“Difficult decisions are now due”: the transport challenges ahead

A high speed train, of the sort Britain will not be seeing any time soon. Image: Getty.

The new chair of the transport select committee on the challenges ahead.

If Chris Grayling’s re-appointment was intended to project an image of steady continuity, the reality for transport in this Parliament is anything but.

Difficult but necessary decisions have been postponed for two elections. They are now due. Coupled with problems on existing programmes, the challenges facing the Department for Transport are significant.

A decision on runway expansion is now critically overdue. A final vote was expected this summer, but all bets are off while the Parliamentary arithmetic remains so fragile. Any further delays would be deeply damaging for both the UK economy and an aviation industry already beset by uncertainty over the possible loss of international landing rights after Brexit.

HS3 – or Northern Powerhouse Rail – has reached the point where it must make the transition from a drawing room blueprint to a properly defined and funded government-backed plan. Official enthusiasm for Crossrail 2 seems to have waned, despite the critical and growing capacity constraints on the London rail network. Grayling’s support for a diesel car scrappage scheme has raised expectations, but the plan may experience Treasury resistance. And, of course, the legislation to extend HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds via the East Midlands is also due in this parliament. 

As new programmes begin, existing projects are slowly unwinding. The DfT and Network Rail committed to a multi-billion pound investment programme without a clear understanding of its costs or deliverability. Important investment programmes, such as main line electrification and freight schemes, are now delayed, over budget, and at risk of cancellation. Maintenance work is now being cut back despite serious safety concerns raised by the regulator and rail workers. Highways England’s Road Investment Strategy – which includes the flawed policy of removing the hard shoulder from motorways – looks set to suffer a similar trajectory.

Every region has a long list of promised or half-promised projects, the delivery of which now looks in doubt. In addition, the new Bus Services Act is about to come into contact with reality for the first time, and it is likely that some operators will fight tooth and nail to defend existing, de-regulated structures. And, as Labour’s frontbench has said, a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy has finally been produced, but there is precious little investment attached, raising serious questions over how the government will meet its target of increasing the share of sustainable transport journeys.


One of the Department for Transport’s most significant tasks has been its management of the rail franchising programme. Political attention has understandably focused on the question of ownership, but the existing franchise model is struggling on its own terms. Operators are exiting the market and the average number of bids is now below the department’s own target for realising value for money. Behind closed doors, it has been acknowledged that the risk of an operator defaulting has risen.

Ministers must make a significant choice. The status quo of direct awards to incumbent operators delivers neither the competition they want nor value for the taxpayer, but the alternative management contract model has failed on such a scale on Southern that it is not a politically viable option. Direct operation, which was successfully employed on East Coast and was championed in the recent Labour manifesto, is probably out of the question under a Conservative administration. And of course, the planned extension of Driver Only Operation – an assumption of future franchise awards – will be more difficult in a hung Parliament, which should lead to a reassessment of the Department’s industrial relations priorities.

Change is needed, but there are dangers associated with the remaining options that need to be taken into account. If a sudden decision was taken to radically change the existing franchise model – such as by auctioning off lucrative intercity access rights, as proposed by the Competition and Markets Authority – then there is a real danger that timetables could become unworkable. The UK’s world class rail supply chain thrives on certainty and contracts without it. With service quality and jobs at stake, effective scrutiny of rail policy will be even more important in this Parliament than in the last.

These are some of the imminent policy decisions facing ministers, but passengers may see things differently. Transport costs are an inflationary pressure on household budgets: regulated rail fares are up by 27 per cent since 2010; bus and air fares have risen by a third.

Proposals from the last parliament to improve travellers’ experiences, from advertising the cheapest available prices at petrol stations to motorway drivers and flexible rail ticketing, are in danger of falling off the agenda. Cuts to bus routes, investment delays arising from Network Rail’s financial difficulties and de-staffing proposals all have a negative effect on disabled passengers. These voices must be represented in the months and years ahead.

With so much going on, it’s welcome that more controversial proposals inherited from the Cameron administration – such as the planned privatisation of the government’s remaining stake in national air traffic control services – look unlikely to be pursued in a hung Parliament. The challenge for backbench scrutiny is to ensure that other important but stalled policy areas, such as updating the antiquated law on taxis and private hire vehicles or level crossing safety, are not left permanently in the ‘too difficult’ box.

As we head into this new and uncertain parliament, the transport agenda is crowded and congested. With no overall majority, effective scrutiny on a cross-party basis has become even more important – but I’m confident that backbenchers can play their part in improving infrastructure and services for passengers, drivers, and all other transport users.

Lilian Greenwood is the Labour MP for Nottingham South, the former shadow transport secretary and the new chair of the transport select committee.

 
 
 
 

How getting a dog made me hate London less

A dog called Martha. Image: Jamie Ross.

I never have been anything but a staunch hater of London. Growing up in what a friend from Chicago called “a forest reserve”, my entire life has been split between a suburban one in a leafy town near Dayton, Ohio and an urban one, spent in stupidly pretty, and still fairly leafy, Edinburgh. I moved to London for a hot second in 2016, hated my job as well as my surroundings, and left, pretty much immediately.

And then, almost two years later, I was offered my current role at the New Statesman, and I packed up my shit and dragged my reluctant boyfriend with me to do it all over again. I sort of enjoyed my summer in London – but I felt strongly that living in the city would never feel like anything other than a necessary evil.

I live in – this is your moment to laugh and call me a posh prick – Notting Hill. It’s a decent location, has more trees and parks than other parts of the city, and, most importantly, is the closest I could get to replicating my old neighbourhood of Stockbridge in Edinburgh, which I loved dearly. But even this isn’t enough to entirely counteract the fact my physical surroundings, on my commute to the office by the Temple, made me feel constantly claustrophobic and stressed. London is cold and unfriendly, compared to many parts of this country, and it is filthy – not in a snobby, prissy, precious fuckhead way, but in a “My life expectancy has probably dropped by three years breathing in this polluted air and stepping on broken glass” way. For my first few months in London, in the middle of the heat wave, walking the streets was like walking through an endless sludge: this was not a city I liked nor one I, really, wanted to live in.

Until I got a puppy.

The one condition my boyfriend imposed when he agreed to trudge down to London with me was that we find a flat where our letting agreement said that we could have dog. So, three months after our move, we got Martha, a twelve-week-old black cockapoo.

Getting her changed our lives in a lot of ways. It’s made it impossible for us to leave the house without having a human being on attendance to watch her like a hawk. It means I now have to wake up at 6:45am every day, weekends included, so that she can take a shit. She has improved our lives remarkably - I mean, we have a living floof doing sweet and adorable shit in our house – but she has changed things a lot.

And the thing I least expected this goddam dog to change has been the way has made me feel more integrated into this godforsaken city: she’s made me appreciate London, even with its downsides.

Actually, something else happened, without which I don’t think my point of view would have changed. Almost immediately after getting Martha – and I mean, like, within hours – I contracted a disgusting cold. The day after that cold cleared up, I got violent conjunctivitis, like the disgusting seven-year-old I am, which took a week to get over.

These two illnesses, combined, lasted around two weeks, so I was trapped at home for roughly seven days of the ten I would normally have been at work. That meant I was around to relieve the puppy burden from my home-working boyfriend.

I was tasked with dragging my puss-filled eyes out to let our dog have a run around, and to get her to piss every couple of hours. This new responsibility forced me to explore the neighbourhood that, for the three months previous, I had generally ignored. What I thought was the worst timing known to man was, not to exaggerate, life-changing. I’m not sure I would have come to this realisation about my new home had it not happened.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Another great day at the park! Pic by fellow small creature @esther.dominy.

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

Happy City by Charles Montgomery is a book all about how urban planning can make or break our wellbeing – what commutes, cars, bikes, and greenspace do to our mental health. One portion of the book is spent debunking the idea that the sheer amount of greenspace in an area is what makes us happy. Montgomery argues that it’s actually the regularity of greenspace that makes a real difference – it’s not just how much grass and trees there is in the city you live in, but how often you get to see it.


Pre-Martha, my exposure to grass amounted to the occasional lunch in a garden and a visit to Hyde Park once or twice a month. But within a matter of days of getting a dog, I learned that I had not one, not two, not three, but five (five!) piss locations within five (again: five!) minutes of my house. Some were suitable for little more than the aforementioned – but others gave her enough room to run after sticks, leaves, tennis balls, and, her favourite, other dogs, so that she’d be pleasantly exhausted for the rest of the day. What I originally thought was just an expanse of buildings and pavement stretching from my flat to Hyde Park was actually filled with pockets of green spaces that made this trash-laden hell-hole feel a lot less oppressive.

Spending time at parks where other dogs also go to piss meant I started to make relationships with other dog-owners too. For the first time in any place I’ve lived in outside of my home town, I actually started to meet my neighbours, and learn about things that were happening in my neighbourhood, that I would never otherwise never known about. I now know Tiggy, Rex, Bubba, and Charlie, as well as their respective owners. I also know about good pubs, family-run restaurants, and free events that are far better than the deeply average, pretentious brunch place recommended to me by The Culture Trip. My neighbourhood has feeling like a dead space between Tesco, my bus stop, and the tube, to a place I can see as a respite from the rest of this stressful city, full of people I know and new places I’d have otherwise not thought twice about.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Me and some new friends from the other day! Hoping for some more social time this weekend 

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

And taking her out at the same time every day, around the 7am mark, means we then almost always run into the same people. A very sweet kid walks to school around the same time and always smiles at her. We see the same woman with her dog, who always greets Martha with aggressive barking, ultimately ending in a congenial ass sniff. We let her jump up at the incredibly patient builders doing construction on a building at the end of our street.

This morning ritual, seeing my neighbourhood when it’s not rammed with tourists but is quiet and reserved for people who live or work nearby, has become a way to decompress at the start of every day. And as a woman, being up and out when it’s often dark, but seeing people I now recognise, means my neighbourhood has become less intimidating. For the first time in London, I feel safe and comfortable even late at night.

Beyond the confines of my neighbourhood, Martha has made me see London, not for what it does for me, but for what it provides for her. Never have I ever had such an appreciation for London’s public transport system than when I got my dog, who wears a big stupid grin at all times when riding the bus. (Her internal monologue honestly appears to be an endless loop of, “ALL OF THIS STUFF WOW MORE STUFF OH GOD REALLY COULD THERE ACTUALLY BE MORE STUFF HELLO EVERYONE HI OH HI WOULD YOU LIKE TO PET MY HEAD?”)

Even long journeys are now a delight, because watching your puppy be amazed, fascinated, and happy at all times, eventually passing out from exhaustion at all the energy expended, is incredibly heart-warming. Faced from the bus, London, even at its busiest, feels far better with my dog than on my own: her pure, unadulterated excitement is enough to make holding a wild animal on a packed motor vehicle worthwhile.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

dad taught me love • dad taught me patience • dad taught me pain

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

I’m almost certain I will never love London. I don’t think I will ever feel charmed enough by the charming parts to outweigh the onslaught of the, often, literal shit it brings with it. Not everything about having a dog in London is great, of course: there is trash everywhere, trash I used to pass nonchalantly but now have to heave my dog away from in case she eats a used condom or even another dog’s shit. And, obviously, living in a city is probably never great for an animal compared to, say, a suburb or the countryside.

But through my dog I’ve learned what’s actually around me, not just what I narrowly perceive on my begrudging walk to work. Doing that has made London feel a lot less like my own personal hell. Slowly, Martha is making London like some kind of twisted, imperfect, home for me.

Sarah Manavis is the digital culture and tech writer at the New Statesman. She tweets as @sarahmanavis.

Martha Ross-Manavis is small and cute dog. You can follow her on Instagram at @heythereitsmartha.