DIFFICULT QUESTIONS LOOM AHEAD FOR MINISTERS
13 August 2015 | Author: Louise Ellman MP, Chair, Transport Select Committee

Louise Ellman

I was very pleased to be re-elected unopposed as chair of the Transport Select Committee in July/ August. Although this parliament is only a few weeks old, a number of controversial issues which warrant investigation have already emerged.

The performance of Network Rail is at the top of this list. Six months ago the committee warned the Government that ministers had been announcing the electrification of rail lines without knowing how much each project would cost, leading to uncertainty over whether the electrification would be delivered on time, or even delivered at all.

These concerns had been exacerbated by Network Rail's performance during the first six months of the 2014-19 funding period, and in particular the overrunning engineering works on the East Coast and Great Western main lines which caused chaos at Christmas.

We warned of "systemic weaknesses in Network Rail's capacity to plan and execute" the engineering works required to upgrade the railway, and were clear that there were serious concerns that it would not be able to deliver the ambitious £38bn programme for 2014-19 (control period 5).

Ministers seemed determined to ignore our warnings, despite the evidence that the electrification programme was in serious trouble. While the Secretary of State finally admitted to us in March that the electrification of the north trans-Pennine line between Manchester and York would not be completed on time, this was not reflected in the statements made by the prime minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It was a complete turnaroundwhen the Transport Secretary came to the House just weeks after the election to announce that both the electrification of the north trans-Pennine line as well as the Midland main line south from Sheffield were not only delayed but "paused". It is unclear what precisely this means.

The Government has chosen to divert resources to Great Western electrification, which is now over budget by as much as a factor of three, and rumoured to be over a year behind schedule. I am very disappointed by the decision to relegate transport in the North in this way and will be asking my new committee to agree to undertake an inquiry into Network Rail.

There are also questions for ministers and the Office of Rail and Road to answer about why the 2014-19 spending plan was agreed, when the Transport Committee's warning that it was undeliverable has proved to be correct.

The second major development since the election has been the publication of the final report from the Airports Commission. Delayed until after the election, Sir Howard Davies's work is thorough and considered, and deserves a prompt and committed response from Government.

I welcome Sir Howard's support for a third runway at Heathrow, which echoes the findings of the Transport Committee in 2013. Heathrow expansion will not only maintain our vital aviation hub, but will also improve connectivity with the nations and regions of the UK.

The challenge will be for the Government to act: for too long airport expansion has been viewed as too difficult, with decisions deferred and postponed. To delay again would have calamitous risks for the UK's economy.

Looking further ahead into this parliament, there are likely to be some difficult questions for ministers about transport policy.
• Who will be responsible for transport after the devolution to city regions and further devolution to Scotland and Wales?
• Will HS2 will be delivered as planned?
• As we approach the EU referendum, what would be the impact of leaving the EU on our transport policy, particularly on issues like the single European sky and ports regulation?
• How can we make transport as affordable as possible?
• As apps like Uber and car clubs grow in popularity, how will this change the way we drive or take public transport?
• How will transport policy adapt to rapid technological change?
• What is the future for local bus services, under threat from reduced local authority budgets?
• How can investment in transport infrastructure be implemented in an equitable way across the country?

The committee's initial work programme will be discussed and agreed later this month, and I look forward to updating Transport Times readers in the autumn with news about which issues we will be placing under the microscope.


Reference: Transport Times, July-Aug 2015 Issue

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