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Training for Power

The industry wants a political champion to drive the building of new high speed rail lines in the UK. Step forward, shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers. Ed Owen met her.

If an election was called tomorrow, the Conservatives would most likely win, and with a healthy majority.

While a week is a long time in politics, waiting anything up to two years for polling day seems like an eternity. But the momentum is undeniably with David Cameron, who has assembled a young, hungry team; embodied by one of its rising stars – shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers. Westminster watchers will have seen her taking a hard line with opposite number Ruth Kelly across the Commons.

In person, she is more moderate. Reputed to be a Eurosceptic, her time in Brussels was in some ways inspirational. "TGV is a very high quality service and we can learn lessons from the rest of Europe. There are so many countries that have done so much more than we have."

She seems to be the high speed rail lobby's dream, and things get better: "I am working hard at the moment on proposals to take high speed rail forward in this country to see if we can’t at least start to catch up with countries like France to deal with the capacity problems on our network."

While the final plans will not be revealed until September's party conference, NCE understands the Conservatives intend to take the Greengauge 21 proposals for a line from London to Birmingham to the electorate. Villiers herself uses Greengauge's "High Speed 2" (HS2) terminology.

"In government we would do the feasibility studies to make progress towards HS2 and more high speed rail. In the interim between now and the general election, we are looking very closely at how it could be funded, and I hope to be able to make some more ambitious promises on high speed rail in due course."

She wants to promote herself as the decisive alternative to Labour on this key issue: "We tabled a parliamentary question about this recently asking how many officials the Department for Transport (DfT) have working on high speed rail, and the answer is zero."

As David Cameron has pledged to stick to Labour's spending plans for any first term, it is little surprise that Villiers is, "looking at all options," to raise the £11bn needed to build HS2, "But I hope the private sector would play a part."

A role for Network Rail is undecided: "I am sure they would be involved in some respect, but I would not want to pre-judge how HS2 could be managed", but the track operator will not escape scrutiny under a Conservative regime.

The set up between franchise train operators and Network Rail would remain. But, Villiers says: "We want to promote greater integration between track and train and promote private investment in the railways by having longer franchises for the operators, and more flexible franchises to allow for more innovation and investment."

"It is crucial to get them all working more harmoniously on producing solutions to the overcrowding crisis to really get a cross-industry focus on delivering new capacity and also getting costs down so that of the subsidy that is currently paid, more of it can be released for the capacity improvements than we desperately need," she says.

A Conservative government would take a step back from the railways and beef up the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) to put pressure on Network Rail, which "must become more accountable to its customers, so the train and freight operators have effective sanctions they can use if Network Rail fails to perform."

Villiers says she would not bother fining Network Rail, as happened over the New Year delays, because the money simply reverts to the Treasury and away from track improvements. Instead, "One of the ways is to give the regulator stronger powers to intervene in the remuneration of bonuses. In my understanding the ORR might be able to do that today, but it is not very easy. We would make it easier." Network Rail recently awarded itself £55M in bonuses, including some £306,000 for chief executive Iain Coucher.

Freight must be promoted to reduce overcrowding and damage to roads. In fact, she has adopted a Labour policy – a tax on foreign lorries using British roads – recently mentioned by the Transport Select Committee of MPs as something the DfT had forgotten about.

But for road user charging, she is in favour, in principle, but only if individual local authorities or communities make a free choice. She says Manchester does not face a free choice.

"The government wants to avoid the political flack for introducing congestion charging by saying 'it's a local decision', but then interfere with that local decision by saying they cannot have the transport funding without congestion charging."

But she is against national road charging schemes. Even when combined with massive road improvements, such as proposed by the RAC Foundation. In fact she in unimpressed with Labour's overall performance on roads. "The government has grossly mismanaged its roads projects – a good many come in over budget and late. I always think of them spending 11 years thinking about Stonehenge and then coming up with a proposal to do nothing."

Despite this, the new highways policy of supplementing road improvements and widening projects with Active Traffic Management will stay.

The preferred bidder for the M25 widening project was recently announced. It is a consortium comprising two of the shareholders of failed Tube upgrade contractor Metronet. She is happy with the choice because, she says, Metronet's failure was not just down to the shareholders' actions.

"The government messed-up. It [the London Underground PPP] was Gordon Brown's personal creation. We have to determine what went wrong with Metronet itself, the people behind it and the companies involved. But the government also has to carry the can for setting up something so incredibly complicated. It has all gone disastrously wrong."

Now out of PPP administration, Metronet is under the control of the most powerful Conservative politician in the country – London mayor Boris Johnson. "He will deliver improvements, but on Metronet he has a difficult job because he is tied-down and bound by the contracts.

"We said PPP was quite inflexible and the contracts work over a long period, and this limits flexibility. I'm confident he will do a great job but there are constraints on what he is going to be able to deliver.” She could confirm that London's much criticised "bendy buses" will indeed be phased out.

To construct new infrastructure and provide power – including nuclear power – she says planning will need reform. But Villiers toes the party line and voted for the bill's amendments, giving the final say for schemes not to the Infrastructure Planning Committee, but to the House of Commons.

"It is not acceptable to invest planning decisions to an unelected quango. Here, the buck should stop with ministers. They would be acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, but ultimately, there should be political responsibility here. Whatever planning system you will always have that tension between local and national interest."

Born: 5 March 1968
1990: Graduated with a first in Law at Bristol University
1991: BCL from Jesus College, Oxford
1994-1999: Barrister and lecturer in law at King’s College, London.
1999: 2005 MEP for London
2005: Present MP for Chipping Barnet
2005-2007: Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury
July 2007-present: Shadow transport secretary

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