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Network Rail: Ely Area Capacity Enhancement Programme

Volume 831: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress Network Rail has made in the Ely area capacity enhancement programme.

My Lords, I appreciate my noble friend’s ongoing interest in the proposed rail enhancements at Ely and Haughley junctions. I reassure him that the Ely area capacity enhancement programme is being considered as part of the update to the rail network enhancements pipeline.

I thank my noble friend for that response. Do His Majesty’s Government recognise how powerful a driver of economic growth it represents? It is not just for the east of England but would benefit the Midlands and the north, bringing significant improvements in the passenger experience, the movement of freight and, not least, the quality of the environment. It also has a very favourable benefit-cost ratio, so—to coin a phrase—can we just get it done?

My Lords, when it comes to any enhancement on the rail network, the Government do a very detailed analysis to devise the business case for each and every one of the enhancements. We are of course doing that for Ely, but we are doing it in the context of revised and different travel patterns and an increased focus on freight. It is necessary for us to go through the processes to understand which projects can be prioritised.

My Lords, Ely, like over 1,000 railway stations in England, currently has a much-valued ticket office. Government plans unveiled today will axe this, alongside every other station ticket office in the next three years. Customers and rail staff are concerned that this will lead to increased crime rates at stations. A loss of customer support will cause confusion and make travelling difficult for the vulnerable and elderly. Have the Government carried out an impact assessment on safety and accessibility if these closures go ahead?

My Lords, if Ely currently has a ticket office, it will remain a staffed station: there will be no changes to whether a station is staffed or not. In terms of crime, the British Transport Police advise that passenger safety is not dependent on selling tickets from a ticket office. The Government have done an extensive amount in respect of impact assessments and discussions with accessibility and wider passenger groups. The industry will continue to do so and, in bringing forward its proposals, it will of course do an impact assessment.

My Lords, the Ely north junction capital programme is absolutely key to enabling a half-hourly service to King’s Lynn. I declare an interest as the former MP for King’s Lynn; I headed the campaign and had an Adjournment debate on this in the other place. Is the Minister aware that part of the key to getting this done is various road improvements, including crossings and bridges. Can she say something about the work that her department has done with National Highways and the local transport authority?

Network Rail and the Department for Transport work very closely with National Highways and the local authority to form a holistic view of the impact of any enhancements. I agree with my noble friend that sometimes several things can work together to bring additional economic benefit. All those things go into the business case and decisions are made on priorities thereafter.

My Lords, following on from what the noble Lord has just said about the importance of this to the east of England, does the Minister also agree that the Government need to press on determinedly with the Oxford-Cambridge link? That too would have a very powerful impact, not just on the UK economy but on the east of England.

The noble Lord is right that we need to find those projects that will have the most benefit to both passengers and freight. That is the whole point of the rail network enhancement pipeline; it will set out our priorities, give certainty to the supply chain and allow us to continue to invest £2 billion a year on enhancements.

My Lords, the crucial importance of Ely is for freight. There are five lines going in and one line going out, so there is a pinch point. Does the Minister accept that it is totally illogical that the Government are investing in Felixstowe freeport without investing, in the same timeframe, in the Ely solution to enable 98,000 lorries a year to be taken off our roads and to deliver on government plans on environmental mitigation and climate change?

I can say no more other than that all these considerations are being taken into account in the business case. It is the case that not only is rail freight important but so is road freight—although I accept the point about the environment. It is important that we look at the business case as a whole, and I am afraid that there is nothing more I can add at this stage.

My Lords, picking up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about the value of the Oxford-Cambridge arc for economic growth, the first step in improving connectivity in the arc between Oxford and Cambridge is of course the East West Rail Oxford-Bedford link. There was a commitment in the policy paper in February to consult on that. Can the Minister update the House?

I am not sure that I am able to update the House on when the consultation will be done, but the Government of course remain committed to East West Rail. I will write to my noble friend.

My Lords, on a previous occasion the Minister promised improvements that would provide for the second of the two lines between Leeds and Bradford to be upgraded to a point where one could get from Leeds to Bradford in 10 to 12 minutes. I am advised that that is impossible unless there is very extensive reorganisation of the western approaches to Leeds station. I note the priority now being given to the Oxford-Cambridge line; I simply re-emphasise that, unless the various trans-Pennine links are substantially improved, we will not begin to get any sort of levelling up in the central cities of the north.

The Government are incredibly ambitious when it comes to investment in the north and the Midlands. As the noble Lord will know, we have the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme and we are taking forward all sorts of different schemes in the area.

My Lords, there can be very few other investment projects that have such enormous environmental benefits as the Ely enhancement. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, referred to 98,000 lorry journeys that would transfer to rail on 2,900 extra freight trains, but the benefits extend to passenger services. It is almost inconceivable that the Government will refuse to do this, because the rate of return on investment is £4.80 in benefits for every £1 spent on it. I cannot imagine there are many other schemes in the rail enhancement pipeline that will match that sort of figure, so why can the Minister not be more positive about it now?

I do not recognise the figure that the noble Lord cites. It is important that we reassess our business cases based on revised travel patterns as they are now, and that has an impact on the business case—but, as I say, we are reviewing them and decisions will be made in due course.

My Lords, will the Minister comment on, or at least look at, the “delay repay” scheme which is, on the face of it, a very good idea. The specific problem is that if you are delayed by a regional company by, say, 20 minutes and then by a major company coming into London, it is very hard to make a claim as the form stands. Does the first company pay for the whole thing? Does the second company pay for it? I found negotiating the link—which is, as I say, attractive—extremely difficult. I wish I did not have to resort to it as often as I do but, sadly, in this country it is quite often very necessary.

I was not aware of that issue. I will take it back to my department and, if the noble Lord will provide me further information, I will of course investigate.

My Lords, if the Ely enhancement goes ahead, it will enable people from that area to get down to London to take the Caledonian Sleeper up to Edinburgh and Glasgow. The Caledonian Sleeper has just been taken into public ownership, and I approve of the principle, but I do not understand how the Scottish Government can take into public ownership trains that run mainly in England. Can the Minister explain?

Responsibility for the Caledonian Sleeper rests with the Scottish Government. I will write with further information, but I am afraid I have none.