Five years ago, in an essay for the Respublica think tank, I argued that we would never build a 21stC economy on 19thC infrastructure. Instead, I argued that we needed to unleash a revolution in the way we financed infrastructure, particularly for our rail network, applying some of the core principles of the Victorian builders, and looking at how we might unlock a wave of modern infrastructure investment based on the enlightened self-interest of local business and communities.
The essay focused around several key ideas about how this vision could be achieved. First, the creation of a brand new rail company, bringing together local civic leaders and businesses and giving communities a stake in the future of their local rail network. Second, the importance of connecting up our major centres of research, helping support UK science and innovation. And, third, the necessity of integrating the companies operating the tracks and the trains, separate since the railways were privatised. Only with all three reforms, I argued, could we hope to unlock a truly 21stC rail network that supported UK innovation.
That’s why I am delighted that Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, announced today that the Government will be implementing all three of these reforms as part of a pioneering package of measures to upgrade our rail network. I am equally delighted that he stressed that the future of our rail network would be one which is 'predominantly run by an integrated local team of people with an absolute commitment to the smooth operation of their route’, and I will be continuing to work for this in my new policy role at Number 10 supporting the Transport Secretary’s pioneering agenda.
By combining enterprise and localism, I believe we now have the chance to become the Innovation capital of the world. Today's announcement is also great news for all of us in the East who have long called for greater investment in regional East-West rail links. For decades we have seen chronic under-investment in our regional rail. And the fragmentation of train and track leading to a lack of joined up service planning. By creating a new type of Rail Partnership like this we can reinvest the profits from development into new infrastructure, which is how the Victorians funded the original railway network. Having campaigned for integrated public Regional Rail Companies for years, I look forward to working with the Department for Transport to see if we can get the line extended from Cambridge to Norwich to bring investment to our area too.
See below for more information on each announcement, and also to read my original Respublica essay from 2011 and the Transport Secretary’s written statement to the House of Commons.
The Transport Secretary announced that the Government will reopen the Oxford to Cambridge line, creating a true ‘Innovation Express’ between two of our leading centres of scientific research and expertise. Closing the line was a decision many have come to regret, and it is a vital step forward that this important line will be back open. This announcement is tranformational for our global Life Science cluster connectivity, but also excitingly lays the policy foundation for a plethora of new integrated Rail Partnerships.
East West Rail company
To kick-start the new line, the Transport Secretary announced the landmark creation of a new rail company called East West Rail, separate to Network Rail. Initially, it will be concerned with speeding up the permissions needed to get the Oxford-Cambridge route open again, before moving on to the main task of securing private sector involvement to design and operate the new route. Today’s announcement will now mean 'the creation of Britain’s first new integrated rail operation for decades’.
But it will go even further than that. I have long argued that we need a holistic approach to infrastructure investment. That’s why I’m glad to report that East West Rail will be linked with other initiatives to support the range of opportunities in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor, including housing, science, technology and innovation.
Reintegrating track and train
The key for any real reforms to succeed rests on looking again at integrating the companies operating the tracks and the trains. That’s why I am delighted that the Transport Secretary announced that he intends to start bringing back together the operation of track and train on our railways to make it much easier to meet the challenges today’s network faces.
As the Transport Secretary outlined, under this new model we will have 'a simpler railway, with less contracting complexity, and more localised decision making’.