Rail travel in England risks losing out to cars in the recovery from Covid because the Department for Transport lacks urgency and does not “appreciate the scale of the challenge ahead”, MPs have warned.
A critical report from the Commons public accounts committee said that taxpayers could also be left on the hook for large additional costs because new contracts had been awarded without sufficient transparency “to inform oversight”.
Costs to the taxpayer from the failed rail franchise system almost doubled from 2015 to £5.1bn in 2019-20, the committee said, with the government providing another £8.5bn of financial support after franchising was abolished at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
It added that the DfT “lacks a convincing and timely plan for encouraging passengers back to the railway as part of Covid-19 recovery”.
Passenger numbers on trains are still around half of pre-Covid levels, according to the latest DfT figures, which show that roads are now as busy as before the pandemic.
The report said that limited DfT and Network Rail plans “do not reflect the urgency required to avoid an increase in car use as people begin to travel again, which would undermine the decarbonisation of transport required to meet net zero commitments”.
The MPs said that while the end of franchising and the aftermath of the pandemic would give options to deliver better services for passengers, the DfT now faced “an extremely challenging and uncertain environment in which to implement its proposed reforms”.
The DfT published the long-delayed Williams-Shapps plan in May, which set out reforms including the creation of a new Great British Railways, which would have control over both tracks and trains.
The committee said it was unclear if the DfT’s plan during the transition to a new system, with train operators currently signed up to emergency recovery measures agreements, “fairly distributes risks between government and operators, or provides incentives for operators to deliver efficient, high-quality, and value-for-money passenger services”.
It concluded: “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.”
Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: “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.”
Unions said the report should be a wake-up call. The TSSA’s general secretary, Manuel Cortes, said: “They are being told a series of home truths which can’t be ignored as we begin to move out of the shadow of the pandemic.”
The RMT’s general secretary, Mick Lynch, said the report showed ministers had got their priorities wrong: “Every single failing detailed by the PAC could begin to be tackled if we took back real control and created an integrated, publicly owned and publicly accountable railway.”
A DfT spokesperson said the Williams-Shapps proposals would ensure greater value for money for taxpayers and passengers, adding: “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.”