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Railhub Archive
1999-09-16 SRA-002
Shadow Strategic Rail Authority


Speech by Sir Alastair Morton, to National Railway Museum Annual Dinner

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Shadow Strategic Rail Authority

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Shadow Strategic Rail Authority

Speech by Sir Alastair Morton, to National Railway Museum Annual Dinner

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16 September 1999
source Shadow Strategic Rail Authority
type Speech (full)

note Speech on 15 September 1999 by sSRA chairman Sir Alastair Morton

National Railway Museum Annual Dinner
15 September 1999

Our hosts tonight enjoy a long and distinguished title - the National Museum
for Science and Industry - to match Britain's long and distinguished history
since this country launched the world 's Industrial Revolution.

But tonight we are in the Railway Museum, which celebrates a particularly
exciting chapter of that history - the one in which Britain led the world into the
railway era. There are resounding great names in the air here, not just
everyone 's favourite, Brunel. As so often happens in Britain in the late 20 th
Century, we tend to be drawn back to that exciting past. We tend to prefer it to
a future that seems to awe us rather than challenge and excite us. During the
building of the Channel Tunnel, referring to that preference for looking back,
not forward, I coined a phrase born out of harsh experience: "It is the British
way to back into the future, grumbling!"

I hope we can ensure it is not so in the coming decade, because this coming
decade is a crucial window of opportunity for our railways. Britain needs its
railways now, more than at any time since 1960 - when the spread of car
ownership and the construction of motorways began and large jet airliners
came into service. The tide in their favour is ebbing, or being pushed back by
congestion, so tonight, in these nostalgic surroundings, I want to ask you to
turn your thoughts to the future, to look forward.

That is not always easy for career railwaymen. The railway culture is a very
strong culture, which is good in any society, but it is a conservative culture,
and that is both good and not so good.

When one talks of networks and safety of networks, and dedication to keeping
a safe network in operation day after day, week after week, it is good to rely
on a strong, conservative culture that does not take chances, that develops
things from the way they have always been done.

But when one talks of a service economy, in which rail services are one of
several competing alternatives in a market place, then the strength of a
culture that resists change and puts system and machine before people and
before services to customers - that strength of culture is not such a good

I shall never, ever, forget the first desk top simulation of Channel Tunnel
evacuation from a stopped train. It was two years before we opened; the
people, the words, the scenario were all new. About 90 minutes into the
simulated stoppage and evacuation, the external monitor supervising our
exercise tapped the manager at Calais on the shoulder and said: "When are
you going to tell the passengers what is happening?"

The reply was unforgettable. Over his shoulder the railwayman snapped:
"Shut up, I've got a train in trouble!"

So we need to revitalise our railway culture, not destroy it. We must make it
forward-looking, optimistic and "can do" in spirit, both in technology and in
service to the community. I am asking you all to "turn around and face the
future" of rail. I think back to whe n I was lucky enough to have a role at the
heart of the early stages of the North Sea oil industry. "Can do," was the

It was never to be done overnight, but a lot has happened in the last five
years of this century, which makes me very cautiously optimistic about the
window of opportunity just ahead in the coming decade.

I say that because a marriage of sorts has developed between career
railwaymen, bus and coach operators, entrepreneurs and investors. The
marriage is as full of stress, aches and pains as most marriages - but the
worth of our railway culture has been accepted after some trials by
newcomers, while many - I hope a large majority - of railwaymen have
absorbed some, I hope much, of the modern service culture being delivered
into our railways by the private sector newcomers, whether franchisees,
managers or specialist staff.

It would have been a miracle if so hasty a fragmentation, misnamed
privatisation, had turned out to be perfectly structured and efficient. It has not,
though (once again) it is not all bad, and that is what we now have.

So how do we optimise what we have? How do we coax excellence in service
from Britain's railway network? What must Railtrack do? What the 25 TOCs?
What is required of the freight operators? What indeed must the SRA do as
conductor of an orchestra of independent, self-employed musicians?

First we must realise this is important. I think we do. About a decade ago
Britain semi-consciously decided to stop building major trunk roads. Like a
massive breaking of wind after a prolonged bout of overfeeding, the Tory
government around 1990 belched loudly about launching the largest road
building programme since the Romans. Two very British things stopped that
idea within a year - first the common sense of the public, who understood we
did not have the space, at least south of the M62, nor the already blighted
land, to build more major roads over any distance. And second the Treasury,
which as always had no intention of paying for serious investment in the
infrastructure in our society. So Thatcher 's Roman outburst died in a year,
and we began then, early in the '90s, the relentless build up of pressure of
traffic that has become today's unbearable summer congestion that finally, at
last, makes us cry "Something must be done!" It amazes me that the media
portray it as something new.

We cannot have a return to massive road building, whatever John Redwood
and the Tory opposition now say. The same objections; space, blight and
Treasury will prevent it. But even if Mr. Redwood had the least idea how to get
past those, the inexorable truth is that planning issues, protests and so on
would mean it would be 10 to 15 years before he made any noticeable
inroads into a continually growing problem.

No, Mr. Redwood, the answer is not manic road building. The answer is better
use of roads, better management of traffic and better integration of public and
private transport. Worn-out roads needs better maintenance and better
reconstruction if road transport is to carry more every year, as it must,
whatever the growth on rail.

But our roads can no longer take the whole burden of growth. So our railways
must take a much larger share of that growth, and no longer lose share in
what exists. The numbers of people and tons of freight on our railways must
grow - rapidly. We may now be well over 20% ahead of privatisation levels but
we have to aim above 50%, well within the next decade.

Can we do it? Can we handle it? I believe we can, provided we invest. I know
we must.


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Railhub Archive ::: 1999-09-16 SRA-002


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