Transport System: Failings - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:11 pm ar 25 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 12:11, 25 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to congratulate my noble friend Lord Snape on securing this debate. Over the years there has been no better advocate for the railway than him in your Lordships’ House and in the House of Commons before that. He features significantly in the three books on railways and politics that I co-authored.

I remind the House of my railway interests as declared in the register. I chair the Great Western Railway stakeholder advisory board and the North Cotswold Line Task Force and am president of the Heritage Railway Association. I apologise to the House for not declaring the HRA interest when I asked a question in the Chamber yesterday about coal supplies for steam railways.

For nearly 20 years from the mid-1970s onwards, I was an adviser to the British Railways Board. This was the last time the industry benefited from the influence of a guiding mind and from the energy and enthusiasm of its chairman, Sir Peter Parker, and his immediate successor, Sir Robert Reid. It was their misfortune—and the country’s—that this coincided with a period of managed decline and retrenchment on the railway, as transport policy placed far too heavy a reliance on car usage and road haulage.

One of the consequences of that mindset was the decision to reduce the size of the network and take out capacity. With the demand for rail travel having grown so markedly over the past two decades, much effort and huge expense have had to be incurred in the limited programme of station and line reopenings. So much more could have been achieved had many of those closures not happened.

We are now about to embark on another seismic reorganisation and have to get it right. The Government are not short of advice on what needs to be done, and I particularly commend the Manifesto for Rail published by the lobby group Rail Partners. It says:

“Whoever is in office after the next general election needs to take decisions to ensure the industry has the ability to attract passengers back to restore hundreds of millions of pounds in lost revenue, drive modal shift for goods against more polluting modes, and ultimately set up the railway for sustainable success. The public is not that interested in how our railways are structured or organised, they just want to have trains that run on time, that are not disrupted by strikes, and fares that offer them the best value for their journey”.

It is crucial that, with a general election coming so soon and—I think most Members of your Lordships’ House would agree—a change of administration very much on the cards, every effort is made now to achieve a cross-party consensus on what needs to be done. To his credit, I believe that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Gower, gets this, as does the Minister for Rail in the other place, Huw Merriman. I very much appreciate the invitation the two Ministers sent to Members of your Lordships’ House to attend the briefing on the draft Bill on 19 March. The noble Lord, Lord Hendy of Richmond Hill, played a prominent part in that, and I am pleased to see him in his place today. The briefing was also given by members of the Great British Railways transition team.

The overriding priority is to pass rail reform legislation, establish Great British Railways as soon as possible and get on with improving the railways by stimulating demand and reducing cost. The Bill contains some helpful measures in this regard, notably the creation of an integrated rail body, the IRB. In legal terms, the body combines the DfT’s role as franchising authority and takes over the role of infrastructure manager undertaken by Network Rail. The IRB will be held to account on how it delivers rail services and be accountable for the whole system, including passenger revenue and a freight growth target. It is potentially good news for passengers and freight users and could simplify the railway, making it cheaper to run.

The Bill gets decisions away from a remote, non-operational Whitehall department and provides the opportunity to join up the railway closer to the people who use it. The new IRB model should help tackle high costs and project delays. One of our railways’ greatest challenges is the way UK capital projects regularly come in at a much higher cost than those in other countries. Stop-start investment and changing government plans result in project managers overspecifying schemes and suppliers putting in high cost estimates to cover the risk of uncertainty. The cost of electrification schemes is a particular example, and has proved to be the death knell of extending the benefits of HS2 to the north of England and Scotland.

A prerequisite for the IRB’s success is to take revenue risk away from the Treasury and cost control from the DfT. The new body needs to be judged solely on the net subsidy and public investment cost. Rail usage has broadly doubled since privatisation, resulting in a much more congested network, and it is important that we have proper trade-offs on its future usage and meet that demand.

It is evident from the statements made by the Prime Minister and No. 10 that railways are now seen as a problem rather than an opportunity and that tactical policy is now strictly controlled by the Treasury rather than the DfT, with minimising costs being the primary objective. Yet rail is essential if we are to meet the carbon reduction targets required in the transport sector. While electric cars may help, no such solution is available for aviation or heavy haulage, which will be dependent on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. Rail passenger services that offer times competitive with air are essential to reduce the need for internal and short-haul European flights. The same is true for container trains between the ports and inland distribution centres. Not only is rail now cheaper for many of these flows but customers are increasingly demanding environmentally sustainable rail solutions to reduce their carbon footprint.

I will finish with the concluding sentence from Signals Passed at Danger, my third book on railways, published last year:

“The railways’ capabilities are manifest when the management of the railways is restored to those competent to operate them, with a clear strategy and funding agreed to deliver the outputs of that strategy”.