Lord Adonis: The man in charge of the train set

Written off as a Blairite, the new Transport Secretary has made a startling new beginning in a job that he has always wanted

When Lord Adonis, the man behind New Labour's controversial shake-up of the education system, left the education department for a new job looking after the nation's railways, the end looked nigh for the most Blairite of Blairites.

It was seen as a hint that he would not last long under the leadership of Gordon Brown and that his drive to relaunch struggling schools with private money had lost favour. His relocation to the Department for Transport (DfT) was written up as an unwelcome consolation prize for a politician on the way out.

However, that version of events was laid to rest in the mind of one political rival upon their first visit to Lord Adonis's new office. Two documents lay on his desk. One was a historic train timetable from the 1920s, the other an opposition party's transport policy manifesto, criss-crossed with yellow marker pen. The obsessive attention to detail Adonis had demonstrated during his time running the rule over Britain's schools was being applied to the railways immediately. "You cannot have big ideas, unless you understand the detail," he told The Independent, appropriately enough from a train heading to Marylebone station. "In all my experience of public service reform, it is intimate knowledge of the detail which helps you generate those big ideas. I hope I know my stuff."

Now officially in charge of the whole train set since being promoted to Secretary of State at the last reshuffle, he has wasted no time in showing he means business, renationalising one of Britain's most popular rail lines rather than handing taxpayers' cash to its struggling private owner. In acting tough against National Express and taking back the keys to the East Coast mainline, he effectively ended the company's future in the rail industry. His steely underbelly had been noted by mandarins before, earning him the nickname Muscles while an education minister. His premature obituary writers have been left in no doubt about his renewed enthusiasm. "I'm passionate about transport, so this is my dream job," he said.

His fastidious qualities have seen him eclipse two of his former bosses while in Government. He drew up Labour's education policies while under the supposed leadership of Ruth Kelly. Business and political figures often chose to deal directly with Lord Adonis when he was a transport minister, bypassing the former Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon. "He is the man getting things done," one rail executive told The Independent before Lord Adonis's promotion to the top job. "He is the one making decisions." A senior Tory agreed. "He was the de facto Secretary of State."

At first glance, his background looks quintessentially New Labour. Like Tony Blair, he was privately educated, attending Kingham Hill boarding school in the Cotswolds. He went on to Oxford, where he earned a first and a DPhil before taking up a fellowship at Nuffield College. But his educational achievements belie the fact that he had a difficult childhood. He managed to win a place at boarding school through a public scholarship, having grown up in a north London council estate, spending some time in a care home. He admits he spent much of the time unhappy. Friends say his range of experiences played a major part in his drive to reform the education system, having benefited from his boarding school days. Though now a Labour member, he served as a Liberal Democrat councillor and backed the SDP before joining the party. Despite his apparent political journey, he has said he would not take a job offered to him by a Tory government.

After a stint as a journalist at the Financial Times and then as a columnist at The Observer, he joined Tony Blair's policy unit, masterminding plans to wrest control of schools away from public authorities, introduce top-up fees, and reinvent struggling schools through the city academies programme. It was a controversial set of ideas from the start and won him many critics. His policies soon became known in the education world by the acronym ABA, standing for "Adonis Blair Axis" among the polite, or "Andrew Bloody Adonis" among the more distracted.

There seems little to connect the education of children and the punctuality of commuter trains, but there is one clear motive behind his passion for both. "I've always been very interested in modernising public services and I've always seen transport as a key part of that," he said. "I'm interested in the social purpose of public transport. A good society is one that has a well-functioning public transport system and in this country we have historically had a very patchy one. We were the first country in the world to have a railway system, but we let it stagnate badly in the 20th century."

As for the suggestion that he left the education department because he could not work under the new Secretary of State and Prime Minster's right-hand man, Ed Balls, he was baffled by it. "It was totally untrue," he said. "I'd been working on education policy for a long time and needed a new challenge. I'd always been interested in high-speed rail." Most politicians with any sense would fight tooth and nail to avoid the political graveyard of the DfT, which has seen 12 secretaries of state come and go in just 20 years. Yet it was Adonis who approached Brown with an offering – to move him to the department and allow him to push ahead with an extraordinary plan to bring high-speed rail to Britain. He certainly isn't playing it down the scale of the project. "It will be one of the biggest infrastructure projects the country has ever undertaken and we've been embracing it with real enthusiasm," he said. "I'm a man on a mission."

His stock shot up after he embarked on an epic tour of the country by rail to discover such oddities as being unable to find something to eat at Southampton at 8pm. His political opponents have found themselves falling victim to his work rate. Norman Baker, the Lib Dem transport spokesman, was pleasantly surprised to be invited to join him on his adventure at Lewes, though Baker was a little disheartened to discover Adonis was eager to catch a train at 5.30am. "We were pretty much the only two people on the train," Baker said. "We had a bleary-eyed conversation. But it is great that he is happy to talk things over very openly." His desire to deal with the minutiae of everything from the frequency of trains to Kettering to the number of bike racks at stations is a mixed blessing for the rail bosses. "He has a lot of ideas," one rail company chief executive said. "It is great that he is interested in what we're doing, but sometimes it is easier when the Secretary of State prefers to do nothing."

However, the state of Britain's coffers is in danger of damaging his ambitions. There are serious questions over whether a man with such zeal for big reforms can operate in an era marked by spending cuts and the rebalancing of public finances. But judging by how he dealt with cash-strapped rail companies this week, the Prime Minister will have a fight on his hands if he attempts to row back on the deal he made with Muscles over high-speed rail. Anyone spending even a few minutes talking to the new Transport Secretary is left in no doubt that it is a resignation issue.

A life in brief

Born: Andrew Adonis, 22 February 1963, north London.

Early life: Won a scholarship to Kingham Hill school, Oxfordshire. Gained a first-class a degree in modern history from Keble College, Oxford and a DPhil from Christ Church College, Oxford.

Career: Became a Lib Dem councillor in Oxford in 1987 before taking a fellowship at Nuffield College, Oxford. Moved into journalism, first with the Financial Times and then The Observer. Joined Prime Minister's policy unit in 2001. Appointed to the Lords and made an education minister in 2005. Moved to transport in October last year, becoming the Secretary of State last month.

He says: "I'm a man on a mission. I'm passionate about transport, so this is my dream job."

They say: "It is good to have a Transport Secretary who is actually interested in transport." Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat transport spokesman

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