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Hitachi Rail: Rail Travel Disruption

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 19 May 2021

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the disruption to rail travel from the recent cracks found in trains constructed by Hitachi Rail; and what measures they intend to take to ensure that services can resume without further disruption.

My Lords, I am pleased to say that, following the introduction of comprehensive daily testing regimes, LNER is able to run substantially all of its pre-planned timetable and GWR is operating an amended timetable, prioritising intercity routes to south Wales and the south-west.

As a regular user of LNER, I appreciate that it has had a triple whammy this year, with Covid and the lockdown, the substantial improvements that Network Rail is undertaking at King’s Cross and now the recent disruption in services. Could my noble friend confirm that substantial repairs are expected to be needed, in the medium and long term, to the class 800 carriages? It is a matter of note that LNER operates only Azuma trains in this class. It could take until the end of 2022 to complete the repairs. Could my noble friend confirm whether Hitachi has the experience and capacity to undertake these repairs, in this country?

I reassure my noble friend that of course Hitachi has the experience to undertake these repairs. It comes with a good track record of safety and a high-quality engineering pedigree. I reassure my noble friend that LNER will do whatever it can to keep the timetable going, potentially by using slightly shorter trains to ensure that services continue, as much as they can.

My Lords, two weeks ago, all the trains were stopped for safety reasons, with serious reports of long cracks in aluminium. Now most have started again; presumably they are safe. Will the Minister commit to producing an urgent report on the cause of this, what has been done to put it right and how the longer-term safety of these trains will be assured?

I commit to the noble Lord that the ORR will produce a report on the safety lessons from this incident and on how passengers have been impacted.

My Lords, is it not a fact that 95% of GWR trains ran on Monday? In fact, the company expects to run an extremely high proportion of services. Would the Minister do something to stop all these prophets of doom, who seem to make public transport a kicking boy and put people off resuming their journeys?

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord. GWR is operating an amended timetable, and passengers need certainty nowadays, so that they can plan when to travel. GWR has every confidence that its amended timetable will run. Of its 93 class 800 trains, only 21 remain out of service. I therefore encourage passengers to travel and travel safety.

My Lords, I entirely endorse what my noble friend just said about certainty. I am delighted to report that I had a good and punctual journey from Newark on Monday this week, but it is important to reinstate the service from Lincoln as comprehensively as possible. Most important is that, having got a timetable, we stick to it. Could my noble friend use her best endeavours in that regard?

I am greatly relieved that my noble friend had a reasonable journey to London this week; I do not think I could have coped with another bad journey. I reassure him that LNER’s timetable will be in place until 7 June. As I am sure the noble Lord knows, this is to take into account the east coast upgrade works at King’s Cross.

My Lords, it is good to hear that things are getting back to normal. Has it taught us anything about how we ought to prepare for delays in the future? After all, these lines are incredibly important to business, as well as to ordinary people going about their daily lives. Secondly, have the Government made any assessment of the degree to which journey times are currently being affected?

I am not aware that we have made an assessment of journey times but, given that the timetables are pretty much back to normal, albeit with fewer services, I expect that the journey times are probably about the same. With regard to the lessons that we have learned, I refer the noble Lord to my previous answer about the report that the ORR is preparing on this. I am sure that all noble Lords will look at that with interest.

My Lords, as part of the reintroduction of Hitachi 800 trains, it has been reported that the recovery plan developed with the Office of Rail and Road includes a forward repair plan to ensure their long-term safety. Can the Minister confirm how long this plan will take?

Unfortunately, I cannot confirm that at the moment, because the forward repair plan is still in development. It may help noble Lords to understand that the fix is straightforward; the problem is that it uses very high temperature welding, which means that there is a lot of disconnection and reconnection to be done. So the process is quite complex, but the fix is fairly straightforward. There may be ongoing limited disruption to passengers, but there will be certainty as to the amended services offered. We do not expect many short-notice cancellations.

My Lords, there are at least seven passenger train operating companies providing services on the east coast main line, and there is freight, which means that, on an intensively used line, any disruption or speed restriction, for example, has many knock-on effects. Does that not strengthen the case to increase the capacity of the east coast main line by way of improvements, both north and south of Newcastle?

There may be a case for improving capacity and for looking at the way that trains are operated in this country. It will not be many more sleeps before the rail review is published.

My Lords, can the Minister comment on whether the Government are willing to provide financial support to the affected train operators, which have already been badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic and may be struggling financially to provide alternative transport for passengers, while this disruption continues?

As my noble friend may be aware, the Government are essentially taking on all the revenues and costs for the train network as a whole, currently. Under the ERMA arrangements that we have with the train operating companies, the Government pay them a management fee for operating the services. However, compensation and how it works through the system is extremely important. There are two things to consider. The Government procured the trains for the intercity express programme with Hitachi, and the operating companies pay for them only if they are available to be out on the tracks that day. If any rectification is required due to an issue such as these cracks, Hitachi would have to pay to fix it.

Sitting suspended.