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Great British Railways

Volume 824: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 24 October.

“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 honourable 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.”

My Lords, we have universal agreement that the railways are in a chaotic mess. Great British Railways was supposed to be the answer. Why is it being delayed? Particularly, why has progress on the rail network enhancement pipeline been stalled, and when will the location of the Great British Railways headquarters be announced—or is this to be delayed indefinitely?

My Lords, the challenges facing our nation’s railways were very clearly set out—some years ago now—in the Plan for Rail. These challenges have been exacerbated by subsequent events, namely Covid, macroeconomic headwinds, and some challenges with industrial relations.

The Government remain committed to modernising our railways and transforming the industry. At its heart will be a focus on passengers. The consultation on Great British Railways and other reforms closed on 4 August. We had 2,500 very good responses. We will be working through that feedback to help us shape the way forward with Great British Railways.

The Government have invested and will continue to invest billions of pounds. On the RNEP specifically, we know that the use of the railways has changed. There has been a shift away from commuting and towards leisure. Where we invest taxpayers’ money must reflect that. We are looking at the RNEP and will have it published shortly.

Finally, I am hoping that there will be an announcement shortly on the location of the Great British Railways headquarters.

My Lords, the state of our railways is a national embarrassment. Yet the withdrawal of this Bill is evidence that the Government are not prioritising them. Meanwhile, the tables of the Royal Gallery are littered with Bills that reflect the extremes of Conservative ideology and are of no practical use or value to ordinary, hard-pressed citizens. Will the Minister take the opportunity presented by a new Prime Minister this week to press the case again for the inclusion of this Bill in his new list of priorities? While she has his ear, will she press him to ensure that railway fares do not go up in line with inflation next year, as this would be a bitter blow to commuters?

My Lords, I cannot agree that those Bills are no good to anybody. I think that the Energy Prices Bill will be warmly welcomed by consumers across the country.

Some legislation is needed for rail reform. However, it should also be noted that we can deliver an enormous amount of what we have promised without legislation. These are things such as workforce reform, increasing competition within the system, improving the ticketing system, starting local partnerships, and, most importantly, the long-term strategy for rail. This will set out the 30-year vision that will be taken forward by Great British Railways. We are making good progress and will bring the legislation forward as parliamentary time allows.

My Lords, for years I have used the east coast main line, at present run by LNER. Will the Minister join me in congratulating LNER on improving services? It is very efficient now after the pandemic—which was a difficult period, obviously, but it is back to optimum efficiency. A lot of it is due to the pleasant nature of, and service provided by, the staff, and, of course, an improved menu. LNER is of course run by the Department for Transport. Does this not provide fairly solid evidence and clear proof that a railway can operate efficiently while publicly owned?

I agree with the noble Lord that staff are absolutely key. We have some very hard-working staff across the system. We need to ensure that those staff are in place to serve passengers where they are absolutely needed. It is the case there are some very outdated workforce practices within the railway system, which need to be upgraded so that we can offer a modern, seven day a week service. However, I say to the noble Lord that it is about simplification of the system, not nationalisation.

My Lords, I have been travelling up and down the east coast main line for 71 years, and I would like to place on record how incredibly helpful, polite and nice all the staff are, whether it be actually in Scotland or in England. They deserve a serious clap on the back.

My Lords, further to my noble friend’s reply, while understanding the reason for postponing the legislation, can she confirm that it will not stop worthwhile reform, such as simplifying ticketing, introducing more e-tickets, replacing diesel trains on branch lines with battery electric trains and other steps such as providing more real-time information about trains?

I can absolutely assure my noble friend that the Government are hard at work with the train operating companies, Network Rail and everybody in the railway industry to make sure that as much progress that can be made is being made. For example, the accessibility audit of all railway stations is now well under way and should yield really good results for accessibility in the future.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware from previous questions of the considerable concern about the service between Euston and Holyhead. Members of all parties in another place have raised it on a number of occasions. Given the seriousness of the position, which is that what used to be eight through trains a day is now down to one, what is the Minister doing about this? She has recognised the problem. Has she taken any action?

Yes, I do recognise the problem. We absolutely have taken action. We have daily meetings with the train operating company. It has put together a recovery plan, which has been reviewed by the ORR and Network Rail’s programme management office. There will be a very significant step change in the timetable in December, because 100 newly trained train drivers are going to be fully deployed by December. So early December will be the next change in the timetable, and we expect significant improvements to services to Wales and elsewhere at that time.

Today there are 44 cancellations on the TransPennine Express. What do the Government intend to do about that?

I am aware that the TransPennine Express is suffering a significant number of cancellations at the moment. The Government are working very closely with the train operating company. There are many factors which are contributing to those cancellations, but I agree that they are unacceptable. We are working closely with the train operating company to resolve them where we can.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of Transport for the North. A number of people find the announcement of the delay in the Bill very disappointing, as the Williams report was commissioned in 2018 and reported in 2021. Will my noble friend confirm that the work that is already being done at the department will carry on at pace? There is a guiding mind at the moment for the railways; it is the Treasury. Can we get away from the fact as soon as possible that the only guiding mind at the moment is the Treasury, not the Department for Transport?

My noble friend will be aware that the guiding mind for the railways now is the Great British Railways transition team, which is focusing on all the reforms that we want to put in place. I accept that there will be some disappointment about the delay to the Bill. However, as I have previously outlined, it does not mean that work in the department has slowed down at all. We have a very energetic rail Minister, and I know that he will be taking forward these things at pace.

My Lords, the Minister referred two or three times to accessibility during her responses. While the new passenger assistance app is extremely helpful, it still does not have any functionality to buy tickets. When booking assistance, I have to actually book a seat that I cannot use when I buy my ticket elsewhere. When will this be resolved? All disabled groups ask for it to happen with the app.

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for raising that with me. I will take that back to the department. I know that there is a significant amount of work going on in relation to how online ticketing works. Clearly, it has to work with the accessibility app, and I will make sure that we take that up and see what we can do.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Young, made some very good suggestions today—although he is one of the guilty men responsible for the privatisation of the railways, which has caused most of the trouble. The Minister gave replies today that were very similar to replies that she gave to the noble Lord, Lord Young, and others weeks ago and months ago, and yet nothing is happening. When are we going to get away from the position that she says something here, but nothing actually happens on the ground? Will she and her colleagues go out and actually travel on the trains for once?

I will do that if the noble Lord stops pointing at me. The reality is that an enormous amount has actually happened. It takes time to put these things in place. There are two main issues when it comes to Avanti, for example. The first is the massive shortage of fully trained drivers, which was exacerbated by the need to stop training during the Covid period. As I mentioned, 100 drivers have now come through the system. However, the number one thing that would really help to restore services on Avanti is better co-operation from the trade unions.