UK transport secretary delivers high-level speech, short on low-level detail
Literally hundreds of rail-related projects to be progressed. That was the promise of Anne-Marie Trevelyan, speaking ahead of her much anticipated speech to the annual conference of the Conservative Party, on Tuesday in Birmingham. However the new transport secretary confounded herself to ideological statements on economic growth, boots on the ground, and a new approach to industrial relations.
It is unusual for a newly appointed cabinet minister to make their debut speech at a political party annual conference, but these are unusual times to say the least. It was therefore among the least of the headlines from a very unusual Conservative Partly conference that Anne-Marie Trevelyan held out in one hand an olive branch to the trades unions, but held a sword in the other in her effort to break the stalemate of strikes that blight the UK rail industry. It is no irony that her journey from Birmingham to her constituency in Berwick will be made all the more fraught by Wednesday’s walk-out by train driving members of the ASLEF union.
Get Britain moving
Anne-Marie Trevelyan addressed the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham with a message to “Get Britain Moving”. It was very much on-point and on-message for the new transport secretary, the ministerial position within the government’s cabinet that is very much becoming pivotal to achieving political policy, and perhaps even saving the government of the ruling Conservative Party.
“Speaking to you from the heart of the West Midlands – it serves as a powerful reminder that this region was the crucible from which much of the modern world was built”, she told her audience, seated at the International Conference Centre, with the tracks of the West Coast Main Line passing beneath the auditorium, and the construction site of Birmingham’s HS2 terminus just a short walk away. “I visited Curzon Street”, she said, “one of the first train stations built in the UK. It has facilitated passengers and freight for over a hundred years. The infrastructure that powered that growth can still be seen today, and we are giving it a new twenty-first century boost.”
The global importance of railways
Alluding to the construction of the first London and Birmingham railway, of which the Curzon Street station was the terminus (and will be incorporated into the HS2 project), she said it took 20,000 workers nearly five years to build, and compared that with today’s railway building programme, on projects like HS2, East-West Rail between Oxford and Cambridge, and other complex but lower-profile projects.
“Today, 27,000 workers have spades in the ground, with so many of them working to reopen and transform stations”, she said. “These will serve at the heart of our newest high-speed railway delivering additional capacity for the network, drawing in huge investment, helping the whole country and our economy to grow. At the Department for Transport, we are charged with ensuring the security of all networks that move goods, people and information around the world, and that underpin our way of life and our economy. Our maxim is to ensure the UK is and remains the most secure and reliable nation to trade with globally.”
Strikes are the elephant in the room
Without dealing into detail on her rail policy, to which she had eluded in earlier media interviews, the cabinet secretary turned to the landscape of industrial disputes across the rail industry. Even through rail freight is not directly involved in the headline disputes, there has been significant disruption to freight traffic, with some sources claiming that three in every ten freight trains failed to run during recent strikes days. For passenger train operators, the picture is much bleaker, according to Trevelyan. “We cannot ignore that nine out of ten train services were at a standstill last Saturday, with further strikes planned.”
“The very last thing our country needs right now is more damaging industrial disputes”, she said. However, in stark divergence from her predecessor, the hoodie-wearing Grant Shapps, she was clear in her position on finding a face-to-face resolution. “My message to the trade union membership is simple. Please take your seats at the negotiating table and let’s find a landing zone which we can all work with.”
Bringing trades unions to the negotiating table
Further major industrial action is planned for the remainder of this week and on Saturday, which will cause residual disruption into Sunday and possibly Monday as well. Trevelyan believes this on-going disruption can be brought to an amicable halt. “There is a deal to be done between the unions and our train operators”, she said. “It is a deal that will require compromise. So I want to see positive proposals to bridge the differences.”
Given that the new transport secretary was delivering her speech at a venue on the edge of the construction work for HS2, it cannot have escaped her nor the delegates present that change in the rail industry often requires massive effort and upheaval. If a wholesale realignment of relations, between the unions, the railways and the government is to be achieved, then an upheaval of no smaller measure will almost certainly be required. Whether one cabinet minister can emulate the efforts of 27,000 workers with spades in the ground, very much remains to be seen