There are a lot of colleagues present. Some are on the speaking list and others are not. If you are hoping to get on the speaking list, I do not think you will have much success, but if Members keep their interventions short, there might be extra space. There will be three votes in about 10 to 15 minutes, and I shall suspend the sitting for 35 minutes to account for them.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the future of rail.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Charles. On
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
Today, I will set out why consolidation and intersection with other forms of transport and energy technologies is essential if Britain is once again to lead the transport revolution, and why it is vital that the Government invest in this unique global rail supercluster for rail’s bicentenary. I am ambitious for rail and I am ambitious for Britain.
It will not be lost on anyone in this debate that York is where that revolution will occur. After all, York made the railways and the railways made York. The partnership between York University and Leeds University centres the future of digital and advanced rail, including the Institute for High Speed Rail and System Integration at Leeds University, bringing together the very best of transport, academia and digital technologies with the 13 leading rail education providers in the region, including the Institute of Technology at York College, which I visited recently.
We love our steam trains; whether it is the Mallard or the Flying Scotsman that fills people with greatest pride, our rail heritage is a natural draw for anyone across the network. Today, York has over 100 rail companies, which are at the forefront of engineering, operations, software development, timetabling and planning, providing over 5,500 of York’s top jobs and 9,500 jobs in the surrounding region, and consolidating York’s rail cluster, which is the largest outside London and now eager to take us forward once more.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Where else can Great British Railways locate itself but in York if it is to level up the whole country? That really must be the argument we make.
The York Rail Innovation Community already oversees the intersection of rail businesses and innovations, enabling the northern rail economy to generate over £42 billion, according to the University of Leeds. It draws on the University of York’s Institute for Safe Autonomy, bringing new technologies and robotics together, and opening up a new conversation for the future of rail and the future of transportation, and modernising how we think about rail and transport. The institute’s £12 million programme leads global research to provide industry, regulators and researchers with guidance on assuring and regulating robotics and autonomous systems, including those on rail. York’s work is setting global standards and ensuring that such systems are safe.
Taking the search for answers into applied testbeds, such as the advanced rail test facilities, widens possibilities and the collaborations between York, Leeds, Sheffield, Huddersfield and Hull. This is not just a rail cluster, but a transport cluster. Interlink that with the new headquarters of Active Travel England, and we will have end-to-end connectivity and endless possibilities. Now that the Government are seeing such enthusiasm for BioYorkshire, Yorkshire’s green new deal and advancing a new generation of fuels, including links to the Teesside and Humber energy clusters, even more future technologies open up, with new innovations between transport and energy clusters.
The electric vehicle revolution is too slow, too expensive, with too little infrastructure and too few people engaged, and it is not sustainable enough. We need travelling by train to be competitive with travelling by road. Pricing matters. Rail advancement will be far more efficient, faster, cleaner and greener, if we are to decarbonise and claim the climate dividend to keep the target of 1.5 degrees alive. That must be our bicentenary challenge.
As a nation, there are significant challenges we need to address. Post pandemic, the trains need to see patronage restored and advanced, better timetabling and intermodal end-to-end connectivity, not least connectivity from main lines to improved branch lines, to consolidate opportunity. The very best industry expertise across the railways in York is ready to rise to the challenge. With fuel prices escalating, the Government must seize the moment to achieve a sustained and sustainable modal shift.
Although the integrated rail plan came as a bitter blow to us in Yorkshire, centring Great British Railways’ future on driving up patronage, accessibility, connectivity and reliability across the towns and cities of our region will address some of the Williams-Shapps plans. I know other colleagues will reinforce the point and urge the door not to be closed on our ambition.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Entire sections of the transport infrastructure, especially in the north, are just not up to the job. A good example is the Hull to Selby route. We have been begging and pleading for years for that rail line to be electrified. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time the Government got their finger out?
My hon. Friend is always to the point in expressing the frustration of his constituents, and detailing the opportunity that electrification of the Hull to Selby line would draw to the whole region.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The problem in the north is much greater, because most of the north suffers from the situation identified by my hon. Friend Karl Turner; we lose the economic benefits that would be brought by electrification. If the Government are serious in their levelling-up rhetoric, the people of the north need to see that. The Government need to take action.
My hon. Friend is right. I know his frustrations for Bradford, and the opportunity he wants to bring to his constituents and his city through greater connectivity.
The reason for this debate is to lift the sights of the Minister beyond York and Yorkshire, and beyond even our railway nation. The UK could once again take pride of place in marketing the very best in railway planning, operations and engineering globally. If we are looking for a reason for global Britain, the operational and engineering expertise grown in our rail cluster in York, mixing the intermodal intersections with the next generation of energy, could be globally marketable and transformative. Already students from 120 countries study in Yorkshire. Global companies already understand the power of what is happening in York. Bosch has just made a significant investment in the city, building partnerships and integrating with other high-tech initiatives. The Government must invest if we are to move forward over the next 200 years of rail.
York also stables the Network Rail trackside repair fleet. My recent visit to Holgate engineering works showed me how the most advanced trackside safety developments are being integrated into the fleet, with robotics, digital and high-end scanning equipment filling these yellow mechanical engines. That will give the UK the reputation for having the safest railway anywhere in the world. Again, that will be priceless when exporting our safety capability.
York’s Rail Operating Centre—the largest in the UK—has tech that mirrors that of a spaceship. Every inch of the network is mapped live, overseen and monitored across a series a sophisticated digital tools, which enhances rail operations. It is preparing us for the future, playing a key role in plans to introduce the next generation of digital signalling on the east coast and beyond. Network Rail’s training centre for professional development is already in the city and helping to take this revolution forward, with more than 1,000 Network Rail staff already working in York.
Every time I meet York’s engineers, excitement for the next development greets me. My thinking is transformed, my mind left marvelling. This is what we can do when we build a sustained rail cluster. When the network’s guiding mind is anchored and embedded in the midst of such developments, and the sparks of each rail entrepreneur are joined together, the future of our rail is set ablaze. That is why I am calling for investment for the rail bicentenary. The Minister will see its return.
As for freight—perhaps the most challenging but neglected area of the network—investment in innovation has never been more needed. High Speed 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail were partially about freeing up track for freight. That argument got lost as the debate turned to speed and costs. Our freight capability is woeful. Now coal remains in the ground, and while the likes of Drax see biofuels slowly chug their way from Liverpool docks to Selby, investment is urgently needed to drive freight forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for her speech. She mentioned the port of Liverpool; trading goods through the port of Liverpool has expanded dramatically, but it has put far more freight into lorries in an area with some of the worst air quality in the country. The Government’s answer is to build another road, which will increase roadside emissions and go through a much-loved country park. Through her, may I make a plea to the Minister that it be reconsidered and that rail be seen as the option not just to address those short-term challenges, but because the long-term success of our freight transport depends on massive investment in rail?
To harness the opportunity provided by the bicentenary of British Rail, investment in the freight industry will be the gamechanger for our logistics and transport.
Those living in Kent are constantly reminded of the challenges of road haulage. However, the last couple of years have exposed the risks that the logistics industry is facing. Short-term fixes do not address the twin challenges of climate and workforce. As motorways turn into motels, a modal shift from road to rail for freight must be a priority. Cutting emissions, addressing the skills shortage and moving goods reliably is not only good for the climate, but better for business, which can become more dependable, meeting just-in-time demands that are essential in logistics. Moving goods from road to rail must be the rail cluster’s bicentenary challenge and the Minister’s focus. If we get the engineering, logistics, planning and operations right on freight, we can be confident of export demand for another product from global Britain: not just capability, but know-how, too. That is the prize for the industry.
The brilliant minds that serve our industry are the people who, at the height of the pandemic, got on our trains, repaired our tracks and advanced the network. Some, such as Belly Mujinga, gave their lives. We truly honour our transport workers and their unions—ASLEF, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association and Unite—who have worked tirelessly to keep staff and us safe, and to keep people in work.
We have difficult months ahead, but the Government must guarantee job security and good wages as staff work to rebuild the future of the industry to be even better than before. We need to enable all—from the station porter and train cleaner, to ticket office staff, trackside engineers, operators, designers, controllers, electricians and train drivers—to know that they are valued in our rail family, as they keep us safe and take our industry forward. Although consolidation of York’s rail cluster will level up our city, address the low-wage economy and accelerate inward investment for York and the region, it is what York’s rail cluster can deliver for levelling up across the whole country that excites our city the most. We believe that can be achieved only if Great British Railways is anchored in York and if investment in the sector’s research and development powers that opportunity.
York has the very best of our rail past and present, but in politics we cannot change the past; it is the future that is placed in our hands. I look at the girls and boys in my city, who are all mesmerised by our rail story. The National Rail Museum’s new galleries will give them the first taste of rail engineering and spark their ambition to be the planners, operators and engineers of the future as they embark on their science, technology, engineering and maths journey. Our collective ambition will realise the potential power of York’s rail intersectional clusters to deliver the very best rail future—all delivered on the site of the old British Rail carriage works, adjacent to just about the best-connected station in the country.
Great British Railways will be no add-on in York; it will anchor Britain’s rail future, ignite Britain’s rail ambition and deliver the next chapter of our Great British Railways revolution like no other place can. The bicentenary of rail gives the Minister the opportunity to invest in the future of passenger and freight. That will be the pride of my city, and that is our offer to the future of rail.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.
I congratulate Rachael Maskell on securing this debate. She spoke very well about why the headquarters of Great British Railways should be located in York, and about the opportunities that transport investment delivers for levelling up and decarbonising for the future. I want to support that argument.
Lots of Members will put forward the case for their areas. Some of those cases are, quite frankly, a bit on the thin side. I understand why they are doing it, but I believe that the correct way to approach this question is to look at the criteria that the decision makers in this competition have set.
Let me start by suggesting what the challenges for rail are, and how they influence what Great British Railways needs. The rail industry is a huge success. The pre-pandemic data, which I use for obvious reasons, tells us that it had 1.8 billion passenger journeys per year and 140,000-plus services per week—more than ever before. The question for Ministers and the industry is how to cope with the growth. The answer has been, through a variety of mechanisms, to increase capacity with new lines, improve existing lines, and provide new rolling stock and better signalling. The pandemic has clearly changed things, and it is too early to see how the trends will settle, but we can see that demand is returning already, although the commuting sector is still weak. The long-term problems have not gone away, and Great British Railways will need to address them.
The Government have published six criteria for judging the bids, and a critical element is the opportunity for Great British Railways. That is the third of the listed criteria, and I will focus on it for a few moments. It is against that criterion that York emerges head and shoulders above the others as the strongest bid. The question is: how do we deliver the future? The digital signalling, the planning of line enhancements, the new systems of power to drive the industry as the sector decarbonises, the expertise, the skills, the wider rail ecosystem with companies based in York and beyond in Yorkshire, the partnerships with academic institutions—they are all in place in York now, ready to be expanded and play a greater role.
Let me give one small example. The UK has been developing a series of rail operating centres—12 in total—that will control all the country’s signalling. They have been operating for some years and have taken on more services over time. York hosts one now, and it is in fact the largest of them all. It was part of a Network Rail campus, and it includes a workforce development centre, so York is already at the heart of the digital rail future.
The other criteria against which the bids will be judged are again met by the qualities of York: connectivity north-south and east-west is excellent; it is centrally located, half way between London and Edinburgh; the railway heritage is obviously second to none; and it hosts one of the major rail museums of the world. I know that the Science Museum Group has already made an important representation to the Minister in the bid process in favour of York. Public support has been demonstrated by the work undertaken locally by political representatives, not least in this debate. York is Yorkshire’s choice.
The hon. Member for York Central did not mention that in Yorkshire we are famous for liking value. [Interruption.] That is not really a joke, but a truth. We are famous for liking value, and with the York Central development we have an enterprise zone, with much of the land already in Network Rail ownership, so there is a ready-made value solution.
The last criterion is levelling up. Some of the most left-behind communities in the country are within a short journey time from York. The halo effect, building upon the current cluster, would have the positive effect of providing opportunity across these communities. Looking at the criteria as a whole and seeing what York can deliver, I see the York bid as being head and shoulders above the others, which is why I support it. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my views this afternoon and to support this bid.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles, and to take part in this debate. I congratulate my good friend, my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell, on securing the debate.
We hear a lot from the Government about the decarbonisation agenda, and it is important to highlight that we can cut congestion on the road, as well as noise and air pollution, by investing in good quality public transport across the country. My constituency of Stockport is in Greater Manchester, and unfortunately the rail capacity through Stockport is currently insufficient to operate any extra services. The rail network around Stockport and south Manchester is among the most congested in the country. The Government have to address that issue to ensure that decades of under-investment is reversed and that people in my constituency and across Greater Manchester get good quality public transport options.
I associate myself with the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for York Central made about transport workers and transport unions. They do a really good job in difficult circumstances. The pandemic has not been easy for any of us, but people in that sector do a very important job with long hours and low pay, and we are grateful to them.
Two businesses based in my constituency provide services to the rail industry: Sella Controls, in Manor ward, which I visited last year, and Lundy Projects, a few minutes’ walk from my constituency office, which I visited only a few days ago. Rail electrification has to go far beyond the Government’s current ambition. Lundy Projects is a specialist company that focuses on signalling and electrification. I want to see more skilled, well-paid, unionised jobs in my constituency, and the Government should come forward with investment.
In Manchester, Mayor Andy Burnham is doing a very good job with the Bee Network, which integrates walking, cycling, trams and buses into integrated systems similar to those in London. It is a long time coming, because people in my constituency in Greater Manchester have suffered from a disintegrated public transport system at very high cost, so bus franchising is a good move. I will not go into that too much because we are here to talk about trains. We all love trains, so I will stick to trains rather than going on about buses.
I will come to a conclusion in just over a minute, but I thank two groups in my constituency: the Friends of Heaton Chapel Station, who visited me last week in the Palace of Westminster and who I was pleased to give a tour to, and the Friends of Davenport Station. The platforms at both stations lack tactile safety tiles, which is a serious issue. Unfortunately, we recently had a fatality on the railway network. The Government must come up with a timetable to ensure that all train stations have that provision, so that people with disabilities or visual impairments are not injured.
There are four stations in my constituency, but the main Stockport station on the mainline to Birmingham, London and Manchester, is not in a good shape. Platforms often flood, the roof leaks and the lift is often broken, which makes staff members’ lives difficult as well as creating discomfort and inconvenience for passengers. We need a significant capital investment in the station, so I hope the Minister will address those issues at Stockport train station.
Finally, the Greek Street bridge has come to the end of its life and needs to be replaced. We need a new bridge that will safeguard the future of the Metrolink tram system coming into Stockport, which provides better integration with Manchester and wider areas. I could go on, but I will leave it there, Sir Charles. I hope the Minister will address these issues.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Sir Charles. I thank Rachael Maskell for bringing forward this important debate. I will confine my remarks to supporting York’s bid, as others have, for the Great British Rail headquarters. My constituency is a little further north of York, but will nevertheless form part of the new York city region, which we are all very excited about in our neck of the woods. We will see an elected mayor for the region in 2024. Economic development is a key part of that role and what elected mayors are all about.
I am a little parochial in making my arguments, of course. Other people will obviously make their very good cases for other places, be it Derby, Darlington or wherever else, but I feel that York is the best option. I have been keen to support other cases for other investments in other parts of Yorkshire and further afield. I am very keen for us to look again at Northern Powerhouse Rail having a proper independent line between Leeds and Bradford through to Manchester. That would transform the economy in Bradford.
I am very happy to support the cases of other areas where they make sense, but the York case makes so much sense. It makes sense primarily, as the hon. Member for York Central said, in terms of the proven economic effect, called the cluster effect, which is huge. We only have to look down the road at the City of London to see how important the cluster effect is for economics. It works on the basis of three important fundamentals: it enhances productivity and brings forward innovation, and a huge amount of new business is created in the supply chain and direct supply into the particular cluster.
It is very important that, when we talk about moving jobs out of London and potentially into our regions, we do not put them just anywhere, so that we can say we are levelling up and distributing those jobs around. We have to put them in the right place, because after all, as my hon. Friend Andrew Jones said, we need to make sure that the money spent represents good value.
The cluster effect will mean there is enhanced value by putting these jobs near to other jobs and other businesses that specialise in those areas, so that we get the productivity benefit. Clearly, if people can walk across a street to talk to somebody about a certain innovation, or if they work together on an innovation, that is hugely important. The businesses that are created are on wonderful sites, such as the brownfield sites of York central, which is a wonderful opportunity for an entire city and region.
Some 5,500 people work in the rail industry in York: engineers and skilled people, clearly consultants and people involved in the new digital world of rail. Some 10% of UK workforce work in York, so it is pretty compelling. Again, the heritage has been mentioned by others. People recognise York as the nation’s capital when it comes to rail, and we are of course proud to host the wonderful National Railway Museum.
The city is hugely well connected. It is connected directly to one third of UK stations. The wonderful thing is that when the public across Yorkshire were asked the best place to put the headquarters of Great British Rail, six out of 10 said it should be York—three times the number that said any other location. Let us support the #yestoyork campaign and make sure the headquarters of Great British Rail come to York.
Ealing and Acton would not be here without the railways. Both have stations underground, overground—not wombling free—east, west, south, broadway, common, central. They are in “that there London”, so people might be thinking, “You’re all right, Jack,” but I want to counter this misperception that has grown up around the Government’s levelling up rhetoric. It is in the suburbs of London that we feel this most acutely. Our trains are full and getting fuller, fares are rising faster than wages, and west London, the sub-region with Heathrow, is a key driver of our national economy, but it needs transport fit for purpose, not just to and from central London but between the suburban bits.
An obvious solution would be breathing life into the old Beeching line, the west London orbital. There is Ealing, the centre of west London, and to the north Brent Cross, with lots of jobs, and to the south, Brentford, but good luck to anyone trying to get between any of those three. There is the super-development opportunity area of Old Oak, which has promised 24,000 dwellings and jobs, jobs, jobs. Again, this proposal could link them all, but there is no chance in sight, because the Government will not commit long-term funding to TfL.
Instead, we have the ignominious situation of cap-in-hand, eleventh-hour settlements, being marched to the top of the hill and down again. We are pretty much the only capital city on earth—I am not counting Singapore—where there is no central Government subsidy. We need reliability, predictability and all those things. When the current Prime Minister was Mayor of London, he was bequeathed a load of goodies from his Labour predecessor: the bikes that bear his name, the TfL rail Overground—it used to be quite scary when it was the Silverlink; it is brilliant now—the DLR extension and bus investment. But for Sadiq Khan—bless his cotton socks—the cupboard is bare.
I congratulate Rachael Maskell on securing the debate. I have been listening intently to what Dr Huq said about the finances for TfL. Does she agree that if the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport did not strike so often in London and bring the whole of London to a standstill, the TfL finances might be in a better position?
The hon. Gentleman is falling into the Tory trope of union bashing. I am a proud trade unionist, and the unions are there to better the conditions of their members. We do not want exploitation, do we? Is he going to be shoving kids up chimneys next? I fear the track he is going down. This issue is a bit of a smoke screen. We need long-term funding and a dependable model for London, which we used to have. Every other London Mayor had that, but in 2016 George Osborne suddenly cut the support grant. I think that had something to do with the complexion of City Hall, but—[Interruption.] I am not going to give way, because I do not get any extra time.
With covid giving way to a cost of living crisis, what did we see from the Chancellor? A cut in fuel duty and a 3.8% rise in fares, and I am not counting that gimmicky video—that thing, whatever it was—about the 1% of journeys where someone can get a cheap fare, going to the right place on the right day. That is not going to affect any of my constituents.
Meanwhile, we can only marvel at what they are doing outre-Manche in the rest of Europe. Look at Austria’s climate ticket. In Germany, there is a €9 a month regional transport ticket. In this country, no one between 25 and 65, which is probably most of the people here, is eligible for a national railcard, which is available elsewhere. I urge the Minister to look at something like that.
In conclusion, the future of rail should include projects that complete vaguely on time. I have an Oyster card holder that says, “Crossrail—new for 2018”. Ha! The future of rail would have considerate construction. HS2 goes through my seat and has made life a misery for the residents of Wells House Road, NW10. The future of rail would also have a visionary Government that could think long term, rather than say, “It’s all Sadiq Khan’s fault,” any time a London MP stands up to say anything, when we know that our London Mayor is doing a fantastic job against the odds. The country cannot be levelled up by levelling down London. The new Piccadilly line trains, due in 2025, are being built in Yorkshire. Level up London and the whole country benefits. Let us get Ealing, Acton and Chiswick back on the rails. Now that’s what I really call levelling up.
Thank you for calling me, Sir Charles. Well, with three minutes I will just get to the point, if I may.
I appreciate the comments of Dr Huq. I should just say that the RMT does not quite agree with her about the London Mayor. I respectfully make that point, because the RMT has itself said that it is the London Mayor who is causing the logjam, and ultimately that has a considerable impact on the finances available. I represent a constituency that I am afraid has a three-hourly train service frequency, and when I see Transport for London getting such considerable amounts of money, it is a matter of great concern to me. That is money going to support the good people of London, rather than to support the Heart of Wessex line. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is well aware of my strong views on that point.
I will move on to the future of rail. I spent 20 years working for the railways before being elected to Parliament. I am not sure whether there are any Opposition Members present who used to be members of the RMT. I was once a member and should give it a big shout-out for its policy briefing, which was very interesting and for which I am grateful. The railways are very important for the future of this country. I appreciate that lots of people have strong views on where the new GB Railways HQ should be, although personally I do not think that will make much of a difference to the future capability of the railway; what will make an enormous difference is where the Government look to invest. The Government have supported the railway to the tune of £14 billion during the worst time of the pandemic. They have kept thousands of people in jobs, and they have done so to ensure that the future of our railways is extremely good and supports the future of our country.
It is really important that we also consider the wider things that the railways have to change going forward. The railways have been marvellous in lots of ways, but the fact that it can take 12 months to change a timetable is not acceptable in the current day and age. Why is it that we have a timetable that is the same on a Monday as it is on a Friday, when we know that the demands are very different? There are fundamental changes that need to happen in order for our railways to excel.
I am conscious of time and am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. As a final point, it is really important that we remember it is not all about the cities; it is about connecting the rural areas as well—areas such as West Dorset and other parts of the country that would greatly benefit from that in the future.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell for introducing the debate. I am also pleased to see my hon. Friend Christian Matheson here, because I want to talk about the journeys that we used to take together when we were first elected in 2015. Those hourly direct services from Chester to London have all gone during the pandemic and are yet to return. I understand that we are due to get some back next month, but not all of them will be restored. I have to ask the Minister, why are we waiting longer than everyone else to get a lesser service restored? Who is accountable for that decision? Will we ever get back to what we had before? What evidence are those decisions based on?
Those questions are important because the Department is also planning to award a new 10-year franchise to run the line later in the year. How can decisions be properly made on future service provision when the service is not yet back to pre-pandemic levels? What evidence base will the Department be working on for that decision? There needs to be a crystal-clear commitment that the new franchise will restore hourly direct services from Chester to London. I would like the Minister, when she responds, to say that is exactly what will happen. If she cannot do that, will she at least meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester to discuss what we would like to see in the new 10-year deal?
We cannot continue to have decisions made about our rail services without reference to Members in this place and our communities. I have suggested to Avanti already that if it does not want to run the service at the previous level, it should not only not bid on the current franchise but give the current one up. I am due to meet Avanti on Friday, and I will be interested to hear what it has to say. In the meantime, I hope that we have the Department’s support in restoring services to pre-pandemic levels.
Perhaps when I meet Avanti I will be told that it has been unable to restore services because of a lack of demand. Of course, if it does not put the services on, we do not know what the demand is. It may be the case that a huge increase in home working as a result of the pandemic has affected travel patterns, but I would not be surprised if there were other issues at play. If there is a feeling that businesses are using rail less, perhaps the answer may lie in the eye-watering costs attached to such travel.
Let us look at journeys of a similar distance between cities in England, Germany and France: Chester to London is 165 miles; Hamburg to Berlin is 159 miles; and Calais to Paris is 147 miles. The cost of a single rail ticket for the morning to arrive by 9 am for each of those journeys tells its own story: Hamburg to Berlin is £26; Calais to Paris is £39; and Chester to London is £155. Travelling from Chester to London costs nearly six times more than a similar journey in Germany and nearly four times more than a similar journey in France. In fact, I can get to Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt or to Tel Aviv in Israel for less money than it costs me to get to London by train before 9 am, so I can actually get to another continent for less money. Therefore, if we are going to do something about rail travel in future, let us make it affordable for everyone.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate Rachael Maskell on securing the debate.
This debate is about the future of rail, but understandably the question on everyone’s mind at the moment is which of our towns or cities will be given the huge honour of hosting the public body tasked with delivering that future. Right hon. and hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I very much support what the hon. Member for York Central has set out, and what my hon. Friends the Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) have set out. There is also support from other north Yorkshire MPs.
Members have previously heard me set out at length why I think York is the best site for Great British Railways, but in the short time available I will briefly reiterate what I consider to be the main points in support of York’s strong case. First, there are York’s existing Network Rail facilities, strong connectivity and rail heritage, as well as the availability of a range of convenient city-centre sites. That last point has already been touched on, but the York central site stands out proud in terms of what it can deliver. It is also shovel-ready—it is ready to go—and that must add huge weight to York’s bid.
Secondly, York has a skilled workforce, which accounts for over 10% of the national rail industry’s workforce, and it is also situated at the centre of the north-east Yorkshire rail cluster, which is the largest in the UK.
Thirdly, York has leading status in training and innovation, which has been driven by local businesses, colleges and universities. I could add so much more to this point, but I cannot do so in the brief time available, although I know that other Members have already touched on it.
Fourthly, York’s position at the heart of the UK rail network makes it an ideal national administrative base. Moreover, York would potentially contribute to the Government’s goals of strengthening the Union and levelling up in the north of England, based on York’s strong links to Scotland, the north-east, Manchester and all parts of Yorkshire.
Yorkshire and, in particular, York have not only a proud rail history but a vital role to play in the future, by leading the way in developing new technologies and providing new skills that will revolutionise rail travel in York. For me, the case for York’s bid is absolutely overwhelming, and I am proud to be supporting it here today. I am also proud to support Members from across our region in supporting York’s case, and I very much look forward to learning how the Government will take this matter forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and I thank my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell for securing this important debate.
It has been a year since East West Rail gave the devastating news to my constituents that their homes and land were at risk, but it was only this week that they have received letters from EWR to inform them that they “may be” affected or “probably” will be affected by the scheme. The letters arrived after months of pushing for them from my office and from councillors in the impacted wards, during which time we pleaded with EWR and the DFT to be much more open and honest about where my residents stand and what their options are, whatever the outcome of the scheme.
Communications from the Government and EWR—whether on the consultation or on answering the many questions my constituents have about the project, such as its environmental impact—have been deplorable from day one. Both the Government and EWR have been happy to allow local representatives, who have no real influence on or knowledge of the plans, to take the flak and try to fill a void where their information and transparency should have been.
The consultation response, which was due in March, has been delayed, so we are still none the wiser; we cannot even be sure whether the project will go ahead. I do not know why the Government will still not commit to electrifying the line from day one, given their net zero targets.
I want to explain the cost of dither and delay for my constituents. Residents have written to me in distress at being in limbo. One describes her home as feeling like a prison. People cannot make plans. They do not know whether to make home improvements, or whether they will even have a home. They fear the loss of their community. Many worry that they may not be able to move house. This situation is taking its toll on people’s mental health and wellbeing.
The uncertainty cannot go on. The Government are now in the process of reviewing the strategic and economic case. In my view, the only thing the Government are assessing is whether they will risk running a train line through the Tory shires before the next general election. If the Government are minded to U-turn on their plans, I urge them to level up with the public about what is going on. What I see is East West Rail forging ahead with meetings and mailouts, and a Government in reverse.
If the Department for Transport is to proceed with the investment, it needs to bring the proposals forward immediately, so that the public understand what they are dealing with. The Rail Minister will be aware that I was broadly in favour of the fantastic connectivity and investment opportunities that a green rail link between Oxford and Cambridge would bring to the people of Bedford, but not at any cost.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell on securing today’s debate. I agree that rail and our wider public transport network are essential to tackling the climate crisis and meeting our net zero commitment, but we do not have a Government willing to drive a transformative strategy that encourages more people to travel by train.
In the midst of a cost of living crisis, the Government decided to increase rail fares by a brutal 3.8%. Average fares have now risen by 48.9% more than in 2010—that is twice as fast as wages. In my constituency of Luton South, that means commuters to London now pay £4,717 for a season ticket, an increase of 46% since 2010. The Government’s short-term “Great British Rail Sale” does not scratch the surface of tackling the broken system of overpriced fares. A flash sale is not a strategy. My constituents and our country have suffered 12 years of rail mismanagement and under-investment.
I am here to say, again, that Luton station is not fit for purpose. The patching up of roof leaks, licks of paint and basic renovations are not sufficient to provide people in Luton with the modern-day train station they deserve. Accessibility remains a major issue. Disabled and elderly people and young families are marginalised, as there are no lifts to four out of five platforms.
The long-awaited Access for All funding for lifts at the station is welcome, although I understand that works will not be completed until early 2024. Luton needs a comprehensive station revamp in line with our town’s modern 21st century ambitions. Will the Minister explain whether additional capital funding will be allocated to redeveloping town train stations such as Luton as part of the Government delivering on their levelling-up commitments?
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for York Central on the importance of rail unions. Long-term rail reform must have the interests of rail workers at its heart. I send my solidarity to RMT members who are opposing pay freezes, threats to their jobs and attacks on their terms and conditions. Staff are not being properly rewarded. Commuters are not getting value for money and the public are not getting a plan that helps tackle the climate crisis.
It does not have to be this way. For every pound spent on rail, £2.50 is generated for the wider economy. There are European comparisons, too, with cheaper journeys, punctual trains and publicly-owned railways. European state-owned companies are making profits delivering our rail services. Essentially, British taxpayers are subsidising European countries’ rail services. That is absurd. We know the benefits that UK-owned East Coast and London North Eastern Railway have delivered to the Treasury. Reform of rail cannot come soon enough. We need accessible, affordable and better connected railways that work for passengers, our community and rail workers.
It is a pleasure to appear before you, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell for introducing this debate on the future of rail. I say, “What future?”
Many of the problems with rail can be traced back to 1993, when British Rail was privatised into more than 100 separate companies under the Conservative Government. It was supposed to bring greater efficiency and innovation. Instead, it brought fragmentation, confusion and extortionate fare increases.
In 2018, the Government finally admitted that privatisation was not working when the east coast franchise collapsed and was taken into public ownership. It is now making profit. Instead of doing the right thing, putting passengers before profit, and bringing our rail franchises back into full public ownership, the Government are now proposing a joint system under which taxpayers will continue to pay hundreds of millions of pounds in profit to rail companies to run the network. It is unacceptable.
For years I have had constituents write to me about the impact of daily overcrowded trains and infrequent, unreliable train services. They have lost jobs, missed lectures and medical appointments, and in some cases have been sanctioned by the Department for Work and Pensions for arriving late to their appointment. The cost to commuters has grown by 50% in the past 12 years of Tory government, and Transport for London is now facing a 40% loss of its core funding.
In January, a report was published on behalf of the Minister’s Department that said that only major Government funding would solve the accessibility problems at stations across the country. One of the rail operators interviewed said that 60% of stations lacked step-free access from street level to the platforms. Just last month, elderly constituents from Farnworth in my constituency were returning from a holiday and took a train from Manchester airport to Bolton with heavy luggage. When they got to Bolton, the station lift was not working. What were they supposed to do? Another woman behind them was carrying a pram.
We know from reports that ticket offices are set to close across the country. That will impact those who need face-to-face services, such as the elderly, the disabled, pregnant women and other people. What will happen to them, especially if trains are not running at night?
We were told that there was going to be an integrated plan on infrastructure for the north, which was then scrapped. For a whole year, I sat on the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill Committee. We had seven sessions a week. HS2 will run from London to Birmingham, and we were told that there would be a continuation of the line to Manchester and Leeds, but that integrated rail plan has now been scrapped. It is wrong. We need transport infrastructure in the north. We also need proper train services connecting the east and west along the M62 corridor—
If William Gladstone, when he was Prime Minister in the 1880s, had organised a debate such as this on the future of the railways and came back today, I imagine he would be shocked. The UK was the great industrial powerhouse, and he would have expected the railways to have improved. However, as the Transport Committee found when it looked at regional railways, the timetables are slower than they were in Gladstone’s time.
There are three primary reasons for that. First, the over-application of public sector borrowing requirements starved the railways of investment for decades. Secondly, as my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi said, there was the privatisation of the railways. The railways were under-sold—the National Audit Office recognised that they had been massively sold at a loss. They were then prey to unregulated rolling stock companies, which hired trains at massive profits. Thirdly, Railtrack—the people running the railways—decided it was a property company, not a railway company, and killed people. That is what privatisation did.
Now the Government are showing some faith in the future, and we are going back to a similar structure to British Rail, but we need integration. Chris Loder said that we could have different timetables every day of the week. Privatisation meant that when people sat down to work out timetables, there were about five times as many people as there were under British Rail. It was inefficient.
I have three quick points. We need investment in the pinch points in the rail system. In Manchester’s case, we need platforms 14 and 15 at Piccadilly station, which would help the whole of the north of England. We need HS2. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East correctly pointed out that HS2 should benefit the whole of the north of England. In fact, it should go to Scotland. HS2 should be the backbone of our rail system.
Finally, a point that everybody else has made, although it is not necessarily about the future of the railways: the site of the Manchester Exchange Station in Salford, which had the longest platform in the world, going to Victoria Station, should be the home of GBR. This was the home of the first scheduled passenger rail service between Manchester and Liverpool.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell on securing this important debate.
The climate emergency really does require that we change the way we travel. Radical and urgent action is needed, as well as a transformative plan to switch to more sustainable forms of transport and at the same time create new and innovative jobs for our workforce. As in other parts of the country, rail plays a pivotal role in Wales as a public transport network, with millions of passengers dependent on rail for commuting and leisure. It is a critical asset and must have a greater role in Wales if it is to achieve an integrated, intersectional, accessible, affordable, efficient and sustainable transport system that meets the needs of the present while protecting the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The Welsh Government have set out an ambitious vision for transport in Wales, as set out in their strategy, Llwybr Newydd.
As in other parts of the country, Wales faces many challenges—similar challenges to the rest of the United Kingdom. When he was Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates, Member of the Senedd, said that rail delivery in Wales was “complex, fragmented and underfunded.” In Wales, the rail service continues to suffer from infrequent services, unreliable infrastructure and indirect routes. Only last year the Welsh Affairs Committee, on which I sit, published a report on rail in Wales that exposed a raft of issues: performance issues, poor service experience, inadequate stations, the cost, infrequency, accessibility and low standards. There is an urgent need for the network in Wales, as in the rest of the UK, to be upgraded.
I want to focus on three priorities for Wales. Again, these apply to the rest of the UK. First is bringing rail back into public ownership. In 2020, the Welsh Government decided to take the Wales and Borders rail franchise into public ownership in order to protect services, safeguard jobs and deliver infrastructure improvements, particularly in light of the ongoing challenges associated with covid. Second is fully devolved rail in Wales. In the words of the Welsh Government:
“Rail devolution is essential for us to deliver the comprehensive, integrated, and efficient transport network needed across Wales”.
Finally, we need a fair funding settlement to improve rail networks in Wales. HS2 should be reclassified as an England-only project. That would provide Wales, through the Barnett formula, with around £5 billion—not million—to spend on rail infrastructure in Wales. We are taking a llwybr newydd—a new path. We have set out a new way of thinking that places people and climate at the centre of our transport system so that we can deliver a transport system for the whole of Wales, but we need action by Westminster as well, and action needs to happen now. Diolch yn fawr.
I hear you, Sir Charles. It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate Rachael Maskell on securing this important debate. She set the scene very well and spoke proudly—quite rightly—about York’s magnificent railway heritage. She spoke about modal shift, including freight—a point that was echoed by the hon. Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), who, along with many other Members, brought up pricing.
Decarbonisation was mentioned. Navendu Mishra mentioned that the Government are not electrifying the track quickly enough. I completely agree and I will come to that in my speech. Mohammad Yasin mentioned East West Rail using diesel on its trains. Beth Winter—apologies for my pronunciation—mentioned decarbonisation and HS2 with regard to Wales, and the fact that Wales gets no Barnett money, but Scotland gets 100% Barnett. It is a point I have raised before.
Connectivity and capacity were issues mentioned by the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), for West Dorset (Chris Loder)—who is my comrade on the Transport Committee—and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). This debate became about the location of GBR’s headquarters. Many strong cases were made for York, not least by the hon. Member for York Central and the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and for York Outer (Julian Sturdy). If I have missed any hon. Members, I do apologise. It is a very good case that they made, but it is one that I cannot support, because there are six Scottish bidders—Dundee, Edinburgh, Fife, Motherwell, Perth and Stirling—and I am not choosing one of them either.
The hon. Member for York Central finished her contribution with a tribute to all our public transport staff for the work they did to keep us moving through the pandemic. It is a tribute I very much echo. Despite the significant impact of the covid pandemic, I believe that the future of rail is bright and green. I believe also that the future of rail is in public ownership. I think it is a policy that both the hon. Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) would also support.
I want to talk about the future of rail in Scotland. The future of rail in England and Wales is a little more debatable. The action by the Scottish Government to take ScotRail back into public control just under four weeks ago should be a template for railways elsewhere. Public ownership is a fresh start for the railways in Scotland. Already we can see innovation in the shape of the spring fare deals that far exceeded DFT’s plans. If the issue is about tempting travellers to use rail on a national and transformational basis, it should be up to Government to set the priorities of our railways and, more widely, set out how those priorities integrate with other modes of transport.
It is disappointing that the Williams review ruled out real public ownership, instead opting for operating concessions. It is a real missed opportunity to begin revitalising rail services in England and across borders. The chance to provide real accountability within the system has been missed. Instead, the DFT has settled for a halfway house, where blame continues to be placed on operators where expedient. Meanwhile, the real direction of travel is set by GBR and the DFT.
I know that the team at the top of GBR are leaders in the industry. The Transport Committee recently heard Andrew Haines give evidence, and we were impressed by his track record, knowledge and genuine enthusiasm for building a railway fit for the future. However, all the talent in the world will struggle against a structure that is not fit for purpose from the start. I worry that behind the glossy reports that the Secretary of State likes to show off on his bookshelves whenever he appears on the TV, the new GBR will simply be a rebranding of Network Rail, with some of the DFT and Office of Rail and Road’s current functions.
There also must be an appetite for real change right across the industry from those who hold the purse strings, and the signs from the DFT and Treasury are not good. We have a ludicrous situation where ScotRail is paying over double the amount of track access charges that Northern Rail is liable for—£340 million versus £150 million—while running only slightly fewer services by distance travelled.
Indeed, ScotRail pays the third-highest total access charges of any train operator in Britain. That might be worthwhile if that funding gave Scotland the kind of railway of the future that people and passengers in Scotland are looking for, but even with that kind of expenditure, Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government had to plough in an additional £630 million in capital and infrastructure investment in 2020-21, in line with the Scottish Government’s plans for decarbonisation of our passenger rail services by 2035. That is £1 billion toward track and infrastructure every year, funnelled to Network Rail and under its command, while Network Rail remains out of devolved control and reports to the DFT and the Office of Rail and Road.
As things stand, GBR will take over control of infrastructure in Scotland in the same way that Network Rail controls it. That is a missed opportunity to do the sensible thing and fully devolve responsibility and control of the entire rail network to the Scottish Parliament. Already ScotRail and Network Rail work closely together as part of the ScotRail Alliance. Full devolution would strengthen that alliance and finish the work of fully integrating track and train that started in 2005 with the transfer of franchising and services to Holyrood. We will have a situation whereby a publicly owned train company will have to negotiate with the publicly owned network operator, whose primary job will be dealing with private concession operators that are running services on behalf of the Government-owned GBR. Inevitably, the culture and institutional knowledge of GBR will skew towards that needed to deal with the private operators rather than a publicly owned company. Full devolution of Network Rail in Scotland, before it ends up under the auspices of GBR, will avoid that happening. Given the inevitability of all transport in Scotland coming under the control of the Scottish Parliament once we are independent, it would be real planning for the long-term future, but that future has to be cleaner and greener.
Scotland’s rail decarbonisation target of 2035 is hugely ambitious. It is 15 years ahead of DFT’s target for England. Hundreds of miles of our network run through areas of extremely low population, and maintaining and improving them over time is technically challenging. At this stage, full electrification of such routes would be disproportionate to passenger numbers, but in the longer term we should be looking to invest in these railways in the same way that Norway has electrified many of its rural routes. However, the development of alternative fuel trains, such as the zero-emission train developed under Transport Scotland and fuelled by hydrogen fuel cells, along with battery electric solutions, shows that no corner of our rail network will be untouched by the zero-carbon revolution that is not just desirable but critical for the future of our society and the planet.
That all said, our track record—apologies for the pun—on rail electrification since devolution has been excellent. Over the last 20 years or so, Scotland has electrified track at more than twice the rate that DFT has in England, which has resulted in a 44% increase in routes electrified since devolution, compared with just 17% across Britain as a whole. Moreover, this rolling programme of investment, which has been much lauded not just by me but by the industry, has resulted in far lower costs, with electrification costs 50% higher per single track kilometre in England than in Scotland, and there is a target to lower the cost to around half of the current English electrification cost.
In Scotland, we already have the Edinburgh-Falkirk electrification scheme, with the Shotts line, Paisley canal and Alloa all seeing the wires go up. Future projects will connect East Kilbride and Barrhead to the electric railway, and some lines have been reinstated after the short-sighted closures of decades past, including the Borders railway—a huge success story, as passenger numbers hugely exceed expectations. The Levenmouth link is currently under construction.
It pays to invest, to give certainty and to allow decisions to be made closer to the local people, communities and businesses that they affect. The fact that it took devolution for Scotland to get on and start our decarbonisation journey should be a red flag for the Government, and it makes an indisputable case for full devolution of rail. By the end, if there is one, of what has so far been a two-decade-long process—a process, incidentally, that was ignored by Westminster when it had control of rail in Scotland, but which has been driven forward by all political parties in Scotland, bar the Conservatives—we will have a railway that is fully fit for the future.
I want the future to include constructive relationships with GBR and the Department for Transport across borders—not just in Scotland but in Wales—but I fear that the overriding urge to centralise and the inability to let go, even when it makes very little sense not to do so, will mean that we still have the same outdated and outmoded structures of railway governance that have dragged the industry down over recent years. That cannot be allowed to happen, and if the Minister takes on board one thing from today, I hope it is that the new GBR cannot follow the centralising model that has been a dead hand preventing the devolved Administrations and many areas of England from taking the decisions that best support their priorities. Decisions on investment and growth are best taken by those on the ground, not by a DFT trying to extend its reach across the UK. That needs a real transfer of power to national Parliaments and regional authorities, and I hope that the future plans for rail mean that that task can be completed sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to be taking part in this crucial debate, and I thank my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell for securing it. As my predecessor in this role, she certainly has superb knowledge in this field. I also applaud her for being an amazing champion of her constituents, and for her dedication in supporting York in its bid to be the new headquarters for Great British Railways. Indeed, there was a lot of harmony in the room when the hon. Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) all supported York’s bid because of the city’s global rail cluster and digital technology firms, which contribute immensely to UK rail innovation. I applaud them all for their dedication, and I am sure that York will be a very strong candidate. Indeed, as a nation we must ensure that we increase exports of such cutting-edge technologies to other parts of the world.
We cannot debate the future of rail without considering its past. Understanding first where rail has come from in the past decade is crucial in understanding where it is going in the next. As the phrase goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, which we definitely do not want for our railways. The 2010s can only be described as a disastrous decade for rail, with fares rising twice as fast as wages, as my hon. Friend Rachel Hopkins eloquently highlighted, cuts to rail services up and down our country, a network unlikely to be decarbonised and net zero by 2050, and a consistently vague communications approach for future development and investment in rail. Despite the Tory rhetoric of investment and expansion, the Government’s actions speak far louder than their words.
Passengers travelling by rail today compared to 12 years ago are paying twice as much for a lot less. Year on year, rail fares have ballooned, increasing by 49% since 2010, while wages across the UK have stalled, with weekly median earnings increasing by just 23% since 2010, all while incomes are being squeezed by a pressing cost of living crisis. How do this Government expect people to be able to keep up with these brutal hikes? Increasing passenger numbers while simultaneously pricing them out does not seem like the most robust strategy from the Government.
The Government solution appears to be the “Great British Rail Sale”, touted to offer huge savings on many off-peak intercity routes, but Labour findings suggest that these discounts will be applied to a mere 1% of all journeys taken, as my hon. Friend Dr Huq eloquently explained. Perhaps we are being far too generous, Sir Charles, as even the Tory press are running stories that only 0.66% of journeys will be discounted. This is nothing more than a gimmick, and rail staff, unions and passengers know that all too well. No wonder it has been called the “Great British Rail Fail”.
Short-term sales and political gimmicks should not be the future of our railways, but a permanent, affordable, efficient and green network should be. Given the steep cost of travelling on our railways, passengers would be expected to experience an equally steep improvement in services. Sadly, that has not been the case. This Government are imposing cuts of 10% on operators, threatening jobs across the network and reducing network capacity.
Furthermore, industry anxiety about omicron, used as a front to permanently reduced timetables, seems to have materialised, with 19,000 pre-pandemic services yet to return, as my hon. Friend Justin Madders eloquently explained when he talked about services to and from Chester. In areas of the south-west, there is a distinct lack of services, as Chris Loder, who has considerable experience in the rail industry, highlighted. It is evident to me that while the Tories might talk up the bright future of rail, all I can see is managed decline. Will the Minister tell us what plans the Government have to bring back these lost services and provide passengers with a future in which rail travel is better value for money?
A key part of rail’s future, and of all of our futures, is the climate crisis, but Government failures on rail are a pattern, with an equally poor record on electrification, despite increased climate change awareness during the last decade. This is the view not just of the Labour party but of industry professionals and stakeholders with whom I have had several meetings. The Railway Industry Association’s 2021 report, entitled “Why Rail Electrification?”, puts forward the case for a rolling plan of electrification, which is necessary for network decarbonisation, adding that that is how the UK will reach its net zero targets.
I can see several Members want to get in and normally I would be well up for taking interventions, but Sir Charles has intimated the lack of time. I apologise to Members on both sides, but I have only a few minutes.
Despite Conservative boasts in the Chamber about the record on electrification, the facts show that there is absolutely nothing to be proud about. The Government have reneged on plans to electrify east-west rail, as my hon. Friend Mohammad Yasin highlighted. According to Network Rail, 13,000 single track kilometres of rail or 88% of the total network should be electrified by 2050. However, between 2010 and March 2020, just 1,786 kilometres of rail track were electrified, meaning that only an additional 5,358 kilometres would be electrified by 2050. At the current rate, the Government will not get even halfway to their net zero target on electrification.
Perhaps the Minister will clarify this point, rather than just harking back a couple of decades to the days of the last Labour Government. How will this Government reach net zero targets on our rail network? We all know that the last Labour Government invested billions to modernise the old inefficient rolling stock. That is what their priority was. The priority now should be to tackle the climate crisis and electrify.
Part of the issue with the Government’s approach to the future of our railway infrastructure is its lack of detail, specificity and long-term commitment to investment. The devil is in the detail. Much to the dismay of the rail industry, the “Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline”, the document providing the detail on infrastructure delivery, which the Government have told the House will be published annually, is a mere 900 days out of date.
Oh, it’s coming—only 900 days late, severely hindering industry players’ investment in their skills and technology and making future infrastructure programmes even more expensive and slower to deliver. Given the unheeded warnings regarding the enhancement pipeline, including a plethora of my own written parliamentary questions on this subject, perhaps the Minister will enlighten us today as to when the updated document will finally appear.
Then, of course, there is the distinct lack of accessibility, as ably highlighted by my hon. Friend Navendu Mishra. I appreciate that the Minister has only recently taken on the rail brief, but considering the Government’s decade of rail mismanagement, what prospects are there for a promising future in rail under this Government? No doubt, the Ministers today will extol the virtues of Great British Railways as their innovative solution to revolutionise the railways and herald a bright future, but despite consisting of 113 pages, last year’s Williams-Schapps plan for rail lacked the detail necessary for the industry to understand its day-to-day operations.
As the barrister and legal commentator Max Hardy recently tweeted:
“A car journey costs the same if it’s planned 6 minutes ahead or 6 months ahead...If trains are not competing on price, comfort or convenience, what is the point of them?”
We need devolution and integration of our public transport, as was ably highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) and for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer)—and, indeed, my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi, who explained why the fragmentation and privatisation of the rail industry has ensured that there is such a disastrous impact on our railways. I hope that the Government will look back into taking the railways back into public ownership, so that we put people before profit.
It is a privilege to respond to this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I start by thanking Rachael Maskell for securing this important debate on the future of the railways, and all hon. Members who have made contributions today.
As some hon. Members will know, the railways are close to my heart: both my paternal grandfathers worked on the railways, one in Wensleydale in North Yorkshire—for those who are not Yorkshire colleagues—and the other in County Durham. My dad was actually born in a railway cottage, so I like to think that I have a little railway heritage or railway stock in my blood.
I understand the importance of the industry and the magnificent railway heritage of this country. There is a lot to respond to in this debate. I will respond to as much as I can. It has been a very broad debate—a good debate—but there are some specific points that I want to cover, particularly the point about GBR HQ, which I will come to shortly.
The Government are committed to securing the heritage of our railways, now and in the future. Although I cannot comment today on specifics of the initiative in York, our plans for the future of rail will benefit the UK as a whole.
I will start with the Williams-Shapps plan for rail. The case for change has long been clear, and the need to move away from a model that delivered multiple franchise failures, falling passenger satisfaction, a timetable collapse, spiralling costs and a one in three chance of delays across the network. That is why we commissioned Keith Williams in 2018 to carry out the first root and branch review of the rail industry in a generation. Keith and his team identified six key problems facing our railways; I am sure hon. Members will be familiar with some of them.
The rail sector too often loses sight of its customers, both passengers and freight. It is missing opportunities to meet the needs of the communities it serves. It is fragmented, and accountabilities are not always clear. It lacks clear, strategic direction. It needs to become more productive and tackle long-term costs. It struggles to innovate and adapt.
The pandemic has only exacerbated those problems, with revenues down and costs up. The Government rightly stepped in with emergency financial support, from the start of the pandemic to the end of the previous financial year, spending almost £14 billion funding on passenger services. I also recognise the work of the industry in keeping services going through the pandemic. But that support cannot be open-ended and the need for change is greater than ever.
Hon. Members will be aware that the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, published in May 2021, set out the path towards a truly passenger-focused railway, underpinned by new contracts that prioritise punctual and reliable services, the rapid delivery of a ticketing revolution with new flexible and convenient tickets, and long-term proposals to build a modern, green and accessible rail network. We are confident that our ambitious programme for reform will address the problems that Keith identified and support recovery from the pandemic. To that end, we are now well on the way to the biggest transformation of the railways in three decades.
Central to our vision is the establishment of a new rail body, Great British Railways, which will provide a single familiar brand and strong unified leadership across the rail network. Once established, GBR will be responsible for delivering better value and flexible fares, and the punctual and reliable services that passengers deserve. Bringing ownership of the infrastructure, fares, timetables and planning of the network under one roof, it will bring today’s fragmented railways under a single point of operational accountability, ensuring that the focus is delivering for passengers and freight customers and encouraging integration across the system as a whole.
GBR will be a new organisation with a commercial mindset and strong customer focus. It will also have a different culture to the current infrastructure owner, Network Rail, and different incentives from the beginning. It will also be accountable to Ministers, ensuring that its focus is on providing value for the taxpayer, enabling innovation and delivering for passengers and freight customers.
I am grateful for what the Minister is saying about the GB focus and the new thing coming. Will she look at the European examples that I mentioned? As a member of the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, I know that tourism is a big thing in this country. It is worrying that people land in London and cannot get to Manchester without its costing a three-figure sum. Can the Minister sort that out, too?
The hon. Lady is demonstrating the need for a railway system that is not fragmented, and highlighting the importance of the rail industry, not just for commuters and travel to work, but for the tourism sector and leisure.
Private businesses have always played a big role on the railway, originally as its creators, then as providers of passenger and freight serves, and suppliers and partners to Network Rail. Privatisation has been a success story for the rail network, with passenger numbers doubling in the 25 years before the pandemic, and passengers travelling more safely. [Interruption.] Some hon. Members might not like that, but numbers have doubled in 25 years. The private sector has invested billions into new, modern trains and the upgrading of stations.
Our reforms are about simplification—
It would be helpful to remind this debate of what has happened in our railways over the past few years. After decades of decline, we reached the point where we had only 760 million passenger journeys per year. The situation transformed, under privatisation, to 1.8 billion passenger journeys a year. I think the Minister should continue her history lesson to the Opposition Members, who really haven’t got a clue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the intervention. Let me continue, because he does make some very important points on the private sector. GBR will harness the very best of the private sector—innovation, an unrelenting focus on quality, and outstanding customer service—and fuse it with a single guiding mind, empowered to drive benefits and efficiencies across the system as a whole.
I will quickly touch on some of the points raised by hon. Members. A number spoke of reform; I want to be absolutely clear that we are committed to workforce reform, which will make the railways financially and operationally sustainable for the future, to deliver in the ways that passengers want, and provide greater opportunities and more flexible roles for employees.
We talked about GBR; we also have the GBR transition team in place. While transformation on this scale cannot happen overnight, the Government and the sector are committed to ensuring that benefits for passengers and freight customers are brought forward as quickly as possible. Since our plan for rail, we have set up the GBR transition team, fulfilling the plan for rail’s commitment to start interim arrangements immediately.
The hon. Member for York Central referenced her bid for York to be the GBR HQ, as did others—my hon. Friends the Members for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). GBRTT is currently overseeing the competition to select the national HQ for GBR, which is to be based outside of London, ensuring that skilled jobs, investment and economic benefits are delivered nationwide and in line with this Government’s historic commitment to levelling up across the nation.
I am pleased to say that we have received an amazing 42 applications—an incredibly positive response to the recent expression of interest phase. Obviously, there was one for York, and six others were mentioned by Gavin Newlands. I am conscious of time, and I know that there have been other debates on GBR’s possible HQ locations, but I do commend the hon. Member for York Central for her tireless advocacy of York in the past.
I want to quickly touch on other points in the time that I have. On RNEP, please be patient; we will be coming forward with that in due course. There were very specific requests from Justin Madders around services, new franchising, and a request for a meeting. I am happy to pick that up after the debate.
Various points were raised around accessibility and tactiles by a number of colleagues. That is something that I feel is very important, and we are absolutely committed to increasing the tactiles to 100%, and Network Rail has received an initial £10 million to install tactiles.
Thank you, Sir Charles. I thank all hon. Members for their participation in today’s debate. We truly have debated the future of rail. It has been outstanding, with all of the contributions mentioning safety, stations, staffing and local services, as we try to grapple with the real challenges ahead of us around connectivity and the climate. Of course, centred in that is the opportunity that Great British Railways will bring to our network, to our country and to our future.
I trust that, in today’s debate, not only was the case for York made so strongly, but also the plea to look to the next 200 years of our railways, using the bicentenary for real investment in our rail cluster, to ensure that we truly can be global Britain once more on our railways.