Andrew Jones – 2022 Speech on the Future of Rail

The speech made by Andrew Jones, the Conservative MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, in Westminster Hall on 26 April 2022.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.

I congratulate the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on securing this debate. She spoke very well about why the headquarters of Great British Railways should be located in York, and about the opportunities that transport investment delivers for levelling up and decarbonising for the future. I want to support that argument.

Lots of Members will put forward the case for their areas. Some of those cases are, quite frankly, a bit on the thin side. I understand why they are doing it, but I believe that the correct way to approach this question is to look at the criteria that the decision makers in this competition have set.

Let me start by suggesting what the challenges for rail are, and how they influence what Great British Railways needs. The rail industry is a huge success. The pre-pandemic data, which I use for obvious reasons, tells us that it had 1.8 billion passenger journeys per year and 140,000-plus services per week—more than ever before. The question for Ministers and the industry is how to cope with the growth. The answer has been, through a variety of mechanisms, to increase capacity with new lines, improve existing lines, and provide new rolling stock and better signalling. The pandemic has clearly changed things, and it is too early to see how the trends will settle, but we can see that demand is returning already, although the commuting sector is still weak. The long-term problems have not gone away, and Great British Railways will need to address them.

The Government have published six criteria for judging the bids, and a critical element is the opportunity for Great British Railways. That is the third of the listed criteria, and I will focus on it for a few moments. It is against that criterion that York emerges head and shoulders above the others as the strongest bid. The question is: how do we deliver the future? The digital signalling, the planning of line enhancements, the new systems of power to drive the industry as the sector decarbonises, the expertise, the skills, the wider rail ecosystem with companies based in York and beyond in Yorkshire, the partnerships with academic institutions—they are all in place in York now, ready to be expanded and play a greater role.

Let me give one small example. The UK has been developing a series of rail operating centres—12 in total—that will control all the country’s signalling. They have been operating for some years and have taken on more services over time. York hosts one now, and it is in fact the largest of them all. It was part of a Network Rail campus, and it includes a workforce development centre, so York is already at the heart of the digital rail future.

The other criteria against which the bids will be judged are again met by the qualities of York: connectivity north-south and east-west is excellent; it is centrally located, half way between London and Edinburgh; the railway heritage is obviously second to none; and it hosts one of the major rail museums of the world. I know that the Science Museum Group has already made an important representation to the Minister in the bid process in favour of York. Public support has been demonstrated by the work undertaken locally by political representatives, not least in this debate. York is Yorkshire’s choice.

The hon. Member for York Central did not mention that in Yorkshire we are famous for liking value. [Interruption.] That is not really a joke, but a truth. We are famous for liking value, and with the York Central development we have an enterprise zone, with much of the land already in Network Rail ownership, so there is a ready-made value solution.

The last criterion is levelling up. Some of the most left-behind communities in the country are within a short journey time from York. The halo effect, building upon the current cluster, would have the positive effect of providing opportunity across these communities. Looking at the criteria as a whole and seeing what York can deliver, I see the York bid as being head and shoulders above the others, which is why I support it. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my views this afternoon and to support this bid.