Be like Rotterdam and ‘make it happen’

The planet is in danger. The trouble is that all too often targets and declarations can become ‘sign and forget’ – we need to act now

“The frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events have increased since the 1950s over most land area for which observational data are sufficient for trend analysis (high confidence) and human-induced climate change is likely the main driver.” Climate Change 2021 : The Physical Science Basis, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Get off your train (powered by renewable energy – because they all are) at the modernised Rotterdam Centraal station. Turn north out of the station (crossing the river of cyclists) and turn right. Close by you will find a public square with space for ball games. Much of the square is recessed, because that way the square can hold and store 1.7 million litres of water in a storm. The rain may fall fast but the water collects slowly in the square and then can be slowly released into the groundwater and nearby canal, thus reducing the risk of flash flooding.

Circle round the station and head down into the underground car park. It isn’t obvious but above you is an enormous water storage tank – its construction integral to the wider station rebuilding project. Again designed to hold rainwater to slow its release and reduce the risk of flooding when the hard rain falls.

Keep exploring the immediate vicinity of the station and you will find watercourses that were underground but are now open to the sky, tram lines set in a carpet of green and urban farms (ground level and on rooftops).

Organising principle

Targets, visions, speeches, declarations: the planet is in danger – we must act now. The trouble is that all too often targets and declarations can become ‘sign and forget’, displacement activities. International, national, regional, local, sectoral targets that don’t link up with each other. Hanging wires. On the kind of timescales we need to work on to limit the scale of climate damage what really matters is not what declarations an organisation has signed but what staff do when they go to work on Monday morning. Is it contributing to decarbonisation – or is it not?

The key challenge now of decarbonisation is not Extinction Rebellion finding ever more sensational ways of stopping buses and trams from moving in city centres, or delivering more earnest speeches. It’s organisational strategy and management, because the need to decarbonise is no longer a debating point, it’s a practical challenge. And for national and local government in particular it’s a very complex challenge: a three dimensional game of chess.

The first of the three dimensions is sectoral. The big three carbon generators are energy production, transport and the built environment. Carbon emissions from energy have fallen rapidly, transport is the worst offender at present (but there is some kind of plan) and then there’s the built environment (where the plan is sketchy to say the least). The clock is ticking so we need to move across all the sectors simultaneously and in sync. Like Rotterdam does – but also like Islington, which has sourced waste heat from the underground to heat council estates. Or Leeds, which put in the piping for district heating at the same time as making the city centre roads that sit on top of them favour active travel, buses and trees. You can find further practical examples that link transport and energy, as well as transport and the decarbonisation and adaptation of the built environment in our ‘Making the connections on climate’ report.

The second dimension is temporal. Some things you can do quickly and relatively easily on carbon reduction (replacing old buses with zero emission buses) and some things will take time and are hard (decarbonising the existing built environment). But if you don’t start on the hard stuff now then inevitably it isn’t going to happen in time. We need to get carbon emissions down as soon as possible so it would also be wrong not to crack on with the easier stuff. And different actions have different costs attached – some of which will fall over time (though only if somebody else invests in them when they are expensive so that unit costs can come down for everybody else). So given finite resources how do you get the sequencing right?

The third dimension is the balance between taking measures to decarbonise what an organisation is doing now and reducing the impacts of the carbon that is already in the sky. For example, do you use your land holdings and roof space to generate renewable energy through turbines or solar panels?

Or do you use it for making your city spongier and cooler through urban drainage systems and more greenery?

Winning this three dimensional game of chess is the challenge of the age. It means decarbonisation has to become everyone’s job within an organisation (as Covid was). It means working across disciplines and departmental boundaries and budgets. All this set against finite resources and the danger that if you touch too many public raw nerves then the backlash could set you back by years we don’t have.

Putting the money where the mouth is

As well as reorganising around the climate imperative, organisations will need to put their money where their mouth is.

The most important part of any organisation’s plans and strategies is not the vision at the front – it’s the annex at the back (which shows what the money is actually being spent on). And the annexes at the back on transport haven’t been changing fast enough. There are still too many road schemes in them and not enough roadside gardens.

Meanwhile, car use is too cheap and public transport use is too expensive. As long as this mismatch persists we are in danger of putting more subsidy into public transport just to keep it in the game. Not winning the game, just losing the game more slowly.

The way forward is for national and local government to find the opportunities where they can to level up the score between the car and public transport – which in turn needs to find a new and more attractive equilibrium on fares (lower and simpler than they are now).

A crunch is coming

The forthcoming multi-year spending review will be a key test of whether government is putting its money where its mouth is on decarbonisation. In previous spending reviews the government more widely has not treated transport as a protected department but within its beleaguered budget intercity road and rail spend has been given a degree of protection not afforded to local transport. However, it’s not credible in any way, shape or form to continue to give priority to a bloated £27bn national road programme which will pump yet more traffic into cities (which have tough air quality and climate goals to achieve) and stimulate more car dependent sprawl around junctions.

This is money which is being squandered at the same time as active travel and bus strategies have set out ambitious aspirations for delivering everything which the national road programme won’t do – reduce pollution and carbon, less social exclusion and fewer death and injuries on the roads. And although the £3bn promised for transformational bus funding sounds a lot – if you subtract what’s been spent already and then divide what’s left by three years, then by capital and revenue, and then by 79 local transport authorities – then it won’t come even close to the magnitude of what the bus strategy rightly envisages.

Utopias and dystopias

The strange thing about the moment we find ourselves in, at a time when we face a dystopian threat at a global level, is that the most practical thing we can do is be inspired by what might be seen as utopian ideals; greener cities, public transport as a universal service. But only if we organise ourselves methodically and adopt the slogan of the City of Rotterdam: ‘Make it Happen’.

Jonathan Bray, Director, Urban Transport Group.

A pdf of this article is available to download here.

From point A to B with a bit of poetry

Leeds 1953

Leeds was one of many cities that pre-figured what Beeching was to do to the national rail network in the Sixties by trashing their own mass transit system in the fifties. After World War Two housing was a bigger priority for public investment than comprehensively overhauling run down tram systems. At that time the parties competed over houses building targets (two million council houses were built between 1945 and 1960). And with trams, unlike housing, there was an alternative – let people sort out their own transport by buying a car whilst at the same time keeping the town hall bean counters happy by giving free reign to the bus side of the municipal public transport operation. Trams were also seen as part of the mean and sooty clutter left over from the last century. Tatty Victoriana that had no place in a Britain that yearned, in a way that was never resolved, for urban forms that reflected both the clean lines and bountifulness of Scandinavian social democracy and of American consumer capitalism. The post-war boom also exacerbated the twentieth century British trait for favouring idealised suburbs over the necessary evil of the city. And there is nothing that says city more than a tram. In short, the tram’s face did not fit in Britain in the Fifties and all were gone, bar Blackpool, before the Sixties had even got properly started. The scale of the mistake in cities like Leeds is a wound that still hasn’t healed. The Leeds tram system had as strong a case for retention as any – some of its routes had dedicated sections on central reservations, experimentation was taking place with more modern vehicles, there were plans for tunnelled city centre sections. Tram travel was cheap (the fares didn’t change between 1894 and 1944), frequent (every four minutes) and in 1950 the Leeds trams and buses carried a record number of passengers (252 million). But this was also a time when one of the city’s local newspapers was running an energetic campaign to get rid of them, blaming them for holding up the traffic, with headlines such as ‘Trams are museum pieces with no economic future.’ They were pushing at an open door. ‘Tha sees yon trams lad? We’re getting shot o’the buggars’ the Alderman in charge of transport told the young news reporter Keith Waterhouse. And he did. Alan Bennett later wrote: ‘Trams were bare and bony, transport reduced to its basic elements, and they had a song to sing, which buses never did. I was away at university when they started to phase them out…I knew at the time it was a mistake, just as Beeching was a mistake, and that life was starting to get nastier.’

Lviv 2016

I am not old enough to have experienced the British pre-modern tram systems but in some European cities you can get some idea of the kind of cheap as chips, dilapidated tram systems that operated 70 years ago here. Tram systems where you can feel the forces at work in moving metal and people along steel rails down a street. Can experience doubt about whether the violence of the physics involved might not allow it to happen this time. Each journey seeming like a final one accompanied by death rattle shuddering. Yet somehow gravity and electricity forces forward motion and adherence to the reluctant, bowed, flattened, sheared track. Bouncing vertically and laterally like a ship leaving harbour. Rooms near and far reverberate as it passes. From dusty turning circles where suburb and industrial quarter uneasily meet to turning circles at park gates and art nouveau university villas. Scruffy and elemental. Weary and patient. Restless but permanent. Indifferent to individual frailties and sorrows but a vessel for them all. The visual and aural punctuation marks of the street. Their shacky cabs are personalised with family photos and iconography. Imperious drivers behind scratched glass, curtains: they accept the offerings of fares wordlessly like a confessional. They observe the city – the markets, graveyards, the old town tourists. They forgive everything and nothing that happens in the city. Cars and taxis may win temporary victories in traffic but the tram always wins in the end. The T34 tank of the traffic jam.

When you are in a city with a tram it feels hard to take a city too seriously which doesn’t have one. They feel too insubstantial. The tram is a delicate skeletal system of a city. Sure a city can survive without it – but if you remove that fine silver bone structure it becomes less robust, more gelatinous. More subject to other fashionable mistakes. There is no living witness to what the city was. No nagging reminder of the urban ideal – something fluid and always noisily in motion.

2020

The revival of the tram since the early 1990s in England has come about through the persistence of transport authorities in riding out the wild mood swings (usually related to wider fiscal upturns and downturns) in Westminster and Whitehall about light rail. Mood swings that oscillate between ‘absolutely no way’ and ‘if you really must’ and the occasional outbreak of real politick or devolutionary enthusiasm. The highly centralised system of tax and spend in England makes second guessing local decisions about transit systems irresistible to officials who have free reign to treat the country they live in like the last part of the Raj. But as the decades have passed bloody minded persistence by transport authorities has meant that that when the cyclical thinking in Whitehall is at the right point they have been able seize the moment to ratchet up and expand their tram networks until more have evolved from single lines to proper European-style networks – without which the cities they serve would no longer be imaginable. And then came COVID.

2021

Much of my working life during the pandemic has been spent working with our members as we negotiate with Government to fill the funding gap caused by lost patronage due to the pandemic. It’s been hard yards and at the time of writing negotiations are ongoing about funding for the period after July 19th. Whatever the result of these immediate financial wranglings COVID could trigger another mood swing in Whitehall about trams. A swing back to them being seen as a series of one off provincial excesses which central Government must be wary of indulging. There’s therefore the need to take stock again of how the case for the tram is best made. And how the next phase of the long game is played. Here’s some propositions. Firstly, light rail currently lacks a champion within the DfT and as such risks losing out especially given the rigid modal caste system where heavy rail is the Brahmin mode and when bus has more universal coverage and is benefiting from the attention given to it by the national bus strategy. Where the role of advocacy for the mode sits outside of DfT could also benefit from more clarity. Secondly, there’s a need to make the case from the ground up for the benefits that trams bring to people and places – and do this in a way which sets out the practical benefits. Which is why we have recently commissioned a new version of the comprehensive summary we undertook in 2005 of what trams can do for cities. Thirdly, the sector should continue to seek to be outward facing with a focus on the wider transformative role it can have for the places it serves. Be about what it does rather than what it is. This is something French systems often do particularly well with both vehicles and the related changes to the urban realm designed to maximise the impact of the investment from day one. The quality is the point. But back to Alan Bennett who in 1991 also said: ‘If trams ever come back though, they should not come back as curiosities nor, God help up, as part of the heritage, but as a cheap and sensible way of getting from Point A to Point B, and with a bit of poetry thrown in.’ Will have to park the poetry for now and get back to making the hard nosed case…but he was right you know.

A PDF version of this article is available to download from this link.

I tried to stop a rail privatisation

Jonathon Bray, the co-ordinator of the pressure group Save Our Railways, at a London news conference where he announced a legal challenge in a bid to overturn cuts to train services under privatisation.

Since the Williams-Shapps rail plan was published it seems like everybody has been telling their story of rail privatisation. So I’m going to tell mine. I was the Coordinator of the Save our Railways campaign that, in the nineties, tried to stop privatisation. We came close too. Though, as it has turned out, it was rail privatisation’s own inherent contradictions and fault lines that led to its downfall. A downfall that came through a long (and perhaps as yet incomplete) unwinding triggered by a series of nervous breakdowns.

But let’s start with the origin of rail privatisation. Having worked their way through the foothills of other state sell-offs, rail was a true test of the prowess of the masters of the financial universe as well as a way of sorting the true privatisation believers from the milquetoasts. Indeed, it was an act of high and supreme neo-liberalism to turn a boring old integrated rail network into an exciting bazaar where government, passengers, and rail managers could shop around for just what they needed.

The fact that you were making a market of something that was largely a public service and required large amounts of public subsidy to support only added to the stimulation of the challenge. And if more public funding was needed to lubricate the process of meeting that challenge then so be it. For example, in order to create artificially profitable intercity services you had to load lots of the costs they used to bear onto regional rail services – thus increasing the cost to the public sector of regional services.

So far so baroque. But they also took two natural monopolies within the railway – the infrastructure and the existing rolling stock and privatised them as well. Selling-off the infrastructure wasn’t part of the original plan. But hell, why not? Plus, it would make it harder to put it all back together again.

The selling-off of the existing rolling stock was only a disaster in terms of pointlessly handing over Securicor vans full of public money for no benefit whatsoever as the rolling stock monopolies rented out sometimes knackered trains (that they had bought at a giveaway price) for eye watering amounts of money.

Selling off Railtrack was to prove to be a disaster full stop. As a PLC, Railtrack had a sort of duty to invest in preventative maintenance and responsible stewardship of complicated and often ageing safety critical assets. It also had an absolute legal duty to maximise dividends for shareholders. Guess which was given priority?

Meanwhile as the railway fragmented, and then fragmented again, a huge bureaucracy was necessary to service the various interfaces. And so, the contradictions and fault lines embedded themselves. You could paper over the cracks with cash for only so long. 

Could it all have been stopped before it even started? In December 1995, when we were standing on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, surrounded by camera crews and journalists, having just beaten the government in the Court of Appeal – it looked like it could be.

As Coordinator of Save our Railways, this was the high point. An alliance of the rail unions, local government and rail users, we had been running a take no prisoners campaign modelled on Alistair Campbell’s ‘attack, rebuttal, policy’ mantra. In those days there was no social media (or email!) so warfare was conducted via the press. We worked with transport correspondents and gave them what they wanted – good stories and uncompromising quotes.

Between us and them we gave the privatisation process a right battering. Shuttling from TV studio to the fax machine (that’s how you put out press releases in those days) we were one of the most high-profile campaigns of the day – in particular in London and the South East.

All of this prepared the way for the legal challenges which paid off with the Court of Appeal judgement. We knew that the courts wouldn’t block the use of primary legislation but the court actions were designed to give nervous Tory backbenchers the excuse to deliver the coup de grace. However, a series of unfortunate events for the railways meant that never happened.

The natural leader of a revolt, the rail enthusiast and committed privatisation opponent, Robert Adley MP had died in 1993 of a heart attack. Those Tory backbenchers most concerned about whether privatisation was going too far had already rebelled to halt the privatisation of the post office and were reluctant to inflict any further damage to their own party with the opinion polls looking ominous. If the sequencing of the two privatisations had been different then it may have been the other way round – with the railways remaining in public ownership rather than the post office. Meanwhile the Ulster unionists were squared and, although commuters like a good grumble, they don’t like using up their time away from working and commuting to get involved in organised rebellion about commuting.

One further and major factor was that the furore around rail privatisation had also led to a whole series of concessions being made around minimum service levels and fares protection. This simultaneously reduced the perceived risk of privatisation for Tory backbenchers whilst at the same time somewhat undermining the point of doing it in the first place (as it trampled all over the idea that the railways would be a free market). This helped get rail privatisation over the line but also became another crack in its foundations.

Whilst all this was going on, New Labour stood shoulder to shoulder with the campaign in public whilst staying their hand at key moments as the 1997 election drew close. After the election they continued to huff and puff whilst doing the bare minimum – which was eventually bringing the Strategic Rail Authority into being in 2001. Though since it was led by neo liberal true believers, nothing much of any consequence resulted. An exception being the occasional maverick tendencies of its first chair, Sir Alastair Morton, who started the process of devolving Merseyrail Electrics to the PTE with a long franchise. 

Railtrack went into financial meltdown in the aftermath of the Hatfield crash in October 2000 (and the subsequent nervous breakdown of the rail network) and as the costs of the West Coast Mainline upgrade ran out of control. And so (with great reluctance on the then Government’s part) the unwinding began with the creation of the halfway house of Network Rail. This put the engineers in charge of the infrastructure again. This is good in lots of ways – given we need a safe, reliable railway. Not so good if you want a railway that faces outwards to people and places rather than inwards to incomprehensible GRIP processes.

Meanwhile, the passenger railway was still in the domain of financial engineers. Gaming the system to take the money in the contractual good times and handing back the keys in the bad times. Remarkably, DfT fell for it every time. If a franchise bid looked too good to be true then… they signed on the dotted line. With few exceptions the franchisees left little trace and the public remained largely resentful, distrustful and apathetic about the whole project.

In particular, the privatised railway struggled to define itself in relation to that object of continual fascination, British Rail.  Why do preservationists paint everything that moves in British Railways livery whereas nobody celebrates the first privatised railway operators? Because BR’s replacements just feel too disposable and somehow illegitimate. They didn’t feel part of the lineage because they really weren’t adding very much. Bless them though, they have realised how they are perceived and, having tried every other form of branding, more of them are now seeking to take on the mantle through some kind of Dr Who style regeneration of the pre-nationalisation Big Four.

As important as the periodic nervous breakdowns of the system have been to its very slow-motion implosion, equally significant is the shape shifting of Johnson’s Conservatives. Like bus deregulation, rail privatisation, is no longer a totemic example of the benefits of free market competition which must be maintained and emulated as part of the wider neo-liberal project. Instead, transport is again a means to an end. The ends being what bus and rail can do for the wider economy, for levelling up, for keeping passengers happy. If bus deregulation and rail privatisation don’t do this then they can be unceremoniously thrown in a ditch. 

To this end, the Williams-Shapps review has brought the mother railway back in the form of GBR (sounds better when abbreviated). Though in some ways the mother railway never went away given the continuity of employees (including at the most senior level) and the way in which many of those employees were always trying to circumvent its internal market to just keep the trains running.

The unification of rail planning and rail infrastructure should lead to a less lopsided railway and a railway that is probably back in the same place that BR was. Trying to outwit and play the long game with DfT, the Treasury and Number Ten on behalf of the mother railway. Indeed, how GBR plays its hand – and to what end – will be more
important than a lot of the text of the Williams-Shapps review itself. The danger is that it turns inwards rather than outwards. But the opportunity is there to bring back the Great bits of British Railways, like a single intercity network that can give aviation a run for its money. Whilst at the same time working with the grain of the UK’s nations and regions to prove itself indispensable to their green growth agendas. One has to wonder though if this really is the last unwinding of rail privatisation. Or if the hassle, cost and risk of contracting out services, where operators have so little room for manoeuvre, will be the focus of a future review.

A shorter version of this post appeared in Passenger Transport and a pdf of the article can be downloaded
here
.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group