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Rail Services

Volume 826: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to improve rail services in Great Britain.

My Lords, the Government are absolutely committed to reforming our railways and ensuring a high-quality, seven-day railway across the whole country. In 2021, we published the Plan for Rail White Paper to address long-term structural challenges within the sector. In the immediate term, the Government as facilitator have helped improve communication between negotiators and unions.

My Lords, the Government rely on rail to support their carbon reduction targets, but prolonged strikes and appalling management at some train operating companies are definitely deterring passengers. The announcement today of yet another rail strike in the first week of January reinforces the public’s view that the Government are presiding over decline and seem paralysed into inactivity.

So my question to the Minister is this: Great British Railways was hailed as the solution to the current mess in our rail services, but the new Secretary of State now seems to have put it on hold. Can the Minister explain to us why it is delayed and why the legislation is delayed—or is it yet another abandoned government ambition?

I think that the reason for the delay in the legislation has been well set out both by the Secretary of State and the Rail Minister in front of the Transport Select Committee. There is a significant pressure on parliamentary time at the current time, owing to various challenges that were not anticipated. It is also the case that we have received thousands of contributions to the consultation around Great British Railways. We are working at speed on all the things that do not need legislation, and we will bring forward legislation in due course.

My Lords, there are things that we do not do if we want to improve the railways. First, we do not close ticket offices to the detriment of customers, and we do not sack guards on trains. The single best way to improve the whole network has already been proved on the east coast main line, which is to take the railways back into public ownership—starting with the absolutely disgraceful Avanti franchise, which I have been the victim of personally for the last four out of five weeks. That would improve efficiencies at the end of it, increase revenues and get better value for taxpayers’ money. Does the Minister finally agree?

I am very concerned that the noble Lord states that guards are being sacked. If he could let me know who is doing that, I would be very happy to take that forward.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, in improving railway services at present, it would be best to concentrate on the provision of more track capacity, especially as it might improve connectivity to our seaports and airports in ways that will improve the movement of passengers and freight and go some way towards undoing the damage done by the Beeching proposals some 60 years ago?

I am very grateful to my noble friend for raising this issue. It is something that is top of mind—and, indeed, the pandemic certainly showed everyone in the nation how important freight is and how important it is to get it moving around. The Government have published their future of freight strategy, and Sir Peter Hendy has published his Union Connectivity Review. All these are looking at these very important elements of connectivity to our ports. In the Autumn Statement, the Government recommitted to transformative growth plans for our railways, and we will look at rail enhancements to our ports as part of that.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this question refers to service? The problem that we face with Avanti West Coast and in other areas is that, when there is a lack of the necessary number of drivers or trains, trains get diverted to certain popular lines, away from other areas which find themselves without any service whatever. If the railways are meant to be run as a public service, there should be an entitlement to that service in every part that depends on that line, not just a concentration on those lines that make the most profit.

I agree with the noble Lord that some train operating companies have struggled recently: they have had to cut their services, and that is deeply regrettable. However, since then a lot has been done around recruiting more drivers. Services are coming back and I hope the noble Lord will see an improvement.

My Lords, Southern Rail got rid of its guards five years ago. Last year, it awarded a passenger compensation of £17,000 because she was repeatedly left on her train in a wheelchair. Part of the negotiations between the train companies and unions at the moment is over removing guards from further trains in other areas. The Minister talked about a high-quality and reliable service for passengers. How on earth can that be possible when, for disabled passengers, guards are absolutely key to having a safe journey and being able to get off?

Absolutely. Our ability to provide a good service for passengers with reduced mobility is top of mind. It is why we developed the app to enable passengers to be able to book ahead. It is the case that guards can provide a very useful service, but so can people at the station. That goes back to the issue around ticket offices: sometimes it is better to have people outside ticket offices, walking around platforms, and being able to assist people with mobility needs in order that they can get on the trains that they need to.

Can my noble friend enlighten us on some of the future thinking in her department on new railway technology; for example, the use of battery trains and hydrogen trains, which means that the infrastructure in many areas will be cheaper because we do not have to install electric overhead cables or a third rail? How will that improve rail services in areas where it is economically infeasible at the moment?

My noble friend is quite right: the opportunities for decarbonising our transport system using our railways are massive. We have invested in hydrogen trains—I think they are called HydroFLEX. That is something we will look to take forward in those parts of the country that will be hydrogen hubs. Of course, electric propulsion plays a very important part and we look to technology around the world in order to see whether we can bring it back to the UK.

My Lords, I always admire the way the Minister battles on with this problem, but this Government have been in office for 12 years and the railways are a mess. Let us look just at Avanti. Back in October, when I called on the Government to end Avanti’s contract, the Minister told the House that

“in December, Avanti will go from 180 daily services to 264”.—[Official Report, 26/10/22; col. 1526.]

We are in December: how many services each day has Avanti averaged so far this month?

I do not quite have the data the noble Lord is looking for. However, I think this may go some way towards meeting that. Our view is that Avanti’s recent performance has not been good enough, and we are seeking to understand why that is. We know that about 20% to 25% of train services have been cancelled due to staff shortages of both drivers and train managers, and we know that there has been a significant amount of sickness recently. Obviously, we are investigating that with Avanti. However, I will just say, looking at the bigger picture, that there are very significant national strikes. Build on to that some action short of strikes—for example, by fleet maintenance workers on South Western and Chiltern—and this leads to stock imbalances on these shoulder days, as does, of course, the removal of rest-day working. It takes many different types of organisations to run a railway. One of those is the unions, and we must make sure that we encourage the unions to cease their action and get back to running our railways.

My Lords, the Minister pointed out that there are many different organisations involved in running the railway. We know that the main reason for that is that the railways were privatised and we ended up with huge numbers of separate companies of varying quality, some very poor indeed, running or trying to run a railway; a fragmented system; and a system that, partly as a result of that fragmenting, has a near-incomprehensible system of ticketing at times. I just ask her to agree, whatever our differing views on privatisation—I know what mine are—that what the railway needs is a unified railway structure, with clear lines of responsibility and proper accountability to the British public.

I think I probably agree with the noble Lord, although I suspect that I would achieve those goals via an entirely different method. We have come a long way in getting the White Paper out there and starting work on the long-term strategic vision for rail, which is a plan for 30 years, and the GBR transition team is currently analysing hundreds of responses to the call for evidence. The starting point is a long-term vision; it must be accountable to taxpayers but also much more accountable to passengers.