Transport System: Failings - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 11:50 am ar 25 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Snape Lord Snape Llafur 11:50, 25 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, the wording of the Motion before your Lordships’ House calls for greater coherence for Britain’s transport system. I hope that, while debating this important matter, we can agree on both sides of the House that coherence is the one thing that is lacking. Indeed, the current Government made a virtue of a lack of coherence with their transport policy. I will come to the divisions within the rail and bus industry in a moment or two, but we lack an overall transport policy in this country and have done for many years. In so far as our major transport sectors are concerned—bus and rail—it is the British people who have suffered, particularly the passengers on both modes of transport.

The failings of our railway network are many and manifold. Since privatisation in 1994, fares for passengers on our railway system have increased by around 20% in real terms; that is not what we were promised when the privatisation Bill went through both Houses of Parliament. We were told that the thrusting private enterprise system being introduced would not just increase competition between railway companies but bring lower fares to its passengers. The result, of course, has been exactly the opposite. We have seen a failure in reliability since privatisation. I have no wish to bore your Lordships with stories of my time on British Rail, but the cancellation of a passenger train in my days in an operating role was virtually unheard of. Because it was an integrated system, we could generally find locomotives, drivers and train crew that could be moved from one role to another in the event of any hiatus within the timetabling system. That does not happen now; because of privatisation, drivers for one company often cannot drive the locomotives of another company; train crews who do not know the route from A to B cannot step in when short-term cancellations take place. Again, this is not what we were promised at the time of privatisation, but it is the reality that we have today.

I read this morning that something like a thousand trains a day on the railway system are cancelled. No other railway system in the developed world has to face such a nonsense on a daily basis. We will be assured by the Minister that everything is in hand and the railways will continue to improve in future, but it is just not true. Another aspect of this is the collapse of morale among those who work in the railway industry. I use Birmingham International station on a regular basis to travel to and from London. The staff there tell me that on some days they hide from the public because they are so ashamed of the product that they have to put in front of them. They also say that, by and large, information is not transported down the line—no pun intended—to those at the front end so that they can pass it on to passengers; they are as unaware as the rest of us of when things go wrong and how they can be put right. This leads, as I have indicated, to a collapse in morale—and in industrial relations generally.

This Government appear to need to find an enemy rather than deal with any problems. The latest enemy, as far as the railway industry is concerned, is ASLEF, the drivers’ union: no negotiations have taken place between the train operating companies and the representatives of ASLEF for over a year. All the Government can say is, “But they earn £60,000 a year”. Well, I do not object to train drivers earning £60,000 a year; it is about an afternoon’s work for a hedge fund operative—whatever they actually do. Someone in a responsible position such as a train driver should be properly paid, and train drivers and their representatives ought to be consulted about not just wages but the aims of the railway industry. We all know that the train operating companies take their orders from His Majesty’s Government in this supposedly privatised world, so they have their hands tied and cannot freely enter negotiations with ASLEF and the other railway trade unions.

We were promised when privatisation took place that there would be an upsurge in new rolling stock and new locomotives for the railway industry. Yet we have just rescued Litchurch Lane in Derby by a last-minute order for trains, to keep something like 1,500 skilled personnel in work there and thousands of other people in the supply chain. Hitachi recently opened, with some fanfare, a factory in the north-east, but that now faces closure because of the dearth of orders for the railway industry, and this has been partly brought about by the nonsense of HS2. I do not wish to rehearse the whole business again in front of your Lordships, but no other country could put forward proposals for a high-speed railway and then keep cutting them back. Only the current Prime Minister could go to Manchester to a Conservative Party conference to tell it that the high-speed line between Birmingham and Manchester is cancelled and expect a standing ovation for doing so. That truncated high-speed route will not just directly impact passengers. Without getting too bogged down again in the details of what is left of HS2, I point out that to travel from Handsacre Junction to Old Oak Common is not quite what was envisaged at the time the proposals for this high-speed railway were put forward. The rump of it has been summed up as a railway starting somewhere that no one has ever heard of, to end up somewhere no one wants to go. Only the present Government could devise a high-speed railway that would make journeys between, for example, Manchester and London no faster and, in some cases, slower than the existing line. The need for a proper strategy for the railway industry is pretty obvious.

I turn also to the bus industry. Those of us who take an interest in these matters were intrigued some years ago to see the Prime Minister at the time, somebody called Boris Johnson—I wonder what happened to him—announce with great fanfare a scheme called Bus Back Better. He was a great man for gimmicks, but what has been the reality of Bus Back Better since its inception? The answer is that bus services throughout the country have been decimated, and many towns and cities that formerly had a proper bus service no longer have such a thing.

At the time of bus privatisation—I was a Member of the other place then—Nicholas Ridley made a virtue of the thrusting competition that would result from the 1984 privatisation Act. Yet towns and cities in this country have seen not only their bus fares increase, in real terms, by around 15% to 20% but their bus services decimated. There is a whole list of casualties of bus services, which have been reduced in previous years, including in cities such as Bath. Everybody talks about Birmingham, of course, and that the near bankruptcy in Birmingham is all the Labour Party’s fault. I do not think that Bath is particularly regarded as a left-wing bastion, yet bus services there have reduced by about 70% since privatisation. The fact is that local authorities, having been starved of funds, have no finance to subsidise essential bus services, and even the commercial routes in many of our cities up and down the country have been cut back because of financial problems.

Bus Back Better has turned out to be “bus back a lot worse” over the last couple of years. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what the Government propose, other than postponing all the decisions until after the next general election, when they will not be affected anyway, as far as bus services are concerned.

Lastly, I will talk for a moment or two about the road network, important though it is. Again, in theory we have a £20 billion-odd road programme in this country, yet driving around our major towns and cities is an object lesson in pothole avoidance. I was driven into the centre of Birmingham the other day to a hospital. I have a bad hand so I cannot drive; I was going on to the railway station, so I do not want to be accused of failing to use public transport. It was fascinating to watch how the regular drivers and commuters weaved their way through all the potholes at major junctions. Are we serious? We supposedly have a £24 billion or £25 billion road-building programme, yet we cannot fill potholes in our towns and cities. The Government will again blame wasteful local authorities, but they have cut back the resources for local authorities for many years. How are local authorities supposed to provide not only the essential statutory services but the upkeep of the infrastructure in the areas they represent?

The lack of a transport strategy is not the only disaster. There is also the attitude of the Treasury towards any major project. All the Treasury ever sees is the cost; benefits never ever occur to it. The fact is that investment in our road, railway and transport system brings a return far in excess of the initial cost, in most cases, but, short-termism being the curse of Britain over the years, the fact is that many of the projects that need to be completed are put aside, HS2 being only one example.

The lack of enthusiasm, strategy and planning as far as our transport system is concerned makes this country the laughing stock of the western world. The fact is, we need proper long-term planning for many of these major infrastructure projects, both road and rail. I leave the last word to the Institution of Civil Engineers, which makes exactly that same point: that short-termism has bedevilled British infrastructure projects for years, and that when things go wrong the Treasury all to soon says, “We can save billions of pounds by cancelling a specific project”. The nation has been the great loser in this lack of any sort of transport strategy over the years, and I hope that, during the course of the debate, I can take noble Lords on both sides along with me when I say that it is the nation that has been the loser. I beg to move.