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East Coast Main Line Funding

Volume 732: debated on Wednesday 10 May 2023

I will call Catherine McKinnell to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member to wind up at the end. I call Catherine McKinnell.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered funding for the East Coast Main Line.

It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to have been granted this debate, because the east coast main line is one of the country’s most strategic transport routes, carrying 80 million passengers on their journeys every year, and £30 billion of freight. Stretching from London to Inverness, it provides connections the length of the east coast of our island—from Scotland to the north, the midlands and London—and all the way back up again.

One third of the UK population lives within 20 minutes of an east coast main line station. The economies in those communities create almost 50% of the UK’s economic output. The economic importance of the east coast main line is clear but, shockingly, this vital strategic rail line last saw major investment when electrification was completed in 1991. I asked for this debate to speak on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group on the east coast main line, which I set up and chair in Parliament. We campaign together on improving passenger experience, capacity and reliability, as well as economic growth and the huge potential that could be unlocked in the areas served by the east coast main line.

In the short time we have today, I will outline who is served by the line, its current shortfalls, and look at some of the details of the Government’s integrated rail plan. I have questions for the Minister that I hope he will be able to answer. Unfortunately his colleague, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), the Transport Minister of State, could not be here, but I hope he will be able to reply following the debate, if the Minister here does not have all the details to hand.

The east coast main line is of huge importance to the region that our group represents. We represent the entirety of the east coast main line, and it serves huge purpose to my region of the north-east. I must declare that I am wearing two hats: I am here for the line as whole, for which I will make the case, but I cannot help also making the case for the north-east, as it is of such strategic importance to our region. It is the first and last leg of journeys to and from the north-east to almost all other parts of the country.

Increasing capacity on some of the bottlenecks, particularly in the north-east, is vital, not only for serving the people in my region but freeing up those bottlenecks for the whole line. The consortium of east coast main line authorities—a cross-group of local authorities, combined authorities and Scottish regional transport partnerships—has produced an east coast investment prospectus. I believe the Minister has received a copy, and I am sure he has read it in advance of today’s debate.

The prospectus describes how the route supports current and emerging industries along its length, and the investment that will be needed to future-proof the route to ensure it will be able to meet those challenges and, even more importantly, take advantage of all the opportunities that will arise from major rail investment projects in the pipeline. The consortium is currently looking at research on changing patterns of travel on the east coast main line; the opportunities for freight, including parcel freight; and the amenities at the different stations along the east coast main line. The all-party group looks forward to working closely with our partners in local government, campaigning for investment on the line.

Any user of the east coast main line knows that we have seen challenges of delays and cancellations. Those are caused by capacity constraints and infrastructure shortcomings. Frankly, they hold back the line’s ability to grow its passenger market. Research undertaken by the consortium of east coast main line authorities found that, if the number of delays over 10 minutes were halved, it would deliver an additional £62.8 million a year to the wider economy, and more than £600 million over the next 10 years. That is economic growth that our country clearly needs.

The line is also particularly prone to major incidents that cause the service to stop running for long periods. That lack of resilience is often evidenced in major overhead line dewirement, but can also be associated with other issues, such as signal failures. We all dread the messages telling us that trains have been cancelled or delayed, or, worse still, have disappeared altogether because the infrastructure is just not there to support the beautiful new fleet of Azuma trains running up and down the east coast main line. When major disruption occurs, it has a huge impact on long-distance passengers, who are sometimes forced to abandon trips altogether, or to make alternative plans. Most concerning is that, if it happens too often, those travellers make permanent alternative plans. That is not only bad for the economy, but for our environment, too.

While the impact of poor performance costs us a substantial amount each year, it is difficult to get a complete picture of the status of planned enhancements to improve performance on the east coast main line, or anywhere on the UK’s rail network for that matter, because the Department for Transport’s rail network enhancement pipeline, which is supposed to set it out, has not been updated since October 2019. The pipeline that was supposed to relate to Network Rail control period 6—I am getting a bit rail technical here—ends in March 2024, so publishing that now would not serve much of a purpose. The Government’s integrated rail plan is the best indicator we have of infrastructure plans for control period 7, which runs to April 2029.

Speaking now as a Newcastle MP, I was hugely disappointed by the lack of ambition in the integrated rail plan. It concluded that the north-east should no longer be part of the High Speed 2 network or the Northern Powerhouse Rail core network, and declined to commit to finance the north-east’s key ambition of reopening the mothballed Leamside line—a transformational project that would provide a much-needed diversionary route for the east coast main line and connect communities in South Tyneside, Sunderland and Durham to the rail network.

I would like to make hon. Members aware that an all-party parliamentary group for the Leamside line was formed today. That line is hugely important in supporting the resilience and capacity of the east coast main line, as the hon. Member says. It is fundamental to have that resilience, particularly in the north-east of England, where we have too much line that is just one up and one down, so any issue means that we stop all connectivity on the entire line. We need to look at that.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good case on the Leamside line. I congratulate him on the group that has been set up today. He also clearly makes the cross-party case for investment in our rail infrastructure in the north-east and right across the country.

The Government have been clear that they do not intend to revisit the integrated rail plan, so those of us that want to see a step change in ambition need to keep making the case for an alternative approach. We would like to see what has been promised in the integrated rail plan actually delivered.

In the Government’s words, the IRP promises to provide a “significant package of upgrades” to the east coast main line, delivered in tranches to the mid-2030s. One of the most important is the aim to increase the number of trains per hour between Northallerton and Newcastle from six, as currently, to seven or eight. That very welcome project should go some way to improving the long-standing capacity issues between York and Newcastle on the east coast main line, but it is crucial that the package of interventions is funded and delivered as soon as possible—it cannot wait—especially as it would allow us to restore any pan-northern connectivity that may be lost with the expected addition of a third Newcastle to London service in the anticipated timetable changes, which I will come on to later.

We all saw the problems that happened the last time timetable changes were introduced—I think that was last year, although time moves on quickly. There are demographic changes happening, with the economic campus in Darlington, and there are changes at Darlington station, with an impact on to Durham. Both serve my Sedgefield constituents. It is important that we have a rail network in the north-east that can cope with freight and the fantastic Azumas, which are built in my factory at Newton Aycliffe, but also more local transport, which will get us back into a greener public transport situation.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good case and also leads on to some other issues, which I will outline in more detail. He succinctly makes the point that if we can tackle some of the bottlenecks on the line, get the right timetable in place and secure sustainable and resilient infrastructure, we can unlock so much potential in our region. I do not think we can shout that enough in the current climate, because we all need to see more growth in the economy, and we would particularly like to see it in our north-east region.

The hon. Lady is making a compelling case. As she knows, my constituency lies 50 miles off the east coast main line. Many other towns have benefited from services that have been added to the line, such as the Grand Central service to Sunderland and Hartlepool. I have been campaigning for many years to restore the direct service from King’s Cross to Grimsby and Cleethorpes. Such a service is vital, and it is supported by local businesses and the local community, so I hope the campaign the hon. Lady is mounting will support it. I am sure the Minister will convey my thoughts to the Rail Minister, who I have had many meetings with on this issue.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for demonstrating that this issue has cross-party support and that it is not all about the north-east. I cannot help speaking for the north-east because it is where I am from, but there are so many issues up and down the line. If an issue impacts one part of the line, it impacts all of us, so we are much very united in our desire to see a functioning east coast main line from London right up to Inverness.

The issue of station enhancement really highlights the length and breadth of our demands of the Government and our wish to see the integrated rail plan fully delivered. The plan talks about extending the four-track railway to end just north of Northallerton station, rather than just south of it. Station and junction upgrades are also mentioned for Newark, Doncaster, York and Darlington, but we do not have many details and we would like to see more from the Government.

Outside the integrated rail plan, the east coast main line is also getting a roll-out of digital signalling, known as the European train control system. It will go from King’s Cross to the south of Grantham, creating opportunities for greater flexibility in operation and enhancements in capacity. I am looking forward to visiting King’s Cross station with colleagues from the all-party group to see first hand how the system works.

Although I was disappointed with the overall level of ambition in the integrated rail plan, there are clearly important proposals that would benefit the east coast main line, and we all want to see them delivered. What we need to know from the Minister today is when they will happen. The Department for Transport is in the process of reviewing all rail projects, so the Minister will understand that there is considerable concern about the commitments made in the integrated rail plan and about whether any of those related to the east coast main line will end up being cut back or cancelled.

The plan puts a heavy caveat on the realisation of those enhancements, stating that they are all contingent on a successful business case, in line with the DFT’s usual appraisal process. In practice, that means there are no guarantees. We do not want warm words that are not delivered. We also really warn against a piecemeal approach to investment, because it just does not work. As the Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities has argued, we need to see the development of a pipeline of schemes to deliver against the plan, so that we have not just short-term benefits but medium and long-term ones, and we can build confidence in investment for the future. We need timely and firm commitments to fund those schemes, because that is the only way we will see genuine transformational movement forward on our national rail investment plans.

We would be really grateful—we appreciate that the Minister present probably cannot commit to this on the Rail Minister’s behalf, but we would like him to anyway—if the Rail Minister could meet the all-party group to discuss the issue in more detail. We appreciate that there is probably not the time today and that the Minister present may not be apprised of all the details, so we would like to hear from the Rail Minister about coming to meet with us as a group.

The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time. Does she agree that, rather than making purely economic cases, we must have full cognisance of the impact on the communities that are being served? I know that the Green Book is moving in that direction, but I think it needs as much help as it can get. Rather than focusing just on the overall economics for the country, we must be cognisant of the impact on the people receiving the benefit.

Absolutely. The way these things are calculated needs to be looked at as much as the calculations themselves. In the north-east we have long-standing challenges with the way investment decisions are made, and they hold us back from moving forward. We need to see forward thinking on where we put investment, so that it not only meets the demands of today but builds capacity and drives growth in our region for the future. That will then power growth all the way up from the south to the north and onwards to Scotland.

Going back to the bottlenecks on the east coast main line, the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) spoke of the Leamside line, which we would really like to see. We have seen the effective cancellation of the HS2 eastern leg and Northern Powerhouse Rail, as well as the mothballing of the reopening of the Leamside line. That has caused huge concern, and an all-party parliamentary group has rightly been established to create a strong cross-party voice here in Parliament.

The Leamside line is a nationally significant piece of infrastructure that would divert slow-moving freight from the east coast main line and free up much-needed capacity. The Government recognised the importance of the Leamside line in the north-east devolution deal, but we now need Ministers to get behind the campaign. The Labour party has committed to it, and we would really like to see that commitment from the Government.

In Scotland there are significant issues in accommodating levels of service between Edinburgh and Dunbar. Long-distance services pass through far quicker than stopping and freight services, so we need extra capacity on the line to allow faster trains to overtake slower freight and local services. The independent Union connectivity review, chaired by Sir Peter Hendy, was published 18 months ago, around the same time as the integrated rail plan, yet the Government still have not issued a formal response. When is that coming?

The integrated rail plan has a distinct lack of detail when it comes to enhancement south of York, aside from a reference to removing unspecified bottlenecks south of Peterborough. There are numerous issues here. Doncaster station is a major junction on the east coast main line, with a variety of local and long-distance passenger services and considerable volumes of freight passing through. The lay-out of the station hampers the number of crossing movements required. We would like to see commitments on that.

Another unresolved constraint is the Welwyn gap, where the railway reduces from four to two tracks between Digswell and Woolmer Green. This restricts service development and presents a reliability issue. Between Huntingdon and Peterborough, the track reduces from four to three, constraining capacity and impacting on reliability, often delaying already late-running services or services starting from Peterborough heading south.

Newark flat crossing is another long-standing bottleneck, where the east coast main line and the slower Nottingham to Lincoln line cross each other. It is the last remaining flat crossing in the UK. Some may enjoy the history of it, but it does create concerns as something of a relic, and it is entirely unique on our rail network. It is a severe restriction to the operation and planning of the east coast main line and limits the development of services on the Lincoln to Nottingham route. These bottlenecks are not going away any time soon. They will be put under even more pressure when we, hopefully, get the east coast main line timetable changes.

Consultations on a new east coast timetable took place in summer 2021, and it was supposed to be implemented in May 2022. It was designed to optimise the service to take full advantage of Network Rail’s £1.2 billion east coast upgrade and the new Hitachi-built Azuma trains. However, the proposed timetable created quite a lot of concerns, so we are stuck in a situation where we have these trains but are not maximising their capacity.

One challenge is the chronic lack of investment in the line, which means there are some really unwelcome trade-offs. Where some areas would undoubtedly benefit from the new timetable, others would lose out on a good deal of connectivity. There were a lot of concerns about the level of cuts to stopping services in Morpeth and Berwick. I appreciate the intention to pursue the timetable overhaul, but there have been few signs of progress since it was stalled in May 2022, and no revised proposals have been made public.

These are my questions for the Minister. Will the Department commit to delivering the integrated rail plan interventions for the east coast main line in full, and will the Rail Minister attend a meeting to discuss progress on that?

Why has the east coast main line timetable change stalled? What is holding it up? Is it funding issues? Are there currently enough trains to operate a revised timetable? Will the Government ensure that any further timetable changes are accompanied by an infrastructure plan that deals with the trade-offs that will be necessary with any long-term timetable proposals?

The east coast main line’s status as a fast, low-carbon route from London to Edinburgh is hugely important, so will the Minister tell us whether the Government plan to respond to the Union connectivity review and, if so, when?

On digital signalling, it is welcome that investment is going into the southern section of the line, with the business case proven. In-cab digital signalling is clearly the future, and Network Rail tells us that it is more efficient and cheaper than traditional alternatives, so does the Minister agree that any future renewals should not be like-for-like but should instead bring modern, digital signalling to the northern sections of the line?

In January, the strategic outline business case for the Washington metro loop, produced by Transport North East, was submitted to the Department for Transport. The Minister will be aware that that forms part of the wider project for the Leamside line, which we have already mentioned. Work on a more detailed outline business case for the loop has begun, so in line with the north-east devolution agreement’s promise of support will the Department commit to contributing financially to the development of the business case?

I would happily provide a summary of all my comments. I have spoken in quite some detail, and I really look forward to the Minister’s response. I will just say this in summary: we need an ambitious, long-term plan from the Government. It is not enough to make announcements; we need to see how they will be delivered on, we need to know when and we need to have the promise of funding that will see our east coast main line, from London to Inverness, fully functioning and meeting its full potential.

I would like to offer my thanks to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate and for all the efforts and advocacy she has put into pressing the argument for investment in the east coast main line, in her role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the east coast main line. I am thrilled to hear the news from my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) about the creation of his own APPG, which feels like a very positive development as well.

I must, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North noted, extend my apologies on one front. It will not have escaped notice that, as she pointed out, I am not the Rail Minister, but of course, as she will also know, we try to play total football in the Department for Transport—if Neeskens is going in one direction, we want Cruyff to be heading off in the other one, and we try to do the same thing. At this moment, the Rail Minister is about to get on a train—on the east coast main line—to York to conduct an official visit. I hope the hon. Lady will recognise that commitment to the piece of infrastructure that she nobly champions. Nothing would be easier to do in his absence than the classic ministerial two-step of stitching him up by offering a meeting on his behalf. I am not going to do that, but I will say that I have no doubt that he will be scrutinising the proceedings in this Chamber very carefully and that he will want to act on them with his usual energy and dispatch.

Of course, as the hon. Lady mentioned, we have had an opportunity, in this discussion, to consider one of the most important rail arteries in this country. I am delighted to be able to set out the Government’s position and to respond to many of the issues that she touched on, including the integrated rail plan, timetabling and digital signalling.

Let me start by highlighting the east coast enhancements programme, which began in 2014. The Department and Network Rail are now in the very final stages of delivering that package of investment. When it is completed in 2024, it will, as the hon. Lady recognised, have seen £1.2 billion spent on improvements across the route.

That funding has delivered upgrades to track, platforms, signalling and junctions across the east coast main line, as well as essential improvements to the power supply. Specific examples of projects included in this wider programme of work include new platforms at Doncaster and Stevenage stations, improvements to the track layout at King’s Cross and a new rail junction at Werrington, near Peterborough.

The planning and delivery of such a wide-ranging set of upgrades was the result of close collaboration between the Department, Network Rail and the train and freight operating companies. As the hon. Lady appreciates, these are invariably complex matters.

That investment was delivered in conjunction with the £2.7 billion intercity express programme, which saw the roll-out of state-of-the-art Azuma trains across the east coast main line, with the last trains coming on to the route in September 2020. Each train in the new fleet has around 15% greater capacity than previous units and provides a significant change in accessibility, through increased numbers of wheelchair spaces and improved wi-fi and mobile connectivity.

The full benefits for passengers of both these significant pieces of investment will be realised, as the hon. Lady rightly recognises, only through the introduction of a new and recast timetable for the route. This had been scheduled for introduction in 2022 but was deferred to ensure that the views of passengers and local leaders, which were being captured through the public consultation, were fully considered. There is work under way at the moment with train operators to finalise the specification of a revised timetable that much more closely aligns with the views of stakeholders across the line of the route and that ensures that the running of the railway is fairer to the taxpayer. I know that there is every intention to deliver that revised timetable as soon as possible.

The east coast main line is due to be the first major route in the UK to benefit from digital signalling, which is another issue that the hon. Lady rightly mentioned. Approximately two thirds of signalling equipment on the southern section of the line is reaching its life expiry date and needs to be replaced. The east coast digital programme covers the section of the east coast main line running from King’s Cross to just south of Grantham and is the UK’s flagship digital signalling initiative, aiming to deliver a safer, more reliable and more resilient route. To date, the Government have committed more than £1 billion for the programme, which is expected to be delivered by the early 2030s.

To pick up the point the hon. Lady raised about the integrated rail plan, Members present will be aware of ambitious commitments for further east coast main line upgrades that are included in the integrated rail plan, which was published in November 2021. These plans aim to achieve further upgrades and improvements to line speeds, as well as upgrades to the power supply to allow for longer and more frequent trains, and to increase capacity on the route north of York. That would mean that journey times from London to Newcastle would be reduced by over 20 minutes compared to today and that those to York and Darlington would be reduced by around 15 minutes. A 20-minute journey time improvement would also be achieved for passengers travelling between London and Leeds. Passengers will also benefit from an increased number of seats, as well as from improved performance and reliability—unions permitting.

It is envisaged that these improvements will be delivered in three separate tranches of upgrades, starting in the mid-2020s and running up to the late 2030s. The Department has provided Network Rail with early-stage development funding to consider how these plans can be delivered as efficiently as possible in order to deliver maximum value for money to the taxpayer.

I am delighted to be able to confirm that improvements towards the north of the east coast main line are at a more developed stage of maturity and that they can and will act as early examples of the Government’s commitment to delivering on the aspirations of the integrated rail plan to improve the experience of passengers on the route. They include a package of enhancements at Darlington and York stations, as well as infrastructure upgrades at various other locations between Northallerton and Newcastle. Taken together, this programme of activity aims to allow an increased number of long-distance services to operate between York and Newcastle.

I hope that these planned funding commitments will provide reassurance to the hon. Lady and to other Members that the Government are acutely aware of the strategic importance of the east coast main line. The Department looks forward to continuing its engagement with the hon. Lady and the all-party parliamentary group on the east coast main line, and to engaging with the new APPG that has been unveiled for the first time today, as these ambitious plans come to maturity. I very much thank her for securing this debate.

Question put and agreed to.