Speech

20 years since rail privatisation

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Secretary of State for Transport speech at an Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) event.

Thank you David.

And thank you everyone.

It’s a great pleasure to be with you today (9 July 2013).

At a very significant birthday party.

20 years since rail privatisation.

20 years of rising investment.

20 years of extraordinary growth on our railway.

As with all growing up, there have been a few wobbles along the way.

But we overcame them and learned from them.

And think back to where we started.

As a junior transport minister in the 1980s, I remember British Rail.

Underinvestment in tracks and trains.

Poor reliability.

Managers whose good ideas were too often stifled by a lack of cash…

…….because of course some people in British Rail did want to innovate.

And an ageing network in a declining industry.

John Major – then the Prime Minister - knew things could be better.

So tonight, I’d like to pay tribute to the people who got it right.

And those who over the past 20 years have made it happen.

But I also want to look ahead.

And ask:

How we can improve on the achievements of the past two decades?

How can we go on to do even better job in the future?

Let me start with some facts.

For most of the time since the Second World War rail traffic has been falling.

Since privatisation, journeys have doubled.

The network is roughly the same size as 15 years ago.

But there are 4,000 more services a day.

There’s been growth on lines that not long ago everyone had written off.

Rural routes.

Commuter links to cities like Leeds.

London’s remarkable new Overground.

Meanwhile, rail freight has grown by 60%.

This is the success of privatisation.

I could go on reading out figures.

About safety.

We now have the safest major railway in Europe.

About passenger satisfaction.

Or about punctuality, at near record levels.

Though it still isn’t perfect and sometimes things go badly wrong.

All this is why a recent EU study found that our railways are the most improved in Europe.

And why other countries have followed Britain’s lead.

Adopting franchising.

And creating separate operators for track and train.

But although we have much to celebrate, tonight is also a chance to look to the future.

In another twenty years our transport system is going to be different again.

HS2 will be built.

Crossrail will be a familiar part of London life.

Our current mainlines will be largely electric.

Services will often be faster and more frequent.

Away from the railways, things like car technology will have changed too.

We’ll have far more electric cars, and driverless ones too.

And planes will be more efficient than ever.

So we have a really amazing opportunity.

It’s what makes my job so exciting.

It’s also going to mean lots of challenges.

So how do we meet them?

My answer begins with a question.

What are our railways really for?

Different people might give different replies to that.

But at their core the railways have just one job.

To provide a service.

To move people.

To move goods.

To make life more pleasant.

To make our economy stronger.

Often – however - the rail industry makes things seem incredibly complex.

I include the Department for Transport in that.

Sometimes we talk about things that mean nothing to the travelling public.

HLOS. The Northern Hub. The Electric Spine. ATOC. The RDG.

After 10 months as Transport Secretary, it’s taken me a while to understand them all.

Although sometimes it’s better not to find out.

For instance, I suggested renaming HLOS the Rail Investment Programme….

…until an official pointed out that stood for R I P.

What are the consequences of all this complexity?

A rail industry that isn’t always as creative as it could be.

One that costs more to run than it should.

And one that’s still clinging on to some old practices and technologies.

I think everyone who uses or works for the railways recognises that.

So I want to challenge the industry and government…

…to find new ways to work together to give passengers what they want.

Which is a simpler fares structure and cheaper tickets.

That challenge shouldn’t sound revolutionary.

It’s precisely because the opportunities are so great that I want us to think hard about how we keep improving.

How we encourage more collaboration.

And how we build a better-value railway – not just for passengers, but for taxpayers too.

To use an old phrase – we’re getting there.

Just the other day I went to see SouthWest Trains.

They now collaborate closely with Network Rail under a joint venture.

They’ve created a single management team, responsible for trains and track.

This kind of joined up working isn’t bad for competition.

Neither is it an end to the market.

It’s just a commonsense example of how to make things work.

So if the first two decades of privatisation were about creating enterprise and growth.

The next decades are going to be about making sure all parts of the rail industry do what they do best as efficiently as possible.

Whether it’s selling tickets, running signals, or fixing track.

My message to you today is this.

We have a clear choice.

We could choose to look back.

Give up on progress.

Forget lessons that we’ve learnt about what works.

There are some who want to do that.

If the Opposition has any clear plans at all they seem to be about:

Opposing competition.

Letting union bosses call the shots.

And cutting off private investment.

That would mean higher fares.

Fewer services.

More crowding.

An industry once again in decline.

It would be a tragedy for passengers.

Or we could look positively to the future.

Because the railway is in a better position than it has been for generations.

With a government that is investing unprecedented sums.

With HS2 we’re committed to building the first new national rail network since the Victorian era.

And yes, it’s controversial.

Some people say were spending too much.

Others say we should spend more on tunnels and compensation.

Some say we are going to fast.

Others say too slow.

Some say Britain needs to invest more in the future.

Others that rules here are so complex it’s not worth trying.

As I often say, the easiest thing would be for us to do nothing.

But that would be to let down our country’s future.

We need the capacity that HS2 will provide to ease the strain on the ageing, overcrowded West Coast Mainline.

Without it, as our prosperity and population grow…

…links between our great cities will stagnate.

But HS2 is just part of a massive programme of transport investment.

This includes roads, airports and our current rail network too.

And what matters to today’s travellers is that we get the current industry structure to work even better.

And it’s happening.

Franchising might still be criticised by those who want to turn backwards.

Those who think centralised control is the future.

Those who can’t see the significant benefits that private sector operators have brought to the railway.

Those who haven’t learnt any lessons from the past.

But they are completely missing the point.

Look at today’s railway and you’ll find remarkable examples of open collaboration.

We need more of that.

Not control from the centre.

Or form-filling and box-ticking.

But innovation.

Freedom.

Allowing the private sector and the public sector each to do what they do best in partnership.

Not fragmentation.

But working together.

Getting back to the simple principle I set out earlier.

This is my commitment to you.

We want to see it happen over the next 20 years.

Thank you.

Please now join me and our hosts ATOC

…just next door for the reception.