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Railways: East Coast Main Line

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 15 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with London North Eastern Railway about proposals to change the frequency of services north of Newcastle on the East Coast Main Line.

My Lords, my department has had regular discussions with London North Eastern Railway about the May 2022 timetable proposals for the east coast main line. LNER and the department are committed to improving services for passengers served by this important route, and I encourage all noble Lords with an interest to engage with LNER’s public consultation to ensure that their views are considered.

My Lords, the consultation document to which the Minister has referred says that the structure of the timetable for May 2022 is fixed, which leaves little opportunity for change to be made. Given that it involves halving Berwick-upon-Tweed’s hourly service to London to a train every two hours, with longer journey times, can she assure me that she will personally take steps to secure a proper review of these plans, which cannot be squared with the Government’s levelling-up agenda?

My Lords, the Rail Minister has challenged the department to investigate all options for increasing regional connectivity. It is the case that Berwick-upon-Tweed will retain its current level of service, but there will be a change to the balance of the services. Yes, there will be fewer fast trains to London, but there will be more services to the Midlands and the south-west on CrossCountry.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a regular LNER user. I have a lot of sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Beith. I recognise that connections from Darlington, Durham and Newcastle are northwards as well as southwards. Will the Minister comment on how local services such as those from Bishop Auckland to Middlesbrough and the possible reopening of Durham to Sunderland need to be invested in for the economic growth of the north-east as a whole?

My Lords, this Government are investing billions of pounds in the railways, particularly in the north, through the Restoring Your Railway Fund and the other schemes that we are bringing through the rail network enhancements pipeline. Of course we are looking at regional connectivity of the type that the right reverend Prelate mentioned, and I will take his comments back to the department.

My Lords, as a resident of Inverness, I have a great interest in being sure that there will be one train each way from Inverness to King’s Cross in future.

My Lords, my noble and learned friend knows that there are daily services at the moment between Inverness and King’s Cross, and I reassure him that they will and are proposed to remain in operation under the May 2022 proposals.

My Lords, I declare an interest, in that I live a mile and a half from Berwick station. Most of us find these cuts to be stringent in terms of the daytime service, going from a train every hour to a slower train every two hours. Locals are shocked, as are businesses, tourism and residents—and I am one of them. Knowing that it is good to use the train instead of our cars because of the environment, how can we have confidence that these services, which are being so slashed, will be there for us to use them? Will the Government really look carefully at what is proposed and, since this is a public utility, will they as guardians protect it? I just hope that this is not the beginning of the resurrection of the spirit of Richard Beeching.

I welcome the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, back to your Lordships’ House. In doing so, I recognise the concerns that he has raised about Berwick-upon-Tweed. I am sure that he will join many other people in responding to the consultation. It is true that we have had to make difficult trade-offs within the timetabling options, given the capacity available, but we are trying to maximise the benefit of the £4 billion that we have invested in infrastructure and rolling stock. The proposals on the table now actually increase revenues by £60 million a year, so we feel that we are getting good return on taxpayers’ funding.

My Lords, although the LNER proposals help my local station, Alnmouth, which I am pleased about, none the less I support the comments by my fellow Northumbrians, the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu. Surely, if levelling up means anything other than warm words, we need far quicker action on rail and road network investment north of Newcastle.

The noble Baroness is quite right, in that we have an ambitious programme in the rail sector but also in roads. She will know that we have a programme of work on the A1 and on several projects around the north-east. She makes a very important point. The Government are well aware of the opportunities to invest in the north-east.

My Lords, it is estimated that Berwick could see a cut of 72 trains a week. Does the Minister agree that this is totally contrary to the principles behind the Government’s transport decarbonisation plan and the principles behind levelling up? The root cause of the problems is inadequate infrastructure capacity, long past its date for upgrading. What are the Government going to do about that?

The Government have already invested, and are investing, billions of pounds in the railway system, including in the north-east. The noble Baroness mentioned once again the changes to the services in Berwick, and I will not dwell on that because I believe I have covered it, but I will say that there always difficult decisions to make. For example, Edinburgh gets more services out of this, which improves union connectivity. Edinburgh will have additional, faster trains to London. There will be a four-hour journey time. That will be highly competitive versus taking an aircraft.

As part of these proposed timetable changes, which LNER says

“involve a series of trade-offs,”

services on the TransPennine Express between Newcastle and Manchester will be reduced from twice an hour to once an hour, and an increase in the frequency of services between Teesside, Sunderland and Newcastle will be postponed. Given that Northern Powerhouse Rail has still not been confirmed, is this not further evidence that the Government are backing off from increasing direct interconnectivity of northern cities? Is it not unfortunate that, in the trade-offs, local and regional services would lose out to increase services to London and the south-east?

I am not entirely sure that the evidence supports the noble Lord’s last comment, but I accept that there are difficult trade-offs. Railway capacity is not expandable immediately, so one always has to work with the capacity available. We have spent £4 billion on upgrading the infrastructure and the rolling stock. We must make sure that we use that capacity to best effect. As I have already said, there would be a significant increase in revenues from these proposals.

The LNER services southwards from Northallerton, my local station, and Darlington are being severely cut in the 2022 timetable. Darlington to Stockton was the first railway line in the country and very much serves the levelling-up programme. Effectively the Government own LNER, so please could they help to make sure that the effective service we currently have carries over to 2022?

As my noble friend will know, there will be some service changes. She has outlined what they are, as have many other noble Lords. Other areas will see an increase in services. I reiterate that there is an opportunity to respond to the consultation. I know that my colleague in the department is pressing Network Rail, the train operating companies and our officials very hard to make sure we can retain as much regional connectivity as possible.

My Lords, following the remarks of my noble friend Lord Rosser, is the Minister aware of the comment from Transport for the North in Rail magazine, which states that the east coast mainline revisions mean that the north-east is losing trains to Leeds, Manchester and Edinburgh in favour of trains to London, and that this does not reflect the levelling-up agenda? Does she agree it is important to focus on the local and regional services, where the demand is greatest?

Unfortunately, I did not see that comment, as I do not read Rail magazine; potentially, I should. We have to reach a balance here. We cannot focus on only one type of travel. What we and LNER have tried to do is get the right balance to ensure we are meeting customer demand and providing value for money for the taxpayer.

My Lords, the 9.30 am from Edinburgh to King’s Cross yesterday, on which I was due to travel, was cancelled. The stories going around were that this was because there are continuing problems with cracks in Azuma trains, which would be extremely worrying. Can the Minister confirm whether this is the case?

I can confirm that safety is paramount on our railways. At the moment, there is just one LNER set out of service. Repairs are obviously ongoing and will probably be finished by the end of the summer. I reassure noble Lords that this is being done in a fashion that is safe and that minimises disruption for passengers.