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Transport Leaders Doubtful New Rail Bill Will Deliver Reform Soon Enough

Rishi Sunak during the State Opening of Parliament (Alamy)

5 min read

Rail industry leaders have described draft transport plans included in the King's Speech as a “missed opportunity”, and are doubtful that they will deliver reform promised by government.

Liverpool City Regional Mayor Steve Rotheram said today's proposals did “little to instil confidence” that infrastructure in the North of England was about to see significant improvement. 

Measures ranging from criminal justice and rental reform to economic and health protections were announced by King Charles III today, who delivered his first King’s Speech to mark the State Opening of Parliament.

The King said the government “will invest in Network North to deliver faster and more reliable journeys between and within the cities and towns of the North and Midlands, prioritising improving the journeys that people make most often”. 

Network North is the scheme announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Conservative Party conference last month, funded by the scrapping of the HS2 northern leg. 

The plans were beset by confusion shortly after they were announced, after Sunak said that the proposed list of projects were “illustrative” of what could be funded. 

While there were no additional legislative details on Network North specifically, a briefing on the speech provided information on the Draft Rail Reform Bill. PoliticsHome understands that Network North is an ongoing delivery priority for ministers, and work will happen in parallel to any legislation that comes before the Commons and Lords. 

Draft bills are bills that are issued for consultation before being formally introduced to the Commons and Lords, according to the Parliament website.

The process allows for changes to be made before it is officially brought forward, and gives a chance for experts and MPs to examine legislation in this draft form. 

The draft bill is expected to include plans to push ahead with Great British Railways, first proposed in 2021. 

There will also be plans for simplifying fares and ticketing and new duties on accessibility and freight to improve accessibility on the railways. 

Rotheram told PoliticsHome that the speech was “sorely lacking in vision”.

“Passing mentions of transport does little to instil confidence in the North that the government will deliver on any of its promises," he added. 

"A draft Rail Bill that will never make its way onto the statute book and no ambitions to commit their Network North plans to legislation. 

“HS2 at least made into law before they scrapped it, so why should we have any confidence that they’ll deliver on plans to connect West to East?,” 

Figures in government are understood to be confident that the rail reform legislation will be passed before the general election, but shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh also shared her scepticism that it would get on to the statute book. 

She said that the King’s Speech was the “Conservatives’ last chance to reform our broken railways, and they’ve flunked it”. 

“A draft bill, with no prospect of becoming law, years after promised reform, is a staggering admission of failure," she added. 

“The Conservatives’ answer to the failing status is more of the same.” 

Speaking in the Commons this afternoon, Sunak told MPs that “every single penny that would have been spent on HS2 – a repeatedly delayed, expensive project that fails to meet people’s real needs – is now being invested in the north, in the Midlands, and right across the country.

“£36 billion of investment in projects that people really need, and actually want. Network North is without question the most ambitious scheme for northern transport any government has developed ever.” 

Rail minister Huw Merriman also said that he was "pleased" to see the draft rail legislation which "brings together the primary legislative measures required to deliver rail reform and the Government's vision for a simpler, better railway for all customers".

But there was concern within the rail industry that today's proposals marked a “missed opportunity”. 

Andy Bagnall, chief executive of the Rail Partners industry body said: “The recommitment to establishing Great British Railways with the publication of a draft bill is a step forward, but it is a missed opportunity to not actually legislate in this Parliament.” 

He said that not seizing on the chance to legislate now “means continuing uncertainty until after the next general election”. 

“It is now even more urgent for government and industry to redouble efforts to deliver improvements for passengers and freight customers as well as taxpayers that can be taken forward without legislation,” he added. 

Transport committee chair Iain Stewart said he had “hoped for a full Bill” but welcomed the government’s plans as laid out today.

He praised the “long awaited progress with establishing Great British Rail and reforms that the sector and passengers are crying out for".

He added: “While we hoped for a full Bill at this stage, it is encouraging that the draft Bill has been published and I would urge the Government to proceed as quickly as possible with the scrutiny stage.”

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