General election: What the Conservative Party manifesto says about travel and transport

Simon Calder
Extra space: the proposed third runway (left): Heathrow Airport

The Conservative Party has unveiled its manifesto for the general election on 12 December 2019. These are the key points on transport and travel.

Mission statement

“We will invest £100bn in additional infrastructure spending on roads, rail and other responsible, productive investment which will repair and refurbish the fabric of our country and generate greater growth.”

Key ideas

Rail would receive many tens of billions of pounds in investments. There is a firm commitment to build Northern Powerhouse Rail (formerly known as High Speed 3) between Leeds and Manchester, “and then focus on Liverpool, Tees Valley, Hull, Sheffield and Newcastle”.

The “Midlands Rail Hub” would see links “strengthened” between Birmingham, Coventry, Derby, Hereford, Leicester, Nottingham and Worcester. The commitment to “improving train lines to the southwest and East Anglia” looks vague and therefore easy to accomplish.

More solid is the vow to “restore many of the Beeching lines” – the 3,000 miles of railway closed after a review of the network begun by the Conservatives in the early 1960s and continued for the rest of the decade by the Labour Party.

The manifesto picks out Fleetwood in Lancashire and Willenhall in Staffordshire as examples of towns “that have suffered permanent disadvantage since they were removed from the rail network”. Both are in Con-Lab marginal constituencies.

The “complicated franchising model” that the Conservatives first devised would be scrapped, in favour of “a simpler, more effective rail system”. No indication is given about how this would look, except that metro mayors would get “control over services in their areas”.

Whoever ends up running the trains would be obliged to set up “minimum service agreements” with the RMT, TSSA and Aslef unions to guarantee that a certain number of trains operate during the seemingly increasing number of rail strikes.

Another eye-catching policy is to give city regions outside the capital the funding to upgrade their bus, tram and train services to make them “as good as London’s, with more frequent, better-integrated services, more electrification, modern buses and trains and smart ticketing”.

Strategic and local roads would benefit from a very precise £28.8bn investment.

No price tag is attached to the promise to invest in “super-bus networks with lower fares”, nor bringing back rural routes that have been closed during the past nine years of Conservative-led governments.

In the skies, “we will use new air traffic control technology to cut the time aircraft spend waiting to land, reducing delays, noise nuisance and pollution”.

Heathrow airport expansion

The Independent prediction – “Any reference to Heathrow will be shrouded in non-committal verbiage about the environmental impact” – was duly proved correct.

The manifesto says of the third runway plan: “It is for Heathrow to demonstrate that it can meet its air quality and noise obligations, that the project can be financed and built and that the business case is realistic. The scheme will receive no new public money.”

High Speed 2 rail project

“HS2 is a great ambition, but will now cost at least £81bn and will not reach Leeds or Manchester until as late as 2040,” says the manifesto.

The findings of the Oakervee Review into the project – which, a leak indicates, says it should continue – will be “considered”.

Tourism

The word “tourism” appears exactly three times in the manifesto: twice in reference to “health tourism,” the practice of visitors travelling to the UK for medical treatment, and once in the context of improving tourism in Northern Ireland.

The Independent's analysis

Supporters of rail expansion will be largely cheered – and perhaps amazed – by the promises in the manifesto for investment.

Even if only one-third of the lines closed by recommendation of Dr Beeching were to be re-opened, the restoration of 1,000 miles of railway would be an extraordinary undertaking. The 35-mile Borders Railway, once again running south of Edinburgh, cost over £10m per mile – yet the trackbed has largely been preserved. In many other areas, lines have been built upon. The price tag is likely to be at least £20bn.

The Conservatives would “work with leaders of the Midlands and the North to decide the optimal outcome” for High Speed 2; since they are overwhelmingly in favour of HS2, that suggests the project has a good chance of going ahead.

The promise of prioritising Northern Powerhouse Rail between Leeds and Manchester is an example of “build it and they will come”, since passenger flow across the Pennines is currently relatively thin.

Transport chiefs in Bristol, Birmingham, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bradford, Leeds and Newcastle will seize upon the promise “to upgrade their bus, tram and train services to make them as good as London’s”. On rail links such as Wakefield to Leeds and Bolton to Manchester, that implies 10 fast off-peak services every hour, the same as East Croydon to London Victoria – doubling the present frequency.

The lack of commitment on Heathrow expansion was expected. Boris Johnson’s position on a third runway at Europe’s busiest airport is well known. When Mr Johnson was first a candidate for the Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency in 2015, he vowed: “I will lie down with you in front of those bulldozers and stop the building, stop the construction of that third runway.”

When expansion was recommended by the Davies Commission, Mr Johnson said legal challenges would prevent the runway ever being built: “I don’t think my services as a bulldozer blocker are going to be needed.”

But he was conveniently absent from parliament for the vote on Heathrow’s expansion, which MPs overwhelmingly endorsed.

One assurance that opponents of the third runway (or proponents of alternative schemes) will seize upon is: “The scheme will receive no new public money.” A cross-party group of MPs claimed that the taxpayer would have to bear £10bn in additional rail and road spending.

The Conservatives’ vow to use air traffic control technology to aircraft waiting times is odd. All the current work for making more efficient use of airspace is being done at a European level, and leaving the EU is likely to complicate and slow progress in the UK.

British tourism businesses will groan collectively that it has been omitted from the manifesto, given the damage that Brexit is already causing to the industry – from staff shortages to confusion in Europe about passport rules.

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