What it takes to be Secretary of State for Transport

16 May 2017

Twenty-six men and women have been Secretary of State for Transport in the last 26 years. It’s ironic that such an important job, which needs strategic thinking and long-term planning, has seen such a quick turnover at the top.

(Feature by Chris Proctor as appeared in the May 2017 issue of the ASLEF Journal)


Imagine you are a confirmed and committed slacker, anxious to avoid responsibility, and keen to avoid blame for your endless mistakes. Where would you find a job that enables you to get away with tardy performances, a lack of interest in the work, and all round incompetence? And, more than that, pick up a six-figure salary, have a chauffeur on hand and secure membership of a subsidised club on the river?  Good news! You’re ideal material to become the next Secretary of State for Transport.



 DfTAs a malingerer – and I know about these things – the first requirement is not to stay in a job too long. You need to be out of there before your errors, misjudgements, and downright lies are unearthed. You definitely don’t want to still be in post when people start asking about the promises you made on your first day.

Being a government transport minister is ideal. Their turnover rate is brisker than summer holidaymakers in Spain. Sometimes trade union leaders and journalists only meet them at their leaving do.

In the 26 years that have elapsed since John Major became Prime Minister in November 1990, 26 individuals have been responsible for transport. In the 20 years since Labour won under Tony Blair in 1997, there have been 15 Secretaries of State for Transport. This means the average period for doing the job is just about a year.

Perfect! The chances of being rumbled in that time are virtually nil. And your successor doesn’t mind that you’ve left a crock of whatsitsname behind you big enough to fill the Albert Hall. They point the finger at you, but you’ve gone, so you don’t care; while they, compared with you at least, look quite competent. For a week or so.

And it’s not a dead end job without prospects, either. Former Transport Secretaries include John Major, Alistair Darling, John Prescott and Philip Hammond. Although, on the other hand, does anyone now remember Tom King, John Moore, Paul Channon, John MacGregor, Brian Mawhinney, Sir George Young, Stephen Byers, Ruth Kelly, or Geoff Hoon?



Chris Grayling

Whatever name is on the office door, Transport Secretaries combine a desire to be in the limelight with an instinct for self-preservation. The post is a perfect fit for both.


On a whim you can make an announcement and go on telly, which is any professional politician’s dream. Even better, you are admired for being the bearer of good news. How does this work?


Let’s say you notice punters are moaning about having to stand on trains. All you need to do is select a high number, and think of a date well into the future. Then announce that the number refers to how many new carriages you’ll be providing, and the date is when you expect them to arrive. It is advisable to give yourself a bit of leeway, to ensure you won’t be in the job when your promises turn out to be bogus.

That’s how Philip Hammond did it during his 17 month tenure at the Department for Transport from May 2010 until October 2011. Bored, feeling overlooked, and anxious for another job he couldn’t do – and which he has now found, remember how the Chancellor bungled the Budget? – he began issuing all manner of make-believe.

Philip HammondQuite casually, he mentioned he’d modernise the rail network, tackle overcrowding, improve reliability and speed up journeys. New carriages – 2,100 of them – would soon be toddling up to stations unmentioned in a timescale ill-defined.

He outbid Labour on this score, the rather unambitious Douglas Alexander having only promised an extra 1,000 carriages. But Douglas rather foolishly tied himself to a specific date – 2014 – although he made sure he had been moved on by 2007 after just 13 months in the job. Edging to the door, he proclaimed that the mythical 1,000 carriages were only a ‘first step’ towards something vague.



Douglas AlexanderLast month they were at it again, with Chris Grayling announcing that his department was poised to tackle the ‘capacity crunch’ on the network and improve service reliability.

Aided by the Rail Delivery Group, he smugly predicted that there would be 6,400 more passenger trains running every week. New timetables were flaunted, demonstrating an extra 1,283 trains every weekday. This nirvana would all be up and running – by 2021. By which time Mr Grayling’s tenure at the transport department will be but a distant memory. On current form, he’ll be gone six years before his promises have proved as hollow as down-pipes.

If you’re hardworking and conscientious, driving trains is a perfect job for you; but if you’re work-shy and shifty, I’d strongly recommend a move to Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Road, London SW1.





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