TRANSPORT secretary Gormless Grant Shapps – he of ‘Jet Zero’ fame – made a major speech last week on the future of rail transport, scrapping the eastern leg of HS2 in favour of more investment in regional rail.
Good news, but the speech was dispiriting for what it left out – a bold ambition to achieve the transport revolution Britain so desperately needs, that Brexit seemed to promise and is so key to its future success.
Instead, allow me to introduce your Brexit Transport Secretary Ant Schnapps. He exists in a barely imaginable parallel universe – let’s call it Brexitland – where the Tories are conservative and Brexit really does mean Brexit. Unlike his near namesake in the real world, he is no lightweight careerist nor Remain-voting virtue-signaller.
This is the speech on transport policy Ant would have given.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, when it comes to the transport of people and of goods, Britain stands at not one but three crossroads, which together present us with huge, exciting opportunities, acting as foundation for our future prosperity.
‘The first crossroads, and the one that gives us the most immediate challenges, is the post-pandemic world. Covid-19 saw a step change in existing trends towards home working and online delivery, which has meant a rapid shift away from passenger transport towards freight. Government policy must react accordingly, and I am today announcing the scrapping of the £200billion HS2 project – a 1970s solution to a 21st problem, invented by London-based suits and consultants who have been royally rewarded for selling the British taxpayer this snake oil. Of course, passenger rail remains important, so we will do what we should have done from the start – spend significant money upgrading regional lines.
‘Moving to freight, it was always obvious that as we emerged from the pandemic there would be a spike in demand for HGV drivers, which is why I took early action to speed up licence applications at the DVLA. While it is true that some drivers went home to Eastern Europe after Brexit, another problem was older British drivers quitting due to changes in tax rules brought in by IR35. I am very pleased that my good friend Rishi Sunak has agreed to use a small fraction of the money saved from HS2 to make IR35 simpler and fairer, hopefully tempting experienced drivers back into their profession and getting Britain going again.
‘The second crossroads is, of course, Brexit. This has revealed our strategic over-reliance on the Dover-Calais link. It is also the case that our modern port infrastructure should reflect our post-Brexit patterns of trade. For these reasons, I am delighted to announce a speeding up of the free ports initiative and rebalancing of our port infrastructure away from the South East to deep-water ports in other parts of the country. Obviously, a port is only as good as the transport infrastructure that serves it, so we will be looking at investment here as well. I hope some of our historic ports, many of which are situated in the most depressed areas of our country, will share in that success and that this package will help with the levelling up agenda.
‘On that note, let us not forget our brothers and sisters in Ulster, cruelly treated by the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. I am of course thrilled that my colleague Lord Frost has unilaterally suspended the Protocol. Now we can make all of Northern Ireland a free port, and I am especially happy to announce the government’s intention of doing just that today. However, we must not stop there: we know that Ulster’s position in the United Kingdom has always been fraught, but transport infrastructure is a great way to bind people together. Regrettably, it seems we have to rule out a fixed link solution for now, but are there other upgrades we can make in the meantime to strengthen trade between the new Northern Ireland freeport and the mainland until the technological issues can be resolved. I am a Unionist, and you can’t spell ‘union’ without ‘NI’.
‘Lastly, the third crossroads we stand at is the amazing explosion in transport technology we are witnessing: everyone has heard of the driverless car, but how about flying drone cars or drone cargo delivery services? As the columnist Iain Dale recently noted, after the pioneering railway age Britain has been late to pretty much every transport revolution. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen again! In fact, Britain has some very exciting transport startups – Richard Branson’s Virgin hyperloop is probably best known, and I can reveal that I have been discussing with Sir Richard whether his hyperloop technology may be applicable to the UK. He is not alone – have you heard of Magway,, the amazing British startup that uses magnetic levitation and Internet of Things (IoT) technology to deliver packages via underground pipes? Then there is Ricky Sandhu’s drone port, the first in the world, which will open in Coventry next year.
We are uniquely placed, given our strength in depth in IT and Artificial intelligence on which these new technologies depend, to be at the forefront this time round, rather than bringing up the rear. It isn’t just the geeks who should profit – we will be making sure that the production of these amazing new vehicles happens here in the UK as well.
‘Yes, I know governments can’t bet the farm on new, unproven technologies, but when it comes to transport, government has an unavoidably significant role to play making sure that the regulatory and planning environment as well as public infrastructure helps entrepreneurs. So, again using a mere fraction of the money saved from HS2, we are setting up a series of pilot projects to study these issues. I have given instructions to my department to see how our more traditional infrastructure projects can be ‘futureproofed’ to incorporate these new technologies as they mature. For instance, are there simple, inexpensive architectural decisions we can take now when building or upgrading roads or railways that will later allow Magways to run beneath or alongside without hugely expensive retrofitting? Then there are the combined transport hubs of the future – can we envisage a world where such hubs include Magways travelling on long distance trunk routes link to both lorry parks and drone ports, with goods transferring automatically to drones or lorries for shorter-range individual deliveries direct to homes?
‘In the words of John Lennon – “you may say I am dreamer, but I am not the only one”. Brexit was a vote of confidence, daring and vision in our country, and I believe that transport is absolutely key to its future success – not just as a matter of getting people and goods from A to B, important though that is, but as symbols of ambition and looking to a futuristic world with confidence that today we can barely imagine.