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Great British Railways

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they intend to bring forward legislation to create Great British Railways and progress contractual reforms for train operators.

My Lords, we will progress legislation to establish Great British Railways when parliamentary time allows. New passenger service contracts will balance the right performance incentives with simple, commercially driven targets that will ensure a central role for the private sector in delivering for customers.

My Lords, the short response to that would be to ask why it has not been done before. The current subsidy to the railway industry is about three times more in real terms than it was to the much-maligned BR in the 1990s. Legislation to bring forward an organisation that will put together the disparate but essential parts of the railway industries, such as track and train, is long promised and long overdue. The present system pleases neither passengers nor staff.

I am seeking a question in that comment. I can say that the number of passenger journeys is now significantly higher than ever it was under British Rail. Between January and March 2023, there were around 400 million journeys, which is an astonishing achievement. There are so many things that we can get on with when it comes to Great British Railways—just one example being the long-term strategy for rail. We have received hundreds of responses to the consultation for that, which we will be publishing later this year.

My Lords, at the George Bradshaw address in February, the Secretary of State for Transport said that Britain has

“a broken model. Unable to adapt to customer needs and financially unsustainable”.

Given this devastating judgment by the Secretary of State only five months ago, why have the Government abandoned the plans they had to introduce legislation to create Great British Railways within this Parliament? Why is it now possible to adapt, when in February the Secretary of State said it was not?

I think the noble Baroness is reading a little too much into those comments. The Secretary of State is completely right that the current financial situation is unsustainable, but at no time did he say that plans to set up GB Railways had been abandoned. He also set out all the different steps that we can take without legislation—for example, contactless payments, simplifying fares, looking at the existing national rail contracts and entering into local partnerships. All those things are being done.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of Transport for the North. I agree with my noble friend the Minister about the remarkable transformation we have seen in the railways since privatisation and the huge increase in passenger take-up, from 700 million journeys to 1.8 billion in the year prior to the pandemic. Does my noble friend agree that there is a malaise at the moment within the industry as to what the future direction should be? Too much at the moment is being controlled by the Department for Transport, which is, of course, controlled by the Treasury. That is not the best way to run a very successful industry. That is why we need GBR as soon as possible.

I point my noble friend back to the long-term strategy for rail, which will help the industry to understand what the medium-term future for the railways looks like. As to what we have been doing to increase revenues and free up the train operating companies, we are looking at the current railway contracts and at ways to put in stronger revenue-incentive mechanisms and allow train operating companies to put resources into increasing revenues.

The Minister will have heard strong support for the establishment of Great British Railways across the House. This is an innovation that I think would survive a change of government, if one were to occur next year. Would it help her if she took a look at the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, and the establishment of an SI under that Act, which would enable the department’s franchising functions to be devolved to GBR if we are not to have primary legislation?

My Lords, can my noble friend provide assurance about some of the small schemes that are in waiting, such as the Ely junction enhancement which will have benefits east, west, north and south?

The Government are investing record amounts in the railways. In control period 7, between 2024 and 2029, we will be investing £44 billion in infrastructure. Obviously I cannot comment on specific schemes at this time, as the RNEP will be published which will set out which enhancements we are able to prioritise.

My Lords, as a regular champion of LNER on the north-east coast, a nationalised rail company run by the Minister’s department, can I ask whether there has been any assessment by the Government of why this train company appears to be head and shoulders above all other privately run train companies in the UK in public acclaim?

There are so many factors involved in looking at comparative performance between the different train operating companies, and the Government publish as much data as they can. I pay tribute to staff at LNER, and agree that it offers a great service. However, I took a train up to Norwich last week, and I had great service on that too.

My Lords, amid the claims about the number of journeys, what about the cost? It is now cheaper to fly to New York than to travel from Manchester to London on the train.

The Government are always looking at what we can do to improve the services and passenger experience on our railways. We are looking at simplifying fares. The noble Lord will know that we have introduced single-leg pricing on LNER and are looking to potentially do a trial around demand-based pricing. All of these things will serve to put downward pressure on prices.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a regular Avanti user. I have been in correspondence with the Minister about the train service fairly frequently. Does she accept that, if one of the big objectives of this Government is to level up between the north and the south in England, and to provide good connections to Scotland, a decent service on the west coast main line is absolutely essential? That does not exist. The proposed legislation, as I understand it, is very short; it is enabling legislation. The fact is that the Government have taken a political decision not to go ahead with this, and I would like her to explain why.

I cannot explain the reason why because that decision has, of course, not been taken. The noble Lord mentions Avanti, and I pay tribute to Avanti, because the quality of its services has improved enormously recently. At the end of May, cancellations on Avanti were just 1.4%—which is very good among train operating companies—and 93.8% of services were “on time”, meaning within 15 minutes of arrival time. Those figures do compare favourably.

Does my noble friend find echoes in the exchanges this afternoon of that old adage of the steam train going up and then down the hill: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could”?

My Lords, I think the Minister said in an earlier answer that the Government planned to bring forward a Bill when parliamentary time allowed. Does she accept that there is virtually no legislation in the Commons at the minute? The Commons finished last week, or the week before, at 2.37 pm, before we had hardly started. There is parliamentary time. It is a short Bill. Frankly, that is not a reason or an excuse; it is a smokescreen.

I do not want to be the one to remind the noble Lord that there are two Houses in Parliament. Your Lordships’ House actually has quite a lot of legislation going through.

Does my noble friend agree that there would be more parliamentary time if the Liberals did not table so many amendments, and speak at length on them, at late stages of Bills?

My Lords, in May 2021, in CP 423, the Government set out their vision for Great British Railways:

“Under single national leadership, our railways will be more agile: able to react quicker, spot opportunities, make common-sense choices, and use the kind of operational flexibilities normal in most organisations, but difficult or impossible in the current contractual spider’s web”.

Given the delay since then, are the Government still committed to this vision, or do they accept the ongoing chaos that is the national railway today?

The Government remain committed to that mission. Indeed, so much of what we are doing with the railways at the moment is in pursuit of that mission. For example, the Rail Minister has asked the Great British Railways transition team to look at simplification of the railways—at how to simplify the complex rules and processes which exist in rail and which do not need to. That process will be completed later this year.