Britain's railways have been in a constant state of flux since World War II, Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling told today's Transport Times UK Rail Summit.
Nationalisation had been followed by a succession of reorganisations, all attempts by the Government to stabilise a declining railway – all unsuccessful.
"Privatisation was another attempt to halt further decline. That was the only one that worked," he said. "It didn't just stabilised passenger numbers, but transformed them." Passenger numbers had doubled, and rail had doubled its share of the overall transport market. "not everything has gone to plan, but most franchises are working well. It's a robust system," he said.
Challenges had to be seen in the context of building on success. To remain successful the railway had to keep growing and continuing to invest. Many routes are under pressure as demand continues to rise. "I see that as an opportunity," he said.
He gave examples of the extent of £13bn government investment in this parliament. Comprehensive upgrade was continuing that would improve services across the north of England, and under the new Northern and TransPennine franchises "all the trains on these routes will be replaced or refurbished".
The biggest upgrade of the Midland main line since it was completed in 1870 would improve track and signalling and take 20 minutes off the journey time to Sheffield. But Mr Grayling had recently scrapped phased two of the planned improvements – electrification – because it would have cost over £1bn but only cut one minute off journeys. From 2020, new bi-mode trains would bring further improvements in journey times. "Better outcomes for passengers are what matters," he said.
Similarly in the Lake District and East Anglia, bi-mode or hybrid electric/battery trains offered a better way of bringing about improvements. "I don't see the benefits of putting wires over tracks in the Lake District when something better is coming soon," he said. Turning to the organisation of the railways, he said: "I have always said that separating track and train was a mistake."
Progress was being made on more integrated ways of working. He expected the new South Eastern and East Midlands franchises to have integrated management of track and train. East West Rail between Oxford and Cambridge would be developed as an integrated business. "I will continue to incentivise the industry to form joint track and train teams as new franchises are appointed," he said.
He wanted to move ahead with Network Rail's devolution plan as rapidly as possible. Supervisory boards with local representation as introduced on the Great Western route were expected to be introduced by next spring.
The railways, said Mr Grayling, were not an infrastructure business or an operating business. "They are a customer service business. The future of the railway is in integrated, joined-up working and partnerships, all focused on the customer."