Skip to main content

Train Services in the North

Volume 649: debated on Thursday 22 November 2018

1. What steps he is taking to increase the (a) reliability and (b) number of train services in the north. (907763)

We are now running significantly more services on Northern than we were prior to May, but I am aware that there are continuing performance issues, particularly this month. In September, with Transport for the North, which jointly manages this franchise with my Department, I appointed leading industry figure Richard George to co-ordinate the efforts of the train operators and Network Rail to improve the reliability of services in the north. Richard is also working with industry and TfN to examine the significant increase in services which the operators committed to in December 2019. It is essential that these changes are realistic and deliverable, given the need for rail operators to provide a reliable service to passengers.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but he is showing a bit of a tin ear to the lived experience of my constituents. One of them took six hours to travel the 75 miles between Wakefield and Scarborough, which, with a good wind, I could have achieved on a bicycle in the same amount of time. Why has capital investment in the north fallen—as the Institute for Public Policy Research has shown—when the need for investment in our services has never been higher?

I would make two points. First, the IPPR keeps using misleading comparators. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority figures, which are the official figures prepared for the Government, have already shown that, per capita, the north is currently receiving and will over the coming years be receiving more expenditure per head of population than the south.

Of course, in the north—the hon. Lady’s area—the flagship programme for the next five years on rail, the trans-Pennine upgrade, is the most substantial anywhere in the country. Her constituency is also benefiting from increased services on the route to Knottingley.

I accept that there have been some real issues with the TransPennine Express on the route to Scarborough. Those are things that need to be addressed. There are performance issues that are not good enough. It is not a question of having a tin ear. We are actively working to try to improve things on a network that is delivering more services, rather than fewer, and in which substantial investment is happening. One of the frustrations is that the timetable problems in the north this year were triggered by an investment programme that was delayed.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we get a full picture of this? Will he ensure that we see what new trains were being made available in the north between 1997 and 2010, and between 2010 and let us say 2020, so that we can see the investment that is going on by the Government in the north?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point and I pay tribute to him for ensuring the investment programme that is currently taking place. The reality is that, in that decade, there were no new trains in the north and no investment: the Labour party let a standstill franchise on the northern rail network. It is this Government who are renewing every single train in the north of England and it is long overdue.

The Secretary of State goes back to the timetable changes, but currently one in four Northern trains are delayed or cancelled and nearly one in three TransPennine trains are delayed or cancelled. Is not it time that he took control and took these franchises back, so that we can have a proper rail service in the north of England?

That is precisely why I say that I am not satisfied with the current performance issues. That is why we have appointed Richard George to understand why the service is not performing adequately. It is of course hampered by the fact that some of the performance issues recently have been caused by the elderly Pacer trains, which are being phased out, starting in the coming weeks. However, we need to do everything we can and we will continue to do everything we can, in partnership with Transport for the North, to identify the ways of getting performance up. It is not simply a question of changing ownership of the franchise or control of the franchise. There is not a magic team down the corridor waiting to step in and make this work better. We have got to make it work better.

As we have heard, TransPennine passengers to and from Scarborough have had to endure a summer of delays. Indeed, because of drivers’ hours, many trains have been terminated at York, leaving passengers waiting an hour for the following service, if it is not also delayed. Although there has been some improvement, when are we likely to see a return to normality?

I absolutely sympathise with people in Scarborough. Of course, we are introducing additional services to Scarborough in the coming months, so that there will be a Northern service there as well. The work that Richard George is doing to look at why these performance issues are happening is similar to the work we did with Chris Gibb on Southern, which has led to an improvement in performance on that network, and I am absolutely clear that we have to deal with the issues that he highlights.

Let us get to the real north, which is Scotland. Overall, the Abellio ScotRail franchise is the best performing large franchisee, but 50% of delays and cancellations are attributable to Network Rail. The Secretary of State is being obstinate with us, but will he not consider devolution of Network Rail to allow the Scottish Government to take full responsibility? It would generate savings, which would also help to offset the £400 million shortfall from his Government.

The hon. Gentleman makes that argument regularly, but the devolution of Network Rail was not recommended in the report produced on devolution in Scotland. Given the SNP’s less-than-good record in running other services in Scotland, it escapes me why he thinks that devolving Network Rail would make a difference to train services in Scotland.

As usual, the Secretary of State shows his full knowledge of Scotland. He will be aware that the rail industry review panel includes Tom Harris, a former rail Minister, who has written a report that calls for the devolution of Network Rail to Scotland. I wrote a letter to the Secretary of State on 15 October but he has not responded. Will he now confirm that he has not restricted the terms of reference for the rail industry review panel, and that if they recommend devolution of Network Rail to Scotland, he will act on that?

I have not set any limits on that approach. I have asked the panel to consider the question of devolution, as well as how we can improve the workings of the railways. It is no secret that in my view we need a more joined-up railway to meet the challenges of a system that is under intense pressure. The Government are investing record amounts in infrastructure upgrades, including spending money in Scotland, and that is in addition to using the Barnett formula, which is the norm for the allocation of funds to Scotland. We have a railway that is bursting at the seams, and it needs to work better if it is to deal with the pressures on it.

Since the announcement of the northern powerhouse agenda, transport spend per person has risen by twice as much in London as it has in the north. New analysis of Treasury figures published this week shows the gap widening, with an increase in spend of £326 per person in the capital, just £146 per person in the north, and the amount even falling in Yorkshire—more than in any other region—resulting in poor reliability and capacity. Why such under-investment?

I am the Secretary of State who has planned over the next five years for 50% of the rail enhancement budget that the Government are putting in place to be spent in the north—on upgrading the east coast main line, on the trans-Pennine upgrade and on other schemes that will make a real difference. When Labour Members were in government they did none of that, so you will forgive me, Mr Speaker, if I take no lessons from the Labour party about investment in transport in the north. We are getting on with delivering it.