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Railways: East Coast Main Line

Volume 777: debated on Thursday 8 December 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their plans for investment in the East Coast Main Line.

My Lords, the Government are investing in the east coast main line. The east coast connectivity fund, totalling £247 million over control periods 5 and 6, is delivering projects that specifically increase capacity and reduce journey times through better segregation of freight and passenger services.

My Lords, despite that level of investment, in the ORR’s league table Virgin Trains East Coast lies at 19th out of 20 among the train operating companies. Problems are undoubtedly exacerbated by the fragile state of the overhead lines, but the Government have delayed and reduced the amount of money to be invested in improving the situation on the line. Can the Minister assure us that, following this week’s announcement by the Secretary of State, there might be some improvement and more realistic funding for the line?

As I have already outlined, there is funding, and ensuring the prioritisation of the funding was part of the Hendy review. As I am sure the noble Baroness is also aware, customer experience—she has rightly alluded to the importance of what customers feel about the line—will be enhanced through the introduction of new rolling stock across the routes. There is a big investment in IEPs, as I am sure she is aware, while the east coast route study, which will detail the longer-term investment options from 2019, is currently in development by Network Rail.

My Lords, I ask for an assurance from the Minister that, in the light of what the Secretary of State had to say yesterday, investment will still take place on the east coast main line, even if there are some Labour mayors on the line of route. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the necessary industry capability is there to deliver investment in the east coast main line, given the dismal performance on the Great Western electrification?

As the noble Lord knows, this is a line that runs from London, through Leeds and York, all the way to Edinburgh. It is important that, irrespective of what political affiliation may be held by people along the line, we work in a collaborative way to ensure improved services. I can reassure him about the continued investment in this line. I shall run through some of the programmes: the Northallerton to Newcastle loops in 2019; the York north throat in 2020; and the Peterborough to Fletton Junction down slow extension in 2019. I also believe a new station is opening, or at least a new station platform, which will allow fast-running trains to run through more quickly on what is a heavily used line with many shared services.

My Lords, my noble friend’s recital of what is due is comforting to a degree, but can he assure me that there will be no back-tracking on the Lincoln improvements? We have only one direct train a day to London and only one back, so it is impossible for people in London to have a day in Lincoln, whereas in almost every one of the other great cities within reach of the capital they can do precisely that.

My noble friend is always a strong advocate for Lincoln, and I assure him that we will excuse him the unintended pun of “back-tracking”. Let me also assure him that services will continue to expand. Indeed, as he may be aware, VTEC—Virgin Trains—will also be running additional services from 2019 on the link to Lincoln.

Will the Minister confirm that the eastern arm of HS2 phase 2, when it is complete, is designed to take most of the capacity from the east coast main line? Can he tell us whether the rest of the line will be downgraded to a kind of regional line, maybe with lots more freight on it?

We have a range of specialist interests and, somewhat expectedly, the noble Lord rightly raises the important issue of freight. The strategic freight network has spent about £4 million particularly on the southern section of the east coast main line, but he is quite right that the HS2 line, once it is up and running, will free up extra capacity for both passenger services and, importantly, for freight services as well.

My Lords, the east coast main line has fewer diversionary routes than other main lines, and is mostly worked by electric trains, which cannot be diverted. Failure of the overhead line equipment is a regular cause of delays, so will the Minister tell the House what plans there are to modernise this?

The noble Lord raises the important issue of electrification, but the new rolling stock will have the adaptability to ensure that challenges are met in that respect and can be headed off in the right way.

My Lords, the pleasure that your Lordships may derive from my occasional contributions to debate in this House is about to become more costly, because Virgin Trains is increasing prices, particularly on the north of the east coast main line, by as much as 7.3%. Do the Government have a view on the charges that this company is making, as opposed to the rest of the rail system? Will the noble Lord kindly clarify when we can expect to see the most important improvement on the rail network—on the cross-Pennine route from Newcastle to the north-west?

That is part of the ongoing discussions, and the noble Lord will be aware of Transport for the North and its plans. It is right that as those plans take shape we are in discussions to ensure that the very routes that the noble Lord is talking about are prioritised in the right way. Regarding the charges made for the various services on the rail network, like everyone in your Lordships’ House, we always look to the companies running them to ensure that they reflect the level and quality of service we want. As a regular user of train services, that point should be made to the operator of that particular line.

Will my noble friend the Minister encourage my noble friend Lord Cormack to arrange an awayday visit for us all to historic Lincoln?

I am sure my noble friend has heard that loud and clear, and perhaps the ability to move your Lordships’ Chamber for a day away is a challenge that my noble friend might well take up.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, when I first came to this House 17 years ago, the franchise was held by GNER? I remember regularly dining for breakfast on Craster kippers from Northumbria. Could the Minister use his undoubted influence to bring that menu back?

I forever regard contributions from your Lordships’ House as an education in history and in rail history in particular. I shall certainly take that back and suggest to my honourable friend the Rail Minister that he puts that on his to-do list.