In November last year Iain Stewart was elected the Transport Committee Chair. Iain is MP for Milton Keynes South. He was Commissioned by former MHCLG Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, to research and write a report on East-West Rail and the Oxford-Cambridge Growth Arc in 2018 and gained a Fellowship in Rail Transport with Industry & Parliament Trust. In his Candidate Statement he said: ‘Select Committees should, of course, fairly scrutinise and hold to account Government Departments, Agencies and operators; but they should also conduct forward-looking and constructive inquiries into future challenges and opportunities. As Chair I would want the Committee to have a good balance of both types of inquiry.’

Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Iain Stewart, Transport Committee Chair about the role of the select committee, how best to approach inquiries and the future of rail governance

SSH: In your victory speech you mentioned ‘horizon-scanning proactive work into future opportunities and challenges’ – could you elaborate on what they might be in a rail-related context?

Iain Stewart MP: So the committee is there to do the ‘what went wrong’ type of inquiries, the reactionary ones that hold government and operators and agencies to account. I think Select Committees can also play a really useful role in identifying what is coming next. In the past one of the inquiries looked at digital signalling as an upcoming issue, so big changes like that can have a significant effect on how we run the railways.

We haven’t agreed this yet as a committee, but what I’m looking to do is hold a Future Transport Inquiry that will invite professionals from universities to pitch to us in a ‘Dragons Den’ type format where they present innovative ideas to us which we could consider as a pathway to being more forward-thinking. It could be looking at post-Covid transport patterns, how are they going to play out as we normalcy returns. The current observation is that people are travelling more for leisure at weekends and comparatively less at traditional commuting times, is that a permanent change and is that something we need to look at? What about Mobility as a Service, what does that mean for ticketing? What big changes will come in the way the passengers will want to buy rail tickets? I am keen that the committee does that sort of more forward-looking work.

SSH: At some point we can say that all the people who can work from home are already doing it and everyone else is going to carry on working the way they were before. How long do you think it would take to gather all the data that you need to know which direction we’re going in?

Iain Stewart MP: It’s a good question, we don’t know when we can expect to see travel patterns settle down because just asking around companies in my own constituency, they’re still feeling their way as to what the appropriate mix is. Some jobs will have to be done in the workplace, but I think what we can expect is that there’s going to be a lot more flexibility as to when people want to travel. They might still come into the office but not at the usual hours so what does that mean for the ticketing system. We have flexible season tickets now but that’s a very small change, it’s looking at big issues like that and whilst our inquiry isn’t going to come up with the definitive blueprint we will at least probe the areas that need to be further analysed and the areas that need to be linked together.

SSH: Who do you look for to ask these questions and provide that sort that level of insight?

Iain Stewart MP: There’s traditional bodies and individuals who will give evidence to a select committee and I absolutely want to continue that but I want to start thinking a bit more widely. You know it will be the employers, and the tech companies to say: ‘well we think this is coming done the line that will result in a big change’. Just looking internationally at a lot of the patterns there, I am already hearing that some companies are saying they’re losing the creative spark by not having people physically together as much. That’s just one possible line of inquiry but I use that as an illustration of what we’re going to have to address and then how that filters down into more practical matters. It’s long been the case and probably still
is at the moment that the optimal time to do engineering work on the railways is weekends and bank holidays but is that always going to be the case?

SSH: You mentioned that the judicial bodies you speak to, in terms of the new bodies like Transport for the North or Transport for Wales. How do you see yourself engaging with those?

Iain Stewart MP: Well at the moment I’ve got a vast number of meetings in my diary with all sorts of people and bodies, in many cases we establish contact but without it being a formal inquiry it is more just for me to meet them and get updates on what they’re thinking. We are seeing Transport for the North as part of an inquiry, we are also having an evidence session on Avanti and Transpennine Express. Interestingly, I will be questioning my former boss Patrick McLoughlin (Lord McLoughlin, Chair of Transport for the North). What we try do as a committee is capture as wide a range of points of view as we can, Transport for the North, a journalist from The Financial Times who has been researching this particular issue, Passenger
Focus, who will come in and tell us how the economy and individuals are experiencing these problems. Then we get the operators in and question them.

Back in the Autumn, before I took over as Chair, Avanti told us they would hire a certain number of drivers, so my first question to them would be to ask how many of that number they have actually hired. So, this is important in the context of the scrutiny and accountability role of a Select Committee, if it is a broader inquiry what we often do first of all is invite written evidence to be submitted and that can come from anyone, a member of the public or a trade union, an academic, an operator or a regulator.

Once we’ve got that basis of evidence written we’ll then choose a cross section of the spectrum of views on whatever the topic is and then have them come in for questioning. Normally the last session is with the responsible Minister for that area of policy to get the government’s view.

SSH: The current inquiries you’re going through are ones that were started prior to taking over as Chair, what’s the timeline for initiating fresh ones that are on your agenda?

Iain Stewart MP: In about half an hour’s time we’re having a private meeting looking at the types of issues that we’ll want to inquire about. There’s a number of inquiries up and running which we will see through to conclusion, but I am really keen on this My Future Transport exercise, which other select committees have tried. That in itself starts off ideas for future bits of work.

We had The Secretary of State in front of us previously, we’ll need to get him back because I’ve not yet worked through his priorities when it comes to the funding envelope which has been reconfirmed for investment. But he’s got to incorporate inflationary pressures and is still thinking through the options for Great British Railways so I think it’s only fair to give him a little bit of time to come to his conclusions on that and then probably we’ll want to scrutinise further what that means.

SSH: There’s been so much upheaval in government recently, how has that changed your approach and what do you think was on the agenda six months ago that’s now completely off and vice versa?

Iain Stewart MP: Previously the government wanted to push the Integrated Rail Plan. The Chancellor is now committed more to the core network and so again we would ask what does that actually mean? With HS2 there is this commitment, but we need to look at what in practice that is.

So I am content to give them time to do their own analysis, it is good news that the funding envelope has been renewed but what does that mean in practice given inflationary pressures. In my neck of the woods, East West Rail seemed to go off the boil a little, certainly the section from Bletchley to Bicester is under construction, but the central section and eastern section seemed to be a bit in doubt, now it seems to be reconfirmed. I think it’s going to take a little bit of time for that to settle down and that is obviously something as a Committee we will want to prove. How are they making these decisions? Are they just going to salami slice X percentage off of any project to make it fit within the budget or are some going to be given greater priority?

I remain very enthusiastic about East West Rail, it’s not just a rail project it’s the lynchpin infrastructure on a wider economic development for that part of the country.

SSH: Do you have to put aside your knowledge of that project because its scope might have changed during the intervening period?

Iain Stewart MP: I’ve kept a keen interest from a constituency perspective, a particular issue locally is how it interplays with a housing development in my constituency. But there line is that the local authority has not always worked in tandem with East West Rail for the optimal solutions in that part of Milton Keynes, so I have very much kept up to speed with the project. = But I am also conscious as Chairman I can’t be too locally focussed, the Select Committee is there for all of the United Kingdom.

SSH: How do you avoid focussing on one area instead of the national story of transport?

Iain Stewart MP: I suppose it loops back to my wish that I want to get other people to come in and pitch to us as to the sort of things we should be looking at. It’s very easy to get focussed on a particular issue in politics, sometimes you need somebody to say actually have a look over there. That’s why we try and speak to as wide a range of people as we can, one of the other inquiries that we’re about to start is called Inclusive Transport and that means everything from physical access for people with disabilities to personal safety on public transport. As we were chatting in a pre-evidence session, comments in that session made us ask: is the law already there that requires operators to make provision for people with disabilities to travel and it’s just
not being properly enforced or is there a gap in the legislation? We don’t know the answer to that question now, so that’s a slightly different angle that we’d take in that inquiry. Is it an enforcement issue or is there a gap in the legislation that would cover all modes of transports?

SSH: In terms of Great British Railways, what do you think is the likely outcome?

Iain Stewart MP: I’m hoping that the basic principles behind GBR are still there in that there is a single guiding mind for the industry. In terms of legislation that is required to establish it, the competition to choose the headquarters, what it means in practicalities – I think all that comes after the confirmation that the principal behind it is still the objective.

SSH: When you’re speaking someone where it’s their first time in a formal inquiry session, do you engage with them differently?

Iain Stewart MP: I’m conscious some people don’t operate in the political world and actually coming to the Houses of Parliament to give formal evidence which is going to be recorded can be quite a nerve wracking experience. I hope that people find my style is a warm and approachable one, I don’t like aggressive cross-questioning that’s more akin to a courtroom I want to be able to draw out of people the information that we’re looking for that allows us then to make an objective decision. The purpose of these evidence sessions is not to point the finger of accusation, we just want to know the reality of what happened, if it is something that went wrong we want to know exactly what the problem was so it can be flagged up and isn’t going to be repeated in the future.

Some people like the aggressive style but I just don’t find that helpful when you get constant interruptions, you don’t actually draw light from the discussion. Whereas if you take a more objective approach and give people the chance to make their points and take a tough line of questioning and don’t let people come out with some PR slogan you can dig down into finding out exactly what the issue is or the opinion and then as a committee you can analyse all that and decide what recommendations you’re going to make.