When the National Infrastructure Commission was created back in 2015 it was widely welcomed, including by the railways. The need for long-term planning of infrastructure development was long felt to be a gap for Government, and the idea of such a body had in fact been developed in some detail by the shadow Labour team during the 2012 Government term.
It was the incoming Conservative Government in 2015 which implemented the plans, but it was perhaps no surprise that Labour peer Lord Adonis was chosen to be its Chair, with Sir John Armitt appointed as Deputy Chair. Again, this was good news for the railways, with Lord Adonis having led the early development of HS2 during his time as Transport Minister.
Since its inception, the Commission has produced a number of consultations and reports, some relating to its establishment as a formal body, and others to specific infrastructure requirements, such as the Oxford – Cambridge corridor. These have been well received, and are helping to form the consensus for continued investment in infrastructure, planned on an evidenced-based, coherent and long-term basis.
In October, however, the Commission published a consultation on the interim National Infrastructure Assessment, ‘Congestion, Capacity, Carbon: Priorities for National Infrastructure’, which will lead to the Commission’s 2018 National Infrastructure Strategy, to be published next summer. Seemingly from nowhere, the consultation takes aim at rail freight, suggesting it should no longer be supported in investment decisions because of lorry platooning. Platooning, it argues, will lead to such radical improvements in road freight efficiency as to undermine the case for rail freight, which in turn will enable network capacity to be used for more passenger trains.
This conclusion is, to say the least, bizarre, since encouragement of rail freight is established Government policy. DfT and Transport Scotland have both recently published rail freight strategies, and there was explicit support in all three main party manifestos at the 2017 General Election. Network Rail has been funded to invest for freight, and there are good indications that further investment will be forthcoming in Control Period 6 (2019-24). Whilst the Commission is independent of Government, and has a role to look to the future, the leap from the current strong support to one where rail freight is effectively discouraged is concerning.