Patrick McLoughlin is the Secretary of State for Transport and MP for Derbyshire Dales
This week has been marked by two important milestones for rail in Britain. One of them was the 50th anniversary of a Government report which was meant to herald the managed decline of the railways. It is an important, if misguided, part of the industry’s rich history. The other was the announcement of a comprehensive Government programme of franchising. This will be an integral part of its extremely bright future.
The passage of time has proved Dr Beeching was wrong about British railways. Far from being on the way out, the industry has never been stronger, with passenger numbers at record levels. Yet if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past, we need to remember that such a resurgence didn’t always seem inevitable. Indeed, I am drawn to another important anniversary that will take place this year: 20 years since the last Conservative government began the process of privatising a railway that was, at the time, still very much in decline.
That was the milestone I had most in mind when I stood up in the House to make my announcement on Tuesday. The franchising system has delivered huge improvements to our railways. The number of people travelling by train has more than doubled since privatisation, with more services, better punctuality and record levels of investment. Our new programme will build on those benefits, using competition to drive improvements for passengers.
The record of franchising also shows why it is right that we now take the East Coast Mainline, which has been run publicly since 2009 when the previous franchise collapsed, back into private hands. Directly Operated Railways, who currently run the line on behalf of the government, have done what was needed in difficult circumstances. But the service was last upgraded in the 1980s and needs revitalising now. And with new trains, which will be built in the North East, on order it is right that we invite bidders to put forward proposals for investing in and improving services.
It may surprise you to learn it, given Labour’s opposition to our announcement yesterday, but the public running of East Coast was only ever meant to be a temporary measure. In fact, when explaining the decision to Lords in July 2009, the then Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis was emphatic. "I do not believe that it would be in the public interest for us to have a nationalised train operating company indefinitely," he argued, "because of our recent experience of rail franchising, which has… delivered good value to the taxpayer and keen competition from established, successful train operators". Sadiq Khan, his counterpart in the Commons, was equally clear when addressing MPs.
The fact is that Labour consistently backed franchising in Government, through a succession of Transport Secretaries. But I am not all that surprised that, in opposition, they appear to have forgotten the improvements it can deliver. Having conspicuously failed to rule out re-nationalisation of the railways, Maria Eagle and her team now talk of maintaining ‘a public sector comparator’. Well, if she really wants a public sector comparator, I’ll give her one: does anyone remember British Rail?
Thankfully, though Labour may not have supported our announcement yesterday, I am confident it is the right one. You only have to look who is on our side – the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and Passenger Focus – and compare it with who is on theirs – the RMT. What is more, I can’t help but think that we will have had one or two quiet nods from some of those former Transport Secretaries too.