I'd back a 'fat controller' figure to run the railways, says Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. Pic: PA
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. Pic: PA
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Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said he backs the idea of a 'fat controller' figure for the railways who is responsible for the tracks and trains as well as letting contracts to operators.

Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, Mr Shapps said he agreed with the concept of someone being in charge of the railway and the way it runs.

He was asked whether he agreed with the suggestion made by his counterpart, Labour's Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald, that the railway industry was too centralised.

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Relating a story about how on one service the type of foam used in the seats was stipulated when the contract was handed out, he said: "I don't think the Department for Transport needs to be down in the weeds of which foam should be used on seats on trains."

And he said that after the review by former British Airways executive Keith Williams into the railways, which is expected to report back later this year, he didn't think the DfT should be letting contracts at all.

He said: "I actually think that we need to have, Keith Williams hasn't said this but I see the media describe it, you need to have a fat controller, somebody who's in charge of the railway and the way it runs and they are ultimately the body that is responsible for letting the contracts as well.

"So I think with Andy there is a bit of a cross party consensus. I think Andy is right. Where he is wrong, is he probably just wants to go back to British Rail. I don't think that's the answer, I think you still need train operating companies."

Mr Shapps was made Transport Secretary when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister this summer. He replaced Chris Grayling, who received heavy criticism during his time in his office for a series of blunders.

But Mr Shapps said: "I came to this job because I wanted the job. I actually said to Boris, if you're going to put me anywhere, I want to go to transport.

"It's because I am a really frustrated commuter, who's been taking the train for years, six trains a day to get to Westminster and back to my constituency, and just feeling the kind of annoyance at not being able to take a reliable train journey every single day.

"And even this Thursday just gone, the train was late and that meant that I was going to be late for the thing that I was getting to Westminster for. And that might be an important meeting.

"But it's important when people are getting home picking up the kids or trying to get to work or other people or colleagues or relying on you to be there for whatever the meeting is.

"I feel exactly the same way I felt about it as a frustrated commuter since becoming Transport Secretary but just with the knowledge that perhaps we can just work together to get something done about it."

During the fringe event he was asked about Northern Powerhouse Rail, the high speed scheme connecting the cities of the North, and said he had "spent lots of time discussing potential options".

But he said he didn't want to pre-empt any announcements due to be made later in the conference by going into too much detail.