The job of transport secretary has changed hands with a regularity Britain's train operators would envy. Geoff Hoon is the latest to occupy the hot seat - and as he prepares to outline his views to a Commons committee Mark Lobel looks back at the record of his 11 predecessors over the past 20 years.
PAUL CHANNON: JUNE 1987 - JULY 1989
Lord Kelvedon was Southend West MP from 1959 to 1997
Who: Paul Channon became Conservative MP for Southend West at 23, succeeding his father. He had a rocky time as Trade and Industry Secretary, having to stand aside due to a "conflict of interest" over a Guinness share-trading investigation. His grandfather was Rupert Guinness.
Priorities: The 51-year-old privatised BAA and immediately launched a £2.5m advertising campaign to combat drink-driving - but endorsed a report a month later scrapping future campaigns. Launched large-scale road building programme.
How he got on: His term was overshadowed by several major transport disasters including the Kings Cross fire and the Lockerbie Pan-Am terrorist attack. He had to face a relentless shadow minister, John Prescott, at the despatch box, chiding him over rail underinvestment and for taking a family holiday to Mustique shortly after the Lockerbie crash. Mrs Thatcher sacked him in the reshuffle of July 1989, with the Independent reporting that she saw "transport as a problem area needing sorting out".
What happened next: On the backbenches, he stood then withdrew from the election to become speaker. He was chair of the finance and services committee and transport select committee. He left parliament in 1997 and became a life peer, Baron Kelvedon. He died in January 2007 at the age of 71.
CECIL PARKINSON: JULY 1989 - NOV 1990
Baron Parkinson was an MP from 1970 - 1992
Who: Cecil Parkinson was initially seen as a potential successor to Margaret Thatcher and was part of the 1982 Falklands war cabinet. He resigned in 1983 after an affair but as one of Mrs Thatcher's torchbearers she brought him back to the cabinet table four years later. He shifted briefs from energy to transport (reports suggested Mrs Thatcher had wanted him as foreign secretary, but was persuaded to appoint John Major instead) to replace the sacked Mr Channon and prepare the way for British Rail privatisation.
Priorities: After 10 major transport tragedies in two years which cost 800 lives he sought to calm nerves. In addition, the pressure was on for him to secure extra funding as the transport select committee published a devastating report on bus and rail provision and congestion.
TRANSPORT EXPERT'S VERDICT
Not really in control or interested and booed by London Conservatives for reviving plans to build urban motorways across London
Campaign for Better Transport
How he got on: He began by announcing controversial London road schemes would become tunnels instead, which was seen as a positive environmental move. But he was dogged by the lingering aftershocks of disasters such as the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the Clapham rail crash, growing congestion on the roads and deteriorating quality of cash-strapped train and bus services. He was the first to formally commit the Conservative government to privatising British Rail, announcing the plans at the 1990 party conference. But Margaret Thatcher took a cautious approach and he was still planning the sell-off when he cleared his desk. He boasted securing record levels of future investment in transport but resigned when John Major replaced Thatcher as party leader.
What happened next: He left the Commons in 1992, taking a life peerage. To great surprise William Hague recalled him to be party chairman after the Labour landslide in 1997.
MALCOLM RIFKIND: NOV 1990 - APR 1992
Edinburgh MP for 21 years before Kensington and Chelsea
Who: Malcolm Rifkind became Margaret Thatcher's spokesman on Scottish affairs a year after becoming an MP, though he resigned a year later in protest at her hostility to a Scottish assembly. Yet he became under secretary of state at the Scottish Office in 1979, was promoted to minister of state at the Foreign Office and then became Scottish Secretary.
Priorities: Mr Rifkind declared himself "enthusiastically and unequivocally'" in favour of getting more freight and passenger traffic on to the railways and initiated a study into road pricing to get people off the roads. Road building was to be curtailed. He pushed ahead with plans to break-up and privatise British Rail.
How did he get on: Road pricing was struck off the political agenda almost straight away. The Conservative 1992 election manifesto did not mention it, instead emphasising government plans to spend £6.3bn on road building. Rail privatisation raised too many fears of higher fares and cuts in services so, while the promise to sell off British Rail's freight trains was retained, privatisation of passenger services was not. Plans were afoot though to start to franchise out certain British Rail services to the private sector. Unfortunately for Mr Rifkind, the number of rail passengers fell by 3% over the year and shadow transport secretary John Prescott kept characterising Mr Rifkind's road pricing schemes as an attack on the poor.
What happened next: Mr Rifkind became defence then foreign secretary. But he was one of the political big beasts to fall in the 1997 Labour landslide. His exit was softened as he received a knighthood. He failed to regain Edinburgh Pentlands in 2001 but was elected as MP for Kensington and Chelsea in 2005. He served as the shadow secretary of state for work & pensions and welfare reform until December that year when he chose to return to the backbenches, having also withdrawn from the party's leadership contest that year.
JOHN MacGREGOR: APR 1992 - JUL 1994
Baron MacGregor represented Norfolk South from 1974 - 2001
Who: The Tory whip and junior trade minister John MacGregor was appointed by Thatcher as treasury minister, agriculture minister then education secretary before becoming Leader of the Commons in 1990.
Priorities: MacGregor decided rail was the most urgent issue on his desk and spent the first six weeks looking at it after the 1992 election. He published the government's White Paper on rail privatisation in July 1992 and drew up a 10-year timetable to bring the system into private ownership. But he didn't think rail traffic could stem road congestion. He said: "The idea that we can get a massive switch from road to rail is, I think, unrealistic." He backed controversial road-widening plans and said roads were "good news" for the environment.
How he got on: He pushed rail privatisation legislation through parliament proposing different owners for the trains and the track. He wanted a number of rail companies to encourage competition, efficiency and local responsiveness, as well as to increase Treasury revenue from several sell-offs rather than just one. Critics said he ignored warnings on safety from British Rail bosses and pushed through a "poll tax on wheels" in record time. He was dumped from cabinet after taking a battering over it.
What happened next: He returned to the backbenches and became a life peer in 2001.
BRIAN MAWHINNEY: JUL 1994 - JUL 1995
He was Cambridgeshire North West's MP from 1979 - 2005
Who: Brian Mawhinney entered government as a junior Northern Ireland minister in 1986 and earned a reputation as a "safe pair of hands".
Priorities: He sought to tackle a number of inflamed issues, particularly over rail privatisation. But straight into the job he had to tackle a series of 48-hour rail worker strikes affecting over half of rail services. He also came under pressure from environmentalists to control road expansion. He said he was concerned with balancing "the economic benefits and personal freedom that roads can bring with the need for environmental protection." He signed off the controversial Newbury bypass scheme on his last day in post.
How he got on: He pushed through the separation of Railtrack from the rest of British Rail on 1 April 1994, so that it could be offered to investors as a private company, making it difficult for any future government to reverse. It paved the way for a successful flotation on the stock market in 1996 - but it was only achieved by a write-off of £1bn of Railtrack debt. He also launched a national transport debate in an effort to move policy away from the much-criticised pro-roads approach of his predecessor, John MacGregor and he was keen to examine the possibility of motorway tolls and congestion charging.
What happened next: He served as Conservative chairman for two years on the lead up to the heavy 1997 election defeat. After a brief stint as shadow home secretary under William Hague, he resigned from the shadow cabinet. In 2005 he was made a life peer. He has been chairman of the Football League since 2003.
GEORGE YOUNG: JUL 1995 - MAY 1997
An MP since 1974 for Ealing Acton then North West Hampshire
Who: After entering parliament in 1974, George Young was probably the most dedicated cyclist there - peddling the seven-mile Acton to Westminster daily journey in under 30 minutes. He served as a health, environment and housing minister under Thatcher and then Major. He was financial secretary to the Treasury in 1994.
Priorities: He was the only member of the cabinet to be a card-carrying member of Friends of the Earth. Some expected him to entrench savings in the road budget. He introduced motorway tolling technology trials weeks into the job - in contrast to his predecessor's approach to them, saying they offered the UK the chance to become a "world leader" in tolling techniques.
How he got on: Railtrack was floated on the stock market on his watch, raising £1.93bn for the government - but he faced accusations it was sold too cheaply in a rushed deal, claims that would come back to haunt him years later. He also announced plans to privatise London Underground. Roads were still a hot topic. Young's green credentials as the 'bicycling baronet' did not protect him from a bruising row over the Newbury bypass which he pushed ahead with, protesters even dug up his lawn. He did unveil a revised roads building programme cutting 77 schemes and nearly £4bn off the £12bn programme announced just 18 months before.
What happened next: He became shadow defence secretary and then shadow leader of the house, eventually looking after constitutional affairs too. He unsuccessfully stood for speaker, before being elected chairman of the select committee on standards and privilege.
JOHN PRESCOTT: MAY 1997 - JUN 2001
John Prescott has represented Hull East since 1970
Who: Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was put in charge of the vast department of the environment, transport and the regions after Labour won the 1997 election.
Priorities: He branded the privatised rail service a "national disgrace" and sacked the rail regulators. He said: "Travelling by train should be a delight and not an ordeal." But his pledge in opposition to take the service back into public hands came to nothing. He declared war on car drivers, pledging road journey would be cut or he would have failed. And he had "no doubt" road tolls would be introduced.
How he got on: After a year's work on his White Paper expectations were high. He hammered out a £180bn, 10-year plan to reverse decades of underinvestment in infrastructure. But the Paddington and Hatfield rail crashes questions about safety especially as roads and rail had shared the initial huge investment. Road traffic rose and the Green lobby claimed commitments were broken and safety was worse.
However, rail passenger numbers also increased and the network gained its own strategic authority and a rail regulator, both designed to drive up standards. Legislation was in place for road tolls and workplace parking charges and a bus-only lane was installed on the M4 approach to London. He lost the transport brief in a restructuring after the second Labour win.
What happened next: Prescott, often referred to as Two Jags, made history by clocking up 10 years as deputy prime minister. He stepped down in 2007 at the same time as Tony Blair quit as PM. This week he has presented a programme on class on the BBC.
STEPHEN BYERS: JUN 2001 - MAY 2002
A Labour MP since 1992, first at Wallsend then North Tyneside
Who: After entering parliament in 1992, the son of an RAF technician, Stephen Byers, enjoyed a meteoric rise, firstly to the Treasury, then as Trade Secretary before he was put in charge of transport, local government and the regions.
Priorities: Byers was heckled as he began his tenure and outlined the government's privatisation plans at a public sector union conference in 2001. He announced plans to invest an additional £50bn in public services over three years. Mr Byers said the investment would drive "radical reform" in public services and said he wanted "vigorous innovation" in which customers were always put first.
How he got on: It did not go smoothly, especially after his spin doctor Jo Moore suggested it was a good day to "bury bad news" on Sept 11th 2001. Both her and his press chief Martin Sixsmith subsequently left their posts. In a hugely controversial move, Byers forced Railtrack into administration leading to furious protests from its shareholders. His decision to create a not-for-profit company Network Rail to take over track and signalling was seen as renationalisation in all but name, earning him plaudits on the left. Byers eventually resigned, saying the controversies swirling around him had become a "distraction" from government achievements.
What happened next: He returned to the backbenches, where he has kept a low profile, penning the occasional article promoting Blairite reform of the public services. In 2005 he told the High Court his evidence to a Commons sub-committee about the events leading up to Railtrack's collapse was not accurate.
ALISTAIR DARLING: MAY 2002 - MAY 2006
Alistair Darling has represented Edinburgh Central since 1987
Who: Widely seen as one of the government's steadiest pairs of hands, Alistair Darling was moved from work and pensions by Tony Blair to run the troubled department.
Priorities: Taking charge of a slimmed-down department after John Prescott was put back in charge of the regions, Darling's immediate aim was that of damage limitation, to decrease congestion on the roads and improve rail networks. "We have got the money," he said, "My job is to make sure that that money is translated into improvements in train running times and improvements in performance... It will take time but I am determined to see it through."
How he got on: His road pricing proposals sparked fierce debate, he made the case for airport expansion and he launched another ten year plan. The Conservatives said Darling had presided over ever-longer traffic jams and overcrowded trains. He had failed to launch new freight and tram schemes, and increase cycling as promised. Mr Darling said that a doubling of spending had brought transport improvements, such as fewer deaths and serious injuries on the roads, more people travelling by train than at any time since the 1960s, key railway lines upgraded and more than 100 road schemes completed.
What happened next: After a year as trade secretary, working closely with this friend and chancellor Gordon Brown, he took over as chancellor when Brown moved next door. The row over the 10p tax rate, the credit crunch, financial crisis, bank nationalisation and recession has meant this is one job in which he has failed to stay out of the limelight.
DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: MAY 2006 - JUNE 2007
Douglas Alexander has been MP for Paisley South since 1997
Who: Douglas Alexander enjoyed a rapid rise since working as a researcher for Gordon Brown in 1990. After coordinating Labour's general election victory in 2001 he was appointed overseas trade minister and then minister for Europe before starting at transport.
Priorities: Within days he announced a £10m fund for the development of nationwide road charging schemes as part of his plan to tackle congestion, and said, "if we do nothing we simply face eternal gridlock". He said he was concerned about the environmental impact of cheap air travel and called for aircraft to be included within the EU emissions trading scheme.
How he got on: Alexander unveiled a Transport Bill to pilot pay-as-you-drive schemes and conceded the number of vehicles on the road had risen from 26 million from to 33 million since 1997. He conceded railway capacity was overburdened and proposed longer trains, longer platforms and double-decker trains. Unexpectedly he was also questioned about how Russians managed to (allegedly) smuggle toxic radioactive substances through British planes and airports, following the poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.
What happened next: Gordon Brown moved him to international development with a beefed-up budget. He remains close to the prime minister and is thought to have been one of those pushing for a general election in Autumn 2007, which Mr Brown eventually decided against.
RUTH KELLY: JUNE 2007 - OCTOBER 2008
She has served Bolton West since 1997
Who: A former business journalist, she took the marginal seat of Bolton West from the Conservatives in 1997. Her first child was born 11 days after she was elected. She was appointed education secretary in 2004, aged 36. Well-known to be a devout Catholic, her religious views occasionally came into conflict with government policy, such as on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. She faced calls to quit as Education Secretary after sex offenders were found working in schools. She became communities secretary in 2006 where critics regarded her delayed introduction of home improvement packs as mismanagement.
Priorities: Weeks in, the 39-year-old ordered an emergency security summit of airlines, airports and government officials following failed car bombings and a heightened terror alert. She launched a £1.5m advertising campaign to ensure summer holidaymakers were aware of security measures. With the rail network busier than ever and high fares, four weeks into the job, Ms Kelly published a five-year plan and a strategic 30-year view.
How she got on: Ms Kelly slashed subsidies for train operators to pay for infrastructure improvements and announced plans to decrease overcrowding, creating what some regarded as a "multi-billion pound bill" to help pay for what she said was "the most ambitious strategy for growth on the railways for 50 years''. She announced the go-ahead for the £16bn London Crossrail project and pledged to move towards an all-electric rail network. She backed a third runway for Heathrow, in the teeth of environmental protests. She said national road pricing was "inevitable" before putting plans on the back-burner widen motorways and expand airports, again upsetting environmental groups.
What happened next: News that she wanted to quit the cabinet to spend more time with her son and three daughters dramatically emerged on the day after Gordon Brown's speech to this year's Labour Party conference. She will stand down as an MP at the next election.
Here is a selection of your comments on how the transport secretaries performed and what Geoff Hoon's priorities should be.
All are generally awful. We need major reform: public ownership of the railway companies, infrastructure improvements, cheap fares, electrified lines and sustainable growth. Roads and airports cannot grow in a sustainable manner, therefore we should tax them hard (road pricing, congestion charging are two examples), and invest this money in rail, buses and trams. Technically it's simple, but motorists kick up a fuss every time road charging is mentioned. Ignorant motorists who are paying more than ever for petrol, who fail to see the bigger picture. They are addicted to their cars. This is not just an environmental issue, this is a practical issue that needs to be dealt with otherwise within a couple of years none of us will be going anywhere fast.
The list of incumbents since 1997 looks like a roll call of political failures. Mr Hoon's previous record stands him in excellent stead to continue this trend.
Steve Cahill, Sandy, England
I always thought John Prescott had a lot of good ideas and brought zeal to the job, but was always prevented from putting a lot of it into practice because of New Labour turf wars (primarily Gordon Brown putting the spokes on his spending plans); his still-excellent idea of an 'M25' - style radial railway around London for example. Your article also makes no mention whatsoever of one of his quiet successes; the transformation of the canal network, which under his supervision brought environmentally friendly trade and rejuvenation to many formerly run-down areas.
Andrew Whiteside, London
Funny how an entire rail network - the best in the world at the time - was built without the help of a minister or indeed a Ministry of Transport. Geoff Hoon's priority should be to abolish the department.
Patrick Crozier, London
As the country plunges to recession, perhaps this is one area the government should seriously consider investing that extra public spending. As an ex-pat living in Switzerland, the contrast between the two countries is remarkable - regular trains run to the smallest of places (more often than buses in rural Cheshire, where my family lives) - if we are getting more rail passengers than ever, then perhaps we should expand our rail network to accompany this increase, and encourage more people onto public transport - it might give our carbon footprint a better image as well...
Rail transport should be the priority by a long long way. Renationalise if need be.
Paul Smith, UK
Seems a shame that little emphasis seems to have been placed on railways' abilities to move freight. The news always seems to focus on moving people. Surely there is unexplored and huge potential to reduce road-freight mileage, without causing employment penalties for truckers?
Without question Hoon should recognise that people want to drive. Public transport does not go directly from A to B, nor does it go at the times people want. The car is becoming ever-more efficient and only the busiest of public transport services can complete environmentally with a modern car. Build decent roads and decent parking provision and the congestion will ease. Stop attacking the driver at every turn with reduced speed limits, parking restrictions, traffic calming, bus lanes and ever-increasing charges.
David Legge, Falkirk
Effectively the British motorist has paid for the road network hundreds of times over [in road tax]: Hoon should publicly acknowledge this. He should announce that all staff at Dept of Transport (including himself) and all staff at Transport for London should be barred from claiming taxi/minicab expenses: these parasites should be forced to suffer the same sickening, stinking never-ending misery of mass transport as suffered by tax paying passengers!