Huw Merriman – 2022 Speech on the Future of Rail Services

The speech made by Huw Merriman, the Minister of State at the Department for Transport, in Westminster Hall, the House of Commons, on 20 December 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also a great pleasure to be part of this debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). He said at the very end of his speech that he hoped the debate would be taken as positive and constructive, with ideas to feed into the mix. That is something that I always do with my hon. Friend, who has great expertise both as a brilliant railway constituency representative and as a former Transport Minister. In that regard, I thank him and all the other former Transport Ministers who have fed their ideas into the mix. I hope that I can cover the points made by my hon. Friend in the round, but I will try to address some of them specifically.

The Government remain absolutely committed to reforming our railways and ensuring there are high-quality railway services across the whole country. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Government commissioned Keith Williams to conduct the first root-and-branch review of the rail industry in a generation, which led to the publication of the plan for rail White Paper in 2021. Before that, more than 750 representations were made to the review, which met over 200 groups across the country. Although my hon. Friend pointed out that the review was completed some time ago—back at the end of 2019—it was extended to allow more time to test the conclusions and ensure that they were appropriate, given the impact of the pandemic on rail.

There have been various changes of personnel, as my hon. Friend is well aware. The Secretary of State and I have been in post only since the end of October. We are reviewing the options for reform, and we expect to be able to provide concrete proposals as to what the reform will look like very shortly. We believe that the case for reform is stronger than when the plan for rail was first published. The lasting consequences of covid-19, along with industrial relations, sustained poor performance and financial challenges, increase the need for modernisation and efficiency. I will come on to the role of the private sector. If we want to regrow the railways back to the passenger numbers that we have previously seen, the best way to do that is to wrap in the private sector, which doubled those numbers post privatisation. I am very much with my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon on those optics.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP)

I am grateful to the Minister for speaking so eloquently about his vision for the future of rail services. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, I often hear from people right across the United Kingdom about difficulties in accessing rail services, ticketing offices and disabled toilet facilities. Will the Minister consider those important inclusion issues in his future vision?

Huw Merriman

Yes, we certainly will. We are looking at an interesting and challenging set of reforms. Ticket offices are largely unchanged from how they were 30 years back, but only 12% to 14% of tickets are purchased from ticket offices. The key is to find a way to get those personnel outside—on the platform and in the station—to help those with disabilities and mobility issues. Getting them on the platform and on the trains may mean change, but I hope that that will be a positive change for the passenger and the workforce. It will be a more interesting and exciting role with passengers.

Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)

The Minister touched on his current focus on industrial relations and the need to grow the number of passengers coming back to the railways. Is he aware of the situation with South Western Railway, which serves all of south-west London, Surrey, Wiltshire and the south-west? Until the new year, there will be no services at all on non-strike days at 40 stations across the network, including Whitton, St Margarets and Strawberry Hill in my constituency, and numerous stations in Surrey. Nurses who are not striking cannot get to work, police officers cannot get to work and children cannot get to the schools that are open. What is the Minister doing to work with South Western Railway to ensure that services are available on non-strike days? We will never get people back on to the railways and improve industrial relations if passengers cannot get where they need to.

Huw Merriman

I agree with the hon. Lady, and I am aware that she applied for an urgent question on the matter. I will write to her.

I call for all hon. and right hon. Members to come together as one on this issue. We cannot focus on good passenger experience and a future for the railways if there is industrial action that involves the workforce not working on rest days when it has previously done so. I have never encouraged that pattern or seen a future for it, because it means that we are reliant on goodwill. When goodwill is withdrawn at short notice, we end up with what the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) described. We need to move away from rest-day working, which does not work. Equally, I urge all those who are involved on the union side of matters to consider that it is Christmas. If we want a future for our railways, we must work positively and constructively, rather than withdrawing labour. I will write to the hon. Lady, as I mentioned.

John Penrose

Will the Minister give way?

Huw Merriman

I should make some progress, because time will push me towards the end. I shall try to take a further intervention if I can.

I want to talk about other parts of the reform: fares and ticketing. As part of the plan, we will invest £360 million to radically reform and improve the passenger experience. We will also look to deliver our manifesto commitment by introducing tap-in and tap-out at additional stations in regional and urban areas, and contactless pay-as-you-go ticketing at over 200 stations in the south-east. We will also introduce simpler, modern ways of paying for travel and a straightforward compensation process.

Let me touch on the proposals for reform. In addition to our significant investment in the passenger experience, one reform that we are considering is the creation of a new guiding mind to bring the fragmented railways under a single point of accountability. That would not be nationalisation; rather, it would be simplification. A simple, more agile structure will be needed to change travel and working patterns, introduce new technologies and enhance business models. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon talked about the role of the private sector.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon talked about the role of the private sector. Rail reform must have at its core greater private sector involvement. I want any new model to take the very best of the private sector: innovation, an unrelenting focus on quality and the type of models that drive reform, a better experience for the passenger and better return for taxpayer value. I am happy to discuss the private sector contribution, and to meet my hon. Friend to reassure him about that. He knows that I have always had a real passion for what the private sector has brought for rail. I agree that, although the franchise model may have run its course, it was not made easy for the private sector to navigate, because it became a very complex, documented process that put off new entrants to the market. Any rail reform has to be simple and nimble enough to bring in new innovators, not just the largest.

My hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon and for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) have championed open access. Rail reform must see an important role for open-access operators. We want to make the best use of the network and grow new markets for rail. The Department recently supported Go-Op’s innovative proposal to operate open-access services from Taunton to Swindon and Weston-super-Mare, providing new direct services and improved connectivity for communities.

I have challenged my Department on open access. It seems to be the case that we are not putting open access on equal footing, which means that there is some sort of charge and enablement. The response is always, “It just takes away from the other contracted operators.” We need to charge open access more to allow it not to take away but to compete. In my view, open access definitely has a place, but we perhaps need to reform the entrance requirements so it is not constantly turned down. I am very excited about those possibilities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon asked when legislation would be forthcoming. We will not be taking forward legislation on rail reform in this parliamentary Session, as he is aware, but we will introduce it when the parliamentary timetable allows, and I am very keen that we do so. In the interim, rather than do nothing because legislation is not immediately forthcoming, many areas can be progressed outside legislation. They include making significant investment in ticketing and retail, and the formation of the reform proposals that we will focus on. I assure my hon. Friend that we will bring those forward in parallel with legislation.

My hon. Friend mentioned the control period 7 settlement. That process is vital for securing value for money for the taxpayer and providing certainty to investors. The Government published a strong funding settlement of more than £44 billion for England and Wales for the next control period, which begins in April 2024. My hon. Friend touched on that. That demonstrates our long-term commitment to securing a safe, reliable and efficient railway. The industry—public and private—now needs to work together to establish stretching yet realistic targets for improvements and reliability, supported by Government investment.

On the lack of reference to rail reform or GBR, the HLOS, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is more of a statement of principle. He should not read anything into that. We have not landed on one particular model, so it would not have been appropriate to insert one in there. I got my pen out and made sure there was reference to innovation and private sector involvement—I do not believe anyone took those words out. I was particularly keen to ensure that, with innovation, we included small and medium-sized enterprises so that we are focusing not just on larger private sector involvement but on the small innovators that can really drive change. They need to be in the room too.

On industrial action, passengers rightly expect a regular, reliable service, seven days a week. Current shift patterns and voluntary weekend working for railway staff make that vision nearly impossible. The only solution is for everyone to come together and agree a new way forward. I have met the unions and employers, and the Secretary of State has met the unions too. I hope that will send a message to this House that we want to facilitate an end to industrial action. I again ask all right hon. and hon. Members to come together and push not just the train operators and the Government but those who are responsible for the strikes—the trade unions. It is time for all to be called out where they can deliver more.

The Government are wholly committed to improving journeys for passengers and creating a better, more modern rail industry. I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I assure him that the private sector will be right at the heart of any reform proposals. The Secretary of State and I are committed to an improved railway with the private sector at its heart, and I hope that my hon. Friend will keep me to that mantra.