Bim Afolami interview: Railway system ‘unfit for purpose’, says MP
- Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO
The rail industry must put commuters first – that was the line from Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami as he tore into rail industry bosses and a system he said was “not fit for purpose”.
The 32-year-old Conservative told this paper today that he thought rail industry bosses had acted like “little boys with train sets” amid the May timetable debacle, obsessing over “making their system work without thinking about the passengers inside”.
Mr Afolami, who this month became parliamentary private secretary in the Department for Transport, said: “The rail industry needs to put commuters first, and they haven’t been. We need more trains, and we need them at the right times.”
Jabbing his finger on the table for emphasis, he added: “We need to make sure this never, ever, ever can be let to happen again – and look at the systemic reasons why this is not fit for purpose. I think it’s clear to everyone the current structure doesn’t work very well.”
Mr Afolami insisted that being parliamentary private secretary in the Department for Transport would not affect his ability to speak up for his constituents.
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“What I’m doing is using my increased level of access to do what I was doing from the back benches – to ask the questions, and be as vocal as I ever was,” he said, firmly. “The difference is that rather than voicing this on TV, hopefully I can sit down with these guys and sort this out.
“The operator and Network Rail know that with me they do not have somebody who will just lie down and not do anything. I couldn’t be clearer that I do not want to leave GTR [Govia Thameslink] and Network Rail feeling that they now don’t have to listen to me and listen to the concerns of my constituents.
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“People might say that I’m inside the DfT now, so I’m on ‘their’ side. No.”
Mr Afolami said the only major difference Ministerial Code would impose on him was that he could no longer speak about transport in the House of Commons.
He said he still supported the letter he co-signed last month in which he called for a fare freeze until Govia Thameslink passengers had had three months of “reliable, sustained service” in line with the new May timetable.
Asked how any fare increase could be justified, given that even the May timetable would be worse than what commuters had before, Mr Afolami said the 2019 fare hike of up to 3.2 per cent was to cover a rise in costs “largely driven by the unions pegging a particular measure of inflation”, and that passenger satisfaction wasn’t down to price alone. Mr Afolami added that his own experiences commuting on Govia Thameslink had been “pretty mixed”.
Turning to constituency work and what he felt proud to have achieved in his first year, Mr Afolami stressed local examples including a case when he had helped a man suffering from alcohol addiction into the benefits system and into housing.
He said the most challenging aspect of being MP was balancing so many different problems.
He said: “You’re dealing with any particular individual or group of people who, quite rightly, want change or action or funding in a particular area – and they’re right on the arguments. But the difficulty is the next day, and the day after, you see different people who are looking at different things and they’re also right.
“Politics is really about priorities and choices. It’s very difficult to make everybody happy. Trying to explain that someone is right but we’ve made a priority to do something else – that’s a very unwelcome message. And it’s managing that that is very hard.”
On Brexit, Mr Afolami said he had voted Remain but did not now seek to stop the UK leaving the EU. However, he added that a no-deal Brexit would be “potentially very, very damaging”.
Asked about Tory MEPs voting against censure of Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán, Mr Afolami said this was “bonkers” and “stupid”, and that those concerned should all “explain what they were thinking” – but that he thought this was “more cock-up than conspiracy”.
On calls for an inquiry into alleged Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, Mr Afolami said “there are people in any group who may have unsavoury views”, but that the real question for political parties was that of institutional racism in leadership. “In the Conservative Party that does not exist,” he said.
Regarding whether he would potentially serve under Boris Johnson – as several senior Tories have said they would not – Mr Afolami declined to say. “I don’t go into that,” he said. “It’s deeply unwise as a member of parliament to get into conversations about who may or may not become leader, and whether you might serve.”