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Railways: East Coast Main Line

Volume 791: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to deliver on the promise of more frequent direct services between London and Lincoln on the east coast main line following the termination of Virgin Trains East Coast’s contract.

My Lords, in 2014, Virgin Trains East Coast committed to deliver six trains a day between London and Lincoln from May 2019. I am pleased to inform my noble friend that we expect these service improvements to be delivered as planned. The change of operator to London North Eastern Railway announced by the Secretary of State last week is not expected to have any impact on this issue.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for that helpful Answer, which will be received with great relief and delight in Lincoln. I ask her to keep her vigilant eye on developments and invite her and, indeed, all Members of your Lordships’ House, to take advantage of a day in Lincoln to see its glorious cathedral and castle when that becomes possible next year.

My Lords, I certainly reassure my noble friend that we will keep a close eye on developments with LNER. My honourable friend the rail Minister and the Secretary of State will work closely with the operator to ensure that the interests of passengers are protected. I have not been to Lincoln for some time, so look forward to doing so when the train services start.

My Lords, while we all rejoice for the noble Lord and the people of Lincoln, is it not perverse that £7 billion spent to improve services in the south-east has not only resulted in temporary chaos but significantly worsened the timings of trains coming on the east Midlands line from Sheffield through Derby and Leicester, so that they have now lost eight minutes on the journey time to benefit those in the south-east? No wonder people voted for Brexit in the north.

My Lords, the Government are investing significantly in northern transport. With the setting up of Transport for the North, there is now a strong voice to help us allocate funding up there. On the timetable, to which I believe the noble Lord refers, we have seen some big changes in the past week: the biggest change to rail timetables in a generation. That timetable change will deliver improved passenger services across the country—in both the south and the north.

My Lords, the failure of the east coast franchise seems to have surprised no one except a few people in the Department for Transport. Given that 92% of the public were satisfied with the train operating company concerned, it was clearly not a failure to achieve standards set within the franchise. Therefore, we must conclude that the failure lay with the Department for Transport in accepting an unrealistic bid that was just too good to be true. What steps are being taken to train staff within the Department for Transport involved in franchising to design and deal with franchises in a much more realistic, thorough and effective manner?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that we have seen very high levels of passenger satisfaction—92%—under the previous franchise, and we are of course working to continue that. I take her point that the franchising system is not perfect, and we are working to improve it. We are continually refining the franchise model and monitor the performance of all franchises closely. We have evolved and improved bid assessment since 2014 and have a new process to ensure that bids are more financially robust, including a scenario where we look at lower growth than expected.

My Lords, may I suggest to the Minister that she might reconsider the question of HS2? If HS2 is abandoned, as it ought to be if there is any common sense in the world, there would be plenty of money out of those billions and billions of pounds for all the other projects required on the railways.

I am afraid that yet again I will have to disagree with my noble friend on HS2. Our railways are at capacity; we have seen the doubling of passenger numbers since privatisation, and HS2 is much needed to relieve that capacity and provide a better service for people across the country.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the trains which she pleasingly told the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, would be going to Lincoln will have enough seats for everybody in this House, and that they are not just two-car trains? More seriously, can she confirm that there is enough capacity on the branch line, and on the main line provided by Network Rail, so that these trains can be operated without any disadvantage to other services?

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not know the exact size of the trains on the new local railway. On capacity, moving towards the east coast partnership, as we are planning to do in 2020, will enable both Network Rail and the train operator to work closely together to ensure that we have enough capacity on all lines.

My Lords, who will employ the staff under this arrangement, and what assurances have been given to them about their future?

My Lords, that is a key question. As the noble Baroness pointed out, they have delivered an incredibly high passenger service and we should absolutely pay tribute to them for doing so. They have seen a number of changes in the train operating companies over the years. We can reassure staff that changes will not impact on their continued employment; it will be no different from a normal franchise change. Staff will be transferred and their existing terms and conditions of employment will be protected.

Will my noble friend confirm that the new trains planned for the east coast route will come into service next year?

I can confirm to my noble friend those services planned for next year will come in. The good news also is that we fully expect the new intercity express trains to be introduced on the east coast main line from the end of this year, as planned. That will bring an increase in seat capacity and enable reductions in journey times.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will recall responding to questions in February on this issue about expansion of services. Lincoln may well be a splendid place, but can we look further north? The Minister indicated in February that new services would start in May 2019 and go as far as Bradford and Harrogate and, perhaps a little later, Middlesbrough and Huddersfield. Is that still the case? Would she like to reconfirm what she said then?

My Lords, I am happy to reconfirm what I said then. The introduction of LNER will not affect the planned services or delivery. We will continue to see new services in 2019 and 2020.