Gavin Newlands – 2022 Speech on West Coast Main Line Services

The speech made by Gavin Newlands, the SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, in the House of Commons on 15 December 2022.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating this afternoon’s timely debate. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) started the debate powerfully, and I do not disagree with a word she said. In fact, I do not disagree with pretty much anything anyone said, other than the comments of the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) about the Union and how it binds us all together. He failed at the last minute to get consensus across the Chamber. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn started well by talking about the importance of Holyhead not only to her local economy but to the wider Welsh economy, and how much Avanti’s terrible service has impacted that economy and her constituents.

On Monday, every single Avanti train leaving Glasgow for London was late, in most cases by at least half an hour. Five trains were more than an hour late. The passengers on those trains were actually the lucky ones. Anyone looking to travel in the afternoon from Scotland’s biggest city to England had a choice of two trains, both leaving late and arriving even later. Every other service was cancelled or terminated at Preston, which is a fine Lancashire city but about 237 miles from Euston. Lest any apologists for Avanti try to rely on the seasonal weather as an excuse, the first train on the previous Thursday was nearly two hours late arriving. The passengers on the last train arrived at Euston close to 1 am, more than six hours after they departed.

Avanti has set the west coast main line back decades, which is not hyperbole. I checked the British Rail timetables from 1982, 40 years ago, and the journey times that Avanti is now delivering almost daily are slower than the locomotives that were the backbone of the nationalised rail network in 1982.

Any criticism of Avanti or TransPennine Express in my speech is of upper management and executives, not the frontline staff, who, like everyone who has spoken in this debate, I have always found to be exemplary in their professionalism and courtesy. I am not just saying that because I am one of the many Members who will be seeking to get home on Avanti west coast main line services this evening. These services should be the Crown jewels of the British rail network, but instead they are straight out of the pound shop bargain bin, although not at a price to match.

TransPennine Express is just as bad as Avanti, and in some ways worse. On Monday it managed to run three of its seven timetabled services from Glasgow Central. Only one of four services made it to Manchester airport. Anyone looking to travel to Manchester after lunchtime was out of luck, as there were no trains at all. I put it to TransPennine Express’s chief executive at yesterday’s Transport Committee that, in the three weekdays prior to the strike action, only one of 12 scheduled trains made it from Glasgow to Manchester airport. That includes last Friday, when TransPennine Express managed a single train to Manchester before 5 am, after which there were zero services to England’s second biggest urban area from the biggest urban area in Scotland. It is almost as if all we have heard over the past 30 years about the benefits of rail privatisation and the wonders of the free market have been hot air and blether.

At least trade unions give advance notice that their actions will mean train cancellations and disruption, so travellers can make alternative arrangements and amend their plans. Avanti and other train operators can, and often do, wait until the very last minute before pulling the plug, leaving the trains that remain in service overcrowded, late and dirty, with the staff running them bearing the brunt of passenger frustration and anger.

It is clear from Avanti, TransPennine Express and the remaining privatised parts of the rail network that the system has completely and utterly broken down. The fragmentation of operators and network infrastructure has led to a system of little accountability and no cohesion, with long-term thinking left to outsiders and the occasional individual. Private operators have no incentive to provide a public service and every incentive to wring every penny out of its operations until the next rider on the gravy train takes over the contract. For months, the Government tried to maintain the line of laissez-faire non-intervention, before scuppering negotiations by adding conditions that they knew were guaranteed to send workers back to their trade union reps. We have a rail system in England that is edging closer and closer to collapse.

Navendu Mishra

The hon. Member referenced the term “fragmentation” earlier, and Avanti often talks about the fact that it does not have enough drivers available for its services. If we had a unified public transport system that was designed to serve our communities and our planet rather than private rail operators, perhaps we could have a system where, if there was a shortage of drivers in one part of the country, they were licensed to drive trains in other parts of the country.

Gavin Newlands

That seems to be an eminently sensible suggestion, which I hope Ministers can take up. GBR, which I will touch on later in my speech, seems to be no more, but I hope that the Government look at all the factors in our entire rail network in the round. That is a perfectly good suggestion.

Collectively, the privatised rail network is letting Scotland and the north of England down—I should also say north Wales; my apologies for not doing so. What is the economic impact on communities relying on the west coast line? How much badly needed growth in our regional and national economies is being sacrificed at the altar of free market gospel? What opportunities for developing freight and pushing a modal shift from road to rail are being lost and decarbonisation gains unrealised? How much more imbalanced is the UK economy becoming every day that the west coast line remains a shambles?

The Transport Committee heard from Avanti and TransPennine Express yesterday morning. I almost felt sorry for them trying to defend the indefensible—almost. I asked them if they thought that the travelling public believed that they should continue to operate train services. They at least had the good grace to dodge the question rather than admitting that passengers trying to use their services would probably just as soon see the Chuckle Brothers running them as TPE and Avanti. They at least have the excuse that they are only in it to make money. The UK Government have a wider responsibility.

Just six months ago, the then Transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), told the House that his flagship project, Great British Railways, was how

“we are transforming the industry”.—[Official Report, 15 June 2022; Vol. 716, c. 318.]

The Chairman of Network Rail now says:

“I have stopped using those three words…it was clearly the invention of Boris Johnson, Andrew Gilligan and Grant Shapps”.

After all the fanfare, all the hype, a contest to decide its headquarters and the Transport Secretary of the time intervening to slap his name on the report that proposed it, GBR is dead in the water before it even began.

Given that the so-called Williams-Shapps review, as I suppose we should technically call it, stated clearly that GBR

“will be the single guiding mind and leader that the railways currently lack”,

one has to ask the question: without GBR, who will be the single guiding mind? Where is the leadership? Perhaps the new Rail Minister, who I get on well with, will be that leading mind. We shall see. The rail network is too important to leave to a Transport Secretary who, in recent weeks, has been a “here today, gone tomorrow” figure. Yet without some kind of arm’s length entity running and controlling our railways, we are doomed to short-termism and a strategy designed to get us through to the end of the latest crisis. Bringing the west coast operations under direct public control, as the Scottish Government have with ScotRail, would be a first step towards a rational and forward-thinking model of ownership and operation.

Scotland’s railway operates at arm’s length from the Government through Transport Scotland, but allows for greater integration with the Government’s political objectives. Even without the devolution of Network Rail, which we have called for in this place many times, the Scottish Government—and, to be fair, previous Scottish Executives under Labour and the Liberal Democrats—have expanded and transformed rail in Scotland and are still going full steam ahead with a programme of electrification that will, within just over a decade, help to fully decarbonise Scotland’s railway.

As with any public service at a time of economic crisis, there will be issues, but the settlement of disputes with ASLEF and the RMT at ScotRail earlier this year shows that, once again, the apparently radical tactic of Ministers treating trade unions and workers as partners rather than mortal enemies benefits everyone. I commend that approach to Government Members, mainly because it appears to be working. However, we are lucky in Scotland to have decades-long political consensus on how our railway should develop and the powers to make those choices happen.

Robin Millar

I am listening with a great deal of interest to the hon. Member. As he said, there is a lot of consensus in the Chamber. I cannot resist the chance to ask him this: does he think that a strong, integrated, high-performing, decarbonised railway network would inevitably bring all parts of the United Kingdom closer together?

Gavin Newlands

On the face of it, that sounds like a sensible suggestion, but where is that going to come from? There is no evidence from the Department for Transport and the UK Government of that actually happening. Scotland has decarbonised, or electrified, its railways twice as fast as the UK Government for more than 20 years now. There is no urgency about decarbonisation in the UK Government. About 16% of freight trains are still diesel because not enough of the network has been electrified, and that is down to this Government. So I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not see that happening any time soon. We are just getting on with it in Scotland.

I realise that my time is short, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I shall wrap up as quickly as I can. Transport for the North has seen its core budget slashed and projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail trimmed, cut, cancelled or abandoned. TfN has protested every time another proposal for rail in the north has been binned, but ultimately Westminster and Whitehall decide what is best for communities there, and how much cash should be spent there. How can the west coast line have infrastructure and service fit for the future when every penny of expenditure is decided by someone sitting at a desk half a mile from here, rather than by elected Members and civil servants on the ground? How can a line with 20 of its 400 miles south of Watford be fully realised when those along the other 380 miles are seen as irrelevant when it comes to decision making?

Meanwhile, the latest performance statistics show that the gold-plated Elizabeth line—complete with stations costing £695 million, £661 million and £634 million, and an overall price tag of £19 billion—sits at the top as by far the most punctual train operator in the country, and no wonder, given the amount of money that has been ploughed into it. That level of investment in rail in the rest of England would generate huge benefits for the economy outside London and the south-east, but, as we know, anywhere outside the M25 can go to the back of the queue when transport investment is being lined up.

The current crisis on the west coast line may be because of current events, but its origins lie in decades of metropolitan establishment disdain for what are still condescendingly called “the regions”. I am afraid that, unless and until England begins to radically change the way in which it makes decisions about transport policy—decisions that have implications way beyond its borders—the west coast line, like the rest of the rail network outside the M25, will atrophy and continue to be a hindrance rather than a boost to local and national economies. I urge the Secretary of State and his new team to roll up their sleeves like their counterparts in Scotland, get involved in the nitty-gritty rather than leaving it up to private corporations, and then begin the process of putting control over national assets such as the west coast line back into the hands of those who benefit most: the people and communities who rely on them.