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Railways: Trans-Pennine Express

Volume 830: debated on Tuesday 23 May 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the rate of cancellations of Trans-Pennine Express trains, and what criteria they are using to consider the renewal of the contract for Trans-Pennine Express.

My Lords, for many months we have made it clear to TPE’s management that its services have been unacceptable. Passengers have faced significant disruption and the northern economy has not had the reliable railway it needs. To allow for the reset that passengers need and expect, the Secretary of State has confirmed that TPE will be brought under the DfT’s operator of last resort when the current contract expires on 28 May.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer, which was so prompt that it was given on 17 May, before I had a chance to ask the Question. The appalling service that customers received from TPE highlights again the lack of co-ordination across the privatised rail service—problems that were supposed to be resolved through the implementation of Great British Railways. Now that the Prime Minister has announced that Great British Railways has been scrapped, can the Minister tell us whether industry reports that £52 million has already been spent on it are correct? Is that money now wasted if GBR has been scrapped?

I must have missed the Prime Minister scrapping GBR, because the Secretary of State has set out his ambition for a customer-focused, commercially led industry. The creation of GBR is, of course, the guiding mind for the sector, but it is true that we can get many of the benefits now. The programme is simplifying and rolling out single-leg pricing across the LNER network, and trialling demand-based pricing to ensure that passenger demand is more evenly spread between services. Of course, the GBR transition team is working on the long-term strategy for rail, which will simplify industry practices and explore new opportunities for the private sector.

My Lords, TransPennine Express is the fourth train operator to be taken over by the Government in the face of prolonged failure. Although the Minister has outlined some work that can be done in the face of the current situation, Great British Railways in all its aspects cannot be created without full legislation. I understand that the Bill to create GBR is largely drafted, and is short and straight- forward. Why do the Government not just get on with it? If they do not, what do they plan to do instead to deal with the current decline of our railways?

I have already outlined to the noble Baroness some of the things that can be achieved now. The creation of Great British Railways in full does require legislation, which we will progress when parliamentary time allows.

My Lords, why do the Government not face up to the reality that TransPennine Express is a small player compared with the problem of cancellations on the west coast main line, especially by Avanti? I understand that there were three yesterday morning alone. When can we have a proper mainline service on the west coast?

I am not aware of the reasons for those cancellations, but I remind all noble Lords that sometimes cancellations have to happen that are not the fault of the train operating companies. We have worked very closely with Avanti, and we know that the proportion of Avanti-caused cancellations fell from an average of 13.2% in early January to just 1.4% at the end of March. Occasionally, it is not Avanti’s fault, and it is right that it does not take the blame in those circumstances.

My Lords, disruption on our national rail system is now commonplace. Only yesterday, I took a train to reach Parliament that was exactly 60 minutes late. Recently, my wife and I spent a delightful three weeks holidaying in Japan. We criss-crossed every part of Japan on the Shinkansen, the regional network and the local network, and on every single occasion bar none the train arrived precisely, to the minute, as advertised, and deposited us at our destination exactly to the minute. When will we be able to achieve Japanese levels of reliability on our national rail network?

My Lords, I hope to take a trip to Japan soon to go and see those fantastic railways. Of course, they are incredible, but they were not built quite at the time that our railways were built. The Government are very focused: reliability is the Secretary of State’s number one priority, aside from safety. That is why we are investing £44.1 billion in our railways in the next control period. Network Rail published its strategic business plans a few days ago, and they are now with the independent regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, for further scrutiny.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest in the register as chairman of Transport for the North. While I welcome what the Secretary of State has brought forward, which takes effect next Monday—the operator of TPE being the operator of last resort from next week—does my noble friend agree that it will not necessarily be a silver bullet? Until industrial relations are brought back to reality and a good working relationship with train drivers is accepted, we will still have disrupted services—and the huge amount of money that is presently being spent on the trans-Pennine upgrade.

I absolutely agree with my noble friend. The railways are in a very poor financial place at the moment, with revenues between £50 million and £130 million less than they were before. That is why we must see reform of the railways if they are to have a viable future. That reform can happen only if we get the co-operation of the unions, which I am sure want to ensure a long-term future for their workers. I am grateful for all the work that my noble friend does in the north. The Secretary of State has asked officials to review services across the north to look for performance improvements and delivery certainty, and is looking to work with northern mayors and other stakeholders to make those improvements.

My Lords, before the strikes took place, the railway was still a shambles. Can the Minister tell us why every European nation seems to be able to run a train service, while Britain cannot? Is it because the dogma that runs this Government means that they will not look at privatisation and bringing the railway system back into public ownership, like many other countries?

I am not wholly sure where the noble Lord gets that evidence from. Certainly, if he goes back to look at the period before industrial action really took hold, he will see that many of the train operating companies were working exactly to contract and better, and therefore getting performance fees. I want to point out as well—I think it is important—that while I absolutely note that some noble Lords will have had trouble travelling recently, those noble Lords who have not, such as me, will not say that they actually had a very good service. But I have had a fantastic service on LNER, on South Western Railway and on Avanti.

Following what my noble friend has just said, could I just put in a good word for LNER, and encourage noble Lords in all parts of the House to come and explore the glories of Lincoln? They will almost certainly get there on time, and get back on time, unless there is a strike.

My noble friend has hit the nail on the head. It is likely that any noble Lord will get there and get back on time, unless there is a strike.

My Lords, could the Minister persuade the Prime Minister to use the railways himself a little bit more often? We know that he flies around the country rather a lot. I think if he were to do so, particularly in visiting his constituency, then services to Northallerton and Thirsk would improve very considerably.

I am sure that the Prime Minister is well aware of what is going on on our railways, because one of the key priorities of the Department for Transport is to make sure that they run reliably, and that in the future we have a reformed railway which services all passengers, not just the Prime Minister.

Does the Minister agree that probably the single thing that could best bring forward levelling up to the north of England would be to get a decent railway system in place, operating so that people can travel on it with confidence?

Obviously, there are many strands to what is a broad levelling-up ambition, but I agree that we must focus on investing in our railways in the north. That is why HS2 is proceeding and why we are spending £44.1 billion on the traditional infrastructure. It is very important that we maintain what we have to make sure that reliability, to the north and indeed all parts of the UK, is good.

My Lords, what is the purpose of Transport Ministers? All they seem to do is read out the excuses from the railway companies, then shovel lots of money into them, and then cancel their contracts because they are not performing. Is it not about time that Transport Ministers did what they ought to do and take control of the railways —take it into public ownership?

Nationalisation is a soundbite; it is not a solution. One would be left with the same infrastructure, the same workforce, and the same challenges that the railways currently face. It is absolutely important that Transport Ministers—all Transport Ministers, including the Rail Minister, which is not me—have good relationships with the train operating companies, and allow that engagement to happen with the unions so that we can take our railways forward.