Traditionally seen as the motorists' friend, the Conservative Party has had a transport epiphany and has now pledged to put rail at the heart of the country's transport system. Shadow transport secretary Chris Grayling is leading efforts to investigate how this can be achieved.
Grayling is adamant that the state of the rail industry is an increasingly serious political issue. Peak-hour commuters all over the country are experiencing sardine-like conditions on trains that are predicted to see a 30 to 40 per cent rise in demand over the next decade.
Then there are the urgent matters of pollution and climate change. The government wants more people to use public transport instead of the roads. But as Grayling points out: "How can you encourage them to leave the car at home if the alternative is bursting at the seams?"
Development freeze mooted
Grayling's most recent attempt to boost rail capacity is to call for a two-year moratorium on development on disused rail routes (Planning, 27 April, p1). In a letter to transport secretary Douglas Alexander, he suggests that this would give time to investigate the viability of bringing lines back into use.
He hopes for a positive reply. "It is genuinely meant to be a constructive contribution," he insists. "I am not suggesting all railway lines should remain pickled in aspic, but I want to ensure that there is protection for those routes where there is a serious potential for future need."
One example Grayling gives is the Lewes to Uckfield line, which could be reopened as an alternative London to Brighton route. The bottleneck around Gatwick Airport, cause of arguments over the future of the Gatwick Express, would thus be avoided. But the route has already been partially compromised by houses built on some of the original track bed.
A Conservative policy team is also looking at the basic structure of the rail industry and is due to bring forward the first stage of its proposals this summer. The probe is looking at how the industry can avoid duplication and take quick decisions.
The separation of management of track and train has caused inefficiencies, Grayling maintains. For example, anything less than 2m above a platform is the responsibility of the train operator, whereas everything above that comes under Network Rail's remit. A simple job such as repainting a station then requires two sets of contractors, he laments.
Grayling admits his party's culpability. "One has to look in the mirror and accept that it was the Conservatives who separated the management of track and train in the first place. I do not think that will work for the next ten years. It creates structural inefficiencies in the industry so it costs more to run," he says.
A more integrated industry that can deliver capacity improvements without requiring huge fare increases or public subsidies is needed, he contends. Better joint working will not generate the kind of money needed to build high-speed rail lines or Crossrail but it could pay for longer trains and platforms, he believes.
But he is adamant that any changes the party suggests will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. "We cannot march in and rip up the industry. It will not possibly be able to deal with the challenges of the next few years if we do," he acknowledges.
Grayling sees government control over the industry as far too meddlesome. In his view, the railways should be run by railwaymen and women, not politicians. "They should be there to set the strategy, not make operational decisions such as which station in Oxford gets a Sunday service," he argues.
Another problem is caused by the workings of the government's franchise system, which forces train operators to bid vast sums of money while having little commercial flexibility in how a service is run. "The government cannot pretend that it has nothing to do with fares. It is signing contracts with train companies that are quite clearly going to lead to higher fares," he claims.
The long-term future of rail is also being investigated by Grayling's team. A new layer of capacity on the transport network will be needed by the middle of the century, he believes. High-speed rail is a serious consideration in this work. The team is preparing business plans for both high-speed rail and magnetic levitation systems.
"Roads are extremely important," he recognises. "But we are a small country and there are real environmental issues around road building. Rail, and potentially high-speed rail, will have to play a central part in our transport strategy."
Family: Married with two children
Education: Degree in history, University of Cambridge, 1984; BBC news
training scheme, 1985-89
Interests: Spending time with his family, watching Manchester United
2005: Shadow secretary of state for transport
2005: Modernisation committee member
2005: Shadow leader of the Commons
2002: Opposition health spokesman
2001: MP for Epsom and Ewell
1998: Local councillor, London Borough of Merton
1989: Producer, Channel 4 Business Daily
1986: Producer, BBC News