I bring you tidings of great joy

The problem for the faceless ones behind the Government PR machine is that the bigger the splash that you want to make, the more ministers that you will have to press into service. The more ministers that you involve, the more likely it is that someone will suffer a “foot in the mouth” moment. With the current accident-prone Government, this likelihood becomes a near certainty.

So it was with the recent announcement of a £9 billion investment in the railways under the “High Level Output Specification” programme for 2014-2019. Now this announcement was, subject to the usual confusion about what is “new money” and what has previously been announced, good news for railway passengers – provided, that is, that you ignore the likely impact on fare levels. So I can understand that the Government wanted to make a big thing of the announcement, and that it was a good opportunity for the leaders of the two political parties in the Coalition Government to turn this into a demonstration of togetherness. The occasion chosen for Messrs Cameron and Clegg to celebrate the announcement, together, was a Cabinet meeting held in Birmingham and the location was a railway repair shop – I wonder who thought of that one!

I’m sure that, beleaguered as he is by the troubles that being a minority partner in a coalition are bringing, Mr Clegg was particularly keen to celebrate the announcement, since the electrification of the Midlands Main Line, something that Mr Clegg has been pressing for on behalf of his Sheffield constituents, is included in the package.

However, it seems that the twosome in the railway repair shop was not considered sufficient publicity for the announcement of this important railway investment, and prior to the Cabinet meeting, its members and other ministers had been dispersed to strategic points to take the good news message, in the words of a Downing Street release, “directly to people today by visiting many regions of the country”.

Someone thought that it would be a good idea if Caroline Spelman MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, visited Coventry railway station. After all Mrs Spelman’s constituency is Meriden, which sits between Coventry and Birmingham, and trains are good for the environment. So a good idea then? Well, no actually; it transpired that it was rather a bad idea.

The Environment Secretary duly arrived at Coventry Station at 09:30, but set the tone for the visit rather by choosing to travel there by ministerial car rather than by train. As it was a Monday, perhaps she had travelled from her constituency rather than London, in which case she can be excused that rather poor piece of stage management. However, it is rather more difficult to excuse her for what happened during her visit.

Reporter Les Reid, from the local Coventry Telegraph, was there to hear what Mrs Spelman said, and it is clear from the article that he wrote for his newspaper that he found her remarks somewhat confusing. He reported that she had said that £140 million of the £9 billion investment would be used to provide improved links between the existing network and HS2 and she particularly mentioned Coventry.

Now it appears that Mr Reid, being a good reporter, did not really believe what Mrs Spelman was telling him, and referred to the press office at the Department for Transport (DfT) for clarification. He tells the whole story in his blog Air turns Malcolm Tucker-style blue, as minister’s gaffe de-rails coalition re-launch at Coventry. There he repeats his understanding of what Mrs Spelman said:

“Mrs Spelman had claimed some of the investment would improve Coventry people’s links to a planned station near the NEC for the HS2 high-speed rail line.”

The clarification that Mr Reid received was that “the £140million would, in fact, be a national funding pot for rail industry bids for ‘innovative’ schemes”. He quotes a senior government press officer as saying:

“Rail companies and organisations could, if they wished, bid for a slice of funding to improve links to HS2 from anywhere along the route.”

And reports further on the conversation:

“He added bidding was more likely to come for the Birmingham area. Whether or not Coventry would get better links to HS2, he said, would be decided in the bidding process. Rail experts say it could include a people-mover as a connecting service from Birmingham International.”

This highlights one of the things that we already know; the essential link from the somewhat isolated site of the Birmingham Interchange station and the rest of the Birmingham International complex, including the West Coast Main Line (WCML) station, is not included in the HS2 Ltd plans and will have to be funded from elsewhere.

The press officer was at pains to protect Mrs Spelman from the blame for her gaffe, saying “It is not her fault. It was an inept briefing on the part of our team.”

However, surely Mrs Spelman, as an MP from the Birmingham/Coventry area and representing the constituency in which the planned Birmingham Interchange HS2 station would be located, should have realised that she was talking nonsense. It takes 10 minutes to travel from Coventry to Birmingham International on the fastest service on the WCML. So a direct Coventry to Birmingham Interchange rail link would probably be similar.

Anyone at Coventry Station wishing to travel to London via a new rail link to Birmingham Interchange and HS2 would incur that 10 minutes plus a service interchange time (say 5 minutes minimum) plus the HS2 travel time, which HS2 Ltd claim will be 38 minutes; that’s a total of 52 minutes, minimum.

At the moment it takes 63 minutes on the three an hour Virgin Trains service to London. Why would anyone want to travel the extra link to Birmingham Interchange, and risk missing a connection, to save 11 minutes, even if a direct link from Coventry was built?

Where going via Birmingham Interchange might have attractions is for those wishing to travel from Coventry up the eastern branch of the HS2 Y. However, this will not be possible until well into the 2030s and the demand for this route alone would be unlikely to justify building a link from Coventry to HS2.

Of course, Mrs Spelman may know more than I think. Perhaps she is privy to information on how much the Coventry-Euston service will be degraded once HS2 is operational. On the other hand, perhaps she is a little out of touch with the realities of train travel these days; after all, there is that ministerial car!

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