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Railways: CrossCountry

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the Cross Country rail franchise, when re-let, continues to provide regular services to stations north of Newcastle.

My Lords, the Department for Transport launched a public consultation on 7 June to seek views on the CrossCountry rail franchise and to identify options for improvement. We will consider the responses fully before making any decisions on that route but, as stated in the consultation, there will be at least one CrossCountry train per hour north of Newcastle, to Edinburgh or beyond. The options for intermediate stops to stations north of Newcastle form part of the consultation.

Does the noble Baroness realise that CrossCountry is a key provider of train services from Berwick, Alnmouth and Morpeth, leading to 475,000 passenger journeys a year? Does she recognise that there are worrying suggestions in the consultation document to which she referred of,

“fewer calls at some stations”,

and fewer trains between York and Edinburgh? In his foreword, the Secretary of State states that his priority is to reduce crowding. Will he do that with longer trains, or by telling people in Northumberland to get into their cars while the trains whizz through the stations without stopping?

My Lords, the consultation does indeed ask for passenger views around the stops that the noble Lord mentioned, as for other intermediate stops across the country. We want to address overcrowding, which will be done through additional rolling stock but there are other ways to look at that too. Of course passengers have conflicting demands: some will want quick express services and others will want a stopping service to get around locally. The point of the consultation is for passengers to tell us what they want from that service. I certainly do not want to alarm the noble Lord or the people of the north-east. I know how much the services are valued, and of course passenger views will be properly reflected before setting the minimum requirements for the new operator.

My Lords, the railway in the London area is very congested, in terms both of routes and of the trains themselves, as we all experience on a daily basis. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that CrossCountry routes that bypass London should be not just maintained but strengthened? The idea of reducing CrossCountry services is totally counterproductive. I am sure that she agrees that the Government do not wish to be known as Beeching mark II.

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness on that. Part of the problem is the increasing demand from passengers travelling into London on our railways. We want to ensure that the CrossCountry service continues to provide other options for passengers so that they do not have to travel into central London.

When the CrossCountry franchise is considered, will the Government ensure that the company winning the bid has sufficient trains and, more importantly, sufficient drivers and guards to run those trains, unlike Northern in Cumbria?

My Lords, as I said before, one of the things we will be expecting the new franchise operator to deliver is more rolling stock, to deal with overcrowding. I say from recent experience that we will be looking closely at the train drivers that it has available.

Will my noble friend do her best to ensure that rail services to Lincoln remain as good as possible, so that we can all take up the invitation given to us recently to visit my noble friend Lord Cormack and take up the lavish hospitality I know he wants to give us?

My Lords, it is unexpected to get a question about Lincoln from other noble Lords. I reiterate that the Government are looking forward to the new service to Lincoln and I welcome my noble friend to join my other noble friend on its maiden voyage.

If I can take the noble Baroness back to the north-east, is she aware that the sorts of problems raised by my noble friend are endemic in public transport throughout the north-east? It has the highest level of unemployment and having a good public transport system to enable people to travel round the whole region is essential to get those figures down. What are the Government planning to do to improve public transport throughout the whole region?

My Lords, I agree that we need to invest in our public transport to enable people to get to work on time. Between 2015 and 2020 we are investing more than £13 billion to improve connections across the north to get people to work and to visit family and friends. We have also seen recent announcements for the Tyne and Wear Metro in the previous Budget and investments in roads to deliver that commitment.

My Lords, the Question was almost certainly provoked by the CrossCountry public consultation, to which the Minister alluded. The Question has also provoked me into reading it. Excellent document as it is, I am sure she will agree that it will create many more demands than there will be resources to meet them. It will also create an enormous number of trade-offs. Have the Government developed the appropriate algorithms and criteria to resolve these trade-offs and, if those trade-offs are seen to be not the revenue-maximising solution, will the department accept some revenue sacrifice in the interest of passengers?

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord and other noble Lords agree that, when setting these requirements, it is of course important that we speak to passengers to understand what they want from the service. The decisions on services will be informed by the consultation responses. We will assess the ideas against the department’s objectives for the franchise, and will undertake financial and economic assessments to make sure that we deliver the best possible service for passengers and value for money for both passengers and taxpayers. On sacrificing revenue, we do not make the decision solely on the basis of returns. We will always put passengers first but we need to be mindful of value for money for the taxpayer.

My Lords, I thank my noble friends Lady Sugg and Lord Lexden for what they said and reiterate the invitation. I also ask that the first three trains are called “St Hugh of Lincoln”, “Lexden” and “Sugg”.

I thank my noble friend for his repetition of the invitation. Happily, it is not in my remit to name new trains.