It’s another General Election, and there’s another slew of manifestos. Although Brexit may have stolen the spotlight this year, parties have nevertheless been persistent in their various pledges for the future of the country’s rail network. Naturally, each party has packaged up its promises in impressive language, but what’s behind the rhetoric?
The driving force behind the Labour Party’s transport and infrastructure plans is the climate emergency. Promising a “Green Industrial Revolution”, a Corbyn-led government pledges to transform “our industry, energy, transport, agriculture and our buildings” to create a sustainable economy.
Labour has re-imagined the country’s previous Industrial Revolution for an environmentally-conscious audience. As the catchphrase, ‘for the many and not the few’, has its roots in the nineteenth century, Corbyn’s entire manifesto harks back to the 1800s; “Just as the original Industrial Revolution brought industry, jobs and pride to our towns, Labour’s world-leading Green Industrial Revolution will rebuild them”.
The Green Industrial Revolution pledges to bring with it 7,000 new offshore wind turbines, 2,000 new onshore wind turbines and enough solar panels to cover 22,000 football pitches. And Labour is also committed to “a full rolling programme of electrification” on the railways.
“A radical decentralisation of power” is one of the manifesto’s key themes, across all areas, but it’s particularly relevant for rail. As we might have expected, Corbyn promises to bring railways back under public ownership and to make fares “simpler and more affordable”. And this decentralisation of power also means that Labour promises increased funding to neglected areas of the country, particularly the North and rural communities.
Labour shows full commitment to HS2, unlike some of its rivals. In fact, the party goes a step further, and says it would complete “the full HS2 route to Scotland”. Quick to assure prospective voters that this won’t compromise the ‘green’ nature of the revolution, the manifesto adds that it will take “full account of the environmental impacts of different route options”, though this is unlikely to satisfy some opponents of HS2.
This manifesto is rich in ambition, but it will require levels of public investment not seen for more than forty years.
The Conservatives are all about connectivity – amidst their promises for better rail links between Manchester and Leeds, there are also plans for a “Midlands Rail Hub”, and investment in “routes to the South West and East Anglia.” A future Conservative government would also legislate for a minimum service to operate during transport strikes; a strategic move to entice irritated commuters, even at the cost of angering multiple trade unions.
On HS2, Johnson tones down expectations. “HS2 is a great ambition but will now cost at least £81 billion and will not reach Leeds or Manchester until as late as 2040,” the manifesto admits, which should partly quell the worries for some of its rural voters fearing imminent implementation. But, HS2 is not ruled out, and Johnson promises to await the findings of the Oakervee Review, working with “leaders of the Midlands and the North to decide the optimal outcome.”
A Johnson-led government would also “invest £100bn in additional infrastructure spending on roads, rail and other responsible, productive investment which will repair and refurbish the fabric of our country and generate greater growth.” And, if that grand mission statement proves too vague, the manifesto takes a 360-degree turn in its promise to “restore many of the Beeching lines.”
The specific case of the Beeching railway lines refers to the 3,000 miles of railway closed after the review of the network in the 1960s. The manifesto’s reference to Fleetwood in Lancashire as a victim of the rail network’s cutbacks will be helpful in Conservative-Labour marginal constituency.
Transport chiefs in Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bradford, Leeds and Newcastle will, no doubt, be pleased to see Johnson’s promise to “upgrade their bus, tram and train services to make them as good as London’s.” This would require increased frequency in services for these cities and would require a level of funding that has yet to be specified.
But with environmental plans lacking, is this the forward-thinking manifesto of the future? Only the 12 December will reveal the priority of the public.
The Green Party
If Labour are offering a Green Industrial Revolution, then what does the “Green New Deal” offer which is different? Proudly declaring “The Green New Deal will revolutionise our transport system by ending dependence on carbon, and investing instead in alternatives that work better for the climate and the people”, even the language of a revolutionary rail system echoes Corbyn.
The difference lies in the logistics. The Greens would, like Labour, bring all railways back into public ownership, but within 10 years – not immediately. And, unlike Labour, who are keen to deliver on all fronts, the Greens will not support “the damaging HS2 scheme, which we will cancel.” It then lies with the public to decide if HS2 can, in any way, be deemed environmentally-friendly.
The focus on green transport is indicated by the lengthy list of proposals for electrification. All railway lines connecting cities (so, presumably, most, if not all railway lines) will be electrified, and there will be investment in a new fleet of electric trains to run on newly electrified lines.
This, the Greens say, will be a “new golden age of train”, where journey times will improve, and rural connectivity will be enhanced. Additional freight routes will also be invested in, resulting in the majority of long-distance freight switching from road.
Interestingly, and in a deviation from Labour’s nationalisation plans, the Greens want to give responsibility for running short-distance passenger rail franchises to local councils.
The transport policies of the Green Party then, sees significant overlap with Labour, but its vehement disapproval of HS2 is its stand out. Can the Greens prove to the public that binning “the doomed” HS2 is the way forward?
Voters shall have to ask themselves how gold Green can be.
Without the worry of negotiating Brexit, Jo Swinson’s manifesto certainly has the room to expand on its plan for rail and infrastructure.
Again, the environment plays a key role as the Lib Dems wish to “tackle the clean air crisis, meet the challenge of climate change, improve people’s health, stimulate local and regional prosperity and develop British zero-carbon industries, with benefits for jobs, growth and exports.”
In a bid to please commuters, Swinson pledges to freeze rail fares for the duration of the next Parliament so that the party can “fix our railways.” The fixing will include a new Railways Agency, which will replace the Department for Transport (DfT) in its decision-making, a move likely to be recommended in the current Williams Review. This is part of the party’s commitment to “sanctioning and ultimately sacking train operators if they fail to provide a high-quality public service to their customers.”
In a similar vein to Labour, the Lib Dems don’t see HS2 as negating environmental plans, and fully back the scheme. To reassure the climate conscious, the manifesto pledges to “address problems with implementation to ensure that HS2 opens as early as possible to meet our decarbonisation goals while minimising the destruction of precious UK habitats and woodland.” A Swinson government will also prioritise Crossrail 2 and “major new strategic rail routes” – all plans which will surely please commuters.
And significant investment will be put forward to convert the rail network to “ultra-low-emission technology (electric or hydrogen) by 2035.” A no-diesel pledge may please a wide crowd, but what will be done with the host of new diesel trains currently being introduced?
Not to be outdone by Boris Johnson’s attention to the Northern Powerhouse, the Lib Dems show support for the North by declaring that they will “continue to champion investment in the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine, putting significant capital resources into infrastructure projects across these regions.”
Scottish National Party
It’s not surprising to learn that the SNP wants full control of Scotland’s railway system to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
Keeping it short and sweet, the manifesto states “We want Scotland’s rail services to be significantly better and significantly greener.” A key focus in this is bus travel, which will see “over £500m in improved bus priority infrastructure to make bus travel the faster, greener option”.
The SNP offers no direct plan for HS2, but rather asks for improvements on journey times between Scotland and London, which will in turn reduce the number of domestic flights. So, Labour clearly are on their own in the belief that the high-speed rail link will reach Scotland.
Unlike the other manifestos, the SNP has a clear focus on tourism in its transport plans. Namely, the concern is how to maintain levels of tourism amidst Brexit and environmental concerns. Scotland depends highly on aviation, and a large number of visitors arrive by air. Improved rail services between London and Edinburgh will then be paramount to Nicola Sturgeon, who pushes this as the priority for the SNP.
Plaid Cymru are committed to delivering a new transport system, “to see a real Wales-wide transport system that connects the nation and links Wales to the world.”
The party affirm that “key to delivery” of their National Transport Plan is access to EU funding. With such money, they pledge to “make rail fares more affordable”, open new stations, and secure new trains. Key in their manifesto is the move to “re-open railway lines across Wales to create new links between communities”, as they produce a lengthy list of routes to re-open.
Plaid Cymru also join the growing number of parties invested in environmental goals, “introducing additional public electricity charging points across Wales, starting the transition towards a wholly electric fleet of public sector vehicles and supporting active travel.”
There is also the introduction for the idea of a ‘Super-Metro’ for South-East Wales and Swansea Bay, a Western Valleys Metro, and a metro for North East Wales. A Cross-Rail for the Valley is also promised.
The party then, are more specific than many of the front-runners in their ambitions. But, with the necessity of EU funding for their plans, the delivery of these goals remains in the balance if the party’s promise of a second referendum does not sway in their favour.
From revolutions, to powerhouses, to golden ages, much is promised in these manifestos. This year, the environment and HS2 remain primary concerns – but are the pair mutually exclusive? Each party has a different answer to that question, and the public will have to judge which has measured the issues best.
It’s hard to know amongst such glittering pledges what will actually be delivered – but, we do know that when the nation wakes up on Friday 13th, the political arrivals and departures board will be unlucky for some.