The man with the task of saving the rail network and keeping Tony Blair in a job gives his first major interview. Building finds out the minister's big ideas.
John Spellar leads a vampire-like existence in his new office in Victoria, west London. "We've been in semi-darkness for the past week," the new transport minister moans. It seems the air-conditioning at the DTLR's headquarters at Eland House has struggled during the recent hot spell, and the blinds have to be pulled down every time the sun comes out. "It's nothing like the old offices at the Ministry of Defence. You used to be able to open the windows when it was hot," he continues, then adds ruefully, "I suppose it's slightly better than being in a sauna".

So far, this is the 54-year-old's only complaint about his new post. Perhaps he's still on honeymoon, but the transport minister seems barely able to contain his excitement. He scuttles out of the office to show someone a clipping from a cycling magazine, clearly proud that it has labelled him "Mr Fix-It".

And as soon as this interview is over, he bounds downstairs to pose for more photos (publicising an initiative to allow cars imported from the USA to keep their number plates) before returning sporting a baseball cap.

Later, he will be off to London Underground headquarters to meet LU officials and preferred bidders for the public–private partnership. Life, it seems, is not boring.

One thing is clear: Mr Fix-It is going to need all his enthusiasm over the next few years. Transport is an area where Labour came unstuck in its first term. There was the disintegrating rail network, the rift with London mayor Ken Livingstone over the Tube PPP, and the bitterly divisive issue of roadbuilding, where the government has appeared to flounder, and where the policy has been thrown into further confusion by the shock dumping of the Hastings bypass scheme.

Nobody thinks that Labour will get away with a similar level of performance in its second term – least of all Tony Blair, who has warned the party that his administration will be judged on the improved delivery of public services. This means that Spellar's ministry is one of the hinges on which £60bn-worth of government policy will turn – and one that makes education and health look pretty straightforward.

So where to start? Although he insists that transport has to be looked at as a whole, it is obvious that it is the railway that is occupying most of his thoughts. He poses the question that all in the sector are asking: after the defenestration of Railtrack, who or what is going to administer, maintain and plan Britain's railway network? "Where is the centre of gravity? Where is the drive going to be for pulling together these elements?"

Spellar partially answers his own question: "The Strategic Rail Authority has a crucial role in that process, in getting the focus of the industry onto how we can improve the service."

The plan seems to be to use the SRA to implement a joined-up rail policy. It controls franchise awards for the train operating companies and it will organise key national projects such as the East Coast Main Line upgrade. The goal seems to be to reconnect the operating and infrastructure elements of the network. Virgin's formation of a joint venture for the east coast work with Bechtel is a sign of this new partnership.

Construction has a fragmented approach to training. It is largely a young person’s industry but there is an ageing workforce. That’s bad for companies and bad for clients

Although it is growing in size, the SRA will not be able to do everything that will be asked of it, so Spellar is backing the SRA's appeal to contractors for help to manage the £30bn upgrade of the system. "The focus involves engaging in a proper way with contractors to best use their skills" – in other words, a co-operative rather than a command-and-control approach to procurement.

But Spellar will be no pushover. During his previous guise as construction client in the MoD he nurtured proper contractual relationships between client and contractors. "Contractors can work one of two ways. They can make money on variations or make it by products. It's what I used to say at the MoD." And unsurprisingly, after his efforts in pushing through prime contracting at the MoD, Spellar is keen on the establishing a framework of prequalified contractors and consultants for transport. He points the Highways Agency's decision to set up a regional framework for consultants as a precursor for other sectors, including rail.

Full details on what is to happen to rail are understandably short so far, but Spellar has one definite focus: training. As Building reported on 22 June (page 9), he is intent on imposing training quotas on contractors working on transport projects.

It is a subject he goes back to time and again, no doubt influenced by his former role as national officer at telecommunications and plumbing union EETPU. He points to the many contractors forced to look abroad for skills. "I fully understand why they are doing that in the short run. But there has to be proper provision for training and upgrading the workforce."

Spellar doesn't think the idea of "a proper ratio of trainees to operatives" will provoke a horrified response from the industry. "I believe it would be broadly welcomed in the industry, which has a fragmented approach to training at present. Construction should be largely a young person's industry, but there is an ageing workforce. That's bad for companies and bad for clients and not good for the country as an international centre for investment."

Spellar ought to know what he is talking about, having met union leaders informally to air his views on training and bogus self-employment (civil engineers are pencilled in for September). He adds that responses from private sector clients have been encouraging, too. "It shows they recognise the problems, and that we are trying to achieve the same thing," he says.

The minister's views on training were formed during his time at the EETPU, which he joined in the 1960s as a researcher before becoming a national officer from 1969 to 1992. "When I joined the industry there was a massive programme of training among electrical contractors. It was an example to the rest of the industry. There is still training, but with the rise of self-employment, it's nothing like it was."

Of equal importance is the recruitment of the personnel who will benefit from this training programme. Schoolchildren, says Spellar, have to be told that construction offers good prospects. "We must show that there are opportunities for youngsters to get a skill in a trade that will enable them to work for most of their lives."

Personal effects

Where do you live?
Bromley, with my wife Anne.
Do you have any pets?
We have 21 cats. You’ll have to ask my wife about them.
How do you get to work?
By car. It’s about half an hour. It gives me plenty of time for reading work papers.
What’s your favourite mode of transport?
It depends where I’m going.
What’s the biggest difference between working at the MoD and the DTLR?
Meeting people in uniforms who do not salute me.