Railways: Update - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:12 pm on 29th November 2017.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 4:12 pm, 29th November 2017

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her appointment to the best department in the Government, the Department for Transport. I also welcome what she said about HS2 and east-west rail. Is she aware that when this House voted on HS2, it voted by a majority of 10 to one in favour of the project? That is a degree of unanimity that the House has shown on no other subject that I am aware of—besides its opposition to Brexit.

However, I find the Statement disappointing, because the document that the Government have published today is, essentially, a smokescreen, with all the blather about reopening Beeching lines—which, of course, is not going to happen. It is a smokescreen for a very big announcement, which is detectable only in the small print: that the Government intend to end the current east coast franchise three years early. They intend to do so—forfeiting hundreds of millions of pounds of payments that would have been made to the Department for Transport—in order, it appears, to bail out the two private companies that currently operate that route, in the guise of a public/private partnership that will do nothing other than excuse those companies from making the premium payments to which they were previously committed.

Does the Minister understand that treating private companies in this way in respect of contracts they have entered into will simply encourage other private train operators to try for the same kind of bailout? Is she aware that when I was Secretary of State we faced exactly the same pressure with the downturn in projected passenger numbers on the east coast main line, which led the then private operator, National Express, to ask us for a bailout, which we refused to give? It was as a result of that refusal that the east coast nationalisation took place: it was a huge success, and should not have been ended. Had the East Coast national company continued operating that line, the return to the taxpayer would have been significantly higher than we now face. Can the noble Baroness answer two specific questions? First, can she tell me precisely how much the taxpayer will lose in premium payments that are currently contracted under the new public/private partnership which she announced this afternoon? Secondly, will she undertake to publish all the communications between Stagecoach, Virgin and the Department for Transport which have taken place prior to the development of the strategy that she announced this afternoon?