Wednesday, 31 January 2007

The art of dodging questions

Yesterday saw questions on transport in the House of Commons and with them came a fresh round of dodging and evasion by the Department for Transport and its ministers.

Julie Morgan, the MP for Cardiff North asked the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Tom Harris, whether the government would increase capacity on the railways. Mr Harris replied that “the Department is already taking steps to increase the capacity of the railways through the franchising process, the high level output specification…”.

Could this be the same Department for Transport that has cut capacity on First Great Western’s routes by meddling with the timetable and removing peak hour trains? Could this be the same Department for Transport that has refused to underwrite the costs of leasing additional carriages? Could this be the same Department for Transport that has presided over a franchising system increasingly being used as an income stream for the DfT and which makes continuous, long term, capital investment by train operating companies virtually impossible?

The Secretary of State for Transport, Douglas Alexander then made a most evasive statement in response to a question from Albert Owen, MP for Ynys Môn. He said: “there is a misapprehension that franchising agreements prohibit franchisees from adding capacity to services, or putting in place additional services”.

This is partly untrue and mostly misleading. First, most train operating companies, because of their franchise agreements, need specific and written permission from the DfT to operate additional services over and above those outlined in their specification. It is certainly true that the Department is not likely to deny permission, but that permission is still, legally, required – as Mr Alexander should well know. Second, even with permission, train operating companies like First Great Western cannot add too many services if it is not profitable for them to do so. The large majority have hefty premiums to pay back to the government, premiums that were signed up to on the basis of a specification laid down by the DfT, and financial deviation from that specification could spell disaster.

For Mr Alexander to make the point he did demonstrates how desperate the government is to avoid any share of the blame for the issue of under-capacity on the rail network. It’s a neat trick but, logically, it doesn’t stack up. It’s like saying: John Lewis isn’t prevented from opening a department store in every town, village and hamlet in the UK. Planning regulations aside, of course it is. The economics of it don’t stack up so it can’t, and won’t, do such a thing. The exact same situation is true of rail.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the session in the Commons was the opposition’s complete inability to point any of this out to the government. They are consistently failing to hold the DfT to account for its serious mishandling of rail policy. Sometimes it's hard to determine which side is the more incompetent...

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