Rail has become too political and we need to focus more on passenger experience, says Rail Minister

Posted On: 
3rd October 2017

Depoliticising discussions about rail would help deliver the best outcomes for passengers, and give confidence to the sector, says Rail Minister Paul Maynard.

Credit: 
PA

Rail Minister Paul Maynard sat down with PoliticsHome’s editor Kevin Schofield at The Railway Fringe, a packed-out event at Conservative party conference, where the Minister outlined the challenges and opportunities for the rail sector in the coming years.

The event was sponsored by the Railway Industry Association, ABB, Alstom, Colas Rail, Rail Supply Group, Siemens and VolkerWessels. 

Recognising the need for predictability in the sector, and lamenting the loss of skills over the last 20-30 years due to the ‘up and down nature’ of investment, the Minister was questioned on how Government could provide certainty to the rail industry and its customers.

“The best way that we can avoid uncertainty, in my view, is about politicians taking a step backwards. We are almost too political in how we approach the rail sector. I am very clear, and have been since day one that I want to put passenger’s interests first.”

Discussing his approach to developing plans for the rail sector, he continued: “I am not a rail engineer, I know what outcomes I want for passengers, but then I need the rail industry to tell me what the best way is to deliver those benefits for passengers.”

“I want to know how best to achieve that, and for the best price possible. That is how we start to give more confidence and more predictability to the sector.”

This provided a stark contrast to recent Labour plans to nationalise railways, and when questioned on the popularity of these proposals he responded;

“I don’t think it’s because everybody has a detailed insight into the ramifications of what nationalisation would be… I think what the public mood is hinting at, and it is something I understand very strongly, is a lack of trust in the industry.”

He highlighted concerns from passengers over the service which they experienced when travelling by rail, and how this was a likely factor in driving the popularity of nationalisation proposals.

“No one in the Labour party is talking about nationalising the airlines. That is because people don’t question the value of the air fare that they are being charged.”

“There is a different dynamic in the consumer relationship when it comes to rail. People don’t have that core sense of trust that the train operating company is one their side, that the fare they are being charged is a fair and appropriate fare.”

Expressing his frustration at a previous lack of third party arbitration, Mr Maynard was pleased to have the support of the rail sector in developing a new passenger ombudsman role, which he feels will build better relationships between the travelling public and train operators.

The Minister stated that tackling this trust deficit this was the ‘key challenge for the Government, and the private sector’ in halting further calls for nationalisation, a move which the Minister argues would not put passengers first.

“This would be a disastrous path for us to go down because of what it puts at risk. It puts all the progress of the last 20 years at risk. Yes, there is a trust deficit, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Aside from the argument of nationalisation, and with Brexit overshadowing most of the discussions at Conservative party conference, the Minister was questioned about the possible effects of Brexit on the rail sector.

“My goal is to make sure it has as little effect as possible…clearly I’ve got to focus on making sure our cross-border rail services are functioning on day one. Equally, there are challenges in making sure we have the skills we need, and making sure we have an effective rail sector... I want to see continuity.”

When asked to give advice on how the rail sector could best work with Government to overcome these challenges, the Minister was decisive about the need for a unified sector-wide voice.

“Government needs a single voice, a single message. Not a cacophony of competing requests that haven’t been sifted. I like clarity, I like simplicity because it makes it easier for me to advocate on your behalf… Don’t use any industry forum to resolve your differences. Do that before you get in the room.”

Concluding his remarks, the Minister outlined the role of Government in ensuring that there is a long-term strategic approach to the rail sector with a ‘steady drumbeat’ of projects in the coming years.

“Our challenge as a Government is to make sure we have half an eye on the challenges for the next 5-10 years, but also what is happening in 2043…That is how we ensure the pipeline is predictable for the rail sector.”