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Future of Rail Services

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of rail services.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I want to thank Mr Speaker for giving me the opportunity to host this debate. I have always believed that rail is critical to the success of our country. It connects our cities, towns and communities; it drives economic regeneration and growth; it is the employer of the present but also of the future, as new technological skills will be required; and it is the key to achieving many of our decarbonisation ambitions.

It is clear that the pandemic has caused many industries catastrophic problems, and the rail industry is no different. When covid hit, ridership fell to about 4%, which was a record low. Train operating companies that had been providing the Treasury with £100 million every four weeks were requiring a subsidy of something like £600 million. The franchise system—which had been broadly successful from 1992 to 2016, when it experienced a number of problems—collapsed and the Government became the operator of last resort.

It is not the case that all the problems of the industry came merely from the pandemic. The franchising system had worked well until 2016, but the more prescriptive franchising system set out in that round saw too much prescription and too little room for initiative. A distinguished predecessor of my hon. Friend the Minister recounts a story of how he was required to set the time of the last train from Southampton to Bournemouth. It should never be the role of Ministers to set timetables. There was too much interference.

Network Rail was the cause of 80% of the delays, which is what caused most passenger dissatisfaction. The new timetable that was introduced in 2018 collapsed in September that year, which triggered the response from the Department to have the Williams review. It is true that the Williams review took some time, but it has now come forward and highlighted some problems. There are some very good elements of the Williams review. I have already mentioned the incentives to decarbonisation and the suggestion that no one disagrees that the industry needs a guiding mind.

Equally, however, the review has embedded a number of problems. The concept of the guiding mind, the acceptance that the railways can drive social mobility and a cleaner, greener transport system, and that technology must be at the heart of future investment, are all absolutely key. However, I want to concentrate on two flaws of the Williams plan. First, the creation of Great British Railways as the guiding mind, the system operator, maintainer, enhancer and controller of operations, with the setting of passenger service contracts, safety and ticketing—I could go on—is to all extents and purposes the renationalisation of the railway system. Some in this room might think that is a good idea. Those of us old enough to have experienced British Rail will realise that no one in future would want to wear such rose-tinted glasses.

There is also concern that there is too little emphasis in the plan on the benefits that the private sector has brought to the railway. It gives no incentive for operators to offer an enhanced service, and suggests little punitive action if it is a poor service. The passenger service operating contracts may well be a short-term palliative, but if adopted in the long run they would drive the private sector from the industry.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate. The key thing for me is the customer, and I know that that is the key thing for him as well. Does he agree that connectivity is essential to rural communities? The ability to jump on the tube or a train is missing in too many communities. We must look at not simply holding on to what we have, but at expanding the network so that we can tackle rural isolation. That is what the customer wants.

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. If he listens to my speech later on, he will hear me say that the passenger must be at the heart of the new railway system. The new system needs not to go back to what it was previously but to evolve. In a few moments’ time, he will hear me make that point.

I have always been in favour of privatised railways, although I accept that there are some legitimate criticisms. However, the creation of a not just fat but staggeringly obese controller at the centre and heart of a hybrid railway system is likely to be the worst of all worlds. I can only echo the view of so many senior rail experts who believe that, as the Government are soon to finalise their plans, now is the time and opportune moment to consider not just the best of the Williams-Shapps proposals but radical change.

The first test of this iteration of the Government’s plans has come with the recently announced SoFA—statement of funds available—for control period 7, which is £44 billion. That is a huge sum of money, but it is £4 billion less than the amount given for control period 6. That partly reflects the fact that, while Network Rail has excellent leadership at the top, all too often there are layers of permafrost that stifle initiative, do not give clear prioritisation to investment plans and do not get them delivered. In some cases, they have prioritised engineering over the customer. I reiterate that if this money is to be used sensibly, as I will say in a few minutes’ time, it is absolutely clear that the future plans for this industry must have well-defined, accountable plans for investment.

I have also looked at the HLOS—the high-level output specification—which was even more revealing, probably for what it did not say as much as what it did say. I saw no reference in the HLOS to either the rail review or Great British Railways. Although I accept that I may well be overinterpreting the HLOS, the optimist in me thinks that that means that the Government are actually signalling that they intend to revise their proposals.

Disappointingly, there was no reference to encouraging the participation of the private sector in the development of projects nor in the financing or funding of specific projects, despite that being one of the core suggestions that the transition team works on as it moves from the old system to the new. In response to the point about connectivity made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I accept that paragraph 24 of the HLOS refers to engaging with regional transport authorities, but I believe that local, regional and national schemes are all equally important. I hope the Minister will confirm that that was an error of omission rather than intent.

Is the hon. Member aware of the very good example of rural connectivity with the recent reopening of Okehampton railway station in Devon? Is he also aware of the potential for rural connectivity at Cullompton railway station, which is also in Devon?

Interestingly enough, in my first life in this place I was the Opposition spokesperson on railways for four years, and for two years I was the Minister for rail, so I know all about Okehampton station and what it might bring forward. That refers back to the point I made a moment ago that, with clear prioritisation of investment and the right incentives to operators, there is absolutely no reason why regional and local investment should not be seen to be just as important as national investment. Indeed, the point I made at the beginning, about rail being the key to regeneration and economic growth in a number of communities, underlines the point that the hon. Gentleman was making


I wish to make that very point about economic growth and investment in an area. As the Minister knows, I have been campaigning for the restoration of the three trains between Cleethorpes and King’s Cross for many years and they now appear in the London and North Eastern Railway draft timetable for next May. When the Minister sums up, will he comment on whether those services are likely to happen? As my hon. Friend said, economic growth and investment are crucial to the regeneration and levelling up of many of our more deprived areas.

It is 20 December, but already many hon. Members wish my hon. Friend the Minister to become Father Christmas in his summing up. As it is Christmas, and given he is a great friend of mine and an acknowledged expert in this field, may I offer him a few Christmas cracker thoughts about how I would like to see him use this opportune moment by accepting the best from the Williams-Shapps plans but also looking at what could be done to make our rail system even better?

A moment ago I referred to “the staggeringly obese controller”. One of the first things that could happen is that the Fat Controller could go on a new year diet. Everybody agrees that a guiding mind is needed for this industry. It would be right for Great British Railways to be turned into that guiding mind, with the clear objectives of setting timetables in conjunction with the infrastructure provider and operating companies, and being the body to set safety standards, let current contracts, see an evolution of the system and potentially oversee slot auctions.

If that is what Great British Railways is to become, then it is implicit that the infrastructure operator and maintainer should be separate from the guiding mind. If both functions were under that one body, it would make that body partial to the interests of network engineers rather more than to ensuring the satisfaction of passengers, freight operators and ticket operators. It does not matter what that separate entity is called—we could call it national rail, network rail or whatever we like—but I suggest to the Minister that setting Great British Railways up as the guiding mind and distinctly separating the role of infrastructure operator would be an excellent way forward.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I want to back up his suggestion for a much more slimline future system operator for two reasons. First, if I understand his point correctly, that would put customers and passengers right at the front rather than system and network engineers, which is the right way round and the right order of priority. Secondly, that addresses the fundamental point that my hon. Friend raised at the start that the difficulties from 2016 onwards were of an overly centralised, overly controlled agglomeration of power. He suggests a dispersal and relaxation of that power, and a transfer of it out from the centre, which is essential if we are going to have the flexible system we need to adjust to the changes that the pandemic has brought.

I am tempted to say that great minds think alike, because my next point is to suggest to the Minister that the Government should look at passenger service contracts. We all accept that the post-2016 franchising system and the pandemic have meant there is a need for change, but passenger service contracts are a journey rather than an end in themselves and the Government should look at what the end might be, so I suggest two things. I suggest that we should look at evolving mechanisms, so that there is a spectrum of possibilities for either new contracts or revised franchises that look at revenue risk, how it is shared, a range of revenue incentives, and a range of arrangements that in some cases would allow slot auctions as well as new franchises and that potentially ensure passenger service contracts in some areas. To that end, a commitment to review what is now in place after two years would allow that to happen. As I say, it would also provide for greater competition by introducing slot and route auctions—initially, I suggest, for a limited number of some of the long-distance routes. It would drive passenger satisfaction, encourage initiative and secure a future for open access, which had been one of the drivers for change, and for a range of competitions.

Some really exciting recommendations in the Williams-Shapps review should be kept. They include a steady programme of electrification alongside the utilisation of enhanced battery and hydrogen technology; new procurement processes based on whole-life value, with consideration of opex and social value, not just old-style cost-benefit analysis; and the provision of open data being more accessible and available to all industry participants. Those are some of the sensible, well-thought-through suggestions, as is the need for a guiding mind, but I hope the Minister will also accept that now is the right time, as I understand that the Government are looking to bring forward new plans or even a Bill in the new year. I hope he will accept the points I have made about separating the guiding mind from the infrastructure provider, giving a commitment to revise the spectrum of possibilities for train operating companies, and giving a commitment to see the private sector work alongside the public sector to deliver a clear, identified and accountable investment programme, so that all the money that is available for investment is spent in control period 7.

I am optimistic about the future of the railways, and I am particularly optimistic about their being in my hon. Friend the Minister’s hands, so I hope that he will accept that what I am trying to do—in a very thumbnail and headline way—is to set out some ideas that I think will make the future of the railways even more secure. I hope he will accept them as positive, constructive and implementable ideas, so that we have a railway that is fit for the 21st century.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also a great pleasure to be part of this debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). He said at the very end of his speech that he hoped the debate would be taken as positive and constructive, with ideas to feed into the mix. That is something that I always do with my hon. Friend, who has great expertise both as a brilliant railway constituency representative and as a former Transport Minister. In that regard, I thank him and all the other former Transport Ministers who have fed their ideas into the mix. I hope that I can cover the points made by my hon. Friend in the round, but I will try to address some of them specifically.

The Government remain absolutely committed to reforming our railways and ensuring there are high-quality railway services across the whole country. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Government commissioned Keith Williams to conduct the first root-and-branch review of the rail industry in a generation, which led to the publication of the plan for rail White Paper in 2021. Before that, more than 750 representations were made to the review, which met over 200 groups across the country. Although my hon. Friend pointed out that the review was completed some time ago—back at the end of 2019—it was extended to allow more time to test the conclusions and ensure that they were appropriate, given the impact of the pandemic on rail.

There have been various changes of personnel, as my hon. Friend is well aware. The Secretary of State and I have been in post only since the end of October. We are reviewing the options for reform, and we expect to be able to provide concrete proposals as to what the reform will look like very shortly. We believe that the case for reform is stronger than when the plan for rail was first published. The lasting consequences of covid-19, along with industrial relations, sustained poor performance and financial challenges, increase the need for modernisation and efficiency. I will come on to the role of the private sector. If we want to regrow the railways back to the passenger numbers that we have previously seen, the best way to do that is to wrap in the private sector, which doubled those numbers post privatisation. I am very much with my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon on those optics.

I am grateful to the Minister for speaking so eloquently about his vision for the future of rail services. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I often hear from people right across the United Kingdom about difficulties in accessing rail services, ticketing offices and disabled toilet facilities. Will the Minister consider those important inclusion issues in his future vision?

Yes, we certainly will. We are looking at an interesting and challenging set of reforms. Ticket offices are largely unchanged from how they were 30 years back, but only 12% to 14% of tickets are purchased from ticket offices. The key is to find a way to get those personnel outside—on the platform and in the station—to help those with disabilities and mobility issues. Getting them on the platform and on the trains may mean change, but I hope that that will be a positive change for the passenger and the workforce. It will be a more interesting and exciting role with passengers.

The Minister touched on his current focus on industrial relations and the need to grow the number of passengers coming back to the railways. Is he aware of the situation with South Western Railway, which serves all of south-west London, Surrey, Wiltshire and the south-west? Until the new year, there will be no services at all on non-strike days at 40 stations across the network, including Whitton, St Margarets and Strawberry Hill in my constituency, and numerous stations in Surrey. Nurses who are not striking cannot get to work, police officers cannot get to work and children cannot get to the schools that are open. What is the Minister doing to work with South Western Railway to ensure that services are available on non-strike days? We will never get people back on to the railways and improve industrial relations if passengers cannot get where they need to.

I agree with the hon. Lady, and I am aware that she applied for an urgent question on the matter. I will write to her.

I call for all hon. and right hon. Members to come together as one on this issue. We cannot focus on good passenger experience and a future for the railways if there is industrial action that involves the workforce not working on rest days when it has previously done so. I have never encouraged that pattern or seen a future for it, because it means that we are reliant on goodwill. When goodwill is withdrawn at short notice, we end up with what the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) described. We need to move away from rest-day working, which does not work. Equally, I urge all those who are involved on the union side of matters to consider that it is Christmas. If we want a future for our railways, we must work positively and constructively, rather than withdrawing labour. I will write to the hon. Lady, as I mentioned.

I should make some progress, because time will push me towards the end. I shall try to take a further intervention if I can.

I want to talk about other parts of the reform: fares and ticketing. As part of the plan, we will invest £360 million to radically reform and improve the passenger experience. We will also look to deliver our manifesto commitment by introducing tap-in and tap-out at additional stations in regional and urban areas, and contactless pay-as-you-go ticketing at over 200 stations in the south-east. We will also introduce simpler, modern ways of paying for travel and a straightforward compensation process.

Let me touch on the proposals for reform. In addition to our significant investment in the passenger experience, one reform that we are considering is the creation of a new guiding mind to bring the fragmented railways under a single point of accountability. That would not be nationalisation; rather, it would be simplification. A simple, more agile structure will be needed to change travel and working patterns, introduce new technologies and enhance business models. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon talked about the role of the private sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon talked about the role of the private sector. Rail reform must have at its core greater private sector involvement. I want any new model to take the very best of the private sector: innovation, an unrelenting focus on quality and the type of models that drive reform, a better experience for the passenger and better return for taxpayer value. I am happy to discuss the private sector contribution, and to meet my hon. Friend to reassure him about that. He knows that I have always had a real passion for what the private sector has brought for rail. I agree that, although the franchise model may have run its course, it was not made easy for the private sector to navigate, because it became a very complex, documented process that put off new entrants to the market. Any rail reform has to be simple and nimble enough to bring in new innovators, not just the largest.

My hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon and for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) have championed open access. Rail reform must see an important role for open-access operators. We want to make the best use of the network and grow new markets for rail. The Department recently supported Go-Op’s innovative proposal to operate open-access services from Taunton to Swindon and Weston-super-Mare, providing new direct services and improved connectivity for communities.

I have challenged my Department on open access. It seems to be the case that we are not putting open access on equal footing, which means that there is some sort of charge and enablement. The response is always, “It just takes away from the other contracted operators.” We need to charge open access more to allow it not to take away but to compete. In my view, open access definitely has a place, but we perhaps need to reform the entrance requirements so it is not constantly turned down. I am very excited about those possibilities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon asked when legislation would be forthcoming. We will not be taking forward legislation on rail reform in this parliamentary Session, as he is aware, but we will introduce it when the parliamentary timetable allows, and I am very keen that we do so. In the interim, rather than do nothing because legislation is not immediately forthcoming, many areas can be progressed outside legislation. They include making significant investment in ticketing and retail, and the formation of the reform proposals that we will focus on. I assure my hon. Friend that we will bring those forward in parallel with legislation.

My hon. Friend mentioned the control period 7 settlement. That process is vital for securing value for money for the taxpayer and providing certainty to investors. The Government published a strong funding settlement of more than £44 billion for England and Wales for the next control period, which begins in April 2024. My hon. Friend touched on that. That demonstrates our long-term commitment to securing a safe, reliable and efficient railway. The industry—public and private—now needs to work together to establish stretching yet realistic targets for improvements and reliability, supported by Government investment.

On the lack of reference to rail reform or GBR, the HLOS, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is more of a statement of principle. He should not read anything into that. We have not landed on one particular model, so it would not have been appropriate to insert one in there. I got my pen out and made sure there was reference to innovation and private sector involvement—I do not believe anyone took those words out. I was particularly keen to ensure that, with innovation, we included small and medium-sized enterprises so that we are focusing not just on larger private sector involvement but on the small innovators that can really drive change. They need to be in the room too.

On industrial action, passengers rightly expect a regular, reliable service, seven days a week. Current shift patterns and voluntary weekend working for railway staff make that vision nearly impossible. The only solution is for everyone to come together and agree a new way forward. I have met the unions and employers, and the Secretary of State has met the unions too. I hope that will send a message to this House that we want to facilitate an end to industrial action. I again ask all right hon. and hon. Members to come together and push not just the train operators and the Government but those who are responsible for the strikes—the trade unions. It is time for all to be called out where they can deliver more.

The Government are wholly committed to improving journeys for passengers and creating a better, more modern rail industry. I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I assure him that the private sector will be right at the heart of any reform proposals. The Secretary of State and I are committed to an improved railway with the private sector at its heart, and I hope that my hon. Friend will keep me to that mantra.

Sitting suspended.