Railways: Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:49 pm on 29th November 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 3:49 pm, 29th November 2017

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

“When Britain’s railways were privatised in the mid-1990s, it was against a backdrop of what many regarded as terminal decline. The radical Beeching cuts of the 1960s had been followed by further line closures under British Rail, and passenger numbers had been steadily falling since the Second World War—yet privatisation sparked a remarkable turnaround in the railway’s fortunes. Over 1.5 million more trains are timetabled each year than 20 years ago, passenger demand has more than doubled and other countries are now adopting Great Britain’s rail model in their own markets.

To support this growth and reverse decades of underinvestment in the infrastructure, we have embarked on the biggest rail modernisation programme since Victorian times. In addition to government funding, billions of pounds of investment from the private sector is also helping to renew and expand train fleets, upgrade stations and transform services across the country, and franchises are making an increasing contribution to the public purse—so the rail renaissance we are seeing in Great Britain today is the direct result of a successful partnership between public and private sectors.

This partnership has delivered real benefits for passengers for more than 20 years, but the success of privatisation has created its own challenges. As the number of services has increased, our network has become more and more congested, making delivering the punctual, reliable services that passengers expect more challenging. On much of the network our railway is operating on the edge of what it can cope with. It carries more passengers today than since its heyday in the 1920s, on a network a fraction of the size. When things go wrong, the impact can be widespread and quick, causing significant frustration for the travelling public.

That is why last year I announced plans to start bringing together the operation of track and train on our railways. This is a process of evolution and not revolution, and I said that the exact approach may differ from area to area, but the outcome must be the same: a railway that is predominantly run by a joint local team of people with an absolute commitment to the smooth running of the timetable, whether planning essential repairs, responding to incidents on the line or communicating with passengers.

Today I am publishing more details about our plans, an update on what we are doing and the steps that we will take to realise them. This publication, called Connecting People: a Strategic Vision for Rail, explains how we will create a new generation of regional rail operations with a relentless focus on the passengers, economies and communities they serve. It represents the biggest change to the delivery of rail services since privatisation. Although we have already achieved significant structural improvements, with joined-up working between operators and Network Rail, and Network Rail’s own transformation into a series of regional route businesses, the document explains our plans to go much further.

Where it delivers real benefits for passengers, many future rail franchises will be run by a joint team, made up of staff from Network Rail and the train company, and headed by a new alliance director. This will make the railway more reliable for passengers by devolving powers to local routes and teams, and ensuring that one team is responsible for running the trains and the infrastructure they use.

Today I am also issuing the invitation to tender for the next South Eastern franchise. This will, among other things, deliver longer trains, providing space for at least 40,000 additional passengers in the morning rush hour, and a simpler, high-frequency turn-up-and-go timetable on suburban routes, which will boost capacity and provide a better service to passengers. As part of that unification of track and train, the day-to-day operations on the South Eastern network will be run by a joint team led by a new alliance director, heading both the track and train operations. On the East Midlands main line we will also introduce a joint-team approach, bringing more benefits to passengers.

Honourable Members will know that the east coast main line has had its challenges in recent times, and I intend to take a different approach on this route. From 2020 the East Coast Partnership will run the intercity trains and track operations on the east coast main line. This partnership between the public and private sector will operate under one management and a single brand, overseen by a single leader, with a leading role in planning the future route infrastructure. Bringing the perspective of train operators into decisions on rail infrastructure will help ensure that passenger needs are better represented in the process. While we run a competition to appoint the East Coast Partnership members, we are in discussions with the existing East Coast franchise operator to ensure that the needs of passengers and taxpayers are met in the short term while laying the foundations for the reforms I have just outlined. I want the passenger to be central to train operators’ strategies. On some parts of the network, that will mean we will introduce smaller train companies.

I am today launching a consultation on the Great Western franchise, to seek views on how it can best meet the needs of passengers and communities in the 2020s and beyond. We want to establish whether it should be retained in its current form or divided into smaller parts with a more local focus, to best deliver for customers. We will also begin the process of splitting up the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise in 2021. When the two franchises were put together, it was intended that this would help the implementation of the £6 billion Thameslink upgrade investment programme, which is now near completion.

Despite the improvements in the railway since privatisation, we are still some way from achieving the modern, high-performance, low-cost and customer-focused industry we all want to see. That is why we must continue to reform and invest in the railway, and maximise the contribution that public and private sectors make to improving services. We must continue to deliver the biggest railways investment since the steam age, which the party opposite never did when it was in government. Getting to grips with industry structure will go hand in hand with investment in the infrastructure. We need new capacity to cope with growing demand and new links to support economic growth and housing development.

The Great North Rail Project is transforming journeys across the north. There will be faster, more comfortable journeys, new direct services and room for tens of thousands more passengers. Every single train replaced in the north of England is new or brand new—again, a change we never saw when the party opposite was in power. I now intend to invest around £3 billion in upgrading the trans-Pennine route to deliver faster journey times and improved capacity between the great cities of Leeds, York and Manchester.

In the south, flagship projects such as Crossrail and Thameslink are now coming on stream to provide the capacity to underpin economic growth. Our investment in HS2 will bring the north and south closer together, and bring benefits for people across the country. It is a new railway for a new era of rail—a bold and ambitious project. But if it were not for the ambition and faith in the power of rail to transform this country, we would have no railways at all.

Our vision rejects the mentality of decline that characterised the railway in the second half of the 20th century. To complement record levels of private investment, we recently announced government funding of up to £34.7 billion for the railway in the years 2019 to 2024, as part of an overall expected spend of around £47.9 billion. This will support an overhaul of the network’s ageing assets and other vital work and improvements. Passengers value reliability more than anything, and this commitment will help deliver that. We will also deliver new connections. We are establishing the East West Rail company to restore the lost rail link between Oxford and Cambridge—lost to passengers in 1967—and provide a major boost to the region. I expect construction work to begin next summer. We will look at other opportunities to restore capacity lost under the Beeching and British Rail cuts of the 1960s and 1970s where they unlock development and growth, offer value for money and, in particular, unlock the potential for housing.

Large projects and industry reform take time, but passengers want to see faster improvements in their day- to-day experience travelling on the railway. We do, too —and we are doing something about it. We are pushing to see smart ticketing available across almost all of the network by the end of 2018. We are improving arrangements for compensation and dispute resolution when things go wrong, including supporting the establishment of a passenger ombudsman. We are working with industry to extend the benefits of discounted rail travel to ensure that all those aged 16 to 30 can access appropriate concessions. We are investing in new digital technologies and better mobile connectivity, and are committed to improving the accessibility of the network and delivering a modern customer experience, open to all.

I know that the party opposite does not believe this, but privatisation brought a revolution to our railways. That is why there are twice as many passengers as there were 20 years ago. But now is the time for evolution to build on that success by joining up track and train, expanding the network, modernising the customer experience and opening the railway for new innovation. We have a vision of a revitalised railway used to its full potential by a partnership between the public and private sectors, supporting people, communities and the economy. We are taking real action to make that vision a reality. I am making copies of the strategic vision available in the Libraries of both Houses, while the Great Western and South Eastern documents are now on the website of the Department for Transport. I commend this Statement to the House”.