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Rail Service Improvements

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 19 January 2023

The current sustained poor performance on the railways is unacceptable, and the industry needs to make significant improvements to deliver the punctual, reliable services that passengers and taxpayers deserve. We are addressing immediate issues in the sector by engaging and facilitating discussions between employers and trade unions to bring about a resolution to the industrial dispute. As the Secretary of State said, the Government will shortly set out the next steps for reform of the rail industry.

I welcome the Minister’s comments, but rail services in Carshalton and Wallington are still not back to pre-pandemic levels, and there are regular delays, industrial action and timetable changes by Southern and Thameslink. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to unblock the Croydon bottleneck, which is the real cause of congestion in south London, and to improve rail services for Carshalton, Wallington, Hackbridge and Carshalton Beeches commuters?

As a user of Southern for many years before I switched to Southeastern, I understand my hon. Friend’s points. I thank him for standing up for his constituents who use the services. The Department remains committed to working with Govia Thameslink Railway and Network Rail to address performance issues. Peak service provision for Carshalton and Wallington users is at pre-pandemic levels, although passenger numbers remain lower. I take his overall point about the entire service. I also share his desire to see improvements delivered for rail services in the south-east. For this reason, we have recently implemented upgrades to the track and signalling north of Gatwick airport, which will deliver journey time savings and improved reliability across the Brighton main line.

Back in November 2021, the integrated rail plan confirmed that there would be a study on running high-speed trains between East Midlands Parkway and Leeds via Sheffield. Fourteen months on, not only has the work not been done, but the terms of reference have not even been agreed. Ukraine and Romania have just reopened a train line in six months during a war. I ask the Minister to look carefully at what more can be done to expedite this work so we can get this vital rail corridor working in the way we all want.

I am aware that the study needs to get out so we can look at how to get High Speed 2 trains up to Leeds, and so we can look at the other impacts on Leeds. There have been discussions in the Department this week about how to move that forward. I expect the report to be out very shortly.

My hon. Friend the rail Minister will be aware that services on the Marston Vale line serving my constituency are currently suspended because Vivarail, which maintains the rolling stock, has gone into administration. The replacement bus service is far from ideal, which is causing significant difficulties for my constituents, especially young people going to school and college. Will my hon. Friend assure me that he is doing everything he can to ensure the earliest possible reinstatement of that rail service?

The Chair of the Select Committee has raised this point on a number of occasions, and he is right to do so. It is incredibly sad to see Vivarail, which is pursuing good, innovative technology, have to go into administration. I am keen to work with him to ensure that West Midlands Railway puts on a service as soon as possible. Together we will look into whether contractors can contract into West Midlands Railway and whether those contractors have the essential skills that are needed. I will work with him in partnership to ensure that his constituents have that service back up and running.

Under Southeastern’s new timetable, my Blackheath constituents have had significant changes made to their journey, which were imposed on them without consultation. There are also far too many disruptions to trains at Catford Bridge. Last month, the Rail Minister promised to visit more train stations to see how the timetable was impacting customers. Will he honour that commitment to visit Blackheath station, speak to the service users and agree to review the train disruptions at Catford Bridge?

Yes, I visit many of those stations because my train comes along many of the Southeastern routes once I leave Etchingham and head towards London Bridge. I am aware of changes that have taken place, which mean that some passengers must change at London Bridge if they wish to go on to Waterloo East and Charing Cross. London Bridge is an accessible station that has been built with that type of movement in mind. Furthermore, the timetable change happened on 11 December. Since then, a series of events related to weather and industrial action have made it rather difficult to assess whether the changes are working. [Interruption.] They impact my line, so while there is some chuntering going on, I share the concerns and am keen to make the changes work.

I am happy to write to my right hon. Friend on that matter. I am not sure whether he is referring to landslips and recent weather-related events, but Network Rail is working incredibly hard to deliver. Perhaps I can update the entire House by putting in the Library a letter with the most recent update.

The Minister will be very much aware of the chaos that customers experience on the Avanti West Coast line. What assurances can he give me that Avanti will not be given yet another extension on the extension that should never have been given in the first place as this chaos continues?

The most important thing for me is to make sure that the service is turned around. If the team at Avanti can turn that service around, then that will be a matter that we will look at when it comes to renewal of the contract. If matters within its control cannot be turned around, then of course that will lead to a different decision. Again, the timetable change of 11 December is difficult to assess, but it has involved 40% more services than in the summer, and all of that has taken place without rest-day working, because more drivers have been recruited and trained. I hope the hon. Member will join me in encouraging everyone at Avanti to deliver on that extended service. If it succeeds then we all succeed, Mr Speaker.

Just to say that the Minister ought to try travelling on the line, because it is an absolute disgrace.

Key to improving services is actually providing services, as the rail Minister will be aware, and schemes such as Restoring Your Railway reversing the Beeching cuts. Will my hon. Friend continue to work with me and West Midlands Mayor Andy Street to deliver a station for Aldridge? The track is there. Mr Speaker, we must be one of the few constituencies across the country that currently has no train station at all.

My right hon. Friend makes a great campaign point, which I hear. Mayor Andy Street met the Secretary of State for Transport this week. We are passionate to ensure that we can deliver the services that she needs in her constituency and that are needed across the midlands as a whole.

My constituents learned today that they will not be receiving a Cullompton relief road as a result of the second round of levelling-up funding. They still have great hopes for easing congestion through the reopening of the Cullompton railway station, which is already in receipt of Restoring Your Railway funding. Will the Minister come to Cullompton to see the merits of the proposal?

I am keen to visit as many projects and potential projects as I can to help see the potential and how we can realise it. When I am in that part of the country, I would be very happy to visit. On the levelling-up fund bid, as somebody who was disappointed first time around but has managed to get better news the second time, I would encourage the hon. Member to continue to apply. If one works hard with people of all political colours in the local community, one will be amazed by what can happen.

Neither passengers nor hard-working staff are happy with the lamentable state of our railways on this Government’s watch. They have bumped up ticket prices twice as fast as wages have grown, yet passengers are experiencing delays and cancellations to most services at Britain’s busiest stations, with experts declaring that our rail system is broken. So what is their plan to fix the mess they have made? If the Financial Times is correct, their big solution is to impose even more devastating funding cuts of more than 10% on train operators. Forget managed decline: in 2023 it looks more like freefall decline. Rather than this veil of secrecy over steep service cuts, can the Minister confirm how much of a cut he is imposing?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that passenger numbers are at about 80% of where they were pre-pandemic. The timetable is at about 90%, so it continues to run ahead of passenger numbers. Taxpayers more broadly have put in £31 billion over the last two years to support the railway, and there will be a further £11 billion required for the year to come. We have a balance between those who use the railways, continuing to ensure that they can do so, and those who fund the railways and the difficulties they have in meeting their tax bills. I look forward to his optimism and enthusiasm in working with me to ensure that railway services improve, as I am determined they will.

Cross-border rail services run by Avanti and TransPennine Express have been shambolic. Last week alone, TransPennine Express could not point to a single day when it ran the emergency timetable it had promised. On two days, Avanti had only one and two trains on time the entire day running out of Glasgow Central. In contrast, publicly-owned LNER was running a much better service. Is there not a lesson here that the private sector model has failed both workers and passengers and it is time to follow Scotland’s lead and bring rail operators under public control?

Perhaps another way of looking at it is that on the east coast there is competition with open access, whereas on the west coast there is not. The hon. Gentleman might feel that we are not doing enough on private enterprise and competition. I am rather keen that we look at open access and see whether we can do on the west what has been done on the east. However, he is right that performance has not been good enough. I take your point on Avanti, Mr Speaker; your interventions inspire me to ensure that my weekly meetings on turning around Avanti performance continue—but if that performance is being turned around, I must say a big thank you to the staff who work on the Avanti services day in, day out, because we need to motivate them that this can work. TPE is a little further behind and I think we will be discussing it further. I am keen to work with the hon. Gentleman to get better services on TPE.

ScotRail, which is publicly owned and controlled, pays the highest track access charges of any single rail operator, despite repeated requests to complete rail devolution and transfer control of Network Rail to Holyrood. Meanwhile, the Transport Committee heard last week from Mick Lynch, who said:

“When there is a Network Rail strike, they shut Scotland and large parts of Wales. They choose to run the parts that connect to England.”

Does the Minister agree that Scottish rail passengers get a second-class service in this UK system? Is it not time that he turned over responsibilities to a Government who have recently settled two rail disputes?

When there is industrial action on the scale that we have seen impacting Network Rail, we implement the key route strategy, which sees about 20% of the network remain open. That can be patchy, because we tend to focus on the areas that are strategically important for freight. That is our driving mechanism for determining when lines open. I would like to see more open, and of course there may be legislation around the corner that will allow that to occur—the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be happy with that outcome.