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Britain’s Railways

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 20 May 2021

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the future of rail.

The railway is one of the nation’s proudest and most enduring innovations. Almost 200 years ago the first line opened—the Stockton and Darlington in County Durham. Within decades, the railway’s iron web stretched across the nation, carrying trains that transformed our economy and society. From steam icons such as the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard, to the high-speed InterCity 125, which became the stalwart of Britain’s railway for 45 years, this country was built by the railway.

In the 19th century, rail helped to make us so productive and turned us into the workshop of the world, and rail powered our great Victorian cities and shaped our economic geography. Rail opened up vast, long-distance travel for ordinary people, transforming opportunity for the masses. Just as rail moulded our past, so will it shape our future. No other form of transport can bind the nation so effectively and help us to level up our country, bringing new jobs and investment to regions such as the north and the midlands, as we build back from covid.

However, for rail to play that key future role and reach its true potential, the industry requires radical overhaul. The Government are deeply committed to rail. We are spending tens of billions on modernising rail infrastructure, electrifying existing routes, updating signalling stations, renewing train fleets, building new lines, and making up for decades of underinvestment, but there are problems that investment alone cannot solve, such as too many delays, too much confusion for passengers, and different parts of the industry not working together.

The part-privatisation of the railway in the mid-’90s successfully reversed its long-term decline. Private sector involvement has seen passenger numbers more than double, rising more quickly than in most of Europe. Passenger travel is safer, and our country is better connected, with billions invested in new, modern trains and upgrading our stations—investment that would not have happened under nationalisation. However, the industry is fragmented, it lacks accountability, and it is lacking in leadership. The chaotic timetable change of three years ago this week demonstrated that point, as did the Government being forced to step in to take over failing franchises. Those are just some examples of how the railway was not working, and of how it was neglecting its greatest, most precious asset: the passenger.

Today I am proud to announce the beginning of a new start for the railway in Britain. It is the biggest shake up in three decades, bringing the railway together under a single national leadership, with one overwhelming aim: to deliver for passengers. The new public body, Great British Railways, will own the infrastructure, run and plan the network, organise the timetable, and set most fares. It will be one organisation, accountable to Ministers, to get trains running on time, make the customer experience as hassle-free as possible, and bring the railway into the 21st century, a single, familiar brand, with united accountable leadership.

We are going to sort out and simplify ticketing. Instead of having queues at stations for wads of paper tickets, we will roll out convenient, modern ways to pay and book—smartphones and contactless—and a new Great British Railways website for selling tickets across the network. We will welcome independents continuing to compete in the ticket retail market, particularly where they can grow new markets, recognising the value of private sector innovation. Pay as you go will be more widely accepted, and flexible season tickets will be introduced next month, saving money for an increasing number of people who do not commute five days a week. At the same time, “turn up and go” tickets, conventional season tickets and Britain’s comprehensive service will all be protected.

Although Great British Railways will manage the network, we must not ignore the contribution that the private sector continues to make. This is not renationalisation, which the Government continue to believe failed the railways. Rather, this is simplification. While Great British Railways acts as the guiding mind to co-ordinate the whole network, our plan will see greater involvement of the private sector. Private companies will be contracted to run the trains and services, with fares set by Great British Railways. It will work more like London buses and London Overground, delivered by private companies but branded as a single national service.

The operators will be rewarded for providing clean, comfortable, on-time services, and our reforms will unleash opportunities for them to innovate, helping us to change the way tickets are sold and the way data is used, so that passengers can plan their journeys more easily. These contracts will lower the barriers and bring in new entrants, including community rail partnerships and other innovative bidders operating on branch lines. That will make the competition process easier and will be good for taxpayers and passengers.

In England, we will work to bring the railway closer to those who use the services, and in Scotland and Wales, we will continue to exercise the current powers under devolution. Close collaboration with Great British Railways will help to ensure that delivery improves across the services and provides consistency for passengers across the country.

This is also about changing the culture of our railway. Covid has shown the very best of the railways. Ticketing staff, engineers, drivers, guards, cleaners, signallers, maintenance workers and timetablers have all played their part in keeping supplies, vaccines and essential workers moving, and for that we owe them a debt of gratitude. They have shown us what can be achieved when this industry comes together, and we want to strengthen that.

Simpler structures and clearer leadership will make decision making much more transparent and will remove the blame culture. There is far too much bureaucracy focused on establishing who is to blame rather than finding solutions. For example, all delays greater than three minutes have to be allocated to someone for financial penalties to apply. Until recently, under the delay attribution rules, when a train was delayed by being hit by a bird, who got the blame depended on the size of the bird. A small bird was the fault of a train company and a large bird the fault of Network Rail. Of course, trains are expected to withstand, say, a sparrow, a pigeon or maybe even a smallish duck, but not a swan or a goose.

Once a train has collided with said bird, it creates an industry for debate, argument and litigation. Network Rail and train operators currently employ a stunning 400 full-time members of staff known as train delay attributors, whose sole job is to argue with each other about whose fault the delay is. There is even a national attribution board—a sort of supreme court for the railway—which looks at these disputes and, in one case recently, had to rule on whether a pheasant is a small or large bird. It is completely bonkers. This is the sort of thing that will end. As soon as possible, under our reforms, everyone, including the train operators, will be tasked to work towards common goals and manage costs. We will create a more financially sustainable railway, saving money for the taxpayer. Rail services will be better co-ordinated with each other and better integrated with trains, buses, bikes and trams.

This new plan for the railways, three years in the making, is not about ideology. I am more interested in fixing problems, getting things done and creating the public services that people want. This plan is therefore about delivering for passengers—an ambitious but common-sense blueprint for a more customer-focused, more reliable and growing railway. As we head towards the 200th anniversary of rail’s inception, the network faces perhaps its biggest challenge with the collapse of passenger numbers during covid. This new rail revolution will restore trust and pride in Britain’s railways, secure it for the long term and ensure that it plays just as formative a role in our future as it has done in our past. I commend this statement to the House.

May I start by thanking the Secretary of State for Transport for an advance copy of the statement, together with the report that was issued earlier this morning? It is two and a half years since the Williams review was first commissioned, and the very fact that Williams was commissioned at all shows that the state, the travelling public and those excluded from the railways because of accessibility have been given a poor deal.

While much has changed through the network due to covid, what the Secretary of State has announced today was pretty much what was recorded in The Daily Telegraph last November. If that is the case, will he confirm why did he not make the announcement back in November, when it was reported in the national press?

Taking the announcements in turn today, the Secretary of State said that control of the infrastructure and the contracting of train operations will be given to this new arm’s length Government-owned body, with private firms bidding for concessions with an agreed profit margin built in. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether a publicly owned provider will be able to bid for these concessions on a level playing field? Will he also confirm whether the operator of last resort will continue to exist? If so, will it be brought fully back in-house?

It has been reported that the Treasury is demanding cost cuts of between 10% and 20%. There is concern that rather than seeing increased investment, the real driver behind bringing all this together is more about disguising painful cuts. Any talk of cuts in funding, such as the £1 billion funding cut to Network Rail that we have already seen, will have a direct impact on jobs, our regions and vital maintenance and upgrade works. Does the Secretary of State know how many jobs could be lost with a reduction of 10% or 20%, and what it might mean to each of our regions? The head of Network Rail, Andrew Haines, and its chairman, Sir Peter Hendy, are to be tasked with drawing up the processes and structures of the new Great British Railways. What date have they been given to report back?

On freight, can the Secretary of State say a little more about how the reforms will impact on the track access regime and about the governance arrangements that will exist for freight when Network Rail takes control of the passenger railways and freight together, albeit under a different name? Decarbonising transport will require a much greater shift if we are to move more from road to rail. How will the reforms help rail freight grow as part of decarbonising freight transport? Importantly, what targets will the Secretary of State set in that regard?

The Government have also made an announcement on flexible ticketing, although to date few details have been provided. The lack of any detail on these tickets and whether they will actually be cheaper for the travelling public frankly renders the announcement almost useless to millions of passengers. There is a danger that flexible ticketing will fail to meet the test of encouraging people back on to rail as we come through this pandemic. What research have the Government done to ensure that the type of product being suggested will address the needs of the travelling public and get more people back on to rail?

This report fundamentally fails to tackle one of the biggest challenges with our transport system, which is that the different modes of transport just do not talk to each other. They do not turn up together when required and they are not joined up. We need a bus and train system that genuinely connects people, rather than leaving them cold, standing, waiting for connecting services. Will the Secretary of State work towards joining up different modes of transport? Critically, if so, what devolved powers does he envisage for our metro Mayors and our transport authorities as part of this plan?

On devolution, will the Government finally follow through on transferring train station responsibilities to our metro Mayors, as was expected in Greater Manchester some years ago? We have not seen any detail on what profit margin operators can expect in practice and whether the cost of that will hit fares or investment. How quickly will the Government publish that?

While I welcome the steps to increase public ownership and control over the railways, as hon. Members might expect, they do not go far enough in this plan. There is ample proof to demonstrate that fuller public ownership, rather than a concession model, would better serve the state, the public and long-term investment. I fear that the Government have really not understood the scale of the challenge in front of them. While we may well see a change of name on the side of the trains, fundamentally passengers will still be left short-changed. Although the Minister says that this is not about nationalisation, the fact is that, as we have seen through covid, we have nationalised risk but continue to allow the privatisation of profit.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have to say that I sympathise, because I appreciate that it must have been difficult to take in a report of 114 pages in the time available. Skimming through it and coming up with questions will have been difficult, and I therefore understand why he asked some questions that are answered fully in the White Paper itself. Less understandable and harder to fathom is how it was possible to put out press comments about the content of the White Paper last night before it was even seen, including a lot of points already covered in the White Paper, and therefore rather misfiring in direction. Let me try to pick through some of the questions asked.

Why two and a half years? As I mentioned, the breakdown in the timetable took place three years ago this week. Keith Williams was appointed to carry out the review, which he has done at no cost to the taxpayer, I should mention, and brilliantly. There was this thing called covid, and we went into the second and third lockdowns in November, so it was perfectly proper to wait until we had a clear indication and for the vaccine to be deployed before coming to the House with the full report. That also enabled us to bring that report up to date with what is actually happening in the running of those rail services.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the operator of last resort and whether it will still exist. The answer is in the report: yes, very much so. As he knows, I already effectively run Northern and the east coast mainline through the operator of last resort. It is not about disguising cuts of any type. He keeps coming back to £1 billion of control period 6 rail funding. Because of covid, operators were unable to spend the money, but they will have that money to spend in the next period. None the less, we have ongoing one of the biggest ever rail transformation programmes, if not the biggest.

The timescales for change are all in the White Paper, and the good news is that we will get going on this immediately. The hon. Gentleman will notice that the bottom left-hand corner on the front of the White Paper says “CP 423”, which means that it is command paper 423, which means that we can get on with it, and we are doing that from this moment. A very good example of that is flexi-tickets. He says that there is not enough detail. I am pleased to let the House know that that detail will all be available on 21 June, and that they will go on sale on 28 June. If he takes the time to look in the notes to editors at the back, he will see a large number of examples of what fares will be. These will save people money in each circumstance if they are travelling two or three days a week.

The hon. Gentleman asked about freight. I refer him to page 78 of the White Paper, which talks about freight and our desire to make sure that those freight paths are available within our railway. The advantage of Great British Railways looking after all this is that we will be able to accommodate freight paths. He asked about the decarbonisation that freight will help to bring, and he is absolutely right to focus on that. I am pleased to tell him that a transport decarbonisation plan will be published before the summer that will focus very much on how we already use the best form of transport when it comes to decarbonisation in order to shift more freight around.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the joined-up nature of transport, with people, as he says, waiting in the cold sometimes for transport that may or may not turn up. I know he has not had long to look at the White Paper, but he only has to get as far as the foreword to find my talking about that exact issue. He asks about the way this will work with devolution. He will be pleased to hear that I spoke to his friend the Mayor of Manchester only yesterday, and I was pleased that he warmly welcomed the White Paper today. Page 41 has all that detail.

I know that Oppositions, almost for Opposition’s sake, have to nit-pick and find problems, but the reality is that the nationalisation that they would impose on this country would lead to fewer passengers, as it did last time; fewer stations, with stations closed in our constituencies, as it did last time under British Rail; track being cut, as it was before; and appalling sandwiches. We are not going back to the days of nationalisation. We can do better than that.

I welcome the statement, the White Paper and indeed the birth of Great British Railways. We look forward to the Secretary of State giving more detail to the Select Committee on Transport this Wednesday with Keith Williams. In the meantime, let me ask about page 56 of the White Paper, which deals with passenger service contracts, promising:

“Revenue incentives and risk sharing”.

How will that work to ensure that the private sector continues to invest in a way that it has done over the past 20 or so years, when it doubled passenger numbers? Page 71 talks of “New flexible season tickets” allowing eight days’ travel in a 28-day period. Does that equate to 28% of the cost that passengers would expect to pay and therefore make it an incentive to travel in our new world?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee and I look forward to coming before the Committee on Wednesday. I hope I will get a bit more chance to expand on some of these subjects. When Keith Williams and I were looking at the role of the private sector, we very much looked at what was happening in London with Transport for London: the way the buses, London Overground and the Docklands Light Railway are all run by private enterprises and how they bring something more than would have been available if the state was simply running all those services. The incentives for such enterprises will be to run good, efficient, trains, on time—clean trains, with wi-fi; these are things that passengers want—to carry on innovating and to bring their private ideas and capital, while allowing Great British Railways to set the overall picture. I do not want to disappoint him on the flexi tickets; the 28 days does not refer to 28%, but I can tell him that, fortunately, every ticket will be cheaper than buying a season ticket when people are travelling now, in a more flexible world, perhaps two or three days a week. These tickets will be warmly welcomed by the travelling public, as people start to go back to work.

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. I have to report that, yet again, although there was consultation during the initial review, there has been no discussion of the actual plan with the Scottish Government. As for the so-called “Williams-Shapps” plan, it will be interesting to see how quickly it is renamed the “Williams plan” if it does not work. Although there are elements to be welcomed, I am afraid that it amounts to a real missed opportunity, with the Tories’ continued belief that the private sector knows best and yet more money flowing out of the system and into shareholders’ pockets.

By contrast, the Scottish Government have committed to taking ScotRail into public ownership. Will the Secretary of State confirm that nothing in this plan prevents the Scottish Government from doing so? I am disappointed but wholly unsurprised to see that the advice given by the former Rail Minister Tom Harris to devolve Network Rail to Scotland has been ignored. Moreover, the plan states:

“Dedicated station management teams will be created locally within regional divisions of Great British Railways to manage stations, land and assets.”

Will the Secretary of State confirm whether that results in GBR taking on the management of some Scottish stations and taking it out of ScotRail’s hands? How will the plan to roll station improvement funds into a central accessibility fund affect current relationships between Transport Scotland and the Department for Transport and annual bids for Access for All money? The plan also contains zero mention of international connections and Eurostar, which is a big omission, given the potential collapse of Eurostar. The plan document for GBR contains lots of nice pictures but not a single one has been taken outside England, which is indicative of a plan that fails to recognise the need to devolve more power to the devolved Administrations. Despite all the noise and rhetoric around the Government’s 10-point plan, the document contains just one page out of 116 on rail electrification. It says that the Government will announce further English electrification programmes, but we have been here before and their track record is utterly woeful. So when will this plan be announced? Will passenger service contracts be compulsory?

Lastly, the plan contains little specifically about Scotland. Given that the functions of Network Rail are not being devolved, can the Secretary of State tell us how the operational relationship between the ScotRail Alliance and Transport Scotland and GBR will work? The extension of ministerial control over GBR/Network Rail means that that is likely to become far more complicated.

I wish to correct a couple of things that the hon. Gentleman said. There has been extensive discussion with the Scottish Government at official level about all of this, so they have been very much briefed. I am sorry that they have not briefed him along the way, as that would have been helpful. I know that he approaches this subject with tremendous dogma as if our railway lines do not interconnect, but they do, or as if the only way through this in the case of ScotRail is to nationalise it. We just take a much more open view about the best way to run a railway. First, the lines happen to connect England and Scotland together. Secondly, we have said in this White Paper that we are happy not only to have this national body, Great British Railways, involved, but to have competition from the private sector or, indeed, an operator of last resort, the public sector. We just have a much less ideological view of all of this. I think it is about trying to juxtapose his very ideological views with this much more straightforward plan to do what is right for the passenger that is causing him quite a lot of his confusion.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned numerous different issues. For example, he said that, on the international side of things, Eurostar was in trouble. He may not have spotted it, but Eurostar was refinanced just last week. He asked about the transport decarbonisation element of it. He may have missed the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) a moment ago, but the transport decarbonisation plan is referenced in the White Paper, because it is due out very shortly and will tackle those issues in a great deal of additional detail.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that Great British Railways will carry on running the infrastructure side of things, but there is nothing in the White Paper that reverses or changes the devolution picture: the Scottish Government will carry on running ScotRail as they see fit. None the less, we do have to recognise that we all need to work together. I normally hear him say exactly that, because our constituents need to travel around and they do not really care about all of the insider detail. They just want a railway that works, which is why he should be welcoming Great British Railways and this White Paper today, because we will get a railway that works.

May I start by welcoming my right hon. Friend’s statement today? The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke elected me on a pledge to better connect places such as Milton via the Stoke to Leek line, which I hope will reopen under my Restoring Your Railway Fund bid. I also want to ensure that railways and stations are responsive to the needs of local communities, such as providing Access For All upgrades and car parking, which is happening at Kidsgrove, thanks to Joan Walley from 2015, and I hope to see it replicated at Longport railway station. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as part of these reforms announced today, our railways will be more responsive to local community needs and work for every part of our United Kingdom?

I can most certainly provide an absolute assurance to my hon. Friend, who, I have to say, has been an incredibly doughty fighter on behalf of his Stoke constituency. He mentioned the Stoke to Leek line. I know that he has spoken to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and I know that he has an application into the third round of the Restoring Your Railway Fund application, which is enormously popular across the House. That is getting rid of the damage that Beeching did to our railways in this country under British Rail and it is good to see this Conservative Government opening it up again.

Passengers in Luton North will be concerned by reports that the Chancellor is planning to cut our railways. After 15 years of Access For All funding, it is truly shocking how many stations, including Leagrave in Luton North, remain inaccessible to wheelchair users, those with mobility issues, and parents like myself with pushchairs. Under this review, will the Secretary of State accelerate Access For All funding so that passengers with access needs in Luton North can have proper and equal use of our railways?

I do agree, but we have a fundamental issue here: our railways were built by the Victorians, who did not have any kind of disability discrimination legislation at the time. Many of the stations are far less accessible than we would want to see, which is why we have the Access For All fund, with which the hon. Lady is familiar. I always encourage people to bid for it. There is no prouder moment than when I go round the country with my fellow Ministers to open up stations that are now accessible to people in every kind of way, and I encourage her to apply for that. I have to say that the Chancellor would be pretty surprised to hear the hon. Lady talk about his “cuts” to our railways. He has just put £12 billion into keeping them running over the past year due to covid.

I welcome any reform that puts passenger interests at the heart of the railway, but may I say to the Secretary of State that what passengers in Alfreton and Langley Mill want is for their direct link to London each day to be retained and not scrapped by East Midlands Railway? Can he confirm that, under his new structure, those sort of decisions about where trains stop and how often will be for the new Great British Railways Company and not for the individual franchisee or operator to make?

My hon. Friend illustrates the problem with the setup that we have at the moment, where each individual railway company bids for its own bit of the track—its own path. We are not using the railway as efficiently as we should, so we cannot run as many services as we should. I can absolutely confirm to my hon. Friend that all decisions on direct links to London will be made by Great British Railways in the future. I should have pointed out to the House that this is a multi-year upgrade to our railways. It will take time to provide fully, as the White Paper explains, and it will require primary legislation. However, we will get on with the main parts of it today, so from today, things will start to improve.

I welcome the review and the statement from the Secretary of State. My constituents will particularly welcome the news about flexible season tickets, which will be of huge benefit to commuters right across London and the south-east, particularly those who might be thinking of working from home more once all the covid restrictions are lifted. I am a bit concerned about what protection there will be for commuters from the undue hiking of rail fares. How will Great British Railways be prevented from imposing disproportionate fare increases on commuters?

I most certainly welcome the hon. Lady’s welcome for the White Paper. It is great to hear that she thinks that flexi-tickets will help her constituents; I think that they will, as work patterns evolve post covid. I can provide her with the reassurances that she is after, because today’s announcement of Great British Railways does not change how fares have been capped up to now, and all those regimes will remain in place. I think there are great benefits coming down the road—down the line, actually—for her constituents.

I welcome the commitment to making our railways more passenger-focused and, indeed, resisting Opposition Members’ calls to go back to the bad old days of nationalisation. My right hon. Friend will know, however, that my constituents suffer at the hands of the railway that we do not want, HS2, while the railway that we do want, East West Rail, lacks a firm commitment to the important connectivity of the Aylesbury spur. As a key strand of this review is passenger-focused connectivity, will he fully commit to the Aylesbury spur?

I do not think we could ever accuse my hon. Friend of not putting on the record his concerns about a new railway line, HS2, being built through his constituency. He has been a clear champion for his constituents in that regard. The other new railway—East West Rail and the Aylesbury spur—is a matter that is under consideration. I note that there is an Adjournment debate on the subject this coming Monday, which one of my hon. Friends will be answering. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) will get the opportunity to put many a point across as we consider the exact path for East West Rail and its spurs.

Full public ownership of the railways is very popular with the public, so it is disappointing to see the half measures announced today that seem to nationalise risk but privatise profits. Will Ministers allow a publicly owned company to bid for these concessionary contracts?

As I have tried many times to stress to Opposition Members, we are not ideological about this; we just want to do what works for passengers, because they are the people who matter in all this. I have pointed out—I hope the House will think that I have been fair—the relative disadvantages of our previous public and private versions of the railways, and I think this will capture the best of both worlds.

To answer the hon. Lady’s question, I want community groups to be able to be involved, as I have mentioned. I said to the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) that the operator of last resort will still be a factor as well. We will make sure that this is run in the best possible way. I cannot really fathom why anyone would want to carve out the private sector’s incredible contribution to the railway, which has doubled in size over the last 25 years and is growing.

The Fat Controller could not manage it, and choo-choo Portillo cannot document it. Can the Secretary of State harness Great British Railways to make it the legend that brings a direct line train from London to Bolton?

Well, there is a challenge. As I said, the strange thing about the May 2018 timetable change is that it attempted to make more paths available in order to use the track that we have better, but the problem was that no one was in charge, and we know what happened. The great thing about Great British Railways looking after all these different elements is that it will be able to use the track more intelligently. I do not know, but I very much hope that one day that might lead to a train direct to Bolton.

Unlike Labour Members, I welcome the Secretary of State’s focus on what works rather than just on ownership, but we should not lose sight of the fact that competition is a spur to improved services. Open access operators have provided services to towns that were not included in franchises. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that these services will continue? Paragraph 25 of the White Paper states:

“New open access services will also be explored where spare capacity exists.”

Can we be assured that the default position will be to do everything possible to ensure that we do not reduce existing services and that we extend and improve services? As chairman of the all-party rail group, I can tell my right hon. Friend that an invitation to address the group is already winging its way to him, and I hope he will be able to do so in the next few weeks.

Yes, absolutely—open access is something we really think is an important part of the structure. It provides the competition. It keeps everybody on their toes. These are often extremely popular services. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, we absolutely back them in paragraph 25 of the White Paper. Having visited the National Rail Museum in York on Tuesday this week, I cannot wait to bring my stories of looking round that museum to his group.

The current system has been failing my constituency for far too long, so I urge the Secretary of State to make sure that this plan improves things and is a step forward. The five towns are less than 20 miles from the centre of Leeds. If we were that close to the centre of London, we would have many trains an hour into the city, yet Normanton has only one train an hour into Leeds; Pontefract, Castleford and Knottingley are all underserved; and we need more trains to Sheffield, York and Hull. I have met Transport Ministers repeatedly on this, so will the Transport Secretary now guarantee that this new plan will mean more local trains for the five towns?

I certainly welcome the right hon. Lady’s partial welcome, at least, for the White Paper. I completely agree with her about the necessity to join up northern towns. As the northern powerhouse Minister in Cabinet, I spend a huge amount of my time looking at the way that the railway service that I now get to run, Northern, operates through the operator of last resort. The service at the moment is just not good enough. She is right to say that if it was in the south the connectivity would be vastly better. That is why this Government are obsessed—obsessed, I say—with levelling up, and why I hope that her discussions with the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), are very fruitful. Great British Railways will, I think, be of great assistance to her constituents.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s focus on delivering for passengers. Many commuters face really significant changes in their working week, and flexible season tickets will help, but will he go on looking at affordability for long-distance commuters on the Wessex route through Basingstoke? London depends on highly skilled workers from places like Basingstoke, but the cost of distance commuting needs to be kept under really close review.

Yes, we are charging Great British Railways with looking at the way that all ticketing operates. One of the things that is so crazy at the moment is the extent to which we are still walking around with paper tickets, which are about half of all tickets sold, and the additional cost that a not-very-streamlined system to use our trains brings to bear. One example that I hope to be able to deliver for my right hon. Friend’s constituents—it has actually recently been delivered to mine, although before I was Transport Secretary—is the ability to touch in and touch out. That then works with the Oyster system—although it is not Oyster outside of London—and caps the fares, so that if her constituents make more than X number of journeys a week, it automatically prevents them from being charged more. Those are the sorts of much more advanced ticketing plans that will be much easier to do with Great British Railways because it will all be under one roof.

I welcome much in this statement, but it is meaningless if we cannot get more than one train a week through Reddish South and Denton stations. At the convention of the north in 2019, the Prime Minister promised northern mayors that they would be able to run their own trains. Greater Manchester has ambitious plans for both GM Rail and tram-train integration with the bus and Metrolink networks, with full London-style integration. I accept that today’s announcement is a big step in the right direction, but it falls a little bit short of that 2019 promise. How do we make Greater Manchester’s vision a reality?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s tacit support for this; he is right about what we want to do and where we want to go with it. As I mentioned earlier, I spoke to the Manchester Mayor yesterday about the way that GM Rail can help to integrate all these services. Needless to say, since that 2019 speech we have all been tackling covid, and I think it is fair to say that GM Rail would not necessarily be immediately in a position where it would want to take over these routes, all of which are under enormous financial stress and are being rescued by the Chancellor’s £12 billion. It is our intention to press on with the agenda of making sure that people can take one form of transport to another—in the case of Manchester, on trams, buses and trains.

Integrated public transport will be crucial to the north’s post-covid recovery and the levelling-up agenda. It should be as easy for my constituents to travel around Greater Manchester as it is to travel around Greater London. As we have heard, transport powers are devolved to the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and a number of other organisations are involved in the region’s transport infrastructure, from the operators to Network Rail to Transport for the North. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that existing transport proposals for Greater Manchester and the north are consolidated into this ambitious plan for our railways?

That is an excellent question. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; when she reads out the list of different organisations involved, each of which has its own plans and ambitions, hon. Members can quickly understand why we need this national body bringing everybody together. It will be an effective way of picking up on the ambitions of those organisations and, more importantly, her constituents—the passengers who use those services. She has brilliantly echoed the point of several other Members in saying, “Actually, if it was London, it would already be integrated.” That is where the Government want to get to, and today’s announcement is one small step on that path.

Whatever the future model of the rail industry, the east coast main line will be key to enabling major projects such as HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, Midlands Engine and East West Rail. That points to the urgent need to improve the line itself, as it last saw major investment about 30 years ago and just cannot cope with the demands placed on it. Will the Secretary of State confirm when the long-awaited integrated rail plan for the north and midlands will be published? Will he give a commitment to properly fund this key piece of national infrastructure? Will he also meet me and cross-party colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on the east coast main line to discuss how the Government can deliver on the capacity and reliability improvements that this strategic line so badly needs?

The hon. Lady does not know it, but she and I share something very much in common: a love for the east coast main line. I live not a quarter of a mile from it and it is the line that I essentially end up using more than any other; I was on it a couple of days ago. We have actually been putting in massive investment, which she may not have seen. For example, I have signed off at least £300 million—I forget the exact figure off the top of my head—to upgrade digital signalling, which will make a big difference to both the reliability and the number of trains that can travel up the line.

I feel that the thrust of the hon. Lady’s question was really about the integrated rail plan and how we are going to use the east coast main line within that part of the programme. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson)—who is the Minister for both HS2 and the integrated rail plan—will be saying more about this with me shortly. We share the hon. Lady’s ambition to ensure that the east coast main line is capable of taking the traffic required to service our constituents today.

Faster trains to London from Weymouth in my constituency will be a key infrastructure improvement if we are to create more jobs and prosperity. The line via Poole and Bournemouth operates to capacity, so restoring a short stretch of track to the south-east of Yeovil Junction to link up with the Salisbury line would do the trick. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that this easy improvement is a large blip on his radar?

I was just conferring with the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry, and this is absolutely on his radar. There have actually been few things we have done that have been more popular in transport and rail than restoring a railway. I know my hon. Friend will know all about that and be bidding into the process, as others have around the House. This just demonstrates, as his eloquent words show, the extent to which these railway reconnections can make big differences to our constituents, and this Government are fully in favour of doing that.

Following the timetable chaos, the fragmentation and three franchise failures on the east coast main line, my constituents already knew that privatisation did not work, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s acknowledgement of that today. However, we know that Transport for the North’s core funding has been cut and that transport spending per head in London is three times larger than it is in Yorkshire and the Humber, so my constituents would like to know what benefit today’s announcement will bring for HS2 phase 2b to Leeds, future investment in Leeds station and getting on with Northern Powerhouse Rail.

The right hon. Gentleman will not have to wait very long for the answer, which I mentioned before, about the integrated rail plan, which includes things like what will happen on 2b east to Leeds and much more on the east coast main line, as we were just discussing.

I want to pick the right hon. Gentleman up on one point. I was in the middle of nodding and agreeing with him, certainly about the timetable debacle and what that demonstrated, but it is not the case that TfN’s core funding, as he describes it, has been cut. It has the money in the bank; it has not spent it. The actual spending is in the billions of pounds, while we seem to have got stuck talking about a £3.5 million administrative fund that is already in the bank.

My point is this: we are committed to levelling up the north—all constituencies, including the right hon. Gentleman’s own—and it will not be very long before we are saying more about that through the integrated rail plan. I entirely agree with him that it is many years overdue, but it is great to have a Government who are getting on with it now.

I very much welcome this greatly long-awaited plan. We have all waited for it with such great anticipation, and finally it is here. Can the Secretary of State set out how the plan will embed the role of the existing rail ombudsman as the champion of the passenger interest in the new system? Will he ensure that all ombudsman decisions are binding on rail companies that obtain concessions, and that their participation in the ombudsman system is a condition of obtaining such a concession?

I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend because, as a former Rail Minister, there are few people in this House who will know more about this subject than him. During this White Paper’s time, he has made a significant input to what we have today, so it is in no small part his triumph as well. We have Great British Railways thanks to him.

To pick up my hon. Friend’s point about the rail ombudsman, there is clearly talk in the White Paper, which I think he will appreciate—and even recall—about strengthening the role of the passenger champion. I know he pushed for that in his time in the job, and I think he will be pleased with what he reads today.

Welsh rail services too often do not work at all or work very poorly indeed. That is unsurprising given that, as Professor Mark Barry of Cardiff University says in a Welsh Government report, in Wales we have 11% of the rail network, but it gets 1% of rail investment. This White Paper, as far as I can see, unfortunately offers not a lot that is new or useful to address this. Is the Secretary of State aware that the respected Wales Governance Centre, also at Cardiff University, reports a very straightforward conclusion? It says that rail enhancement spending to improve the often dire service that local people endure in Wales would be

“higher under a fully devolved system.”

So will he just ensure that the Welsh Government get full control of rail in Wales?

I should point out that the railways have not been some sort of money spinner for the Treasury in the last year. We have spent £12 billion, including on the Welsh services, so I am not sure that anyone would have welcomed the cost of the lines. Of course, I have devolved the core valley lines to Wales. In general, though, the infrastructure is run at the moment by Network Rail and it will be run by Great British Railways. I do want to challenge the hon. Gentleman on the figure he used, because I do not want it to go uncommented on. I am sure he is aware that the 11% and 1% figure is hotly disputed, due to the fact that it does not look at passenger numbers and that geography is different in different parts of Great Britain. None the less, on the main thrust of wanting to see those services developed, I am entirely in support of that and I will do whatever I can, while, as the name suggests, Great British Railways will cover the whole of Great Britain.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s decisive action on flexible ticketing. It is ludicrous that, since the 1950s, the railways have operated on the assumption that commuters go to their place of work five days a week. That has not been true for years and it is high time that it was brought up to date, and my constituents will strongly welcome it. Will he continue to press the case for reform by making sure that contactless travel is available? It has been available for 20 years in London. It is ridiculous that it is not available beyond London so that people can avoid having to queue up to print paper tickets before they can travel.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about contactless travel. I mentioned that the experiment that happens to run out to Welwyn Garden City has been enormously popular. The problem with actually running the system out is that, as soon as someone crosses more than one different train operating company, or even if they do not and there is only one, there is a huge resistance in the system, because it is so incredibly complicated, with its fragmented nature at the moment, to bring that in. Great British Railways will allow us to bring in more contactless travel, which he will clearly warmly welcome, and I should mention his phenomenal campaigning on the subject of transport for his commuter constituency, particularly in Tunbridge Wells and Paddock Wood. I notice all the time how hard he is working for them and I think these reforms will be warmly welcomed by his constituents.

The Labour party has long argued that public ownership of the rail network will provide better value for the taxpayer and for passengers, who deserve more than rhetoric from this Government, and yet again, the Government have not gone far enough. Secretary of State, Great British Railways is not the biggest shake-up of the railways in the last quarter of a century; it is just another example of papering over the cracks. Can he give assurances here today that this will not lead to thousands of job losses and attacks on workers’ terms and conditions?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady does not agree with quite a number of her colleagues across this House. Rather than dogma and worrying about whether it is public or private, as if there is some sort of clause IV incentive to set this up in a particular way, why do we not just do what works for commuters and for passengers? There was nothing about British Rail that worked last time in favour of passengers—except for, as I say, closing stations, closing track, serving terrible sandwiches. I do not know why we would want to go back to those days and this Government will not do that. Instead, we will do what works, and what has been working is doubling the number of miles that passengers have been taking on trains to the highest on record by 2019, before covid. The reforms today with Great British Railways are designed to take that further forward.

I thank my right hon. Friend for today’s statement. Over the last 25 years, we have seen passenger numbers grow to 1.8 billion a year, up to the pandemic, of course, and we have seen service levels grow to 140,000 services per week. They are both at the highest level ever in British history, so he has a successful platform, shall we say, on which to build. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you. This was due to innovation, competition and, above all, a focus on customers. Can he expand a little more on how that focus on the customer will be maintained in the new structure?

We are honoured to be surrounded by successful former train Ministers in the House today, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend not only for having been a great train Minister but for knowing exactly how many passengers—1.8 billion—travelled in the last, most successful ever year for our railways, which was 2019, before covid. He will be pleased to hear that the entirety of the White Paper is written on the premise of putting the passenger first and working out what they need, which is not very complicated: trains that run on time, are comfortable—warm in winter, cooled in the summer—and have wi-fi available. And no more of those uncomfortable cardboard ironing board seats either! People want to find it easy and comfortable to get on, with tickets that are easily available and contactless, as other hon. Friends have mentioned. That is the way that we will take the numbers back to 1.8 billion and beyond.

Some 50% of rail stations in Greater Manchester are inaccessible to people with a disability, and I hope that the Transport Secretary agrees that that is unacceptable. On the face of it, these plans are going to do little to improve accessibility, so can he confirm that he will be giving our regional mayor, Andy Burnham, the funding and powers he needs to control and improve stations, as they do in London?

As I have tried to stress all the way through, we are trying to do what helps the passengers. I work in a completely cross-party fashion on these things, including, as I mentioned, speaking to the Mayor yesterday and supporting anything that will help passengers, because that is a win for everyone. I agree with the hon. Lady entirely about the inappropriateness in the 21st century of a high proportion of stations being inaccessible. She mentioned a figure of 50% in her case. That is not acceptable in the 21st century, but nor can we magic a solution overnight. I am afraid that today’s White Paper does not do that on its own, but I think she will be impressed with other work that the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), is doing in the Department on accessibility, meaning that we are making stations more accessible every single month now. I look forward to that process continuing with Great British Railways.

I welcome the use of private sector capital, ideas and management skill in the new railway, and I welcome the forthcoming attack on late trains, hard seats and dirty carriages. Will Great British Railways ensure that it is genuinely open to bids and offers for new routes, improved timetables, property developments on railway land and improved service quality? Local partnerships and private sector competitors can bring these about as long as they are not thwarted from the centre, as they often were by Network Rail.

Given that 60% of people in Scotland want total control of the railways to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament and only 30% do not want it to be devolved, can the Secretary of State explain why he did not give consideration to this in the White Paper?

Network Rail currently runs the services, and for a good reason, which is that the whole country is connected by rail. The railways do not stop at the Scottish border and then turn into a different format or track size. For the same reason, we want Great British Railways to take overall control and, if we are to run an efficient service, it would be crazy to do that and at the same time split bits off. That would be completely against the whole purpose of carrying out this reform. However, we have the Union connectivity review, which is, for example, involved in looking at how we can make London to Edinburgh a three-hour journey on the train. I would really welcome the hon. Lady and her colleagues being as involved in that as possible, because I am heartened by their desire to see the whole of Great Britain connected up.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Greater Anglia’s current franchise agreement provides for the reintroduction of a through service from Lowestoft to Liverpool Street, but this has been delayed, partly by the pandemic. The service is much needed and it is to be regretted that this contractual undertaking has not yet been fulfilled. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend could provide an assurance that the service will be brought in as quickly as possible, preferably under the current franchise agreement, but if not, under the proposed concession agreement.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ensure that his constituents get the best possible service. I was just conferring with the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry; of course, the current franchise agreement does not stand because the franchise agreements are being ended. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) will rightly continue to battle for that service and that my hon. Friend the rail Minister will be happy to discuss it with him further.

There is much in the statement that I can welcome, and I am grateful to the rail Minister for meeting me earlier this week. Widnes and Runcorn are great northern towns, and there are three stations in my constituency, so the electrification of the Liverpool-to-Manchester railway line that runs through the Widnes and Hough Green stations is very important. On the Runcorn side of the river, the superb redevelopment of the Runcorn main line station quarter by Halton Borough Council needs to be complemented with a new station at Runcorn. I hope the Government will come forward with plans to support that.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome of the policy paper and I know he is meeting the rail Minister on this as well. We will publish the pipeline for future railways works shortly and the hon. Gentleman’s effective representations will have been heard.

I support the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) in respect of the Yeovil south-east chord. This announcement is absolutely brilliant news: it is the first clear statement we have had in this House on radical reform to our passengers’ benefit. It will also correct Labour’s disastrous Railways Act 2005, which further separated the railway, rather than reintegrated it. When a Member of Parliament has to point out to his local train operator that 15 lights at a train station are not working and the operator still cannot fix them, something is terribly wrong with the system today. That is one example. Will my right hon. Friend assure me personally that he will not only prevent franchise boundaries from being a blocker to further through services for regional connectivity, but work with me to sort out the dreadful frequency and continual issues we have on the Heart of Wessex line, which has the worst frequency in the entirety of England?

It is a pleasure to respond, on this last question, to somebody who has actually worked on the railways and understands these things. I feel for his franchise, because it has to deal with him and he will not take no for an answer—and quite right, too. He points out several things about this reform that are really important. The franchise boundaries, as he rightly describes them, cause too much disruption and fragmentation—that is the key thing that will end with Great British Railways bringing it all together and finally listening to the representatives of the people. I believe and have, I hope, strongly indicated through things such as the Beeching reversal fund that Members of Parliament in this place have an absolute right and duty to be involved in the way that services develop in their areas. I know that my hon. Friend and other Members throughout the House will appreciate that Great British Railways will be more responsive to them, as the rightful representatives of their constituents.

I thank the Secretary of State for making the statement and suspend the House for three minutes to make arrangements for the next business.

Sitting suspended.