Former secretary of state for transport, Patrick McLoughlin, delivered this year’s George Bradshaw Address to a packed room at the impressive Institute of Civil Engineers building in London earlier this week. Here’s our round-up of what happened:
HS2: a light at the end of the tunnel
Unsurprisingly, HS2 was a hot topic. McLoughlin, like many of us in the industry, agreed that the whole project has taken far too long to reach this stage – and in infrastructure, delays are costly, both in procurement terms and in opportunity cost.
There simply has not been enough advocacy for HS2. What there has been has too often been misguided at best, or at worst, counterproductive. Put simply, the relationship with the public and the media has not been managed well: a sentiment which was also echoed in the Oakervee Review.
Of course, the railway industry is no stranger to bad press: McLoughlin gave the example of the negative coverage (especially from the Evening Standard) on the re-development of London Bridge – yet how many commuters think about this as they pass through the station today?
Fare reform: the time is now
Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was McLoughlin’s focus on fare reform, even going as far as to say his biggest regret as transport secretary was not ‘grasping the nettle’.
Every tweak and modification to the fare system since 1995 has been layered on top of what came before, creating an incredibly complex maze that even the most knowledgeable transport geeks will struggle to make sense of.
The growing popularity of split-ticketing is not something the industry should be proud of. Rather, it is a symptom of how tangled our rail fares have become.
A simpler system is desperately required, and will increase ridership according to McLoughlin: he suggested as much as a third of potential passengers are not using the railway due to the complexity of our ticketing system, but shied away from setting a target for the industry, on the grounds that it would be neither useful nor necessary.
So any advice for the current transport secretary? ‘Make fares fairer’ was the answer: perhaps the rail industry’s version of ‘Get Brexit Done?’
Ah, the elephant in the room. McLoughlin made lots of references to the forthcoming (?) Williams Review as a White Paper, reconfirming that the government intends to carry out whatever reforms Williams lays out – unlike the Oakervee review which was merely suggestions. Indeed, one of Oakervee’s recommendations, to axe the HS2 link to Stafford, Macclesfield and Stoke-on-Trent, already appears to have been ignored by the government.
The establishment of a strategic, guiding mind to oversee the railway (or a fat controller as some Thomas the Tank Engine fans have suggested) was mentioned favourably. McLoughlin argued that the fundamental aim must be to remove politicians from the day to day and the detail of the operating contracts, which would perhaps provide some much-needed certainty for the industry.
Pivoting back to fare reform, he added that third parties are profiting from an unnecessarily complex and clumsy ticketing system, suggesting that the role for private sector players, at least when it comes to ticketing, could be curtailed.
So plenty of food for thought, but at the same time a lingering hunger for what’s coming down the track. As McLoughlin rightly pointed out, many things in the railway industry are often delayed. The Williams Review is clearly no exception.