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Railways: East Coast Main Line

Volume 815: debated on Wednesday 3 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with (1) Network Rail, and (2) Train Operating Companies, about the delay to the proposed East Coast Main Line timetable changes.

My Lords, the east coast main line is a crucial route for passengers and freight and is already playing a critical role in helping passengers return to rail, as well as leading the revenue recovery vital to restoring the financial health of the railway. The department holds weekly discussions with Network Rail and train operators, which are focused on modifying the original proposals in response to stakeholder feedback and mitigating outstanding risks to delivering the timetable reliably.

My Lords, the timetable was withdrawn by Network Rail because it could not be operated reliably on the existing infrastructure and because there was such a hostile public reaction from areas that faced fewer trains, longer journeys and no improvement in connectivity across the north. Now that there has been a welcome rethink, what guidance are Ministers giving in these meetings to the industry? Should the industry plan a simpler timetable, taking account of the limitations of the infrastructure, or should it assume that the limitations on the infrastructure will all be fixed?

My Lords, we are currently in the fairly early stages of the very complex discussions around the consultation. The noble Lord is quite right: when you ask the British public a question and for their feedback, they rightly give it. We have had over 10,000 responses to the consultation. While the feedback was balanced, views were polarised, and I am afraid that it is impossible to keep absolutely everybody happy. The discussions continue—as I said, they are on a weekly basis—and proposals will be coming to Ministers in due course.

There appears to be a conflict here between increasing services from Scotland and the north-east to London and the potentially adverse impact this would have on trans-Pennine services from Newcastle to Manchester and Liverpool due to track capacity constraints in the north-east. Why have the Government failed to address these issues—which do not spring up overnight—over the last 11 years, particularly bearing in mind that they now also impact on Northern Powerhouse Rail, about which the Government to date have said so much and done so little?

The Government have invested £4 billion in the east coast main line and are planning to invest a further £1.2 billion in issues such as capacity at Stevenage, the King’s Cross track remodelling and the Werrington grade separation works. These upgrades will deliver better journey times, reliability and capacity improvements.

My Lords, I declare that I am a regular user of LNER and congratulate it on its reliability and punctuality, apart from during weather difficulties. My noble friend recently reported that some of the additional capacity will go to the south-west of England, yet passengers and LNER have suffered two years of disruption from Network Rail improvements into King’s Cross, with the promise of extra capacity between London and the north of England on the east coast main line route. Will she give her word that this additional capacity will be delivered?

My Lords, throughout these timetable considerations, the Government need to balance the feedback we get from people and organisations with the journeys that passengers actually take; sometimes those two do not have a lot of connection. But my noble friend is quite right to note that the demand on LNER is coming back more strongly than in other cases. Of course we are taking that into account and, if needs be, we will make sure that the capacity improvements on the services she talks about are put in place.

My Lords, it is five times more expensive to go to COP 26 using east coast main line train services than it is to fly. Since train travel is much more environmentally friendly than flying, how can the Government justify the Chancellor’s decision to make domestic air travel even cheaper by cutting APD? Since the Government subsidise the railways with taxpayers’ money, how can they justify giving tax breaks to their competitors, which will inevitably undermine the viability of railway lines such as the east coast main line?

As the noble Baroness knows, the Government were really clear in the transport decarbonisation plan what the long-term future looks like for various modes of transport. We recognise in that plan that the cost of motoring has fallen at the same time, for example, as the cost of fares have gone up by 20% and even more than that for bus and coach journeys. But, of course, gradually and over time we will make trains and buses better value and more competitively priced. This will impact on the modal shift and take people away from flying or using their car and get them on to trains and buses. As she is well aware, there have been a number of competitions recently where people have taken a train and a plane at the same time and arrived at their destination at the same time.

I am sorry; I do not think that the question has been answered. When are the Government going to start making public transport cheaper and, for example, domestic flights more expensive? The Minister cannot just say it is going to happen some time in the future; we have a climate emergency to worry about.

The Government are subsidising train fares by a vast amount at the moment. Obviously we want them to be as low as possible, but the amount of subsidy needs to be fair to the taxpayer. The Government have asked for bus service improvement plans from all local transport authorities in the country, and we will look at their fare proposals and make sure that we can support those who offer the best value for money.

With the problems over the east coast main line timetables, does the Minister believe that the advent of Great British Railways will end the design of timetables that are unworkable, cause chaos and delay, and confuse the consumer? I should declare an interest as the chair of the Built Environment Committee. On Friday, we are publishing a letter proposing a way forward on rail fares, another aspect of the Williams-Shapps plan for rail.

I thank my noble friend for raising this. She is absolutely right: Great British Railways is one of the ways in which we can ease the transition from one timetable to the next, and minimise the risks to delivering the services that passengers want and—as we know from demand figures—need. When Great British Railways is established and we bring together the ownership of the infrastructure, consideration about fares, timetables, and planning of the network under one roof, it will bring much greater benefits for the passenger and much greater accountability.

My Lords, I am a regular passenger on the new Azuma train on the excellent east coast line. When the private franchise is removed from time to time, the Government become the owner of last resort, yet the service appears to remain excellent and actually, I understand, makes a profit. Given that, does the Minister agree that it matters not who owns and controls the service, for it is the skilled, excellent, customer-friendly staff on the trains and in the call centres who make the difference and govern the high quality of the service?

I agree that the staff are absolutely crucial. They provide an outstanding service on LNER, which is why it is doing pretty well at the moment. However, I do not agree that rail services should be nationalised as a whole. The proposals put forward in the Williams-Shapps plan for rail keep the best elements of the private sector, with new contracts for passenger operators and strong incentives to run very high-quality services.

My Lords, Monday’s announcement by Avanti West Coast that direct train services between north Wales and London will not be restored till next spring will cause concern to commuters. At the height of the pandemic, services were slashed to two direct services a day but, as passenger numbers increase and the winter months approach, connection times will become far more onerous for passengers. Avanti needs to restore direct services to north Wales so that passengers get the service they pay for. Will the Government tell it that?

Of course the Government are working very closely with the train operating companies. There is, as the noble Baroness probably knows, the rail revenue recovery group, which is working across Network Rail, the train operating companies and various consultancies to ensure that we are able to maximise revenue in a very depleted revenue environment and provide the services required. Of course we keep services under review, look at passenger demand and make changes accordingly.

There is no polarisation where I live about the suggestion that most of the services from London to Retford and vice versa should be removed. How can businesses such as the internationally renowned artisan food centre on the Welbeck estate survive if no one can get there by train?

The noble Lord has highlighted exactly what has happened. There is no polarisation within any particular place, but the tension between different places and between the north/south and east/west routes is very vivid. However, I take his point that we need to make sure that the right services are in place to support businesses. That is what we are working through at the moment and we will of course consider what he has said.