This is the week the government finally admitted it was planning to pull on the plug on any meaningful investment in public transport outside of the M25 (and even that isn’t as safe as Londoners have been told). The Manchester Evening News ran a blackened masthead two nights in a row to mourn the death of Metrolink; City Councillors took to the streets to demand ministers’ resignations.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott had promised the Metrolink extension would go ahead (and that work would start straightaway) when he held the transport portfolio in 2000. Now he refuses to comment. Two years later Alistair Darling, Prescott’s effective successor, announced the contract. On their say-so around £200m has already been spent; homes, a school and other properties have been demolished to make way for stations that will not be built and track that will never be laid; tunnels have been drilled and Manchester Airport now has a tram stop that will never be used.
But Darling’s real aim has always been to save money. The rail regulator, Tom Winsor, was appointed not to represent rail users, but to cut costs. He fought against the railways’ private operators for delays in the upgrading of rail lines. By 2002, train operator Virgin had been paid £100m in compensation after buying fast trains on the basis of a government promise to upgrade the track.
A series of value-for-money reviews, now means that the only non-road investment in transport is pledged to London’s Crossrail. But given that this pledge is made on similar terms to those Manchester got in 2000, Londoners would be foolish to allow their expectations to rise.
Still ministers remind us of how much the Department of Transport has spent, without mentioning how much they’ve wasted. One such boastful minister is Kim Howells, Darling’s rather dim junior.
Speaking on BBC North West Tonight, Howells faked affront at being told the government was undermining public transport. Kim spoke of (scaled-down) investment the West Coast Mainline that links Manchester to the capital. This was a mistake. No London-Manchester service currently uses that line because it’s broken and dependent upon rail replacement busses. Stockport, one of the country’s largest towns, currently has no train service at all. London-Manchester trains cross the Pennines to use the East Coast track. This greatly inferior service is now so expensive it struggles to compete with the plane: travelling before 9am, a weekday daytrip costs £151 (train) Vs £148.40 (flying).
Kim Howells also reminded viewers that millions of pounds have been spent rebuilding Manchester and Stockport train stations (I have to concede that Piccadilly is very nice now). But nobody seems to have told the minister that stations without trains are of little use.
Click here for the Manchester Evening News campaign to save Metrolink, which you can support by texting the word tram followed by a space then your name and postcode to 83105. Each text costs 25p plus your standard message rate. The service is provided by Cellus.