Transport System: Failings - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:18 pm ar 25 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord McLoughlin Lord McLoughlin Chair, Joint Committee on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, Chair, Joint Committee on the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee 1:18, 25 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Snape, on securing this debate and on managing to tee up his party to make its major announcement on rail today. It is a great achievement.

It is a privilege to see the noble Lord, Lord Hendy of Richmond Hill, in the Chamber today. He is somebody who has done a huge amount for rail and transport infrastructure in the United Kingdom. I was very pleased that he was appointed as chairman of Network Rail. In fact, it was my appointment, so I was delighted to be able to do that.

I declare my interest as chairman of Transport for the North and as someone who thinks that strategic transport bodies have importance. I do not have a lot of time to talk too much about that today.

This debate has fallen into the trap we so often fall into when we talk about transport, because transport is not about just the rail industry. Today’s debate has been dominated by speeches about railways from nearly all Peers, apart from my noble friend Lord Holmes, who mentioned Network Rail only in passing, right at the end of his speech—I congratulate him on that. Naturally, railways are very important to our transport system, but I am glad that certain people have made reference to buses, and I certainly hope to do so too.

There is no doubt that transport is the artery of any economy. It gets people to work, children to school and food to shops. Everyone depends on it every day. When transport slows, everything slows; when transport stops, everything stops. We saw an example of that during the pandemic, to which quite a few of the problems we face today relate. We almost forget that, just four years ago, the country was virtually at a standstill because of the pandemic. But lots of things are changing in the transport world.

There have been a lot of attacks on privatisation today. It is worth bearing in mind that, before privatisation, there were 700 million journeys a year on our railways; the year before the pandemic, there were 1.8 billion journeys on our railways. We have seen a revolution in the rail industry: it does far more and serves far more people. That happened because private finance was brought into the rail industry, and we were no longer completely reliant on what the Treasury said and did not say. There have been a lot of attacks today on the Treasury, so I say: be careful what you wish for because, if you wholly nationalise, the people who will take back control will be not the Department for Transport but His Majesty’s Treasury. So one should be a little cautious about what one asks for. On the idea that open access will somehow be allowed to continue, with all the other operators being nationalised and operated from the centre, it will be interesting to see how that develops in the longer term.

I very much regret the Government’s decision on stopping HS2. Unfortunately, HS2 became a discussion about speed, but it was never about speed; it was about capacity on our network and freeing up a lot more room for other services on it. Two metro mayors, Andy Street and Andy Burnham, commissioned a report from David Higgins on what a future Government will do, and it will be interesting to see that, whatever happens after a general election. I slightly warn people: I remember that, when I was first elected to the House of Commons, I was told by the BBC that it had done an exit poll in my constituency and I had lost. The returning officer told me otherwise. From that day onwards, I have always believed that the returning officer is a bit more authoritative on election results. Given that, let us be careful about what we see as the future of the rail industry.

The other interesting growth and important change that has taken place is the growth of metro mayors and their importance as far as their impact on transport and transport policy is concerned. As I say, Andy Street and Andy Burnham commissioned work from Sir David Higgins about what should happen as a result of terminating HS2 at Handsacre, and it will be interesting to see exactly what happens with that under any future Government.

On some of the points made earlier about buses, I say that buses are incredibly important to our transport system. I congratulate the Government on the £2 fare cap that they brought in. It has seen patronage start to rise and more people using buses. It is due to end on 31 December this year. A few other things will take place between now and then that may preoccupy parties’ minds, but, if this does end, it will be a very retrograde step for the bus industry. I hope my noble friend on the Front Bench can relay the message to the Secretary of State that this should be extended at least to the end of the financial year, so that people are not starting to think now about what they might do if that £2 fare cap were removed.

There was an interesting story in the Times a few weeks ago about how much has already been spent before any decision on the lower Thames crossing has been made:

“National Highways, which manages the strategic road network, has spent more than £267 million on the application alone, while overall spending on the project has surpassed £800 million” before a spade has been put in the ground. We need to look carefully at how we do long-term planning for these big infrastructure projects. I think we have got the system wrong.

I can see my time has come to an end, so I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that transport is about not just the railways but a lot of other subjects that we have not had time to talk fully about today.