Mark Harper – 2023 Speech on Improving Rail Services

The speech made by Mark Harper, the Secretary of State for Transport, in the House of Commons on 20 March 2023.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the progress the Government are making in improving rail services for passengers.

Let me begin by saying how pleased I am that, today, members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers at Network Rail have voted to accept a 5% plus 4% pay offer over two years. Seventy-six per cent. of members voted to accept the offer, on a turnout of nearly 90%, showing just how many of them wanted to call time on this long-running dispute.

From the moment I became Transport Secretary, the Rail Minister and I have worked tirelessly to change the tone of the dispute. We sat down with all the rail union leaders and facilitated fair and reasonable pay offers. Now, all Network Rail union members have resolved their disputes, voting for a reasonable pay increase and accepting the need for a modern railway.

But not every rail worker is being given that chance. Despite the Rail Delivery Group putting a similar fair and reasonable offer on the table on behalf of the train operating companies, the RMT has refused to put it to a vote. It refused to suspend last week’s strike action even to consider it. Such a lack of co-operation is disappointing—and what does it achieve? It deprives the RMT’s own members of a democratic vote, denies them the pay rise they deserve and, most importantly, delivers more disruption to the travelling public.

My message to the RMT is simple: call off your strikes, put the RDG offer to a vote and give all your members a say because it is clear from the vote today—the “overwhelming” vote, in the RMT’s own words—that its members understand that it is time to accept a deal that works, not only for their interests, but for passengers.

Let me turn to the steps we are taking to help passengers and fix the issues on the west coast main line. Members will know that rest-day working, or overtime, is a common way for operators to run a normal timetable. However, last July, drivers for Avanti West Coast, who overwhelmingly belong to the ASLEF union, simultaneously and with no warning stopped volunteering to work overtime. Without enough drivers, Avanti had little choice but to run a much-reduced timetable, with fewer trains per hour from London to destinations in the midlands and the north. Passengers, businesses and communities along vital routes up and down the west coast main line rightly felt let down, facing cancelled services, overcrowded trains and poor customer information. Put simply, it has not been good enough.

While the removal of rest-day working was the main contributing factor, my hon. Friend the Rail Minister and I repeatedly made it clear to Avanti’s owning groups, Trenitalia and First Group, that their performance needed to improve, too, because we should always hold train operators to account for matters within their control. That accountability should come with the chance to put things right. That is why my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), extended Avanti’s contract by six months in October. She rightly set a clear expectation that performance had to improve—no ifs and no buts.

I am pleased to say that not only was Avanti’s recovery plan welcomed by the Office of Rail and Road, but it has led to improvements on the network, with weekday services rising from 180 to 264 trains per day, the highest level in over two years, and cancellation rates falling from around 25% to an average of 4.2% in early March, the lowest level in 12 months. Nearly 90% of Avanti’s trains now arrive within 15 minutes of their scheduled time, over 100 additional drivers have been recruited, reducing reliance on union-controlled overtime working, and it is very pleasing to see Avanti’s new discounted ticketing scheme benefiting passengers on certain routes.

As you would expect me to say, Mr Speaker, there is much more still to do to ensure that Avanti restores services to the level we expect and to earn back the trust that passengers have lost, but we should welcome those improvements and recognise the hard work undertaken to get to this point. The Rail Minister in particular has overseen weekly meetings on Avanti for months and kept hon. Members from both sides of the House regularly informed. He deserves credit, along with Avanti, for that turnaround.

October’s extension was not popular, least of all in parts of this House, but it was the right decision and Avanti is turning a corner. Its recovery so far has given me sufficient confidence to confirm that today we will extend its contract by a further six months, running until 15 October. However, that short-term contract comes with the expectation that it will continue to win back the confidence of passengers, with a particular focus on more reliable weekend services, continued reductions in cancellations, and improvements in passenger information during planned and unplanned disruption. My Department will continue to work closely with Avanti to restore reliability and punctuality to levels that passengers have long demanded and have a right to expect.

I realise some hon. Members will also want to hear about TransPennine Express. I will update the House separately about TransPennine Express ahead of the contract expiring at the end of May, but let me be clear: its current service levels are, frankly, unacceptable and we will hold it to account on its recovery plan. We have made it clear that, unless passengers see significant improvements, like we have on Avanti, all options regarding that contract remain on the table.

I spoke earlier about holding operators to account, but if we stand here and rightly criticise poor operator performance, we should also recognise that across the industry train operating companies have few levers to change it. Avanti, like others, relies on driver good will to run a reliable seven-day-a-week railway. Like others, it is at the mercy of infrastructure issues out of its control. In fact, seven separate infrastructure issues affected Avanti’s performance in the first week of March alone.

Outdated working practices and track resilience are why predictable calls for nationalisation wildly miss the point. Any operator would face those constraints and struggle to run a reliable service. Ideological debates about ownership are therefore a distraction, like wanting to paint your car a new colour when what it needs is a new engine. Only fundamental reform will fix rail’s systemic issues, which is what the Government are delivering, bringing track and train together under the remit of Great British Railways, taking a whole system approach to cost, revenue and efficiency, and freeing up the private sector to innovate and prioritise passengers. Having set out my vision for rail last month, very soon, I will announce the location of the headquarters of Great British Railways, another clear sign of the momentum we are building on reform.

We are getting on with the job of delivering a better railway. It is why we are finally seeing improvements along the west coast main line, as we continue to hold Avanti to account. It is why we are making progress on rail reform. It is why we will always defend the travelling public from unnecessary strike action. And it is why we will always play our part in resolving disputes in a way that is fair to rail workers, the travelling public and the taxpayer. Unlike others, I am not interested in pointless ideological debates about privatisation and nationalisation. The Government are focused on gripping the long-standing issues facing the industry for the benefit of its customers—freight customers and passengers—taking the tough but responsible decisions in the national interest, and building the growing, financially sustainable and modern railway Britain deserves. I commend this statement to the House.