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Severe Weather (North Lincolnshire Rail Network)

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 21 December 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Unfortunately, this debate is not about a pleasurable subject, because it is about something that has caused considerable hardship and inconvenience—to put it mildly—to my constituents.

Surprisingly, there are 11 railway stations in my constituency although, sadly, there were no trains running through them for between eight and 11 days earlier this month. There two stations in the constituency of Great Grimsby, and one in Brigg and Goole—or two if one counts the Saturday-only service through Brigg that serves that constituency and the feeder stations for routes into my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) told me that he hoped to attend the debate and raise some specific points with the Minister, and perhaps that will happen.

It might be helpful if I provide a brief outline of those rail services and put into context their importance to my constituency. None of the 11 stations are major junctions. People go to Cleethorpes because, as I have said in previous debates, it is the premier resort on the east coast. They go to Immingham because it is, by volume, the UK’s largest port. They visit Barton-upon-Humber to look at the magnificent nature reserves or to marvel at the Humber bridge, just as the Minister did this time last year when she heard what a big issue the level of tolls across the bridge had become.

First TransPennine Express operates an hourly service between Cleethorpes and Manchester airport, connecting with the east coast main line at Doncaster. In most circumstances it is a good service, and the company should be congratulated on succeeding in building up the number of passengers using that route. East Midlands Trains runs services between Newark North Gate station, which is also on the east coast main line, and Grimsby Town, some of which go to Cleethorpes. In addition, a service between Cleethorpes and Barton-upon-Humber links to a connecting bus service that crosses the Humber bridge to Hull. The Barton line is an excellent example of a community coming together to support and promote local services. The group Friends of the Barton Line works in partnership with the local authority and has made great strides.

All those services were affected for a period of up to 11 days. Who is responsible for the network? Network Rail has primary responsibility for the industry’s performance, including “seasonal preparedness.” I find that phrase rather quaint, but it comes from “The Resilience of England’s Transport Systems in Winter”, which was published just two months ago. I am sure that the Minister has become rather familiar with that document over the past few weeks.

Network Rail has badly let down my constituents and those in the neighbouring constituencies of Louth and Horncastle, Brigg and Goole, Gainsborough, Great Grimsby and Scunthorpe, all of whom use the lines that run from Newark North Gate and Doncaster to Cleethorpes. It seems, however, that Network Rail does not want to explain what went wrong. On 7 December, after a week in which there had been no trains, I faxed a letter to the acting chief executive of Network Rail and asked how many snow ploughs were available for use in northern Lincolnshire, and where the two routes to which I referred came in his company’s priorities. I advised him that I intended to raise the issue in the House and that, along with hon. Members from neighbouring constituencies, I would like to meet him or one of his senior executives to discuss the situation to consider how things could be improved, should the bad weather reoccur. I followed up that fax with a hard copy of my letter last week, but sadly I have received no reply. I am sure that the Minister has had more success obtaining such information, but that does not excuse the chief executive’s apparent contempt for his customers in Lincolnshire.

My constituents are asking what efforts Network Rail made to clear the line. They recognise that main lines will take priority and that essential freight routes must be cleared, especially when they are needed to get coal supply to power stations. What exasperates them, however, is that much of the country’s coal supply arrives at Immingham docks. If freight can get through, why not passenger trains?

I have some questions for the Minister. How many snow ploughs are available for use in northern Lincolnshire, and when were they utilised on the lines I have mentioned? Were offers from freight operators to use their locomotives with snow ploughs refused by Network Rail? Were coal and freight services maintained in and out of Immingham throughout the most difficult conditions, and if not, on what date did those services resume? Were points permanently set for Immingham at Brocklesby junction and, if so, was that because no point heaters were in use? Are there plans to install such heaters? Without the heaters, manual labour will be required, although presumably that did not happen—quite reasonably, passengers would like to know why.

Although Network Rail is chiefly responsible for the long period without trains, the train operators are not entirely innocent. If freight trains were running, why was First TransPennine Express operating only a shuttle service between Manchester and Sheffield? Northern Rail ran its stopping service between Sheffield and Scunthorpe, so why could First TransPennine Express not run services that far or, better still, to Barnetby? I acknowledge that three of its units were marooned at Cleethorpes, but a restricted service could, and should, have operated.

Why were there no alternative bus services? The M180 and A180 between Doncaster and Grimsby and Cleethorpes were open for all except part of the worst day or two. If the roads are open, are rail operators not duty bound to provide buses as an alternative? We accept that Network Rail must prioritise its efforts, but what are those priorities? Where does Cleethorpes sit in the priority list?

Until now, I have referred to the lines from Newark North Gate and Doncaster, but the worst affected service was that between Cleethorpes and Barton-upon-Humber, which was suspended on 1 December and did not resume until late afternoon on 11 December. Somewhat bizarrely, that service is operated by Northern Rail—I say bizarrely because a glance at the network map shows that that line is completely disconnected from the rest of the Northern Rail network.

Sadly, we have seen personal tragedies and inconveniences, to put it mildly. Perhaps the saddest case, as reported in the Grimsby Telegraph, was that of a pensioner who was found dead at Thorpe park caravan park in Cleethorpes. He had tried in vain to get home to Doncaster, but the icy weather had halted the trains and he was unable to make it back to his caravan. There is no definite evidence to link one situation with the other, but if that gentleman had made his way to Cleethorpes station and got on the train to Doncaster, clearly he would be alive and well.

I recognise that many individuals employed by the railway companies and Network Rail have worked hard to maintain services. However, my constituents and businesses in the area have been badly hit and let down by Network Rail. We expect better in the future, and I hope the Minister will provide us with reassurance about some of the points I have made. As I mentioned earlier, passengers are completely exasperated by the situation. Some can see trains passing from their homes but, for whatever reason, none of them are passenger trains.

Barnetby station is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole. It is a remote station on the edge of the Lincolnshire wolds, and everyone accepts that access is difficult. However, Network Rail has offices there, and it is a local centre for workmen. It cleared a pathway past the railway station to get the workmen to work yet, for no apparent reason, no effort was made to allow passengers along that stretch. Barnetby railway station serves Humberside airport, which was operating reasonably well most of the time, and greater efforts should have been made in respect of that vital connecting route.

I hope that the Minister responds to some of my points. Network Rail has let down my constituents, who deserve better, so I hope that she can provide some reassurance.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, even if this is a rather melancholy subject for debate this morning. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing the debate. He shows his dedication by ensuring that his constituents’ concerns are raised right up until the last moment that Parliament is sitting before the Christmas recess. No sloping off home early for my hon. Friend, who made a powerful speech on the severe problems on the railways in northern Lincolnshire, which occurred as a result of the extreme weather conditions at the end of November and during the first days of December, including a distressing incident reported in his local papers.

I will attempt to answer as many of my hon. Friend’s questions as possible, but he will appreciate that these are primarily operational matters for Network Rail. I have been able to get some answers out of Network Rail in advance of the debate, but I will have to come back to him on some of the matters that he has raised, which are new and specific, having gone back to Network Rail.

I am concerned that my hon. Friend has not yet had a response from Network Rail to his own representations. I hope that it will remedy that in the near future.

Looking at the general picture, there can be no doubt that the severity of both the current weather episode and the one on which my hon. Friend primarily focused is highly unusual and outside the normal expected pattern for UK winters. The volume of snow and the extreme cold mean that these incidents are out of line with weather patterns that we have come to expect in UK winters over recent years. Much of northern Europe has been affected in a similar way to the UK. Even countries that are more used to dealing with extreme cold have experienced major disruption.

In Switzerland, for example, the same band of weather caused severe problems to the road and rail networks, and the international airport at Geneva was shut for 36 hours. Similar events occurred in parts of Germany and Scandinavia.

Although various parts of the UK experienced some significant disruption to transport networks, my hon. Friend is right to say that rail services in his constituency were particularly badly hit by the problems that occurred at the beginning of this month. I understand and share his concerns about the impact that this crisis had on his constituents, and on businesses and the economy in his constituency.

For the sake of passengers and our economic prosperity, we need to ensure that transport operators and the Government work as hard as they can to secure the best service that is practicable and deliverable in difficult circumstances caused by extreme weather.

In October, before the onslaught of the winter weather, an independent review was published, as my hon. Friend said, on resilience of transport services in winter conditions. The review, led by David Quarmby, set out a series of recommendations that the Government and transport operators agreed to act on. The review emphasised the importance of smoother introduction of emergency railway timetables. It also highlighted the fact that contacts between local authorities and the rail industry should be improved with regard to road access to stations.

As the bad weather set in, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked David Quarmby to conduct an urgent audit of transport operators’ performance in England and their compliance with his earlier recommendations. The audit, which was published this morning, emphasises the importance of improving the information given to passengers in the event of disruption. For example, David Quarmby concluded that the rail industry is over-dependent on electronic provision of information. He feels that such systems do not, on their own, provide passengers with sufficient advice and help, nor can they properly demonstrate to passengers that those running transport systems really care about their plight when serious problems occur. We intend to work closely with train operators and Network Rail to respond to the recommendations made in the audit.

I would like to look in a little more detail at how events unrolled in north Lincolnshire at the beginning of the month. During the week of 28 November, cumulative snowfalls of up to 2 or 3 feet over several days were experienced across much of north Lincolnshire and north-eastern England. That initially resulted in delays and cancellation of train services in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and then the closure of several rail routes, as we have heard.

Passenger and freight services were unable to operate for several days in the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area. North Lincolnshire is served by three passenger operators—East Midlands Trains, Northern Rail, and TransPennine Express—all of which were badly affected by the snow. Northern Rail services on the Barton-on-Humber branch were suspended from 1 to 11 December. East Midlands services between Lincoln, Cleethorpes and Grimsby were suspended between 1 and 8 December. The TransPennine Express route from Manchester to Cleethorpes was completely shut on 1 and 2 December, and from 3 to 7 December it operated only between Manchester and Sheffield. Three of TransPennine’s diesel units were stranded in their maintenance depots at Cleethorpes, which meant that, until the route and depot tracks were cleared of snow, TPE had insufficient resources to serve the Cleethorpes to Manchester route, with negative consequences for passengers across the Pennines.

My hon. Friend specifically raised concerns about the resilience of Brocklesby junction. This has been identified as an issue to be addressed and was flagged up as a concern before the period of severe weather. I understand that this important junction will be renewed at the next practicable opportunity. However, that is expected to be Christmas 2011, because a period of closure is obviously necessary to enable those works to be carried out. The works will include replacing the junction with modern track and fitting point heaters to the remaining unheated points, increasing the resilience of the junction.

I am advised that, throughout the period of disruption, the affected train operators remained closely in touch with Network Rail, working to clear routes as quickly as possible. However, their efforts were hampered by further falls of snow, freezing temperatures and reduced staff levels as their staff struggled to get to work on the disrupted road network.

Network Rail has access to a fleet of purpose-built, heavy-duty snow ploughs, together with a fleet of railway engines fitted with smaller ploughs. To respond to my hon. Friend’s questions, a number of locomotives fitted with snow ploughs were operating in the Lincolnshire area. However, in some places the snow was deeper than the snow ploughs were capable of clearing. Network Rail has a limited number of heavy-duty Beilhack snow ploughs, one of which was brought to the area on 3 December. It commenced snow clearance, but unfortunately became derailed that same evening because compacted ice had accumulated in the rail tracks at Garden Street level crossing due to council snow-clearing operations. The plough was put back on the rails, but from that point all level crossings unfortunately had to be cleared by hand.

I am afraid that I do not know the answer to my hon. Friend’s question about the offers from freight companies, but I will seek to find it out from Network Rail and will let him know.

The problems faced by those trying to get the railways operating again were compounded by the fact that many roads in the area were impassable during the period. That made it difficult to get teams of engineers and workers to the places they needed to be to clear snow and repair damaged infrastructure. I am told that, despite repeated requests, bus and coach operators were not willing to provide replacement bus services in such difficult conditions.

I acknowledge the obvious difficulties that bus operators faced at that time, but many out-of-town buses were operating. For example, the one from Cleethorpes and Grimsby to Hull, via the bridge, was operating. Clearly, there was adequate access, particularly to the A180/M180.

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. One of the lessons that we need to take away from this episode of severe weather is that we need to ask the train companies whether they are being rigorous enough in their efforts to provide rail replacement buses.

Another point to highlight is that some of the consequences of a severe freeze can be felt after the thaw sets in. Ice and snow in the quantities experienced at the beginning of December can damage rolling stock and electrical equipment, which can require time and resources to repair. That can heavily affect train availability for some time after a weather event. It can therefore be prudent in some situations temporarily to suspend a service to avoid ongoing problems with reliability after lines reopen.

With heavy snowfall in the north-east of England, south Yorkshire, Durham, Derbyshire, Humberside and Lincolnshire, the rail industry was stretched to its limit during this period of bad weather. In such situations, I am afraid, Network Rail and the train operators have some difficult decisions to make on the deployment of those limited resources.

In deciding which routes are reopened first, priority is generally given to the busiest and most strategically important. Network Rail’s decisions on prioritisation are made by implementing key route strategies, which are designed in advance of adverse weather. I certainly hope that my hon. Friend’s representations to Network Rail will be taken on board as it looks at and revises its key route strategies.

The aim of such strategies is to focus limited resources where they can produce the maximum benefit for the national economy and for overall transport imperatives. My hon. Friend acknowledged the importance of keeping vital freight routes open so that our power stations can generate the electricity we need to keep our homes warm as the winter bites. That requires a constant flow of fuel and other resources. As he has told us, the port of Immingham is crucial, and Network Rail placed a priority on keeping freight flows—particularly power station coal trains—moving through the snow.

To do that, some rail junctions, including Brocklesby, were set for a specific route and then not moved for several days. That helps to protect the integrity of the rail network and it can keep critical freight flows moving. Unfortunately, there is no getting away from the fact that one consequence of the decisions needed to protect freight supplies was that lesser used, conflicting routes were subject to longer closure periods. Unfortunately, that included the Grimsby and Cleethorpes routes.

It is a grave concern that severe weather can leave passengers without rail services for such a prolonged period, as my hon. Friend highlighted. I can assure him that the Government will keep up the pressure on the rail industry to ensure that all practical and reasonable steps are taken to ensure that lines remain open where possible and that services continue. To achieve that, it is vital for us to work closely with the industry to plan effectively for and cope with winter weather conditions on the railways.

Throughout the crisis, officials in the Department were in constant contact with Network Rail and the train operators—before, during and after the severe weather episode. The Secretary of State has written to all train operating companies about winter preparedness. Meetings and conference calls have been held between Ministers and the industry to assess the response and progress towards restoration of normal services. That close co-operation continues during the current harsh weather conditions.

We are on course for the coldest winter since 1910. Extreme weather events will always cause disruption to the transport system, no matter how well prepared we are. However, we have now had three successive years in which the winter has contained exceptionally harsh periods. The question we need to ask now is whether that indicates that there is a long-running trend that we can expect to become the norm for this country’s climate. If so, we need to reassess our approach and the resources we devote to winter preparedness. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, to assess whether the past three years indicate a long-term change in our climate.

I reassure my hon. Friend, however, that I and my officials at the Department for Transport will continue to work hard with the rail industry to try to minimise future disruptions to train services in north Lincolnshire, and indeed across the network as a whole. We are obviously gravely concerned about the disruption that we witnessed during the episode referred to in the debate and the disruption on the east coast main line today.

It is also important to acknowledge railway workers, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and congratulate them on their hard work and dedication during the recent severe weather. Track workers and other staff have had to struggle on through horrendous conditions to keep as much of the network running as possible. I gather that, in a number of cases, staff slept at their work location for up to three days to ensure that they were able to do their next shift. I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the efforts made by transport professionals across the nation to try to keep the country moving despite one of the toughest winters for 100 years.

Sitting suspended.