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Trans-Pennine Rail Travel and Delays

Volume 646: debated on Tuesday 11 September 2018

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Trans-Pennine rail travel and delays.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like those of many of my colleagues, my postbag has made for pretty grim reading this summer, with letter after letter from frustrated passengers. We have seen totally unacceptable delays and cancellations of trains, leading to a decline in punctuality from 91.5% in April 2017 to 85% in April 2018, and to as low as 62.1% this May.

First, it was the delayed completion of engineering works in the north-west by Network Rail and the lack of notice for operators of the new timetables that had a knock-on effect right across the north.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is about not just the delays to the service but the timetable itself. The timetable that has been designed for Hull already leads to slower train times, without the added complication of additional delays.

The hon. Lady makes some good points. There are longer term benefits to some of the work. It has been poorly executed, but I can speak only for my constituency, where, in the longer term, we will see a doubling of rail journeys between York and Scarborough. That is good news, but in the short term the delays are totally unacceptable.

Other issues have combined to make the situation even worse, such as the incomplete signalling works at Leeds station and significant congestion on Manchester services. As things were seemingly getting better—we had a meeting with TransPennine Express, which improved the rosters of its drivers—further disruptions were suddenly caused by a new policy to cut the number of late-running trains on the east coast main line. That policy prioritised trains and passengers travelling north to south over those travelling east to west.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the problem with rosters. When a train is delayed arriving at York and bound through his constituency via Malton to Scarborough, often the driver does not have enough hours left to get back to York without having to get off the train at Seamer or somewhere else. I hope that a little leeway can be introduced into the rosters, so that drivers can cope with a slight delay.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: operators can take a number of measures to reduce the impact of some of the problems.

To give some examples of passengers I have spoken to or corresponded with, one told me that, since the end of May, because of the new timetables, his train

“had been cancelled or delayed nearly every single day”.

Another complained:

“Whether I get to work now is a painful lottery.”

Another frustrated rail user described how, on one day, two trains were cancelled, with 100 people, including the elderly and infirm, left without warning on the platforms at Malton station. At Malton, there are no toilet facilities, and the café opens for only limited hours each day.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman shares my frustration with the facilities at Hull station, which is managed very badly by TransPennine Express. We had to run a campaign to get a toilet attendant at the station, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) recently wrote to the managing director of TransPennine Express to express her disgust that the station does not have a manager. TransPennine Express is failing us with not only the railways but the stations.

The hon. Lady makes some good points on behalf of her constituents. Although some issues, which I will come to later, are beyond the control of TransPennine Express, the operator clearly could deal with some issues that would alleviate many of the problems, and it is absolutely right that she draws attention to them.

Another traveller contacted me this week on Twitter to say:

“two days in a row no driver for the 15.17 from Manchester Piccadilly.”

The late departure of her train from Huddersfield meant that she would not make the 16.01 connection to Malton and would have over an hour to wait.

There are many others. Another gentleman said:

“TransPennine seem to cancel trains regularly to Malton and Scarborough which should not be happening. The frustration of passengers is starting to boil over and I know that some TPE staff are fearing for their safety. One of the staff told me on Sunday that nurses and doctors from Malton working at Scarborough Hospital were not getting to work on time on a regular basis. People are losing their jobs over the delays and cancellations.”

Just to add to that catalogue of woes, one problem in Manchester is that, owing to train cancellations, trains frequently have to stop in the centre of Manchester and do not carry on to Manchester airport. That causes a great deal of disruption. The whole point of TransPennine Express is that it should work for the whole of the north, not just part of it.

The hon. Lady makes a good point. We have had similar issues from York travelling east, and from east travelling west, which I will come on to in a second.

There is also the problem of overcrowding due to cancellations and the short-forming of trains, which is when they travel with fewer carriages than specified. My constituent explained:

“the late-running train from Malton was so overcrowded on arrival some passengers had to wait for the next train, hopefully an hour later…Typically on the return journey from Leeds or York you can wait for 90 minutes for a York/Scarborough train.”

The theme is the same: people are completely fed up with the delays, the cancellations and the lack of information and clear communication. Many people are leaving York only to be dumped at Malton, which is a great place, but not if they do not want to be there at that time. If people were notified that that was going to happen, they would probably stay at York where there are facilities. Again, it is about communication. These things have a knock-on effect on work and other appointments. They also put huge stress on holidaymakers trying to make it to Manchester airport. The result is general, costly inconvenience.

In this day and age, people are entitled to expect a reliable service. It is not unreasonable to think that, if someone plans to take a scheduled train on a specific date at a specific time, it will be there and they will not be hanging around for hours on end waiting—a huge inconvenience for not just the person themselves but everyone involved in their day. Recently there have been more delays, more cancellations and more people stranded. In one instance, spectators trying to get to the cricket at Scarborough were turned back at Malton. For the county’s cricketing faithful, missing Scarborough festival is as close to sacrilege as it can get in Yorkshire.

To put the situation in context, over a three-month period in the summer of 2017 in my constituency, six trains were cancelled at Malton. This year, over the same period, 56 trains were cancelled. During that period in 2017, 110 trains between Leeds and Scarborough were more than nine minutes late. This year, there were more than four times as many—a total of 479 delayed trains.

We need much more joined-up thinking and a far more collaborative approach between Network Rail and the operators. They need to work together to put the needs of passengers first—or perhaps train operators should have more control over the tracks. I know that the Minister and the Transport Secretary are looking at that possibility very closely and are keen to explore it further.

Whichever solution we come to, people are entitled to a reliable service. They should be able to expect to get to work, to appointments to school and to their holiday on time or, at the very least, to get up-to-date information about what is happening. Otherwise, people will inevitably stop using our rail service and return to their cars. That will, of course, put further pressure on already congested roads.

Although punctuality has improved to 80%, that still means unacceptable delays. To improve matters in the short term, TransPennine has proposed timetable and other changes to Network Rail, to take effect in December. I very much hope the Minister, who I know is keen to resolve the issues, will do all he can to support the changes and bring them into effect. Given that it takes eight weeks to implement changes, as he will know, time is critical, and we need to get Network Rail to accept the proposed changes if those will bring about an improvement in performance.

In the medium term, the Minister is undertaking a review of rail disruption. It is absolutely right that we look at the issues and identify what has gone wrong, rather than jumping to conclusions, before we start trying to apportion blame. The Minister is examining the issue with Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, which I welcome. We look forward to that review with keen interest. It is right that when we determine who is responsible, they are held to account and we put measures in place to make sure that these things do not happen again.

Looking at the wider perspective, if there was ever an example of why we need more powers devolved to the north to resolve these kinds of problems and to prevent them in the future, this is one. In terms of the strategic, longer term approach, Transport for the North is keen to be given more powers over infrastructure and operators in the north of England so that the region can take responsibility for the delivery of a much better, more efficient and more tailored service. That call is supported by many, including the train operators themselves. I know that there are issues about the giving up of powers by one authority to another. I know that the Minister is looking at that closely and that it is not as straightforward as it may seem, but if it would improve performance and allow decision-making powers to be returned to a more effective local organisation that could look at these things holistically, it has got to be seriously considered.

The summer’s disruption has shown that we really do need the tools in the north. By that, I mean the powers, but also the investment. Part of the problem has come from the fact that we are investing in the lines. The changes have not been implemented as they should have been, but the fact that we are investing, which will ultimately lead to an improved service, is to be welcomed, as is the Government’s planned £3 billion upgrade of the TransPennine route and their commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail. Those measures and proposals are to be welcomed and celebrated.

Transport for the North has made a plea. I am one of the chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for the northern powerhouse, and we are asking the Minister and the Chancellor to look at bringing forward Northern Powerhouse Rail to coincide with the completion of High Speed 2. At the moment, Northern Powerhouse Rail is scheduled to be completed in 2040. We are asking for the delivery of that new, transformational service, which will halve journey times between Leeds and Manchester, to be brought forward to 2032. I hope the Minister will comment on that. With investment and the powers to make decisions, the region can transform our transport system to provide a service passengers deserve and, at the same time, bring massive and long overdue economic benefits to our region, through increased productivity and the creation of more jobs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I start by thanking Members who have already contributed and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing the debate, which covers an important and timely topic. As he said, it has filled his postbag over the summer and I am sure it has contributed to the work of other hon. Members on behalf of their constituents over recent weeks.

I share the frustration of those constituents with the unacceptable levels of disruption that they have faced over the summer since the introduction of the May timetable, especially those who have struggled to meet caring commitments, to get to workplaces and even to get to the Scarborough festival. While performance has not yet reached pre-timetable levels, measures introduced recently have led—as I am glad my hon. Friend acknowledged—to a steady improvement in performance, in particular in reducing the number of cancellations.

Will the Minister acknowledge that even without the delays, the May timetable changes offer Hull a worse service than it had before? I am not just talking about the delays—the actual timetable changes give Hull a worse service. Surely that is wrong.

The timetable changes were intended to enable us to take advantage of the substantial investment that the Government and the country have been making in our rail network. That important investment is enabling more frequent services and the replacement of rolling stock across the north of England. Those are benefits that will be felt by the hon. Lady’s constituents in time, when they are fully delivered. I acknowledge that the timetable introduction did not go well, to say the least, and that the hon. Lady’s constituents have had a difficult experience. Northern and TransPennine are in the process of fully rolling out the May timetable change. Once it is fully rolled out, I am sure her constituents will feel the benefits it is intended to deliver.

On the subject of jam tomorrow, will the Minister welcome the fact that Northern will be providing an additional service on the half hour into Scarborough, which will double the service and will mean that people who have maybe bought cars because of the congestion in the summer will go back to using the train?

I am delighted that that is in prospect for my right hon. Friend’s constituents. More regular and more reliable services are the objective of everything that we are doing at the moment to stabilise and improve performance. Ultimately, we want to see that contribute to more people getting off the roads and using public transport, including the railways.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. I am sure he remembers the lobby to address this issue, when we came to see him with Hull chamber of commerce. He has not acknowledged my point. The timetable changes offer Hull a worse service than it had before. That is not because of the delays or because the timetable introduction has been chaotic. It is because the timetable we now have in Hull is worse than we had before. Surely that is unacceptable.

As I said when I met the delegation that the hon. Lady refers to, I am keen to look at Hull’s services and see how we can improve them for the future. Hull is a critical city and we want to ensure that the hon. Lady’s constituents are getting the kind of services that they need so that Hull and its economy can thrive. I am happy to see any further representations that she wants to make about where she sees the timetable falling short and the kinds of changes she wants to see in the future. It remains the Department’s overriding priority to make sure that the industry restores reliability for passengers as soon as possible.

With respect to Manchester, York and Scarborough, with services affected by congestion in the central Manchester area and the rules applied by Network Rail when considering which services are given priority at key pinch points, many of the York/Scarborough services have been subjected to an agreed performance recovery plan. That requires them to terminate services short of destination in certain circumstances in order to limit the potential for a reactionary knock-on for other services.

In the light of that plan, TransPennine Express has been implementing a number of measures to improve performance on the line. For example, it has pledged to change the schedules of its drivers to reduce the circumstances where trains need to be terminated prior to arriving in Scarborough. It has also promised to advise passengers, wherever possible, prior to their departure from York if a train does need to be terminated at Malton, so that they can wait for the next train from York if they so wish.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned communication shortfalls. TPE is also working with London North Eastern Railway on the east coast to ensure that communications at York during disruptions are improved for passengers, with clear guidance, advice and information, and arrangements to allow eligible season ticket holders to claim compensation, in addition to the ongoing and regular delay repay process.

The Minister mentions rosters and communication, but TransPennine promised those measures to me in a meeting four or five weeks ago. Does he know whether it has implemented them? It would be interesting to see whether it has actually implemented them or whether it is still promising them.

My hon. Friend is rightly anxious to see progress on behalf of his constituents. The Department will hold TPE to account for the delivery of its promises. It is vital that we see rostering at a sufficient scale to enable the services to proceed as scheduled. It is also vital that communications are of the quality that his constituents expect.

It is right that passengers are compensated after severe disruptions. Like Northern, TPE has opened compensation for season ticket holders. TPE season ticket holders on routes that were disrupted are eligible for up to a week’s compensation. Both train operators—Northern and TPE—will be opening an additional compensation scheme to ensure people who travel regularly on the disrupted routes without a season ticket are also eligible for compensation. That was announced at the end of July by Transport for the North, which is leading on the design of the scheme. Further details will be announced shortly.

More broadly, the Secretary of State has commissioned an independent inquiry by the Office of Rail and Road, the independent regulator, to examine why we were in that situation and to reduce the chances of it ever happening again. An interim report is expected to be published this month ahead of a final report towards the end of the year. Following recommendations from a joint industry group including TPE and Northern, the operator will implement a number of further performance improvement measures from December 2018 focused on the north trans-Pennine route, where performance has been poorest. A number of other improvements are also due across the region in the next year or so. In 2019, TPE will be introducing its three brand new Nova train fleets, which will provide additional capacity across the network. Customers will benefit from more seats, faster journey times and improved comfort with greater leg room.

Investment across the north will deliver more services by 2020. We plan to deliver additional services and capacity in the next two years over a series of timetable changes. However, they are to a degree predicated on infrastructure works being delivered in time by Network Rail.

I am grateful to the Minister for his comments. Is he able to shed any light on the issue of short-forming? Is it appropriate policy, and what can we do about it? It is clearly causing significant overcrowding on some routes, and some people are being prevented from travelling on certain trains and have to catch later trains.

The Department monitors short-forming very closely as part of its supervision, jointly with Transport for the North, of the Northern and TPE franchises, which are jointly managed with Transport for the North. The operators are required to provide specified levels of capacity, and if they short-form trains or provide fewer carriages than they are meant to, the Department takes that very seriously and holds the operator to account for it.

I thank the Minister for giving way for the third time. To reiterate what was said at the meeting we had previously, he was invited to come to Hull to discuss this issue in detail—in fact, to come on one of the TransPennine Express services. I suggest he gives himself plenty of time for his journey. I repeat the invitation, and I look forward to having a date set in the diary very soon.

I thank the hon. Lady for repeating the invitation, which I have already accepted. We are in the process of trying to find an appropriate date that suits her and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). I look forward to travelling there.

I hope that hon. Members will be assured that the Department is continuing to do everything possible to ensure passengers get the safe and reliable services that they expect across the trans-Pennine route and the northern franchise as a whole.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.