Who'll make the trains run on time?

What a curious state of affairs. A minister is moved from a very important job to a not very important one and it is deemed a promotion. That is what has happened to John Reid, who was, briefly, transport minister. This week he is celebrating his "rise" to the cabinet as Scottish Secretary. Poor old Helen Liddell, who failed to do the business in the run-up to the Scottish elections, is supposed to be licking her wounds. She is now stuck with the lowly transport brief.

The lowly transport brief? Transport has not merited cabinet status since the demise of the ineffective Gavin Strang. And Conservative transport secretaries, for all the good they did, might as well have been out of the cabinet, too. More often than not they bowed to their superiors at the Treasury, which is why the railways were so shambolically privatised. Not surprising, then, that the removal of one transport minister and the appointment of the third since the election has not made waves.

But the downgrading of the position is a scandal. Which is more important - improving the railways and tackling the appalling congestion on the roads or being Scottish Secretary in Whitehall when most of the relevant powers have been devolved to Edinburgh?

Senior ministers would no doubt argue that I am, so to speak, steaming into the wrong tunnel. John Prescott, they would point out, sits in the cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for transport. So the transport minister attends cabinet meetings regularly. And anyway, being Scottish Secretary in the early stages of devolution is a big job. This last point, by the way, was the source of some contention in the run-up to the mini-reshuffle. There was no dispute between Downing Street and Gordon Brown and others as to who deserved promotion. Almost everybody agreed that Reid was ahead of Liddell in the pecking order. The debate was over which was the more significant job: Scotland or transport. Brown was among those arguing that Scotland was more important in the post-devolution period. His view prevailed. No doubt there is symbolic value in having a rising star as Scottish Secretary, reminding us all that Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom. But beyond the symbolism there is no need to waste a talented minister on the job.

No, Reid should have been in the cabinet, but as transport secretary. John Prescott's department is too big for him alone to represent all its responsibilities at cabinet level. When Chris Patten was environment secretary in the late 1980s, he told me that the department should be split in two because local government, housing and environmental issues were too much for one cabinet minister. Now, Prescott has acquired transport and regional development on top of those three responsibilities. He also chairs several cabinet committees and takes an active role in Labour Party affairs. I feel exhausted just writing the list. But where are the policies emerging from the department? Prescott came to power with an imaginative agenda for transport and the regions. Waiting for the policies is almost as frustrating as sitting on a railway platform waiting for a privatised train to arrive.

Reid, who had been in the transport job only since last July, was beginning to get a grip. Most specifically, he was ready to change the shambolic and costly public/private financial proposals for London Underground. These involve giving the private sector responsibility for the maintenance of the track and signalling system while London Underground retains control of the trains. It is one of the least cost-effective options available. It was the result of a compromise between the Treasury, which sought full-scale privatisation, and Prescott, who was committed to the pre-election pledge that the Underground would remain publicly owned.

But this is what Reid said to me in an NS interview last month: "Our preferred option is to utilise the resources of the private sector for the maintenance of London Underground, but should we be convinced that this does not provide value for money, we will not proceed. We won't feel compelled if it's going to cost the taxpayer more money." I suggested that ministers might have to go back to the drawing-board, to which he replied: "We're not short of advice and ideas."

This was hardly a ringing endorsement for the current policy, which the London mayor will inherit unless the plan is changed. Probably Prescott was not thrilled at Reid's calculated and strong hints that he wanted to scrap the policy. Enter Liddell, who was a Treasury minister when the plan was devised. True, she was not directly involved in the discussions, but what will her line be now?

More voters use the London Tube than use the whole of the rest of the country's rail network. So it should be an urgent political priority. And more people live in London than in Scotland, where transport is the responsibility of the new parliament. The Conservatives have expressed some concern that Liddell is a Scot presiding over English transport. This is hardly an issue as Reid, who was doing the job, is Scottish, too. The only test should be whether a transport minister can start making a difference to transport. Travellers on roads, trains or buses would not give a damn if the policies were devised by a Ukrainian - if they worked.

I am completing this column stuck in a tunnel on the Piccadilly Line. Apparently the delay is due to the "success" of London Underground in building new trains. Because there is not enough room for them to park at the end of their journeys, trains have to queue in the tunnel. Well, I suppose it's progress of a sort if you're stuck in a tunnel on a newish train.

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning