The speech made by Andrew Jones, the Conservative MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, in the House of Commons on 19 May 2022.
I will make a few points, but I will be particularly aware of the time and make sure that I do not overrun, so that other colleagues can get in. First, I agree strongly with the point made by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), that Government support for the transport sector during the pandemic was very strong. It was necessary in the emergency that we faced. However, the message to people to avoid public transport, while I understood its point, undid some of the progress that had been made in getting people back on to public transport in the first place. Our task now is to encourage people to resume using public transport and to ensure that the Government investment programme surges ahead, although I recognise fully that these are tough times in transport planning, given all the uncertainties. We are still facing problems from the pandemic, when things like train driver training were cut back, but it is a bad mistake to think that the current level of passenger demand has stabilised and is somehow fixed and that service levels can be cut back accordingly.
We have seen some of the implications of this locally on the Leeds-Harrogate-Knaresborough-York line. The services that have been cut back are the early morning services to Leeds, although many people from Harrogate commute to Leeds for work. Some will now find it impossible to be in work on time. For other service users, it is now impossible to connect with the Leeds to London services that get into our capital before 10 am. That is not good enough for business people, and Harrogate has significant conference business at its convention centre, with many people travelling to it from across the country. Other rail cuts have created long gaps in the evening services and an earlier finish on the Knaresborough service. These cuts are obviously bad for our night-time economy.
It is not great to see these things because we had been making such great progress after all of the years of Labour’s no-growth northern franchise. We have got rid of the Pacers, we have much better rolling stock and we have more services, especially the six direct London services per day using the new Azuma trains. I have taken this matter up locally, specifically with the chair of Northern Rail, Robin Gisby, with whom I had a very positive meeting. It was clear that he recognised the significance of the services that have been cut, and he is working on reinstatement for later this year. Getting more drivers through training is a necessary ingredient for progress.
I recognise the challenges in resuming full pre-pandemic levels of operation. We have lower demand at the moment, as well as operational issues. We can see comparable issues in other sectors of the economy and in our public services, but lots of people have worked hard to secure the rail improvements we have enjoyed over the last 10 years and lots of people need the services that have been lost. Those services have a disproportionate economic impact, which is why we need them back at the earliest opportunity. May I ask the Minister to focus on ensuring that the operational side of the catch-up is delivered as fast as possible? I recognise that this is the industry’s responsibility, but pressure from the Minister can help.
I would like to switch modes and talk about buses. We have many electric buses in Harrogate already. There was a step change in 2018 when a fleet of eight electric buses went into service. That funding came from a green bus fund initiative, which ran for many years. Before anybody intervenes, I acknowledge that I am indeed marking my own homework here, as a former bus Minister, but the point is that we are now seeing comparable initiatives all across the country. Indeed, only in the last few weeks the Harrogate Bus Company and North Yorkshire County Council, under the excellent leadership of Councillor Don Mackenzie, have won approval for their bid to the Government’s zero emission bus regional areas—ZEBRA—scheme. The county council has secured £8 million and the Harrogate Bus Company is investing £12 million to create a scheme that will bring 39 electric buses to Harrogate and, especially, to Knaresborough.
I would like to share the experience we have had in Harrogate. The bottom line is that the new electric buses are very popular, and the customer response has been excellent. I have checked this with the bus company and with passengers. People like the ride quality and the quietness, alongside the fact that the vehicles are bright, airy and pleasant to be in. They are obviously also emission free, which is highly popular. When the new buses arrive, I know that they will be popular too. The point of mentioning this is to encourage the Government to put as much pace as possible into the Bus Back Better campaign. The 4,000 zero-emission buses that will come from it will be popular. They will drive passenger usage, they will help to deliver our net zero objectives and as the buses will be built across the UK, including in Northern Ireland, they will help to deliver on the levelling up agenda. There are not many policy areas that can tick that many boxes, so please can we look at how the zero emission schemes have been implemented? There are lessons to be learned there, and those lessons will speed deployment. More wins, more quickly.
I have a moment left, and I have one further ask of Ministers. Will they keep the House informed of progress in the single leg pricing rail fare reform trial? Again, I must be up front about the fact that my fingerprints are on this issue. This trial is about simplifying fares on the London to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh routes so that passengers can mix and match to get more flexibility and therefore better deals. Initial feedback from LNER has been positive. I am not surprised by that, because we have seen passenger benefits. If Ministers could keep the House informed, that would be great. If the trail remains successful, perhaps it could be rolled out into other areas of the country so that more passengers can get better deals.
Lastly, there has been an enormous amount of hot air today from the Opposition Benches. The Labour Government did nothing to invest in rail during their time in office. We have listened to Labour Members suggesting that they would spend billions of pounds without identifying where the money would come from. Their track record is woeful. I ask them to consider how many miles of electrified railway the Labour Government delivered during the course of their term in office. It was woeful. They should not try to hide from their record. They should recognise that things have changed under this Government.