"We can't afford to be left behind and play catch-up"

Over the past decade or so, I’ve spent hundreds of hours in and around Parliament, and have come to know a wide range of MPs and former ministers.

“So what?” you might ask - and point out that’s simply a matter of maths for the Editor of RAIL, given that a Secretary of State for Transport’s average time in office is just 18 months. 

The point is that over the years I’ve collected a lot of names in the contacts book, and a lot of familiar handshakes from those in Government.

I have particularly got to know those involved in transport, of course - with the curious and (for Ed Miliband) damning exception of Labour’s current front bench transport people. Sadly, I detect little real interest or commitment to transport policy on Labour’s front bench, beyond the predictably routine and tedious knee-jerk political statements that are of no special value. 

Given transport’s importance, this should be shaming. But it would appear not - Andrew Adonis’ star burned brightly, but Labour look to have completely lost interest since. And it shows. There IS no Labour opposition on transport, effective or otherwise - and that’s a sad judgement drawn from 18 continuous years of personal front line experience.

So, given the many contacts and familiar handshakes, it was with some surprise when I first heard Simon Burns had been appointed as Rail Minister - surprise (and some shame) because it was the first time I’d ever heard his name. 

Had I been sleep-walking on the job, and missed spotting a rising transport specialist in the Tory ranks?

No, I discovered, to considerable relief. Burns seemingly arrived as part of a double act with Patrick McLoughlin, the then-new Secretary of State wheeled in by David Cameron to replace Justine Greening. 

In Conservative speeches and press releases, McLoughlin’s name is usually prefaced with the words ‘former miner’, which I suspect the Conservative High Command rather likes to use as something of a respite and (they hope) antidote from the usual ‘former Old Etonian’ that you often hear in front of the latest senior appointment.

Burns and McLoughlin are old friends as well as colleagues, and have jointly served as Conservative Whips - where they normally wielded their powers of persuasion pretty much in the shadows. 

So, the first point to remember about Burns is that jolly and clubbable as he undoubtedly is (and he is very good and engaging company), he is also unafraid, willing and able to twist an arm up a rebellious back if required.

You aren’t a Whip for as long as he was (five years) without knowing when and how to apply pressure if needed. It crossed my mind that after the anti-HS2 rebellion by former Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan (as ineffective and self-defeating as it ultimately was), perhaps the PM wants a pair of potential bruisers in place at transport, to handle any dissent in his own ranks going forward, with regard to HS2?

So I started digging into Burns’ background, to see what sort of a bloke he is and what kind of an MP. And my, oh my - what a wonderful trawl of gems spills from the net! Burns is certainly… colourful.

He is second cousin to David Bowie - yes, really - but the rock star refused to meet him because he “wasn’t famous enough”.

As a health minister he supported the Government’s anti-smoking stance - but is a committed ‘gasper’ himself. 

He didn’t see a television set until he was nine - and his first TV news was the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

He attended a Catholic school in Ghana where his father, an army officer, made no secret of his contempt for politicians.

Burns was turned onto politics by the assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963, and his interest in the Kennedys is said to border on obsession. He doesn’t disagree.

His son Bobby is named after… yes, the President’s brother.

He has a burning interest in US politics and has worked on American election campaigns for Democrats (yes, that’s right), and openly admits to heroine-worship of Hillary Clinton.

He failed to notice an invitation to dinner by former President Jimmy Carter, and simply failed to turn up (unintentionally, I hasten to add).

Best of all - and this really endeared me to him - he got into a well-publicised spat with House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, whom he described (to cross-party sniggers throughout Westminster) as a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf”.

The influential Total Politics magazine, which doesn’t pull its punches, likes Burns. 

“Once you’ve had the opportunity to get to know Simon Burns, he strikes you as one of those people you like to have around,” it said.

“He always finds a way of lightening proceedings, intentionally or otherwise. He has a good sense of humour, gets himself into often ridiculous but hilarious (to his friends, at least) scrapes, and is utterly loyal to both friends and party.”

Burns fell into the trap of being caught out as a newly-appointed transport minister, by using his official car rather than public transport - and the tabloids duly ruthlessly kebabbed him for it. Cue pictures of him looking contrite and miserable on the Tube, clutching a fag and his briefcase.

A bright scholar in his school and university days, Burns lost interest in his studies as politics took over, and he acquired what I always knew as a ‘sportsman’s degree’ - third class honours. 

This is usually the cue for a ‘Third Degree Burns’ joke. And while he vehemently denies he’s ever had the nickname (he claims it was the invention of a producer on QI), the fact is that this ‘invention’ has plagued him ever since. It’s a long-lost battle to shake it off - every last person to whom I mentioned this interview came straight back at me with that crack, as if they’d just thought of it themselves. Every last one! 

So, like it or not Simon, you’re stuck with it now. And as nicknames go, you have to concede it’s a pretty good one…

We meet in his office to talk trains and… wow! It’s like a shrine to US politics and his heroine Hillary Clinton (whom he talks about in tones of unconcealed admiration), in terms of the memorabilia dotted around and the pictures on the wall. 

I’ve interviewed loads of politicians and ministers in their offices,
but this is the first time I’ve seen one dedicated to the politics of somewhere else! 

Total Politics is right. Burns is friendly, open and likeable (believe me - not all are!). And, despite his 60 years, he has an optimistic and engaging enthusiasm that I want to describe as ‘youthful’. We only have half an hour, so as Jack Boskett gets busy with his camera, we get stuck in on High Speed 2 - the biggest thing in Burns’ in-tray. Where are we up to? And how are we doing with it?

‘I’m rather optimistic and pleased with where we are,” he begins. “Because the first phase of HS2 is moving along steadily, and we’re within months of the legislative process beginning. 

We’ve announced the third route for the second phase, and obviously there’s a long way to go, with consultations, community forums, talking to stakeholders and everything. I think there is more and more understanding beyond the business community and people who are afficionados of transportation and railways - an understanding that this is the future, and we can’t afford to be left behind and play catch-up.

“If you look at France, Germany, Spain, Japan - even the United States - they either have high speed or they are developing it. Now, cutting journey times is important, but to my mind what is even more important is the increase in capacity that high speed will bring, because by 2025 the West Coast Main Line is going to be full. 

“It is a major arterial route, the spine of the country on the western side. By having high speed, you will see a releasing of capacity for passengers who want to stop at stations along the route where HS2 won’t stop. It will also get even more freight off our congested roads and onto rail.”

This is the big question, because the capacity issue is still not well understood - the ‘man in the street’ is naturally bamboozled by NIMBY claims that we are spending £32 billion to get to Birmingham a few minutes quicker.

This is, of course, not the case. But because the Government has been (and still is) slow at selling the vision for HS2 to a sceptical public in the face of determined opposition, the ‘against’ faction has made solid progress in denouncing HS2. 

Whose job is it to sell the vision, I ask?

“I think it’s everybody’s job,” he counters immediately. “Yes, of course, we as ministers and politicians have an important role to play - but we can’t do it alone. Third party endorsement is so important and credible. What I think you need, particularly from Birmingham north, is far more support within the local community, and local authorities.

“Yes, there are concerns about exactly where the route goes. But when you see the chambers of trade, chambers of commerce, business communities and local authorities (particularly around Manchester and Leeds) being enthusiastic, then we are making progress. They see the potential for regeneration as well as improved communications, and they have an important role to play. 

“The media has an important role to play as well. As legislation moves through Parliament, so that people know HS2 is going to happen, and then when we start building it, more interest will be generated because it will actually be happening.”    

I do agree with those principles, but I stick with the essential truth that big projects need big leaders who make the case ceaselessly for whatever project is causing division. 

The Channel Tunnel would not have been built without the superhuman efforts that the late (and truly great) Sir Alastair Morton put into keeping 120 banks happy, during the numerous times the project seemed close to collapse. 

The HS1 route through to St Pancras relied at various times on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and then ‘Big Beasts’ John Prescott and Michael Heseltine.  

Where is HS2’s high-profile, high-calibre political leadership? Burns and McLoughlin are doing their bit, but they have other responsibilities. Where’s the star to bang the drum on every occasion?

Burns answers his own question, to my surprise!

“You’re talking about the sort of thing Seb Coe did with the Olympics?” he says, before explaining why we don’t have one for HS2. 

“There is an attraction in having those sort of people on your side - a champion - and maybe that is the way forward. It’s something that we have certainly discussed from time to time. We’re nowhere near coming up with a champion, but we’re not against the concept - you’re absolutely right that there is a great attraction if you find the right person, whoever that may be, and it may not simply be one person.”

That seems a bit woolly to me. So I press harder. But surely you need a nucleus for the debate to be focused on? And trust?

“Exactly,” agrees Burns.

Are we struggling to come up with someone?

“I can think of one or two names, straight off the back of an envelope…”

Any you’d like to share?

I get a slightly bizarre answer.

“No - but only because it’s far too soon,” says Burns. “More work needs to be done, with much more thought. To suddenly see in the paper that ‘X’ is being thought of as an HS2 champion might fill ‘X’ with horror, and it might just rebound. But I think there’s work to be done, and it shouldn’t be something that should be ruled out automatically.”

This is not only disappointing, it seems to reinforce a view I expressed in a RAIL Comment some time ago that the DfT is strangely disconnected from the HS2 issues on the ground. It isn’t ‘far too soon’ to have clear leadership. In my view it’s getting on for too late - there’s masses of ground to make up in catching the NIMBYs and ANTIs, who were off in this race months and months ago.

Meanwhile, says Burns, the HS2 press office will ‘maintain the momentum’.

I point out that if there’s another vacuum, the ANTIs will fill it immediately, and that even HS2 accepts it was slow off the mark in PR terms for much of 2012, and is now committed to doing a better job. 

It’s true that there have been new appointments, something of a reshuffle, and changes in responsibilities. It’s also true that there have been improvements. But the campaign still lacks fire and passion. 

Anyway, the clock is ticking, and I’m getting the impression that as far as this subject is concerned it’s ‘asked and answered’. We shall see…

We move on to parliamentary matters. Is the Hybrid Bill on time? We’ve seen that HS2 and the Paving Bill were included in the Queen’s Speech, so are we on target for these crucial legislative tasks?

“Oh yes. Certainly by the end of December, it will have been published. We hope that it can get Royal Assent by May 2015, but that is slightly out of our hands because of the complex nature of a Hybrid Bill and the special Select Committee. If it isn’t by May 2015 it will be carried over to the next Parliament, but we cannot control the timescale for the special Select Committee.

But it’s on time as far as you’re concerned?


Can we talk about the Paving Bill, which sort of came as a bit of a surprise?

“The Paving Bill will be a short bill. It will be a money bill, which is significant, and its purpose is twofold. 

“Firstly, it is dealing simply with money, to enable us to spend as and when as we move forward. 

“Secondly, it’s there as a very clear declaration of intent that HS2 IS going to happen - both phase 1 AND phase 2. And so you have in law, as a message, that this project IS imperative to the national interest and to improve communications, and it IS going to happen. 

“It helps that we are in the slightly unusual situation that there is all-party consensus. The Liberal Democrats fully support it, the Labour party fully supports it, the Conservative party does likewise. That said, there will be individual MPs with constituency interests who don’t support HS2.”

Even within your own party?

“Especially within our own party! On phase 1, it was mostly our own party, if I recall correctly?”

There aren’t many Labour seats in the Chilterns, are there?

“No, and there aren’t any Liberal Democrats either…”

Hence my earlier point about Cameron appointing two former Whips to the DfT!

I point out that in the hands of Maria Eagle (Shadow Transport Secretary), Labour’s ‘cross party support’ is largely of a ‘yes-but-no’ nature.

A hint of a smile flickers briefly around Burns lips - but he isn’t going there.

“She’s in opposition, she has a job to do, and I understand that. I’m not unhappy with Labour’s support.”

But wouldn’t it be better described, especially in contrast with the unmistakeably pro-HS2 white heat of Andrew Adonis’ validation, as ‘pseudo’ support now…? 

Burns refuses to be drawn. “No, that’s not right,” he responds. “I’d actually put it the other way round. It’s support with, to use your word, pseudo opposition. If you’re in opposition, you’re there to hold the Government to account, and she quite responsibly and realistically is holding the Government to account on points that she thinks it’s important to raise. But she isn’t threatening to undermine commitment to the HS2 project.”

So is he content that behind the politics, there’s unstinting pro-HS2 support?

“I’m content that behind the politics Maria Eagle is completely committed to HS2. And, more importantly, Labour is, too.”

Burns reiterates that the Paving Bill reinforces the Hybrid Bill, and is a major statement of intent for the project as a whole.

Playing Devil’s Advocate, how does he respond to the charge that the Government’s rapid pace with HS2 means that democracy and legitimate opposition are being callously swept aside without due rigour? Burns is quick to point out that consultation on HS2 does not amount to a democratic vote, even less a referendum on the project. 

“Consultation is not about the principle of whether high speed is going ahead. Consultation is about how we get the best from the preferred route,” he says.

We move on to value for money, business case, and the way that objectors inevitably play a significant part in driving up costs. 

I ask how he deals with the infuriating truth that objectors request design amendments that then cost a fortune? The more ‘green tunnels’ and cuttings we sink HS2 into, the more it will cost - and with a technology so powerful that you can build high speed ‘up hill and down dale’ much more cheaply.

“I get very frustrated by a lot of the criticism one hears, because there are some people who are against HS2 for a variety of reasons, and you’re never going to satisfy them.

“The other thing - and it’s a sad fact of life - is that when you are building such a major project over such a long distance, you’re not going to be able to make every change that people want. It is then a question of minimising the problems for people and their lives, and looking at what is in the national interest.”

He adds that the compensation scheme, in his view, is “more generous than in other compensation schemes”.

Burns has recently visited Japan to see the world’s best-known high speed trains (with apologies to the French), in the land of their birth in the early 1960s - at a time when we were still using coal-fired steam locomotives on our main lines. He tells me how impressive it was to spend time in the cab, with a driver for whom running a few seconds late was a cause of immense shame and concern.  

“That driver was doing a very difficult and skilled job,” says Burns, with real sincerity. “For the first three stations we went through, he was two seconds early and, well… if only we had that problem! 

“It was amazing the way the system was organised - the speed of the trains and their comfort, the way in which we were organised, was all fantastic.

“But what happened at the end of the journey was equally impressive. Before they turn round to head off out again, they have just 12 minutes. You have two minutes for the passengers to get off the train, seven minutes for the cleaners to get on, clean the trains and change the seats all round (because it’s then going in the opposite direction), and then three minutes for the new passengers to get on. And it runs like clockwork. 

Do you think we can do that?

“We certainly have to aspire to achieve that,” he responds without delay and with real meaning. “The discipline is phenomenal and would be beneficial to our railway in general, not simply on high-speed rail. 

“It was the British who actually built their original railway stations in the 19th century, but since then - and especially on high speed - we are behind the curve. 

The Japanese developed their high-speed railway (their first was for the ’64 Olympics in Tokyo), and they have spent the 48 years since investing in them and in the technology, to improve the speed of the trains.”

Burns points out that when people say we’re playing ‘catch-up’ on high-speed rail, they overlook the alternative view that we are perfectly placed for the second generation of high-speed rail technology, which SNCF and Eurostar are currently gearing up to take advantage of in the shape of new Siemens trains. Alstom is also pushing ahead on train engineering - so far from being behind, we could well end up leading the second wave.

“What we’re doing is looking all over the world and picking up the best ideas and technologies for our high-speed rail network,” says Burns. 

Does he believe that Japan’s integrated approach to high-speed networks holds lessons for us? HS2 will now be connected to HS1 (the idea that at one stage it wasn’t beggars belief, so thank goodness we sorted that one), so does he support the idea of through rail services from (say) Manchester to Strasbourg?

“Absolutely!” he agrees. “HS2 has a crucial role in improving connectivity within Britain, but another advantage is you can have the connectivity on to the continent.”

I notice our press office minder glancing at her watch, and so keep up the pace. Why not start building from both ends? Given that the biggest criticism, even from supporters, is that it is going to be half a lifetime away, wouldn’t it make sense to build it faster from both ends? 

Burns’ answer is pure Yes Minister - that it would take even longer! 

Huh? How’s that then?

“If you do that, then it is going to be half a lifetime-plus away!” he responds. “Because if you start building from Leeds and Manchester towards London, and from London up towards them, and you meet somewhere in the middle, you would delay the first phase of High Speed 2 because you need a different Hybrid Bill. That adds time.

“We are ready now to move forward later this year with the Hybrid Bill for the first phase, and we can start building in 2017/2018 through to 2026. If you decided you were not going to do that, and you were just going to have one build for the whole thing, you would have to delay the first phase because we’ve only just announced the preferred route for the second phase.

“I would guess, off the top of my head, legislatively, you would not have a Hybrid Bill ready for both until probably 2017. And then it would have to go through Parliament. So it would actually take longer than the way we are doing it now.

Surely that’s completely counter-intuitive? Would it really take longer to build HS2 simultaneously from both ends, and meet in the middle?

“Yes, it would take much longer, and with further delays. What we have to do is just go ahead and start getting HS2 built. Now.”

(The way in which you feel you’re ‘through the looking glass’ when you get answers like that never really goes away, however long you’ve been around Westminster.)

Does he think the Government has handled the environmental issues well?

“To move forward on anything, you want to take people with you. You want to work with people to minimise problems, because everybody knows this is going to have a large impact on the environment, and so it is sensible to talk to people,” he says with care.

“We have had the meetings with the different environmental groups - the Wildlife Trust, National Trust, Woodland Trust, English Heritage, and all the others. That has been going on for some years, and it has been invaluable. 

“As we have been able to explain our aspirations, they have been able to raise their concerns. Sometimes we have been able to allay their fears, other times we have been pointed in a slightly different direction where there are problems, so we can move forward.

“I think having this interaction and discussion has helped to ensure HS2 Ltd has made a number of changes, particularly on some of the tunnelling. I would hope the environmental groups would agree that we have had useful and important meetings where issues could be aired, problems raised and solutions sought.”

What about extending HS2 to Scotland?

“That is an aspiration, as you know,” he replies. “Patrick, at the party conference, said that he was going to look into the feasibility of considering a third phase that is basically on the eastern side of England. High-speed rail will go to just south or just north of York and then merge into the East Coast Main Line to Newcastle, so that would improve times from Newcastle to London. 

“On the West Coast, high speed would go up to somewhere just short of the border, where another ‘Y’ could open up and go to Glasgow and Edinburgh. In the coming months we will look at the feasibility of that, and see where that leads. 

“There is logic to take high speed to Scotland. And in the future - I’m talking about long after I’ve gone - there is no reason why there cannot be other spurs off what is essentially a spine, where there is a business case and where there is a need. 

“This is pure speculation, but there is a logic to it. You could, for example, see a spur going all the way from Crewe to Liverpool. There could be a spur going down into South Wales and potentially one into the South West. But that is the future.”

A bit like the incremental way the motorway network developed over the second half of the 20th century?

“I think if you went back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the M1 started, I think you’ll find there was considerable opposition when the M1 was being proposed.”

I point out that the canal builders of the 18th century faced similar opposition from landowners.

Burns finds it “fascinating” that we do not make more of Kent’s experience in smoothing the way for HS2 - after all, HS1 and the people of Kent live happily together, and property prices haven’t crashed. 

I find it more annoying than fascinating, and muse that he’s actually in a position to do something about it. I’d love to discuss this further, but we are now officially over time.

What Burns is keen to get on record is the massive investment likely to be triggered around the HS2 stations.

“It’s obvious the areas around stations will benefit hugely, because high-speed rail is an engine for growth,” he says with complete confidence. 

“I saw it in Japan - around the station in Osaka and around Tokyo’s main station, regeneration was phenomenal. Both those major stations had triggered major investment - there was massive retail development plus hotels, office accommodation, condominiums. It then had a ripple effect, particularly around Osaka where other parts of the area started to be regenerated and jobs created.”

Burns is clearly aiming such comments at the regions around Birmingham and Manchester, where there will be similar HS2 stations - plus, of course, Old Oak Common.

Looking further ahead, how will the high-speed network be run? Like the old Inter-City network? Or individually franchised or sold routes?

“It’s too early to say. We’ll consider that in due course.”

I leave with the feeling that Burns has the political muscle and enthusiasm to ‘get the job done’, but that he needs a really well-informed brief behind the scenes feeding him the best and most powerful information. 

He could then at least partly answer the twin principal weaknesses of the HS campaign: its lack of clear political leadership, and that (even now) a much more powerful job is yet to be done on widely selling the vision for HS2.

There’s still a need, as I see it, for a powerful selling job on why HS2 is important for everyone in the UK. As they say in marketing: you aren’t just selling the sausage, you must also sell the sizzle!

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