This speech was always going to be a tough one for the downtrodden Chris Grayling. The Transport Secretary’s recent endeavours in the job have earned him the less-than-flattering nickname of ‘failing Grayling’.
Perhaps more than many of his colleagues, Grayling needed a good speech today to secure his position. The conference comes in the wake of months of timetable failures and recent industrial strikes on the railway lines, as well as continued public calls yesterday for HS2 to be scrapped. In the face of a difficult year for British transport, Grayling did draw on some positives. He pointed out the successes of Britain’s aviation industry, including announcing the Government’s renewed commitment to Newquay airport, and also referred to the plans that the Conservatives have for Britain’s roads. This takes the form of a smart motorways programme intended to increase capacity and cut traffic, and also upgrades to the Major Road Network.
Despite this positive opening to his speech, the thorn in his side that is the British railways was always going to be the focus of people’s attention. His 7-minute late arrival to the speech – which has naturally drawn a multitude of puns relating to his lack of competency at timetabling – didn’t set him off to the best start. It has already formed the title of a rather scathing article from the Huffington Post. As Grayling points out, the current problems with Britain’s railways are not for lack of investment. He said the current Conservative Government is spending more on rail ‘than any Government in modern times.’
So, to get on the front foot, the Transport Secretary has now promised a ‘rail revolution’. Grayling has promised ‘an urgent review’ of the system, which will result in a White Paper next year. In the meantime, the spending on the railways, Grayling promises, “will not stop”. Whether this is a good or a bad thing remains to be seen. Isabel Hardman from the Spectator certainly isn’t convinced, failing to see where in Grayling’s speech he actually provides anything of substance to substantiate these revolutionary promises.
On the topic of rail, the Secretary gave HS2 very little space in his speech. All of about two lines, in fact. Whilst he stated that it will ‘ease pressure on our overcrowded rail network’, he did little else to advance the benefits of the project. It was an interesting omittance considering Boris Johnson’s provocative remarks yesterday stating that the Government should scrap the project in favour of developing northern rail links. Perhaps the Secretary did not think Johnson’s remarks even deserved an official response – after all, as Sajid Javid pointed out in the wake of the remark, Johnson is not even in the Government.
The Secretary also gave quite a bit of space in his speech to the future of Electric Vehicles (EVs) on Britain’s roads. Grayling pledged his support for the transition, including incentivising people to buy EVs and supporting research into related technology. But has the Government shot itself in the foot when it comes to the EV market? Recent Government documents pertaining to a no-deal scenario state that cars sold in the UK in such an outcome will no longer contribute towards manufacturers’ EU CO2 targets. This has, in essence, removed one of the largest incentives for car makers to sell their vehicles in the UK. The Secretary’s enthusiastic support of the transition to zero-emission vehicles is theoretically good, but Brexit might have just made what he acknowledged as ‘one of the most important challenges of our time’ that bit more challenging.