We have 5 years to transform our rail infrastructure, and a responsibility to future generations to get it right.
Thank you for inviting me to speak today (23 June 2015).
The timing for this year’s conference could hardly be better.
On National Women in Engineering Day, just over 6 weeks into a new parliament; a parliament that will continue where the last one left off, supporting a transformational investment in British infrastructure.
An investment which presents great opportunities, but an investment to which there are also some real threats.
In my view, for many decades successive British governments failed to invest in infrastructure.
We can speculate as to why.
Ideology about transport modes, a perception that there are no votes in new railways, a fear that it was all too difficult.
But the outcome was that by 2010, the World Economic Forum ranked Britain 33rd in the world for infrastructure quality, behind countries such as Chile, Tunisia and Namibia.
Not a happy place in the league tables if you have a plan to see our economy growing and Britain earning her way in the world.
Because without decent infrastructure, you can’t grow a local, regional or national economy.
So we put infrastructure investment second in our manifesto.
With a commitment that over the next 5 years we will invest £100 billion.
£70 billion of that will be invested in transport.
Within that total, I am pleased to say, rail features prominently.
We have a Prime Minister and a Chancellor who both understand the need for rail investment and can spot a Pacer at 100 yards, which may be why we got the go-ahead to phase them out in the latest franchise competition.
Over the next 5 years, we will complete Crossrail, start building HS2, get the new Intercity Express trains running, finish the work at London Bridge, Birmingham New Street and Manchester Victoria, and electrify hundreds of miles of track.
In fact we will transform railways that last had a complete overhaul when we replaced the steam engines in the 1950s.
It all means that this is an exciting time to be a rail infrastructure professional.
It’s a growth industry.
A great opportunity for global investors.
We have companies such as Hitachi moving their global rail headquarters to the UK; proof that we are on the threshold of a real rail renaissance.
But although we have every reason for excitement, we must not ignore the fact that there are 3 very big challenges to overcome.
The first challenge is that we still face significant financial constraints.
We have only been able to make this investment in our infrastructure because of the difficult decisions we have taken elsewhere.
5 years ago, the deficit was more than 10% of GDP; the highest in our peacetime history.
Today the deficit is half that, but it’s still among the highest in the developed world.
In the next few years we must eliminate the deficit completely.
So while our commitment to infrastructure investment is firm, it takes place against a background of prioritisation.
We have to use the next 5 years to become more efficient.
Because although this is a great time to be part of the rail engineering industry, as far as this government’s concerned, it’s not boom time.
Every pound we spend over the next 5 years must be made to count.
That’s the responsibility of the government when it allocates the money, and it’s also the responsibility of infrastructure professionals when you use the money.
So your task is to sharpen your project-cost pencils.
And treat tax payers’ money as if it is your own – which after all, it is.
The second challenge we will face over the next 5 years is to find enough people to make the rail renaissance happen.
We need more engineers, surveyors, construction workers, signallers and even drivers.
HS2 alone is expected to create 25,000 jobs during construction and 3000 jobs when in operation.
Our investment in existing railways creates a need for 10,000 new engineers.
And that’s at the same time as we need skilled people for all our other great infrastructure projects.
During the next 5 years, we need the construction and operation of transport to become the career that young people aspire to.
It already should be.
In what other career can you help make transformational changes to our national landscape that will last for generations to come?
Or contribute so directly to the future prosperity of our country?
Or learn skills that are in demand right across the world?
It’s time for the infrastructure sector to stand up and shout about what it does for the country, and what it can offer our brightest, most ambitious young people.
The government will help.
We will enshrine in law our commitment to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, many of which will serve infrastructure.
We are supporting specialised colleges.
The Crossrail Tunnelling Academy has enrolled over 10,000 students since opening in 2012.
This autumn the National Training Academy for Rail will open in Northampton.
In 2017, the National College for High Speed Rail will open at campuses in Birmingham and Doncaster.
But by far the greatest skills opportunity is the comparatively untapped potential of 51% of the population.
Women make up only 18% of the rail workforce, and around 4% of train drivers and railway engineers.
And when women do join the industry, often they don’t stay for long.
It’s estimated that 22,000 qualified women have not returned to the engineering sector after a career or maternity break.
So today, on National Women in Engineering Day, I urge the rail infrastructure industry to do whatever it takes to open the door to women.
The Rail Supply Group, co-chaired by the Secretary of State for Transport, is already looking at the question and will work with organisations such as Women in Rail to promote careers in the rail industry.
I am sure there is more the industry itself can do.
Perhaps by signing up your organisation to the national Inspiring Women campaign, which has already sent 15,000 women into schools to talk about their careers.
Or by taking a hard look at what puts women off from careers in rail infrastructure, and making urgent changes.
The third challenge we will face over the next 5 years is what David Higgins, writing in New Civil Engineer magazine this month, described as “fatalism, the great British disease”.
The symptoms of that disease, he wrote, are travelling delay, unreliability and poorly designed infrastructure.
I believe that the cause of the fatalistic disease is that we have come to accept a sticking-plaster approach to our national infrastructure.
Somewhere along the line, the birthplace Brunel became the country of make-do and mend.
Over the next 5 years, we have to cure this disease.
So, as David Higgins pointed out, while others are talking, debating the pros and cons, we need you to be doing.
Quietly carrying on, defying the doubters and the ditherers.
HS2 is the perfect example.
The debate has raged.
At times, the sceptics have held the airwaves.
But the engineers have got on with the job, planning what needs to be done.
And so far, parliament has rewarded that work by giving the scheme overwhelming support.
As a result, construction will begin in 2 years’ time.
In conclusion, I say this.
Over the next 5 years, together we will reshape our country.
Just as the transport pioneers of the past left us a legacy for the future, we have our own responsibility to future generations to get this investment right.
It’s a great time to be a rail infrastructure professional.
It’s a growth industry.
You have the backing of this government.
And a mission to fulfil.
The plans are there.
The money is there.
But keep your pencils sharp.
Now is the time for delivery.
Show it can be done.