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Railways: Transport for the North

Volume 792: debated on Thursday 19 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to grant powers to Transport for the North to manage all Northern railway infrastructure.

My Lords, Transport for the North became the first statutory subnational transport body in England on 1 April, taking on a strengthened role as a statutory partner in advising the Secretary of State on national rail investment and taking over the co-management of the Northern and TransPennine Express rail franchises. TfN can seek approval for additional powers if it can demonstrate, with consent from its members, that they can be exercised more effectively and efficiently.

I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. Does he agree with many people in the north that with regular cancellations, two-carriage trains, dangerously busy trains at peak times, reductions in service and overall poor management and treatment of customers, the franchise given to Arriva Northern needs to be either split up or taken away altogether?

Having sat through previous exchanges, I am well aware of the anger in the north at the disruption to services following the introduction of the new timetable. The top priority has to be the stabilisation and restoration of the services to which people are entitled. On the noble Lord’s question about the franchise, the Government have instituted a review that will be completed by the end of the month to see to what extent GTR and Northern were in breach of their contracts. A range of sanctions are available if that turns out to be the case. My initial view is that much of the problems in the north was due to Network Rail being late with infrastructure and late in delivering the timetable. We must await the outcome. So far as splitting the franchise is concerned, the franchise is due to run for some time. There is a real risk of further disruption if the franchise were to be taken back on board now and then split. The top priority is to get stability, and then to make further progress with the substantial investment that is now planned by the Government.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that although Network Rail was late with its electrification of one route, many other faults have contributed to the present problem? Some very good people in Network Rail are trying to do some enhancements on the east-west route, which should be applauded. My worry, which I put to the noble Lord, is that Transport for the North needs to decide what it wants, and its members need to decide what services they want. I have had many discussions with them and, as chairman of the Rail Freight Group, I am very concerned that they are trying to cut out rail freight going across the Pennines in order to get one or two more passenger trains. They should look at the whole thing in the round and then talk to Network Rail about what is possible and come up with a coherent plan—which they do not have at the moment.

The noble Lord makes a very good point. We have a national network and it is crucial that we preserve its coherence and integrity. That is one reason why one cannot devolve entirely responsibility for infrastructure to Transport for the North—the very reason given by the noble Lord. On what TfN wants to do, it has been there for only three and a half months. Looking at its business plan, it is now in the process of starting work this financial year on the business case for further devolution. As I said in my initial reply, if it wants more powers, the Government are very happy to look at that, but having given it responsibility under the statutory instrument, it is now up to TfN to come up with a statutory plan, advise the Secretary of State and, if it wants to, bid for more powers.

My Lords, will my noble friend not now accept, in the midst of all this muddle of competing authorities between one person and another and one board and another, that what is desperately needed is to put the ownership of the track and of the trains in the same body, whether it is in the public or the private sector?

My noble friend makes a good point: that it is important to bring responsibility for the trains and responsibility for the track closer together. If he looks at the proposals in, for example, the north, he will see that Network Rail is now setting up a board there to work closely with the train operating companies and the passengers to integrate train and track. However, I am sure that my noble friend is not proposing major primary legislation to undo the privatisation for which I and others bear some responsibility.

My Lords, the Minister referred to east-west links across the Pennines. He might have seen the campaign launched in the north of England in February to reopen the Hellifield link, which I raised with him on a previous occasion. That link would restore passenger services on a line used every day for freight, for the first time since 1962. It would link Lancashire with Yorkshire and open up the possibilities of daily travel services to Skipton, Leeds and further north to Bradford, but also to Carlisle and Lancaster. Is that not something that could be done at relatively low cost that would make a huge difference to the connectivity of the northern areas?

I am sure that the noble Lord is right, but one of the things TfN has responsibility for doing is to look at the various bids in the north and come up with a list of priorities. If, when it does that, it puts the scheme that the noble Lord referred to right at the top of its priorities, that would carry weight with the Secretary of State.

My Lords, would it not be a better solution to have a coherent system of devolution of powers, including transport, to all the regions of England? Will the Government look at this? If they do not do it soon I can assure them that it will be brought in by a Labour Government. The way things are going, that cannot be far away.

My Lords, we have not had to wait for a Labour Government to devolve major powers to, for example, Manchester and other parts of the country. We have introduced metro mayors and combined authorities. We will continue to do that. People will not have to wait for this illusory dream that the noble Lord just referred to.

My Lords, following the surprisingly interesting intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, will the Minister agree that privatisation of the railways has been an unmitigated disaster and the worst example of any large country in Europe of a very badly run system? Is it not now time for radical solutions, as we warned as MPs at the time when the noble Lord was one of the Ministers in charge of railway privatisation in the Commons in the early 1990s? What we now need is root-and-branch reform, with public ownership of the railway system itself but with private investors as well.

I am very glad that my franchise runs out after seven and a half minutes. I fundamentally disagree with the noble Lord. We have seen a doubling of passenger traffic on the railways. Crucially, we have created a railway operating industry, which we never had before. We had a monopoly with British Rail. If it was not any good there was nothing you could do about it. We now have competing train operating companies and we have unlocked private investment in infrastructure. I wholly reject the negative proposition that my former noble friend put forward.

My Lords, with rail passengers’ satisfaction with their journeys falling, the Commons Public Accounts Committee describing the Department for Transport’s management of two major franchises as completely inadequate, the Department for Transport admitting its part in the current new timetable shambles as a sponsor of the Thameslink programme and a member of the Thameslink Industry Readiness Board, and with the Secretary of State’s decision that an independent inquiry into the Thameslink 2018 new timetable problems is to be conducted by the Office of Rail and Road and led by the chairman of the Office of Rail and Road, with two out of five members also being members of the board of the Office of Rail and Road, while the role of the ORR is one of the matters to be assessed, does this not show the need to get more local, regional and accountable decision-making over our fragmented railway network to mitigate the damaging effect of the involvement of the current Secretary of State?

I reject the implication from the noble Lord that somehow the ORR is not the right body to do this. It is an independent body with the detailed knowledge of the railway industry that is needed; it was not directly involved in the timetable; it is supported by a panel of, I think, five independent members; and I think they are the right people to look at the role of all those involved in the recent debacle over the timetable. It will produce an interim report in September and a final report in December and I hope that, when it comes out, the noble Lord will feel that he might review the negative criticisms he has made of the composition of the body.