Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Efford.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on securing this important debate and on the passion she shows for Derby and its proud industrial and railway heritage. In fact, I congratulate all Derbyshire Members on working cross-party for their area to win this prestigious prize.
We heard, eloquently, from my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett). I know that many other Derbyshire MPs could not be here because of the late sitting last night, but they too have shown their support. Derby is proud and privileged to have the support of the former Chair of the Transport Committee and former shadow Transport Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). Amazingly, it has also managed to get support from Northern Ireland, with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The Minister, and everybody at the Department for Transport, will be left in no doubt that Derby has a very strong bid.
The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire and my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South have rightly placed Derby at the centre of the history of the railway, as a place where trains have been built since 1839. It is a centre of British engineering excellence to this day. I was privileged to visit Derby recently to see some of that engineering excellence, meet some of the workers and executives and see their impressive work, thanks to Rail Forum Midlands and its amazing chief executive officer Elaine. I even got to drive a train, which was a first for me. Subsequently I had the pleasure of having a meeting with Councillor Baggy Shanker and the Derby group of Labour councillors, where I heard about their strong support for the bid, with intricate details provided by the senior council officers. As we have heard, it is a bid that is supported by Alstom, which I also visited, the local enterprise partnership and the East Midlands chamber of commerce, among many others.
I am left in no doubt that Derby has made the strongest possible case and put together a very strong bid. However, as the shadow Rail Minister, I must stop short of making my own preferences known or endorsing one particular bid—even a bid as strong as Derby’s. I would get lynched by other Members who have also been on my case. It is a very crowded and impressive field. I think this is the sixth debate secured by a Member advocating their town or city. I understand that 42 places had submitted a bid by the time the deadline passed. There are so many places that speak to the rich heritage of the railway across the country, including Doncaster, York, Crewe, Darlington, Edinburgh, Swindon, and Wakefield, as well as many other wonderful places with a strong claim. However, despite its amazing connectivity, for some reason Slough, incredible as it is, did not quite make the cut. I noticed that Carnforth made the list; it will forever be associated with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson and their “Brief Encounter”.
The quality of the bids tells us that there is a lot of love for rail, and a vibrant railway manufacturing sector in our country that is still going, despite every challenge and obstacle. There is an enthusiasm to design, manufacture, build, create and produce. Embedded deep in our history are Stephenson, Trevithick, James Watt and the legendary Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who built the famous Great Western Railway that runs through my Slough constituency. However, we need to look to the future, too. I believe that Great Britain can have a great industrial future as well as a proud past, but it requires vision, investment and political will.
The current Government’s industrial strategy is inadequate to the task and is still ideologically enamoured with free markets rather than long-term planning. If recent events—whether that is Brexit, the pandemic, energy prices, war in Europe or the climate crisis—prove anything, it is the need for Government to work in partnership with industry to provide investment where markets fail, as well as strategic direction, planning and leadership. On the climate emergency in particular, we need to harness our engineering genius to meet the fierce urgency of tackling global warming with carbon capture, renewable energy and green manufacturing.
The railway is central to this green new deal. We need high-speed links across the UK, including the east midlands to Leeds leg, which the Government have unfortunately scrapped—so much for levelling up—and electrification, which should be rolled out further and faster. We need hydrogen-power trains, such as those pioneered and built in Derby. As has been eloquently pointed by hon. Members today, with more railway freight, we will have fewer lorries on our roads. More passengers on trains across the timetable will reflect the new changed realities of the world of work.
I welcome recent announcements of cheaper fares for the next few weeks, which will hopefully remind people that trains can be a viable means of transport. However, I cannot shake the view that it is simply a gimmick. Would it not be better if rail fares were affordable all the time, as they are in many of our European neighbours? As the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, pointed out, a return train ticket from Manchester to London bought on a Monday morning is £369. That is more than a return flight, booked in advance, to India, Jamaica or Brazil. That is absolutely ludicrous. Could the Minister update us on the long-promised plans for reforms of ticketing and ticket prices, and whether Government plans will truly make rail travel a viable option for people on middle and low incomes?
That brings me to my central point. We are discussing the headquarters for the new Great British Railways, as established by the Williams-Shapps rail review, but that body is merely the guiding mind of a railway system still dominated by private sector companies running those franchises. The new passenger service contracts will replace the emergency agreements agreed during the pandemic, but those contracts are with private companies and their shareholders and investors. As long as the profit motive is central to running the railways, there will be pressure for higher fares and more profits derived from the pockets of the long-despairing travelling public. Could the Minister offer her assessment of how much cash those franchise deals will cost the public purse for the first five years of the plan?
The great missed opportunity from the shock to the system provoked by the pandemic was the nationalisation of the railway in its totality, which would end the franchises and put people before profits. By bringing our railways back into public ownership, we could have a democratically driven railway that was owned by the people and accountable to Government—a people’s railway for all the people. That model, which is commonplace across the world, would guarantee recovery of our UK railways.
We need to keep down fares, speed up investment, boost green manufacturing and secure our railways for another 200 years. I wish the great manufacturing centre of Derby all the very best and hope to have the pleasure of visiting again very soon. I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire and wish the other shortlisted towns and cities the best of luck, too. I hope we have a decision as soon as possible from the Department, before we have further such debates, which will no doubt be called by right hon. and hon. Members for their towns and cities. Most of all, I wish for a clean, green, safe, reliable and affordable railway that is accessible for all.