Rail Franchising

Part of NHS Winter Crisis – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 10th January 2018.

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Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport) 6:45 pm, 10th January 2018

Fares, franchises and failure, all entwined: that is how my hon. Friends have summarised the issues that dominate passengers’ experience of the railways today. My hon. Friends the Members for Lincoln (Ms Lee), for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), for Newport East (Jessica Morden), for High Peak (Ruth George) and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) really brought to the fore the impact that this is having.

The rail sector is full of fantastic people, but it is distracted from its core function of providing passengers with affordable access to a fully integrated system—train and track, wheel and steel—that works across the entire network and enables seamless intermodal travel. While the Secretary of State is firmly at the faultline, defending a broken system that he has made far more centralist in its control than even Labour’s national rail service will be, it is passengers who have to straddle the cracks, continually having to pay, and pay again, for the basic purpose of going to work or having a day out with the family, and as we have heard, they pay for poor performance, as my hon. Friend Sarah Jones set out.

It is not just Labour Members who are increasingly highlighting the failure of the Government; Martin Vickers also spoke of problems with franchising. “Putting passengers at the heart of the rail service” should be the Government’s mantra, but sadly it is not. Research by Transport Focus, the official voice of the travelling public, found in the largest survey of its kind that failure on ticketing is the No. 1 issue for passengers. The issue is not only the 32% rise in fares since 2010—three times the rise in wages, as my hon. Friend Grahame Morris said—the 3.4% increase on last year’s ticket prices and the 3.6% increase for season ticket holders; everyone believes that they are being diddled out of a fair price—and they are right. There is different pricing depending on which operator runs the service, what time a person logs on to book their ticket, and when and at what time of day their journey is.

When this is coupled with extortionate ticket price increases, passengers ask where their hard-earned cash is going—and it is a good question. Let me tell them: £725 million went straight into the pockets of shareholders. While Thomas might be under the Fat Controller’s orders, today passengers are most certainly under those of the fat cats. It is a great train robbery. Then there is the financial haemorrhage from multiple tiers of private subcontractors across the network, each taking their cut, and the exorbitant cost of leasing trains and the huge profits harvested there. Fragmentation brings additional costs, too. But this scandal pales into insignificance when passengers consider that when Richard Branson’s Virgin Group gets into a bit of a pickle, it goes cap in hand to the Secretary of State, and makes demands of him. Just look at how quickly the Secretary of State buckled on this—a point made eloquently by my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), for Keighley (John Grogan), for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), for Blaydon (Liz Twist), and for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney).

The Department for Transport, under the Secretary of State’s orders, set up a franchise on the east coast that would involve Network Rail in delivering infrastructure upgrades, but due to the Government’s failed control period 5 process and the scaling down of the infrastructure upgrades, Network Rail was unable to deliver. The Government did not even speak to Network Rail about this when touting for an operator who would rip the service out of public hands—which, by the way, put £1 billion into the Treasury, to be reinvested in public transport. No, they just blindly put out a contract that was undeliverable, and the Government need to understand that it is their responsibility; they let the franchise. VTEC said it could not reap the gains it was hoping to under the infrastructure improvements, and guess what it did? It went to the Government to put the pressure on and now has been let off £2 billion, and the Secretary of State will not come to the Dispatch Box to deny this fact. It is a complete and utter shambles, as are so many other services; we have heard today from my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) about the impact these services are having on their communities.

So not only are the passengers paying for this now, but they are also having to prop up dodgy deals. And they are dodgy deals: we just need to look at the way these train operators are working their way through the system to get as much money as possible not just out of ticketing, but also by threatening to sue the Government and seeking compensation payments. It is a complete scandal.

The problems are clear: a failed, fragmented franchise system; private profits over passenger interest, with a resultant decline in patronage, as we are now seeing; and a Secretary of State who refuses to put the passengers’ interests at the heart of the railway. That is why Labour will introduce a new public railway owned by the public and working for the public. This is not about going back, as we will not revisit the models of railways past, but take us forward—and not just take our rail services forward, but our economy too.

Drawing on global best practice, Labour’s rail system will really be for the many and not the few—fares overhauled; smart ticketing; new lines opening; more capacity; more seats; more trains; embracing high tech and digital rail; making space for freight and smart logistics; clean and green with electrification, not a return to dirty diesel; planning for the long term; and no more on-off, start-stop funding. The whole railway system will be working as one, with passengers and businesses knowing the deal and being at the heart of the deal, as my hon. Friend Albert Owen has called for for Wales—and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East has said he does not want to see the fragmentation reintroduced now by the Scottish Government.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) and for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) said, we must make our railways safe, and we will make them safe and accessible by ending the scrapping of the guards—a resolve the trade unions are calling for today—so that disabled people can have their dignity restored in using rail, while women can feel safe on trains both day and night. This is the rail service that the British people are demanding, and it will take a Labour Government to deliver it.

Before I sit down, may I welcome the new Transport Minister to his place, and hope that he does not take to defending the indefensible in his new role, as he sought to in his previous role earlier this week? We have a transport crisis and we need this Government to do something about it or, better still, make way for a Government who will.