A version of this article was originally published in Rail Professional magazine, October 2017.
The political party conference season is back underway, and this year, rail is again attracting a high level of debate says account director, Ben Blackburn.
From funding to planning; from new market entrants to the possibility of market-leavers; from the fate of new rail plans to the sunlit uplands of continued growth, there are opinions to suit the mind of optimists and pessimists alike.
Sifting fact from fiction, spin from substance, is a pre-requisite of attending political conferences. Yet the tone and substance of the debates found, both in fringe meetings and in the conference halls themselves, are always an accurate barometer of what the political classes - and those who influence them - are thinking and how they are developing their policy agendas.
Given the annual budget’s move to the autumn, the Conservative conference is particularly valuable in providing a glimpse of what the chancellor may be setting out in a few months’ time. Meanwhile, the Labour conference is of real significance once again. The general election result has made the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership a genuine contender for government and the perilous state of the Conservatives in the Commons means Labour can enjoy meaningful influence over the passage of legislation.
For every argument expressed, there is an opposing view - and that breadth of opinion is what makes attending party conferences so useful. More than many other times in the last few years, rail professionals not only need to make their voices heard amongst the rhetoric of set-piece events - they also need to analyse the substance, put in place strategies to protect their long-term interests and have a stake in policy-making.
One thing is probable: rail’s capacity to command the attention of senior politicians - its ‘share of voice’ in the national debate - risks being diminished amidst the dominance of Brexit in parliament and the political discourse - for the immediate future at least.
Predicting future transport policy has always been a challenge. With government departments continuing to tighten their belts and mixed (and changing) signals about the approach to rail investment and delivery, this remains true. Behind the announcements of ‘record breaking investment’ in rail, there lurks a more profound concern over the financial trajectory of the industry, and how competing yet inter-related interests might be resolved.
In the spirit of ‘Devil’s advocate’, we have drawn together just some of the opposing views that are the subject of debate in the corridors of conference.
Regulation & funding
The Office of Rail and Road is continuing to be scrutinised for its part in what many see as uncontrolled costs and reduced efficiency in the industry, particularly for its part in the cost-overruns incurred by Network Rail. Following the same theme, with Network Rail now firmly back on the public books, and with the seemingly-unlimited overdraft turned off, is it a financial ‘basket case’, or is it becoming more agile and commercially-minded, after restructuring and greater route focus?
Which leads us to future funding for rail. Is it ‘back to the 1970s’ - with year-on-year settlements looming – and a ‘stop-start’ patchwork of investment? The hiatus caused by a ‘hand-to-mouth’ funding regime would mean bad news for suppliers, importing cost and uncertainty, and leading to postponed investment decisions. Will the continued modernisation of the railways make the UK supply chain a ‘land of plenty’ or one of ‘feast and famine’, never quite reaching its full potential?
Future rolling stock
Driving down costs, through innovation and efficiency, is seen to be mission-critical for the continued health of the industry. There’s been Driver-Only Operation on Britain’s railways for decades, yet now there is fierce opposition, with allegations that safety could be compromised. With the Department for Transport continuing to specify DOO as an option on franchises, they are clearly not minded to back down to the concerns of unions and some customers too. Driver-only, and driver-less operation too, represent a significant challenge to all elements of the industry. How can operators, manufacturers and others shape the debate and the public’s popular perception of these innovations to re-balance the conversation? Would widespread implementation be an Achilles’ heel, creating a rod for the industry’s back, or a long overdue and necessary element of the wider modernisation of the railways?
This summer has been dominated by the government’s change in approach to its previously ambitious electrification programme, with a new emphasis coming directly from the secretary of state on the benefits of bi-bode and alternative fuel trains are a cost-effective, efficient and less disrupting solution to bringing about service improvements beyond the fringes of electrification. But, predictably, this has gone down badly with many in the industry, in parliament, and amongst the wider public - particularly in the large swathes of the country where long-promised and fought-for electrification would bring real benefits.
Complexity across parties & geography
Those attending Labour conference will have heard some disquiet about the government’s strategy, yet it is the tone of the debate at the Conservative conference that provides most accurate prediction of the long-term sustainability of it. With the Tories now seeing traditionally Labour-voting ‘northern heartlands’ as floating seats, how will their backbenchers representing north of England constituencies negotiate their competing loyalties to the party and to their constituents?
The theme of the north-south (or, perhaps, rural and metropolitan, or south east and the rest) divide will resonate, too, with the government’s approach to transformative major infrastructure schemes. Some will argue that Crossrail 2 was waved through by government, in the same week that ‘the plug was pulled’ on schemes elsewhere. Meanwhile the so-called ‘Crossrail for the North’ (or Northern Powerhouse Rail) has received a less than ebullient public backing in recent DfT and government publications. There is certainly much evidence to suggest that the economic muscle of the south east continues to curry favour with ministers - irrespective of the political colour of devolved governments - and will always result in disproportionate investment in the region. Yet the government has stated that the Northern Powerhouse is not dead - will they back this up with commitment to meaningful investment and a compelling strategy, or will they rely on the newly elected city region mayors to deliver it?
Attendance at political conferences is never dull, and those attending this year will have seen the strength of the rail industry’s presence in the exhibition halls and fringe sessions - and in meetings in the hotel lobbies and side rooms too. Yet despite all the hard work, the industry still faces challenges in how it communicates with political audiences, whether they are local MPs, ministers, city region mayors or local authorities.
Conference is excellent for building and maintaining these vital relationships; but they are not the be-all and end-all. The best engagement programmes, particularly if they involve finding solutions to the most complex, controversial and intransigent issues, cannot be left to just one time of the year. For these, the industry should see the autumn conferences as a cornerstone of a sustained, ongoing and continually evolving dialogue. If just seen as a ‘one hit wonder’, your investment in them will all too often fail to bear fruit.
To speak to a public affairs consultant about getting the most out of your attendance at party conferences, and your wider stakeholder engagement and political communications strategy, call 0207 067 1595 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org