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Volume 805: debated on Wednesday 9 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the future of railways in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we are committed to transforming the railways and delivering wholesale reform, putting passengers first, accelerating passenger-focused improvements right across the sector and building back better. Our reforms will be informed by the excellent work undertaken by Keith Williams, who, as rail is devolved to Northern Ireland, considered reforms across Great Britain.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will she turn specifically to the question of railway fares? Have the Government received any representations from the train operating companies about the alterations they would like to see in the railway fares structure, particularly season tickets, and to build back confidence in the use of the railway?

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, is absolutely right that fares and ticketing must be at the heart of the reforms that the Government carry out. We recognise the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused in the short term, and this could also have longer-term effects on commuter behaviours. In response to that, we proactively sought proposals from the rail industry to ensure better value and convenience, particularly, for example, for part-time workers and flexible commuters. We are considering all of the proposals that we have received, and we will make an announcement in due course.

My Lords, on 12 August this year, in Carmont, in the east of Scotland, there was a train crash. The train went into a landslip, and three people were sadly killed. Even Grant Shapps accepts that the landslide was a result of climate change. Do the Government’s plans include talking to Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation to put in place further measures to mitigate climate change impacts?

My Lords, Network Rail is of course extremely conscious of the changes to our climate and the impact that that might have on infrastructure. The dreadful event that happened at Stonehaven is an ongoing incident and it is being investigated by the RAIB, the ORR and the BTP. We cannot make further detailed comment or speculate at this time, but those investigations continue, and the causes of the accident will be investigated fully.

My Lords, can my noble friend give an assurance that any future plans for the railways will not return us to a state-owned monopoly—as has been advocated by some—but keep the franchising principle? This has brought new operators, new ideas and new capital into the railways, and enables the Government to get the best deal for travellers and the taxpayer by the competitive tendering process.

I pay great tribute to my noble friend and his time as Transport Secretary. I had the opportunity to go back and look at some of his words in Hansard from when he was Transport Secretary—I think it was 1995 to 1997. There were also some interesting photographs, which noble Lords might want to have a look at, at some stage. My noble friend is absolutely right that we must retain the benefits of private sector involvement in the railways. That is at the heart of how we can make sure that our railways are as effective as possible. Of course, Keith Williams has looked at all these issues and very much recognises that point. The new model that we are developing will ensure that the railway benefits from all that the private sector has to offer in innovation, customer centricity, investment and so on.

My Lords, the Government’s message on transport at the moment is a bit confusing: get back to work, commute but do not use public transport, and do not work at home. In addition, there are an awful lot of people disregarding this and working at home. Are the Government looking very seriously at the future demand for rail travel, because of both the coronavirus changes and their zero-carbon commitment?

The noble Lord is right that the future demand for rail travel is a very important factor in how we will reform the system going forward. However, we need it to be as flexible as possible. I disagree with the noble Lord in that I do not feel that the Government’s messaging around the use of public transport is confusing. The messaging is absolutely clear: use public transport safely.

Does the Minister accept that planned increases for next January of 1.6% for regulated train fares are totally counterproductive if the Government want to persuade us back to using public transport? Year after year, fuel duty is frozen. Is it not time now to freeze rail fares and encourage people back on to public transport?

The Government accept that fares sometimes have an impact on the demand for the system and we expect that the increase, when it comes in January, will be the lowest amount in four years. This increase also helps fund investment within the system. However, a number of considerations are currently under way in thinking about more short-term measures on fares, which might encourage people back into the economy.

My Lords, first, the Victorian signalling system has been in use for about 200 years. What plans are there to modernise the system, and what is the timetable for doing that? Secondly, as the development of the north-east is now a priority, what is the timetable for developing new rail lines laterally which will be accessible from the new HS2?

As the noble Lord will know, on new railway lines, CP6—the investment period we are currently in—will see investment of £48 billion over the next five years. Over that period, and in the longer term, a lot of consideration will be given to improvements in capacity for the north, including east-west routes. On the issue of signalling, it is the case that some of our signalling systems are very old, and we are looking at various ways of investing in digital signalling. I will write to the noble Lord with further details, if I may.

The Great Western emergency measures agreement has been extended until at least late June of next year. Have all the other EMAs been extended for a similar period, or will they be? What is the estimated total additional cost to the taxpayer of doing so, including the cost of the management fee? Secondly, the Minister has referred twice to the Williams review. Why are the Government now declining to publish in full the much-trailed root-and-branch Williams rail review, as opposed to simply publishing the outcomes of that review in a Government White Paper?

The outcomes of the Williams review are the most important part of the review, which is why we are publishing. On the future of the EMAs, we had to put them in place very quickly. They protected services for the people who needed to use them, at a significant cost to the taxpayer, and we had to ensure that the cost was justified. We are reviewing the approach to all the contractual arrangements which will come into place after the EMAs, and an announcement will be made in due course.

My Lords, turning to rail access to and from the continent, is the Minister aware that rail transport is becoming the preferred EU means of journeying? Beyond HS2, what plans do the Government have to join up the UK’s national rail infrastructure so as to reach all economic regions of the UK with convenient connections to the markets of the European Union?

The department is looking at and analysing the routes that people take and the modes by which they take them, at all times. That includes looking at how we travel to key economic areas within the EU and elsewhere.

My Lords, given the experience of Covid, there will be an element of home-working on a permanent basis. Will my noble friend ensure that the Government will look at more flexible fares, ensuring that more of us travel on the railways? What is the current barrier to rolling out the Oyster card, so that it can be used across at least the whole of England?

Flexible fares will be a feature of the landscape going forward, and the noble Baroness is quite right that some people have changed the way that they work. However, we saw some of that shift before the Covid pandemic actually struck. We are also looking in detail at pay-as-you-go ticketing and contactless travel, which is absolutely essential for those of us who live in London—we know the benefits of the Oyster card. It was a manifesto commitment to extend contactless travel to more than 200 stations in the south-east.

My Lords, does the Minister not realise that the current chaos on the railways is a result of the policies brought in by the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, and other Conservative Transport Ministers? Is it not about time that the Government had a damascene conversion and returned all the railway system to public ownership?

We will not be returning to the “good old days” of British Rail, my Lords. The noble Lord mentions chaos on the railways. I would like to make him aware that the national public performance measure for our railways is currently 92%, over Monday and Tuesday. There is no chaos on the tracks at the moment.