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Railways: Regional Passenger Trains

Volume 764: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will take steps to reduce overcrowding on regional passenger trains by allowing councils to have more control over the allocation of rolling stock.

My Lords, the Government are taking steps to meet rail demand across the country through the rail investment strategy and the franchising programme. The Government also support further devolution of responsibilities for rail services to local authorities. The Government are working in partnership with Rail North Ltd on the next Northern and TransPennine Express franchises, and have agreed a collaborative approach with West Midlands Rail on the development of the next West Midlands franchise.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. I also congratulate the Government on issuing today a passenger rolling stock perspective—which, unfortunately, does not answer the question that I am about to ask. However, given that passenger numbers will double in 15 years; given that there is already severe overcrowding in the regions on trains; given that delay in electrification means cascading the diesels will be a bit delayed; and given the Secretary of State’s commitment to phasing out the much-loved Pacers, what are the Government doing to meet the demand of the regions for these trains? Did the Minister say that he is leaving it to the northern powerhouse—or to a Midlands engine room; and I believe that there will be a Cornwall digital growth area tomorrow—to order them? In either case, who will pay?

My Lords, the Government are taking steps to meet the demand of the franchising programme to which the noble Lord alluded. We have required bidders for the northern franchise, for example, through the invitation to tender, to put in a specific requirement for 120 additional self-powered vehicles for the franchise. That kind of approach will continue. We also support further devolution, and should further services be fully devolved—as has happened, for example, in London and Merseyside—we would expect to reach agreement with the relevant local authorities for appropriate funding settlements in those areas.

Will the noble Lord address himself to a question that I have been asking for more than 10 years? Why are we still dumping raw sewage on to the lines into the West Country? Not only is it unseemly in this day and age; I should think it is awfully bad for the men working on the lines. The last time I asked this question I was told that it was perfectly all right because, after 60 mph, it became just a fine spray.

My noble friend raises an obviously long-standing problem. In terms of meeting that challenge, she is quite right, on a serious note, to raise this issue. In the franchises we specify—indeed, including the South West Trains franchise—it is appropriate to specify a requirement in the invitation to tender to make sure that the issue of waste on tracks is addressed directly. It is important to ensure, particularly for the workers involved, that the issue which my noble friend raised is addressed directly.

The Government have so far not devolved any responsibility for rolling stock to the train operators—even down to the last vehicle, they are allocated over there at Marsham Street. Will the Minister devolve real responsibility, and the resources, to the local authorities so that they can match their services to the demand that is already there?

The Government welcome propositions from local authorities, for example in the south-west, to take greater responsibility for local rail services. However, as I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate, such propositions need to take account of all the financial and other associated risks that go with them.

My Lords, I look forward to reading my noble friend’s answer to my noble friend Lady Wilcox, but I could not quite decipher it on delivery. Does it mean that future tenders must all involve vehicles that do not deposit sewage on the line, or does it mean something else?

My noble friend is correct. Just to be clear, we put that down as a specific requirement on the invitation to tender for South West Trains that I alluded to. That is demonstrably good practice and will continue in the Government’s approach.

My Lords, if the noble Lord and the Government had made any progress at all in devolving power to local authorities with regard to the development of new trains in their areas, they would know of the unpopularity of Pacer trains with everyone in the northern region, in Wales and in the western region. Everyone is fed up with having to put up with crowded Pacer trains that are inadequate to meet present passenger need. Given the fact that his Permanent Secretary has indicated some doubt about whether the resources will be available to get rid of Pacers in the northern region, what progress does the Minister anticipate?

My Lords, has the Minister noted the request of a number of local authorities in the north of England asking for some railway lines—some of which were closed as long ago as the Beeching era—to be reopened, especially those linking parts of Lancashire with Yorkshire? What powers will be given to local authorities to negotiate such decisions?

I will certainly take back the particular lines that the noble Lord mentioned. On authorities that are collaborating, TransNorth, for example, is a great collaboration of local authorities. We hope that such collaborations, by bringing local authorities together, demonstrate what the acute need is for given regions across the country.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that one evening last year I watched on the London evening news the announcement that the “clapped-out trains” from Thameslink were going to be replaced by brand new stock? The next evening, watching the Yorkshire evening news, I learned that the northern electricals, which may or may not be introduced on the TransPennine line, will be supplied by “refurbished Thameslink stock”. Is the northern powerhouse to be built on hand-me-downs from London, or on something rather better than that?

I think the noble Lord is being a bit disingenuous: he was part of the Government when elements of the northern powerhouse were addressed. He knows full well that the northern powerhouse is alive and well. Indeed, apart from the £38 billion the Government will invest in rail, we are getting HS2.

My Lords, could the Minister expand on the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox? The rolling stock for South West Trains does in fact not discharge on the track and never will; it is the Great Western ones that go to Penzance, Swansea and Bristol that still discharge on the track. Can he give the House some answer as to when they will be phased out?

I must admit, I have not seen all the different companies and which trains discharge or do not, but I take the noble Lord’s expertise on rail. We are seeking to ensure that all new rolling stock applies to the new standards. I will write to him specifically on the area that he mentioned.