Thank you, Mr Speaker/Madam Deputy Speaker.
Since the first railroad was built and opened here in Great Britain in the first half of the 19th century, railways have been an integral part of our country’s economic and social fabric, contributing immeasurably to national prosperity, progress, and development.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, railways remain an integral part of the United Kingdom’s transport infrastructure and the Government was right to use taxpayers’ money to support the industry and those that work within it.
The support delivered throughout the pandemic totalled £16 billion of emergency funding to ensure that railways were kept running but there has, nonetheless, undoubtedly been a significant drop in railway usage which has not – and perhaps will not – fully return to pre-pandemic levels as we once expected.
This funding thankfully ensured that none of the 100,000 staff directly employed by the railways had to go on furlough like the many millions of people in other industries, but it is unfortunately not sustainable to continue this level of Government subsidy indefinitely – especially given the current financial difficulties and pressures faced by many people, families, and businesses across the country, including in my constituency of Hastings and Rye.
That is why I believe proper reform within the industry is now a necessity.
Some of the existing terms and conditions have not been updated since they were first set out in the 1960s by British Rail – for example around shift work, Sunday working and levels of annual leave.
These must now be looked at in a new light as we all adapt to the post-pandemic world, and changes will help to ensure that our great, historic network not only survives but also thrives both now and in the future.
When it comes to the serious question of rail strikes, I believe that fairness – or lack thereof – must be the central consideration.
After already subsiding the industry throughout the pandemic to the sum of £16 billion, is it fair that taxpayers – many of whom will no longer be daily or regular railway users due to changes in workplace patterns – continue to bail it out with additional funding, on top of the fare fees that are paid whenever they do use the network?
It is these exact taxpayers – the constituents that elect us to this House - who will unfortunately be at the sharp end of the effects of these planned strikes too.
Whether it is students trying to get to their GCSE or A-Level exams to the many thousands of military personnel seeking to mark Armed Forces Day on Saturday 25th June, these strikes backed by many of those on the opposite benches are imprudent and ill-judged.
They will be felt acutely by those people that miss out on specific events that are important to them, but the strikes will also have a real adverse impact on the country’s economy.
It will disrupt and cost British businesses - including small and medium ones that form the country’s economic backbone – a significant amount and, for those that rely on tourism as many do in my beautiful constituency, the impact will be all the greater.
The impact of rail strikes has unfortunately been felt locally before, including in 2017 as a result of the RMT and ASLEF action when both Southern Rail and Govia Thameslink services were affected.
At the time, this had a dire impact on the people that work in the tourism industry as, despite the huge amount Hastings and Rye has to offer to tourists, they were unable to use the railway to reach the area with local businesses suffering.
From notable art galleries to world-renowned historic sites such as Hastings’ Castle, we in the 1066 area have an abundance of attractions for tourists to enjoy – but this is only possible if people are able to reach them.
The considerable impact of the pandemic on tourism and hospitality businesses is well known and, as we approach the all-important summer months, it is more vital now than ever that we elected representatives speak up for and support them as they continue to recover financially.
This support comes in various forms and must include keeping the transport links for them to be readily accessible, viable and affordable for all.
Reforming the railway network is key.
Only through proper thought and consideration can fairness for both the taxpayer and those that work in the industry be achieved, and the Government has my full support to this end to help ensure that our railways can proposer both now and in the future.