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Lockerbie Rail Services

Volume 482: debated on Tuesday 11 November 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watts.]

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise my constituents’ concerns about services, or the lack of them, at Lockerbie station. I have to say at the outset that I am extremely disappointed that after one long battle at Lockerbie station was won—with the provision of a state-of-the-art footbridge to allow disabled access to the southbound platform, following a 10-year campaign that was so ably led by Wyn Deamer of the Annandale and Eskdale Coalition for the Disabled—those who use the services at Lockerbie station or who are concerned about the economy of the south of Scotland appear no closer to a resolution of the equally long battle to ensure that the train services operated from the station meet local needs.

These are issues that I have raised with the Minister’s predecessors, most recently the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris). I have also raised them with Scottish Ministers, most recently at a meeting with Scotland’s Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson on 28 October. Indeed, as far back as 20 June 1999, I sponsored one of the first Members’ debates held in the Scottish Parliament—they are the equivalent of Adjournment debates in this House—in which the issue at the very heart of tonight’s debate, a direct early morning service between Lockerbie and Edinburgh, was raised. Nearly 10 years on, no such service has been delivered. I contend that the introduction of the new timetable on 15 December will lead to the package of services at Lockerbie, especially between Glasgow and Edinburgh, being significantly reduced. That is totally unacceptable to me and my constituents.

Some will wonder why the services to a station in Scotland are being debated on the Floor of the House, when transport is a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but not, I am sure, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark). He will be familiar with the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998, which mean that cross-border services remain the responsibility of the Department for Transport. Lockerbie is in a unique position: although the station is within the ScotRail franchise, currently operated by First ScotRail, no services operated by First ScotRail stop there. The station is manned by ScotRail staff, and I want to use this opportunity to pay tribute to their professionalism and dedication, which is much appreciated by all my constituents who use the station.

To reiterate, all the Lockerbie services are provided under a franchise arrangement over which Scottish Ministers have no direct control. That does not mean that they have no influence. As Stewart Stevenson points out in his letter to me of 7 November, Ministers in the Scottish Government are able to provide non-binding advice to the UK Government on such cross-border services. I will return to the advice that was given.

I am sure the Minister will appreciate that my constituents find the complexity of the arrangements unsatisfactory. They believe that that contributes to their needs not being given the priority that they deserve. What better example is there than the new timetable for Lockerbie station? It is not a coherent set of services, designed to meet the needs of station users, and their oft-expressed wish for commuter services, shopping services and evening leisure services to Glasgow and Edinburgh. Instead, it is a random set of services, designed, one suspects, to tick rail industry boxes, with little thought for the customer. It is no wonder that my constituents feel that Lockerbie is a forgotten station, caught in a no-man’s-land between Scottish Government and UK Government responsibilities, with nobody actually focusing on the needs of Lockerbie station users.

It would be churlish to suggest that there are no improvements to services in the new timetable, which is to be introduced in December. The services to Manchester airport and central Manchester are to be welcomed. My son and I recently used that service, which is operated by First TransPennine Express, and it was excellent. Indeed, services to the south generally allow people relatively straightforward connections to most destinations in England and Wales. That is despite the many unwelcome changes to direct services brought about by the break up of the previous cross-country franchise, operated by Virgin Trains. I was extremely unhappy about those changes at the time, as I believed that they would adversely affect services at Lockerbie, and that has proved to be the case.

However, whatever the issues about services to the south, I return to the point that it is services to Edinburgh and Glasgow that are of most concern to my constituents. After all, as I hope the Minister will appreciate, it is not practical for my constituents to jump in their cars and drive to the next station north, given that it is some 48 miles away. It is the longest section of railway line in Great Britain without an intermediate station. I am not proud that my constituency can boast that statistic, but the arguments for reopening the Beattock and Symington stations along the route are for another day.

Naturally, it is also welcome that the first proposed new service of the day, the 08.15 from Lockerbie to Edinburgh, does not require a stop at Carstairs. Even my constituent, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood), would concede that Carstairs station is not an attractive prospect on a cold and wet Scottish winter morning. However, there should never have been a need for a change there in the first place. It was another example of the interests of Lockerbie station users being compromised and, disappointingly, of Virgin not being totally transparent in its dealings with me and other local stakeholders when proposing that service, which it originally pitched as the much sought-after early morning service to Edinburgh.

Specifically on that issue, as I have said, on numerous occasions over the past 10 years a direct early morning service to Edinburgh has been promised but never delivered. There is widespread recognition of the economic benefit of such a service, as indeed there is of a service to Glasgow, particularly in an area that has some of the lowest wages in the United Kingdom and suffers from a constant drain of young people to urban areas. In its regional transport strategy 2008 document, the South West of Scotland Transport Partnership rightly identifies the fact that such services are

“critical to allow commuters and others to travel regularly to Scotland’s economic core. This would place the region on a par with other areas of Scotland actively promoting this sort of long distance connectivity as a means to retain key workers in local communities.”

In non-binding advice to UK Ministers in October 2006 as part of the west coast main line franchising process, Scottish Ministers—then part of a Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration—recognised the importance of Lockerbie as a regional railhead for south-west Scotland, and stated their desire that the Lockerbie service should permit a journey to both Glasgow and Edinburgh, arriving no later than 08.40 and departing between 17.00 and 18.00.

The current Scottish Government led by the Scottish National party share that view, so there is no party political element to this cause. In his letter of 7 November, Stewart Stevenson MSP states:

“Although Scottish Ministers are unable to intervene in the detail of the current franchise arrangements between the DfT and First TransPennine Express, we can see the economic benefits of enhancing the cross border connection by providing an additional early morning, direct service to Lockerbie. This addition would provide significant benefits such as increased frequency and would in turn open up the route as a commutable journey that would improve the economic growth of both Lockerbie and the surrounding areas and for Edinburgh itself.”

Those views seem to have found favour, and at a meeting of the Lockerbie rail liaison group held in the town on 19 November 2007 at which I was present, presentations were given by both Virgin Trains and First TransPennine Express, with the impression being created that those early morning services would finally be provided with the support of the Department for Transport. That impression was reinforced in discussions I had with the then Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South, earlier this year, and it seemed at the time that there would be a Lockerbie service arriving in Edinburgh at 08.32 from this December.

Out of the blue, in the early summer, that proposal was pulled. The reason given to me was that the proposed First TransPennine Express 09.11 Edinburgh to Manchester airport service, which was to be formed from the new 08.32 arrival, could not be pathed through the border by Network Rail because of various long-standing and time-sensitive freight commitments. First TransPennine Express was unwilling to keep its train in Edinburgh until a 09.56 departure slot was available, and so, once again, the interests of Lockerbie station users were compromised. They have come at the bottom of the pecking order, marginalised to suit other interests, whether freight or TransPennine’s own agenda.

As I have said, I do not have any criticism of the services that TransPennine Express provides from Lockerbie, but let us have no more pretence that it is doing so for the convenience of Lockerbie station users or to provide the station with a balanced and logical pattern of services. Similarly, a DFT proposal for a morning Lockerbie to Glasgow service, arriving in Glasgow at 08.42, albeit with a change at Carstairs, has been dropped. The earliest that Lockerbie passengers, after the introduction of the new timetable, will arrive in Glasgow is 09.09—11 minutes later than at present. It is no wonder my constituents feel let down and simply ignored by the DFT. Their views have been ignored and their interests marginalised, and I am calling on the Minister to undertake to right those wrongs and to deliver those desperately needed, direct early morning services as soon as is practicable, and for once to put the interests of Lockerbie station users and the economy of the south of Scotland before the agendas and interests of bureaucrats, train operating companies and the wider rail industry.

The strength of feeling about the failure to deliver the early morning services is exacerbated by the effective butchering of the existing timetable throughout the day. At present, some 15 northbound services stop at Lockerbie, eight for Glasgow and seven for Edinburgh. After the new timetable is introduced in December, it is proposed that only nine northbound services will stop at Lockerbie, four for Glasgow and five for Edinburgh. A 40 per cent. cut in services hardly represents an attempt to achieve the modal shift to rail, which is one of the Government’s buzz phrases.

Let us look at some specific examples. From the afternoon to the evening, there is an eight-hour gap between the 12.30 service to Glasgow and the proposed 20.44 service to Glasgow. From the morning to the afternoon, there is a four-and-a-half hour gap between the proposed 09.56 service to Edinburgh and the 14.30 service to Edinburgh. The 18.47 direct service to London Euston has also been removed, and the last services from Glasgow and Edinburgh are around 20.10, which makes it impossible for people to attend evening events—the theatre or other cultural activities—in Glasgow and Edinburgh and return to Lockerbie.

What I and my constituents find particularly difficult to understand is that several services that have been cut still pass through Lockerbie, such as the 07.19, 08.20, 10.20, 11.20 and 12.20 services from Birmingham and the 12.52 from Edinburgh. They are all examples of services that, although cut from the Lockerbie timetable, still pass through the station, and I look forward to receiving the Minister’s explanation. I cannot think of one. Indeed, plenty of other trains pass through Lockerbie station, and they would allow for the creation of a coherent and bespoke timetable if the will was there to do so. Again, let us hear from the Minister why such a measure seems to be impossible.

It seems to me that Lockerbie is being discriminated against because it is on the west coast main line. Everyone welcomes the west coast main line upgrades, the faster trains and the shorter journey times, but the Department seems to have become obsessed with the importance of cutting journey times between major cities, and it looks to do so by cutting out intermediate stations rather than solely through track upgrades. That approach is to the detriment of all who live in communities such as Lockerbie, which are served by small stations, and I am sure that it is done partly to achieve competitiveness against London to Glasgow domestic flights. However, in trying to do so, the Government sacrifice the needs of areas such as Lockerbie, where people do not have the choice of local domestic flights—that is, unless Carlisle airport is reopened. And for any Department for Transport officials who are listening, I fully support its reopening.

Lockerbie station users are not making excessive demands on the Department. As the South West of Scotland Transport Partnership says in its regional transport strategy, there ought to be a “balanced stopping pattern”, and as the Scottish Government have said, it should accommodate early morning direct services to Glasgow and Edinburgh. I am sure that the Minister and his colleagues receive many complaints about train delays and cancellations, but I am also sure that he will agree that for Lockerbie station users to have to wait 10 years for early morning direct services to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and to have 40 per cent. of their daytime services cancelled permanently, is totally unacceptable. Tonight, I hope that he will take the opportunity to put that right.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) on securing this debate and providing an opportunity to debate rail services at Lockerbie. I genuinely understand his comments on behalf of his constituents, yet in many of those comments are implied the competing demands of meeting the needs of the travelling public from all parts of the United Kingdom and of meeting economic demands, whether in Scotland or elsewhere. In the short time available, I hope to address some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

The performance of today’s railways, which have improved significantly in recent years, represents a strong success story. The focus on the punctuality and reliability of Network Rail and train operators has sharpened. Investment is at record levels and after years of managing decline, the industry is having to deal with unprecedented growth in demand for rail travel. The Government are giving high priority to providing additional capacity, through the provision of additional carriages and new infrastructure.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the £8.8 billion that has been going into the west coast route modernisation project, which is now drawing to a close. The project has renewed and upgraded the key main rail line and it links some of the key population areas of the country. It must accommodate not only many long-distance passenger trains, but numerous local and regional passenger services. The west coast main line also handles 40 per cent. of the nation’s rail freight. The work of rebuilding has taken place on a live railway, but it has been and is a success story. It has been a team project in that it brought together Network Rail, the train operators and those who carried out the work.

The £8.8 billion of public money was to provide a railway that is safe, allows trains to operate reliably and has headroom for growth in both passenger and freight traffic. Capacity is being provided for 80 per cent. more long-distance passenger trains and a 60 per cent. increase in freight traffic. Those are the parameters for meeting the demand for services. One important feature of west coast route modernisation is to secure the best return for taxpayers on the investment; another is to ensure that rail contributes the maximum possible to the overall transport network of the country. The issue is rightly about getting passengers to use rail in preference to other modes of transport, and experience to date indicates that that is being achieved.

However, difficult choices have to be made and they include allocating resources where they can deliver the best possible service. It should also be noted that the Government have required the drafting in of 19 additional tilting 125-mph diesel Voyager trains, the use of five new trans-Pennine diesel trains and the delivery of 30 additional 100-mph electric trains, on top of the new Pendolino fleet. Much of the new timetable planned for December 2008 is focused on the optimal use of those resources, the efficient deployment of which is vital to deliver additional seats for the rapid growth in train use. The longer-distance services will be able to run much faster, and much effort is going into ensuring that the weekend services will, at long last, be similar to those of weekdays.

Passenger transport on the west coast main line continues to grow, and has done since the introduction of the revised timetables in September 2004. Overall, there has been an increase well exceeding 50 per cent. and in some cases the growth has been almost 80 per cent. Our predictions are that that will treble over the next period to 2012, with the route generating more than £1 billion in annual revenue. Additional business has been generated at many stations along the west coast route, including Lockerbie. However, it is not a station where business is likely to grow significantly when compared to the other locations on the line.

Let me pick up on some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made about the number of services. There are currently 15 northbound and 11 southbound services across the day, which are provided by Virgin West Coast and First TransPennine Express. Of the southbound trains, two are for London, four for Birmingham and four for Manchester Airport, with a First Scotrail service terminating at Carlisle. Typical journey times outside the peak are more than four hours to London, more than three hours to Birmingham and two and three quarter hours to Manchester Airport. Northbound services are split evenly between Glasgow and Edinburgh and travel times are between one hour and one hour and 15 minutes.

The new timetables that are being introduced next month take advantage of completion of the west coast route modernisation project. They are also designed around the constraints governing rolling stock availability and getting the most out of the new infrastructure. In particular, the services will, for the first time, start to become competitive with air travel services for London and Birmingham to Glasgow and Birmingham to Edinburgh. Compared with pre-upgrade services, Anglo-Scottish journey times will be reduced by some 80 minutes.

According to the December 2008 timetable, Lockerbie will be served on a broadly two-hourly pattern, with nine northbound and 10 southbound trains—one of the requirements for Lockerbie put forward by Scottish Ministers in terms of their aspirations for a broadly two-hourly pattern of services at off-peak times. That is an improvement on the pre-project situation in 2003-04, when nine northbound and seven southbound trains were offered. The London train will be re-timed to call early in the morning with two return evening services, allowing business travellers to make a day trip.

The hon. Gentleman referred to arrivals at Glasgow and Edinburgh before 9 o’clock. First TransPennine Express had intended that the 06.58 departure from Carlisle would stop at Lockerbie at 07.17 and reach Edinburgh by 08.32. However, following the discovery that the service could not be accommodated at Edinburgh Waverley station, resources had to be redirected to form the 06.03 Manchester to Edinburgh train, which calls at Lockerbie at 08.15 and arrives in Edinburgh at 09.17.

Those are some of the challenges faced in meeting a complex set of demands by the travelling public.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) on securing this debate. My hon. Friend the Minister talks about the difficulties in readjusting timetables. Heading north, the station before Lockerbie is Carlisle. The change in the timetable next month creates difficulties whereby people getting off at Carlisle to change trains to head into south-west Scotland on the Glasgow and south-west line will miss trains by two minutes or have to wait more than 40 minutes for a connection. This has been badly judged by Virgin Trains. People travelling north to Stranraer, at the furthest point in my constituency, will more often than not miss a five-minute change and be left stranded in Carlisle.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I know that he campaigns hard on behalf of his constituents. I say, as I said to the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, that this is about managing the timetable to get the best possible fit for connections and for the delivery of fast services, which is one of the things that is highlighted by the travelling public in virtually every survey and consultation that we undertake on reliability, punctuality and the speeds between fixed points.

We believe that the new timetable will settle down fairly quickly. It was developed based on extensive consultation with many of the key stakeholders in the areas that the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) represent, and many others. Journey times will be considerably quicker, with the fastest journey time taking three hours and 24 minutes, compared with well over four hours at the moment. That represents a fall of more than 40 minutes.

I am aware that there is local disappointment about the services on offer, but the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale referred to the services to Manchester and Manchester airport as being a success and well en route to meeting some of the requirements of his good constituents in Lockerbie. There has been a genuine consultation and discussion about how best to utilise the vast investment that has gone into the west coast main line in order to meet the requirements of high-speed services and the requirements of a significant number of communities that are on that line. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, a number of those trains still go through Lockerbie, but they are fast services and have been able to reduce some of the journey times by more than 40 minutes only because they are not stopping. It has been necessary to balance those requirements.

In conclusion, I recognise the need to balance the demands of reliability, punctuality and speed. The hon. Gentleman’s comments will have been taken on board. We will watch the implementation of the new timetable closely. I believe that it will settle down, but there are always options open for discussion at other times.

The motion having been made after Ten o’clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Eleven o’clock.