Great British Railways

Transport – in the House of Commons at on 8 June 2023.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Secretary of State for Transport

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I will begin by sending my heartfelt condolences to the people of India, who, in the eastern state of Odisha on Friday, suffered the country’s deadliest rail crash in over two decades. The death toll stands at 288, with over 1,000 people injured. It was caused by the collision of two passenger trains and a stationary goods train. I have written to the Indian Rail Minister expressing our deepest sympathies, and I believe I speak for the whole House when I say that our thoughts are with the victims and their families, as well as with the emergency services as they continue to respond to the tragedy.

Turning to the question, the Government’s ambition is for a customer-focused, commercially-led industry, with the creation of Great British Railways as a new guiding mind for the sector. We are working closely with the GBR Transition Team, the wider rail sector and other Departments to move forward with reform, and I was pleased to recently announce Derby as the location of GBR’s headquarters.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

On behalf of Opposition Members, may I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments in respect of the people of India?

In the north-west, we were hoping that the formation of GBR might have been on track by now to help us deal with the chronically underperforming Avanti West Coast, but we see no sign of the legislation. Parliament certainly has the time to deal with it—we finished after a couple of hours on Tuesday—and it is certainly not a question of money, as we know £50 million has already been spent on the project. What exactly is the problem with bringing the matter before the House? Is it a lack of political will, or is it a lack of competence?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Secretary of State for Transport

The Government remain committed to GBR. As I have said, we have already announced that the HQ will be in Derby. Many of the benefits can be achieved without legislation, and we are getting on with them. It is worth noting, based on statistics published this morning by the Office of Rail and Road, that we still face a massive challenge with the rail industry: leisure is now much more important than commuting and business; and passenger revenue is still 28% down on the pre-pandemic level. A successful railway needs to change to reflect passenger demand, and that is exactly what this Government are going to deliver.

Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Chair, Transport Committee, Chair, Transport Committee

In the absence of legislation, will my right hon. Friend consider setting up GBR as a shadow authority. That could, for example, end the unsustainable practice of costs sitting with one part of the industry and revenue with another. The rail industry has a great appetite to move forward, so will he consider something like a shadow GBR?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Secretary of State for Transport

My hon. Friend, who ably chairs the Select Committee, makes a good point. Joining up the profit and loss account, revenues, and costs can be done without legislation, and we are actively working to do that. I have tasked my officials to move at pace on this, and we are identifying where in Derby the GBR HQ will be. We will continue to deliver rail reform every day to ensure that we can respond to market conditions and have a successful, thriving railway, and I want everyone in the sector to join us in that endeavour.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is hugely frustrating that we still do not have an integrated system. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and others about the importance of projects such as the Ely area capacity improvement? When are we going to get some progress on such projects?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Secretary of State for Transport

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have set out a significant amount of rail investment. We will be investing £40 billion overall across the transport portfolio over the next two years, and we do have to make choices about how to spend that money sensibly. The Labour party is making unfunded spending pledges, with £44 billion on rail and, interestingly, nothing on buses or on roads.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Under the old British Rail, we used to have a direct train to London from Grimsby and the constituency of my hon. Friend Martin Vickers through Market Rasen. I have been campaigning for that train to be reinstated for 40 years—ever since I was elected as a Member of Parliament. Sometimes I wander down from my home in the wolds and wait forlornly on the platform at Market Rasen, but the train never comes. Will the Secretary of State oblige an old campaigner and give us our train back, please?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Secretary of State for Transport

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his service in the House. This campaign may be coming to a successful conclusion. He has been working closely with the Minister of State, my hon. Friend Huw Merriman, and we hope to be able to implement the change in the next timetable update. My hon. Friend is working carefully to ensure that none of the things that have hitherto stopped it will prevent it from happening this time. I hope that there will be a successful conclusion.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I associate the Opposition with the Secretary of State’s comments. We send our thoughts and prayers to the victims of the terrible tragedy in India.

Over the past year, passengers have faced total chaos on our railways. Cancellations rose to their highest ever levels. Strikes have disrupted countless journeys, while the Transport Secretary still refuses to sit down with the unions. The fourth franchise in five years has just been brought into public ownership. And now we hear that the lucky few who actually manage to get a train will not have the luxury of using wi-fi. The Prime Minister might not be aware of this, given his preference for private jets, but will the Secretary of State at least admit that our railways are fundamentally broken?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Secretary of State for Transport

They really are not broken. If the hon. Lady looks at the numbers from the Office of Rail and Road this morning, she will see that leisure travel has rebounded very strongly, but there has been a real change in passenger demand for the railways post pandemic, which is why we need to deliver change.

As far as industrial action is concerned, there is an offer on the table that the trade union leaders need to put to their members in the democratic way in which they should operate. That is what the hon. Lady should be pushing for. She has been part of Labour Front Benchers’ efforts to make unfunded commitments, which the Institute for Fiscal Studies says will drive up taxes and inflation. Interestingly, I note that Labour has massive unfunded pledges on rail but nothing on buses and roads, the modes of transport used by the vast majority of people living in this country.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The Secretary of State has some nerve accusing Labour of tax rises and interest rate rises after his party crashed the economy last year, presided over funding cuts to buses and pushed most of the road-building projects promised in his manifesto to later down the line.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor, Grant Shapps, admitted that our rail system is broken when he first announced Great British Railways more than two years ago. The bare minimum the Secretary of State could do is bring forward the legislation his Government promised, and that industry and investors have made clear is required. It is a simple question: will he bring forward legislation to establish Great British Railways before the end of this Parliament—yes or no?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Secretary of State for Transport

It is interesting to note that the hon. Lady is interested in what investors think. I thought her policy was to nationalise the rail industry and take it away from investors. People will have noted that with great interest.

We remain committed, as I said in answer to Justin Madders, to moving forward on delivering Great British Railways. Much of it can be delivered without legislation. Legislation plans will be set out in the King’s Speech in the autumn, in the usual way. We are getting on with making sure that we have a rail system that reflects the needs of passengers, post pandemic, as we deliver the transport system across the country, delivering economic growth.