We must be open and honest about the future of our railways
Definitive action is needed if we are to address the seismic breach in consumer trust around performance on the railways, writes Jack Brereton MP
Like many up and down the country I am frustrated when I experience poor service on the railways. Railways are vital to our economy, but all too often services that should be helping people get to work or travel for leisure or to see loved ones are disrupted unexpectedly and at short notice. When things go wrong, it can be difficult to understand exactly who is responsible, let alone who can be held accountable.
I have had difficulties working out who to contact about rail in my own constituency in Stoke-on-Trent, which is served by the North Staffordshire line from Crewe to Derby. My constituents often ask me questions about how we can improve services locally. What should be simple queries to answer can prove unnecessarily complicated because it is unclear which region of Network Rail, which owns and operates the tracks, is responsible and can provide the information needed.
If we are to place passengers where they belong – right at the heart of the railway system – we must be open and honest about the measures we need to improve the railways as we plan for their future.
With its ‘Putting Passengers First’ programme, Network Rail has recently reorganised itself to bring further clarity and greater local accountability to its operations. This is welcome, but definitive action is also needed if we are to address the seismic breach in consumer trust around performance on the railways. In Network Rail’s North West and Central region, where my constituency sits, performance deteriorated in 2018 and still has yet to substantially recover. This is not good enough. In a region where the train operating companies include Northern and TransPennine Express, Network Rail’s contribution to delays are a very real concern. Train operators must take full and proper responsibility for the role they play in disrupted journeys, and so must Network Rail.
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) – the rail regulator – is rightly investigating the detail of the recovery plans that Network Rail has put in place to address the issues in my part of the world. ORR should make sure that Network Rail is doing all it reasonably can to improve service for passengers, and it must be as transparent about this investigation as it is in its wider work holding Network Rail to account. Being directly accountable to Parliament, it is obvious that we as Members of Parliament should have the opportunity to scrutinise ORR, as we do Network Rail and the other players in the rail sector. That is why I think it is correct that the ORR come to Parliament to hear from MPs about their experiences of using the railways and to explain what role it is playing in improving the management of the rail system.
If we are to place passengers where they belong – right at the heart of the railway system – we must be open and honest about the measures we need to improve the railways as we plan for their future. Government, well aware of the challenges that the travelling public faces, is preparing to publish a white paper on railway reform. This follows on from a review of the sector led by independent Chair, Keith Williams. It is currently unclear exactly what changes to the sector the railway reform white paper will bring, but bringing greater accountability and creating a more responsive railway that can meet our future demands is a must. This is a once in a generation opportunity to get things right for passengers up and down the country. We must not pass it up. We must put passengers first.
Jack Brereton is Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent South. He will host an ORR drop-in session in Room B, 1 Parliament Street, 09:00-10:30, on 26 February. MPs, Peers, and Parliamentary staff are invited to attend and speak to senior representatives about the issues – local or nationwide – that interest or concern them about the railways