Last Thursday in the House of Commons the session for Transport Sector: Support and Covid-19 Emergency Funding was a series of questions by MPs and responses by Grant Shapps. The challenge of course is for the responses to sound credible even for people who may not be as well informed as the Chair of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman who is also the MP for Bexhill and Battle. So the question was very straight forward but it does contain an element that it appears that either Grant Shapps is intending to ignore or that he doesn’t understand
HM: When it comes to financial support, the railways have had billions, and I am grateful that they continue to run. The Williams review to reform the railways envisaged a “guiding mind” body that would be at arm’s length to the Department for Transport, the train operators and Network Rail, in order to properly oversee and run the railway. There is some concern that that arm’s length body may end up as Network Rail, which sounds a little like the days of the old British Rail. Can the Secretary of State assure me that there will be that independent “guiding mind” body to run and oversee both train and track?
So the guiding mind element is something that very few people are familiar with in the context of train services, but which formed the central part of Merrimans questions. However what is critical to it is the need for it to be external from the Government. Sadly the answer was a bit vague and implies that Grant Shapps does not understand what it is meant to be or perhaps he does understand it and wants to avoid it being at arms length.
GS: I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the Transport Committee, and the close attention that the Committee pays to these subjects. Clearly, the rail network has been going through extraordinary times, with much of the support that I described earlier going to rail. As we move forward, it is important that we do not end up back with the old British Rail, with bad sandwiches and the rest of it, but at the same time we bring a fragmented system back together. That is what the Williams review aims to do, and in some ways covid has enabled us to accelerate that process. I assure my hon. Friend that the outcome will not be some conglomerate with no real “guiding mind” and all the worst from the past, and we will move forward with the Williams reforms.
I guess the good news is that he understands the history of bad sandwiches which are not very recent but some of us can recall them. However we need some clarity of how and when the guiding mind will get set out. It would have been fantastic if he had taken the time to describe on Thursday! Perhaps we can ask Mr Merriman to revisit this question in the next few weeks.