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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 19 January 2023


The Secretary of State was asked—

Bus Services: Newcastle

1. What assessment he has made of trends in the quality, availability and accessibility of bus services in Newcastle since 2019. (903132)

In response to the Government’s national bus strategy, all local transport authorities in England outside London, including Transport North East, produced bus service improvement plans. Following a detailed assessment process, we have awarded TNE an indicative allocation of £163.5 million to support the delivery of its BSIP, which covers seven local authorities, including Newcastle City Council.

In December, ahead of the launch of the Government’s £2 bus fare on 1 January, I visited the north-east, including Blaydon and Newcastle, and the Go North East depot. I was pleased to hear about the work that operators and local transport authorities are doing to continue to provide bus services for local people in challenging circumstances.

An elderly man waits two hours in the rain not knowing whether a bus will turn up. A lone woman is left stranded at 11 pm. A business cannot open because half of its workforce are delayed on different bus services. The bus companies say that the services are improving, but my constituents tell a very different story. We need accessible, affordable, regular, sustainable bus services; information about where the buses are; and accountability when they are not where they should be. How long do we have to wait?

I totally agree with the hon. Lady that we need affordable bus services, which is why we have introduced the £2 cap. She will be aware that today £19.5 million of levelling-up fund investment has been announced for her area, including for 52 new electric buses, supported by 26 rapid chargers in the depots, to help provide that more regular and reliable service in the future. I will continue to work with operators to ensure that we have the drivers we need across the country, including in her constituency and mine.

In March 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, the previous Secretary of State promised buses so frequent that people would not need a timetable and said that the Government would

“not only stop the decline”—

in bus services, but—

“reverse it”. —[Official Report, 15 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 50.]

Since then, have bus services increased or decreased?

The pandemic had a major impact on many bus services across the country. As the hon. Lady will well know, that included a huge fall in the number of concessionary fare users and, as people were having to work from home or were not able to go into the office, in the number of paid fare users. We have put in more than £2 billion in support for the bus network since the start of the pandemic in order to support services.

I repeat that that promise was made in the middle of the pandemic. Only once before on record, also under a Conservative Government, have bus numbers fallen by as much as they did last year. So instead of continuing to defend this broken bus system, will the Minister extend franchising powers nationwide, remove the hurdles that operators use to block reform and finally put power and control over routes and fares into the hands of the communities who depend on them?

The hon. Lady will be aware that the BSIPs and the devolution deals allow franchising powers to go forward, and Labour Mayors, if they want them, can apply for them. If she wants all of this across the country, she should speak to some of her Labour colleagues in order to do that. Some are doing franchising, but a lot are taking the other alternatives and working in close partnerships. As for the new buses across the country, perhaps she could welcome the extra money going into the north-east today—the 52 extra electric buses in the north-east depot. Perhaps she could welcome the news of that extra funding today.

Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure

As you will know, Mr Speaker, the Government take the issue of accessibility extremely seriously. With the assistance of wider research, we have identified specific accessibility barriers faced by drivers of electric vehicles in using public charge points. Those can include the height of charge points, charging cables that are very heavy, the connectors, and street design. To address those issues, the Government, with Motability, co-sponsored publicly available standard 1899 in October 2022, which provides, for the first time, specifications on designing and installing accessible public charge points.

People who have off-street parking can easily meet the majority of their EV charging needs at home, but people who do not are rightly concerned about access to charging. How will the Government address that issue to ensure that people in Basildon and Thurrock have equitable access?

My hon. Friend will be aware that Essex County Council has been able to use ORCS—the on-street residential charge point scheme—and that there has been support in his area for workplace charging and the home charge scheme. We want to go much further, however, and the new local EV infrastructure fund will support local authorities to do just that. A £10 million LEVI—local electric vehicle infrastructure—pilot is in operation, which will deliver more than 1,000 charge points. We will use that as a springboard for further expansion of the fund.

Councillor Steve Dixon, the portfolio holder at Central Bedfordshire Council, is a big enthusiast of electric vehicles, as I am. Earlier this week, he told me that there are some issues with connectivity to the grid, particularly for the 50 kW superfast 20-minute chargers, which are especially important for tradespeople and delivery drivers who need a quick charge-up during the day. What conversations is the Minister having with National Grid to ensure that it does not hold us back in this vital area?

We take this issue extremely seriously. As my hon. Friend is aware, responsibility lies with the electricity network operators. Ofgem has allowed baseline funding of more than £22 billion, including the more than £3 billion proposed for network upgrades. We need to ensure that that money is put in place and that any blockages are addressed by the distribution network operators. We are also working closely with fleets and industry bodies to ensure that we can anticipate problems before they arise.

I do not know whether the Minister has been on a long journey in an electric car, but you can often travel for dozens of miles—perhaps more than 100—without finding a rapid charger. When you do get to one, you discover that “rapid charger” is a misnomer, because National Grid cannot deliver the necessary power. Even if you get to one that is working, it is often full because of the number of electric cars now on the road, so you end up waiting in a queue for half an hour or more. When will the Government develop a proper national network so that what should be a pleasant day out for motorists does not mean hours of planning in advance and then hours of frustration and delay on the journey?

We recognise that. Those problems had to do with adverse weather conditions, as well as with particular concerns of the season, but there is a wider problem and the hon. Gentleman is right to mention it. That is why in due course we will promote regulations that will require 99% reliability and other standards, as well as transparency across charge points, in order to address some of the points that he raises.

In Northern Ireland, there are 4,000 electric vehicles and 337 charge points. Central Government have assisted and funded charge points in the past. People are unable and unwilling to buy an electric car if there are not enough charge points, so what discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Infrastructure in the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that the number of charge points is increased across the whole of Northern Ireland?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the question. I myself have not recently spoken to the infrastructure board in Northern Ireland, but I shall make a point of doing so in the near future.

This week, I and colleagues hosted leading figures from across the car industry. They are desperate for the UK to lead the world in electric vehicles, but they are banging their head against the wall at the state of the charging infrastructure. In 2019, there were 33 electric vehicles per rapid charger; today there are almost 90 vehicles per charger. Given how critical the charging network is to confidence in the EV market, why on earth are there yet more delays to the botched roll-out of the rapid charging fund? Will the Minister consider using binding targets to speed up the roll-out?

The figures that the hon. Lady has given are a result of the extremely rapid increase in the number of battery electric vehicles, which is welcome and is supported by Government policy. We have supported the provision of more than 400,000 chargers for homes and businesses in the last few years, and, as I have said, we take the issue very seriously. We have the LEVI fund and the rapid charging fund, which I am seeking to accelerate. However, I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point. It is right for us to continue to proceed in tandem with the growth in the sector, all the more so because this year our new zero-emission vehicle mandate will continue to propel the number rapidly upwards, which I think will benefit the public greatly.

Protesters: Motorway Disruption

3. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help reduce disruption on motorways caused by protesters. (903134)

Irresponsible action last year by a number of protesters put the lives of police, motorists and National Highways staff at risk and caused travel disruption for thousands. That is completely unacceptable, which is why my Department worked with National Highways to secure injunctions allowing a prompt and effective response. The police and National Highways continue to look at lessons that can be learned to deter similar protests. As my hon. Friend will know, on Monday the Prime Minister announced an amendment to the Public Order Bill giving the police more flexibility and clarity in respect of when to intervene to stop the disruptive minority who use tactics such as blocking roads and slow marching to inflict misery on the public.

When hypocritical wealthy lefties cut off motorways, they are not just damaging people’s jobs and damaging the economy; they are potentially killing people by not allowing ambulances and other blue-light services to pass. Does the Minister agree that we may be able to help them save the environment by locking them up, perhaps with the gas and electricity switched off?

I thank my hon. Friend for putting his question in his own direct, inimitable way. He will, I hope, be pleased to know that we are working closely with council and Home Office officials to ensure that we can follow all legal avenues to pursue those who are arrested for protest activity. The injunctions mean that we can take swifter action. The courts obviously have to hand down the penalties; 13 Insulate Britain protesters received immediate custodial sentences ranging from 24 days to six months, and evidence from the gantry protests is being reviewed to support committal proceedings against more than 50 additional protesters.

Traffic Flow: Congleton

Managing the traffic on local roads is the responsibility of the local traffic authorities—in this case, Cheshire East Council. They are subject to a network management duty which requires them to manage their roads to deliver expeditious movement for all traffic, including pedestrians. A wide range of tools is already available to help them to manage congestion and traffic flow.

I was prompted to raise this question by Cheshire East Council. Can the Minister explain, for the benefit of Holmes Chapel residents, why the Middlewich Road-Chester Road junction may require alteration in connection with plans for High Speed 2, bearing in mind that the planned HS2 route is some distance away?

I know how strongly my hon. Friend campaigns on behalf of her constituents. The A54 Middlewich Road services an emergency diversion route for the M6. HS2 Ltd and National Highways identified the need for works on the route to mitigate traffic impacts forecast at the Chester Road junction during the construction of HS2, and measures have therefore been developed to improve the junction. A supplementary environmental statement for additional provision 1 to the High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill describes the reasoning behind the inclusion of this junction improvement, and HS2 is in the process of sharing the technical work that supports it with the local highways authority in Chester East. If my hon. Friend is concerned about any further issues, I invite her to meet me so that we can discuss them.

Rail Fare Evasion

From 23 January, the Government are increasing National Rail penalty fares for the first time since 2005. The penalty will change to £100, plus the price of the single fare to the intended destination, to act as a greater deterrent and to reduce fare evasion on the network.

There have been persistent problems on the Chase line with passengers dodging fares, so I welcome the increase in the penalty for those caught travelling without a valid ticket, but if the system is to be effective it is essential for there to be enough revenue protection officers to catch offenders. What are the Government doing to ensure that there are enough inspectors on lines such as the Chase line to check passengers’ tickets?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising the important issue of ensuring that resource is available to check tickets on lines such as the Chase line. Ticketless travel is currently costing the network, and, indeed, the taxpayer nationally, an estimated £240 million per year. Back in December 2016, my right hon. Friend joined the then London Midland revenue protection team. She later told this House:

“The £20 penalty is insufficient to deter fare dodging.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2017; Vol. 447, c. 619.]

She went on to ask for a review of penalty fares so that they would become an effective deterrent. She has won that campaign, and I thank her for it.

There are nine new revenue protection security managers within the West Midlands Railway business. They are in training, ready to be deployed on the Chase line and throughout the midlands.

In Scotland, peak time rail fares on specific routes are being disbanded in 2023 to ease commuting costs and encourage use of services. Have Ministers discussed rolling out a similar scheme with operators in England, as increased affordability could reduce fare evasion?

I have a real passion for reducing fare evasion. It is important that we learn from all parts of the United Kingdom how we can do this. At a time when we are experiencing issues with financing, it is vital that we do everything we can to ensure that passengers pay their way, so I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to share those ideas. If they are good ideas, I would like to see them rolled out.

Railway Modernisation

I agree with my hon. Friend that the railway is in urgent need of modernisation of both its working practices and the way in which it is structured. The lasting consequences of covid-19, industrial action and the financial challenges facing the railway have made the case for reform stronger, and I will shortly set out the next steps for that reform process.

The South Western Railway line between Bracknell and London Waterloo is a really important link between Berkshire and London. Even though passenger numbers are now increasing back to pre-pandemic levels, South Western Railway’s own figures for November and December last year are that more than 90% of trains ran up to 15 minutes late. It is not acceptable. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State please outline to the House what he is doing alongside South Western Railway to improve the service?

The level of services remains constantly under review. As passenger numbers increase, both the Department and the operator can look at that to see whether more needs to be done. On performance, the operator is contracted to deliver our operational performance benchmarks, and it is penalised financially if it delivers below those benchmarks. The Department has a right to request a mitigation plan if it fails to meet those benchmarks consistently. Now that my hon. Friend has raised that with us, we will keep an even closer eye on the performance of that railway.

I understand the Secretary of State will be in my constituency later today to announce the successful £50 million bid, which I backed alongside Cardiff Council, for improvements to the links between Cardiff Central and Cardiff Bay—a crucial missing link in our rail infrastructure. It is obviously very welcome, notwithstanding the wider criticisms of the levelling-up scheme. One of the positive things about the bid is that it involves close working between the UK Government, the Welsh Government, the council and Transport for Wales. Will he assure me that he will work co-operatively with them to get that scheme up and running as quickly as possible, for the benefit of our local community?

I am grateful for the positive tone in which the hon. Gentleman has welcomed that announcement. Wales will receive the highest amount of funding per capita from the levelling-up fund under the announcement that has been made today. I am indeed visiting that scheme later today and I will meet officials from the council. I will of course continue to work closely with them to turn the money into effective transport connectivity as soon as we can.

On average, how much do train drivers get paid and how many contracted hours are they required to do each week?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I think that about £60,000 is the average salary and the contracted hours are about 35 per week.

TransPennine Express has been habitually using P-codes, which are for pre-cancelled trains. This means that trains are cancelled at 10 o’clock the previous night. In conjunction with on-day cancellations, this means that up to a quarter of all services, including for my constituents travelling from Greenfield, are cancelled; and on some days it is nearly half. Will the document that the Secretary of State just mentioned address these long-term issues, which we have had not just for the past year but for many years?

There are two issues. The most important is the level of performance. The hon. Lady will know that one of the big issues is the overdependence, particularly on that service, on rest day working. One of the reasons why we want to modernise working practices—

It is very much to do with it. The fact that the rest day working agreement is not being delivered means there is a real problem, which fundamentally argues the case for reform to working practices.

On the hon. Lady’s narrower question about transparency in P-coding, the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), will be meeting the Office of Rail and Road to discuss exactly that issue, to ensure that passengers have a transparent understanding of rail performance.

Rail Service Improvements

The current sustained poor performance on the railways is unacceptable, and the industry needs to make significant improvements to deliver the punctual, reliable services that passengers and taxpayers deserve. We are addressing immediate issues in the sector by engaging and facilitating discussions between employers and trade unions to bring about a resolution to the industrial dispute. As the Secretary of State said, the Government will shortly set out the next steps for reform of the rail industry.

I welcome the Minister’s comments, but rail services in Carshalton and Wallington are still not back to pre-pandemic levels, and there are regular delays, industrial action and timetable changes by Southern and Thameslink. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to unblock the Croydon bottleneck, which is the real cause of congestion in south London, and to improve rail services for Carshalton, Wallington, Hackbridge and Carshalton Beeches commuters?

As a user of Southern for many years before I switched to Southeastern, I understand my hon. Friend’s points. I thank him for standing up for his constituents who use the services. The Department remains committed to working with Govia Thameslink Railway and Network Rail to address performance issues. Peak service provision for Carshalton and Wallington users is at pre-pandemic levels, although passenger numbers remain lower. I take his overall point about the entire service. I also share his desire to see improvements delivered for rail services in the south-east. For this reason, we have recently implemented upgrades to the track and signalling north of Gatwick airport, which will deliver journey time savings and improved reliability across the Brighton main line.

Back in November 2021, the integrated rail plan confirmed that there would be a study on running high-speed trains between East Midlands Parkway and Leeds via Sheffield. Fourteen months on, not only has the work not been done, but the terms of reference have not even been agreed. Ukraine and Romania have just reopened a train line in six months during a war. I ask the Minister to look carefully at what more can be done to expedite this work so we can get this vital rail corridor working in the way we all want.

I am aware that the study needs to get out so we can look at how to get High Speed 2 trains up to Leeds, and so we can look at the other impacts on Leeds. There have been discussions in the Department this week about how to move that forward. I expect the report to be out very shortly.

My hon. Friend the rail Minister will be aware that services on the Marston Vale line serving my constituency are currently suspended because Vivarail, which maintains the rolling stock, has gone into administration. The replacement bus service is far from ideal, which is causing significant difficulties for my constituents, especially young people going to school and college. Will my hon. Friend assure me that he is doing everything he can to ensure the earliest possible reinstatement of that rail service?

The Chair of the Select Committee has raised this point on a number of occasions, and he is right to do so. It is incredibly sad to see Vivarail, which is pursuing good, innovative technology, have to go into administration. I am keen to work with him to ensure that West Midlands Railway puts on a service as soon as possible. Together we will look into whether contractors can contract into West Midlands Railway and whether those contractors have the essential skills that are needed. I will work with him in partnership to ensure that his constituents have that service back up and running.

Under Southeastern’s new timetable, my Blackheath constituents have had significant changes made to their journey, which were imposed on them without consultation. There are also far too many disruptions to trains at Catford Bridge. Last month, the Rail Minister promised to visit more train stations to see how the timetable was impacting customers. Will he honour that commitment to visit Blackheath station, speak to the service users and agree to review the train disruptions at Catford Bridge?

Yes, I visit many of those stations because my train comes along many of the Southeastern routes once I leave Etchingham and head towards London Bridge. I am aware of changes that have taken place, which mean that some passengers must change at London Bridge if they wish to go on to Waterloo East and Charing Cross. London Bridge is an accessible station that has been built with that type of movement in mind. Furthermore, the timetable change happened on 11 December. Since then, a series of events related to weather and industrial action have made it rather difficult to assess whether the changes are working. [Interruption.] They impact my line, so while there is some chuntering going on, I share the concerns and am keen to make the changes work.

I am happy to write to my right hon. Friend on that matter. I am not sure whether he is referring to landslips and recent weather-related events, but Network Rail is working incredibly hard to deliver. Perhaps I can update the entire House by putting in the Library a letter with the most recent update.

The Minister will be very much aware of the chaos that customers experience on the Avanti West Coast line. What assurances can he give me that Avanti will not be given yet another extension on the extension that should never have been given in the first place as this chaos continues?

The most important thing for me is to make sure that the service is turned around. If the team at Avanti can turn that service around, then that will be a matter that we will look at when it comes to renewal of the contract. If matters within its control cannot be turned around, then of course that will lead to a different decision. Again, the timetable change of 11 December is difficult to assess, but it has involved 40% more services than in the summer, and all of that has taken place without rest-day working, because more drivers have been recruited and trained. I hope the hon. Member will join me in encouraging everyone at Avanti to deliver on that extended service. If it succeeds then we all succeed, Mr Speaker.

Just to say that the Minister ought to try travelling on the line, because it is an absolute disgrace.

Key to improving services is actually providing services, as the rail Minister will be aware, and schemes such as Restoring Your Railway reversing the Beeching cuts. Will my hon. Friend continue to work with me and West Midlands Mayor Andy Street to deliver a station for Aldridge? The track is there. Mr Speaker, we must be one of the few constituencies across the country that currently has no train station at all.

My right hon. Friend makes a great campaign point, which I hear. Mayor Andy Street met the Secretary of State for Transport this week. We are passionate to ensure that we can deliver the services that she needs in her constituency and that are needed across the midlands as a whole.

My constituents learned today that they will not be receiving a Cullompton relief road as a result of the second round of levelling-up funding. They still have great hopes for easing congestion through the reopening of the Cullompton railway station, which is already in receipt of Restoring Your Railway funding. Will the Minister come to Cullompton to see the merits of the proposal?

I am keen to visit as many projects and potential projects as I can to help see the potential and how we can realise it. When I am in that part of the country, I would be very happy to visit. On the levelling-up fund bid, as somebody who was disappointed first time around but has managed to get better news the second time, I would encourage the hon. Member to continue to apply. If one works hard with people of all political colours in the local community, one will be amazed by what can happen.

Neither passengers nor hard-working staff are happy with the lamentable state of our railways on this Government’s watch. They have bumped up ticket prices twice as fast as wages have grown, yet passengers are experiencing delays and cancellations to most services at Britain’s busiest stations, with experts declaring that our rail system is broken. So what is their plan to fix the mess they have made? If the Financial Times is correct, their big solution is to impose even more devastating funding cuts of more than 10% on train operators. Forget managed decline: in 2023 it looks more like freefall decline. Rather than this veil of secrecy over steep service cuts, can the Minister confirm how much of a cut he is imposing?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that passenger numbers are at about 80% of where they were pre-pandemic. The timetable is at about 90%, so it continues to run ahead of passenger numbers. Taxpayers more broadly have put in £31 billion over the last two years to support the railway, and there will be a further £11 billion required for the year to come. We have a balance between those who use the railways, continuing to ensure that they can do so, and those who fund the railways and the difficulties they have in meeting their tax bills. I look forward to his optimism and enthusiasm in working with me to ensure that railway services improve, as I am determined they will.

Cross-border rail services run by Avanti and TransPennine Express have been shambolic. Last week alone, TransPennine Express could not point to a single day when it ran the emergency timetable it had promised. On two days, Avanti had only one and two trains on time the entire day running out of Glasgow Central. In contrast, publicly-owned LNER was running a much better service. Is there not a lesson here that the private sector model has failed both workers and passengers and it is time to follow Scotland’s lead and bring rail operators under public control?

Perhaps another way of looking at it is that on the east coast there is competition with open access, whereas on the west coast there is not. The hon. Gentleman might feel that we are not doing enough on private enterprise and competition. I am rather keen that we look at open access and see whether we can do on the west what has been done on the east. However, he is right that performance has not been good enough. I take your point on Avanti, Mr Speaker; your interventions inspire me to ensure that my weekly meetings on turning around Avanti performance continue—but if that performance is being turned around, I must say a big thank you to the staff who work on the Avanti services day in, day out, because we need to motivate them that this can work. TPE is a little further behind and I think we will be discussing it further. I am keen to work with the hon. Gentleman to get better services on TPE.

ScotRail, which is publicly owned and controlled, pays the highest track access charges of any single rail operator, despite repeated requests to complete rail devolution and transfer control of Network Rail to Holyrood. Meanwhile, the Transport Committee heard last week from Mick Lynch, who said:

“When there is a Network Rail strike, they shut Scotland and large parts of Wales. They choose to run the parts that connect to England.”

Does the Minister agree that Scottish rail passengers get a second-class service in this UK system? Is it not time that he turned over responsibilities to a Government who have recently settled two rail disputes?

When there is industrial action on the scale that we have seen impacting Network Rail, we implement the key route strategy, which sees about 20% of the network remain open. That can be patchy, because we tend to focus on the areas that are strategically important for freight. That is our driving mechanism for determining when lines open. I would like to see more open, and of course there may be legislation around the corner that will allow that to occur—the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be happy with that outcome.

Transport Infrastructure: Adequacy and Sustainability

10. What recent assessment he has made of the (a) adequacy and (b) long-term sustainability of transport infrastructure. (903143)

In November 2020 the Government published the national infrastructure strategy that set out our long-term plans for addressing Britain’s infrastructure needs and challenges. Those plans include continued developments of our road and rail networks across the UK, including in Scotland. The levelling-up fund will play a key role in helping to reduce geographical disparities. To that end, the second round of the fund, announced today, will see £177 million awarded to Scotland, including three transport schemes.

The specific point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) a moment ago was not addressed. For years, Scotland has paid the highest track access charges of any single train operator: £354 million per year—over £200 million more than northern rail, with broadly similar services by distance travelled. Scotland is making huge strides in decarbonisation and sustainability, as well as bringing ScotRail back under public control, but this is a huge cost and reduces capacity to increase infrastructure investment. Why are Scottish taxpayers quite literally being taken for a ride by the Department for Transport compared with their counterparts across the border?

I am disappointed; I missed the hon. Lady’s thanks for the £177 million awarded to Scotland from the levelling-up fund today. It would have been nice if she had managed to recognise the fact that that money is being distributed fairly across the whole United Kingdom. Some of the issues about connectivity between England and Scotland and across the United Kingdom were addressed at length in previous questions. We are working very hard to make sure there is a successful rail network, to reduce the impacts of industrial action. On the question that the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North raised about what happens on strike days, it is very important that we have minimum service levels, and I hope the hon. Lady will support that legislation.

TransPennine Express: Operational Performance

13. Whether he has had discussions with TransPennine Express on its recent operational performance. (903147)

The Department, which manages the TPE contract in partnership with Transport for the North through the Rail North Partnership, is in regular dialogue with the operator, as we seek to stabilise the current service provision and provide passengers with a reliable timetable. Due to high levels of absence, industrial action and much higher than predicted driver departures, TPE will continue to face challenges, even as it restores some services.

How is it that in Ukraine—war-torn Ukraine—they manage to cancel fewer trains and have a more reliable service than TransPennine Express? Is it not now time to cancel the TransPennine Express contract?

The contract for TransPennine Express comes up for renewal in May. Anybody who takes that contract on will be faced with the exact same issues we have. Sickness rates are currently at 14%. We have no rest-day working agreement in place, despite it previously being the highest rate offered across the network. A number of drivers have left, some during covid, and while 113 drivers have been recruited, it takes on average 18 months to train a driver through that network. All those issues remain to be fixed, regardless of who the operator will be. I can assure the right hon. Lady that if the operation does not improve, other decisions will be taken in addition to the points I have just raised.

Mr Speaker, as a north-west MP, you will be aware of the disgraceful service level offered by Avanti. My constituents have to deal with TransPennine Express on the one hand and also Avanti, so it is a double whammy for the people of Stockport. It has recently been revealed that between 18 September and 12 November 2022, TransPennine Express pre-cancelled between 250 and 450 trains per week through the use of P-coded notices, meaning that thousands of people were left stranded. P-coded notices were first introduced for cancellations caused by exceptional circumstances but now appear to be used routinely by private rail operators. Does the Minister agree that this is an abuse of the P-coded notice system, and has he been speaking to TransPennine Express about that abuse?

As the Secretary of State said earlier, I will be speaking to the Office of Rail and Road about P-coding, because I feel it needs a good look. P-coding makes a lot of sense, to ensure that passengers are told on the day they travel whether the train will be operating. If rosters have not been put together because of staff shortages, that makes absolute sense, but the current levels on TPE give me concern, so I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will look at that. P-coding has been used a lot across the network due to the weather-related issues, where we have known that we cannot operate services the following day and want to let passengers know in advance. Finally, I assure him that performance-related fees, which take up the largest part of train operator payments, do of course take into account P-coding, as we would with other cancellations.

The Minister must surely agree that this is simply not good enough. In November, he assured us that the new timetable would be deliverable. This week, the results are in and the service has never been worse. This morning alone, at least 123 services have been cancelled or disrupted on TransPennine Express. He cannot pretend that the management are blameless in this farce. The north cannot afford to continue like this any longer, so will he strip TransPennine Express of its contract and bring it under the operator of last resort?

The operator of last resort does a great job, but I also hear criticisms from Members across the House with regard to Northern Rail, which also has higher than average cancellations, and Northern Rail is operated by the operator of last resort. I am also keen to ensure that the operator of last resort has a manageable portfolio. Nothing I have said in the House today or in the Select Committee yesterday absolves the management of any blame. I have said that this situation requires action from all in responsible positions, and if it cannot be turned around, decisions will be made.

Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency: Performance

The DVSA is recovering after the pandemic. The theory test service is performing well. There are 620,000 practical test appointments in the booking system. Since April 2021, the DVSA has created an extra 695,000 car practical driving test appointments and the average waiting time to take a car test is at 15.1 weeks, with more than 80,000 slots currently available. The average waiting time for an HGV or other vocational driving test is currently just over two weeks. The heavy vehicle testing service is operating normally and enforcement operations continued throughout the pandemic.

If the Minister were to go online to book a test in my constituency today, he would find that in Shetland, the earliest date is 18 weeks away and in Orkney, there are no test dates available. That is quite apart from the continued lack of availability of off-road motorcycle testing. The history of the DVSA in Orkney and in Shetland in particular in recent years has been frankly pitiful. When it comes to the next performance appraisal interview with the chief executive of the DVSA, could the Minister prevail upon her to find a day or two to come north and see for herself the effect that her stewardship has had on our communities?

My understanding is that in Shetland, the average waiting time is 18 weeks, but in Orkney the waiting time is significantly less. I do not understand the discrepancy between us, so I shall write to the right hon. Member about that. I was surprised that he did not also welcome the £26.7 million that has just been announced today for transport funding for the Shetland Islands Council for the Fair Isle infrastructure project, showing how much this Government are investing in his constituency.

Notwithstanding the answer that my hon. Friend just gave, multiple constituents have written to me this week about the inability to get a driving test. One said that despite logging on daily, they cannot get a test at all in nearby test centres at Bletchley, Leighton Buzzard, Aylesbury, Banbury or Northampton. For rural communities like those I represent, the car is essential for people, young or old, to get anywhere, so when my hon. Friend talks to the DVSA, will he prioritise test centres for rural communities to get back on track?

I also represent a rural constituency, although in a different part of the country. What I would say to my hon. Friend is that we have made big progress in recent years, with more than 300,000 new slots available due to the extra 300 driving examiners we have hired since the pandemic. Waiting lists are coming down for driving tests, and rapidly, and we hope to achieve pre-pandemic levels within the next few months.

Nationwide, almost one in 10 bus driver positions is vacant, hitting vital services across the country hard, but Ministers are asleep at the wheel, with no action plan to tackle it. Currently, the DVSA requires a provisional bus licence to start training, but with huge paperwork delays, 20% of applicants give up before their training begins. Will the Minister listen to calls to speed up this glacial process to allow applicants to begin their theory tests while they wait for their provisional licences?

The Opposition spokesperson raises an important point that I have been raising myself. I have spoken to both the unions and the management during recent visits to Stevenage and Gateshead bus depots. There is an under three-week wait for practical driving tests for bus drivers. We are looking to do everything we can to speed that up. On a recent visit to the Gateshead depot I was told that at the start of the pandemic they had more than 150 vacancies. They are now down to under 20. We are seeing massive progress across the country. I want us to do everything we can to go further, which is why we have increased the number of driving tests, and during the pandemic we prioritised both HGV drivers and passenger transport drivers. I will continue to do everything I can in that space.

Topical Questions

Following today’s £2.1-billion levelling-up fund announcement, I would like to briefly update the House about its transport aspect. Through your decision making, Mr Speaker, you have allowed Members the opportunity to range more widely. I am sure that Ministers at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are grateful to you for the opportunity they will have to be at the Dispatch Box later today.

Nearly £650 million will be spent across 26 projects to help to create a transport system that is modern, efficient, and accessible to everyone across four nations. As we touched on in earlier questions, that includes more than 15 new electric buses in the north-east and the new metro line in the heart of Cardiff which, as Members know from our earlier exchanges, I will visit later today. Today’s announcement is a vote of confidence in the entire United Kingdom. As the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, I hope that it is rightly welcomed by both sides of the House.

When there are delays at the port of Dover, whether due to weather, strikes or the French, the impact on local jobs, businesses and residents is absolutely enormous. I welcome the £45-million levelling-up fund investment in our local campaign to keep Dover clear. I thank my right hon. Friend for that. Will he join me in thanking the Conservative leaders of Kent County Council and Dover District Council, and the excellent leadership at the port of Dover?

Order. This is topical questions. Other colleagues want to get in. Tell me who you do not want to get in, because that is who you are depriving.

I will give a pithy answer. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all her campaigning work. Dover is a strategic port for the United Kingdom. This project will ensure that we can meet our requirements and keep that flow of trade and traffic going. I am pleased that we have been able to get that money to help the port of Dover.

T2. The Law Society of Scotland, the RMT and others have all expressed concerns about the Seafarers’ Wages Bill only covering services that dock in our port 120 times a year. That threshold is so high that several services will not be covered. Why will the Minister not listen to their concerns and reduce that threshold, thereby protecting more seafarers? (903158)

My understanding is that around 98% of services will be covered by the Bill, including the short straits services around which there have been concerns about P&O.

T3. Despite more than £2 billion of support for buses from the Government during the pandemic, my right hon. Friend will be aware that the well-used and popular route 41 has suffered a massive reduction of service across my constituency. The local authority was made aware of plans to reduce the service in May 2022. However, my constituents still do not have a replacement service and are unable to access healthcare, jobs and education. Will my right hon. Friend meet me urgently to work out what more we can do to encourage local authorities to keep those vital bus services going? (903160)

I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend. He will be aware that under our bus service improvement plans we are ensuring that local authorities and transport providers work more closely together. We provided more than £2 billion during the pandemic, as he says. I would be delighted to meet him and his constituents on this matter.

T4. Cuts to local bus services have left some of the most deprived communities in my constituency, including the Beechwood and Noctorum estates, effectively cut off from the wider Wirral at evenings and weekends. Many constituents now find it almost impossible to reach Arrowe Park Hospital by public transport. Will the Minister commit to increasing funding for local transport authorities so they can guarantee that no one is left behind by cuts to local services? Will he commit to a review of the Bus Service Act 2017, to allow the creation of municipal bus services that serve the needs of local communities? (903161)

My understanding is that talks are already under way about a franchising service in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We have already provided an extra £60 million over these three months for the £2 maximum fare cap, which will particularly help low-paid working people who regularly use buses to get to work.

T5. The commitment in the Williams-Shapps plan to reform the structure of rail fares has particular resonance for commuters in Swindon, who have historically endured disproportionately high rail fares for journeys to London compared with those in Didcot, Bath and Bristol. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, in any forthcoming legislation, those plans will be brought to fruition? Is the Treasury supportive of them? (903162)

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his question, particularly his reference to our important plan for rail and the necessary reform. As I said, I will set out those plans in more detail shortly, but he should be reassured that we want to simplify the current complicated ticketing strategy while protecting more affordable tickets. I hope he will be pleased about that.

T6. The impact assessment for the anti-strikes Bill stated that on a strike day last year, 20% of rail services were still operational. Clearly, the Tories think that 20% is too low, but to a layman, that is a minimum service. What minimum service will they impose on workers under threat of sack? (903163)

We have already written to our stakeholders and we will be launching a consultation. The results of that consultation, in terms of how the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill would work across the network and whether we would look at a proportion of the timetable or parts of the network, will be determined only when it has been completed. That is the right way to take the process forward.

T8. Thank you, Mr Speaker—I could not imagine being anywhere more joyful than in the Chamber. The Liberal Democrat and Labour authorities in Cambridgeshire are introducing the country’s most draconian congestion charge, but they claim that they are being forced to do that by the Department for Transport, which supposedly rejected Cambridgeshire’s bid for bus funding because they were not committed to road charging. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that that is untrue and that the Department did not require Cambridgeshire to commit to congestion charging to secure bus funding? (903165)

I am happy to confirm that bus funding has never been linked to road charging. A disagreeable pattern seems to be emerging where Labour politicians, backed by the Liberal Democrats, are not being entirely straightforward with the people they represent about road pricing schemes. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is holding them to account, even on his birthday.

T7. The north has one third of the levelling-up funding, yet train and bus services are a fraction of what they were. Every train service between Barnsley and Manchester is cancelled or delayed today and it takes two buses to get from neighbouring Rotherham to Elsecar. Can the Minister explain to my constituents, who simply cannot rely on public transport, how he can possibly think that the Government are levelling up? (903164)

Today’s announcement demonstrates that the Government are levelling up. If one looks at it from a per-population perspective, one will see that the areas are not London or the south-east, but further north and in Wales. We are proud to level up all areas. Many of the amounts that are going to areas involve transport, and we in the Department for Transport are all proud to play our part to ensure that those projects are delivered and work for communities across the United Kingdom.

T9. In thanking the roads Minister for visiting Kettering in December to promote the £2 bus fare scheme, I ask him when National Highways will complete its planning development work on the proposed junction 10A on the A14 at Kettering so that it can be submitted for potential inclusion in road investment strategy 3? (903166)

I was delighted to visit Kettering—in fact, it was the same day that I visited Gateshead—and to see such great coverage in the Northamptonshire Telegraph, which is Northamptonshire’s paper of record. My hon. Friend is an ever-passionate advocate for his constituency and for the proposals to improve the A14. I can confirm that National Highways is considering proposals for junction 10A of the A14 as part of the RIS3 pipeline. Those proposals will be considered alongside a further 30 schemes in the pipeline this year as candidates for potential inclusion in the scheme.

This week, there were media reports that an 87-year-old south London resident has been unable to attend her hospital appointments since Southeastern made changes and cuts to its timetable. My social media is inundated with complaints of overcrowding, cancellations and continual delays on Southeastern services. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the new timetable on reliability?

I welcome, and I congratulate the hon. Member on, the £19 million that has been provided by the levelling-up fund to Lewisham. I am looking forward to visiting her to talk to her and her community groups about the issues she raises. Southeastern has had considerable issues with weather-related matters, industrial action and Network Rail asset improvements. [Interruption.] I know that, unlike the Members talking to me, because I am on a Southeastern line.

Tomorrow, I will be meeting Nottingham City Transport to discuss the new £2 single bus fare. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that—coupled with the recent £11.4 million grant to Nottingham to support bus services, including the Lime Line services and 53 and 39 buses that run through my constituency—there is no better time for Gedling residents to take the bus for work and leisure?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The £2 bus fare cap is not only innovative in helping people save money on their regular transport costs, but helping to take 2 million car journeys off our roads. There are 4,600 routes across England in the scheme, including the 44 bus from Nottingham and the 53 and 39 buses. I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend very soon.

The Conservatives’ promise of great bus services for everyone everywhere is clearly another empty promise. The Minister was right that the only way to solve this is through the devolution of powers and funds to places such as Chester. Will he therefore urge the Secretary of State to take seriously the devolution bid put forward by Cheshire and Warrington, so that we can get buses going where Cestrians need them?

We always look forward to working with local authorities on whatever plans they bring forward, but I remind the hon. Lady that this Government put in over £2 billion of support during the pandemic. We are trying to drive the crucial ridership that will ensure services are sustainable in the long term via the £2 bus fare scheme, which I am sure she will be promoting in her constituency. It has been really good news to see Cheshire West and Chester Council getting an extra £13.3 million today from the levelling-up fund.

I am working with the Stonehouse company BorgWarner in Stroud to raise the profile of hydrogen combustion engines and the need to ensure that they are considered compliant with the upcoming zero-emission vehicle mandate and vehicle requirements from 2035. Will my right hon. Friend agree to visit this important local provider of hundreds of skilled jobs and apprenticeships to learn more about its world-leading work?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for her question. She is absolutely right that hydrogen is a key component of the full decarbonisation of transport—not just heavier transport, but aviation and maritime. I would be delighted to come and visit her.

The levelling-up fund bid for Pencoed level crossing was rejected this morning on the grounds that the spend could not be done in this year. Rail Minister after Rail Minister have promised me and my borough council that this was the key way to get that level crossing closed and unleash the potential of increased services. Will the Rail Minister meet me so that we can resolve this and get the much-needed funding for my constituency?

I would be absolutely delighted to meet the hon. Member. I am sorry for the disappointment he receives on behalf of his community, and I will do everything I can to work with him to make sure that the level crossing is safer.

Building on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) about the £2 bus fare, I am delighted to see it. However, for my Cornforth constituents, the bus no longer exists to Spennymoor, where the supermarket is, so they actually have to take two buses, changing at Ferryhill. What can be done to help such constituents, and will the Minister meet me to discuss this in more detail?

I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour. He will be aware that the enhanced partnership put forward by the Labour North East Joint Transport Committee is currently looking at the BSIP as well. I hope to work with him not only on that, but on the broader regional transport issues of which I know he has been a major champion since he was elected in 2019.

Reddish South and Denton stations are served by just one train a week. This line is the subject of a restoring your railway business case, but it is all coming down to the crossover with the west coast main line at Heaton Norris junction, just north of Stockport. Can I have a meeting with the Rail Minister so we can highlight the case of this line for growth in south-east Manchester and get train services to Denton and Reddish South?

The answer to that is yes, and may I thank all Members I have met who have come up with great ideas of simple timetable changes that can benefit communities and rail patronage? The hon. Gentleman’s idea may be one good example and I will be happy to meet him.

As my hon. Friend will know, National Highways has now submitted a development consent order on the construction of the lower Thames crossing. Who will be assessing the accuracy across Government of the benefit-cost ratio, and who will make the final decision on whether the £10 billion-plus-plus-plus budget still represents value for money?

My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment further while the DCO process is ongoing. The LTC is a major transport infrastructure project and I am happy to meet with him and other hon. Members interested in this, as is the Secretary of State; it is a major piece of infrastructure investment and we need to get it right.

When will the Secretary of State sort out the Rhondda tunnel, in particular the money for it? When is he going to come to the Rhondda—it is not very far from the Forest of Dean—so that I can dangle him down my hole?

This is my first opportunity to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his recently announced honour in the new year’s honours list for his long service in this House. He has raised this specific question on the tunnel with me before; either I or the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), will meet him to look at what we can do to bring that forward.