Transport System: Failings - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:55 pm ar 25 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Davies of Gower Lord Davies of Gower Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 1:55, 25 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I am very pleased to respond for the Government on this debate on the transport system, which I thank the noble Lord, Lord Snape, for tabling. I also thank noble Lords who have taken part for their insightful and wide-ranging points. I will do my best in the time allotted to me to address those in my response.

This country has a proud transport history, spanning great maritime successes, the birth of steam-powered engines and the creation of one of the safest road networks anywhere in the world. Our heritage inspires us to look forward. We continue to strive towards an excellent transport system that supports people and businesses, wherever they live and work.

We are not only managing the transport system we inherited but taking steps to make it fit for the future, seizing opportunities for transport to unleash economic growth and improve people’s lives. We are mending the potholes, making life easier for drivers and reforming our railways. We are capitalising on our world-leading research and innovation capabilities by legislating to make the UK one of the best places in the world to invest in, produce and use self-driving vehicles. We are giving local and regional leaders the powers and funding they need to deliver transport systems which get people and businesses moving across the country.

Naturally, there are forces that have had significant consequences on transport and those who use it. These include the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and the historic high levels of inflation which have impacted economies across the globe. These challenges have left their mark on the ways in which people travel. They have also impacted the cost of building infrastructure and running services, but thanks to our interventions we are well on the road to recovery.

In the three years after the pandemic began, the Government provided more than £45 billion of operational funding to keep the railway running. Now, passenger numbers are back at 80% of pre-Covid levels. To tackle the cost of living crisis, we have capped bus fares at £2 and launched two “Great British Rail Sales”. We have cancelled planned inflation increases on fuel duty and, from 2022, temporarily cut the rate by 5p, saving the average car driver around £250 in total since then. We are supporting drivers through our plan for drivers and ensuring we can reach our net-zero goals in a proportionate and pragmatic way. Thanks to the difficult decisions we have made on HS2, we are now redirecting £36 billion of investment towards rail, roads and local transport as part of our Network North plans, allowing us to benefit more people in more places, more quickly.

This Government have the practical and long-term vision to improve and nurture the transport system in the future. Allow me to outline some of our plans in detail. On rail, we are acutely aware of the need to bring the railways into the 21st century. Vital to this is our ongoing work to upgrade the existing rail network, to improve rail operators’ performance and to make the railways more accessible to all. We have published a draft rail reform Bill and are pushing ahead with a range of non-legislative reform measures. We are continuing to deliver HS2 between London and the West Midlands, boosting economic growth, improving journey times and adding much-needed capacity on one of the UK’s most congested rail routes.

On trains, I noted this morning the announcement that Labour proposes an ideological nationalisation, with no detail beyond a soundbite and no response to how nationalisation will make a difference to things that people really care about: reliability and affordability. There was no real detail of what Labour proposes to do with the parts of the industry that are profitable, including the rolling stock operators and the open-access operators. The rolling stock operators have used private finance to fund 8,000 new carriages since 2010. The popular open-access operators have reconnected communities and given them direct services to London. Either Labour proposes to nationalise this part of the sector, or it is not serious about nationalisation and it is simply a fig leaf to appease their union paymasters.

All Labour’s current policy to nationalise passenger rail contracts will deliver is baking in some of the existing challenges, such as too much involvement from Whitehall in running the railways, taking on the parts of the sector that require greatest public subsidy, with no plan to grow passenger numbers—the only way to reduce subsidy. It also means that rail workers will become public sector workers, and so their pay rises will need to be in line with those of nurses and teachers, rather than in line with private sector wage growth. To quote the noble Lord, Lord Snape, we will indeed be “the laughing stock” of the western world.

We have set out a 30-point plan for drivers, bringing about smoother journeys and easier parking, stopping unfair enforcement and inconsiderate driving, and helping the transition to zero-emission driving. Spades are in the ground on our second road investment strategy, and we are preparing plans for the third road investment strategy.

At the local level, we are devolving powers and budgets away from central government through measures including the local transport fund, city region sustainable transport settlements, devolution deals and trailblazer settlements. This is giving leaders the funding and powers they need to get people and business moving. We are investing in a long-term sustainable future for buses, including more than £4.5 billion to support and improve bus services since March 2020. We are investing in active travel infrastructure, including the active travel fund and the second cycling and walking investment strategy.

We have set out a clear vision and ambitions for the future of the British maritime sector, focused on growing our economic impact, keeping people safe and protecting our environment. The UK SHORE programme alone is providing £206 million to accelerate the technology needed to decarbonise the domestic maritime sector.

We have established a strategic framework for aviation focused on innovation, sustainability and efficiency. Our updated airspace modernisation strategy will enable quicker, quieter and cleaner journeys, and increase UK airspace capacity. We have set a road map for how drones and novel electric aircraft can deliver better public services and green economic growth. In November last year, we saw the first ever transatlantic 100% sustainable aviation fuel flight by a commercial airliner, from Heathrow to New York, made possible with government funding.

Finally, on the environment, we have dedicated over £22 billion to help the UK meet its 2050 net-zero target, and we are ensuring that our transport system will be resilient to climate change. Network Rail alone will be investing around £2.4 billion in England and Wales over the next five years to improve resilience to extreme weather and climate change. However, these ambitious plans are not for government alone. We are working closely with the devolved Administrations to deliver a world-class transport system across the country. We engage closely with our friends across the world and with international bodies to deliver frameworks and standards, to share and contribute to best practice and research, and to drive forward global action on decarbonisation and the environment. We consult broadly and deeply with industry, civil society, academia and the general public to shape and deliver our plans.

With that, I turn my attention to points raised during the debate. Quite a lot of points were raised, and I will try to get though as many as I possibly can in the time left. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, talked about rail performance in his opening speech. The department has been clear that the current performance of the railway is unacceptable. The industry needs to make significant improvement to deliver the punctual and reliable services that passengers and taxpayers deserve. That is why the department has regular high-level meetings on punctuality and reliability with both Network Rail and representatives of the train operators to hold rail partners to account. All private-sector operators have now transitioned over to National Rail contracts, which include a revenue-incentive mechanism, encouraging train operators to minimise cancellations and short formations unless absolutely necessary.

The noble Lord, Lord Snape, also referred to Hitachi. The department is holding intensive discussions with Hitachi to find a sustainable solution for train manufacturing at its Newton Aycliffe plant. Train operators are subject to procurement law as they operate under contracts directly awarded by the department. This is complex and difficult. There are no simple solutions, and any solution needs to be legally robust and sustainable for the long term.

The noble Lords, Lord Snape, Lord McLoughlin and Lord Liddle, talked about bus service cuts and ongoing support for the sector. The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, talked about the less well off using them; I can assure him that I use buses regularly. The Government have announced unprecedented funding for bus services, totalling over £4.5 billion since March 2020. This includes £2 billion to prevent reductions to bus services following the pandemic and over £1 billion allocated in 2022 to help local authorities deliver their bus service improvements.

The noble Lords, Lord Snape and Lord Liddle, talked about bus strategy. The aim of the national bus strategy is to make buses more frequent, more reliable, easier to understand and use, better co-ordinated and cheaper. The strategy required all local transport authorities to publish bus service improvement plans, setting out local plans for the changes in bus services that are needed, driven by what passengers and would-be passengers want.

The noble Lords, Lord Bourne and Lord Birt, talked about road investment. The Government are investing £24 billion from 2020 to 2025 to operate, maintain and enhance our strategic road network of motorways and major A roads. In the last four years we have completed 23 major enhancement schemes across all the English regions, including three on the A19 in the north-east and, only last month, the A585 Windy Harbour scheme in Lancashire. The road investment strategy 3 will build on the priorities and outcomes of the first two road periods, adjusting focus where necessary to tackle the next big priorities for improvement and achieve a long-term strategic vision for the network.

The noble Lord, Lord Bourne, talked about enabling economic growth. Growing the economy is a priority for the Government, and a secure, reliable, well-connected and integrated transport network is a vital tool for growth. It allows individuals to access more jobs, education, services and amenities, and allows firms to access wider labour pools and share knowledge and supply chains, boosting productivity in the long run.

The noble Lords, Lord Bourne and Lord Fowler, talked about rail industrial action. The industry is facing a serious financial challenge. Reform is essential to deliver a better railway for passengers. Since coming into office, the Transport Secretary and Rail Minister have met with the rail unions and industry to facilitate discussions, which have resulted in pay offers being accepted by the RMT, TSSA and Unite unions in exchange for negotiations on reform. ASLEF is now the only rail union that continues disruptive national-level strikes.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, mentioned decarbonisation. The Government expect both electrification and alternative technologies to play a role in net zero by 2050. That is why my department has delivered more than 1,250 miles of electrification in Great Britain since 2010.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, talked about rail reform. We are committed to rail reform and delivering improvements for customers ahead of legislation. We recently completed barcode ticketing for all national network stations and announced a 75% rail freight growth target by 2050. In line with Network North and wider stakeholder engagement, the Great British Railways transition team continues to develop the long-term strategy for rail. We need to ensure that the strategy reflects both the realities of the railways and the clear direction set by Network North.

The noble Lords, Lord Goddard of Stockport and Lord Liddle, talked about holding Avanti West Coast to account. The department takes performance very seriously and holds all franchised operators to account for the service they provide. As part of the national rail contract, Avanti West Coast has a series of challenging but achievable targets to meet, which the department monitors, and officials continue to closely monitor and review Avanti West Coast progress to a sustained recovery. The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, mentioned the Avanti West Coast rest day working agreement. On 13 March 2024, Avanti West Coast secured a 12-month rest day working agreement with ASLEF. The new agreement will support Avanti West Coast’s driver training programme as it transitions to its new Hitachi fleet over the coming months.

The noble Lords, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Berkeley, referred to rail fares, ticketing and retail. We have already made progress on fares reform, launching flexible season tickets in 2021, delivering on our commitment to extend single-leg pricing to the vast majority of LNER’s network, launching a trial of simpler fares on LNER, and announcing that we will extend contactless pay-as-you-go to an additional 53 stations in the south-east by spring this year.

The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, and the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley and Lord Whitty, talked about decarbonisation. This Government have done more than any other to promote walking and cycling, and we remain fully committed to the vision that half of all journeys in towns and cities are walked or cycled by 2030. Over £3 billion is projected to be invested in active travel up to 2025. Despite the challenging financial climate, since 1 June 2023 Active Travel England has played an important role as a statutory consultee within the planning system. The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and other noble Lords talked more on decarbonisation. The UK has decarbonised faster than any other major economy, more than halving emissions since 1990. Our credible, cross-cutting plan to decarbonise all transport is at the heart of our ambition.

On a point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, there are now more than 1 million battery electric cars on UK roads, which is evidence that more and more drivers are switching to electric vehicles. We continue to work with the industry via the automotive transformation fund to support the creation of an internationally competitive electric vehicle supply chain in the UK.

The noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, talked about access for all. The Access for All programme has provided accessible, step-free routes at more than 240 stations and small-scale improvements at around 1,500 more since 2006. As part of our recent Network North announcement, the Government confirmed that £350 million will be made available to improve accessibility at our train stations. On bus accessibility, we are requiring operators across Great Britain to provide audible and visible information on their services. Our new accessible information regulations will require almost every local service to provide audible and visible next stop announcements. The £4.65 million accessible information grant will help the smallest operators to comply. The department has driven change through its support for the Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Disabled Persons) Act 2022 and through updated best practice guidance for local licensing authorities, including on supporting an inclusive service. However, I note what the noble Lord said in relation to particular areas of London.

The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, also talked about technology performance. It is right that road users should expect high standards when it comes to managing and responding quickly to incidents on the motorways. National Highways has rolled out new stopped vehicle detection technology on “all lane running” smart motorways, which can detect a stationary vehicle and alert an operator who can close lanes and dispatch a traffic officer.

I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, said, particularly about Newport station—much of what he said existed under British Rail. However, as we know, it is now devolved to the Welsh Government and has been nationalised as Transport for Wales, so I am afraid that any comment on that should come from the Welsh Government. However, I will say that Transport for Wales last year was reported to have the worst customer satisfaction for train operators in the whole of the UK.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, talked about aviation and decarbonisation. The jet zero strategy sets out the Government’s approach to achieving net zero by 2050 in UK aviation. It focuses on the rapid development of technologies in a way that maintains the benefits of air travel while maximising the opportunities that decarbonisation brings for the UK.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, raised the issue of road safety. While the UK has some of the safest roads in the world, any death is a tragedy, which is why we continue working tirelessly to improve road safety for everyone.

The noble Lords, Lord Moylan and Lord Liddle, talked about rural transport. The Government recognise the importance of transport provision in rural areas and are committed to finding solutions that ensure viable and improved transport.

In a very well-informed speech, the noble Lord, Lord McLaughlin, talked about rail passenger numbers and revenue. All substantive financial risks of rail services sit with government. Between 2021 and 2022-23, the taxpayer provided funding of £45.9 billion for the operation of the rail industry—just over £1,500 per household. He also talked about the HS2/Network North decision. The HS2 programme accounted for over one-third of all the Government’s transport investments, doing little to improve the journeys that people make the most. That is why the Government cancelled phases 2a and 2b—the western leg—of HS2.

Noble Lords made many other points. I will quickly mention the Lower Thames Crossing, which the noble Lord, Lord McLoughlin, mentioned. As the scheme is a live planning application, there are sensitivities in what I can say and it would be inappropriate to say anything that could prejudice that process.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, mentioned general aviation, which was a refreshing change in the debate. The department actively supports GA in achieving key government objectives. I hear what he says and understand his concern regarding drones. There has been a CAA airspace review. The rules are well defined for the use of drones but I acknowledge his concern.

I have come to the end. I think there are one or two other contributions that should be responded to. I will do that in writing. I thank noble Lords for their attendance and their contributions.