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 Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 6:00 pm, 24th May 2021

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for their generally—I think—fairly positive welcome for these proposals. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, had a long list of Great British XYZ, and perhaps I may say, as we come out of restrictions, I feel we have a Great British bounce back coming along. So, what are we going to do about our railways and Great British Railways, which will be one of the “Great Britishes” that will be so important to us as we go forward?

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, seemed to be a little bit muted on the subject of the changes we have proposed. I do believe that we are proposing a once-in-a-generation change. It will be a massive transformation of the current way our railways operate, and it will lead to very significant improvements in service to passengers. But the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, is absolutely right: it will not be easy. This is a national infrastructure with national services; it is hugely complicated now and will continue to be in the future. We know that. It will not be easy.

So the scale of transformation will have to be taken in bite-size pieces, and we will have to think about how the development of these phases will happen. Andrew Haines, who, as we all know, is the current chief executive of Network Rail and a well-respected industry leader, will be developing these interim arrangements for Great British Railways. It is important we do that. We could not have done it before because we had not announced the White Paper, and we will be establishing phases for the delivery of Great British Railways and all the phases that have to happen in between. We will be working collectively and collaboratively with the sector, and that is really important.

On the DfT side, I am well aware that there are an enormous number of very talented people in rail. We will continue to support Great British Railways as much as is needed in the short term. The DfT will establish the rail transformation programme, which will assist Andrew Haines and the wider sector as we make these changes.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about how the blame for delays will not disappear. I agree. I asked exactly the same question about big birds and little birds, and whether you could be blamed for one and not the other. I am reassured that it will be vastly simplified and will not be as complicated and long-winded as it is now.

The noble Lord went on to mention the incentives regime. It is important that we have a really firm and accountable incentives regime, because we must lift the quality of services for the passenger. Therefore, we will incentivise high-quality, punctual services. We will ask operators to manage costs and to attract passengers. From a ministerial perspective, we will hold Great British Railways to account and it will hold the holders of the passenger service contracts to account via statutory powers and the ability to issue binding guidance—for example, on any of the elements the noble Lord mentioned.

We believe that there should continue to be private sector investment in rolling stock, but the noble Lord highlighted the slight tension that exists. We will ask Great British Railways to take a strategic approach to the overarching issue of rolling stock. It will look at supply chain sustainability, for example, and how to generate high-value jobs in the UK, but the TOCs will still be responsible for procuring value from the market and improving the passenger experience when the trains are running.

Devolution is a very important part of improving our transport system. I am speaking specifically about devolution to the local transport authorities. That would include the metro mayors. We are extremely keen to work with the metro mayors on devolution. The White Paper publication is a significant landmark as we start the process of these implementing reforms, but it is obvious that they cannot be devolved immediately. We will work together to think about how the structures with the metro mayors and the smaller local transport authorities will work and where they will be able to take a greater level of control of the services in their area.

Scotland and Wales are both extremely important in this regard. Both will exercise their existing powers and be accountable for them. The infrastructure is, of course, all owned by Great British Railways, with the exception of some of the valley lines in Wales, and we will work in partnership with Transport Scotland and Transport for Wales. We would expect a good relationship with them, because it is so important for the services to improve.

Great British Railways will have a five-year business plan, which will be drafted in the context of a 30-year strategy. It will set out the infrastructure funding settlement for that five years and the level of operational subsidy. This will give certainty and stability to the network as a whole.

The noble Baroness mentioned fare rises. I suspect that my Secretary of State would not rule them out, but we have to simplify the current mass of ticketing options and prices and the endless bits of paper that you have to carry around with you. We will look to introduce more pay-as-you-go, more contactless payment and more digital ticketing as soon as possible.

The noble Baroness mentioned some short-term incentives to get people back on to the trains. The Department for Transport has commissioned Network Rail to look at this. It has set up the rail revenue recovery group, which we will look to for advice on short-term and long-term interventions on fares. This links back into the recovery in demand, because we want people to come back to the trains and we hope that the number of passengers will grow further. Financial sustainability is linked to demand but not necessarily on a very firm basis, because it depends on how much passengers are paying.

Therefore, it is the case that we have to make sure that our railways are financially sustainable in the long term. On one side, we will look at how we can improve services to passengers, as well as at fares, and on the other side we have to look at how we will modernise the system with regard to some areas where there might be changes to the ways in which people work. We want to develop skills and perhaps use them more effectively within the system. That will be up to the industry, working with the unions, to develop the best and most highly-skilled workforce that we can for our industry.

I hope that I have been able to answer the questions asked by the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. I thank them genuinely for their positive engagement, and I am sure that there will be more questions to come. I look forward to comments and questions from all noble Lords, and I hope that they will consider joining me at the all-Peers briefing section with the Rail Minister on Wednesday.