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Grimsby and Cleethorpes Rail Services

Volume 494: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2009

I am sure that it will be a great pleasure to speak in a debate chaired by you, Mrs. Dean. I welcome my hon. Friend to his new job as a Transport Minister—he now has a speaking role, after some time as a silent participant in the House as a member of the Whips Office. As a Member of Parliament representing an east-coast constituency, I hope he will appreciate the challenges that that geography presents. I realise that his constituency is far closer to the capital than Cleethorpes, but still, anyone on the coast experiences greater transport difficulties.

The issues that I wish to raise relate to passenger rail services. I shall cover short and long-term problems and concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) had hoped to take part in this debate, but he is in the Chamber debating another issue of concern to our constituents—the levying of business rates in ports.

The rail line between Doncaster, and Grimsby and Cleethorpes is due to close on 22 June and will not reopen until 7 September, which means that the First TransPennine Express service between Manchester airport, Sheffield, Doncaster and Cleethorpes will start and terminate at Doncaster and will not serve any stations east of Doncaster, which obviously includes Grimsby and Cleethorpes. That will cut off huge swathes of northern Lincolnshire, including its two main urban areas—Scunthorpe, and, on the coast, Grimsby and Cleethorpes. I am told that the closure is necessary to carry out engineering work at Medge Hall in Thorne Moor near Doncaster. I appreciate that the line is built on peat and that speed restrictions have been in place for some time on that section of the line. I appreciate, therefore, that some remedial work is required.

Why close, however, one of our most popular lines to the coast throughout the school summer holidays? Cleethorpes is by far the easiest coastal resort to reach from places such as Sheffield and Doncaster. In fact, Cleethorpes has been the traditional seaside playground for south Yorkshire for many generations—ever since the railway reached it in 1863. In preparing for this debate, I went back over some of the newspaper records, which made for interesting reading. On 3 August 1863, 10,000 people arrived in the resort by train. One year later, the number had risen to 79,000 ordinary passengers and 72,000 excursion passengers. The number continued to grow in subsequent years, and to this day Cleethorpes remains very much part of summer day trips and holidays for many people in Yorkshire.

In the current recession, it is important that we do not create extra barriers to people trying to reach the resort. The small businesses that typify the tourism industry are dependent on a good summer season and August bank holiday to remain viable. In Cleethorpes, we have fish and chip shops, amusement arcades, donkey rides, candy floss and so on—it is very much a traditional seaside resort. Network Rail hopes that people will accept this “short-term inconvenience”. I, and resort businesses, do not think that 11 to 12 weeks is a short-term inconvenience. They feel that this could be “make or break” for their businesses this year.

I simply cannot understand why the work is being carried out at the height of the tourist season, rather that at some other time of the year. Also, I have had no explanation of why there will be no train service between Scunthorpe, and Grimsby and Cleethorpes. These are the two biggest urban areas in northern Lincolnshire. I understand that no repair work is going on along that part of the line, so why can some sort of service not continue to link those two areas? Even at this late stage, I hope that that can be considered.

It is not just the tourism industry that will be affected. People also need to get to work, and moreover, the line will be closed at the start of the football season. Given our geography, many away supporters tend to get the train to Cleethorpes—they alight by the beach, have their fish and chips and then walk along Grimsby road to Blundell Park to watch Grimsby Town. Last season, the club performed an act worthy of Lazarus to remain in the football league, but it seems to add insult to injury that, when the new season starts, away supporters will be unable to get to Cleethorpes by train.

The usual rail replacement bus service will run between Doncaster and Cleethorpes. Mention rail replacement bus services to anybody living in northern Lincolnshire and their reaction will probably be one of hysterical laughter. They are not regarded as particularly reliable, and it takes an age to get to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. People say that they simply will not use it, but will use other modes of transport instead.

I had hoped that it would be possible to retain a link with the east coast main line, perhaps using the Brigg and Gainsborough line, on to which all the freight traffic is being routed. Freight is vital in my area. We have one of the biggest rail freight depots in Britain. All the coal and other heavy goods that are coming into the docks at Immingham tend to go out by rail, as do some of the products from the refineries. I appreciate that it is vital to keep that freight going, but originally I was told that some sort of passenger service may be retained on the line so that people could link in to the east coast main line if they have to go to London. However, I have now been told that there will not be any replacement passenger service on that line.

What is irksome about this long withdrawal of train services is that, just weeks after the line is back in action in September, it will be closed down again in November in order to carry out repair works on the Doughty road railway bridge in Grimsby. When we have such a long shutdown, it makes no sense to leave the repair work on that particular section of the line. Network Rail said that it is because the design and the materials are not yet ready. I am sorry, but this closure has been known about for some time. It is very poor planning not to get all the work done at once. Moreover, the new trains that have been in use on the trans-Pennine route are about to be withdrawn and replaced with 10-year-old rolling stock, which does not bode well for the future.

My hon. Friend the Minister has the luxury of a direct train service to London. In Grimsby and Cleethorpes, we have not had that luxury for some 20 years. Last Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions, I told the House that Able UK had announced a £100 million investment in my constituency, thus creating 5,000 jobs, which is welcome news in the current economic climate. The development site is the largest in northern England, alongside a deep-water port. I hope that the Prime Minister will meet me and other MPs from the area to discuss how we can remove some of the remaining barriers to realising the full potential of our constituencies. One of the remaining barriers is this lack of a direct train service to London. I have been due to meet Ministers to discuss this issue for some months but, like the train services, those meetings keep getting cancelled.

As for the direct line, National Express has come on board after intense lobbying by businesses, MPs and others. It hopes that, by September, it will have the provisional timings for one early morning train to the capital and one evening peak return. Given that the Humber ports are already Britain’s most profitable port complex, given that this new development on the South Humber Bank will make the region even more strategically important and given that the area is the base for a lot of the country’s leading manufacturing industries, it hardly seems sufficient to provide one return service a day to the capital.

Turning now to the frequency of the service, the nearest station to the port of Immingham is Habrough, yet that station has a very poor service, with few stopping trains. If we are to develop the port area, it makes more sense to increase the frequency of the trains serving the port of Immingham by having more stopping at Habrough station. I am always told that people should use Barnetby station. However, it is not the most successful station because it involves using bridges; Habrough does not. Therefore, we must consider having more trains stopping at Habrough if we are to serve the port.

The other service that we must consider is the one to Humberside airport. At the moment, the line goes just past the airport—there is no station at the actual airport. If we are to have an integrated transport network serving this growing industrial area, we need to consider having a rail service into the airport. At the moment, people can get a train to Manchester airport but not Humberside airport.

I hope that my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.] I have just promoted the Minister; I am obviously delighted that he has been promoted out of the Whips Office and I am promoting him even further. If he cannot address fully this afternoon all the issues, I hope that he will meet me and my colleagues at a later date to discuss them in more detail. I do not know whether such a meeting is in his remit, but there are other issues relating to the road network in the area. The A180 needs resurfacing. We need to sort out the dualling of the A160 and to address the issue of Humber bridge tolls. The tolls must be substantially reduced, as has been demonstrated by an in-depth study. That would lead to further economic growth in not just our area but the whole country.

Once again, Mrs. Dean, I appreciate having had the chance to raise these very important issues for my constituents.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean, on my first outing as a Minister in an Adjournment debate. It is also a pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). In the past, she has told me that her auntie and my mother-in-law used to sit together in deepest Kirkcaldy watching the Parliament channel to see whether they could spot us. Were they both with us now, they would, no doubt, feel that they had had a double hit today.

That is so true, but what my hon. Friend has not said is that they would be sitting in the Prime Minister’s constituency.

Indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on what is clearly an important issue for her constituents and their local economy. The Government recognise that seaside towns have a distinctive role to play in regional economies. For its part, the Department for Transport is investing £10 billion in the railways over the next five years to increase capacity and provide better train services. Such improvements are being delivered through new and amended franchise agreements and by infrastructure upgrades being carried out by Network Rail.

Some of the planned improvements will benefit rail travellers to and from Grimsby and Cleethorpes because they will see improved reliability and some new services. Passengers are already benefiting from the major refurbishment of Cleethorpes station undertaken last year, which I understand was unveiled by my hon. Friend last year. Such an improvement is a good example of partners working together to shape the future of this seaside town.

Rail users and businesses are understandably frustrated by line closures, particularly over weekends and at holiday periods, but there is no easy time to carry out major engineering works. Disruption is an unfortunate but sometimes unavoidable consequence of maintenance work, which is essential for the continuing drive to deliver a safer, faster and more reliable rail network. Following decades of under-investment and to cope with increasing passenger and freight traffic growth, the Government are currently taking steps to increase the capacity and reliability of our railway.

In the longer term, passenger and freight operators, business and the tourist industry will feel the benefit. However, we cannot get improvements without occasional blockades of some of the lines. The timing of engineering works is an operational matter for Network Rail within a regime that is overseen by the independent Office of Rail Regulation. Under that regime, the majority of engineering possessions are specifically planned—often up to 18 months in advance.

Over the past two years, a cross-industry review, led by the Office of Rail Regulation, has been examining how best to address the growing mismatch between the increasing demand for travel and the service availability of the rail network. That has produced a new cross-industry consensus and a determination to reduce major disruption arising from engineering works, and, critically, to do so without compromising the safety of passengers and staff. Network Rail is leading the development of a strategy to deliver that, so that within five years, rail users should enjoy a truly seven-day railway service.

My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has already made it clear to Network Rail’s chief executive that the current system for planning engineering works does not adequately represent the needs of passengers. It is also vital that passengers are properly informed of service changes well in advance, so that they can adjust their travel plans.

We recognise that the ORR has set Network Rail a target of reducing the disruption that it causes to passengers through its engineering work by 37 per cent. over the next five years. That is a good start, but we would like to see more done in the short term.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

I was talking about the Department’s efforts to ensure that engineering works reflect passenger needs. My noble Friend the Secretary of State recently convened a meeting of senior figures from across the rail industry, including Network Rail, the Office of Rail Regulation, train operators and Passenger Focus, to discuss possible ways to improve the situation. In particular, we encouraged the industry to give Passenger Focus, the independent national passenger watchdog, a greater role in the process of planning engineering works. We were broadly encouraged by the response that we received from the industry at the meeting. Our priority now is to ensure that all parties in the industry maintain their focus on improving network availability for passengers.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for this opportunity to explain the engineering works on the Cleethorpes line and what the train operators will be doing to look after passengers and business. Network Rail is to carry out a multi-million pound project this summer to improve the condition of the line between Doncaster and Scunthorpe and, most importantly, to reinstate the 55 mph line speed. The line requires major engineering works to address ground settlement in the Medge Hall area in particular, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, where the track and its substructure are poorly supported by the peat and soft clay beneath. Speed restrictions are as low as 10 mph in some places.

The line will be closed between Doncaster and Scunthorpe for 11 weeks to allow works worth more than £16 million to be completed. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that in order to minimise disruption, Network Rail will complete several other jobs at the same time, making its total investment in the line about £20 million. I understand entirely why my hon. Friend asked about Doughty road bridge. It would be ideal if the Doughty road works were done at the same time as the blockade, and if that is not possible I will write to her to clarify why.

First TransPennine Express train services will be replaced by direct road services between Cleethorpes, Grimsby, Scunthorpe and Doncaster from Monday 22 June until Sunday 6 September. TransPennine trains will continue to run between Doncaster, Sheffield and Manchester airport.

As I will mention later, there are some parallels with an experience that I had as a constituency MP when the Ipswich tunnel closed for several months a couple of years ago. I encourage my hon. Friend to visit the works while they are going on, as that might provide an incentive for Network Rail to ensure that they are completed in a timely manner.

My hon. Friend has stated that the works are taking place between Doncaster and Scunthorpe. Most of the works are near Thorne, which is closer to Doncaster. He has not mentioned the remaining section of line from Scunthorpe to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. I understand that no works are happening on that section of line, so why can a service not run on that part of the line, so people can at least get from Grimsby to Scunthorpe?

I was coming to that point, but I will deal with it now. TransPennine Express considered a shuttle service, but unfortunately it is not practical, as the rolling stock would be trapped and unable to return to its Manchester depot for the necessary regular central servicing and safety checks.

On the timing of the blockade, the work has to be done at this time of year, because aside from being an important passenger route to and from Cleethorpes and Grimsby, the line between Immingham and Doncaster via Scunthorpe is a vital—to use my hon. Friend’s word—freight traffic artery, particularly for coal, iron ore and steel. Network Rail’s decision to select the period between late June and early September for the closure of the line was dictated primarily by the lack of capacity on alternative routes for the freight traffic.

During autumn, winter and spring, there are high levels of coal traffic to power stations. For that reason, it was necessary to select a period during the summer, when loadings to power stations were less and reduced traffic levels could be accommodated on the alternative route. The summer also offers advantages for construction works and replacement passenger road services because of longer daylight hours and generally better weather conditions. Although leisure travel to Cleethorpes over the summer months increases, demand from schools and colleges and for work purposes decreases.

In timing the closure, Network Rail has had to balance the requirement to transport passengers against the requirement to maintain sufficient deliveries of coal to power stations and support the workings of Immingham, which I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise is vital to the local economy. The engineering work will solve a long-standing problem and allow trains to run more quickly, improving long-term punctuality, reliability and the overall attractiveness of the service. TransPennine plans to work alongside local businesses and organisations to encourage more passengers to use the trains after the line is restored. In the meantime, promotional rail tickets, including discounted entry to Pleasure Island at Cleethorpes, will still be available during the works.

On the question of alternative routes, there is little opportunity to accommodate additional passenger trains on the alternative route via Brigg, as most of the spare capacity on that route will be taken by freight trains. That option was explored fully by TransPennine, but it was not possible to hire additional drivers from freight operating companies who had knowledge of the alternative route. Also, running via Brigg would take the trains to Sheffield but omit a call at Doncaster, which would affect passengers making journeys on that busy section of the network.

On the drivers, my understanding is that TransPennine would not pay the rate, not that drivers were not available.

I will have to make further inquiries and come back to my hon. Friend on that point in writing.

On replacement coach services and how customers will be handled, the detailed timings and calling points for the alternative coach services and connection times at Doncaster are available at stations, via online journey planners and from National Rail Enquiries. Informative posters looking something like this one are also being displayed at stations, and opportunities have been taken to circulate information to passengers in advance of the start of the work. That has included working with North East Lincolnshire council and providing information through tourist offices. Staff will be on hand at stations to assist passengers using the road service, and signage will be placed at stations to indicate pick-up points. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that all coaches will have toilets on board. From my own experience a couple of years ago, I know that the information process is critical. If everyone is aware of what is happening, it helps the alternative arrangements operate much more smoothly and perhaps without some of the anticipated concerns.

My hon. Friend asked about the new trains that her constituency currently enjoys. The TransPennine franchise serving Cleethorpes has one of the newest fleets in the country, consisting of 51 brand-new units and seven five-year-old refurbished trains. That modern rolling stock is committed until the end of the franchise in 2012.

My hon. Friend discussed through-route services to London. The east coast main line passenger timetable will be improved in December 2010, with more trains and reduced journey times, delivering on a commitment made by National Express East Coast as part of its franchise agreement with the Department for Transport. The new timetable will include one direct service every two hours between King’s Cross and Lincoln, giving Lincoln direct services to London for the first time in many years. National Express East Coast and Network Rail are examining the case for extending some services to provide a direct link between Cleethorpes, Grimsby and London via Lincoln. That would be a commercial initiative by National Express.

The provisional timetable, which is not yet finalised, will contain a morning service to London and an evening service returning from London. The timing of those services will be particularly attractive to business travellers. The December 2010 east coast main line timetable will deliver other benefits for rail travellers from Grimsby and Cleethorpes. A standard repeating pattern of services will be adopted with trains running at the same times in each hour throughout the day. That will introduce a regular hourly connection at Doncaster for Grimsby and Cleethorpes with a standard connection time of 15 minutes. Present journey times will be maintained and passengers will be able to plan their journeys more easily in the knowledge that regular connections are available.

My hon. Friend raised a few issues about the road network at the end of her speech. If she was referring to trunk roads, they fall within my responsibilities, and I would be delighted to hear from her about those issues in due course.

In conclusion, I look forward to the completion of the engineering work that will allow trains to run more quickly and improve the long-term punctuality, reliability and overall attractiveness of the service to Cleethorpes. I commend my hon. Friend’s work in promoting the prosperity and future of Cleethorpes and the surrounding area.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.