The View from the House

Speaker: Chris Loder – MP for West Dorset

Chris is unusual as an MP on the Transport Select Committee as he has first-hand experience of working on the railways.  He began his 20+ year railway career as a station assistant before working his way up the railway hierarchy both in the UK and Europe.  His final role before being elected as MP for West Dorset was as Head of New Trains for South Western Railway.

This is why he was invited to come and talk to us for an informed exchange of views about railways now and into the future.  It was coincidental that the Williams-Shapps report should be published the same day and we were very pleased that Chris was still happy to come and talk to us as planned.

The evening was a mixture of two way feedback between Chris and the audience – another good attendance of well over 100 at this virtual meeting, as well as Chris providing insights into his opinions on the subject of transport.  He started with a few basic questions to allow familiarisation with the graphical system for representing audience responses, the first one asking whereabouts within the UK the members of the audience lived and what was their particular interest in the railway.  Both questions gave a selection of possible answers to choose from generating some humour from those who do not live in the UK.

The first big question covered government funding for transport which was generally considered to be too low by the audience.  Of course, travel by rail dropped drastically with the onset of the pandemic in early 2020 so the conversation included how rail usage will change as society returns to some sort of normal, and will it ever reach the same high levels as before, particularly for commuter traffic.  Ignoring the overtly political opinions, this is a very hard question to answer as we do not know and can only work on estimates and what government and society would like as being best for the country going forward.  Some areas of rail travel will see less change such as children using rail travel to get to school; leisure travel should return once it is freely allowed again and indeed is likely to offer scope for increase, particularly if people are to be encouraged to be more environmentally friendly and get out of their cars and onto public transport.

The Williams-Shapps report came into the conversation having been published only that morning and Chris was clear that there has to be change.  As most have had no time to read the report yet, we could not give a clear opinion on what we thought of it.  It is unlikely to please everyone.  Chris would personally like to see the return of the BR brand complete with logo and liked the idea of moving to Great British Railways rather than the existing franchising system.  There was criticism of the original privatisation scheme but situations change and we look to the future.  We were asked if we thought it ‘OK’ for parts of the railway in financial surplus to subsidise loss making areas.  I am not sure why this was asked as that is how much of our public services are financed with those earning more paying more tax, subsidising services for those earning far less.  The discussions on chat during the presentation were equally interesting covering the lack of a level playing field between rail and road; that those working for the DfT seem to lack a great deal of knowledge about running a public transport system whether rail or bus; the multiple layers of contracting within the rail industry – more expensive, more complicated etc.  The issue of rail being a public good was also raised.

Chris advised everyone that we should lobby our respective Members of Parliament (MPs) as this is probably the biggest opportunity for half a century to influence the railways going forward.  Questions and answers were many and varied and included asking about what power does the select committee have to ensure change for the better; comparisons with railway investment in other countries; the green agenda and the pricing strategy between rail and road.

As part of the discussion about where finite railway funding needs to be focussed, it was unsurprising that Chris was very familiar with the problems of his constituents with regards to railway provision – it is not good and needs serious improvement and he made a good case for reconsidering how rail investment is distributed around the country.  There were other related questions about the conflict of interest between rail and road in the 1960s and was that likely to happen again today.  Answer – highly unlikely.  The final question covered the topic of Great British Railways and how this would relate to all four countries within the UK.  Chris was clear that he would personally like to see a united railway covering the whole of UK, one of the reasons being that benefits could then be shared and a UK wide railway would better serve the interests of the UK as a whole.

As it was getting late and the presentation and discussion had continued without a break, the chairman drew the meeting to a close.  The vote of thanks was given by Alan Nichols who thanked Chris for the work he has done, highlighting some of the people who are going to be in charge of railways going forward within the industry, and now having someone within parliament as well who has good experience of working on the railways.