Thursday, 25 January 2007

Ten years in opposition, and they still don’t get it

Before say anything further, I want to make it clear that I like Boris Johnson. I like him very much. Where most politicians are boring and bland, Boris is colourful. Where most politicians are untruthful, Boris is refreshingly honest. Often too honest for his own good.

Unfortunately, there is a slight problem in that Boris just doesn’t always ‘get it’. To be fair, there is a great deal of truth in his latest piece in the Daily Telegraph. Boris makes it perfectly clear that unwarranted government interference and Treasury penny pinching are the primary cause of the current problems on the First Great Western network. On that he’s quite accurate and it is refreshing to hear a balanced argument rather than the bland bleating of his colleague from Maidenhead, Theresa May.

Where I do take issue is with Boris’ assertion that High Speed Train sets can somehow be magically put into service right here and now. Does he honestly believe that if First Great Western could implement such a solution it wouldn’t jump at the chance to do so? The truth is that some HST sets are currently undergoing refurbishment at the engineering firm Bombardier – such work is necessary to extend the life of this much loved train and also to provide more seating capacity over the course of the franchise. This work cannot be done overnight; it’s a major engineering project which takes time. It is also the case that although there are some spare HSTs ‘knocking around’ the network, they cannot be used on the Great Western Mainline because they are not fitted with Automatic Train Protection (ATP). As unsatisfactory as it may be, safety must always come before passenger comfort or convenience.

What is also lacking from Boris’ article – although not being responsible for the transport brief he can probably be excused of such an omission – is a clear indication of how the Conservatives would do things differently. The Conservtives, as an opposition, can not be excused so easily. They have categorically failed to hold the government to account on the problems the Department for Transport has caused for First Great Western’s customers; and, more importantly, despite being in opposition for ten years, they still have no credible alternative as to how the rail network should be run.

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