Four reasons the DfT’s rail electrification announcement went wrong

Manchester Piccadilly Station

A week ago the Department for Transport announced “new improvements for rail passengers in Wales, the Midlands and the North.”

There was no longer any need to electrify more rail lines, they said. New bi-mode trains, running on both diesel and electric, would be brought into service on existing lines. “Your train journeys are getting better sooner” trumpeted the YouTube animation that accompanied it.

A week later and it’s hard to find anyone who isn’t up in arms about the announcement. Andy Burnham has led the charge of leaders across the North calling for electrification. Petitions against the decision litter the internet. The local media have been critical too.

So why did it go so wrong?

1. Rail electrification is a big deal

Everyone has said for years that electrifying railways is the way to go, and good progress has been made. Organisations like Transport for the North and Rail North have done some excellent work promoting and planning for it. So if the Government is going to turn around and say “rail electrification really isn’t so important after all”, it had better have a good case prepared. Instead, the DfT appeared to be doing a U-turn on years of policy and hard work.

2. The timing was bad

If you’re going to announce a cut-price rail solution for the provinces, best not to then announce the £30bn Crossrail 2 project for the South East just four days later. Crossrail 2 is, of course, all electric. It’s like saying to your kid “your holiday in Disneyland is cancelled, so this year we’re going to Skegness. But don’t worry, Skegness is even better than Disneyland.” Then four days later you say “by the way, your sister’s going to Disneyland but you’re still going to Skeggy.” It’s really not going to end well. But that’s just what the DfT did, with the Crossrail 2 announcement coming out on 24 July.

3. People didn’t feel respected

No-one likes to feel like they’re being taken for a fool. We all know bad news comes along from time to time, and we can deal with it. But the DfT appeared to many to be claiming black was white in portraying the scrapping of electrification plans as a positive step for passengers. So a lot of people not only believed the decision was wrong but felt they’d been treated like idiots. The DfT’s comms approach came across to many as clumsy.

4. It played into a wider narrative

Ever since George Osborne left government there have been question marks over the future of the Nothern Powerhouse. Successive Northern Powerhouse ministers, most recently Jake Berry, have been keen to stress the Government’s ongoing commitment to the project. But with growing scepticism in the North, people have been looking for real evidence that the Government is committed to re-balancing the national economy. By appearing to continue the pattern of showering money on London while cutting funding to the North, this announcement did the opposite. Anyone who believes that the Northern Powerhouse is little more than warm words now has real ammunition.

Can the Government turn this around? It’s possible, but it needs action, not just nice speeches. A good first step would be to give Transport for the North the statutory powers it’s been promised by the end of the year. That will allow the North to start making our own decisions on these key issues. Second, we need a firm commitment – with a budget behind it – for Northern Powerhouse Rail, and soon. Northern Powerhouse Rail, or HS3, is the proposed improved rail link between the northern cities. The Government has expressed support for both – now is the time to back that up.

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