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Railways: Delays

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What are the principal avoidable causes of delay to the commuter rail system during the autumn.

My Lords, action to minimise train delays is an operational matter for Network Rail. Network Rail and train operators have measures in place to address the operational problems presented by autumn conditions and, overall, the rail industry has markedly reduced the number of delays suffered in recent years.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, although I am a little surprised that he did not mention the words “wet leaves”. Why does he not give Network Rail the necessary powers and directions to remove all the deciduous trees that are likely to interfere with the rail system, perhaps replacing them with conifers where necessary?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his question, one that we have often discussed in recent times in your Lordships’ House. Network Rail feels that it has more than adequate powers to conduct rigorous pruning where necessary. I am sure the noble Earl will appreciate that Network Rail needs to balance environmental concerns with operational issues, but of course it is right that it ensures that we have clear passages so that trains can travel through unaffected by deciduous or other leaves falling on to the track and causing problems.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Network Rail is causing quite enough destruction on the railway, which most of us can see when we travel on trains? Will he turn his attention to the fact that last year the Southern railway company undertook a driver training programme and modified the sanding devices on its trains? These actions substantially reduced delays for passengers and considerably improved the efficiency of its service. While I do not suggest that this is a ministerial matter, will the noble Lord ensure that other train companies know of this good practice and put it into action?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to express concern about excessive pruning. From my own experience, there is a dispute in Hove where a lot of trees have been axed, as it were, by the railway company. This has caused concern among local residents. The Sandite and high pressure water jet equipment that is fitted to some Network Rail vehicles is now used extensively across the network and is accepted as good practice. This development is widely acknowledged as something that is dealing effectively with a problem which perhaps is not as great as it once was.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one thing which would improve reliability on the railway all the year round and not just in the autumn is the restoration of lengths of double track which was taken out in the 1970s and 1980s on routes such as Salisbury to Exeter and Oxford to Worcester? Bearing in mind that both of those routes are now being examined by Network Rail for redoubling, can my noble friend give it every possible encouragement because delays on single lines are appalling?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to point out that single tracks can lead to blockages and delays. Our proud record as a Government has been to increase investment considerably in renewing, repairing and replacing track and dualling where it is right and appropriate to do so. My noble friend has drawn attention to two areas where the considerable investment being made will ensure that some of those blockages no longer occur.

My Lords, earlier this winter we had some very strong winds which effectively stopped train services across much of the country for one complete day. Network Rail was highly criticised for that. However, is my noble friend aware that train services also stopped across much of France, the Benelux countries and Germany? Does he have evidence that our system is any worse for delays such as that than those operating on the Continent?

My Lords, in many northern European countries and in the United States there certainly are delays in the autumn because that is when the weather is most likely to create problems. However, year-on-year our performance during the autumn has improved. Delays are becoming fewer each year and we want to see continued improvements. We now have a rail service that is more reliable than ever and Network Rail is making strenuous efforts to achieve further year-on-year improvements.

My Lords, I hope the next answer will not be quite so brief. Is it the Government’s policy to encourage Network Rail to separate goods traffic from passenger traffic? Quite often, the latter is delayed behind broken-down goods trains. In parts of the Continent there has been a separation of goods and passengers to speed up passenger trains and ensure that they run on time.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to draw attention to that issue. It causes difficulties and problems on some occasions. It would be fair to say that it is not a major cause of lateness and delays. We have to accept that our rail network is becoming increasingly busy because there is increased passenger demand. Over the past 10 years we have had a 40 per cent increase in passenger numbers. That is why we need to carry on with this persistent campaign to drive down delays and achieve punctuality. The rail industry has responded very well over recent years. We need to build on that improvement.

My Lords, they never learn, do they? Okay, I confess, I am beaten by that one; I put my hands up. I undertake to write to the noble Lord and see what information we can find that is specific to that part of the network, which, I ought to say, is improving.

My Lords, there is just time for this question. Does the Minister think there will be any benefit, and, if so, what does he think it will be, in the Mayor of London having greater responsibility for computer—I am sorry—commuter services into London?

My Lords, I am not quite sure what the mayor would do with “computer” services. We have to look at the issue of commuter rail services in the round, and clearly there are benefits in improved integration between the different networks. That is an issue we should all be concerned about, and no doubt the mayor is too.