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House of Commons Hansard
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Rail Services: North-East England
04 February 2020
Volume 671

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

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I am very pleased to have secured the debate, but it is sad that it also gives me another opportunity to raise the poor service that constituents of mine who travel from Chester-le-Street railway station are still receiving. I initiated a similar debate on 15 January 2019, highlighting the poor service that was being generated from the change in the timetables in May 2018. The Minister who replied was the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and I think it is worth reiterating what he said. He said:

“There will be no repeat of the processes that led to the failure of May 2018 and that timetable change.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 1139.]

He also said that he entirely agreed with me that services offered to several parts of the country, including the north-east, had been “unacceptable”. Then, trying to strike a bright note and thinking that it was a positive gesture, he said that new rolling stock which would be brought into service in the coming months should make life easier for passengers using Chester-le-Street railway station.

All I can say is that nothing could be further from the truth. We have now experienced the impact of the new timetable that was introduced in December 2019. Given the combination of shocking incompetence on the part of those responsible for the timetable and the blatant disregard of operators—mainly TransPennine Express—for the wishes of the travelling public, the situation is just as bad, and not just in my constituency: I know that it has been affecting others across the north-east.

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Hartlepool is the third busiest train station in the north-east, which shows that there is great demand for rail travel, yet the trains to Newcastle run only once an hour, and even then they have only two carriages. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is completely unacceptable and that more resources should be put into stations that are well used, such as Hartlepool?

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I totally agree; it is the same story that we get all the time. If Hartlepool, a town adjacent to the two major conurbations of Teesside and Tyneside, were in the south-east of England, it would have a service every half hour, rather than the one my hon. Friend has just outlined.

That brings me to the changes that were brought in in 2019. The timetable for my constituents got off to a flying start, because the two peak-time commuter trains, at 7.10 and 8.03 in the morning, were both cancelled on the first day. A further 11 daily TransPennine services to the north-east were withdrawn by the end of January, which left only 50% of TransPennine’s timetable for the north-east operational. TransPennine had given clear commitments to Transport for the North that there would be a seamless integration of the new timetable.

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The hon. Member is right to bring this issue forward, and he is always very assiduous for his constituency. Does he not agree that in order to have a thriving industry and business district, there must be a reliable, dedicated public transport service? Does he also agree that that takes funding and a forward-thinking strategy, and that more of both must go into the rail network in his area and into public transport in general throughout the United Kingdom?

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I agree with the hon. Member. Chester-le-Street in my constituency is a commuter town for Teesside and Tyneside, and it relies on good public transport.

The timetable got worse, and by January it had still not been fixed. Between 1 January 2020 and 24 January 2020, 17 TransPennine services were out of action. The managing director of TransPennine said that performance was “not up to scratch”, but I think some of my constituents would use more forceful language to describe it. The Department for Transport said that it was “completely unacceptable”, which again is a bit of an understatement.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is absolutely correct. It is not just in North Durham but in my constituency that the services are a disgrace. The trains are often filthy and they often have only two carriages so people cannot get on to them. We were promised that the ancient Pacer trains would be replaced by Sprinter trains, but they are actually trains of the same age. How can we address the problem of the regional disparities and level up on transport infrastructure investment in rail services, given the terrible state of the services and the terrible record that we have to cope with at the moment?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have seen a lot of promises recently about investment in transport infrastructure in the north, but there is a combination of two things here. It is about cash, but it is also about competence in running the network. Before we start opening up new lines, we need to ensure that the existing ones work properly. The franchising system in this country has clearly failed. His constituency, like mine, is next to two large conurbations, Tyneside and Teesside, and his constituents should be able to travel there easily. Again, if it was in the south-east of England, they would be able to do so.

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I thank the hon. Member for securing this important debate. I agree that the TransPennine service has been dire. It was already the second-worst performing franchise in the country, but in December it got much worse. Only half the trains were on time, and 33% were either significantly late or cancelled. Does he agree that there should be a more punitive system of fines to focus the attention of the management and to ensure that these services run on time?

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I will come on to my response to TransPennine, but the underlying problem is how the timetable was drawn up. Durham County Council clearly indicated what it wanted to see at Chester-le-Street, a growing commuter town, only to find that services were taken away. When I wrote to the Transport Minister, I received a letter saying, “Well, you’ve got more stopping services.” We have, but not at the times when people actually want to travel. For example, the popular 7.17 am train was taken off the timetable and the equally popular 5.15 pm train southbound from Newcastle was moved over half an hour later. It is no good arguing that more trains will be stopping if they stop at times when people do not want to travel. It is a fundamental flaw. Frankly, Transport for the North should be renamed “Transport for Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool” because it clearly does not seriously consider representations from anywhere north of York.

The ongoing effects have had an economic impact, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned. This is not just about the frustration of individuals who find that trains have been cancelled, because there is an equal economic impact. As I said in my previous debate, people have had to give up jobs or not accept promotions because they cannot get into work, and families who want to come back to look after their children find it difficult to do so. That is just not acceptable.

I would like Transport for the North to tell me about another town like Chester-le-Street, where 30,000 people live, that has such a poor service and is totally disregarded. The facts speak for themselves, because train usage at Chester-le-Street is actually declining—it dropped by more than 9% between 2017 and 2019—and my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) saw usage at Seaham drop by 2.5%. There is this great mantra that we should be getting people out of cars and on to public transport, but the mess with the operation of the timetable is driving people off the railways, and that cannot be good for congestion in Tyneside and Teesside.

Turning to the point raised by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), I have to say that TransPennine is appalling. I hate using the term, but it is not fit for purpose. It could not run the proverbial in a brewery if it was given the instructions. It does not care about passengers. There is no information when services are cancelled. People turn up and they are told the train is late, and then it is just cancelled, leaving people to their own devices. No information or alternative buses are provided. The situation is not down to any lack of trying, because I have raised the matter directly with TransPennine officials, including at a public meeting I held with them two years ago where they said they would provide information, but they just do not care. Their attitude stinks.

I thought April fools’ day had come early last week when TransPennine put out its stakeholder newsletter. I do not know whether any other colleagues received it, but it included a big photograph showing how proud it was to win rail operator of the year at the business travel awards. All I can say is that I would hate to see what the competition was if TransPennine won, and it is quite clear that the judges did not speak to many of my constituents or those of many colleagues. It was a further insult when TransPennine announced on social media that from this week, it is going to stop people buying tickets on its trains, saying that if people get on without a ticket, they will be fined.

Since the ticket office was closed, Chester-le-Street station only has ticket machines on the southbound platform, and they are often not working, but people getting on the train without a ticket will be fined.

In the last week, two constituents have complained to me that they have bought tickets on trains, but have been treated in a threatening manner and told that in future they will be fined. I am sorry, but if the company cannot maintain a network and provide the service, it is an insult to my constituents, and other travellers, to make such threats. My constituents do not want threats. They want trains to turn up on time and, in some cases, to turn up at all.

The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton asked what the answer is. I have to say that TransPennine needs the franchise taken away. Northern has had its franchise taken away in the last few weeks, and we need to follow. Ironically, at Chester-le-Street, the trains that turn up on time have actually been Northern, which I know is not the experience of other colleagues. If Northern has had the franchise removed, so should TransPennine. What will happen to the investment that Norther earmarked for improvements at Chester-le-Street station, because there is clearly some doubt about what will happen now? TransPennine has been given enough chances. As I said earlier, its attitude stinks. It is not customer-focused and it is having a detrimental effect on many of my constituents.

Finally, I want to raise a broader issue. I know that in the near future—perhaps this week—the Government will make a decision on HS2. Personally, I have never been a great fan. I do not think it will affect many of my constituents, apart from swallowing large amounts of public investment over the next decades, but there is an issue that the Government could address now. We have had various promises thrown around about opening the Beeching closure lines and others in the past few weeks, but if HS2 is to benefit the north-east—look past York, because there is more to the north than York and Leeds—what is needed is the upgrade of the east coast main line. Without that, HS2, when it finally does arrive—if it ever does—will not be able to increase capacity from the north of York to further north.

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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. First, I wish to correct the record as I ambitiously stated that Hartlepool was the third busiest station in the north-east: I meant on Teesside. Important to that is the condition and state of that line. The Durham coast line has needed an upgrade for years and years. Does he agree that that investment is absolutely necessary?

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I do, and my fear about HS2 has always been that investment will be sucked out of the rest of the network. Although we have now got the magic money tree—if not an entire equatorial rain forest of money trees—from the Government for HS2, plus all the investment in lines such as my hon. Friend’s, we will have to wait and see what actually happens. It is important that if the north-east is to benefit from HS2, that investment is put into capacity in the east coast main line north of York. The Government could do that now, and it would have a beneficial effect for the travelling public by helping capacity, and that should be addressed if we do have the announcement on HS2.

My constituents are frankly fed up with the service that they have received from the rail services from Chester-le-Street. My broader concern is the one raised earlier about the economic impact on my constituents, because Chester-le-Street is a great place to live. People move there because it is a great place to bring up families, with good schools, but people need to be able to travel to jobs in the south of the region and in the north of the region. Without a good rail service they cannot do that. What they want is not warm words or political promises of funding tomorrow: they want action now.

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I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for securing this debate on rail services in the north-east and I thank all Members who have contributed to what has been quite an informative debate.

I bumped into the right hon. Gentleman earlier today, and I looked up the report of his previous speech on this matter, on 15 January. I note that he has not really had to do much work to improve his words, because it is very similar to the speech that he unfortunately had to make a year ago.

A number of issues were raised, which I shall address. I would like to reassure the House that the Government’s priority is for the country’s trains to run on time, and to drive growth by giving local leaders a greater say in the running of their railway. As such, we are investing billions of pounds in the rail system, from which passengers can benefit. The right hon. Gentleman was slightly dismissive of that investment, but it is worthwhile investment in infrastructure and will level up the country.

I note that a number of other hon. Members intervened —the hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mike Hill), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Easington (Grahame Morris) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). A couple of right hon. Gentlemen would have loved to intervene in the debate but could not—my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) because he could not be here, and the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) because he is the Opposition Chief Whip. I take the opportunity to record their concern about what has been going on with TransPennine Express services.

As the right hon. Member for North Durham said, my Department said recently that those services had been unacceptable, and we believe that is the case. In the December 2019 timetable change, TPE planned to increase the number of calls that it made at Chester-le-Street from 21 to 23 per day. That included a new southbound 7.52 am service to help passengers travelling at peak times to Durham, Darlington, York, Leeds, Manchester and Manchester Airport from his constituency. Unfortunately, following delays to the introduction of new rolling stock, a temporary timetable was put in place, which impacted TPE trains scheduled to call at Chester-le-Street. I have been advised that the full December timetable will be reinstated in the next few weeks.

Chester-le-Street is a station served by TransPennine Express services on the Manchester Airport-Newcastle route, and since 20 December 2019 TPE has extended the Liverpool-Newcastle service to and from Edinburgh. That service, when it functions properly, will provide Morpeth with an hourly service for much of the day to and from Edinburgh for the first time in years—something that has been welcomed, if it were only to be delivered on a regular basis.

TPE also provides a through morning service from Chester-le-Street to Edinburgh. During this month, TPE will have 13 of its Nova 1 trains in service to and from Newcastle, providing an inter-city level of comfort and additional seating per train. Those trains will call at Chester-le-Street. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, Chester-le-Street is on the east coast main line, which is a very busy line, thus limiting any extra services that TPE could possibly provide.

However, we all know of the issues that the service has had in the past couple of months. Issues with training drivers and getting the rolling stock in on time have led to all sorts of different issues—for example, with signalling.

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I accept that there have been issues with it being a busy line, but the new timetable took out, for example, the 8.17 am northbound to Newcastle and the 5.20 pm southbound, both of which were very busy with commuters; the two most popular trains were taken out of the timetable. For what reason?

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I guess that is a question for the franchise to answer for itself, but I completely understand the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration, and that of his constituents who would like to use a service to go to and from work at times when ordinary people would be commuting.

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I know the Minister is in a terribly difficult position. I do not know whether the theme tune should be “Things can only get better”, but the theme of the Adjournment debate is rail services in the north-east. Northern provides a once-an-hour service for my constituents, whose only station is Seaham, and it consists of two carriages. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) shared some statistics that had been produced today, showing that passenger numbers are falling at Seaham station. The truth of the matter is that the trains are so packed people cannot get on at peak times, particularly at weekends. So, perversely, the figures are showing that rail usage is declining, whereas it would increase if we had more capacity.

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“Things can only get better” is the most new Labour thing the hon. Gentleman has ever said, but I completely understand the point he is making. In fact, it is very Kevin Costner: if you build it, they will come. That is the case with the railways nowadays.

I was trying to talk about the problems that there have been with services. As right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber well know, to try to correct problems with the service within timetable, TPE has been stopping services at York, meaning that lines further north to places such as Scarborough and Whitby, Thirsk and Malton and others have not been provided with the timetabled service that people would expect.

TPE is investing heavily in its rolling stock. As part of its £500 million investment in trains, it is currently introducing three new fleets into passenger service. Trains in all three fleets will be operating across the north and into Scotland by the end of this year, providing 13 million extra seats a year. We hope to be able to address some of the capacity problems that hon. Members have outlined, and TPE will have 44 brand new, state-of-the-art trains, with five carriages each, which will provide an opportunity for new routes and services, and increase capacity by more than 80% on a seven-day-a-week timetable.

TPE is gradually re-introducing some pre-cancelled services. On 3 February, yesterday, 22 of the 32 Liverpool to Edinburgh/Edinburgh to Liverpool journeys were reintroduced, and on 17 February the remaining 10 journeys will be reintroduced. On 30 March, the Northallerton and Darlington skip stops will also be reintroduced. However, because of the late delivery of and technical issues experienced by some of its new trains, and the unavailability of train crews as a result of shortened timescales for training, TPE customers are experiencing an unacceptable level of service cancellations and disruption. TPE is, therefore, compensating some customers for the disruption. Passengers who held a season ticket between 1 October and 31 December in 2019 will be eligible for a 3% rebate, which will more than cover the 2.8% average increase on regulated fares. In the short term, from yesterday TPE has improved its compensation arrangements so that passengers will get money back from the price of their ticket if trains are delayed by 15 minutes or more.

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Will the Minister have a look at the way in which TPE pays its compensation, as this is complicated and people just give up when they do it. TPE might make those claims about compensation, but it is not actually doing it in practice.

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I will happily look into how compensation is paid to TPE customers. I understand completely the right hon. Gentleman’s point about how poor the information to TPE customers has been. Something that we would think would be quite easy to get right, and that rail passengers across the piece appreciate, is honest information on why services cannot run. A bit more transparency could help to lessen some of the anger that is quite rightly felt by passengers when they are literally left in the dark.

Let me turn to the franchise itself. We have been clear with the operator that it must take urgent steps to address the poor performance. If necessary, my Department will take action under the terms set out in the franchise agreement. As I mentioned earlier, over the next two months TPE will reinstate the services that it took out as part of the temporary timetable that followed the issues with the delayed introduction of rolling stock in December. The Secretary of State and I recently met the managing director of the franchise, Network Rail and the manufacturers of the new trains, CAF and Hitachi. We did not use Anglo-Saxon language, as many customers might have been using recently, but we made it perfectly clear that they must take urgent steps to improve their services.

I did not know about the issues with ticket machines at the right hon. Gentleman’s local station. I will take that away, find out a bit more and come back to him, if that is okay. If a ticket machine is broken, we would always expect the train operating company to use the discretion available to it. We would not expect people to be charged penalty fares in such circumstances, so I will happily take that issue away.

I will check and come back to the right hon. Gentleman, but I would expect the improvements to the station by Northern to continue to go ahead as normal. I know that he is fairly sceptical about the opening of new lines, but I have been contacted by a local activist near to the right hon. Gentleman called Christopher Howarth who is keen to see the railway between Sunderland and Durham reopened. As a viaduct fan, I can say that there is one of the most beautiful viaducts I have ever seen along that route, so I very much hope that those plans will come to fruition.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the way he has gone about this debate. He has been as positive as he can be and quite rightly demanding for his constituents. I hope and expect that in a year’s time he will not have to come back and go through all this again because we will have sorted this: the new rolling stock will be working properly, the timetables will work properly and, indeed, all the drivers will be trained appropriately.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.