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East Coast Main Line

Volume 505: debated on Thursday 4 February 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Mudie.)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the issue of rail services on the east coast main line from stations in Northumberland. I am particularly pleased to be doing so in the early afternoon rather than at the usual time of 6 o’clock, because the last train to Berwick is at 6 o’clock and that is my only opportunity to get there before my surgery tomorrow morning. That illustrates one of the weaknesses in the present service, but I will say by way of preface that over the 36 years that I have been a Member of Parliament we have seen significant improvement in the service—not massive improvement, but significant improvement—particularly from Berwick and Alnmouth, achieved by stopping some more of the fast through trains there. That has paid dividends in terms of the number of passengers using the trains, which I will come back to.

In a relatively short time we have had, or will soon have had, four operators running the east coast main line service, and that is not counting British Rail, which ran it previously. We had GNER, which was an adventurous and innovative company, determined to provide good passenger service, and its departure was lamented by many travellers on the line. Then we had National Express, and while at first people were fearful of what would happen with a new operator, it made some changes, but generally achieved other things to compensate for them, including greater punctuality, and people were sorry to see it go. Now we have East Coast, which the Government own, so the Minister runs the trains on our line, indirectly, and so far it seems to be doing a reasonably good job of it, so much so that many travellers on the line, myself included, would rather have some stability and see the East Coast, Government-owned company running it for some time rather than rushing into another operator quickly. To lose one operator seems careless, but to lose two seems downright incompetent, and were we to lose three, I do not know where we would be. It goes back to the problem of trying to exact too big a premium for the system in general from the operator of the profitable east coast main line. The closed auction process—the bidding war—led companies that really wanted to run the service to overbid, and when events came along, including recession, they were unable to continue, and it has been a messy story.

But now, as I say, we have a Government-owned company running the East Coast service. However, that is not the only involvement that the Minister has because the Government determine what services will be run under the franchise system, and both the East Coast and the CrossCountry franchises are set by Government in considerable detail. This is one of the occasions when Ministers cannot say that these are all matters for somebody else; there is close ministerial and departmental involvement.

My focus this afternoon is on the stations that lie in the county of Northumberland, particularly Berwick, Alnmouth and Morpeth, the first two being in my constituency, and Morpeth being one that serves a considerable area of my constituency. They all depend on east coast main line services and CrossCountry services. The local service to those stations is very limited, except in the case of Morpeth. The local service also serves Widdrington, Acklington and Chathill in my constituency, and we are working to improve it. We are also working to reinstate a station platform at Belford because of the absurdity that a train goes there twice a day and cannot collect any passengers. I will say something about that later. We are making real progress on that, and it may be the first station reopened in our part of the world since Dr. Beeching. If we achieve that, which I believe we can, we shall all be delighted.

I would like to see improvements to that local service, but for the moment I want to concentrate on the express mainline services. There would be no adequate train service at all from Berwick and Alnmouth were it not for stops for East Coast and CrossCountry trains—stops for fast trains. Berwick depends on those entirely, and Alnmouth very largely. Over the years, we have achieved some more stops for these trains.

We saw a particularly good improvement when Chris Green was running Virgin Trains. I was keen to demonstrate to him that there was considerable scope for getting more passengers at Alnmouth station, so I had him to tea here in the House of Commons and sent him up on a trip to look at Alnwick garden and the features of the town. He came back full of interest and excitement, and introduced several new stops on CrossCountry trains through Alnmouth on business grounds. At the same time, we made some improvements to the station. A real business dividend came out of that. Additional custom came on to the trains because the timetable was more viable. People would get a train in the morning because they knew there was a train in the afternoon that they could get back on. The timetable became viable—not as viable as I would like it to be, but much more so than it was. We need to maintain those improvements; they must be continued, not thrown away in careless timetable planning. That is a key point to which I shall return.

The background to rail use in my constituency, first and foremost, is that we have the A1, which is a very dangerous road, only parts of which are dualled. During my time in Parliament I have helped to achieve some additional dualling, but we are not there yet, and much more improvement is needed. People who live locally recognise the road to be very dangerous, and that is one of the many reasons, apart from the environmental ones, why it is better to travel by rail if possible. I have raised that subject in Adjournment debates on other occasions.

Berwick station is a railhead not only for north Northumberland but for the whole borders area. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) is keenly interested in what happens at Berwick, and he and I are going to see the Minister shortly to talk about that in more detail. The station serves a very large area of southern Scotland in which there are no railway stations at all. That is easily noticed on the station platform when we see so many people coming from Scotland. Whole school parties from Scottish schools catch trains from Berwick, as well as all the people from Berwick itself and from Northumberland. Because Berwick is 55 miles from Edinburgh and 65 miles from Newcastle, rail travel is very important. Things such as major hospitals, many people’s work, shopping and major entertainment facilities are all a long way away, and therefore a train journey is the logical, and only really comfortable, way for many people to make such journeys. That makes the Berwick area quite different from many other parts of the country. A lot of people have settled there on the basis that they can work from home but travel occasionally to meetings in London or in other centres. That is an important developing pattern in our economy.

Alnmouth station serves much of mid-Northumberland and has close links with RAF Boulmer, whose service families are big users of the rail service there. It has nearby Alnwick garden, which is attracting vast numbers of tourists. Its management has just been taken over by somebody whose past experience has been in Disneyland, and he expects to increase tourism in the Alnwick area on a very large scale. Alnmouth has a lot of regular commuters and a very active rail users’ group, which has contributed enormously to the pressure to maintain and improve services there.

Morpeth station, which serves the southern part of my constituency, has local services, many of which terminate there. However, it is also extremely advantageous for people who are travelling direct to London or on longer journeys to use Morpeth, because that saves them driving into Newcastle. That is an environmental benefit, as well as a benefit in terms of coping with the traffic congestion on the north side of the city. However, there are only a few direct trains from London to Morpeth in the current timetable, and they are popular and well used.

Against that background, let me take a look at what is going on with rail timetables. The first thing that hit us was the Network Rail draft timetable for 2011. It is called, curiously, the “Eureka” timetable, which is more or less what I exclaimed when, after a very long period, I at last found it on the computer. It was extremely difficult to locate; how the public are supposed to take part in the consultation that has been launched, I do not know. At the moment there is no weekend timetable. I looked again yesterday, and we still have only a Monday to Friday timetable accessible on the internet. The draft timetable apparently contains mistakes. I understand from operators that certain trains that they expected to be in it were not included, so we hope that they will be reinstated.

This ongoing process is very difficult to engage with. The only people who are doing so successfully are a very limited number who have a lot of specialised knowledge because of their past employment in the railway industry or because they take a close interest in railway matters. A few of those people have done sterling work in identifying changes that people might otherwise not have discovered until the day they went to get a train and found that it was no longer in the timetable.

At the same time as that consultation, the Secretary of State has launched the franchise consultation for a new operator to take over the east coast main line. That consultation does not contain a timetable, but it does contain commitments and proposals for the pattern of the service, both short and long term. It is quite difficult to understand how the one relates to the other. I have said to the Secretary of State that I hope he will take all the representations on Network Rail’s draft timetable as indicating what people want to see in the franchise as well. Because the franchise contains some new ideas, people will want also to make comments on those. The process is complex.

What is wrong with the draft timetable? Let me start with Berwick. The first train to London from Berwick on the draft timetable, instead of getting in at 10.10 am, as under the present timetable, will not get to London until 10.40 am, half an hour later. That is a serious deterioration in one of the most important services that is provided. Given the pattern that I described earlier of people who work from home going to meetings in London, and given that a lot of people who are on national bodies of various kinds in our industries such as farming travel to London for meetings, that deterioration in service will lead to people taking the alternative of driving to Edinburgh or Newcastle airport and getting a plane from there. The later arrival in London is a serious failure. There is an easy to answer to that, which is that the 5.20 am train from Edinburgh in the new timetable should stop at Berwick, and the 6 o’clock train could stop at Alnmouth and Morpeth, to which I shall come in a moment.

Another gap in the timetable is that there are no southbound trains between 8.10 and 10 o’clock in the morning, which is a huge loss. The CrossCountry train to Penzance, which stops at Berwick at 8.52 am, will not stop there under the new timetable. That is a valuable train to long-distance customers travelling to places such as Birmingham and other stations along the way, and it is much used by students and shoppers travelling to Newcastle. I have a feeling that CrossCountry did not intend to drop that train from the timetable.

I hope to be able to reassure the right hon. Gentleman on the question of Penzance trains not stopping at Berwick. That was one of the omissions in Network Rail’s early timetable work that have since been remedied, and Berwick will have a two-hourly CrossCountry service to the midlands and the south-west.

That is very helpful, and I am pleased to hear it. It is just that kind of thing that I hope to get out of today’s debate, to clarify where it is already recognised that the service needs to be maintained and where work must continue to ensure that it is.

The next gap that I wish to mention is also a southbound service, and it is the main commuter train from Edinburgh. The most obvious time that people leave work is about 5.30 pm, and there is a 5.31 pm train. I use it myself sometimes and it is very well used, but under the new timetable it will not stop at Berwick, which will be a serious gap for regular commuters.

The East Coast service running through to Glasgow from Berwick is to be almost entirely withdrawn. In its place, a new CrossCountry service to Glasgow will be provided. Far more of the CrossCountry trains go there, but those new trains will not stop at Berwick under the draft timetable. A lot of people travel between Berwick and Glasgow, as many organisations that have branches in Berwick are headquartered in Glasgow, so a lot of people make trips to Glasgow as part of their work, and the removal of that service is a loss.

As I mentioned at the start of the debate, the last departure from King’s Cross to Berwick is at 6 pm. The new timetable actually suggests that the 7 o’clock will run through beyond Newcastle every day, instead of just on Fridays as it does at the moment. I am so suspicious about the timetable exercise that I cannot believe that is for real—I suspect that “Fridays only” has been missed off the timetable rubric. I would love to be wrong, because I have argued for several years that the earlier removal of that daily 7 pm service to Edinburgh was a serious loss, and a potential loss of business because it was another reason for people to use the plane rather than the train.

On the draft timetable, Alnmouth gains four trains, but loses 13—a net loss of nine. The service at that station is not hourly, but broadly two-hourly. From London, there is now no train between 11.30 and 3.30, and the 3.30 is the last train, except on Fridays, instead of 5.30.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that that, too, is an omission from Network Rail’s early work and it has subsequently been remedied. Subject to consultation, the 7.13 train from London will call at Alnmouth and on Fridays, there will be an extra service at 19.30.

I wish all my debates were as productive as this one has been so far. I want to consider that reassurance more carefully afterwards, but, again, it sounds hopeful.

Travelling to London, there is an enormous gap in the first draft of the Alnmouth service between 9 am and 3 pm. There are no direct trains from London to Morpeth at all in the draft timetable, whereas two evening trains currently stop there. I hope that that is covered by the reassurance that the Minister has just given. For the reasons I gave earlier, the direct service from Morpeth, although more limited, is extremely valuable and should be retained.

One of the timetable’s oddities is that it is almost impossible to travel between the stations in Northumberland. That is partly a consequence of something that I consider helpful—the sharing of trains along the line. Some trains stop at Alnmouth and not Berwick, whereas others stop at Berwick and not Alnmouth. I recognise that some of that has to happen, but the timetable planners should pay some attention to improving the possibilities for people to travel between, for example, Berwick and Morpeth, or Alnmouth and Dunbar. That is currently not a feature of planning. Indeed, one of our problems is that all the timetable planning is dedicated to services between major centres, such as London, York, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the stations in between seem to be an afterthought, which is not governed by an examination of what sort of service each station needs and how it can be provided.

I should like another gap in the service to be filled in future. According to the new timetable, the last train from Edinburgh leaves at 8.30 pm. That is too early; there is almost nothing one can do in Edinburgh in an evening that will be over by 8.30 pm. I understand that CrossCountry is to run a late train from Edinburgh to Dunbar at around or after 11 pm. Perhaps that service could be extended to Newcastle or at least Berwick, instead of terminating at Dunbar. It is rather complicated to terminate a train there because of the track layout. Some years ago, a service ran through to Newcastle in the summer months. GNER ran it late at night and it was very popular among Edinburgh festival-goers and others visiting Edinburgh in the evening.

The franchise document refers to increased frequency of services between Newcastle and Edinburgh, with no mention of Berwick, Alnmouth or Morpeth. Anyone from the latter places reading the franchise document immediately thinks, “There’s nothing in this for us.” There is no attempt to specify that there should be an adequate sharing of those trains among some of the stations in Northumberland.

There is scope for a stopping service from Newcastle to Edinburgh. The Scottish Government have been interested in that for some time. They have been considering options such as opening one or two new stations on the Scottish side of the border at, for example, Reston, and having a service that would come through from Scotland and stop at Morpeth, Alnmouth, Berwick and Dunbar, and perhaps some of the intermediate stations such as Acklington or Chathill. I hope that the door is not closed to that possibility, although whether it can be profitable or would require subsidy is not clear. If there is a possibility of a decision in Scotland to offer some element of subsidy to a service, which seems necessary on the Scottish side, I would like to grab hold of the possibility for the English side, too. As I said, as far as train travel is concerned, people do not stop at the border—people who live in Scotland use Berwick station extensively and travel across the border is a great feature of life in our area.

My primary aim in this debate is to get the Minister to make it his business to ensure that services to Berwick, Alnmouth and Morpeth are not reduced, and that they get a net improvement, in both the 2011 timetable and the franchise negotiations and specifications. The Secretary of State has taken a genuine personal interest in the future of the east coast main line, and I want him and the Minister to ensure that that includes the stations in Northumberland.

I should like to talk about two wider issues that are part of the franchise document. First, on ticket prices, even regulated fares and many cheaper fares are uncompetitive with car and plane for many customers. I quite often get letters from customers saying, “I looked into the possibility of making my business trip by train, but then I found I could drive 50, 60 or 70 miles to an airport, catch a plane and pay significantly less than I would be paying even for a reduced-price first-class fare on the train.” Many such offers are made, but the price has crept up in recent years. Unless we ensure that ticket prices are more competitive than air travel, we will continue to encourage people to make long car journeys, which they must do in my part of the world to get to an airport, which is inconsistent with general Government policy.

Secondly, there have been significant station improvements over recent years, including to Berwick station—I had the odd experience of opening the lifts for the footbridge over the station a few years ago. Celebrating the opening of a lift with a glass of champagne is a variant on the many duties of a Member of Parliament, but the facility was much needed by disabled people and people with heavy luggage. The absence of lifts at Alnmouth has been a serious problem. People with disabilities have been told that if they arrive from London in the evening, when there are no staff at the station, they will not be able to leave the platform—they cannot use the bridge and there is nobody to supervise crossing the track. That serious problem is being dealt with, but it is long overdue.

Such improvements are very important, as is parking, at both Alnmouth and Berwick. The county council is pushing ahead with plans for increased parking at the former, but the plans for Berwick have proved difficult. My original hope was that Network Rail would give up its land, because it could be stationed somewhere else—it does not have to be based right by those stations. That would open up more parking spaces.

There is a possibility of getting more parking spaces, the need for which is obvious from the amount of parking in roads round about. I happen to live in one such road. I do not mind people from Scotland parking their cars outside my house to go to the station—I am glad they are using the train—but that has created some problems, and traffic management changes have had to be made to accommodate them. Continued station improvements are very important to the franchise and the future of the service.

The oddity with Belford station is that the only local service that goes into north Northumberland beyond Morpeth goes twice a day to Acklington, Woodrington, and Chathill, and then turns round at Belford, but there is no platform there—there used to be years ago, but not now. Therefore, a train goes to Belford twice a day, but people cannot get on it.

A great deal of effort by local people, with genuine co-operation from rail operators such as Northern Rail and from Network Rail and the county council, is enabling things to be moved forward, and I hope the Department for Transport will also co-operate. The executive of the county council is currently recommending that the council spend money on installing the platform. We have had many battles over how long a platform must be and the greatness of the risk of someone getting out of the wrong door and such things. At times those have seemed absurd, and they have perhaps led to higher costs than necessary. However, I believe we are in sight of achieving that objective, and I hope the Minister continues to offer his encouragement.

There is a lot of scope for transfer to rail travel in Northumberland and a great need for rail travel because of the distances involved. Not many people have to travel 50 or 60 miles to get to a main hospital, to go to a theatre that is not a small local arts centre or to visit all the main chain shops, but that is the situation in north Northumberland. Rail travel is very important, so it is also important that we retain a good service. The timetable drafts left people very worried about losing the gains that we had made in recent years, when we should instead be improving the service, and I hope that the Minister’s initial indications that some of those worries are being addressed will be backed up by more restoration of trains to the timetable and some additional stops.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss rail services on the east coast main line in Northumberland. I know that this is a subject of interest to many hon. Members, and I will discuss points of detail further with the right hon. Gentleman if I do not successfully address them in my response this afternoon.

The east coast main line is an exceptionally valuable asset in the national transport system. It provides the fastest surface transport between London and the Yorkshire and Humber region, north-east England and Edinburgh. It also provides key links between Scotland, the north-east and routes to the midlands and north-west. It is also of vital importance for freight, particularly as part of the link from major ports to distribution centres in large conurbations, and to coal-fired power stations. Further, it supports the long-distance passenger services provided by the public sector train operator, East Coast Main Line Company Ltd, which pays a substantial premium to Government, thereby reducing the level of taxpayer support needed for the railway as a whole.

The challenges faced by the railway industry on the east coast route are principally associated with the volume of traffic, and the reliability of the services. Growth over the next 10 years, despite the present financial difficulties, is expected to be substantial in almost all the markets served by the route. Passenger demand for rail has been growing strongly over recent years. That is due to a combination of several factors, particularly economic growth and increasing road traffic congestion. On many routes, including the east coast, the growth has been stimulated by additional services and ticketing initiatives that have been developed by the train operators to encourage off-peak travel.

The most significant use of long-distance passenger trains is for business and leisure travel to and from London. The high number of passengers travelling between London and cities such as Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh is due to the size and significance of those major conurbations, and transport links among them are of national economic importance.

In Northumberland, stations at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnmouth and Morpeth are used by long-distance passenger services. As well as serving their immediate towns and surrounding areas, those stations act as railheads for large parts of Northumberland and the Scottish borders that do not have the benefit of rail connections. In addition, stations at Chathill, Acklington, Widdrington, Pegswood, and Cramlington are used by local services, providing important journey opportunities to Newcastle.

Long-distance passenger services at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnmouth and Morpeth are provided by East Coast and CrossCountry train operators. East Coast provides direct trains from those stations to London King’s Cross and to principal intermediate stations on the east coast main line. CrossCountry provides direct trains to east coast main line stations as far south as York, then stations towards the midlands and south-west including Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bristol, Plymouth and Penzance. East Coast and CrossCountry also provide direct trains from Morpeth, Alnmouth and Berwick-upon-Tweed to Dunbar and Edinburgh, some of which are extended to serve other stations in Scotland, including Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness.

The current east coast main line timetable does not have a regular repeating pattern and, consequently, train times at stations in Northumberland are at irregular intervals. Broadly speaking, Berwick-upon-Tweed has an East Coast London train most hours and a CrossCountry train approximately every two hours. Alnmouth has six London trains per day and a CrossCountry train approximately every two hours, and Morpeth has three East Coast and three CrossCountry trains per day. Those levels of service reflect relative numbers of passengers travelling from each of those stations.

In 2008 Network Rail published its route utilisation strategy—colloquially referred to as RUS—for the east coast main line. The RUS, which was compiled with the assistance of industry parties and other key stakeholders, considered the current and future passenger and freight markets, and assessed the future growth in each. It then sought to show how growth could be accommodated effectively and efficiently, and proposed measures ranging from the lengthening of trains to the provision of additional infrastructure. It recommended that additional long-distance high-speed passenger services should run to and from King’s Cross both in peak times, with up to eight trains an hour, and in off-peak times, with six trains per hour. That strategy is expected to cater adequately for forecast growth in passenger demand at least until the end of the RUS study period in 2016.

In the longer term, increasing train capacity through the use of new high-capacity, super-express trains and increasing network capacity by rolling out 21st-century signalling technology, in the form of the European rail traffic management system, might create the potential to double capacity. However, it will be several years before those enhancements can be delivered, so the Government believe it necessary to develop and implement an improved timetable in the shorter term, essentially using the current infrastructure.

We recognise that any increase in service frequency in advance of infrastructure enhancements is likely to be limited to off-peak periods, when the performance impact of such an increase can be largely offset by improvements to the structures of the timetable, including through adopting a regular repeating service pattern. Additional services to accommodate growth are likely to be necessary first at the southern end of the east coast main line, where traffic volumes are greatest. North of Newcastle, trains are generally less crowded and additional services less likely to be justified in the short term.

The Government have adopted a three-stage approach to the development of east coast main line train services. First, the timetable will be changed to provide some additional trains south of York and to adopt a more regular pattern of services, with improved average journey times. The new timetable will be introduced by East Coast in May 2011. Secondly, through their high-level output specification for the rail industry, the Government have specified a package of infrastructure enhancements to increase the effective capacity of the route. Those enhancements have been included in Network Rail’s funding from 2009-2014, and will enable additional peak and off-peak passenger services to run after 2014, while preserving capacity to accommodate important freight flows. Thirdly, the Government are leading the procurement of a new generation of super-express trains for introduction to the east coast main line from about 2014. Those trains will have greater carrying capacity and better performance than current trains, allowing services to be speeded up and additional services to run.

Although the most critical capacity issues are likely to be south of York, the stations in Northumberland will benefit from each stage of the Government’s strategy to improve east coast main line services. The new May 2011 timetable will adopt a more regular pattern of station calls in Northumberland, and average journey times will be reduced. Berwick-upon-Tweed will be served each hour by a fast train between Edinburgh and London, calling at Newcastle, Darlington and York. The journey time between Berwick-upon-Tweed and London King’s Cross will be about three hours and 38 minutes northbound, which is six minutes faster than today, and three hours and 40 minutes southbound, which is 23 minutes faster than today. That is because the southbound trains from Berwick-upon-Tweed in today’s timetable call at many intermediate stations, whereas in future they will be fast trains normally calling only at Newcastle, Darlington and York. Other stations will be accessible by convenient connections, at either York or Newcastle.

Berwick-upon-Tweed will continue to be served by a CrossCountry train on alternate hours, giving through-journey opportunities to Leeds, Sheffield, the midlands and the south-west. Alnmouth will gain a significantly improved service, with a train each hour provided alternately by East Coast or CrossCountry, and running alternately to London or to the midlands and south-west. The total number of long-distance trains per day will increase by 30 per cent., from 27 to 35. At Morpeth the service will increase from six to seven long-distance trains per day in each direction, providing a greater choice of journey times while retaining the current commuting and business travel opportunities.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about the timing of the first train of the day between Berwick-upon-Tweed and London. At present the first train from Edinburgh to London calls at Berwick-upon-Tweed at 06.29 and arrives at London King’s Cross at 10.11. The Government believe that there are significant benefits to be gained from providing a very fast business service between Edinburgh and London, to encourage the use of rail rather than domestic air travel. My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has therefore challenged the industry to provide a morning train with a journey time from Edinburgh to London of less than four hours and an arrival time before 10 o’clock. To achieve that demanding target, the first train from Edinburgh will be given special priority in the timetable, and will call only at Newcastle. Consequently, the earliest service from Berwick-upon-Tweed will be provided by the following train, which is planned to arrive in London at 10.41.

I recognise that that change is undesirable from the point of view of travellers from Berwick-upon-Tweed, and options to provide an earlier arrival time are being examined. However, it is an unfortunate fact of railway timetabling that the large overall benefits arising from a major timetable change are sometimes deliverable only by making compromises for some of the smaller traffic flows.

I hope that the alternative options for an earlier arrival in London will be pursued vigorously, because many of the people who now get that train will otherwise transfer to air travel. That would be inconsistent with what the Secretary of State is trying to achieve by establishing the early departure from Edinburgh. Air travel would be more attractive, and provide a shorter journey, for the people travelling from Berwick.

I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but I ask him to accept that in this instance a later arrival time might be unavoidable. However, we will explore all possibilities.

The right hon. Gentleman has expressed concern about the widely misreported plan to withdraw through services between the east coast main line and Glasgow. I would like to set the record straight on this matter. At present, East Coast services between London and Edinburgh are extended to and from Glasgow Central at two-hourly intervals throughout the day. In the May 2011 timetable it is proposed that most of those trains should run only between London and Edinburgh. Instead, CrossCountry services between Edinburgh, Yorkshire, the midlands and south-west England would be extended to start and finish at Glasgow Central at two-hourly intervals. There would be no withdrawal of services—simply a change of train operator—and there would continue to be opportunities to make through journeys between stations in Northumberland and Glasgow.

The East Coast train operator has recently commenced consultation with passengers and other stakeholders on the details of the May 2011 timetable proposal, and I am sure that many Members of the House will wish to contribute their views. I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point that some of the consultation documents were not easy to find. The rail regulator’s documents were perhaps more technical in nature, and therefore not intended for widespread access. However, the Department for Transport’s franchise consultation is available on our website and as a hard copy, and the Department will be holding stakeholder events on the proposed franchise arrangements, including one in Newcastle. With regard to the information provided by the East Coast train operator on its ambitions for the timetable, I will draw the right hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of the company.

The Minister has said some very encouraging things this afternoon, but they are so far from the draft timetable originally produced that I hope that he can secure some means by which a realistic timetable, incorporating some of what he has described, can be made available so that it can be examined by the public. If he has a good story to tell, it would be better to tell it, rather than the weak story that the present draft timetable represents.

I honestly take the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but I fear that for some individuals looking at the information, a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, as they were reading more into it than was perhaps justified. Because of the extent of the proposed timetable changes, the Office of Rail Regulation will need to approve amendments to the track access agreements that enable the train operators to gain access to the railway network. This will require the ORR to be satisfied that the trains and train operators granted access to run on the route are those that will make the best use of it and make the greatest contribution to the economic health of the regions it serves, as well as to the financial health of the railway system. I understand that the ORR will publish its decisions within the next few days.

I should explain that, in addition to the proposed changes to East Coast and other franchised passenger services in May 2011, the ORR received a number of other applications for additional access rights on the east coast main line from open access passenger and freight train operators. The total demand for train paths exceeded the available network capacity, so it has been necessary for the ORR to determine which applications for track access it will approve and which should be rejected.

In reaching its decisions on the best use of capacity, the ORR has a statutory duty to balance a large range of factors, including promoting use of the network for the carriage of passengers and goods, protecting performance levels, encouraging competition and having regard to the available funding for the railway system. There are some difficult trade-offs here. For example, while new open access passenger services generally increase the overall number of passengers travelling, and compete with established operators, they often require non-standard train paths, which could be a performance risk, and much of their revenue is abstracted from franchised operators, thereby increasing the cost of the railways to the taxpayer.

In addition to providing its own economic and financial analysis, the ORR asked Network Rail to report on the extent to which the competing applications for capacity might be accommodated. In accordance with its usual policy of transparency, the ORR published on its website Network Rail’s reports on associated timetabling work, which is what we are talking about.

Unfortunately, this preliminary timetabling work, which was carried out purely to inform the ORR’s decision-making process, has been misinterpreted by some as a final timetable. That is particularly unfortunate in the case of East Coast and CrossCountry services at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnmouth and Morpeth, which had not been fully specified when Network Rail’s preliminary timetabling was carried out, as they were not directly relevant to the key capacity allocation decisions for the route south of York. Specification of these services is now complete and, subject to the ORR’s final decisions and any adjustments arising from consultation, the May 2011 timetable in Northumberland will be as I described it a few moments ago.

Although the May 2011 timetable will be implemented by the public sector train operator, East Coast, it is the Government’s policy that passenger train services should be provided by the private sector through franchising agreements with the Department for Transport. Thus, on 21 January my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced the start of consultation on the specification for a new inter-city East Coast franchise to commence in autumn 2011. The consultation document is available on the Department’s website; I encourage hon. Members to read it and to let us have their views on the proposed specification.

The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically about Friday services. I can assure him that the 19.00 service from London will run every day and that the 19.30 from London to Newcastle will be extended to Edinburgh on Fridays only, calling at Morpeth, Alnmouth and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

At its inception, the new franchise will operate the May 2011 timetable and will continue to provide the services at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnmouth and Morpeth, as I described earlier. We intend to invite bidders to make proposals to utilise the additional infrastructure capacity, to be provided by Network Rail by 2014, and, subject to the usual value for money and affordability assessments, we would hope to be able to procure further train service improvements in that year.

Bidders for the new franchise will be expected to demonstrate how they will achieve improvements in service levels and facilities at stations where the franchisee is the station facility owner, and that includes Berwick-upon-Tweed. They will be required to address safety and security, accessibility and improvements to car parking and cycle storage, along with other concerns that the right hon. Gentleman raised. The Department will expect bidders’ plans to be informed by the recent review entitled “Better Railway Stations” carried out by station champions Chris Green and Sir Peter Hall, whom the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Reopening of the former station at Belford was mentioned. I know that this has been a local aspiration for some time. Although potential passenger numbers are probably quite modest, a limited service could be provided with minimal additional operating costs, because local trains between Newcastle and Chathill must run north to Belford before changing tracks to return south. I understand that Northumberland county council is considering as early as next week the case for reinstating a platform at Belford, and the Government would welcome that initiative.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke briefly about ticket prices. Let me remind him of the need to strike a balance between the interests of the fare payer and those of the taxpayer. I am sure he will appreciate that the east coast train operator will want to promote increased use of its services while protecting its revenue.

The new inter-city east coast franchisee will also be able to undertake the introduction of the new super-express trains, which are expected to be available from 2014 onwards. The Department is leading the procurement of those trains, which will be designed, financed, built and maintained through a private finance initiative. We expect the new trains to give the franchisee an opportunity to make further improvements to the east coast main line timetable, including further journey time reductions and frequency increases.

I cannot make any precise commitments about the details of the super-express timetable at this stage. An initial outline will be prepared over the next few months as part of the specification for the new franchise, and more detailed development will be undertaken at the appropriate time by the new franchisee in conjunction with Network Rail and other stakeholders.

I thank the House for the opportunity to explain the Government’s plans for improved train services on the east coast main line, with particular reference to services at the stations in Northumberland. They illustrate the Government’s ongoing commitment to improving Britain’s railways.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.