Transport Secretary for a day

7 30am A difficult breakfast meeting. David Rowlands, the permanent secretary, was none too pleased at being told he was being pensioned off with immediate effect and replaced by Stephen Joseph, the long time director of the pressure group Transport 2000. I explained that the radical change in direction of the department needed to be led by a person with Joseph’s commitment and although taking in someone from outside the civil service was unusual, it would bring a dynamism and focus that was essential in such a massive change programme. Rowlands departed muttering something about the British Constitution and left his croissant and orange juice untouched.

9 am Briefing with the leaders of the aviation industry. I wanted to stress from the outset that the new environmental focus of the Department for Transport would mean that the ridiculously low fares for air travel would have to go. Previous transport secretaries had argued that imposing tax on aviation fuel was a matter for global policy and could not be introduced by individual countries or even by the European Union. This was clearly nonsense. Britain is now going to push very strongly for a tax that will increase the cost of flights by £10 immediately with further rises annually. The logic is simple. Most planes only fly within the European Union and even long haul jets would have to purchase their fuel at European journeys for their outbound legs.

Unfortunately, the briefing got rather heated and Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, whose effing and blinding had become louder and louder, had to be escorted out of the building by security shouting ‘See you in Strasbourg’. Not on one of his flights! Most of the other airline people however were pretty sanguine, as they realised that this measure was long overdue and had, secretly, planned for it.

11 am Dropped into John Prescott’s office. He has kindly coordinated a meeting of several senior ministers including Health, Culture and Media, Education and Environment to discuss how to push forward the cycling agenda. Cycling is a fantastic win-win issue for the government, and even John, who is rarely seen on a bike, has realised that boosting the number of cyclists could achieve several government goals at very little cost. Cyclists make less use of the National Health Service, live on average longer, reduce congestion at peak times and are less obese. That last one is key and I am keen to persuade the Education Department to invest substantial amounts in a programme across all schools to encourage children to cycle there. This is not a pipedream. In Denmark a programme started in the 1970s is reaping enormous benefits, and half of children use their bikes for the school journey. But it takes coordinated action and I am very pleased that John, now that he has more time on his hands, has agreed to take on this role.

1 pm Dropped into No 10. Difficult one this. I have to persuade Tony that the railway industry needs another reorganisation. Essentially Alistair’s review tinkered around the edges and failed to address the fundamental issue of fragmentation. Moreover, by abolishing the Strategic Rail Authority, my officials are now effectively running the railway, which is very unsatisfactory. I would like to see the franchising system abolished, with responsibility for operations handed over to the quasi-private Network Rail, recreating the integrated network that is the best way to run a railway. Tony himself once said, when he was in opposition, that he wanted to see a ‘publicly-owned, publicly-accountable’ railway and so my blueprint will give him one. He listens intently, as he always does, focussing intently on me with his cool blue eyes, and thanks me for my thoughtful paper, but I somewhat suspect I did not quite get through to him as he seemed to have other things on his mind.

3 30 pm Tony reminded me that pushing ahead with road charging is top of his agenda for transport. I have called together several potential private sector suppliers of the technology. My predecessor, however, made a mistake by not being specific enough about what we want and called, instead, for lots of ideas. My view is that this is not the private sector’s role. We have to be an intelligent client and be very clear about what we expect from the technology. In Germany they did this for the lorry charging on the motorway and so far results have been very positive, and Ken’s excellent congestion charging man, Derek Turner, was also very clear about what he wanted, which is why the scheme’s introduction has been relatively smooth. Therefore I have asked my officials to draw up a precise brief and am presenting that to the industry. The private sector people are delighted as they do not like being messed about by changing requirements and like having a clear framework.

5 30pm My last task of the day is to sign a letter to the newly appointed head of the inquiry into the PPP arrangement on the London Underground. I must have some firm facts on how much this arrangement is costing, whether much money is being wasted and the potential of getting out of the deal at the first 7.5 year break point.
But that’s it. I insist on not working later than normal office hours in order to get home to see my daughter with no question of any Prescott type extra curricular activity, that’s for sure.

Christian Wolmar is a writer and broadcaster on transport matters and the author of a number of books including The Subterranean Railway, a history of the London Underground published by Atlantic and On the Wrong Line, how ideology and incompetence wrecked Britain’s railways, a critique of rail privatisation published by Aurum.

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