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Railways: Midland Main Line

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 25 April 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the Midland Mainline will be electrified all the way to Sheffield.

My Lords, the midland main line enhancement programme will extend electrification from Bedford to Kettering and, subject to design, Market Harborough. Further to this, HS2 phase 2B will electrify the line from Clay Cross to Sheffield. The Department for Transport has taken the decision not to extend electrification beyond this, but instead to deliver new bi-mode trains for intercity services. This will mean that passengers benefit from faster journeys, more seats and better-quality trains.

I welcome the Minister to her new post and wish her well. However, the Royal Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the Rail Industry Association point out that hydrogen bi-modal trains, which look to be piloted on this line, cannot exceed 87 miles per hour and cost more over the lifespan than electrification, while the capacity for storage means that they are not suitable for high-speed, long-distance railway trains. Why are those organisations wrong and the department correct?

I thank the noble Lord for his kind words and pay tribute to my predecessor, my noble friend Lady Sugg. People say to me, “She was a very good Minister, you know?”—yes, I know exactly what they mean. Bi-mode trains at the moment run on electricity and diesel, depending on electrification of the track. GWR is already running these trains, and they will be available on LNER on 19 May. The noble Lord talks about hydrogen cell trains, which are a very important development. Abellio, which has the East Midlands franchise, will trial those trains from 2026. With all due respect to current experts, I expect there to be improvements in these trains and we will see how they work when they come into trial in 2026.

My Lords, it is very rare that I am in full agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, but on this issue I am. I welcome the noble Baroness to her post and I think people will say the same about her when she leaves it as we feel about the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, which is that she was a damn good Minister. We have some of the worst rolling stock and the worst service on the most-used line. It is 160 miles from Sheffield to London—I say “Sheffield to London” rather than “London to Sheffield”—with all the major urban areas in between. We need not only immediate action but real reassurance that we will get the kind of service that people deserve.

I agree with much of what the noble Lord said. We recognise that there are challenges across our rail network. That is why we are investing £48 billion over the next five years. This is the biggest modernisation of our rail network in more than a century and represents more than half of our national transport budget. The improvements to the midland main line will benefit from £1.5 billion. There will be faster journeys and more seats, but the important thing to recognise is that there will also be reduced disruption for passengers as the improvements come online.

Will careful consideration be given to heating on the trains to Sheffield, for the sake of passengers who do not wear ties?

Should we not also wish our excellent new Transport Minister well as she prepares to familiarise herself more fully with London’s road network by taking part in the marathon?

I thank my noble friend, although I am not sure of the heating benefits of a tie, having never worn one. Of course, we must look at passengers’ comfort when they travel. Many factors make for a good passenger experience. A recent survey showed that the age and quality of the trains is very important.

I, too, welcome the Minister. I agree that she has a hard act to follow in the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, but I am sure that she will do so with flying colours. This Government have a record second to none when it comes to scrapping or deferring major railway electrification schemes. Indeed, it now appears as though the future of HS2, which the Minister mentioned, may become a political football in the quest for votes in the forthcoming Conservative Party leadership campaign. Two days ago the Environment Secretary, Mr Gove, told the 16 year-old climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg that she had been “heard”. If that statement was not merely a public relations platitude, why do the Government and some of their leading Members abandon or defer, and threaten to abandon or defer, major railway electrification projects in favour of the continuation of less environmentally friendly diesel or part-diesel services?

Electrification is merely a form of propulsion for trains. It is not the be-all and end-all. It comes at a cost, sometimes to local communities. For example, if we use bi-mode trains in diesel mode—I refer to modern diesel engines—there is no need for the intrusive wires and masts that concern local communities. The environmental impact of these trains is less than that of current ones. I believe that any thoughts of HS2’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

Millions of pounds have already been spent on raising the bridges on the 22 miles that will lie in the middle of the two electrified sections of this line. Is it not time to learn lessons from the Great Western electrification, and accept that electrification can now be done for half the cost of that original project and that, as they currently stand, bi-mode trains are heavier and more costly to run and maintain? Does the Minister accept that the whole line should be electrified?

I am afraid to disappoint the noble Baroness but the Minister does not accept that. We looked at the costs and benefits of the full electrification of this line and concluded that, in terms of passenger experience, the same benefits can be achieved by going a different way. She mentioned the money that has been spent on bridges. However, it was not wasted: it has improved the stability of those bridges, many of which were fairly old, and means that the passage of freight is now easier.

My Lords, Transport Ministers stated last year that all diesel propulsion would be removed from the network by 2040 to help with carbon reduction. I welcome the Minister but, according to her figures, all these bi-mode trains will be only 14 years old and will still have a half-life by the point at which the Government are supposed to have cancelled all diesels. What will happen to them?

Ah, but the devil is in the detail. We said that we will end diesel-only trains by 2040, so bi-modes do not count. It is worth pointing out that the bi-modes we expect Abellio to use under the East Midlands franchise are in design and development. There will be many new improvements and we look forward to welcoming these trains.