national railway system. But why was John Prescott unable to deliver on his pledges on public transport? What went wrong and what can Labour learn from it?

Who’s driving this policy for Labour?

On the railways side of things, it’s Lilian Greenwood, Shadow Rail Minister. Which more than pleases me because Lilian likes Puffles!

Lilian Greenwood and Puffles

Although this is a Labour party consultation, the nature of transport policy (compared to other policy areas) is that you tend to get more co-operation than on others. Hence if there is something that is particularly good that comes from it, it’s more likely to get cross-party support. If that happens, things are more likely to get done.

So whether you are in Labour, another party – or like me, not in any party at all, have a look at the consultation and make your views known. The onus then will move to Labour – or possibly the Coalition (if they see anything they like) to make good any of the sound ideas that come through. The challenge for Labour is to give those in their party in charge of transport the freedoms to develop and (if they get elected) deliver on those promises. That also means reducing micro-management from The Treasury and Number 10.


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