Transport System: Failings - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:33 pm ar 25 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 1:33, 25 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Snape, for giving us such a broad canvas for our debate today. It has left us free to roam over fertile territory, pointing out the failings of current policy and the daily transport crises that fail travellers. It is very easy pickings because there is so much to choose from.

Many noble Lords have used this debate to highlight important issues arising from their own experiences. I especially welcomed the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, on issues that particularly affect people with disability. I note my sadness that I am the only woman speaking in this debate, because a good public transport system is an equality issue. Women and girls are more likely to use public transport than to have cars. My noble friend Lord Goddard referred to ticketing, as did many others. He spoke particularly about Avanti and praised its on-train staff for dealing with the pressure they face so expertly in their responses. I second that by referring to Great Western staff; the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, and I suffer the vagaries of the Great Western service. Just to illustrate a point: while we have been sat here, four trains have been shortened from 10 to five carriages, making all the associated trains uncomfortable, too.

Transport is fundamental to the success of the economy, despite all the talk of working from home, using Zoom and so on. Failing transport networks stifle the economy, as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, said. Wherever we look, our transport infrastructure is failing. The Centre for Cities estimates that that costs our economy £23 billion a year. Our roads, both local and national highways, are seriously congested and in urgent need of repairs. Now, I am a Liberal Democrat and I like talking about potholes, but potholes have become a national topic of conversation because of local government underfunding. Our motorways are heavily congested. The Government therefore invented smart motorways, which are supposed to rely on sophisticated surveillance equipment to keep drivers safe. Just this week, however, we hear that this equipment is subject to frequent failures.

Bus services have declined dramatically, leaving rural areas as bus deserts. The youngest, oldest and poorest in our society in particular are left without any affordable means of getting to work, to education, to training, to doctors’ appointments and to see family and friends. Although the £2 fare is welcome, like so much that this Government do, it is short term, haphazard and certainly not strategic. Money to incentivise zero-emission buses is welcome but, outside London, there are many areas where this has hardly made any impression at all. Above all, there is the uncertainty of funding, with four separate funding streams for buses. What we need, for a start, is one integrated system and more transparency to make sure that the money gets spent properly.

Train services are a national tragedy. When we ask questions here, Ministers always recite how much taxpayers have subsidised rail services since the pandemic. They overlook the subsidy that taxpayers give to road building and maintenance, and that every train passenger benefits all those who do not or cannot take the train by taking themselves off the roads. The nation that invented the railways has proved itself incapable of building a modern high-speed line in an efficient and sensible manner. We have had years of government contortions and “will they, won’t they?”, when first one leg and then the other leg of HS2 north of Birmingham was cancelled. At a stroke, that cancellation added vast amounts of money to future contractors’ estimates, because they will factor in the financial risk of project cancellation. We are told that, unlike on the high-speed lines that we see across the world, HS2 trains will travel on standard rail lines north of Birmingham, but they will of course have to travel more slowly than classic trains because those trains will not tilt.

Recently, we discussed the crisis facing train manufacturers Alstom and Hitachi because of the stop-go approach to rail investment. Thousands of jobs are at risk, with the Government scrabbling around at the last minute to try to save them.

Instead of HS2, we have the hotchpotch of Network North. Individual projects are probably very sensible and worthy, but there has been a lack of consultation, no coherent overall strategic plan, no proper discussion with local mayors, and so on. Of the £36 billion allocated to HS2, £11.6 billion will go to Network North; that is a major cut in funding for rail. The Rail Industry Association complains that there has been no assessment of value for money and risk, and that many of these are simply reannouncements, with only five new projects.

Just look at the current problems that face LNER, for example, with its planned new timetable, which will reduce services to key towns such as Berwick. The plans are now being put on hold for the second time because, according to Network Rail, they are undeliverable. There has been a lack of coherent consultation. Across the whole sector, investors and professionals are crying out for certainty and an end to U-turns and the stop-start approach to funding.

The Government had some good ideas, but they have dropped most of them. Theresa May made a bold and laudable decision when she fixed 2030 as the date for phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicle sales, but a single parliamentary by-election changed government policy and the date for that decision. As a result, the whole of our valuable automotive industry was wrong-footed.

There is no proper leadership on a sustainable charging network for electric vehicles and there is a lack of incentive to attract those who are less well-off into EV ownership. It is no wonder we are far from the world-leading image produced by Boris Johnson on EV manufacture and take-up.

In 2021, we had the Williams-Shapps report for rail reform. In 2022, in the Queen’s Speech, we had a Transport Bill announced, but it was never introduced. We now have the draft Rail Reform Bill, which has only just started scrutiny in the House of Commons and will have no chance of becoming law before the general election. Now we have Labour talking about a five-year lead-up to nationalisation, which will be five years of uncertainty—the last thing the rail industry needs.

We have a long way to go now. We need certainty and dramatic change in our bus services, our EV charging, our automotive manufacturing, our railways and much more. We need heaps more awareness of the value of investment, rather than the cost of each individual minute aspect of it. We need less political interference; we need investment, vision and less short-term bean counting.