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Great British Railways

Volume 721: debated on Monday 24 October 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on the future of Great British Railways.

The case for rail modernisation is now stronger than when Keith Williams set out the plan for rail in 2021. Covid-19, recent macroeconomic events, industrial relations and financial challenges have increased the need for it. The railways are not meeting customers’ needs, with delays, unreliability and uncertainty exacerbated by the rail strikes. When people look at the rail sector, we need them to see a system that stands for reliability and sustainability, so it is clear that we have to change.

This Government will therefore deliver the most ambitious changes to our railways in a generation, and will deliver for the people who matter: our passengers, customers and taxpayers. Although we will not be introducing rail reform legislation during the current Session, due to limits on parliamentary time, we are committed to introducing the legislation necessary to create a guiding mind, Great British Railways, as soon as possible.

As many Members are aware, a competition was run to identify the location for the Great British Railways headquarters. I welcome the support of colleagues for the six shortlisted towns and cities, and I note that the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) has been vocal in her support for York to be the winner. I hope to be able to announce the successful location shortly—subject to other events outside the Chamber. Ahead of the legislation, we will continue to work with the Great British Railways transition team and the wider sector to push ahead with our ambitious modernisation programme to deliver real benefits for customers.

Reforming our railways means more reliable trains, faster journey times—in all, a modern, future-facing rail industry; a sector with an unswerving focus on meeting the needs of its customers, creating a simpler, better railway for communities across Britain. There will be a GBR at the heart of our rail network, with its headquarters located in one of our great railway communities. The details will be confirmed shortly, but our commitment to deliver is unchanged.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

Following the publication for the House of the Williams-Shapps review, the Government announced in the Queen’s Speech on 10 May 2022:

“Legislation will be introduced to modernise rail services and improve reliability for passengers”.

As part of this process, the then Transport Secretary launched a high-profile competition for the location of the headquarters outside London. Forty-two locations bid and six were shortlisted, including York, as part of the levelling-up agenda. Each location shortlisted hosted a ministerial visit over the summer of 2022, involving public sector, rail industry and community stakeholders. In parallel, the public participated in a public vote over their preferred destination. All this was at significant cost to local authorities. Last Wednesday, the Secretary of State shelved her plans for this Session. No written or oral statement has been made to the House until today.

Let me therefore ask the following questions. Why did the Secretary of State not have the courtesy to announce her U-turn on Great British Railways to the House? If the relocation of the new headquarters is to proceed, what will the process be, and if not, given that hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent by local authorities, how will the Secretary of State compensate shortlisted authorities? What was the result of the public vote? What are the reasons for shelving the plans for the future of Great British Railways in the current Session? How, in the interim, will the Secretary of State address the failure issues across the rail network that Great British Railways was to resolve, including contract failure on the west coast main line and elsewhere? What discussions has she had with the trade unions on abandoning her plans, and on the implications for the workforce across the rail sector? Is she now abandoning Williams-Shapps, levelling up, and any semblance of government? The Great British public deserve better.

I think it is worth pointing out that the comments referred to were made to a Select Committee of this House, the Transport Committee, and that the Secretary of State was therefore giving information in her role as Transport Secretary and keeping Members up to date. As I touched on in my initial answer, there will be a Great British Railways HQ located in one of our great railway communities. I am sorry to disappoint people, but I will not be announcing from the Dispatch Box today where that will be, but it is something that we are committed to doing. It has been inspiring to see the excitement about the competition; it shows what rail can bring to local communities. Certainly there will be a successful bidder, so to speak, and they will be announced in the not-too-distant future.

Yes, the Secretary of State has met the general secretaries of the leading trade unions involved in the rail sector, but that was not to discuss abandoning the plan, because we have not abandoned the plan. We are still taking forward a range of work to reform and modernise our railways, and there is plenty we can do, even in the absence of a Bill in the third Session. I am confident that Great British Railways will make a difference to our rail network. It would be tempting, in these interesting circumstances in which I come to the Dispatch Box, to make a raft of pledges on things I would quite like to do with the railways, but we are certainly conscious that we need to reform and move forward, and that is something that most people across the sector realise. There might be slightly different views about exactly how to go about that, but I am keen to see it taken forward to make the difference for our customers and communities, who deserve a rail network that delivers for them.

It was in the Transport Committee that the Secretary of State gave us this news about Great British Railways. I understand the concern about her not coming to the Dispatch Box to do so, but surely everybody supports the concept of a Select Committee getting fresh information from those who come before it. The Secretary of State also told us that the guiding mind of Great British Railways can still be advanced without legislation, because there is a lot that can be brought forward and very few parts of it need legislation. Can the Minister set out some of the ideas that would see the guiding mind being brought forward, notwithstanding the fact that the legislation would be slightly lagging behind?

The Chair of the Transport Committee is absolutely right to highlight the role that his Committee can play as a group of experienced, and in some cases expert, Members who can analyse issues and question Ministers on their performance. It is appropriate to use a Select Committee as a place to engage and discuss where Government’s thinking is going. What can be achieved without legislation includes workforce reform, delivering local partnerships, bringing forward a more long-term strategy for rail and reforming how we use ticketing. I think we all recognise that post-pandemic far fewer people are buying season tickets compared with on-the-day tickets, and we are looking at the changes that may flow from that changing pattern. There is still plenty that we can be cracking on with and delivering at the initial stage of reform without having primary legislation as part of it.

As usual, this Government are in chaos of their own making. We would not be standing here today if they were capable of making commitments and sticking to them. They are stopping a project in its tracks despite millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money already having been spent. They are asking towns and cities to invest precious time and money in their headquarters bids but completely mothballing the relevant legislation in any transport Bill within this parliamentary Session. They are showing a serious lack of ambition and long-term vision and leaving the whole of the rail industry in the lurch.

I asked the rail Minister about this very issue in the last Transport questions but was effectively fobbed off. We should not be surprised at that, considering the mess they have made of our railways. Last week 55 services on the TransPennine Express were cancelled in just one day, and two of our northern Mayors could not travel to Liverpool for a press briefing on train cancellations because of train cancellations. Avanti West Coast has slashed more than 220,000 seats per week, but despite this, one of the Transport Secretary’s first acts was to ensure that a lucrative contract extension was in place. As usual, the Tories are rewarding failure. People across our country are paying the price for a system that the Conservative party has already admitted must change but refuses to say how or when. The Conservatives promised at their party conference, with a straight face, to get Britain moving, yet all we have seen is stoppages, strikes and the managed decline of our railways, and now they are abandoning their flagship policy as a direct result of their aimless and distracted party. They are a shambolic Government with no plan and no ideas.

Will the Minister clarify the future of Great British Railways? Has it been stopped in its tracks? When will his Department get a grip on the railways and deliver a proper service for passengers across our country?

Luckily, I have already answered the hon. Gentleman’s first question. We have certainly not brought Great British Railways to a halt. Again, we said the location of its headquarters will be announced shortly. This has not been stopped, abandoned or any of the other things we are hearing from the Labour party. We are very clear that we want to look forward to a rail network that is seeing massive, almost unprecedented investment, and in which customers can look forward to better facilities and better services that deliver for their communities. I leave it to the hon. Gentleman to look back wistfully at British Rail.

It is clear we have a very busy legislative programme, but that does not necessarily mean we have to stop things like fares reform, network efficiency, flexible ticketing or encouraging more people back on to our railways. Those things do not need legislation; they just need progression. This time will allow my hon. Friend to ensure a significant role for the private sector in rail reform and, of course, to further consider the merits of York as the location of the headquarters of Great British Railways.

I could not have put it better myself. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a range of things we can take forward, not least fares reform and innovative practices such as last year’s rail sale. There is plenty of work that can still be done, and we will certainly be getting on with it.

The rail industry and GBR are in stasis, and there is little evidence of progress coming from the Department for Transport. Six months ago, the previous Secretary of State promised we “would not be disappointed” with the legislation to create GBR, but I am feeling distinctly underwhelmed. The Williams review promised that GBR will

“take a whole-system view, allowing it to make choices and decisions more effectively. It will enable the railways to be run as a public service”.

That vision lies in tatters for now. We know that long-term thinking and planning are key, but instead we have a piecemeal, stop-start process that will take years, if not decades, to achieve real change in a key part of our national infrastructure.

When can we expect anybody, GBR or otherwise, to take a whole-system view of rail in this country? With ScotRail back in public ownership, there is one part of the UK where the railways are run as a public service. Will the Minister use the transport mini-Bill to devolve Network Rail to Scotland, to ensure that a fully integrated and fully publicly owned railway can be run somewhere in the UK?

I can understand why not having an integrated rail network across Great Britain is a particular priority for the Scottish National party. It clearly is a priority for this UK Government. We will not be looking to devolve responsibility for rail infrastructure, not least because the SNP’s main idea at the moment seems to be stopping the trains for passport control at the border.

On the wider pitch, we are determined to make a difference with our railways. We are seeing real innovation, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have looked at, for example, the experience of Lumo trains from Edinburgh to London. Lumo is an open-access operator that is pulling traffic away from air and on to rail, which is exactly what we want to see. We will get on with the many reforms we can make without primary legislation, but one of them will not be creating a disjointed rail network.

When will the Government and railway companies come forward with proposals for an improved pattern of services that attracts many more fare-paying passengers? We need to get the deficit down very quickly and the best way of doing so is by getting more people paying fares willingly.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Clearly, demand patterns have changed dramatically during the pandemic. For example, a lot fewer people are commuting into London at 7 am to 9 am and then leaving between 5 pm and 7 pm, or they are doing that three or four days a week rather than five, so there is a need to look at how we can adapt. We are giving slightly more flexibility to some operating companies, and looking at how we use our ticketing and, in particular, our ticket pricing. The rail sale was a great way of getting a lot of people on to trains that might otherwise have been relatively quiet, producing new revenue to the railways. In addition, as I said in response to the SNP spokesperson, Lumo is targeting traffic that goes by air to get it on tracks.

My constituents would really struggle to describe British railways as “great”, because their lives are made a misery by Avanti and TransPennine, which continually cancel trains, leading to their missing job interviews, school and education. Today, a commute that should have taken me two and a half hours took me almost five—I only just made it in time for Education questions. May I ask the Minister why on earth his Government extended the contract with Avanti? Frankly, my constituents do not understand why.

We made it clear when we extended the contract for only six months that it was a probationary period, to allow Avanti to implement the recovery plan that it has and is intending to bring forward in December. We will judge whether to extend its contract any further based on how that goes.

The rail Minister is right to talk about the need for rail reform, but may I urge him to use the couple of months of extra time that he has won by postponing legislation to revisit some core conclusions of the Williams-Shapps review, which are out of date because they are based on work done before the pandemic? He has mentioned the changes in customer demand and we need to rethink some crucial things, particularly the role of Great British Railways as the fat controller and a central planner rather than a genuine slimline system operator.

I am keen that GBR adapts to the changes we have seen since the pandemic, but we are seeing this across the whole industry and in the discussions the train operating companies want to have with Government. We will certainly use any time we have to ensure that our proposals make a difference and have the most positive impact for customers and communities.

My constituents were recently informed by Southeastern of huge timetable changes, with the result that they will have to make significant amendments to their commutes. Southeastern did that with no public consultation, despite being a publicly owned franchise. Will the Minister ensure that Southeastern goes back to consult, so that rail users have their voices heard before such significant changes are made?

I am aware that Southeastern is taking feedback on its proposals. It is important that it engages with communities and, in particular, with their representatives in this House. Given the number of changes that have had to be made in the past couple of years, there is more flexibility for operators, including those that are publicly owned, to react to emerging patterns of demand. However, I understand that Southeastern will be listening and looking at the feedback it gets on its proposed changes.

The Minister has been brilliantly clear that the creation of GBR will play a significant part in levelling up transport connectivity in the north and midlands, but he also knows that it is vital to ensure that London and the home counties are better connected. Travel times from my constituency, and particularly from Camberley, Frimley and Bagshot, to London have not improved since the age of Queen Victoria. Will he put a Stephenson’s Rocket up the fundament of those bureaucrats who have been standing in the way of the progress my constituents require?

Presumably it would be more like putting an electrified Michael on the case as well. Demands have changed, particularly in London and the south-east. We are seeing the results of investment, particularly that which my right hon. Friend was instrumental in helping to secure during his time in the Cabinet, for example, with the opening of Bond Street station to passengers this morning. People are starting to see major improvements in London and the south-east, but I accept that they will also look to what is happening on their local line and I will be happy to discuss with him what could be done on the one he cites.

The setting up of Great British Railways was meant to include ticketing and pricing, and the cost of commuting continues to weigh heavily on my constituents, particularly during the cost of living crisis. Furthermore, if we want to encourage people on to the trains and out of their cars, it is key that we make trains affordable. The Department for Transport has said that it will not put up regulated rail fares by 12.3%, in line with July’s retail prices index, but will the Minister commit to freezing rail fares next January, to help with the cost of living crisis and the fight against climate change?

It is worth saying that there are a range of fares available on our railways, particularly in London and the south-east, where people use pay as you go and contactless bank cards. We have said that we will not take the normal approach—which also existed during the coalition—of using the RPI figure to set fares next year, and a fair rise has been delayed. We look forward to introducing plans that strike a balance between a railway that is affordable for not only the taxpayer but customers and communities.

The pandemic and the reckless strike actions we have seen have caused significant disruption to our rail services. Does my hon. Friend agree that the focus should now be on restoring services and maximising investment in improving stations—for example, by reopening the stations at Meir and Trentham in my constituency?

I am always pleased at the Dispatch Box to hear colleagues argue passionately for the reinstatement and further expansion of parts of our rail network. It has also been good to engage with Members on both sides of the House on the Restoring Your Railways project, and our goal is to get services restored. A lot of passengers are coming back on to the railways, and we are keen to see that, but people must have the confidence to come back, and that is where industrial action is so damaging. We are looking to restore many services, but we also have to take account of the fact that patterns of demand have changed, particularly in relation to commuting between 7 am and 9 am and between 5 pm and 7 pm, given the changes in the wider economy.

As the birthplace of British railways, Newcastle has bid to be the home of GBR, so will the Minister tell us what we would win if we were to win? The last Prime Minister, or perhaps she is still the Prime Minister—I am not sure, because I cannot keep up with Tory chaos; anyway, it was a recent Prime Minister—committed to the implementation in full of Northern Powerhouse Rail, so will the Minister also tell us whether that commitment will outlast the transport Bill?

The NPR statement from the Prime Minister was very welcome, and it was welcomed on both sides of the House. The winning community will be very much the headquarters of the UK’s railways, and I very much look forward to announcing—subject to some of the things that have been alluded to—the successful town or city in the near future.

In the spring and early summer this year I spent many days campaigning and collecting signatures for a petition for Doncaster—the greatest railway town in the country—to become the home of the Great British Railways headquarters. Will the Minister confirm that my boot leather was not wasted and that Doncaster is still very much in the running?

I am glad to hear of the effort my hon. Friend put in. I can see a couple of colleagues in the Chamber who will agree with his views about Doncaster, and others who might suggest other communities instead. As I have said, there will be a winner and there will be a headquarters for Great British Railways, and I genuinely hope to be the person to announce that fairly soon.

I am sure we would all agree that failure should not be rewarded with promotion or long contract extensions. I hope we would also agree that Great British Railways will never be truly great without the considerable investment needed in infrastructure across our rail network. Will the Minister take this opportunity to clarify the Government’s progress on the Network Rail enhancements pipeline, given that a report published today noted that there had been no progress on one third of all the projects since the plan was published for 2019-24?

The updated rail network enhancements pipeline will be published in due course—shortly might be another way of putting it. But I look at the investment that we are putting into our railways and see £96 billion in the integrated rail plan. I look at the fact that the first major mainline in this country since the Victorian era is under construction now and is on its way to Birmingham, then Crewe and then Manchester. That level of investment in our railways is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, and it is very welcome.

I declare a very personal interest in this matter, Mr Speaker. In the past three days, I have tried to make four journeys between Manchester, Edinburgh and London. Two were more than half an hour late, three were cancelled and one was then uncancelled when the driver of the preceding cancelled train turned up after all and was able to drive my train. However, I say to the Minister, because he has talked about ticketing and pricing, that there is a particular issue where different companies serve the same destinations and charge different and non-interchangeable prices. Can that be addressed ahead of legislation?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point about making sure that ticket prices are able to be clearly understood by customers and consumers and that they are fair overall. However, open access operators, for example Lumo from Edinburgh, provide a different pricing plan which is of benefit to customers. It is something that we are keen to see simplified and an area on which we look to work.

Bedford residents are sick and tired of waiting for a detailed decision on East West Rail. Some are finding it difficult to sell blighted homes. Others are living under the spectre of their homes being demolished if plans in their current form go ahead through Bedford. Shockingly, we are still waiting for a response to the consultation that ended a year and a half ago, in which time there have been three rail Ministers. Will the Minister put an end to this chaos and confirm when the plans will be published?

I thank the hon. Member for raising East West Rail, a major investment we are making in improving connectivity across our country, driving economic growth and revitalising rail lines, some of which have some of the least used stations in the whole country, which will soon become much more vibrant hubs for their local community. We look forward to confirming further details on stages 2 and 3, in particular between Bedford and Cambridge, in the near future.

It seems to my constituents that improving efficiency involves cutting trains altogether; they cannot be late if they do not run. I have lost three peak-time train services on the Sidcup line that serves New Eltham and Mottingham and two peak-time train services in the morning at Eltham and Falconwood on the Bexleyheath line and at Kidbrooke. The Minister says that Southeastern is listening, but the reason it is not, as Southeastern told the scrutiny panel at Greenwich Council last week, is that it sought and got permission from the Department for Transport to make these cuts without consultation. Will the Minister go away and ensure that there is proper consultation and that we run train services that people actually want?

I thank the hon. Member for his points. As he will be aware, the process for changing timetables has been altered over the past couple of years, again, because of the radically changing demand during the pandemic. As traffic returns, we can see that it is not returning in a uniform way across the whole network. A quick look at some of the rail usage statistics would show that. But we do expect Southeastern to be responsive to the feedback that it is getting, although I take on board the fact that, particularly at peak times in London, there have been shifts in public demand.

The former Transport Secretary was very keen to try to steal Labour’s clothes with the announcement of Great British Railways, no doubt mindful that the overwhelming majority of voters support nationalisation. Sadly, his version of Great British Railways was not the real deal. I am sure that my hon. Friend on the Front Bench will be more than happy to take the Minister or his successor through Labour’s White Paper, “GB Rail: Labour’s plan for a nationally integrated publicly owned railway”. Would the Minister like to take up the offer?

It is extremely kind of the hon. Gentleman to offer to take me through a Labour party policy document. However, I would rather stick with the plan for rail that is the Government’s policy—the one that we will continue to take forward. My focus will always be, not on dogma, but on whether customers and communities are being served. Considering the way Labour Members try to portray British Rail as a panacea of customer services, I suggest they look back on some of the old news reports about how it used to operate.

The long-awaited transport Bill, which has now been abandoned despite having been in the Queen’s Speech just months ago, was not just going to deliver Great British Railways, but address a whole range of pressing and long-overdue transport problems in this country: the menace of pavement parking, regulating e-scooters and so on. Is not the reason for this chaos that we do not have, and have not had for some months, a functioning Government? Would it not be more democratic and better if there was a general election and we had a Government with a mandate that was united to address the pressing problems the country faces?

It is interesting to hear the right hon. Gentleman say he wants to see the legislative timetable accelerated and, in the same breath, that he wants to dissolve Parliament. We will get on with the job and leave the politicking to others.

The Minister says he is getting on with the job, so can he please get on with the job for passengers facing daily misery in Hull? TransPennine Express cancels dozens of services every day, causing real problems for commuters. It is also responsible for the toilets at Hull station, but cannot even manage to keep those clean and maintained. Can he ensure that TransPennine honours its contractual obligations and, if it cannot, that he terminates its contract?

Certainly we will be keen to ensure TransPennine is not just offering a bog-standard service to the right hon. Lady’s constituents. If the company is not honouring its contract, we will certainly be happy to pick that up with it and ensure that it does.

I declare an interest, as a big supporter of the Doncaster bid, but I share the frustration of many across local government who have committed time and money in good faith to a process that so far has not delivered an outcome. Given that uncertainty, and the need to confirm the Government’s intentions for Northern Powerhouse Rail, which the Minister mentioned a moment ago, does he agree that there is an urgent requirement for the Secretary of State or a senior member of the Government to come to the House and provide clarity about the Government’s intentions in this particular area?

I have already made clear that we will—hopefully I will—look to make an announcement around the result of the headquarters competition for Great British Railways. I take on board the points made by a number of hon. Members about wishing to have a decision on which of our great railway communities will host that HQ. On the second point about Northern Powerhouse Rail, the hon. Gentleman will have heard the commitment. We are keen to engage with the region and key stakeholders, including Members of Parliament representing the communities, about how we turn the vision into a hard plan for delivery.