Habitués of bingo halls are aware that the routine cry of "shake the bag" miraculously increases the probability that the yet-unmarked numbers of the crier will soon appear. It is dispiriting when the bingo patron hears numbers called, none of which advances his (or indeed, her) journey towards enrichment. Over 1000 days have passed since the DfT updated its promised (a much degraded word, sadly) pipeline for doing useful stuff to the infrastructure. In the hope that the DfT's bag might be shaken a few thoughts are offered.
Daily we see evidence that the global heating crisis is, if anything, advancing faster than was thought. Glaciers recede, wildfires burn in places normally unburnt, temperature records are shattered. Yet one glacier remains solid and unaffected - the glacier that is the DfT's decision process. Officials spend weeks deferring decisions until every t is not only crossed, but illuminated as beautifully as a mediaeval manuscript. We all remember how the Great Timetable Chaos in the north of England a few years ago was caused by the DfT taking well over half the time scheduled for the improvements to make up its mind, leaving the industry to take all the flak for not doing a couple of years' work in a handful of months. The lesson has not been learned. As of the time of writing CP6 has been running for 40 months. Admittedly COVID has made a mess of much of the planning, but that fact - that COVID has supervened - is surely a signal that much more urgency is now needed, rather than the long leisurely process of...doing nothing. Very soon the industry will be starting the lengthy process of planning for CP7, due to start in April 2024, likely to be only a few weeks before the next Election (unless Ms Truss wisely decides to grab her chance before the economic skies fall in).
CP6 has been largely wasted. Industry leaders have had to focus on what "Great British Railways" will look like. The supply chain is deprived of orders. Skills are lost. The workforce is understandably keen to see wage increases. The Secretary of State says "not me, guv" while denying TOC management the freedom to negotiate. Passengers are receiving a worse service, and are likely to be paying a great deal more next spring.
Far North Express has contrasted the nice flat line of annual expenditure on electrifying the railway in Germany with the frightening ER diagram of the DfT's performance. Yet nothing changes - Secretaries of State come and go, most of them with little or no interest in the boring bit of their remit: the bit Mrs Thatcher so derided as being used only by other people. Yet this is the bit - were the DfT to act - which would make the sort of difference to the UK's carbon reduction targets that is urgently needed.
Railway commentators well remember the Serpell Report of 1982. It suggested massive cuts to the network which, at the railway's nadir, seemed capable of being taken all too seriously. Luckily it was torpedoed, but Serpell's ghost may still stalk the corridors of Great Minster House. If the unions "misbehave" might not the solution of so reducing the network that far fewer of their members were needed be one which might strike a chord? 40 years ago the ECML was going to stop at Newcastle and there would be no railway north of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Luckily no such nonsense is about to be visited on Scotland, but even here times are tough.
Some years ago a Member of the Friends of the Far North Line left a useful sum of money to us in his Will with the specific object of defending the Far North Line against possible closure. Since that threat has never seemed even remotely likely the money has been squirrelled away, even earning a decent rate of interest in happier times. Cassandra does not think that the FNL is under threat: everything he reads tells him that time and money are being invested in bringing improvements - request-stop kit, better RETB, a more passenger-friendly timetable based on Helmsdale, a loop even. Cassandra is equally confident that when he reaches Inverness there will be trains to carry him beyond into the desiccated south. But will there be a train from Waverley to Newcastle? Will diesel trains be as rare and exciting to small boys as steam locomotives are now? Will the DfT set any rigid targets for their removal? Will anyone shake their bag?