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Railways: Rolling Stock

Volume 750: debated on Wednesday 4 December 2013


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what opportunities exist for increasing the quantity and improving the quality of railway rolling stock in the north of England.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Greaves, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Government’s investment in railway electrification in the north gives the opportunity to improve rolling stock. First TransPennine Express’s 10 new electric trains for the Manchester-Scotland route will come into service from this month. The department asked Northern Rail to develop proposals to introduce electric trains in the north-west from December 2014. Current investment in rolling stock will increase the number of vehicles available to the new north of England franchises due to start in 2016.

My noble friend may have seen the letter written at the end of November by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State, which refers to Rail North—that includes the Northern Rail and First TransPennine Express TOCs—having devolved responsibility for the procurement of rolling stock. This has been announced with great guns in the north, where it is desperately needed. However, the letter also refers to the DfT,

“taking a significant role within an initial partnership structure”.

That statement is further qualified towards the end of the letter with the words:

“DfT will run those franchise competitions to a common timetable, working closely with Rail North”.

Are we to understand that this is devolving responsibility to the regions, or is it yet another way in which the department is actually accreting more responsibility to itself?

The noble Lord asks an important and interesting question. The Government remain supportive of the principle of devolution in the north of England. We have agreed with Rail North leaders an initial partnership structure to take forward devolved decision-making across the north of England to help manage the risk associated with a project of this scale. Rail North and the department’s officials are developing further details of the partnership for presentation to the Secretary of State and the Rail North local authorities early in the new year. Proposals to decentralise transport powers will assist in building a rebalanced economy away from reliance on the City of London.

My Lords, my noble friend is probably aware that I travel from Swindon every day, which for many centuries was one of the homes of train manufacturing, although, sadly, that is no longer the case. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to help train manufacturing?

My Lords, this country has a long and proud tradition of building the best trains in the world. We would, of course, like to buy trains built in Britain wherever possible, and along with the Bombardier factory in Derby, the recent announcement that Hitachi is building a new factory in Darlington is welcome news. As part of our industrial growth strategy, the Government have taken a series of steps to support manufacture in this country. We can, and do, produce high-quality goods that are desired around the world. These railways can be very useful for us to sell abroad, especially to Africa and other countries.

My Lords, can we get to the nitty-gritty here? The Minister is surely aware that the average age of the northern franchise rolling stock is 24 years, and that of the Merseyside rolling stock is 34 years. The northern franchise uses the Pacer extensively. The Pacer is a bus body put on a freight chassis. It is exceedingly uncomfortable, unsafe and by 2019, which is the terminal date, it should meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act, but it will not do so. Are not the Government responsible for this appalling state of affairs on northern railways?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that most of our rolling stock is very old. That is why we have embarked on £38 billion worth of investment in our railways to include new rolling stock. The Pacer does not currently meet the necessary standards that all trains must meet by 2020. It will be for the owners to decide whether to scrap them or to invest in extending their operating lives. With electrification, many more new trains will replace these old trains.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that last Saturday a significant rugby league match took place in Manchester, and that many people from the eastern side of the Pennines—the Yorkshire side—were anxious to attend it? Northern Rail ran two-coach trains across the Pennines. People were either packed into those trains like sardines or they did not get on them. Does the noble Lord believe that this shows the problem that we have with rolling stock? When significant events take place, if train operating companies cannot increase the number of carriages on trains using their own stock, should they not hire rolling stock from other train operating companies so that people can travel to these events in comfort?

My Lords, there has been underinvestment in our railways for the past five decades. This Government have embarked on an unprecedented rail modernisation programme. Between 2014 and 2019, the infrastructure operator Network Rail will spend more than £38 billion on running and expanding our railways. With regard to Manchester, new electric trains are being delivered for the First TransPennine Express service from Manchester to Glasgow and Edinburgh. The choice of trains on other routes will be a matter for the local train operators.

My Lords, the Minister was asked why the train operators cannot put on extra carriages. Can he explain how his answer addressed that question?

I thought that I did address it: we have a shortage of carriages. The only way to address that is by buying new ones and many are on order. However, electrification will obviously help the capacity issue.