Wendy Morton – 2022 Speech on Derby’s Bid to be the Home of Great British Railways

The speech made by Wendy Morton, the Minister of State at the Department for Transport, in Westminster Hall on 27 April 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Efford. Before I respond to the points made by the hon. Members, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) for securing the debate. She has made clear her passion for the city of Derby and the area she represents and she has highlighted some of the things that Members can do as Back Benchers. I hope that the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, her private Member’s Bill, makes progress—fingers crossed it will receive Royal Assent. I know she has been working on it for a long time. As a Back Bencher, I was successful in taking two private Member’s Bills through this place and that is real proof that we can deliver things that we have a passion or enthusiasm for or an interest in.

Just last month, I was in the Chamber debating the merits of Crewe as a potential Great British Railways headquarters location. This is the fifth debate on the subject—the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and I may differ on whether it is the fifth or sixth overall. Others have been for Darlington, York, and Carnforth, and, yesterday, we were in Westminster Hall—so this is a little bit of déjà vu—for a broader debate on the merits of the York bid.

It has been absolutely heartening to see hon. Members from up and down the country engaging in the important conversation about the future of our railways and doing outstanding work to support the bids for their towns and cities. As Rail Minister, the other real advantage of the debates has been the opportunity not for just me, but, more broadly, for all of us to learn so much more about the history and heritage of our railways, and about our rail industry—about the manufacturing, the communities, and the families that are all part of our railways.

At the risk of repeating myself, as I said this yesterday, railways are close to my heart. Both of my paternal great-grandfathers worked on the railways, one in Wensleydale and the other in County Durham. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire mentioned railway cottages and I discovered that my dad was actually born in one. There is perhaps a sense that I have some railway heritage, or railway stock, myself, and I absolutely understand the importance of the industry and the amazing rail heritage of this country.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire set out, Derby has a very proud rail heritage. When the Midland Railway was formed in 1844, Derby became its headquarters, and Derby rail station is a major railway hub. As we have heard today, Derby became an important manufacturing centre for the railways through the famous Derby Works and the Derby Carriage and Wagon Works.

The first mainline diesel locomotives built in Great Britain were built at the Derby Works, which closed as a locomotive works in 1990. The Derby Carriage and Wagon Works continues to operate as a railway rolling stock factory today, run by Alstom. From the earliest days of the railways to the modern day, Derby has played, and will continue to play, an important role. My mailbox shows great evidence of the fact that many other towns and cities across the country have, of course, played an important part in our proud railway heritage, which hon. Members are proud to represent. The response to the competition has been positive and I am pleased that by the time it closed on 16 March we had received an outstanding 42 applications from up and down the country.

Hon. Members will be well aware that the Williams-Shapps plan for rail, published in May 2021, set out the path towards a truly passenger-focused railway underpinned by new contracts that prioritise punctual and reliable services, the rapid delivery of a ticketing revolution with new flexible and convenient tickets and long-term proposals to build a modern, greener and accessible network. Central to the Williams-Shapps plan for rail is the establishment of a new rail body—Great British Railways—that 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, reliable services passengers deserve. By 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 delivering for passengers and freight customers. Great British Railways will be a new organisation with a commercial mindset and strong customer focus. It will have a different culture to the current infrastructure owner, Network Rail, and very different incentives from the beginning.

GBR will have responsibility for the whole railway system, and a modest national headquarters as well as several regional divisions. The national headquarters will be based outside London and will bring the railway closer to the people and communities it serves, ensuring that skilled jobs and economic benefits are focused beyond the capital in line with the Government’s commitment to levelling up. Hon. Members have spoken this morning about the importance of the levelling-up agenda.

The competition for the headquarters was launched by the Secretary of State on 5 February 2022 and closed for applications on 16 March 2022. The GBR transition team is now evaluating the 42 submissions for the national headquarters, which we received from towns and cities across Great Britain, against a set of six criteria. The criteria are: alignment to levelling-up objectives; connected and easy to get to; opportunities for Great British Railways; rail heritage and links to the network; value for money; and public support. The GBR transition team will recommend a shortlist of the most suitable locations that will go forward to a consultative public vote. Ministers will make a final decision on the location based on all information gathered. As I mentioned before, I am incredibly pleased by the number of high-quality bids we have received. I am sure that, wherever we choose, the future headquarters will go to somewhere truly deserving.

Alongside a new national headquarters, GBR will have regional divisions that are responsible and accountable for the railway in local areas, ensuring that decisions about the railway are brought closer to the passengers and communities they serve. GBR regional divisions will be organised in line with the regions established in Network Rail’s putting passengers first programme, which reflects how passengers and freight move across the network today. Cities and regions in England will 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.

I was pleased to hear the contributions from the hon. Members for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett). I was also pleased to see the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler) in the debate. One of the challenges of being a Minister is being unable to speak in such debates, but it was good to see her.

We have heard contributions about innovation. As a Minister, I have learned a lot recently about innovation in the sector, including the First of a Kind scheme. The importance of freight has also been highlighted; it is really important in building a cleaner, greener future for our country. The hon. Member for Strangford spoke, quite rightly, about levelling up. The right hon. Member for Derby South highlighted the importance of our rail heritage and its future. That goes for the country as a whole. The focus of this morning’s debate was Derby, but we should be proud of our heritage and look positively to our future.

There were contributions about the importance of partnerships, the rail community, rolling stock and ticketing. We recently launched our Great British rail ticket sale. As of yesterday, we have sold more than 700,000 tickets—an excellent example of how the Government are helping people to access rail and with the cost of living.

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

Although transformation on such a scale cannot happen overnight, the Government and the sector are committed to ensuring the benefits for passengers and freight customers are brought forward as quickly as possible. We have already sold over 200,000 of our new national flexi-season tickets, which offer commuters savings as they return to the railways. As I have explained, to help passengers facing the rising cost of living we also recently launched the Great British rail sale, which offers up to 50% off more than a million tickets on journeys across Britain. And the transition from the emergency recovery measures agreements to the new national rail contract is under way, providing more flexible contracts that incentivise operators to deliver for passengers.

GBR will work alongside the local communities that it will serve. Integrated local teams within GBR’s regional divisions will push forward design and delivery for their partners supported by new incentives that encourage innovation, partnership and collaboration. GBR will be designed and have the structure to become yet another example of this Government’s historic commitment to levelling up the regions across the nation. Both the Government and the GBR transition team welcome the interest and advocacy from different cities and towns, and also welcome the participation in the competition for GBR’s headquarters so that together we can really deliver the change that is required.

To conclude, we look forward to creating this new vision for Britain’s railways, in collaboration with the sector and local communities, and deciding on GBR’s HQ is just one of many steps we are taking to achieve that.