Railways: Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 29th November 2017.

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Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 4:00 pm, 29th November 2017

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the House of Commons. We welcome and advocate continuing investment in our rail industry and measures to enhance its role and importance in the economy of this country and in the lives of our citizens, including the reopening of some lines closed under the Beeching cuts.

The extent to which the content of the Statement and the associated strategic vision document will deliver those objectives is debatable. We have a Secretary of State who is very good at making grandiose statements about future rail developments—in fact, almost as good at doing that as he is in quietly announcing the abandonment or postponement of schemes that he has previously championed. No Government have cancelled or postponed more railway electrification schemes, or parts of schemes that they have previously espoused, than this one. On the roads, the policy is to reduce diesel mileage; on the railways, it is apparently to increase it above that previously planned. What is the Government’s strategic vision for rail in respect of the further electrification of our railways? I think the Statement was silent on that issue.

The Statement was pretty thin, too, on the issue of fares, as is the associated document called “a strategic vision for rail”. Fares have been deliberately and regularly increased by well above the rate of inflation in order to reduce the percentage of operating costs not covered by fares, and thus the costs to the Government, which they transfer on to the backs of commuters in particular. What is the Government’s strategic vision on fares? What is their objective in relation to the percentage of operating costs that should be covered by fares? How can you have a credible strategic vision without saying what your future intentions are in respect of the level of fares, fare increases in the future and the objectives that you are seeking to achieve and why?

The Statement made reference to the next South Eastern franchise and referred to providing space for additional passengers. However, that is not a strategic vision for addressing overcrowding in our railways. There are many other examples of overcrowding on our rail network, not solely in London and the south-east. Since the Government have chosen to describe their document as “a strategic vision for rail”, what are the objectives in relation to reducing overcrowding? What is the end game in respect of overcrowding and its elimination that the strategic vision is seeking to achieve? Just referring to new schemes, which may or may not be abandoned or postponed at some stage in the future, does not constitute a strategic vision against which success or failure in delivery can be judged.

The Statement set out proposals and intentions for tinkering with the organisational structure of the railways. It referred to a proposed alliance on the east coast main line, running intercity trains and track operation under one management. We had a similar arrangement between Stagecoach and Network Rail in the south-west, which did not seem to prove an unmitigated success. Why do the Government now think this proposed alliance will prove any more successful? What are the specific objectives that it will be expected to deliver under the strategic vision for rail?

As the Government thrash around to find an organisational structure for our railways and the train company franchises that they deem acceptable, they may care to look at the structure of the London Underground, which combines track and trains and has generated—in the public sector—significant increases in the numbers of passengers. It is also a system under which all the revenue goes back into providing and improving services for the travelling public, which cannot be said for our railway network as a whole. Indeed, so concerned was the Secretary of State about the success of Transport for London and London Underground in running services in the public sector, and the revitalisation of the London Overground network since it was taken over by TfL, that he felt it too politically dangerous to agree to the transfer of any further rail services within the GLA area to TfL—not much of a strategic vision there.

This Statement does not represent a strategic vision. It is silent on too many issues, including future fares policy, and silent about too many overall objectives to be such a strategic vision. It is, frankly, more a hotchpotch of separate announcements, some of them regurgitated, since they have been made previously and do not represent anything new. While I reiterate what I said earlier about welcoming new investment in our railways if it materialises, tinkering with the structure, which seems to be the Government’s modus operandi at present, will not address rail’s urgent organisational and ownership problems. Indeed, to the extent that making the structural changes proposed deflects the attentions of managers and staff from the objective of running reliable and efficient services, tinkering with the structure is more likely, in fact, simply to add to the problems.