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MPs: Government does not realise scale of challenge for England’s railways

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The Department for Transport (DfT) fails to appreciate “the scale of the challenge ahead” for England’s rail network, MPs have warned.

Ministers must make “tough choices” about the future of rail due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the commitment to reach net zero for carbon emissions, according to a report from the Public Accounts Committee.

The DfT and Network Rail must ensure the system delivers better services for passengers in a way that meets new travel patterns, the MPs said.

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At the same time, the network must be maintained while keeping ticket prices affordable to encourage people to travel by rail, the committee stated.

The DfT published the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail in May, setting out plans for sweeping reforms such as the creation of a new public sector body to oversee Britain’s railways.

But the PAC report warned that the DfT “faces an extremely challenging and uncertain environment in which to implement its proposed reforms”.

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It went on: “While the department is aware of the need for improvement across a range of areas we are concerned that the Department has neither the necessary urgency nor appreciates the scale of the challenge ahead.”

The report described how costs to the taxpayer from the “failed franchise system” almost doubled from 2015 to £5.1 billion in 2019/20, with another £8.5 billion of financial support provided after the coronavirus outbreak to keep services running.

Dame Meg Hillier, who chairs the PAC, said: “Decent public transport is crucial to both household and national economies.

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“Rail reform won’t work if it doesn’t work for taxpayers and fare-paying passengers, and the Government won’t achieve its economic and environmental goals without effective rail reform.

“There is everything to play for in delivering a rail system that delivers for passengers and encourages greener travel.

“But there are still many moving parts and a huge challenge to balance costs. The Government needs to show it can act with urgency and put passengers’ experience at the centre of its reforms.”

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Jim McMahon, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, said: “The incompetence we’ve seen from this Government in running the railways is astonishing, with the financial burden of the pandemic forced onto taxpayers while the profits of private operators were shored up.”

A DfT spokesman said: “Our plan for rail sets out the biggest reforms to our railways in a generation, focused on the passenger, ending a fragmented, unsustainable system and delivering clear national leadership under a single body, Great British Railways.

“The unprecedented taxpayer support for rail kept services running, moving vital freight and medical supplies, transporting key workers, and protecting thousands of frontline jobs.

“This support came with rigorous scrutiny to protect taxpayers’ interests.

“Our proposals will ensure greater value for money for taxpayers and a better deal for passengers – with affordable fares and the punctual, reliable services they deserve as people return to the railways.

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Sam Hewitt

Let off some steam...