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East Coast Main Line

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 24 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with train operators about changes to the East Coast Mainline timetable in December 2024.

My Lords, the department holds regular discussions with its operators to ensure that they continue to respond to changes in demand, balancing capacity and reliability with value for money for taxpayers. As part of the December 2023 timetable change, the department agreed that London North Eastern Railway should provide some additional Sunday services and the Rail North Partnership agreed some reductions to TransPennine Express services to stabilise the service while it completes its driver training programme.

My Lords, Berwick-upon-Tweed station, serving the Scottish borders and north Northumberland, normally has a quite good hourly train service on the east coast main line. However, now LNER has resurrected the previous abandoned plan to slash that service by half from December, so that the trains will be only every two hours and with longer journey times. Is the Minister prepared to challenge this—or is publicly owned LNER doing what the Government have told it to do?

The industry is currently close to finalising its response to the east coast main line major timetable change consultation that was undertaken in 2021. While it will not be possible to address every concern raised, I am confident that the industry proposal is an improvement over what was offered in consultation. The Rail Minister is in regular contact with Transport for the North, having met with the chair and chief executive in recent months.

My Lords, has the Minister been able to assess the amount of spare capacity on the rail system serving both north and east of a critical place in what we call the east of England? Does he agree that there needs to be a plan for the future—maybe one that cannot be implemented immediately but that we can set our minds on to ensure that it takes place without waiting another 10 or 20 years?

My noble friend will be aware that we had the Williams-Shapps review into the creation of Great British Railways but unfortunately have not had time in this Session to introduce legislation. However, I take his point, which is well made.

My Lords, will the Minister explain why this government-owned railway, LNER, has apparently changed all the fare structures to remove most saver and supersaver fares—presumably with the intention of reducing the number of passengers that use it?

At the Bradshaw address, the Secretary of State committed to expanding single-leg pricing, on most of LNER’s network, for example. This went live on 11 June 2023. In the plan for rail, we set out our intention to simplify fares and improve the passenger experience. We are determined to find innovative ways to get people back into rail.

My Lords, next year will celebrate the bicentenary of the original railway line, between Darlington and Stockton-on-Tees. Would it not be extraordinary to reduce the service from Darlington—and Northallerton—to London in what is its bicentennial year? Will the Minister use his good offices to examine the timetable which LNER is proposing for next year, to ensure that we continue to have good hourly services to these regular commuter runs?

My Lords, the Minister implies that the 2024 timetable is more or less complete. That would have involved seven railway operators, Network Rail and the DfT achieving a consensus. Such a consensus would have had winners and losers. Who made the decision as to who would be the losers?

With great respect to the noble Lord, I am not too sure that I understand his question. Perhaps we can have a look at it later.

My Lords, when there was a proposal to close railway ticket offices, we saw how essential public consultation was in revealing the true impact of a planned change. In the Minister’s response, he referred to a consultation on this LNER timetable change that took place in 2021. Three years on, things are very different. Can he assure us that there has been public consultation since then and that there was full public consultation before this changed timetable was introduced?

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of Transport for the North. Some of the difficult decisions that have had to be taken have been partly because of the upgrading of the trans-Pennine route, which is a huge investment as far as the Government are concerned over the next few years. Will my noble friend assure us that the planned upgrade for York station, which will allow greater capacity eventually to serve areas such as Berwick-upon-Tweed, is in the Government’s future plans?

A lot of these changes to the trans-Pennine route are part of the Making Journeys Better plan, outlining how TransPennine Express under DfT OLR Holdings will work to make things better. Having completed an in-depth review of the business, these services are expected to be restored from December 2024. I will have to come back to my noble friend on his question about the railway station.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the problems of the east coast main line, important though they may be, pale into insignificance for those of us who have the misfortune to use the west coast main line? Given the fact that Avanti trains’ punctuality levels in the last six months of 2023 plumbed the depths of 43.5%—the worst in railway history, as far as I can ascertain—can he tell the House what those improvements outlined by the Secretary of State were before it was given another nine years of inflicting misery on the rest of us?

As the noble Lord knows, the department awarded a new National Rail contract to First Trenitalia to continue operating the west coast partnership in September 2023. The decision to award the contract to it was contingent on the operator continuing to win back the confidence of passengers. The Rail Minister and officials have met regularly with First Group and Avanti’s senior management to understand the challenges and hold them to account for issues within their control. In fact, I understand that the Rail Minister met with them only this month.

My Lords, as I was coming in on a very pleasant journey from the beautiful city of Salisbury in the south-west on Monday, I went through the new schedule of train strikes that have been thrust at us again. I seem to remember that a couple of months ago we spent many long nights debating minimum service levels. I am confused, so could the Minister help me in my confusion?

My noble friend is right; we did spend many hours debating this. We now have the minimum services levels Act and, frankly, the department expects train operators to make use of the legislation wherever appropriate.

My Lords, is the decision by the Government to award Avanti another contract not rewarding failure? Do we not need a regulator that will put passengers first and the companies second?

I take the noble Lord’s point, but the Government do put passengers first. The Government are concerned with passengers getting value for money, and we take this very seriously.

My Lords, in the last 10 years, £75.2 billion of subsidy has been handed to rail companies. In return, the public do not own a single engine, carriage or seat, and it is impossible to even get the machines at rail stations to tell you what a good route or fare is. How many more billions need to be handed to rail companies before we can get an affordable and reliable train service?

The Government have put an awful lot of money into the railways. It is about time perhaps that some of the railways delivered back for the good of the people—the taxpayer, who has put an enormous amount of money into the railways.