24th June 2009 Articles
Transport Times Conference, 24 June 2009 – Originally on ways2work
Transport Times has long been at the forefront of innovative thinking in transport policy, and I am delighted to be making my first major speech as Secretary of State, setting out my transport manifesto, at this conference.
The subject of your conference – “door to door public transport” – is a theme close to my heart. I know it invokes the dreaded words “integrated transport policy”, which Sir Humphrey Appleby famously described as “a bed of nails, a crown of thorns and a booby trap.” But then his minister, Jim Hacker, didn’t seem to achieve anything much at all in his many episodes as minister or indeed Prime Minister, so I am not proposing to take any lectures from him.
When it comes to tackling big challenges, I take the same approach at transport as I took for many years at education. I am an activist, not a fatalist, striving for a vision of a fundamentally better future and constantly working at a step-by-step game plan to get there. Indeed, the policy context has some strong similarities. For decades people said that there were deep intractable cultural reasons – the English class system and all that – why England had underperforming state schools, and that no government could do anything much about it. Furthermore, because the simple headline-grabbing policy solutions were mostly from the extremes of left and right – whether it was the abolition of private education from the left, or vouchers and a market free-for-all from the right – this only heightened the distrust of pragmatic Middle England that bold but sensible reform could bring about fundamental change for the better. Yet with a will and the right policies, it was possible to do so, commanding the broad confidence of the general public, by investment and reform focused on the essentials of improving teacher recruitment, school standards, school organisation and school leadership.
So too in transport. The fatalists are rife here as well. How many times have people told me that we just have to grin and bear congestion, that we in Britain are incapable of carrying through long-term infrastructure projects, that you will never get people cycling on British roads, and that our engineers simply aren’t up to French, German and Japanese standards, so we will never run railways as well.
I don’t buy any of that. On the contrary, there are grounds for optimism, and firm foundations on which to build. More than £150bn has been invested in transport infrastructure over the past decade. Thanks to John Prescott and Michael Heseltine, we now have High Speed One and the gloriously rebuilt St Pancras station. Thanks to John’s successors, who dealt successfully with the aftermath of the collapse of Railtrack, we now have a national rail system carrying more passengers than at any time since before Beeching, with greater capacity and high levels of safety and punctuality. The bus fleet is being modernised; a national concessionary fares scheme is in place for the over 60s and disabled people; and new powers have been given to local authorities to regulate and improve bus services. Road safety has improved markedly.