Skip to main content

Train Services: North of England

Volume 828: debated on Monday 27 February 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take to improve train services in the north of England.

My Lords, Ministers recognise that the current service provision is far below the standard that passengers rightly expect. The Government constantly review operators’ performance, and all options regarding contracts remain on the table to ensure we reach a long-term solution that works for passengers in the north and across the rail network.

Recent Office of Rail and Road data exposes the scale of the misuse of P-coding the last-minute cancellations by TransPennine Express. In the month up to 4 February, TPE cancelled almost a quarter of its services, and Avanti West Coast was not far behind on 17%. These train companies have exploited this loophole to the great inconvenience of passengers and have misled the public. Can the Minister assure us that they will not be rewarded with new contracts?

I am not entirely sure that the picture is quite as the noble Baroness has set out. There is not necessarily a misuse of P-codes; the issue is that there has to be a point in the day beyond which a cancellation counts and has to be published as a same-day cancellation and the period before, when a cancellation can happen for all sorts of different reasons, including engineering works and a reduction in timetables, asked for by the department to ensure reliability. We are working very closely with the ORR on the transparency of the cancellation data that is out there. There will of course be P-code data, but there will be other data around the cancellation of train services. When it comes to performance figures, all of the data is taken into account.

My Lords, I caught the train from Edinburgh Waverley at 9.30 am and got here in plenty of time for Questions because I travelled on the publicly owned LNER. When are the Government going to learn that lesson?

My Lords, I went to Liverpool the Friday before last; I got there on time and I returned on time. There are journeys across the country, and across the north, that work on time and to a great level of passenger experience. However, it is the case that, where services are not working properly, we need to hold the operators to account and make them better.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest as chairman of Transport for the North. There is no doubt that rail passengers in the north have had a torrid time, be it on TPE, Avanti or Northern. What can the Government do to reassure travelling passengers in those areas directly affected that the train companies have now got the right mechanisms in hand to ensure that future services will improve, whether it is industrial relations or other related matters? There is an issue around P-coding, but P-coding does give forward notification and that should be counted in the overall cancellations.

There are many things that the Government are doing, because not all train operating companies in the north are the same; they all have slightly different challenges and some have been able to address those challenges more quickly than others in certain circumstances. The challenges fall into three areas. The first is absence and sickness, which is higher than it really should be, and that needs to be addressed. The second is rest day working and overtime. Noble Lords will all know about the national industrial action that happens periodically, and there is also other industrial action around rest day working and more localised disputes. Those are having very significant impacts on services. The last, in some circumstances, is driver departure, as some drivers are choosing the leave the industry. As my noble friend points out, those are the sorts of things we have to consider. We have got action plans for each of the train operating companies, but each one will have slightly different challenges to address.

My Lords, the Minister has just described a railway that is in a mess. Is the new Great British railways going to sort this out? If the answer is yes, why are we not seeing a Bill to make it happen? Does the Minister know when such a Bill is going to be introduced?

I think I have mentioned at the Dispatch Box many times that the Bill for rail reform will be introduced when parliamentary time allows. It is worth pointing out that an awful lot can be done before legislation is put in place. One key thing that can be carried out is workforce reform. We have to be absolutely realistic about the challenge that our railways face. Without careful and reasonable reform, there will be no long-term future for the railway. I put it to the noble Lord that if he has any influence whatever among the leaders of the trade unions, he asks them to put forward to their membership the packages that the Government have put forward. We need to understand whether or not we are going to be able to reform the workforce; if we are not, the consequences will be quite severe.

My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity to kill stone-dead the reports that are circulating that, despite Avanti West Coast’s appalling performance, the Government are still minded to renew its contract?

I cannot possibly respond to those reports, but all options remain on the table with regard to all the different contracts as they come up for renewal. There are very well set out processes involving independent evaluation of performance, and all those things will be gone through when it comes to considering Avanti West Coast’s contract.

My Lords, I had the pleasure of travelling on the same train as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, this morning—but I obviously was not in the same part of the train as him. I would like to comment on the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. While those of us in the north are irritated by the services provided by some of the providers, we are also waiting with bated breath for a decision by the Government to once and for all sort out the links that are necessary between our northern cities, east to west. When are these going to happen?

That is part of the complex web. The Government want to invest billions of pounds in rail infrastructure for the north. However, if we are unable to operate the services as the train operating companies would like to do, that will become increasingly difficult. It is important that, as we invest billions of pounds across the north, we do so with a constructive and collaborative relationship with the unions and the workforce, to provide the modern seven-day railway that we need.

My Lords, at least the Avanti service this morning from the north-west ran, although it was 20 minutes late in getting to Euston. The noble Baroness was good enough to raise these issues during a meeting with Huw Merriman a few weeks ago. She will recall that one of the issues raised was the point just made by her noble friend about east-west travel. One suggestion was that the Hellifield link should be reopened to create a second line of route across the Pennines. The noble Baroness kindly said that she and the Transport Minister would consider coming to see the situation first hand. She has received requests from the local Member of Parliament for Ribble Valley and the leader of Lancashire County Council, and I wonder when that might be expedited.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for reminding me of that. I will go and give the Rail Minister a bit of a kick and see if we can get him on his way.

My Lords, I think the Minister will agree with me that one of the ways the railways could be improved would be by stopping the strike action and getting things back to normal. On that basis, could she tell me whether, on strike days, the Government still pay subsidies to Avanti trains for providing no service whatever, or whether they withhold the subsidy that it gets on a daily basis for running the railways? I do not expect the number right now, but to within £10 million would be helpful.

I am not sure about the subsidies to which the noble Lord refers. There are complex contractual arrangements around what Avanti is entitled to, and the Government make sure that we abide by those contracts. The key here—I do not think I have emphasised this sufficiently previously—is that we need to ensure that we get the workers back to work and get the workforce reform that we need. I am very concerned that rail workers are being led by their union leaders towards a point where there will be no long-term jobs for them, and no railway system for passengers either. It is not the case that when a railway worker strikes they lose their pay just for that day; we are also weakening the system as a whole for the future.

My Lords, is it not the case, though, that the publicly run rail service is far more effective than the ones run by Avanti and the private sector? What lessons has the Minister learned from the difference in performance figures between those in public and private ownership?

There are all sorts of reasons and criteria as to why one train operating company runs better than another. Often, it can be due to engineering works—if you are upgrading a main line, for example. There are all sorts of different things that can happen. However, the Government do learn lessons from train operators’ performance, comparing one against the other. We take those lessons forward and, particularly for those TOCs in the north, we make sure that those lessons are put in their action plans.