But where’s the beef?

Nigel Harris reviews the annual George Bradshaw Address at which Rail Minister Huw Merriman and Labour Shadow Stephen Morgan headed an Election Special. He heard nothing new from either of the political parties to excite or inspire – but plenty to alarm and worry him.

Always a very important event in the calendar, the Annual Bradshaw Address is usually a weighty speech of strategic importance, delivered by a prominent individual. Staged in the portentous surroundings of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ magnificent Victorian headquarters, in Westminster, there’s always a packed house of 200 or so attendees, including railway executives, politicians and journalists.

This year it was different: framed as an ‘Election Special’ by organisers Rail Partners (which represents the TOC owning groups and freight companies), Rail Minister Huw Merriman and his Labour shadow, Stephen Morgan each gave a ten-minute hustings-style speech, followed by questions from the audience, all chaired by Sky News Political Correspondent Tamara Cohen. The event was top-and-tailed by Rail Partners CEO Andy Bagnall, who did a great job, speaking with great passion and, I thought, effectiveness.

I always try to attend the Bradshaw Address because the before-and-after networking amongst that 200-strong audience is always at least as useful as the address itself – sometimes more so. I was cheated this year, discovering ‘on the day’ that ECML signalling upgrade work meant no trains at all from Peterborough into King’s Cross. As much as I wanted to be there, the thought of two rail replacement bus trips of around two hours each was just ‘not on.’ Thankfully, Rail Partners streamed the event live online – and you can now watch a video recording online too, if you like, on the Rail Partners website.

So, I watched virtually from home, but even participating remotely, it was clear that the usual ‘buzz’ was just not there ‘in the room.’ This was maybe something to do with the hangover of the utter charade last year, when Secretary of State Mark Harper made a very well-received (on the night) speech promising significant reform, which really energised the audience – including me. I asked a TOC MD who I fell into step with walking towards Westminster after the event, how he felt about what he’d heard. “Walking on air, to be honest, Nige,” We both had a spring in our step.

Sadly, shortly afterwards, Harper discovered that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak simply doesn’t care or support a rail industry and workforce he evidently regards as beneath contempt – and he kept none of his promises. We know what happened next – the scrapping of HS2 north of Birmingham in tandem with an obviously anti-rail approach across the board. Shamefully, Harper – and the rest of the Cabinet – put their careers firmly ahead of what’s right for the UK and previously firm support for HS2 and the rail industry evaporated. Since then the industry has drifted, rudderless, leaderless and almost friendless in Government.  I do not question Merriman’s commitment or support for the railway – he IS a friend to the railway. His problem is that he’s very much a lone voice and realpolitik dictates that he can only go so far in support of the railway which Downing Street has literally no time for.

Notwithstanding this difficult reality, what we saw at the Bradshaw lecture was a surprisingly (given the widespread view that the Conservatives are doomed at the approaching General Election) rather bullish and upbeat approach from rail minister Huw Merriman! So, genuine credit to Huw, for remaining sparky and enthusiastic in the face of what many regard as his inevitable approaching redundancy.

From Labour shadow rail minister Stephen Morgan – who came across as a likeable and pleasant fellow – we witnessed a lacklustre ‘word-soup bingo’ speech of all the usual blah-blah catch phrases about “delivering for the passenger” by transforming the rail world through Labour’s solve-all miracle panacea of public ownership.  There was lots of ideological Animal Farm-style dogma: ‘public ownership good, private sector bad.’ Plus, of course a litany of what Labour sees as the Government’s failings. A totally predictable and fairly tedious list which told this experienced audience nothing that they weren’t already aware of – and having to live with the daily impacts of. In the occasional camera shots of the audience, it was a sea of long, and I’d have to say, bored faces. What a wasted opportunity which Labour didn’t even seem bothered to grasp. Talk about seizing failure from the jaws of opportunity.

Quite what advantage Morgan saw in bashing a knowledgeable audience over the head with a pile of stuff  they already know only too well, escapes me. I watched thinking: where’s the beef? The content? The solid policy commitments? How Labour would actually create change?

Of all this there was none. Nothing.

Morgan told – sorry, reminded – us about Jurgen Maier’s infrastructure delivery review after which Labour will pronounce. Translation: once someone who knows what they are talking about tells us what to think, we’ll then tell you. It’s pathetic.

With an election now clearly in view on this side of the horizon and approaching fast,  you’d think that Labour would be actively wooing us with the clear and compelling detail of what they’ll do, to try and win our votes. Cast your mind back to 1996 when Labour leader Tony Blair was aggressively  leading a vibrant ‘Government in waiting’ opposition, in which Gordon Brown was spearheading what became  known as ‘the prawn cocktail offensive’ in the City of London, to persuade and convince the ‘Square Mile’ that a Labour Government with lots of idea and energy was nothing they should fear. What we’re seeing now from Labour not just with regard to transport, but across the board, is very far from that!

Either there is a shameful rail policy vacuum until Maier and others tell Labour what to think – or they DO know what they want to do but they just aren’t telling us. I honestly don’t know which is worse, or which shows them in a worse light.

It’s maybe a tad unfair to be too hard on Morgan, given he’s only been in this role for six months. On the other hand, this is big, grown-up stuff and it really matters –  we deserve a much more compelling vision than general promotion of the tired nationalisation trope and we need it to be much more convincingly delivered. I’m afraid Huw ran Morgan all over the court in terms of confidence and brio – but there again, Huw’s had more than seven years rail experience, including as a past chair of the Transport Select Committee. His grip on rail issues is very strong.

In truth, I felt a bit sorry for Morgan, each time Merriman hammered another ball down the fairway and landed it at least near the green, with something of a flourish. Swagger, even.

So, let’s look at what they actually said, starting with Huw.

The usual introductory thanks were followed by Huw’s promise to set out “the government’s vision for the railway.” Oh, please…no! I’m always uneasy when politicians start talking about their ‘vision’ because I’ve learned that the preceding words ‘lack of’ always spring to mind. Older readers may remember when Gordon Brown, after finally topping ‘the greasy pole’ (as Benjamin Disraeli described the challenges of achieving his ultimate political ambition of being Prime Minister too late) about his “vision for Britain.” As rapidly became clear, he just didn’t have one.

Oh, please…no! I’m always uneasy when politicians start talking about their ‘vision’ because I’ve learned that the preceding words ‘lack of’ always spring to mind.

Huw then reminded us of Conservative achievements:

– how passengers numbers had been doubled since privatisation

– how strongly Government had supported the railway through the pandemic.

…leading to current Government intentions to use those ‘twin pillars’ to further reform and renew our railway.

Yes, it is indeed true that passenger numbers doubled between the end of BR and the pandemic – from around 800m to 1.7bn.

Merriman quoted European Commission statistics from 2013 (!!) which he said showed that our railway was judged to be the most improved railway in Europe…second for Europe’s most satisfied passengers in seven countries…and the safest railway in Europe.

We were then given a ‘Pick of the Pops’-style  rundown of Conservative Greatest Hits: £100bn investment since 2010…electrification of 1,200 miles of track, compared with 63 miles under Labour 1997-2010. Three quarters of all passenger journeys are now electrified. The March 2016 train fleet comprised 13,000 carriages, which had increased to nearly 16,000 when Covid hit. He reminded us that this was the Government that inherited and then scrapped Pacer trains…and so it went on…more than 8,000 new carriages entering service since 2010 with the average age of the fleet falling to 17 years…since the pandemic Government has supported the railway to the tune of £42bn…yes, all true, but most of these harked back to an earlier period of greater momentum, energy and success. A time of actual, visible commitment to the railway.

I was reminded of an ageing rock band doing a nostalgia tour, living on past glories of admittedly big hits, but from long ago. The political equivalents of successes like Hotel California and Rumours are now distant memories, classics though they remain – but there’s no prospect of a new album of anywhere near the same quality (or even a new album) anytime soon. The Conservative approach now is just jaded and unexciting. The faces around the room told their own story.

I was sorry to hear the Minister trotting out the old trope that putting more public money into railways, when post pandemic revenues are down 20%, wouldn’t be fair on taxpayers who don’t use the railway. The truth is very different: EVERYONE benefits from a successful, busy railway whether you use trains or not – just like we all benefit from a good health service even if we are in good health.

Drivers who haven’t set foot on a train for years benefit from modal shift to rail by leaving the roads in front of them less congested. The minister himself later pointed out that one freight train takes 129 HGVs off the roads so putting taxpayer investment into freight development also benefits every man, woman and child in the country, even (especially?) if they never use rail themselves. There are loads of examples like this and for the minister to suggest otherwise is deeply disappointing – not to mention disingenuous. Not to mention plain daft: you’d never suggest that it’s unfair on people who don’t have children to expect them to pay towards schools!

Huw cited the completion of Crossrail and the upgrade of King’s Cross and a range of other projects and new train fleets. He mentioned the successful reopening of Beeching closures and specifically cited the plan for Ashington in north east England, served from Newcastle – a project which was already under way anyway. That project has infinitely more to do with the energy of Nexus’s Tobyn Hughes, than it ever had to do with anyone at Great Minster House.

The proposed new station at Bradford – rejected and dismissed as pointless by the feckless then SoS Grant Shapps in his (Dis)Integrated Rail Plan of only three years ago – is now trumpeted as destined to lead the transformation of the city. If DfT and Government think we’re all so stupid that we don’t recognise the difference between genuinely changing your mind because facts and circumstances have changed and self-serving ‘Corporal Jones’ style panic policy, they are very much mistaken.

There was only very limited mention of Northern Powerhouse Rail or HS2 Phase 2 – quelle surprise, eh?! It was all very polished and confidently and pleasantly delivered by the minister…but he was given only pretty tired stuff to work with, by his bosses. Digital season tickets…fare simplification….pay as you go travel…single leg pricing…Yes, these are all good things in themselves, but they do nothing to convey any sense of an inspiring master plan.

Then the minister moved on to the new Draft Rail Reform Bill published that day, which was indeed the big news of the week. And what did the minister choose to highlight and focus on? The announcement of Derby as the HQ of the new organisation and the fact that Open Access is a great success and is going from strength to strength and is to be greatly encouraged.

Setting aside for the moment the ongoing questions about whether Open Access is abstractive, unfair to franchise/contract holders and represents a wasteful use of scarce capacity, open access trains represent only a tiny percentage of overall traffic.

I was bemused to hear OA being given such a high ‘going from strength to strength’ profile. A knowledgeable insider tapped the side of the nose with his forefinger and said: “Ah Nigel, look at the political context! Downing Street is now a bunker, with the Prime Minister holed-up inside and with little real information getting either in, or out. He is paranoid about his right wing and the risk of them defecting to Reform. He is far more exercised by that than by any serious policy considerations – and the way to placate the Tory right is to throw them the red meat of ‘caving’ to the private sector. That explains the obsession with Open Access. It’s all about keeping the Tory party right wing not so much quiet, as remaining on board.”

The minister did then tick the boxes of promoting more access for freight, mentioning the 140 miles of HS2 being built from London to the West Midlands – but note he said ‘from London;’ and not ‘from London Euston.’

Huw summed up by saying that Government wished to harness the best of private and public sectors and placing decisions in hands of GBR  “…and not in the hands of vested interests and the trade unions.”

He stepped away from the lectern to applause which to me sounded polite and lukewarm. It was not a passionate and enthusiastic endorsement of a solid and exciting vision. Mind you, we all made that mistake last year with Mark Harper’s speech, only for not a single one of his commitments to be honoured. I still feel a sense of personal betrayal about that: I’d even sat in Harper’s office the week before the speech and sat six feet from him in a private meeting as he made the same commitments from his speech directly to my face. And politicians wonder why we distrust them so very much?!

Sky News political correspondent Tamara Cohen then showed just how good a job she did of chairing this event, by reminding us that rail reform had been promised as an “urgent priority” in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, and then mocking former SoS Grant Shapps. Shapp has been ‘pretty busy’ since his IRP was launched three years ago, Cohen told the minister, having since had stints since as Home Secretary, Business Secretary, Energy Secretary and now Defence Secretary – but  “GBR has not made such runaway progress.”

“Why is that?” she asked. It was a great moment.

Huw’s slightly meandering answer felt rather like watching a great chef trying to conjure a Michelin quality meal, using a left over chicken leg, some wizened vegetables and a stock cube.

Huw’s slightly meandering answer felt rather like watching a great chef trying to conjure a Michelin quality meal, using a left over chicken leg, some wizened vegetables and a stock cube.

He said that that GBR has been beavering away behind the scenes on the biggest task of all – “change management.”

The minister referenced transferring powers from SoS to GBR  – which is indeed the most important single aspect of the Bill.

Tamara pressed repeatedly on whether the Bill would become an Act of Parliament before the election. Huw sought to gloss around this, but Tamara’s persistence achieved only a vague ministerial commitment that if everyone worked together – including the Labour opposition – and it became possible to find a parliamentary slot, he’d be delighted to ‘land it.’

Asked by Tamara if the PM and other parts of Govt shared his commitment – he answered only as he could and said yes they did. But we know the PM doesn’t. And the Minister knows we know.

Her final stiletto was that even his boss, SoS Mark Harper, was on record as saying the Reform Bill is “unlikely” to become law before the General Election.

I actually felt a bit sorry for Merriman – he did his best in the really tough context of working in a Government led by a Prime Minister who doesn’t give a damn about the crucial importance of the industry we love – and for a boss too terrified of damaging his career by simply being supportive of his own minister – who I know does want to help the railways succeed.

What an absolute mess this all is.

Labour Shadow rail minister Stephen Morgan, has only been in the job for six months so is stymied by lack of knowledge . This sadly meant a diffident and limp performance which was long on telling the 200 senior movers and shakers present what they already knew and very short indeed on clarity about Labour’s plans – other than the predictable parroting of the ‘public ownership’ mantra. And he didn’t even do that especially well.

Morgan doesn’t drive and is at least a regular rail user, so big tick in the box there. He also came across as an affable, pleasant and genuinely likeable fellow, seeking to do his best. But this is very important stuff that really matters and it needed a heavy hitter of greater knowledge and experience to go against the much more confident and better informed Merriman, who never once ‘dropped his serve’ or made an unforced error.

I feel slightly uncomfortable criticising Morgan because I can’t disagree with much that he said. But it was stale fare and there was absolutely nothing new. Where was the vision and ideas, to inspire and encourage 200 senior people who are weary with micro-management and ministerial meddling and who are desperate for something really positive to ‘get behind’ …to inspire their support. But of this, there was none.

Morgan’s opening remarks about how impressed he has been with railway people and their commitment, passion, ambition and determination were fair enough and quite right, of course.  But predictable. Such comments need to precede significant proposals if they are not to merely come across as popularity-seeking platitudes. He even admitted as much:

“My party’s job is to match that ambition,” he said.

You were preaching to the choir, Stephen.

“Railways are vital for national success, key to growing our economy and meeting our climate commitments,” he said.

Yes, Stephen, we know. …

“We need a modern rail system for a modern Britain and major reform is urgently needed.”

Yes, we know that too. Just tell us how exactly HOW you’re going to make that happen?”

But with no solid commitments about distinct policy changes and a new approach, all I heard was: ‘Blah blah blah…’

It was tedious political tumbleweed.

We then moved from platitude to statements of the obvious. Criticism of a roll call of Government failures that we know more about than anyone: cancellation of HS2 Phase 2; Network North’s pathetic launch, being riddled with errors and laughable nonsense; a “screeching u-turn on ticket office closure plans,” the mess of minimum service levels and repeated announcements of rail reform that never happened.

Did he really think this audience was unaware of all this and needed to be reminded of the reality they’ve been living with for too long?!

Catch phrase bingo was in full swing now, so eyes down and look-in…

“Reform will be a priority for Labour”

“Rail is in a state of paralysis and in need of urgent fundamental reform”

“Subject to constant tinkering and meddling and interference by ministers an Whitehall…..the HS shambles ”

“Flagship levelling up policy blah blah”

“ …ensures that a staggering £67bn high speed train hits the slowcoach lane the second it hits the north…”

“….level of chaos and incompetence damaging to railway and investor confidence”

It was in no way tub-thumping, or even mildly excited… it was a tired litany of stuff we all already know…and only too well at that.

Finally, we heard an answer of sorts: Jurgen Maier’s infrastructure review. In other words, Labour is waiting until someone else tells them what to think. It’s beyond pathetic. We are less than a year from going to the polls. The Government is out of ideas, incoherent and failing across the board – but especially in its transport policy. Labour faces an open political goal with an ageing, weary goalkeeper who couldn’t dive for the ball if his life depended on it.

This close to a General Election an energised opposition should be firing on all four cylinders, be very clear in what it wants to do with the railway – and communicating that clearly and repeatedly in order to win our votes. Instead, beyond ‘we want public ownership’ there’s a policy vacuum, which insipid speeches like this will do nothing to clarify.

Back to soundbites – this time about planning system reforms.

“We’ll back builders not blockers!”.

Oh, FFS.

“Too often passengers say trains are late, that they can’t get seat and no clean and functional toilet and that they are not getting value fares.”


“With Labour, change is coming! We will deliver a unified rail network with passengers at its heart and bringing the passenger railway back into public ownership as contracts expire.”

I felt sorry for the 200 very well informed, experienced railway folk who had traipsed into Central London to hear this uninspiring speech.

And then, out of the blue, a truly golden moment – but not for any reason Morgan would have wanted. In a classic slip of the tongue he actually said: “Under Labour’s plans everything will be detested…  er…tested …tested against delivering for the passenger…”

He then grabbed the campaigning  megaphone and trumpeted: “Urgent major reform is needed and under Labour …. IT…. …..IS… ……COMING!” Classic political oratory it wasn’t. And his tribulations were not over as he left the lectern and rejoined Huw Merriman and Tamara Cohen, for the Q&A.

She went straight for the jugular, pointing out that Rachel Reeves had “put a red pen” through any idea of public ownership for energy and water – so why is it right for rail? Where’s the evidence that public ownership of passenger rail will be cheaper or better?

The best Morgan could come up with was to say that while he agreed with most of the findings of the Williams Plan and that Labour wanted to build on it, but that it was committed to public ownership. Then, incredibly…

“We can’t say after the last 30 years that it’s been a successful time”

Utter rubbish. Sure there have been problems – some of them major – chaotic episodes and real tribulations, but which part of doubling passenger figures from 800m under BR to 1.7bn pre-pandemic, can be seen as anything other than a huge success?

“We need a single guiding mind public body that puts passengers at the heart of what we do.”  Morgan claims this will yield £1.5bn in ‘efficiencies.’ But of course, he didn’t say how – which made the claim pointless.

“We know it (public ownership) commands huge public support.” Now that IS true, but it’s pure dog whistle politics.

Questions from attendees including Rail Partners Chair Steve Montgomery, MTR’s Steve Murphy, lifetime freightie Julian Worth, Porterbrook CEO Mary Grant, RIA’s Darren Caplan, Transport UK boss Dominic Booth, on a range of expected issues. But it was Intuitive Talent Solutions CEO Nina Lockwood, who asked the most important question of the night.

She pointed out the huge bow wave of approaching retirements in the next few years – 75,000 railwaymen and women within the workforce will be eligible for retirement in next five years and our failure to either recruit or retain specialist knowledge is the most worrying of the railway’s ticking time bombs. Only 4% of the workforce is 25 or under.

Nina asked what will be done to attract more people into the industry and she’s right – railway and Government need to act fast on this because without the right number of the right people, no progress will be possible.

I called Nina Lockwood as I finished writing this, to congratulate her on a great question, with its deeply unsettling statistics. I discovered that she broadly shared my impressions of the evening as a whole and this particular comment is very much worth sharing.

“Huw Merriman did say that workforce reform, whilst not being in the Rail Partners Manifesto’s five key points, is important. He added that people are at the heart of the railway and that he wanted to see good, rewarding railway careers. But that requires reform.

“Stephen Morgan also said ‘It is clear the passion that people have for their trade.’

“But neither the minister nor his shadow substantively included these crucial people issues in their speeches – and I was deeply disappointed about that.

“There is so much to discuss at these events and 10 minutes in which to cover a mountain of issues and I accept that this is indeed restrictive.

“But my point is that, without people – and the right people, at that – you can’t  deliver ANY of the stuff that they are talking about. ‘People’ should be coming much further up the agenda,” in my view.

“But while the railway might not matter for the election, this election really matters for the railway.”

Nina’s right. And, to conclusively prove her point,  she quoted a few more frankly alarming stats from the NSAR (National Skills Academy for Rail) survey she’d mentioned. “The average age of the rail workforce has risen from 43 years in 2018 to 45 years currently. The number of people younger than 30 has decreased from 16% in 2018 to 10% in 2024. Less than 16% of the rail workforce are female,” she told me. “40.3% of drivers are over 50 years old with 43.6% of signallers over 50.”

Nina’s next comment shocked me to the core: “To replace these would require recruiting 1,000 new drivers and 250 new signallers EVERY YEAR.”

These truly alarming facts highlights exactly why the minister’s ‘greatest hits’ comments and his shadow’s tedious reciting of government failures and predictable promotion of the public ownership agenda, played so poorly with an influential audience desperate for a new approach, new thinking and new energy. And we heard literally nothing new about any of this.

Playing understudy to Tamara Cohen as the evening’s best performer was Rail Partners CEO Andy Bagnall, who spoke with genuine fire and passion at the beginning and end of the show.

“We believe it is possible to get the best of both worlds,” said Andy: “to deliver for passengers and freight customers – a new public body to oversee the railways so customers know who is in charge, but harnessing the innovation and investment of private sector operators to attract customers, grow revenue to balance the books, and free up money for other national priorities. We also need a stable environment for freight operators, to enable them to grow and help decarbonise supply chains.”

Also, despite the greater oratorical experience of the two, it was Andy who, to his very great credit, came up with the most memorable, resonant and important soundbite of the night. This is what he said, in a genuinely good speech which urged Merriman and Morgan to follow the evidence and just get on with reform, given the very high stakes, as illustrated not least by Nina Lockwood.

“As Britain heads to the polls in the next 12 months, I suspect for the majority of voters, rail policy will not be a top order issue, relative to wider priorities such as the economy or NHS.

“But while the railway might not matter for the election, this election really matters for the railway.”

Spot-on Andy – and well said. That was the best moment and the best quote of the night.

Andy’s opening remarks are worth reading in full, so here’s a link.

The full George Bradshaw Address video is here.