We are building a railway for the 21st century

It is one of the most remarkable transport achievements of our age that in the 20 years since privatisation, the number of passengers using Britain's railways has doubled. What's more, our railway today is one of the safest and most reliable in Europe. Yet the main inter-city network is little changed from that built a century and a half ago. So while the efficiency of the railway has improved dramatically, the trains and stations that passengers use have suffered from long-term underinvestment. It's hardly surprising that along the way, Britain's love affair with the railway has fallen off the tracks.

The next two decades will be the most important for rail in this country since the pioneering Victorian era. If the coalition government was all about articulating our vision for rail and making the case for investment, now it's all about delivery. But this time, we're not just investing to maintain old infrastructure. We are creating a modern railway that will change the way Britain thinks about the industry.

Wherever you look throughout the railway, there's growth and activity. We have finished tunnelling for Crossrail and we're building stations for the new line in London. The new Hitachi train plant has just opened in the North East. We're getting on with electrifying the trans-Pennine, Great Western and Midland main lines. And a few weeks ago I helped open the National Training Academy for Rail in Northampton.

But for me, what really brought home the importance of what we're doing was the rapturous reception that greeted the recent reopenings of Birmingham New Street and
Manchester Victoria stations – not so long ago rated among the worst stations in Britain.

The amazing public response didn't just reflect the investment in better services. There was also genuine civic pride in the way people reacted – pride in what the new stations said about their cities. The old, overcrowded, gloomy buildings were replaced by light, spacious, modern transport hubs; places where millions of visitors each year would form their first impressions of our biggest cities.

This was part of a process of renewal which began with St Pancras, and continued with King's Cross. It's a process that Crossrail and Thameslink will continue. For the first time in generations, people can see evidence of bold, visionary design on our railway, and are beginning to appreciate what a modern railway could do for this country.

Of course, capacity, connectivity and reliability of journeys are most important. But there's a growing awareness that we can build a world class, state of the art railway that can bind the nation together. And there's an excitement about the opportunities that such a fast-growing industry can provide – not least a resurgence in British railway engineering.

The biggest opportunity will be HS2. Preparations are moving quickly ahead. Over the summer we started recruiting for HS2's design panel. Lord Adonis – who championed HS2 as Transport Secretary in the last Labour government – joined HS2 Ltd's board. And soon, we will announce plans to take forward HS2's northern sections.

A few weeks ago, the chancellor started the bidding process for phase one, with contracts worth a total of £11.8bn, including some of the biggest in UK construction history. HS2 Ltd has been touring round the country to engage firms interested in bidding so they can start attracting the talented staff required to develop the new line. To support this, we have appointed Terry Morgan, the chairman of Crossrail, to develop a transport skills strategy, including 30,000 new rail and road apprenticeships in this parliament. And in 2017, the National College for High Speed Rail will open its doors.

But we need to attract a bigger pool of talent. For example, we desperately need to attract more women into engineering and construction. Diversity today is not about tokenism or political correctness. It's about making the industry better, and attracting the brightest and best people from all sections of society.

To achieve that, we must make a career in engineering or infrastructure more appealing to a wider selection of youngsters, and change the way we promote the industry. We need to sell the value of engineering qualifications, and how those skills are appreciated by employers across the economy – so an engineering degree is not perceived as narrowing your future opportunities, but precisely the opposite.

HS2 gives us the perfect opportunity to do all these things, and many more. It will help us market the whole railway. It will help us develop our supply chain. It will give us a clean slate to design ticketing, stations, and passenger facilities. And it will provide an opportunity to finish the job started with HS1 and St Pancras – to make Britain a 21st century railway nation.

Reference: Transport Times, November 2015 Issue

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