Secretary of State Grant Shapps was enthusiastic about innovations in rail helping to rebuild the UK’s economy when he spoke at the Conservative party’s spring conference on Friday 26 March 2021.
Speaking at a panel event on transport innovation, chaired by Katie Perrior from iNHouse Communications, he commented on the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. He said that the past year has been one of immense challenges for the country and for the transport sector as well.
But he looked forward to the Prime Minister’s challenge to build back better. He recalled his party’s election promise to transform and to level up by investing in transport and infrastructure.
And he also commented on the UK’s new independence. “I look overseas, and I see a lot of standalone countries like Singapore, and South Korea and Israel, who don’t fear to chart their own course,” he said. “They innovate, they take risks, and they create their own success and I really think that we can do the same.”
“We actually start with an advantage, we’re already a G7 economy, already larger than any of them,” he continued. “And that’s why I’m so pleased to be here today to discuss how we can pack more innovation into our transport system. My department’s already leading the drive on electric cars, hydrogen trains, green airliners, and in the process of creating thousands of new jobs in brand new industries.
“And we’re working on using, using data and technology to revolutionise services for passengers, through the National Bus Strategy I published just last week, and through a once in a generation rail reform, to be published soon.
“But in a way, this is nothing new. From the Industrial Revolution onwards, Britain’s innovation has always been our trump card – it was, after all, where the railways were invented. As we exit this pandemic, with Brexit done, we won’t be afraid to play that card. I’m not ashamed to say it: I actually believe in British exceptionalism, because we’ve always done things exceptionally. What was once the workshop of the world can be its laboratory now as a scientific superpower, as the PM puts it, for better things to come.
“So, let me stick my neck out here: I think, and I believe, by embracing technology and new innovation, and, yes, by being prepared to do things a little bit differently, the UK can be the largest economy in Europe by 2050.
“Now of course, there’ll be challenges, but we’ll be ready to adapt. Post-Brexit post-pandemic Britain will have the ability to do things more nimbly, to do things differently. We can learn from our world beating vaccine rollout, we can apply it to the whole of our economy. A plan, early investment, a can-do attitude, that, my friends, is how we are going to build back better.”
Later on in the session, the Transport Secretary was asked about the possible use of hydrogen to power public transport. “Hydrogen has already been given the green light,” he replied.
“I’ve been on a hydrogen train which was backed by the government in Coventry, called the HydroFLEX, and taken a ride on that train. It already works.
“You obviously have the cylinders to hold the hydrogen – we want those to be packed underneath the train, otherwise you lose the carriage to carry it, and we’re doing work on that right now. But I think that hydrogen has a big future in different types of transport.
“Hydrogen…will only really ever work if we can develop it on sufficient scale. I’ve made Tees Valley a hydrogen hub, the country’s first hydrogen hub. So, we combine all the different types of transport and their research and do it in one location, with backing from the government, backing from the industry, backing from academics and others, and make sure that we steal a march on this…”
Grant Shapps was also clear that the passenger/customer has to be the priority. He was particularly concerned about the disabled: “I want to make it as easy for people with disabilities to get around as for anybody else on our transport system, because, actually, if you aim to do that, you’ll find it’s easier for everyone and that should be our benchmark. And that benchmark will make it easy for everyone.”
But he also had a personal reason for putting passengers first. “I wanted to be Transport Secretary, as a frustrated train commuter, for many years,” he said, “and, of course, it should all be about the customer, it should all be about the passenger. That should be the whole point of our transport system.
“And I think, too much of the time, it hasn’t been – it’s been about the complex franchising system, whether that’s on the trains or a fairly disparate bus system, which the bus strategy I announced last week with 3 billion pounds behind it seeks to bring into order.
“And so, for me, behind the scenes, the conversation I have with officials at the Department for Transport more than anything else it is – let’s make our transport system work for passengers.”