Rachael Maskell – 2022 Speech on the Future of Rail

The speech made by Rachael Maskell, the Labour MP for York Central, in Westminster Hall on 26 April 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of rail.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Charles. On 27 September 1825, as Stephenson’s Locomotion powered its way up out of Shildon towards Stockton, the eyes of the world marvelled at the height of British engineering. As we prepare for rail’s bicentenary against the backdrop of a different set of challenges, the excellence of British engineering can once again capture the imagination of what can be achieved and ignite a new transport revolution.

Today, I will set out why consolidation and intersection with other forms of transport and energy technologies is essential if Britain is once again to lead the transport revolution, and why it is vital that the Government invest in this unique global rail supercluster for rail’s bicentenary. I am ambitious for rail and I am ambitious for Britain.

It will not be lost on anyone in this debate that York is where that revolution will occur. After all, York made the railways and the railways made York. The partnership between York University and Leeds University centres the future of digital and advanced rail, including the Institute for High Speed Rail and System Integration at Leeds University, bringing together the very best of transport, academia and digital technologies with the 13 leading rail education providers in the region, including the Institute of Technology at York College, which I visited recently.

We love our steam trains; whether it is the Mallard or the Flying Scotsman that fills people with greatest pride, our rail heritage is a natural draw for anyone across the network. Today, York has over 100 rail companies, which are at the forefront of engineering, operations, software development, timetabling and planning, providing over 5,500 of York’s top jobs and 9,500 jobs in the surrounding region, and consolidating York’s rail cluster, which is the largest outside London and now eager to take us forward once more.

Sir Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this excellent debate. Does she agree that there is not a good case, but an overwhelming case, to make York the headquarters of Great British Railways?

Rachael Maskell

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Where else can Great British Railways locate itself but in York if it is to level up the whole country? That really must be the argument we make.

The York Rail Innovation Community already oversees the intersection of rail businesses and innovations, enabling the northern rail economy to generate over £42 billion, according to the University of Leeds. It draws on the University of York’s Institute for Safe Autonomy, bringing new technologies and robotics together, and opening up a new conversation for the future of rail and the future of transportation, and modernising how we think about rail and transport. The institute’s £12 million programme leads global research to provide industry, regulators and researchers with guidance on assuring and regulating robotics and autonomous systems, including those on rail. York’s work is setting global standards and ensuring that such systems are safe.

Taking the search for answers into applied testbeds, such as the advanced rail test facilities, widens possibilities and the collaborations between York, Leeds, Sheffield, Huddersfield and Hull. This is not just a rail cluster, but a transport cluster. Interlink that with the new headquarters of Active Travel England, and we will have end-to-end connectivity and endless possibilities. Now that the Government are seeing such enthusiasm for BioYorkshire, Yorkshire’s green new deal and advancing a new generation of fuels, including links to the Teesside and Humber energy clusters, even more future technologies open up, with new innovations between transport and energy clusters.

The electric vehicle revolution is too slow, too expensive, with too little infrastructure and too few people engaged, and it is not sustainable enough. We need travelling by train to be competitive with travelling by road. Pricing matters. Rail advancement will be far more efficient, faster, cleaner and greener, if we are to decarbonise and claim the climate dividend to keep the target of 1.5 degrees alive. That must be our bicentenary challenge.

As a nation, there are significant challenges we need to address. Post pandemic, the trains need to see patronage restored and advanced, better timetabling and intermodal end-to-end connectivity, not least connectivity from main lines to improved branch lines, to consolidate opportunity. The very best industry expertise across the railways in York is ready to rise to the challenge. With fuel prices escalating, the Government must seize the moment to achieve a sustained and sustainable modal shift.

Although the integrated rail plan came as a bitter blow to us in Yorkshire, centring Great British Railways’ future on driving up patronage, accessibility, connectivity and reliability across the towns and cities of our region will address some of the Williams-Shapps plans. I know other colleagues will reinforce the point and urge the door not to be closed on our ambition.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Entire sections of the transport infrastructure, especially in the north, are just not up to the job. A good example is the Hull to Selby route. We have been begging and pleading for years for that rail line to be electrified. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is about time the Government got their finger out?

Rachael Maskell

My hon. Friend is always to the point in expressing the frustration of his constituents, and detailing the opportunity that electrification of the Hull to Selby line would draw to the whole region.

Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The problem in the north is much greater, because most of the north suffers from the situation identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner); we lose the economic benefits that would be brought by electrification. If the Government are serious in their levelling-up rhetoric, the people of the north need to see that. The Government need to take action.

Rachael Maskell

My hon. Friend is right. I know his frustrations for Bradford, and the opportunity he wants to bring to his constituents and his city through greater connectivity.

The reason for this debate is to lift the sights of the Minister beyond York and Yorkshire, and beyond even our railway nation. The UK could once again take pride of place in marketing the very best in railway planning, operations and engineering globally. If we are looking for a reason for global Britain, the operational and engineering expertise grown in our rail cluster in York, mixing the intermodal intersections with the next generation of energy, could be globally marketable and transformative. Already students from 120 countries study in Yorkshire. Global companies already understand the power of what is happening in York. Bosch has just made a significant investment in the city, building partnerships and integrating with other high-tech initiatives. The Government must invest if we are to move forward over the next 200 years of rail.

York also stables the Network Rail trackside repair fleet. My recent visit to Holgate engineering works showed me how the most advanced trackside safety developments are being integrated into the fleet, with robotics, digital and high-end scanning equipment filling these yellow mechanical engines. That will give the UK the reputation for having the safest railway anywhere in the world. Again, that will be priceless when exporting our safety capability.

York’s Rail Operating Centre—the largest in the UK—has tech that mirrors that of a spaceship. Every inch of the network is mapped live, overseen and monitored across a series a sophisticated digital tools, which enhances rail operations. It is preparing us for the future, playing a key role in plans to introduce the next generation of digital signalling on the east coast and beyond. Network Rail’s training centre for professional development is already in the city and helping to take this revolution forward, with more than 1,000 Network Rail staff already working in York.

Every time I meet York’s engineers, excitement for the next development greets me. My thinking is transformed, my mind left marvelling. This is what we can do when we build a sustained rail cluster. When the network’s guiding mind is anchored and embedded in the midst of such developments, and the sparks of each rail entrepreneur are joined together, the future of our rail is set ablaze. That is why I am calling for investment for the rail bicentenary. The Minister will see its return.

As for freight—perhaps the most challenging but neglected area of the network—investment in innovation has never been more needed. High Speed 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail were partially about freeing up track for freight. That argument got lost as the debate turned to speed and costs. Our freight capability is woeful. Now coal remains in the ground, and while the likes of Drax see biofuels slowly chug their way from Liverpool docks to Selby, investment is urgently needed to drive freight forward.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab)

I thank my hon. Friend for her speech. She mentioned the port of Liverpool; trading goods through the port of Liverpool has expanded dramatically, but it has put far more freight into lorries in an area with some of the worst air quality in the country. The Government’s answer is to build another road, which will increase roadside emissions and go through a much-loved country park. Through her, may I make a plea to the Minister that it be reconsidered and that rail be seen as the option not just to address those short-term challenges, but because the long-term success of our freight transport depends on massive investment in rail?

Rachael Maskell

To harness the opportunity provided by the bicentenary of British Rail, investment in the freight industry will be the gamechanger for our logistics and transport.

Those living in Kent are constantly reminded of the challenges of road haulage. However, the last couple of years have exposed the risks that the logistics industry is facing. Short-term fixes do not address the twin challenges of climate and workforce. As motorways turn into motels, a modal shift from road to rail for freight must be a priority. Cutting emissions, addressing the skills shortage and moving goods reliably is not only good for the climate, but better for business, which can become more dependable, meeting just-in-time demands that are essential in logistics. Moving goods from road to rail must be the rail cluster’s bicentenary challenge and the Minister’s focus. If we get the engineering, logistics, planning and operations right on freight, we can be confident of export demand for another product from global Britain: not just capability, but know-how, too. That is the prize for the industry.

The brilliant minds that serve our industry are the people who, at the height of the pandemic, got on our trains, repaired our tracks and advanced the network. Some, such as Belly Mujinga, gave their lives. We truly honour our transport workers and their unions—ASLEF, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association and Unite—who have worked tirelessly to keep staff and us safe, and to keep people in work.

We have difficult months ahead, but the Government must guarantee job security and good wages as staff work to rebuild the future of the industry to be even better than before. We need to enable all—from the station porter and train cleaner, to ticket office staff, trackside engineers, operators, designers, controllers, electricians and train drivers—to know that they are valued in our rail family, as they keep us safe and take our industry forward. Although consolidation of York’s rail cluster will level up our city, address the low-wage economy and accelerate inward investment for York and the region, it is what York’s rail cluster can deliver for levelling up across the whole country that excites our city the most. We believe that can be achieved only if Great British Railways is anchored in York and if investment in the sector’s research and development powers that opportunity.

York has the very best of our rail past and present, but in politics we cannot change the past; it is the future that is placed in our hands. I look at the girls and boys in my city, who are all mesmerised by our rail story. The National Rail Museum’s new galleries will give them the first taste of rail engineering and spark their ambition to be the planners, operators and engineers of the future as they embark on their science, technology, engineering and maths journey. Our collective ambition will realise the potential power of York’s rail intersectional clusters to deliver the very best rail future—all delivered on the site of the old British Rail carriage works, adjacent to just about the best-connected station in the country.

Great British Railways will be no add-on in York; it will anchor Britain’s rail future, ignite Britain’s rail ambition and deliver the next chapter of our Great British Railways revolution like no other place can. The bicentenary of rail gives the Minister the opportunity to invest in the future of passenger and freight. That will be the pride of my city, and that is our offer to the future of rail.