Everything will get much better... soon, promises Byers

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Indy Politics

When Tony Blair told Stephen Byers that he was moving to Transport from the DTI, this most Blairite of Blairite ministers thought to himself: "That's interesting." He didn't exactly jump with joy.

Tomorrow he will announce changes in the way new franchises are agreed with train companies. He's called it "a milestone day". "It is the most important lever I've got. Overall the main priority will be to deliver short-term benefits to passengers so they note an improvement very quickly."

John Prescott made a similar claim, but there were no obvious improvements. Mr Byers is still fresh enough not to look perturbed. "I've got a lot more clout than John. I am confident you will see improvements within two or three years."

He has a strong personal interest in trains – he and his partner Jan, who lives in Newcastle, have a commuter relationship. "At the moment the service is substandard and quite unacceptable." Would he say there was a crisis? "Post-Hatfield there was a crisis. There have been some improvements since then."

Occasional frustration permeates the calm demeanour. "I don't have direct control over any of this. I can provide direction, guidance, and have some levers over other bodies that have the control."

In which case why does he not take control over Railtrack by renationalising it? "I can't see it happening." He speaks almost as an observer. A rail analyst might say, "I can't see it happening. The Secretary of State would never do it." But Byers is the Secretary of State. Surely he ought to be the one making things happen? He replies that he won't be rushed into decisions.

He's essence of New Labour. Moderate, hardworking, he clearly wills change for the better. But will he find the right levers to pull? The travelling public will be a stern judge.

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