On the wrong track: the government needs to be seen to be getting a grip of the rail fiasco

On the wrong track: the government needs to be seen to be getting a grip of the rail fiasco

For once, the minister at the centre is worth backing as Next Out

In the most recent Mori Issues Index (published on 4 May but with fieldwork going back well into April), not a single person out of the 1001 questioned said that transport was the most important issue facing the country. This compares against two people who responded with ‘pandemics’, another two who said AIDS, four who put forward ‘animal welfare’, six whose chief concern was nuclear weapons, and 251 who said Brexit or the EU. These responses (as well as others) were all given unprompted. Even when asked to list other important issues, only 4% identified transport, placing it outside the top 20 issues.

It’s a reasonable bet that transport won’t score a duck this month, even allowing for the new rail timetables having been introduced well into the likely fieldwork period for the poll – the ‘May’ poll was surveyed from 6-24 April; the new rail timetable was introduced on May 20.

At a time when the rail industry needed some good publicity after the most recent failure of the East Coast Main Line franchise, the reality has been little short of a PR disaster; one which ironically has been made all the worse by the success of privatisation. Back in 1993/4, there were only 735m passenger rail journeys; by 2016/17, this had increased to 1.73bn – but of course, the more regular customers there are, the more people will be inconvenienced and angry when things go badly wrong – many of whom will live in the hinterlands of the big cities, where a lot of the marginal constituencies tend to be found.

This is therefore a serious political problem for the government, on two fronts. Firstly, there is the simple matter of competence. For all that the rail operators are private companies, the industry remains under heavy state regulation and the public expect such an essential service to run reliably, give-or-take the odd delay. If it doesn’t, they blame not only the companies and, as appropriate, the unions, but also the government who they not unreasonably expect to oversee delivery.

Secondly, however, the argument in favour of a privately-run rail network is very far from won and Labour has made a pledge to return it to state ownership. No matter that a large part of the current problems can be laid at state-owned Network Rail’s door; no matter that the absurd seat design on the new generation of high-speed trains was down to a DfT regulation; no matter that even on the failed East Coast franchise (the failure of which itself was in part related to Network Rail’s non-delivery of promised upgrades), Virgin still generated as much for the Treasury in its three years of operations as the state-run East Coast operation did in the previous five years – opinion polls have consistently found that well over half, and perhaps as much as three-quarters of, the population wants the government to run Britain’s railways. If the status quo is not delivering, people will demand change.

Hence, Chris Grayling needs to sort it out and – crucially – needs to be seen to be sorting it out. Whether summoning various chief executives and operations directors to a crisis conference would actually help is moot but that sort of thing, followed up by daily conference calls, would at least bring people together and limit the public buck-passing.

However, at the moment, he’s neither being seen to act nor is he generating any results. Nearly two weeks after the new timetable went live and hundreds of trains a day are still being cancelled, more run very late and there’s no end in sight as yet. He is fortunate that many of the problems have been in the north, and hence not covered prominently by the ‘national’ (i.e. London-based) media. Introducing a further emergency-but-indefinite timetable that simply locks in the cancellations might give a little more certainty but it’s no sustainable solution.

    As yet, it doesn’t look as if Grayling has come remotely close to recognising either how critical the current problems are, or the danger they represent to his party’s rail strategy (though given his solution to the East Coast franchise, it’s questionable as to whether he himself is sold on it). Or if he has recognised it, he’s proven himself incapable of rising to the challenge.

Which brings us to the low politics: will he survive? At the moment, Ladbrokes have him at 10/1 as Next Cabinet Minister to Leave, which I think is quite generous in the circumstances. Usually, the minister of the moment shoots straight in to absurdly short odds; perhaps the national media are doing punters a favour here.

Four questions to ask on whether a minister will survive when they’re under pressure: (1) will the immediate crisis go away, (2) will it be overtaken by other events, (3) does he have strong support from the PM, (4) does he have strong support on the back-benches? The more yesses you have, the better.

As far as Chris Grayling goes, the immediate crisis will not go away any time soon; it might not be a top-line news story but it will rumble on for weeks. For that reason, it will very probably be overtaken by events from time to time but will continue to resurface as the bigger stories pass. Who knows whether he has support from the PM. At her January reshuffle, he was briefly and wrongly named as the new Chairman of the Conservative Party, which would have been something of a sideways move in seniority but a crucial link point for the PM. You wouldn’t expect that job to go to anyone but a political ally. As such, he probably does better than most on the third question. As for the fourth, I’ve not seen much evidence of his having much of a fan-club. He is a Brexiteer and the ERG might put up some backing on that basis, though May could replace him easily enough with another Leave-backer should it come to it.

As such, I don’t think his underlying position is particularly strong, and his inactions are weakening it further. To gain a ministerial scalp though, Labour need to maximise pressure on him and their Shadow Transport Secretary, Andy MacDonald, has been as absent as Grayling. For that reason as much as anything, I don’t think he will be brought down by this – but it’s still more likely than the 10/1 odds suggest.

David Herdson

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