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Modernising the Railways

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 13 October 2022

The need to reform our railways is now even stronger than when the “Plan for Rail” White Paper was published in 2021. The lasting consequences of covid-19 on passenger numbers and revenue, and the impact of strikes on railway customers, have increased the need for reform. The Government will ensure we have a modern railway, fit for the 21st century, that meets customers’ needs, supports growth and decarbonisation, harnesses the best of the private sector and connects our communities.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of opening the new disabled access ramp at Accrington station, as part of our wider plans to make this station and others across Hyndburn and Haslingden accessible for all. As we have two further stations in the pipeline—Church and Oswaldtwistle, and Rushden—can my right hon. Friend confirm that these bids will be looked on favourably? To modernise our railway stations, we need to make sure that everybody can use them.

I absolutely agree, and I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend was in attendance to open the improvements at Accrington station, where the existing non-compliant ramp was modified. The Department recently received 309 nominations for the next round of Access for All, including Rushden and Oswaldtwistle, and I will look to announce the successful stations next year.

York’s powerful rail cluster is driving innovation and modernisation across the rail network—a real asset to Great British Railways. Obviously, we are waiting to hear what is happening to the headquarters of GB Railways and the relocation outside of London, because the timetable has slipped. Will the Minister say when he is planning to announce where that new headquarters will be?

I have had many powerful representations made on behalf of York, including from the local council at last week’s Conservative party conference. We will confirm our intentions around announcing the location of the headquarters shortly.

Modernising our railways and maintaining services are vitally important. Thousands of residents in Old Bexley and Sidcup have already completed my survey outlining their concerns over Southeastern’s December timetable changes on the Bexleyheath and Sidcup lines. Will the rail Minister please meet me again to discuss these concerns and Southeastern’s lack of consultation?

As always, my hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for his constituents. He has already been in contact with me a number of times and I think we may have a meeting scheduled, at which I look forward to exploring these issues further with him.

Leuchars train station in my constituency is the only station serving St Andrews. It is a hub for local communities and the large number of tourists and students who go to the town, but the access bridge installed in 1995 is no longer fit for purpose and those who require step-free access cannot use it. I have been in contact with the Scottish Government and I am pleased with what the Minister has said about funding announcements next year for Access for All, but can he provide clarity on who is the final decision maker?

My understanding is that accessibility is a reserved matter, hence we will announce the successful stations as the UK Government. Obviously, in looking at access, we will liaise with the Scottish Government on potential priorities. We want to make sure that there is a fair spread of spending across the UK, looking at a number of factors, including usage, how inaccessible a station is, and the type of facilities it provides.

Accessibility is a real issue at some stations in Cannock Chase; at Rugeley Trent Valley, for example, there is a footbridge to two of the platforms. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can modernise stations across Cannock Chase to ensure that they are accessible for everyone?

I recognise the representations that my right hon. Friend makes, and I will be happy to meet her. We have already agreed improvements that should deliver over 100 more accessible step-free routes. The vast majority of passengers are now able to make their journey through a step-free station, but we recognise that, due to the historical nature of much of our infrastructure, far too many stations still are not able to be used by all. That is why we asked for nominations; we have received 309, and we look forward to announcing next year the next list of stations to receive improvements.

The Scottish Government recently took ScotRail into public ownership, which has revitalised the industry, created new stations and effectively decarbonised train travel. They have also chosen to end the Caledonian Sleeper contract, because it does not give value for money to the taxpayer. When will the UK Government fully devolve Network Rail so that Scotland’s railway is fully under the control of Scotland’s Government?

I understand why the SNP, given its plans for a border at Berwick, may not see having an integrated rail network across the entirety of Great Britain as a priority. We believe it is right that we have an integrated rail network and infrastructure across Great Britain, and that is why it remains a reserved matter.

I welcome the new ministerial team to their place.

To address the failure of privatisation and fragmentation, just last year the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), announced the launch of Great British Railways. There were promotional videos with Michael Portillo and a nationwide campaign to host the new headquarters, with towns and cities investing enormous time, effort and money in their bids. There is a huge transition team, and millions of pounds of public money has already been spent. But now we hear that the whole thing is being scrapped and will not be included in the transport Bill. I appreciate that this Government are infamous for their U-turns and creating confusion, but can the Minister confirm: has Great British Railways been stopped in its tracks?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to my place and I look forward to perhaps more constructive exchanges. We are taking forward an ambitious programme to reform our railways. We look forward to confirming the position on the Great British Railways headquarters in the very near future. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that, for those of us who remember his clarion call to bring back British Rail, that hardly brings back memories of amazing customer service and quality provision compared with what we have today.

I, too, welcome the new Minister to his place. I often talk favourably about Scotland’s record on rail modernisation, as we actually get on and modernise infrastructure while down here the Tories focus on pushing the sector to “modernise”—to cut the workforce’s terms and conditions. Following similar comments from the Scottish Trades Union Congress general secretary at the weekend, Mick Lynch of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers said yesterday that in Scotland we have an attitude of wanting to resolve workforce disputes, whereas down here the Government want to exacerbate them for political reasons. Has this new team at the helm asked Network Rail and the train operating companies to get round the table and properly negotiate with freedom? If not, why not?

Again, as the hon. Gentleman will be well aware, my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary has met leading members of the unions, but we are not the employer in this dispute. It is important that the unions sit down, stop striking and get on with coming to a deal that is fair not just for workers but for taxpayers, who have put £16 billion into supporting our railways over the last couple of years.