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Public Transport: Boxing Day 2018

Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered public transport on Boxing Day 2018.

Christmas 2017 is already a distant memory for most of us, with all the joys of Christmas and some of the minor irritations such as our football team losing, which happened to me in the case of Bradford City, or the turkey going in slightly late, which happened at my family gathering. But there were also other irritations, such as the absence of Boxing day rail transport in our country.

In my campaigns on this—I have represented various marginal constituencies in Yorkshire for about 15 years—I have always made the mistake of trying to draw attention to it in the month of December. People are concerned at that point and are making their travel plans. Social media on 26 December is full of people realising they cannot get out and do what they wanted to do. I thought I would try a different tactic this year and draw attention to the issue before January ebbs away, so that we can begin to make plans for Boxing day 2018. There is hope, particularly in the north of England, in God’s own county of Yorkshire, that this year there may be the first trains running on Boxing day since 1980.

Why on earth does that matter, and why is it worth the attention of the House? There are three or four reasons. I was very pleased last week to see the Prime Minister appoint a Minister for Loneliness. A 60-hour shutdown for our major national rail network is just too long. For people who are isolated over that period, getting out and about is massively important. I have referred to Bradford City’s home fixture this year, but football fans up and down the land look forward to the Boxing day fixtures. There are great horse-racing meetings—the King George VI Chase at Kempton grabs the attention of at least part of the nation—various rugby matches and so on, and people should not need a car to attend those events. In an age when the environment matters, that is even more important.

There is also retail activity on Boxing day. For many of our shopping centres, both in town and out of town, it is an important trading day. This year, a lot of retailers experienced declines in sales on Boxing day. It does not help if people cannot get to the shops and the sales to spend their money. There are a number of reasons. Quite frankly, a lot of people have to be back at work at their desks, in their offices or in their restaurants on 27 December if not on 26 December. They cannot travel any distance to go home for Christmas if they have to be back at work on 27 December at eight o’clock in the morning. It affects people’s family Christmases.

Is there demand? I think there is. I draw attention to bus transport, since this debate is titled “Public Transport” and not just “Railways”. In London, I understand that buses have run on Boxing day for many decades, but outside London, the various big conurbations and cities across England have experimented over the last 10 or 15 years with running not a full service, but a service aimed at the shopping centres, football matches and so on. They have done that with some success.

Since 2007 in west Yorkshire, my area, the passenger transport authority, which has subsequently become the combined authority, has been running a service initially based in Leeds and Wakefield—it reached my Keighley constituency in the last three years. It is very well patronised. They have had to put extra buses on between Leeds and Bradford, because in some years they were completely full. There is an element of subsidy involved in west Yorkshire, but I was told that 65,000 passengers went on west Yorkshire buses on Boxing day 2016. They have not yet got the figures for 2017, but the experiment has worked well.

I had a letter from Mike Scott, the head of buses at Nexus, the passenger transport element of the combined authority in the north-east of England. He said that several of the bus services that it initially subsidised

“are now provided by commercial operators at no cost”,

because as people have got used to seeing public transport on Boxing day, they have used it more. Others, such as the Metro centre and Newcastle United, have on occasion subsidised buses because they see their commercial interest in getting people into Newcastle and letting them get home from football matches.

It has worked in the case of buses, but we have not seen a comprehensive train service on Boxing day in our country since 1980. In 1975, under the then Labour Government, the service began to ebb away. In 1975, no provision was made, but it came back in 1976. Members at the time raised concerns about the effect on people without access to a car who had to work on Boxing day, or who would not be able to visit friends and family. It was interesting that in reply, the then Minister Gordon Oakes commented:

“I believe it is essential that in our debate today we should not give the impression that there will be no public transport on Boxing Day. On the contrary, London Transport will run both its underground and bus services on 26th December.”—[Official Report, 21 November 1975; Vol. 901, c. 456.]

The emphasis is: if it is okay in London and London is all right, the rest of the country can make do.

It is interesting that, once the rail was privatised, the great airports of Heathrow and Gatwick had it put in their franchises that they should have a service on Boxing day, no doubt under the influence of London-based civil servants. Those were the only franchises in which that was specified. Of course, it is important that the great airports are connected on Boxing day, but there is also a great airport at Manchester in the north of England—Boxing day is its busiest day of the year. I will offer some hope before the end of my remarks, but until now there has been no service there.

Most of the time since 1980 outside Heathrow, Gatwick and Scotland, which has run a service as it is not a public holiday on Boxing day, there has been very little provision. There have been some services between Marylebone and Oxford on the Chiltern lines in recent years, which I think have been well used, but 90%-odd of the network has been closed down. It is interesting that no one in the rest of Europe closes down their network for that length of time. I am not suggesting services on Christmas day, but a lot of continental Europe runs a Sunday service throughout the holiday period. Somehow, they seem to get round the problem of engineering works. Where there is a will, there is a way.

It is in that capacity that I wanted to say that the hon. Gentleman is very welcome to come along to the group next time we have a meeting of the train operating companies to put the question directly to them. At the moment, unless it is in their franchise, very few of them provide a service. They ought to be more enterprising—we need more competition in the rail network.

I accept that the spirit of enterprise should be there, and I have some good news for the hon. Gentleman before I sit down. I will certainly take up his invitation—it will be one of the highlights of my parliamentary year to come to such an august body.

I do not want to adopt a particularly party political approach, but I would make a gentle reflection to both Front Benchers—it is a great pleasure to see the shadow Minister for Rail, my fellow Yorkshire MP and hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) in the debate, and I am glad she is taking an interest. There has been a tendency, as we might expect, that when parties are in opposition, they draw attention to this problem. I spoke to the office of the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) earlier today and pointed out that I would gently draw attention to his quote from 2008, where he said:

“Thousands of families travel the length and breadth of the country to visit relatives and loved ones on Boxing Day. But yet again this year the railways will grind to a halt, forcing people onto gridlocked motorways… Labour just do not get how important the railway is to people at Christmas-time.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) has rightly mentioned that quote every Boxing day since he has been in office, and rightly asks for progress. However, I have not yet seen either Front-Bench team say that we definitely will make progress. However the railways are owned, and whether or not the major franchises come back into public ownership under a Labour Government, I hope a commitment can be made to Boxing day transport. I hope both parties can commit themselves to that.

I said there was potential good news for Boxing day 2018. That is largely concentrated in the north of England. For the past three years, Merseyrail has run a service. That shows the power of devolution. Merseyrail has a particularly close relationship with the Mayor of Liverpool and the councils on Merseyside, which have a greater consultative role in relation to the terms of the franchise and so on.

I am interested in this issue, coming from a Scottish perspective. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, there are some services on Boxing day in Scotland, but I get many complaints from my Moray constituents, including this year, that the service and the number of carriages are so reduced that the passenger’s experience is not great. Even though we have a service, it is very limited, with very few carriages, and ScotRail does a lot of maintenance on the railways on Boxing day because of the limited services, so there are many delays. Although there is devolution and there are some services in Scotland and other parts of the country on Boxing day, does the hon. Gentleman agree that those should be better services to ensure that people who choose to use the railways on Boxing day have a good experience?

I agree with the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). We have to provide a quality service such that people know when the trains are running and that they will be of good quality. We cannot run a ramshackle service, because people will not use it. My worry would be that someone would say, “Why are we running these services at all?” as happened south of the border in 1980.

As I said, Merseyrail has been running services. This year, it was very enterprising, to use the word of the chair of the all-party rail group. It contacted Liverpool football club, which had an evening kick-off at 5.30 pm, and provided trains well into the evening so that supporters could not only get to the game, but get back afterwards. Northern Rail, for some reason—I am not sure how this came to be the case and whether it was down to an enlightened Minister or an enlightened civil servant—has to provide under the terms of its franchise 60 services in the north of England on Boxing day 2018. I am very hopeful that some of those may even go to Keighley, because I have had a very helpful letter from the chair of the West Yorkshire combined authority, Councillor Keith Wakefield. He says that it is working with the Department for Transport and Transport for the North, perhaps to enhance the 60 services and have more. The letter states:

“The consultation response submitted by WYCA noted that the Leeds North-West network (the Airedale and Wharfedale lines) were identified as a likely priority for Boxing Day services in the Leeds City region, not least reflecting the high levels of demand they attract at weekends/holidays and reflecting the extent to which the signalling is automated (which could reduce costs).”

If Bradford City are at home this year, I will look forward, possibly, to getting on to my local train service, on the Airedale or Wharfedale line, to get to the match.

In this more optimistic picture, TransPennine rail has an obligation in its franchise to make proposals to Ministers and to Transport for the North to run services across the Pennines. I understand that it has emphasised making proposals for the aforementioned Manchester airport, and that that is with Ministers and Transport for the North. I very much hope Ministers take an enlightened approach. I well remember a meeting about this in 2009 with Lord Adonis, marvellous man that he is, but I think that he rather humoured me and his mind was on High Speed 2 and very important projects such as that. These are little details, but I feel confident that this Minister is a man of such detail.

On the subject of TransPennine, which provides the main services via the south trans-Pennine route between Manchester airport and Cleethorpes, when the Minister has those discussions, will he make special mention of the fact not only that my constituents want to get to Manchester airport, but that of course people will flock in their thousands to Cleethorpes, where Grimsby Town will probably be playing at home next Boxing day?

They will, and the seaside in winter is particularly attractive.

I end by saying that I have every hope that both Front-Bench teams will get behind the idea of Boxing day transport. Devolution will help. This is one way of ensuring that the northern powerhouse in particular—obviously, I am concerned for the rest of the country as well—is powered for one extra day a year.

I thank the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) for his interest in this matter. I also thank the chair of the all-party rail group, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), and my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), for their contributions.

Public transport must have at its heart the needs of the travelling public. I am clear that we must continually strive to meet those needs as they change and evolve, and I will do my best to answer some of the points made during this debate. If I cannot answer them in full, I will happily write to the hon. Member for Keighley afterwards.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the issue of Boxing day services principally affects the rail sector—he noted that bus services by and large continue to operate on 26 December—so to that degree I will focus my remarks on rail. As he rightly noted, our rail network is part of the lives of many people across the UK and important to addressing social needs—he rightly highlighted the issue of loneliness—which is why the Government continue to invest at record levels to ensure that the service across the country is delivering reliable and punctual rail services to meet the needs of our economy and society.

Indeed, on 12 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced our intention to commit some £47 billion—a record sum—to our rail network in the period 2019 to 2024. That is on top of a previous record level of investment, which will see about £50 billion spent on reliability and major transformational infra- structure enhancements up to 2019. All that is in addition to HS2, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned and on which we are spending about £55 billion.

That means that, since 2010, more than 7,000 new carriages have been ordered to provide extra space for passengers and to replace many outdated trains. We are setting challenging targets for passenger experience in operators’ franchise agreements that cover passenger satisfaction and standards of service quality. Increasingly, we are including financial incentives to ensure that they deliver on those targets. That can include requirements to reinvest penalties in improvements for passengers. We are committed to making the railways accessible to all. For the first time, we are introducing a specific delivery plan in our franchise competitions that will require bidders to set out how they will meet the needs of passengers with disabilities. That reflects our commitment to delivering a rail network that is centred on the passenger—providing the services, capacity and experience that rail users want.

To come to the heart of the debate, Boxing day services are just one of many passenger needs that we are seeking to fulfil. I will say a few words about our approach to Boxing day services, which has evolved over time, as the hon. Gentleman noted, and no doubt will continue to evolve.

Our franchises have always had the discretion to explore the operation of Boxing day services on a commercial basis. Since 2015, we have required franchises to, at a minimum, maintain current levels of Boxing day services. In addition, our invitations to tender include requirements to consult passengers and user groups on the demand for Boxing day services. That is reported back to the Department, along with the commercial viability of any such proposals.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is particularly interested in the consultation and associated reports prepared by the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises. I can confirm that those have been submitted and are being considered by the Rail North Partnership. I appreciate that he would wish me to confirm that we will be running services on both franchises, but I am sure that he will also understand that we should allow Rail North, the franchises and Network Rail the opportunity fully to consider and assess the feasibility of the proposals first. I also note that, in focusing on the needs of our passengers, we must look at the needs of the widest number of the travelling public. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, the rail network uses periods of lower demand, which will usually include Boxing day, to complete essential engineering works—essential, as he knows, if we are to undertake maintenance work that is critical to the reliable performance that passengers demand, and essential, too, for major upgrade work, delivering the additional capacity on the network that passengers want.

The hon. Gentleman focused rightly on the north of England. I gently remind him that we are spending £13 billion on northern transport—the largest investment in a generation—£3.8 billion of which will be invested in rail schemes. By 2020, the great north rail project will see the arrival of brand new trains for customers across the region. Northern and TransPennine Express will deliver more than 500 new carriages, with room for 40,000 extra passengers, as well as 2,000 extra services a week. We hope that this will help transform the passenger experience and improve reliability.

Elsewhere, recent rail franchise awards will deliver brand new, more reliable trains for passengers travelling on South Western, East Anglia and London Midland services. This year will also see the completion of Thameslink and Crossrail, which will deliver desperately needed new capacity, thereby improving performance reliability for passengers and freight. On the Great Western network, we are investing an unprecedented £5 billion to deliver faster, more reliable services and new trains with thousands more seats.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important subject. Our railways clearly matter tremendously to those who use them, and passengers rightly expect that we will respond to their changing needs. We have a clear vision for delivering on this in future. This means a relentless focus on meeting the needs of passengers; awarding contracts on the quality of service provision and on price; investment in infrastructure to deliver improvements in reliability and increase capacity; and new and refurbished trains that increase capacity and improve the passenger experience.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.