Trudy Harrison – 2022 Speech on Stockton’s Bid to be HQ of New Rail Body

The speech made by Trudy Harrison, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in the House of Commons on 7 June 2022.

Well, if there is ever a pub quiz on the subject of Stockton, I feel very equipped to take part after that. I am sure Stockton can look forward to an extremely vibrant visitor economy after that wonderful rendition of all the many reasons to visit Stockton. Before I respond to the various points he made, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for securing the debate.

It is wonderful that so many Members across the House have debated the Great British Railways headquarters. We have had previous debates on the merits of Swindon, Derby, Crewe, York and Carnforth. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), who is also in his place, has also been a superb advocate. It is really wonderful and fantastic to see such support for our railways, and to see Members up and down the country engaging in this important conversation about the future of our railways and doing outstanding work supporting bids for their towns and cities. The Government understand the importance of the rail industry and the incredible rail heritage across this country, something my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South set out so well. One thing we can be really sure of is that wherever the headquarters is ultimately located, it will be in a very deserving place.

As my hon. Friend set out, Stockton has a proud and storied rail heritage, as has County Durham. We are all aware of the famous Stockton and Darlington Railway, the world’s first public railway to run steam locomotives. Indeed, when, in September 1825, George Stephenson manned the Locomotion No. 1, it was for the Stockton and Darlington Railway, so how appropriate to have my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton South and for Darlington in their rightful place, sitting side by side in this very Chamber. Heralding the beginning of a new era of transportation in this country, County Durham is truly deserving of the name, “Cradle of the Railways”. A place as steeped in the history of the railways in this country, and, indeed, the world, as Stockton and County Durham is will always have an important part to play.

The inbox of the rail Minister—my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton)—provides great evidence of the fact that the innovation that started in Stockton spread rapidly across the country. Many other towns and cities have played an important part in our proud railway heritage and hon. Members are equally proud to represent them. The response to the competition has been incredibly positive. I am pleased to say that, by the time the competition had closed on 16 March, we had received 42 applications.

Hon. Members will be well aware that the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, which was published in May 2021, set out the path towards a truly passenger-focused railway, underpinned by new contracts that prioritised punctual and reliable services, the rapid delivery of a ticketing revolution, with new flexible and convenient tickets, and a modern and accessible network that meets the future needs of its customers.

Central to the Williams-Shapps plan for rail is the establishment of a new rail body, Great British Railways, which will provide a single familiar brand and strong unified leadership across the rail network. Great British Railways will be responsible for delivering better value and flexible fares and the punctual and reliable services that passengers absolutely deserve, bringing ownership of the infrastructure, fares, timetables and planning of the network under one roof. It will bring today’s fragmented railways under a single point of operational accountability, ensuring that the focus is on delivering for passengers and freight customers. Great British Railways will be a new organisation with a commercial mindset and a strong customer focus. It will have a different culture from the current infrastructure owner, Network Rail, and a very different incentive from the beginning.

Great British Railways will have responsibility for the whole railway system, with a modest national headquarters, as well as several regional headquarters. The national headquarters will be based outside London, with regional Great British Railways headquarters across Great Britain, bringing the railway closer to the people and communities it serves and ensuring that skilled jobs and economic benefits are focused beyond the capital, in line with the Government’s commitment to levelling up as well as with the priorities of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South.

The competition for the headquarters was launched by the Secretary of State on 5 February 2022 and closed for applications on 16 March. The Great British Railways transition team has analysed the 42 submissions that we received from towns and cities across Great Britain against a set of six criteria for the national headquarters. Those include an alignment to levelling-up objectives, and my hon. Friend has articulated the benefits of that. It must be connected and easy to get to, with opportunities for Great British Railways to thrive. The railway heritage and links to the network are also critical, as are value for money and public support. I commend my hon. Friend’s work in nudging, persuading, enthusing and influencing his constituents to support his bid for the Great British Railways headquarters to be in Stockton. I am particularly delighted to learn about the enthusiasm of Jim from the Locomotion pub—that really is superb.

The Great British Railways transition team will recommend a shortlist of the most suitable locations that will go forward to a consultative public vote, and Ministers will make a final decision on the headquarters’ locations based on all the information gathered. As I mentioned, we are so pleased by the number of high-quality bids received, and I am sure that, wherever is chosen, the future headquarters will go to somewhere truly deserving. We will soon announce a shortlist of locations that will go forward to an online consultative vote and will receive ministerial visits. The Secretary of State will make a final decision later this year, considering all elements of the process.

Alongside a new national headquarters, Great British Railways will have regional headquarters responsible and accountable for the railway in local areas, ensuring that decisions about the railway are brought closer to the passengers and communities that they serve. Cities and regions in England will be able to have greater influence over local ticketing, services and stations through new partnerships between regional divisions and local and regional government. Initial conversations are starting with local stakeholders on how those partnerships can best work together.

The reforms proposed in the Williams-Shapps plan for rail will transform the railways for the better, strengthening and securing them for the next generation. They will make the sector more accountable to taxpayers and to the Government. They will provide a bold new offer to passengers and freight customers: punctual and reliable services, simpler tickets and a modern, clean, green, innovative railway that meets the needs of the nation.

While transformation on that scale cannot happen overnight, the Government and the sector are committed to ensuring that the benefits for passengers and freight customers are brought forward as quickly as possible. We have already sold more than 250,000 of our new national flexi season tickets, offering commuters savings as they return to the railways. To help passengers facing rising costs of living, our great British rail sale offered up to 50% off more than a million tickets on journeys across Britain, saving passengers £7 million. I have every confidence that many of those passengers will now be heading to Stockton, or possibly between Stockton and Darlington, for a fantastic experience of the railway—and maybe to the Locomotion pub to learn more about railway heritage.

The transition from emergency recovery measures agreements to a new national rail contract is very much under way. We are providing more flexible contracts that incentivise operators to deliver for passengers. Great British Railways will be an organisation that works alongside the local communities that it serves.

The Government and the Great British Railways transition team welcome interest and advocacy for cities and towns. We welcome participation in the competition for the Great British Railways headquarters, so that together we can deliver the change that is absolutely required. We look forward to building this new vision for Britain’s railway in collaboration with the sector and communities. The Great British Railways headquarters is one of many steps that we are taking to achieve that.