Minister for Rail Development Norman Baker gave a video address on how the government is supporting investment in rail for an event organised by Built Environment Networking.
Built Environment Networking event
Thank you for inviting me to the Built Environment Networking event today.
I appreciate that a video is not entirely within the spirit of networking. I had hoped to be there with you in person, but as you gather this afternoon in Yorkshire, I am in Birmingham for the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference. An event which, as I am sure you will appreciate, is not to be missed, and not just because for me it is compulsory!
But I still wanted to be able to speak to you today. So with due allowances for the format, please let me take this opportunity to explain the coalition government’s approach to rail.
First, some context. As specialists in the built environment, you will understand very clearly the importance of establishing the foundations before a project can get off the ground. That is the challenge that the coalition government has inherited in terms of the economy. We need to tackle the deficit if we are to create the conditions for renewed prosperity.
But we understand very well that carefully planned infrastructure can drive economic growth. So we have been clear that we will continue to invest in projects that deliver a real benefit. No return to the days of cancelling essential infrastructure, banking a quick saving, then finding that the economic cost in terms of stifled growth is far greater than what was saved.
So the coalition government is fully focused on building a modern transport system - one that connects our communities and supports our businesses, one that is safe and reliable, affordable and accessible. And, of course, we are determined that such a system will also play its part in contributing to the government’s climate change goals.
In terms of investment in rail, and in spite of intense pressure on the public finances, the government is undertaking probably the biggest programme of rail enhancement since the Victorian era. These include a green light for both Crossrail and Thameslink in its entirety, an ambitious electricfication programme and the provision of 2700 new carriages which will make travelling more attractive and help ease overcrowding.
But as Sir Roy McNulty’s report earlier this year made clear - and as most have long believed - the cost of rail is indefensibly and unsustainably high.
That is not to detract from the real achievements of the rail sector in terms of safety and reliability that we have seen in recent years. But for far too long, the railway has relied on ever-increasing public subsidies on the on one hand, and ever-rising rail fares on the other.
This is hurting passengers, freight operators, and the public purse; but it’s hurting the rail industry itself, and Britain’s economy. So it needs to be tackled now. The challenge of building a sustainable and competitive railway cannot be delayed any longer.
That’s the overall context: rail is an economic enabler and as such, the government is supporting it as never before. But rail cannot continue in the unenviable position of being up to 40% more expensive per passenger mile than our European competitors. Later this year, we plan to publish a detailed policy statement setting out how we will take this agenda forward.
As the minister whose responsibilities include local and regional transport as well as rail performance, I would like to give you some sense of what our policies for rail mean in a regional context and in particular, Yorkshire.
First of all, in this context it’s relevant to mention our consultation on proposals for a high speed rail network. As we outlined in the public consultation, the government’s vision for high speed rail is of a truly national network - a ‘Y’ shaped high speed rail network that connects London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, with intermediate stops in the East Midlands and Sheffield and links to Heathrow and HS1. This has the potential to generate benefits with a net present value of £44 billion, and will contribute to major regeneration programmes in Britain’s inner cities.
The consultation on the government’s proposals for HS2 closed on the 29 of July, and I hope that many of you took the opportunity to respond. We are currently considering the responses to the consultation. The Secretary of State for Transport will announce his decision on whether to proceed with HS2 at the end of this year.
But the existing rail network in Yorkshire is also to benefit from continued investment. The Midland Main Line is to gain a package of line speed improvements costing £69 million which will cut journey times between Sheffield and London by 8 minutes to around 2 hours. I know there are long-held ambitions to electrify the Midland Main Line. Those will be considered as we plan for control period 5.
Yorkshire is also a potential testing ground for concepts that are new to UK rail, such as the tram train pilot planned for the route between Sheffield and Rotherham which I have the green light to earlier this year and which the West Yorkshire PTE is considering on some routes into Leeds.
Yorkshire’s local transport authorities and their partners are also thinking about how rail services are delivered and exploring new possibilities. From the centre, there are things that those in the region can do that will help us all.
Perhaps the most important thing is to be clear about how priorities for transport meet the challenges of economic growth, carbon reduction and reducing the cost of the railway. Clarity of purpose and the regional interests speaking with a single voice also count for much.
We are already talking to the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive and to PTEG about possibilities for devolution of rail interests - something that chimes well with the McNulty proposals. However, any proposal will need to achieve the objectives of providing better services for passengers as well as reducing the cost of the railway. And any governance structure would need to have the support of participating local authorities and local enterprise partnerships for it to work.
I hope this brief overview has left you with a good idea of not only the challenges, but also the real opportunities for rail. We are at a pivotal moment for the rail industry. I believe that, with your help and that of the many professionals who are central to the industry’s success, there is no reason to suppose we cannot overcome the cost issue and continue to see the sort of expansion that has characterised recent years.
Thank you for watching and I hope the rest of your day is productive and enjoyable.