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Chester-le-Street: Rail Services

Volume 652: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2019

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

On this historic night, I am sorry that Members are now leaving the Chamber and will not be listening to the problems that my constituents are facing at Chester-le-Street railway station. However, I am pleased to have secured this debate to highlight the problems in Chester-le-Street and the surrounding area for people who use the station. Tonight we have been consumed by the debate on Brexit, but it is worth reminding ourselves that other issues are important to our constituents and that, despite our serious deliberations today, many of our constituents are just getting on with their lives.

Chester-le-Street railway station serves not only the town of Chester-le-Street but the surrounding villages and communities of North Durham. As Members might know, my constituency borders the Tyneside conurbation. Over the years, traditional industries in Chester-le-Street and large parts of my constituency have moved and closed, and the area has now become a commuter town for the area north of the Tyne and for parts of Durham and Teesside. Good transport links are therefore important for the economic viability of my constituency. In Durham County Council’s new economic plan, the transport links for the north of the county are highlighted as an important part of County Durham’s economic future. The journey time to Newcastle from Chester-le-Street and the south of Durham is less than 10 minutes, so in many ways it is an attractive option for people to live in my constituency and commute to work on Tyneside, down in Teesside or in Durham. That is why many people have located themselves in Chester-le-Street and the surrounding areas.

The main rail morning and evening services are provided by three operators—TransPennine Express, Northern and CrossCountry—but, since May last year, the main problem has been the reliability of services, particularly those run by TransPennine Express. Not only have trains been late, but they have often been cancelled altogether. Those two things are particularly difficult for people at the two main commuter times: first thing in the morning, when people are keen to get to work at 9 o’clock, and in the evening, when people want to get home. Commuters often find themselves either late for work because trains have been cancelled, or stuck in Newcastle or other stations further south in the evening with no ability to get home. In some cases, people have not made it home until 7 o’clock or later.

Due to the concern of many of my constituents who rely on Chester-le-Street station for their main commute, I called a public meeting in November, and it will be useful to highlight some of comments that were made not only at that meeting, but in the numerous emails and other correspondence that I have received from worried constituents. The first reads:

“In summary this week the Chester-le-Street to Darlington commuter trains have been cancelled on 7 out of 10 journeys.”

Another constituent said:

“The service continues to go from bad to worse with the morning service having been totally cancelled on 3 out of 4 days in the last week.”

One constituent, a working mother, said that she was finding it difficult to hold down a senior executive job in Newcastle as it had become untenable for her to regularly miss prearranged times to pick up her children from school because she was stuck in Newcastle station due to evening train cancellations. Another constituent wrote that the

“08:24 commuter train from Chester-le-Street to Durham has been cancelled again. We are all late for work again.”

Another said:

“How can the region be taken seriously if our trains aren’t on time 50% of the time.”

A further constituent said:

“While financial compensation does indeed help, it does not compensate for the trouble that working parents have to cause to others to get their children home.”

Another constituent mentioned not only childcare, but the fact that those who look after elderly relatives in the evening find it difficult to get home from Newcastle.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is always generous with his time, and I am here to support him, as I support others when it comes to Adjournment debates. From my research, I have found that the idea with trains is that they take people away from cars and buses. Unfortunately, in this instance—I think he mentioned this earlier—people are unable to get on to trains when they come into the station. Does he agree that one way of addressing overcrowding is to run longer trains? Is that an option?

It is. The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. This should be a way of getting people out of their cars and off other forms of transport into Tyneside, Durham and Teesside. I accept that longer trains are an option, but if the trains do not turn up in the first place, that is a problem.

Delays and cancellations are causing real hardship to many of my constituents. I even had one resident contact me a few weeks ago to say that he had turned down a promotion at work because he could not guarantee to his employer that he was able to get in on time. These are real-life situations that are causing my constituents a lot of hardship.

My right hon. Friend and near constituency neighbour is outlining the fact that the Northern franchise has failed. The service that it provides to the people of the north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire and Humberside is disastrous. Everyone knows that, yet the franchise is allowed to get away with this nonsense and put the jobs of the constituents of my right hon. Friend and many others in jeopardy due to its shoddy service.

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend. This is the economic case. People are losing the ability to access the jobs in Tyneside, Teesside and Durham. Many constituents feel hopeless because what can Government do about it? He raises an interesting point about the franchise and how it is operating. Whatever we do about the franchise, the penalties need to be tightened.

The other issue facing my constituents is that, when trains are cancelled, the trains that do turn up are overcrowded. It is only a short-distance commute, but we have had situations where people have been unable to get on later trains. One of my constituents was travelling further afield for a day out in York and had booked his seat some three months in advance because he was suffering from a bad back and was travelling with a friend with cancer, and they had to stand all the way from Chester-le-Street to York, which cannot be acceptable.

Some of the issues affecting the regularity of services to Chester-le-Street are directly related to the timetable. There has rightly been a lot of publicity on the issues in Manchester and Leeds, but a lot of that congestion has been having a knock-on effect further north, because the companies are then cancelling trains. The trains might go to York but they go no further north and other services are cancelled altogether.

The chaos in the Manchester and Leeds areas has been well publicised, but I remind the Minister, and certainly the operators, that the north is further north than Leeds and Manchester. The people who rely on this service in my constituency should not be sacrificed to ensure that the operators get their times right in Manchester and Leeds.

My constituents’ other frustration has been with the appalling way in which TransPennine Express deals with customers. No information is given to stranded commuters when trains travelling south from Newcastle to Chester-le-Street are cancelled in the evening, and no alternatives are offered for getting them home. People are just left to make their own way or make alternative provision. When that happens regularly to people with childcare responsibilities, it is not acceptable, and I know of one constituent in particular who has to care for her elderly mother. When a person is expected home at quarter past 5, it is not acceptable for them to arrive after 7 o’clock. I have raised the lack of information with TransPennine Express. There are not even staff at Newcastle to give information or to provide alternative forms of transport, be it replacement buses or alternative train options.

There is a compensation scheme but, again, TransPennine Express is not good at advertising the fact that people are entitled to compensation. As a one-off goodwill gesture, I think TransPennine Express should offer all regular travellers a month’s free travel, because people have had to put up with this for far too long. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has any powers to intercede in making sure that TransPennine Express pays reasonable compensation to people.

I come back to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) about the franchise. It is clearly not working. Either TransPennine Express needs to up its game and start acting like an organisation that cares about its customers, or the franchise should be taken off it. If we are going to refranchise, we should look in detail at how appallingly it has operated it so far.

Given the location of Chester-le-Street, travel by train should be an ideal opportunity for people to access jobs around our region, but an inconsistent service is not going to endear train travel to people. It certainly will not attract people to live in Chester-le-Street. It is not a selling point if people cannot rely on what should be an easy commute.

I have been raising for many years now the issue of why later in the day the service goes to a two-hourly service. In any future franchise, we should be looking at a more regular service. There is the capacity to grow the usage of Chester-le-Street station and—to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—to take people off the roads and on to the railways.

I would like to raise an issue about the CrossCountry service that stops at Chester-le-Street railway station. There is a consultation about reducing the number of stops that CrossCountry does, and one of the proposals is to remove the service stopping at Chester-le-Street to increase the connectivity between major cities and towns on the CrossCountry route. If that happens—I have made representations on this, as has the county council—it will be important that those lost stopping services be replaced. Will the Minister ensure that that is taken into account in the consultation? If those stopping services are taken away, it is important that we have a replacement service, especially in the evenings.

There is speculation in the industry that CrossCountry is proposing that some if not all the services from the south coast of England terminate at York, not serving Chester-le-Street, which is obviously between York and Newcastle.

If that happened, it would be a detrimental step for the north-east. It reinforces my point that many people look at the north and perhaps think it goes as far as York, Manchester and Leeds and no further.

I want to raise the issue of investment in Chester-le-Street. I have raised this with Network Rail. The footbridge over the station is in an appalling state of repair, but I have been told it will not be painted until 2020. Anything the Minister can do to get Network Rail to address that would be very important because, again, if we are going to encourage more people to use the station, the facilities need to be improved. Network Rail leaving it until 2020 to paint a bridge is not acceptable.

My constituents have had an appalling experience and rail service through no fault of their own. The purpose of this debate is to raise their concerns and the terrible way they have been treated, but there is also an important point about the economy and future of my constituency and how viable it is to attract people to come and live in what is a pleasant part of County Durham.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing the debate. He has raised a number of important issues relating to his constituency and to County Durham more broadly, and I will address them all.

I entirely recognise the importance of Chester-le-Street station as a vital local link for the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents. I know how much they rely on it. The right hon. Gentleman said that the service was growing, and I can confirm that. The number of passengers has increased by about 30,000 a year over the past six years, and an average of just over 600 a day use the station. Those people play a vital role in the local economy: for instance, as the right hon. Gentleman said, they provide access to employment in both Newcastle and Durham. Nearly all the services are provided by TransPennine Express, with a handful of additional peak services provided by Northern and CrossCountry.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly focused on the central issue of performance—about which the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) also expressed concern—and how bad it became, particularly after the May timetable change. Let me stress that I entirely agree: the services that were offered to several parts of the country, including those offered by franchises in the north of England, were unacceptable. I must also stress, however, that important lessons have been learnt, some of which have already been implemented by the industry and have led to a significant improvement in performance.

The planned December 2018 timetable changes in the north were deliberately scaled back in favour of a phased approach. Risks were mitigated to the extent that this was largely a rollover of the May timetable, but with a focus on some performance “fixes” to improve the resilience and reliability of the network. They included changes to local TransPennine services between Leeds and Manchester, although I fully recognise that “the north” extends further than Leeds and Manchester. Indeed, I represent a constituency that is north of Leeds and Manchester. Those changes have already delivered significant improvements and the provision of standby trains at key locations to help recovery should things go wrong.

I observe performance daily, and I know that many Members on both sides of the House do the same. Performance on Northern and TPE has improved significantly since December. On TPE, according to the public performance measure—which can be found online—the number of trains that are on time has increased to about 83%. That figure still presents a significant amount of room for manoeuvre, and it is below target, but it is also 18% higher than the figure during the last period before the December changes. Although there has been an improvement in punctuality and a reduction in the number of cancellations, I agree with colleagues throughout the House that that is still not good enough.

As for Northern, the January figures so far show that about 89% of trains are on time, which is an improvement of about 10% on the figure for December. I am pleased to report that the number of trains that are late, very late or cancelled has substantially declined. This month fewer than 1 in 10 have been late, and just 1.3% have been very late or cancelled. However, I am aware of the base from which they are starting; I also know that the recovery of passenger trust is critical, and will only be delivered by a relentless focus on reliability and punctuality.

I agree with the Minister, but what concerns me about TransPennine is that it does not care. A company that should be focusing on what is good for customers has no customer ethos at all. I would love to know how we can change that.

The right hon. Gentleman has made a significant point. I have to say that that has not been my experience when I have been dealing with the train operating companies, but it is nevertheless clear that the communication to which he referred in his speech has not been good enough. I shall say more about that shortly.

As part of the wider drive to improve performance in the north, the Government commissioned Richard George, a respected industry figure, to review the performance of the region’s rail network. He will recommend operational improvements to increase reliability in the short and medium term. Richard will co-ordinate and lead the efforts of Network Rail and the operators. His remit is to help industry reach the right conclusions so that passenger impact is central to every planning decision; the passenger must be at the centre of all of our decisions. He has already helped highlight problem areas and will provide his conclusions later this year.

In addition, since the May timetabling issues Network Rail has established a programme management office. This will also help to ensure future timetable changes can be better planned and managed. There will be no repeat of the processes that led to the failure of May 2018 and that timetable change.

I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham for raising the issue of communication and poor information about cancellations and delays. I hear it in other parts of our network too, and it is simply not good enough. There are customer information screens at Chester-le-Street station, and both TPE and Northern publish updated information on their websites and social media channels, but we continue to stress to these operators and the whole industry the absolute importance of giving passengers the information they need when things go wrong. I have raised this with the train operating companies and will continue to do so. It has not been good enough. Obviously I want to get to a place where we do not have to make these comments, but until then a focus on communication is important.

In my experience trains that serve Chester-le-Street moving both north and south can suffer from cancellations, because if a train is coming from the south to the north and is late it is the habit of the operator to terminate the train at Darlington, and therefore not to allow it to travel on through to Durham, Chester-le-Street and Newcastle and then make the return journey. Can we ask the franchises to stop that practice, please?

The hon. Gentleman’s point is important, but there is also a point that the operators must consider in the operation of a timetable: how do they recover? If something goes wrong, how is that timetable recovered?

That is exactly what is happening, and I will come on to rolling stock in a moment. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and also where train operating companies are coming from, but regularly disadvantaging the same customers is not acceptable. I want to get to the place where we do not have to have these questions in the first place.

If things do go wrong, I also want to make sure we have compensation schemes. There have been delay-repay schemes and after May the Government asked Northern and TPE to implement special compensation schemes that quickly and fairly reimburse those passengers most adversely affected, and that included regular service users from Chester-le-Street. To date, over £1 million has been paid in compensation for the summer disruption.

Passengers will see the benefit of the new huge investment in rail in the north of England when the new rolling stock enters service this year. As part of the investment in TPE three new fleets of Nova trains will be introduced, starting from May this year until the end of 2020. For Chester-le-Street longer brand new trains will be in service, while on Northern the outdated and unpopular Pacers will be removed by the franchise by the end of this year. Passengers using the Northern services in County Durham will see refurbished trains offering increased capacity.

What does that actually mean? Nova trains are faster and have more capacity, and we are moving from three to five carriage trains; that means over 150 extra seats. The Pacers will in some cases be replaced by refurbished stock cascaded down from Scotland. These are class 170 trains which are longer than those they replace; they are increasing in size from 18 metres to 23 metres per carriage, again increasing capacity. The vast majority of the 500 brand new carriages from Northern and TransPennine will be delivered in less than a year from now, and every other train that is not brand new will be refurbished to be as-new.

The CrossCountry consultation was a concern. It ended on 30 August and we are conducting a thorough review of its findings. No decisions have been made about the CrossCountry timetable. The east coast main line timetable will be rewritten for all operators in 2020-21 and that will be an opportunity to review the current train services at Chester-le-Street, alongside wider long-distance service changes. The only decision that has been taken so far is to cancel the franchise competition because of the rail review. The current franchise ends in October, with the option to extend by one year. We are looking at options for the franchise and we are aware of severe overcrowding on that network, so we are looking to bring in additional trains as soon as the appropriate carriages are available within the existing rolling stock market. But the importance of Chester-le-Street and the north-east to the CrossCountry franchise is noted. Colleagues here asked me to note it and I have done so, and I give them my assurance that it will be considered.

Let me turn to the services at Chester-le-Street station. It is managed by Northern, which is conducting improvements throughout the life of its franchise to ensure that the station is well maintained. I understand of course how inconvenient it has been for passengers in the interim, but the waiting room and toilets are due to be refurbished very soon. As for the bridge, we are painting a structure that spans the east coast main line, so it is not as simple as a regular painting job. It is one that needs to be planned such that it minimises disruption. However, the point made by the right hon. Member for North Durham has been heard and I will ensure that Network Rail is aware of his concerns.

Our railways have to be fit for the future. This requires investment, vision, innovation and ambitious thinking, so that our rail network meets the needs of the people who rely on it. That is the point of our rail review. The service that we have and the structures we have had have served us well, taking us from 700 million passenger journeys a year to 1.7 billion. But times are changing and we are seeing huge investment. We are on the cusp of experiencing the benefits of the billions of pounds of investment. Our railways are undergoing much- needed transformation that, as a country, we have never experienced before. That will improve rail services in the north of England for good and it will see rail play its part in driving economic growth right across the north.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.