It’s been less than a week since I took on my new role as the UK’s minister for transport (see last week’s column for the details of my bid) in the newly privatised Brand Britain and already I’ve achieved so much.
Regular travellers in the UK may not yet have felt the impact of my changes, but I’m hoping that come the Monday commuter rush, things will feel a lot smoother at airports, railway stations and motorway junctions. As I’ve ended up purchasing a ministry that’s crumbling under the weight of history while smugly trotting along in the wake of past glories, the past few days have been a blur of snappy decisions, site inspections and countless dismissals of the inert and generally useless. Below is the diary of my week:
Saturday Woke up early to catch the Eurostar to Paris with my mom and Mats. While Mom doesn’t travel nearly as much as I do, she has many keen observations on how to improve transport experiences, so while we are reading papers in the lounge I decide to make her my deputy minister.
As we walk to our carriage and survey the filthy exteriors of Eurostar’s fleet, we decide that the Anglo-Belgo-Franco venture lacks clear leadership and that none of these nations are globally renowned for their cleanliness.
On board, things are just as tatty and dirty, so I make a decision to buy out my Belgian and French partners and then lease the operations to the smart people at Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) in Nagoya. JR promises to have shiny new bullet trains hurtling under the English Channel within the year and carriages will be fitted with spacious new first and second class layouts, a proper restaurant carriage and new extended services that will allow travellers to enjoy dinner in Paris, London or Brussels and catch a late train home.
As we pull out of the station and start to pick up speed, I also decide that three proper super high-speed networks will be built with immediate effect – one up the east coast, one up the west and another linking the outer reaches of Cornwall with London.
Sunday Wake up late and pay a visit to the 15th Colette carnival in the Tuileries. This contemporary take on a luxury version of a funfair makes me think about all the missed revenue and retail opportunities at the UK’s biggest rail stations. Later that afternoon, visiting a favourite bookshop, I spend a considerable amount of time in the architecture section. While flipping through the work of Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, I tap out a quick email to my newly appointed head of real estate and suggest we embark on a plan to knock down most of the out of date stations that are no longer fit for purpose.
He replies quickly, saying that many of these stations have a wonderful character and are a part of the country’s great transport legacy. I respond even faster, explaining that legacy is precisely the problem. Why hold on to relics that were built for technology and lifestyles from a century ago? My colleague gets the message and promises to launch a global competition within a week to build more than two dozen new rail hubs across the country.
Monday Colleagues are invited to join me on the continent for a bit of transport benchmarking. While Paris’s airports don’t offer much in the way of inspiration, there’s plenty to learn from state rail operator SNCF – both good and bad. The good is that the state has managed to build up a proper alternative to air travel for even the longest distances. The bad is that the colour schemes shouting out from much of the rolling stock is generally dreadful and many of the operator’s rail carriages look like high-speed nursery schools.
Tuesday I head back to London. While passing the Thames Estuary, I decide that the plans to build an aviation city on a man-made island in the middle of the Thames will take too long. The only sensible option is to expand Heathrow by adding two new runways and adding another one to Gatwick as well.
Good hubs needs proper airlines, so I also opt to buy British Airways, file for divorce with Iberia and do a massive clean out of all the management who have no concept of service. At the same time all security service contracts at airports are suspended and the contract is given to the people who manage the scanners and X-rays at Auckland airport. In fact, under a special visa scheme all senior staff will be Kiwis, to ensure maximum courtesy for travellers. Before heading out to dinner with the lovely people from Swiss Railways, I make a large X on a map of Heathrow and colour in an area for a new university devoted to service. My new ministry can invest in all the new vehicles and technology it wants but it’ll be worth nothing without skilled and gracious people to operate them.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule