It's become a truism of transport ministers that they end up reannouncing old schemes over and over again. Sometimes even their own.
Of course this has something to do with the timescales of the sector, but even so, there was some impressive sleight of hand from ministers at the Conservative Party conference this week that not merely demonstrated how easy it is to get a headline with a re-announcement but other old tricks...
...such as dressing up the North’s share of funding as special treatment and describing the replacement of paper tickets with plastic ones as ‘smart’.
To give chancellor Philip Hammond his due, the Treasury’s announcement of ‘£400m of extra funding’ for transport improvements across the Northern Powerhouse does appear to have included £300m of extra funding, in the form of cash ‘towards ensuring HS2 infrastructure can accommodate future Northern Powerhouse Rail and Midlands Connect services’.
But it was soon clear that £100m ‘towards local road schemes to bust congestion pinch-points and speed up journeys’ was money from the National Productivity Investment Fund. So not only had it been announced previously but also it was no more than the North’s share of the cash.
The Treasury confirmed that the £100m was part of £490m from the NPIF that is due to be announced in ‘early autumn 2017’. In that context, it doesn’t seem the ministers have been particularly generous towards the three regions that make up ‘the North’.
The Department for Transport will be announcing the rest of the cash soon.
Something very similar happened in January when the North's share of Local Growth funding was announced in advance of other regions.
Given the controversy that Transport Network has previously reported around ministers’ demands that councils bid competitively for this cash, the Treasury’s spin on the Government’s cherry-picking of bids was pretty brazen: ‘These have been proposed by local leaders who know their areas best and illustrated how this investment will be of the greatest benefit to local people to improve journeys and help support jobs.’
Proposed by local leaders, cherry picked by Government.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling didn’t so much re-announce an £80m plan to bring in ‘smart ticketing’ on the railway as make an announcement without announcing anything of substance. He claimed that he was ‘setting out details of our £80m programme to bring smart ticketing… using mobile phones, barcodes and smartcards across almost all of the rail network by the end of next year’.
One of Mr Grayling’s advisers has since confirmed that there are no further details on smart ticketing 'yet' and that they will be published 'in due course'. For those who don't know 'in due course' is Whitehall speak for 'when we can get around to it, now go away'.
The timetable for bringing in ‘smart ticketing’ by the end of 2018 could be seen a new development...if it hadn't been said before... and actually meant smart ticketing across the whole network.
In reality, Mr Grayling is suggesting there will be an alternative to paper tickets, although these alternatives will not necessarily provide interoperability. So in fact these new digital tickets will be just as dumb as their paper ancestors.
What Mr Grayling didn’t say, although it was reportedly in a briefing note from the Conservatives, was that he was ‘challenging the industry to accelerate proposals for the next generation of interoperable, pay-as-you-go smart ticketing systems’.
This gets to the nub of what isn’t happening with smart ticketing. As Transport Network has pointed out again and again, for which we apologise, most of what ministers describe as ‘smart ticketing’ does little more than giving passengers a plastic ticket instead of a paper one, with additional physical resilience but little by way of flexibility or interoperability between rail companies and other transport providers.
Which brings us to the scandalous South East Flexible Ticketing (SEFT) scheme, which also had a budget of £80m but achieved very little by way of genuine ‘smart’ ticketing. Exactly 20 months ago, Mr Grayling’s predecessor Patrick McLoughlin said of SEFT: ‘We’ve now reached a point where future development can be led by the private sector.’
That may explain why Mr Grayling did not, after all, challenge the rail industry to accelerate the introduction of genuinely smart ticketing. He did however say: ‘Our railways haven’t made nearly enough progress in using new technology for rail tickets.’
Finally a bit of candour to cut through the spin.