Britain’s Railways - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 24th May 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 6:00 pm, 24th May 2021

My Lords, I strongly welcome this long-overdue plan for reform and thank Keith Williams for his work on this. My only regret is that it has taken this long to get here. The industry has been crying out for reform for many years; one in three trains was late in the last year before the pandemic and two-thirds of contracts since 2012 have been awarded to single bidders—hardly a sign of a vibrant, competitive industry.

However, unlike some, I do not believe that the answer lies in a return to British Rail, which ended in stagnation and closures and as the butt of rather predictable jokes. This Statement harks back to the glory days of the 19th century, but the last 60 years have all been a bit of a mess. For a long time, the Transport for London contract structure has been touted as the answer, with the appropriate balance of risk for private contractors yet a fully integrated service. However, Transport for London has said publicly that it took it two decades of experience to get to the ideal contract model.

This is welcome, but it does not mean it will be easy—I do not for a minute imagine that the Minister thinks it will. The sheer scale of the thing is a problem. Great British Railways will be a massive organisation, bringing together Network Rail, many other DfT functions and some of the Rail Delivery Group functions. Currently DfT has three director-generals to cover rail services alone. The new organisation will be enormous and complex, and freedom from direct government interference will be essential for success.

The first problem is that, despite the name, Great British Railways is not really British, because it does not cover most of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or London. Those have devolved services. So, my question is an important one: how will GBR liaise and link in with those other services? It is essential that that link is smooth and coherent. And what about the devolution of services to local authorities, which has been encouraged lately? Local authorities can add a great deal to the standard of service. There must be a role for them in order to raise the threshold. I rather feel that the word “Great” will be at the mercy of headline writers the first time something goes wrong—but I think there is the potential to get a coherent picture of the whole, so long as devolution is taken fully into account.

In interviews, the Secretary of State has indicated the likelihood of fare rises. First, how much power will the Department for Transport have to intervene and dictate fare rises? Secondly, is it wise to raise fares at a time when the Government are trying to reduce emissions and rail services are desperately trying to attract passengers back after the pandemic? Fares are up 50% in real terms since 1997; they are the most expensive in Europe. I welcome the details on flexible season tickets and other long-overdue innovations, but the Government predict savings of £1.5 billion within five years—so are fare rises justified?

The Minister will tell us again that taxpayers have subsidised the railways to the tune of billions of pounds in the last year. In fact, they have subsidised train operating companies, not the passengers themselves. Taxpayers also subsidised Eat Out to Help Out, but the Government are not expecting restaurant customers to pay more now to refill government coffers. So I put in a plea: rather than raising fares, now is the time to reduce them for a short period, to lure people back on to the railways and, as new travel and working patterns emerge, to encourage new leisure rail users?

Finally, freight. The combination of recentralisation, better co-ordination and the current lower passenger numbers provides a big opportunity for bold steps to improve and increase freight services. But that needs capital investment, too; will we get it?