The late departure of Ruth Kelly tells us something about transport

The departure of Ruth Kelly has been delayed, owing to the wrong kind of political rows on the line. According to some newspapers her departure is bad news for Gordon Brown, more evidence that the Labour government is falling to bits. For once I am prepared to believe what Ruth Kelly tells us – she is finding the demands of the Transport job too much to combine with her family commitments.

Some staffer may have briefed that Number 10 wanted to get rid of a Blairite and she is going before she was pushed. That just shows you how much damage staffers can do, and how you need fewer of them of higher quality to run an orderly government. Prime Ministers should only share their inner thoughts on who they want in their government with a few people who can be completely trusted. Prime Ministers should never tell the media before they tell the Minister what is going to happen to them, but all too many have done just that and created more rancour as a result.

What is more interesting about the departure of Ruth Kelly is the state of British transport and her failure, like her predecessdsors, to make any of the big decisions the UK needs to have a twenty first century system. We are short of train capacity, airport capacity and road capacity. It is very difficult to undertake the simplest of journeys, or even to travel efficiently on the most popular of routes. There are very few trains from my constituency, 37 miles west of London, into the capital when you need them, owing to lack of track. There is also a shortage of good motorway capacity. Despite requiring a large number of new homes to be built to to the west of London, this government has made no additions to the track and road space going west out of London.

On Monday I had to attend a meeting in Paris. My heart sank at the thought of the travel, even though Paris is not that far from Southern England. It meant writing off the day for a single meeting.

I checked out the trains, the government’s preferred way for me to travel. I discovered I needed to be at St Pancras to catch a 5.25 train to get to Gare du Nord by 8.50, to leave me a sporting chance of making a meeting around 10 elsewhere in central Paris. I worked out that I would need to take two trains to get to London, two tube trains to get to St Pancras, one train to get across the Channel, and two metro trains in Paris. I began to worry. Was it likely that all seven trains would work and be on time, allowing me to make the meeting? I also had to allow twenty minutes to walk to the station.

I soon realised that all meant there was no train option for me. I needed a train from my local station before 4 am to be sure of getting to St Pancras on time. There is no such train. I turned to the government’s worst form of travel, going by air. I found I could catch a 6.35 flight which meant leaving home by car at 5 am. It meant cutting down on the risks of delays and cancellations if I did two car journeys and one flight. Despite a delay on landing at Charles de Gaulle which cost me half an hour thanks to the lack of proper terminal capacity for the home carrier Air France I just made the meeting on time. Coming home there was another delay taking off from Paris but the rest worked quite well. It was not a good experience, because the Western European transport system is at stretching point and cannot be trusted. The total journey took four and half hours, even though the flight itself was under an hour. I always knew that hoping to do the journey in four and half hours was leaving me at risk of not making it, but leaving home earlier could not solve that problem as there was no earlier flight.

No wonder people find it difficult doing more with the continent when such a crucial link as London-Paris is so poor. Unless you live on top of St Pancras or are prepared to go out the day before you cannot use the train to have a normal morning meeting in Paris. On both sides of the Channel it is difficult getting to main train stations to join trains and difficult getting from main airports to central city destinations, owing to a lack of capacity on main networks. Ruth Kelly, like her predecessors, has failed to take decisions to expand network capacity.

One of the problems with Ministers in this government is they do not allocate the time that should be given to doing the job of being a Minister. There is a lot of reading to do, to be up to speed on all the issues and laws Ministers are responsbile for in their own department. There are many cases to consider, letters to amend and sign, meetings to chair with officials as well as with outside interest groups and affected individuals. I do not think Ruth Kelly is unique in this government in finding the time pressures diffficult to handle, but she is one of the few honest ones who has concluded she cannot spend enough time on the job of being a Minister.

All too often in the Commons we hear Ministers who have not read or understood the brief they have been given, who clearly have not engaged in the details of the policy they are presenting and who do not have control of the regulation or law they are introducing. In many cases it is because they have not spent the time on preparatory reading and meetings to master the detail. No wonder things work so badly, and no wonder they find it impossible to get the things done that they say they want done.

If a government that rightly wants more railway travel cannot even find a way to allow many commuters to get to work in a civilised way by train or get to a morning meeting in Paris, it should be no surprise we need yet another transport Minister.


  1. Johnny Norfolk
    September 25, 2008

    I think this just gives another good example of the failings of the Labour government. When they first came to power they cancelled many road building projects, saying we should use public transport. They even stopped the widening of the north section of the M25. The trains in that part of the world were all full already. They just have no idea and just spend on narrow pet projects.

  2. Tony Makara
    September 25, 2008

    Ruth Kelly is very typical of a representative politician, first and foremost a political careerist, flitting from one cabinet portfolio to another, completely inexperienced for each role and thereby unable to follow a line of independent creative thought. That Ms Kelly should end up as transport secretary was bizarre to say the least, but she is part of a representative political system that creates jacks of all trades.

    I have, in various quaters, called for Britian to develop a more corporate mode of government and that would mean allowing transport and other key areas to be run by experts in the field. So many of our problems can be traced back to ministerial failure, ministers simply have too much power, too much imput and most of the time nowhere near enough experience. I call on the incoming Conservative government to create a cororate structure within the various government departments, and by so doing take us away from the damaging ministerial interference and incompetence that has done so much damage to our nation.

  3. Stuart Fairney
    September 25, 2008

    An excellent diagnosis of the problem. There is no area where the failure and inaction has been greater than in transport. I suspected they weren't taking it seriously some years ago when Prescott was given responsibility for that 'Yes Minister' joke, the intergrated transport strategy.

    But it really isn't a joke when you think of the thousands of productive hours people waste every day on the congested M3 or crammed, erratic and expensive trains.

  4. James
    September 25, 2008

    As this government chooses to overburden our children with test upon test, I think they, the Ministers, should be compulsory tested on their brief to ensure they have mastered the detail of any new policy they are submitting.
    Although, I feel this shower would score less than 10 out of 100, which would probably be considered a pass to them.

  5. Freeborn John
    September 25, 2008

    For many living West or South of London it was more convenient to take the Eurostar from the old Waterloo station than the new St. Pancras one. The Reading – Waterloo line for example pulled in right next to the old Eurostar terminal whereas now you have to get across London. It would have been better to retain some Eurostar departures from Waterloo at least until Crossrail is fully operational.

    1. Andrew Forbes
      September 25, 2008

      I understand why the other terminal was built. I will never understand why it was sensible to close a terminal they've already built at great expense, when it was clearly a big advantage to that vast set of affluent customers who use Waterloo.

      1. Freeborn John
        September 25, 2008

        Hi Andrew. The old Eurostar station is looking a bit forlorn these days. I would like to see a railspur built from Staines to Heathrow in which case the old Eurostar terminal could be reborn as the terminal of a 2nd Heathrow Express service for those south of the river.

  6. Bazman
    September 25, 2008

    MP's should look to voting themselves private helicopters with pilots. More work needed.

  7. Neil Craig
    September 25, 2008

    I will accept you are correct when you say the transport Minister works hard. The question is what does dhe, or indeed the entire Ministry, do?

    They may spend manyears discussing what needs to be done & how & what rules for public emquiries should be made & what their evidence to such enquiries will be & how much to increase the subsidy to railways this year but the overall effect seems to be total gridlock & they might as well all have stayed home.

    Cut all the enquiries, put decisions on new roads in the hands of engineers with a duty to make decisions on the basis of measured traffic flow in the area. Headhunt a young & technically competent to give the railways modern rolling stock & a modern automated driverless system & let Mrs Kelly & her oficials relax with their kids.

  8. […] political blog. However, one of my regular readers has suggested I respond to John Redwood’s piece about transport on his blog, and for once, I’m more than willing to do […]

  9. D Barfield
    September 25, 2008

    As Johnny Norfolk says, the mess we are in is a result of the deliberate policy of New Labour. On the first election of Tony Blair the oversympathetic media constantly repeated the virtuous mantra of the Politically Correct that Labour would force the change from private transport to public. Like Johnny Norfolk I know the queues on the West- East road Peterborough to the East Coast, but the constipation of traffic in my hometwown of Wigan is an even greater disgrace and this is a result of the immediate cancellation by Blair of a road project in an area where Socialist votes do not have to be bought.

    I think the present leadership of the Opposition are too young and green to have had their political eyes open in those days and have therefore nothing to say.

  10. Andrew Forbes
    September 25, 2008

    It was glaringly obvious before the foot and mouth episode of 2000 that New Labour devoted itself exclusively to management of the news, and gave no thought to actual management of each ministry. Foot and mouth should have been the wake-up call that real life events could overtake even their ability to influence the news agenda. But they ignored it. There isn't a single ministry that isn't suffering from total neglect. Energy, which needs detailed long term planning is the most obvious example.

  11. DiscoveredJoys
    September 25, 2008

    I recall reading that we have had 11 Transport Ministers in the last 20 years. Clearly the job is either too big or too demanding for a single person to oversee. I believe that there has been a 'paralysis of analysis' and not enough action.

    Why not split it up? Either separate ministers (or corporate representatives) for roads/rail/air/waterways, or separate ministers for geographic regions with a shared transport 'community', eg London, South East, South West, East Midlands, West Midlands etc.

    Concentrating on a smaller areas could lead to more manageable improvement schemes. Travel between regions or types of transport could be brokered between different ministers (with the equivalent of today's transport minister refereeing the debates, but with no day to day reponsibilities). This would also encourage comparison and exchange of ideas – and also expose poorly performing ministers.

    Oh, and all those transport quangoes? Thety don't seem to have had much impact either.

  12. torydeb
    September 25, 2008

    Dear Mr. Redwood,

    Do your blog subscribers get a chance to meet you in person at Tory Conference?

    I can't find your name on any of the fringe events and I'm wondering if you'll be there or not.

    If so, will it be alright to come over and say hello?

    Torydeb (A big fan)

    Thanks. Yes, I wouold love to see fellow bloggers at conference. I am speaking for Selsden at 10.30 on Tuesday at Kingston Theatre 80 Cambridge Street, on tax and the economy.

  13. Jon Taylor
    September 25, 2008

    There are many examples of the failings of the transport policies of this government — and the failings of the transport department. But this is not one of them. Its 322 miles from Wokingham to Paris. How can you travel much quicker over that distance.

  14. Richard
    September 25, 2008

    Ministers do not have the intellectual horsepower for the job. Most of government today simply implements legislation from Brussels. Why would any decent-calibre person seek a ministerial job, since it mainly involves reading press releases prepared by officials? That explains the presence of ludicrous people like Miliband and Kelly.

    As for the departments themselves, they are just staffed with people whose focus is on their pensions. Why bother doing any work when you might make a mistake and put that in jeopardy? That explains why the transport system in the UK today is pretty much the same as it was back in 1980, albeit massively more expensive to the end user.

    1. Tony Makara
      September 25, 2008

      The political parties must take the blame for encouraging the selection of contrived candidates who have little to offer in terms of real-life experience. Currently parties select candidates in terms of their electability rather than with a thought for how they might be able to perform in office. The whole system stinks and is the reason why we so often have bad government. The whole ministerial edifice needs to be broken up and areas such as education and health allowed to develop their own internal electoral structures with the freedom to formulate policy, independent of political interference from the state.

      The Conservative party has talked so often about rolling back the state but never does anything about it in concrete terms. We all know that the bigger the state the less free we become, we need to see some radical thinking in this area and an end to the farce of ministerial musical chairs in which a person with no experience can become head of education, housing, communities and transport all by the age of just forty. I have respect for Ms Kelly's stance on abortion, and as a person she has a charming antiquated air of 'Irelands Own' about her, but have to say that as a minister she brought nothing but trouble to the table.

  15. mikestallard
    September 25, 2008

    In the 1990s, when the trains were still pre Prescott and the two crashes, i was communing between Harrogate and Bradford.
    During the year I commuted, the trains improveD drastically, the station at Leeds was transformed.
    Then the two crashes happ-ened and the railways were more or less nationalised again.
    You are so right – the Ministers are simply not capable of running the system which should be, as as far as possible, left to the market and private companies to run.

  16. Acorn
    September 25, 2008

    You could try video conferencing John. They even use it in the public sector; would you believe, to save travel expenses and carbon footprints!!!

  17. Alfred T Mahan
    September 25, 2008

    As usual a percipient post but surely, as one or two of the previous comments hint, one of the problems is that government has simply got too big? I can't imagine how any minister, however diligent, can be expected to get to grips with the minutiae of a large department. A minister comes to the job as, in effect, a semi-executive chairman, often with no direct experience of the sector in question, although possibly (and far from always) with some knowledge of administration. Very, very rarely will a minister have actually worked within his department in the past. This is not a recipe for effective management, especially with many of the normal commercial management levers absent. And, as we know to our cost from the experience of New Labour, the skills required for political success aren't the same as those required to manage a department.

    In addition I hear numerous tales (in fairness, mainly from local government) about how difficult it is for elected representatives to obtain proper information from their officials in a comprehensible format. Sometimes this is deliberate; at other times the system isn't up to it because of the complexity involved.

    The upshot is that policy failures, and ministers who appear not to be in charge of their brief, are becoming more and more endemic as government becomes ever harder to control. The solution, and a very difficult one to implement, is simpler or smaller government.

    You've been a minister, I haven't! So please correct me if I'm wrong.

  18. Blackacre
    September 25, 2008

    Not sure there is anything different here to travelling around the UK. How easy would it have been for you to get to Manchester for the same time? Not very much easier I suspect and the trains would certainly have been slower than Eurostar. My experience of Eurostar is very positive, the more so at the excellent St Pancras than the pretty ropey Gare du Nord, but any travel involving London is always slow and is likely to stay that way.

  19. newmania
    September 26, 2008

    Well i am big fan as well but i cannot helop but notice that Mr. Redwood

  20. newmania
    September 26, 2008

    gah..fat thumbs

    Well am big fan as well but I cannot help but notice that Mr. Redwood is awfully quiet about his stern market views about mortgage lending. Perhaps a defence or clarification of his position might be of interest after all we don`t want the banks run by politicians do we …or do we ?

    Or is Mr. Redwood maintaining a judicious silence on the subject ?…Could be ….

  21. TrevorsDen
    September 26, 2008

    point taken – but Paris is in another country. If people want to travel to another country for a meeting than they should expect to do it overnight or go by private jet.

    And meetings. MEETINGS. Who needs em.

  22. Mark
    September 27, 2008

    One problem with morning meetings in Paris if you're coming from London is the time difference. I'm for keeping it, but "losing" an hour doesn't help if you want to get to Paris early.

  23. Matthew
    October 6, 2008

    I've just been in Japan, which has a fantastic transport system, and I don't think one could get from Tokyo to Kyoto, about the same distance, in much under four hours unless one lived on top of the station. I was in west Tokyo, it took me 10 mins to walk to the JR line, 30 mins to get around, 10 mins to get a ticket, 20 mins I allowed as to not be late, 2hr 30m on the very fastest Shinkansen bullet train (2hr 50 or so would be more normal) and then about 40 mins at the other end.

  24. Robert C
    October 13, 2008

    I think you will find that your transport problems were mainly caused by the obvious and complete failure of the privatised railway system, instituted by the preceding Conservative government, of which you were part. Roads can only work effectively as the counterpart of an efficient overall, planned public transport system.
    If you were to visit countries like Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland, where rail is in the main publicly-owned and properly funded, you would find things much better.

    Clearly that dose of reality would not sit well with the logic circuits of those convinced, despite the facts staring them in the face, that the free market always works and public ownership is always bad. Sadly for the market ideologists, this is demonstrably untrue. Markets can and do fail frequently.

    Reply: Markets have never been allowed to work in transport, with nationalised roads and railways. The UK has far less road and rail capacity than the continent as government has kept us short of capacity.

  25. Kevin Rye
    November 1, 2008

    My good god; have you forgotten what you were involved in as a minister yourself? Do you think it's straightforward to fix years and years of underinvestment, particularly by the government – and its predecessors – of which you yourself were part? Make your party political points about the Labour Government, by all means – you are entitled to that, but will you please take these issues in context?

    Reply We did a lot more investing in UK transport than this government has managed.

  26. Kevin Rye
    January 2, 2009

    I believe you're talking predominantly about roads – aka money diverted *away* from public transport. You also deregulated the bus system (apart from London of course, where you couldn't possibly have got away with it) and sold off the rail network just before exiting government, both of which just created chaos, and eventually a paucity of services, particularly in rural areas. All governments of every shade for years were guilty of poor transport policy, but the difference was that the Conservative's under Thatcher and Thatcherism lite undertook a series of ideological experiments dressed up as policy, signalling shifts in investment to road building.

    Finally, I'd also challenge your definition of what 'UK transport' actually means, as I would the actual measure of the level investment itself, because I would be surprised if they aren't both questionable.

    Reply: Railways attracted more passengers and freight and became more efficient when they were fully privatised.

  27. Alan Wheatley
    January 2, 2009

    We have railways as a result of private initiative.

    Railways declined under nationalisation.

    There has been a resurgence under re-privatisation.

    Some railway capacity is good, but it does not follow that more is better. Some increase in capacity by better exploitation of the network is probably sensible, but building more tracks, especially more lines, is difficult and expensive. There is only so much land in Britain, and a policy to increase capacity to meet demand, irrespective of why the demand is increasing, is narrow, naive and dangerous to quality of life.

    If demand exceed supply, then there is the option of achieving balance by reducing demand. Video conferencing is one such way.

  28. Kevin Rye
    January 3, 2009

    Marvellous – you've fallen into a trap I didn't even set up:

    Saying there has been a resurgence under re-privatisation is fine if it is the market that has found its own feet and operated efficiently to improve and invest, without significant government or regulatory cap or interference, resulting in a vastly improved product or, in this case, service. The manifest evidence is that it has not. As per usual, the lazy free-marketeers – one of which appears to be your goodself – seem to forget that this has far more been a nice easy way of fast/vast shareholder profit. No, I'm afraid you're far wide of the mark if you think that privatisation has sincerely helped. In fact if anything privatisation as was has largely failed, and it is the *increase* in government control – hidden and upfront – that has seen improvement. Indeed, most of the bad ideas and failures have tended to be privately initiated. See here:

    What the Tories did appeared to be nothing more than spiteful and ideologically driven – almost leaving boobytraps before they knew they were going to have to leave government in 1997, and definitely not in the best interests of the country. The cynics might even say that it was, in fact, in the best interests of their dear friends in the city, but I couldn't possibly comment.

    The fact is that for inrastructure such as transport networks, you must have appropriate statutory controls, otherwise you get situations like the chaos in the 1990's developing – don't you remember the idea of 're-timing' services?

    And to use video-conferencing as a comparison shows a remarkable lack of understanding in the difference between telecoms and vital transport networks. Back to school for you!

    Reply: What nonsense. Even Mr Prescott pointed out that the railway started taking more passengers and freight once we privatised it whilst subsidy was cut.

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