Question for Short Debate
My Lords, with perfect timing, the Rail Delivery Group published a report yesterday that seeks to address all the key issues that I had in mind when tabling this topic for debate. Our railways are under severe pressure but I do not support the renationalisation of the railways. They say that if you can remember the 1960s, then you were not there. Well, if you think the answer to the problems of our rail system is to bring back British Rail, you probably did not use it when it existed.
There has been enormous change in our rail system in the years since the introduction of franchises in the mid-1990s, when passenger numbers and revenue were falling. The number of people travelling by rail has effectively doubled. We have the most rapidly expanding railways in the world, while elsewhere in Europe railways are in decline. Anyway, we already own most of the rail system via Network Rail. The Government also set the terms and conditions for franchise operators and regulate the fare structure.
However,passenger satisfaction is falling—down to 81% last autumn, especially among commuters. Poor perceptions deter people from using the railways despite intense congestion on the roads. Recently passenger numbers have fallen back slightly, which is possibly a sign of a crisis of trust among passengers, too many of whom are plain angry. A network built in the 19th century, and neglected and partially dismantled in the latter half of the 20th, is now creaking at the seams. It needs modernisation, much better maintenance and expansion. All these problems affect reliability and punctuality, which is down from 91% to 89% in the last four years, and the Government are not proving good at tackling any of these factors.
Even the easy bits to modernise within the current system, such as the franchise model, the ticketing system and the complaints system, have not been energetically tackled. The headline measures of passenger satisfaction and performance used by the rail industry do not reflect real-life experience and underestimate punctuality and reliability problems. For instance, a long-distance train can arrive almost 10 minutes late and still not be considered to be delayed, so definitions of “on time” are, at the least, generous. I was pleased to see that yesterday’s report attempted to tackle that in future plans, but currently the system positively encourages train operators to skip stations in order to make up time and avoid a late arrival at the final destination.
Then there is the process of applying for compensation. The system remains too complex. In the last two weeks I have made eight separate railway journeys and, sadly, only two of them have been without delay, disruption or cancellation. Okay, I have hit a bad patch, but it took me an hour and five phone calls to make one compensation claim—and I think I understand the system. Why is it that six out of 17 railway companies will accept compensation claims via third-party apps but the rest refuse to do so? This would make it simpler for passengers wishing to claim. We need a single standardised form, leaflets available at the gate on arrival and on the train, and announcements on the train to make all passengers aware of their rights. Is it any wonder that at the moment, only one-third of eligible passengers claim compensation, and £100 million a year goes unclaimed?
The ticketing system needs modernising and simplifying. When I put my usual journey into the website each week it comes up with nine options, and that is at one point in time and for a specific timetable slot. Factor in advance-tickets and those people savvy enough to artificially divide their journey by buying two tickets for a single trip, and you have an unfriendly and, frankly, ridiculous system—all the more unacceptable because it is the most expensive in Europe.
I read yesterday’s report very carefully. Although the rail industry says it can create a simpler structure, it puts the ball very firmly in the Government’s court. Next January, passengers who are already under strain because wages have not kept pace with rising inflation will face above-inflation fare rises. The Government should step in, as they have done year after year with the fuel duty escalator, and freeze rail fares this year while the system is reformed. The modernisation of the ticketing system was promised a long time ago, but very little progress has been made so far with electronic and smart ticketing. I welcome the commitment in yesterday’s report to tackle this issue, but we are still talking about limited improvement.
Too frequently trains are desperately overcrowded, a victim of their own success. This discourages passengers and reduces punctuality. Add to this the fact that many of our existing lines are full and there are simply no more slots available. We need more consumer-friendly franchises and more emphasis on things that passengers value most highly, such as flexibility. Devolution seems to be popular with DfT and Network Rail. I strongly support that but, for the concept to be meaningful, local authorities should be able to bid for franchises designed around the needs of their citizens and the local economy.
Yesterday, the rail industry pledged major improvements to the network, with extra services and new carriages. But there is a big gap between the investment needed—on the east coast main line and the trans-Pennine routes, for example—and what the Government have committed to.
We on these Benches support HS2 because existing lines are full, but it will not be ready until the mid-2030s, so what about the upgrades and repairs needed now to the existing lines serving those cities? They are desperately in need of maintenance and repair.
The Government’s approach to electrification is confused and incoherent. Cardiff to Swansea, Oxenholme to Windermere and midland main line are all cancelled. I agree that Network Rail has to improve its performance, but instead of taking action to deal with that, the Government simply seem to have given it less to do. I fear that we will end up with a patchwork approach of bi-mode trains switching mid-journey from electric to diesel. They cost more to buy, and it is obviously less fuel efficient to carry a spare diesel engine around. It will soon be unacceptable to run diesel engines on city centre roads, so why is it okay to be planning to have diesel trains in the future?
Despite recent promises of increased government funds and private investment, there is still a shortfall at the end of this control period. The industry needs an end to the feast-and-famine approach to investment cycles, with more certainty and a longer term view. Without this, our overstretched rail infrastructure will fail increasingly frequently.
In the economic uncertainty we now face as a country, the railways are a core part of joining up our country once again. So we need ambitious investment, particularly in the parts of the country that have been neglected for too long. Are the Government far-sighted enough to do it? So far, we have seen little sign of it. I welcome this evening the Minister to her new role and I look forward to her response.
I hope I will not alarm the noble Baroness too much if I say that I agree very much with what she said. I also rise with some temerity to speak before the noble Lord, Lord Snape, who knows so much more about railways that I ever will. I well remember as a very green new Member meeting him on my first night in another place in the Strangers’ Bar, when he asked me what I did. I ‘fessed up to what I did, and asked him, “What do you do?”. He said, “I used to be with the NUR”. “What’s that?”, I asked. He said, “It stands for no use rushing”. I am sure that he remembers it as well as I do.
Before punctuality and reliability, connectivity comes to my mind, and the ease of finding stations and lines alike. This remains a great problem for many of our people, often still because of the closures for ever written against the name of Dr Beeching, whether fairly or unfairly, who in the late 1950s and early 1960s, helped by a supporting cast of experts, forecast the coming decline of our railways, which, of course, never happened.
Now, rather, there is pressure to reinvent passenger connectivity by reopening old lines, often by micromanagement. After some 50 years, for example, there has been the recent reopening in 2015 of links between two stations in Yeovil in Somerset, which are almost adjacent to each other, thus giving back local and welcome connectivity to Westbury and Weymouth. It is a little move but much welcomed locally.
On a larger scale we have the north-western powerhouse which may well soon be stimulated a bit by the north-south grand project of HS2, but in Lancashire, I am told there are groups pressing for more localised east-west reopenings or electrifications to bring back connectivity locally as well. That said, I am a very strong supporter of privately run railway operating companies. In saying that, I know that I may well be an endangered species. I think it is right, but I also recognise that they have a big responsibility to do better over reliability and timeliness, as do Her Majesty’s Government in writing new line contracts and renewal of contracts for franchises on our creaking railway infrastructure.
My weekly commute is on the Exeter-Waterloo so-called main line that is one of the mercifully few that still has substantial lengths of single track railway with attendant passing places—too often in my experience true loops of doom. Passengers, I know, long to have back the time in their lives that they have sat near Salisbury in the dreaded Tisbury loop—a kind of railway Bermuda Triangle in my experience. It is a black hole waiting for the delayed up or down train to pass, held up successively by maybe the wrong kind of leaves, the wrong kind of ice, or—once, late at night, it being dairy country—the wrong kind of heifers on the line.
There is no solution to this sort of thing from HMG. I am sorry to land these thoughts with my noble friend in her early outings on the Front Bench. The franchise was switched from the boringly named old South West Trains to the new, exciting and snappily named South Western Railway just last month. I went into it in some detail and it turns out to be a Sino-British outfit, promising in its franchise bid if successful, among much else,
“improved service frequencies and quicker journey times”.
I quote what it promised exactly.
Do Her Majesty’s Government have a well enough written contract with the means to claw back the franchise if these promises are not kept? I hope that they have, and I seek reassurances, not necessarily tonight, but in writing from my noble friend the Minister whom I am so pleased to see on the Front Bench.
The dualling of the whole of the Exeter-Waterloo railway is vital to the economic growth and social cohesion of the south-west, but in the meantime, it will be a Sino-British management failure if these promises are not kept. Above all else, it will be a central government failure if, together with the railway industry, and the new rail delivery group, we do not hammer out something that is more relevant to passengers than the currently imperfect public performance measure, rather concentrating much more, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said in her most interesting speech, on an “on time”, or as some would prefer a “right time” metric, measuring real performance.
I am sure that this will be a central issue for the new pan-industry Rail Delivery Group, set up so recently to represent private companies and the publicly owned Railtrack, to stress their public-private partnership. I hope that this will not be just a spokesperson-driven lobbying group, blaming the wrong kind of Brexit on the line, or whatever, but I particularly welcome the proposal to have a rail complaints ombudsman by the summer of 2018. I regard that as of fundamental importance. I hope that she or he will be truly independent and have teeth. I hope that the Rail Delivery Group will be circulating all noble Lords with details of where to raise issues, if they emerge. I shall certainly while away the time when stranded in the Tisbury loop by composing my thoughts.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Patten. I cannot say that I actually remember the conversation in the Strangers’ Bar all those years ago to which he referred. It seems to be a much more exciting place these days from what I read in the newspapers. There is not very much discussion of the railway industry there now.
I am grateful, too, to the noble Baroness for the opportunity of speaking in the debate tonight. We like complaining about our railways. The noble Baroness talked about the PPM, as did the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and the fact that trains that arrive 10 minutes late are theoretically on time. The problem with changing the system—I speak with some degree of operating experience—is that there is no such thing as an on-time arrival. If every train runs on time, it means that the person in the wheelchair does not get on at the last minute and neither does the elderly gentleman who is not quite as fast on his feet as he used to be. We will see the failings of trying to run trains exactly on time when the new Thameslink service starts, on which there will be a two-minute headway. The first driver who inadvertently releases the driver safety device and brings his train to a stand will paralyse the railway for the rest of the afternoon. Human nature being what it is, that may well happen.
The noble Baroness started off by saying that only 81%—I wrote it down—of railway passengers were happy with their journey. A lot of retail organisations in this country would be more than happy if 81% of their customers expressed such satisfaction. If any of us left the Chamber now, we could pretty well guarantee being able to get one of three trains an hour to Birmingham, which would arrive in around 90 minutes, or three trains an hour to Manchester, which would arrive in two hours and 10 or 15 minutes. I do not know any other method of surface transport in the United Kingdom that could match that, whether or not those trains were up to 10 minutes late and declared to be on time when they arrived. The coach industry does not run timetables to the same times as the rail industry. When it comes to swift and on-time journeys, it is difficult to find a system of surface transport that matches the railway industry.
I shall return for a moment to the sojourn of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, in the Tisbury loop. During my time on the railway, that line was regarded as one of the southern region’s premier lines. It was singled when the railway industry was suffering from the 12-monthly financial arrangements laid down by Her Majesty’s Treasury. When the halcyon days come and the railway industry returns to being a nationalised one, I am sure that we will not return to that; there will be plenty of money, the Tisbury loop will be extended, and the double track between Waterloo and the south-west of England will presumably be restored—but I would not risk much money on that. I have to tell him that the Tisbury loop was added only comparatively recently. I do not know where he spent his time before it was installed, but timekeeping was a lot worse.
I wish to draw the attention of your Lordships’ House to a couple of matters that are slightly off the beaten track—no pun intended. Certain matters affect punctuality on our railway industry that Network Rail and the train operating companies do not have much power to correct. The first is the number of bridge bashes, when heavy goods vehicles hit bridges. The latest statistics are for about 10 months in 2016-17, in which there were 1,753 such incidents. It is difficult to know what else Network Rail can do to prevent those bridge strikes. It paints the bridges, puts up signs that say “Low bridge ahead”, prints the heights of the bridges on the signs, and often puts metal girders underneath the bridges to prevent damage to the bridge structures themselves. Yet almost 2,000 heavy goods vehicles hit those bridges every year. As ever, it is Network Rail or the taxpayer that picks up the bill, and the passengers who suffer delays.
It is scandalous that bridge strikes occur with such monotonous regularity. The road haulage industry ought to be held to account if we are to prevent them. The average delay is around two hours, and the cost of the repairs and delays over a year is about £23 million, according to Network Rail—all paid by the taxpayer, not the road haulage industry. But we are not talking just about delay to passengers, serious though that is, because bridge strikes are dangerous. Sooner or later, one of those 2,000 bridge strikes that takes place every year will displace the railway track above the road network. I need hardly overemphasise the danger that that would cause to a train travelling at a maximum speed of 125 miles an hour. I hope that the Minister will persuade her department to hold proper talks with the road haulage industry to see what can be done to prevent, or at least reduce dramatically, the number of bridge strikes.
Not all road hauliers shrug their shoulders, but the sad thing is that Network Rail estimates that over 50% of drivers of heavy goods vehicles do not know the height of the vehicle that they are driving. With the exception of three major companies—Stobart, Wincanton and DHL, all of which insist that their drivers know the weight and height of their vehicle before they leave—the road haulage industry as a whole appears not to take any great interest in such matters. Perhaps if it was forced to pick up the bill and a few serious prosecutions followed, it might do so.
The other matter that I want to raise in the next 30 seconds is the number of suicides on our railway, which again cause enormous delay to passengers as well as great suffering to the relatives of those involved. There were 252 suicides in the last year for which statistics were available on our mainline railways, amounting to 400,000 minutes of delay. I am not callous enough to say that no action should be taken when a suicide occurs. I saw my first one as a 16 year-old when I worked for the railway. In those slightly more cavalier days—that is the wrong term, but I cannot think of a more appropriate one—the stationmaster or appropriate officer covered the corpse with a tarpaulin and trains passed at reduced speed. Last week, there was a suicide at Harrow and Wealdstone. There are six tracks through it, all of which were closed for up to four hours following that suicide. Thousands of people using Euston station suffered delay. Again, perhaps the Minister could raise that with Network Rail. Its procedures, which I obviously cannot go into because of time, are far too protracted and ought to be speeded up.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Randerson on introducing this short debate. Unlike previous speakers, who have talked about the whole country—and the Tisbury loop—I want to talk about just one example in Lancashire, on eight miles of track and serving three stations. These are the Northern local services from Preston to Colne, notably those to the last three stations on the line, Brierfield, Nelson and Colne in the borough of Pendle. The problem is the number of trains that simply do not turn up.
In addition to all the ordinary reasons for that, such as staff not turning up, the problem is that, from where it leaves the main line over to Yorkshire at Gannow Junction in Burnley, the line is just an eight-mile-long single-track siding that ends in the buffers at Colne station. There is one train an hour. If a train to Colne is late or if the previous train was late and is still blocking the siding, the train turns back at Burnley. Passengers are left on the platform at Colne, Nelson and Brierfield, and incoming passengers from the Preston and Blackburn direction are turfed off the train at Burnley and left to their own devices.
I have some recent examples of that, as reported on the Facebook group “Colne Talk”. Andrew from Trawden said that on 12 July 2017 he caught the 1800 from Preston to Colne. It was about 20 minutes late leaving Preston and, just after Bamber Bridge, the passengers were informed that it would terminate at Burnley Central.
Helen Margaret reports:
“In the last six weeks, I’ve had two last minute total cancellations, one mad dash to Burnley in the morning last minute as not coming to Colne and been terminated at Burnley twice”.
She goes on to say:
“For me, the train is essential. As a nursing student at UCLAN”—
the University of Central Lancashire, in Preston—
“the option of living on campus is out of the question, as I am married with three children. Without this service, I simply could not undertake my degree, as I don’t drive”.
“Today my son on his way back from Preston University had to get off at Burnley after buying a return ticket to Colne—no explanation and no refund offered. This isn’t the first time this has happened”.
Andrew from Brierfield reports:
“On Wednesday 18th October, the 7.29 arrival at Brierfield had terminated at Burnley Central on its way to Colne. It was supposed to leave Colne at 7.20 but never made it up there”.
Indeed, we are up in the Lancashire Pennines.
“My other half missed two last week from Nelson to Preston due to last minute cancellations”.
Helen Margaret, again, said:
“I got about £1.70 compensation for having to get a bus from Burnley to Colne. So the compensation does not even compensate for the bus fare. There have been days I haven’t had the spare cash and had to wait for the following train an hour later. I’m a nursing student trying to provide for a family at the same time”.
Patricia Hall, from Colne, reports:
“My son started a new job at Burnley College Monday 9th Oct. Train fine on the day. Tuesday got to the station train cancelled had to leg it to the bus and was late on his 2nd day through no fault of his own … not a good start to a new job”.
Karen Hillary Starkie reports that on,
“27 September they cancelled 2 early morning trains from Colne. Finally got on the train at 8.15 which meant I got to work in Blackburn 3 hours after I set off from home!”.
That is about 15 miles away. She goes on to say:
“Have claimed for train delay but doesn’t help to keep me in a job … I’m now at risk of redundancy as I cannot guarantee getting in on time when my job moves to Blackburn soon”.
She went on:
“After eight and a half years in my job and 18 months short of retirement age, I am now in the precarious position due to this unreliable service”.
Tony—not me, somebody else—reports:
“My wife works in Oswaldtwistle and regularly has trains cancelled or terminate at Burnley … A rough guess her train has been affected at least 10 times”.
“The service is terrible and needs a complete upgrade, including link through to Skipton”,
one of the east-west links that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, mentioned.
“Three times in the last two weeks I’ve had to take/pick up my Mum from Burnley/Blackburn as the service hasn’t run to Colne. One of those times we brought a group of young girls back who lived in Colne and had been kicked off late at night in the dark and expected to wait over an hour for the next train”.
“I was there that night. My wife was trying to organise taxis for everyone”.
Indeed, she did so. He adds:
“It’s disgusting that young girls of 13 or so are being kicked off miles from home, bad enough adults but kids!!!”.
I could go on and on with these.
One of the clear results is that it is having an effect on the number of people using this service. I have here the numbers of people in and out of these three stations over the past 20 years. They were going up and up until about three to five years ago. I have the figures from 2012 to 2015. Brierfield is down from 35,366 to 31,504; Nelson is down from 146,768 to 129,762; and the three stations together are down from 279,892 to 258,212. So in the light of the general increase in people using the railways, clearly, if trains do not turn up, people will not use them—and there is no suitable alternative bus service for those particular journeys.
In the medium term, the noble Lord, Lord Patten, says that he has a passing loop. If he does not like it, he should give it to us; we would love a passing loop. There used to be one at Nelson station; British Rail in its stupidity took it away. It will cost a great deal more to reinstate it than it cost to take it away. In the very long term, we want our railway back to Skipton and a proper double-track railway from Burnley to Skipton but, in the short term, Northern, which runs this service, needs to take its responsibility seriously and put on replacement transport, whether that means buses, mini-buses, taxis or whatever. There is a motorway between Colne and Burnley that can fill in when necessary. Northern needs to do it, and I call on the Government to put pressure on the new franchise to make sure that it provides a proper rail service to people in the Pendle area who want to use it.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. I welcome the Minister to her exciting new post. I hope that she lasts longer than the previous Minister, because we have had a lot of musical chairs in the last week or two—but that is life. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, on getting this debate.
Noble Lords have spoken already about the importance of reliability and the disasters that happen when things go wrong. Given the growth in passenger and freight traffic in recent years, which is of course very welcome, one of the major issues must be maintenance of the track. When things go wrong, it is quite often due to maintenance—more of the track than of the trains. So it is worth examining whether Network Rail, now owned by the Government, so they can answer for it, has the right equipment to maintain the network to modern standards.
Somebody recently drew my attention to the one train that monitors the electric overhead lines—we need more, but we have quite a lot at the moment—which is based on a 1973 converted coach. That makes it 44 years old, and there is only one of them. So it would be very interesting if the Minister was able to let me have, although I do not expect it from her now, a list of how many track measurement trains there are monitoring the gauge and the railhead conditions. Some noble Lords will remember the gauge and head cracking that happened probably 20 years ago. It is also about how old they are.
Now that Network Rail is divided more into separate routes, it would seem reasonable that each group could actually have its own equipment and be able to buy some decent modern equipment, then be benchmarked by the regulator and its own management as to who did the best maintenance, and who had the least delays due to things going wrong with the track or the signalling. That would be reflected in their bonuses, in the money that they got from central government—and on the performance of the trains. I am convinced that a little bit of incentive among the routes would bring enormous benefits improving the performance of the whole network, and therefore the performance of the trains.
I want to say a little bit about freight. We have talked about it quite often here. The support for rail freight comes from the Government’s rail freight strategy, the Scottish Government’s rail freight strategy, and the National Policy Statement for National Networks. Certainly, in many parts of the country, the encouragement that Governments are giving to freight is really good. A week ago, I was in Scotland trying to encourage Network Rail to allow timber to be loaded on to the tracks in Rannoch Moor and taken by rail, rather than across the bog, to the local sawmills in Corpach. It was very good to see the way that the Scottish Government and Network Rail were working towards a great solution, and I think they will get it. The Treasury has confirmed investment plans for rail freight in control period 6, which starts in a couple of years’ time, and the Scottish Government have done the same. Rail freight was also mentioned in all the three major parties’ manifestos for the last election.
Growth in rail freight is mainly in the container market and in aggregates and other building materials brought into city centres. The containers need terminals or interchanges where big loads can be made into small ones or transferred to road for the last few legs. I was pretty surprised and distressed last week to see the National Infrastructure Commission’s report, Congestion, Capacity, Carbon: Priorities for National Infrastructure, which said that the commission believes that,
“the pilots of ‘platooning’ truck convoys on motorways … may open the way to radical improvements in the efficiency and capacity of major freight distribution by road in the future … This would free up rail capacity for enhanced commuter and inter-city passenger services”.
The National Infrastructure Commission seems to be contradicting not just the policies in the documents I have mentioned but current thinking across the industry. In so doing, it is putting at risk a very large amount of private investment which is going into these terminals, on the basis of absolutely no evidence that I can see. They just thought it was a good idea and they would mention it. The people who live near some of these terminals do not like it very much. They have already cottoned on to this and are putting tens of millions of pounds of investment at risk. I hope that when the Minister responds she will be able to confirm her support for rail freight and for these investments. If the National Infrastructure Commission is going to come out with statements like this, it would be quite nice if it could provide some supporting evidence for a complete U-turn in policy. I hope the Minister will say something like, “They are independent and would say this, wouldn’t they”.
The railways have a really great future, for passengers and freight. The traffic is growing in a way that it is not doing anywhere else in Europe. We may sometimes worry about reliability, but the quality of service in most places is fantastic. I conclude by commending the Government’s suggestion that there should be contestability for some of the things that Network Rail does. We could try out new ways of reopening lines or enhancing them, such as the east-west rail or some of the enhancements which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was talking about. By having it done a different way, possibly with the private sector taking the lead, designing, getting the permissions, building and even operating the infrastructure, you can then contest whether it is more efficient than Network Rail or not. That could be a very useful way forward.
My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend on her appointment and wish her the very best in her new role. Rail is fundamental to the country’s prosperity, and I am delighted that the Government have a clear mission to put the travelling public first and to improve the passenger experience. I declare an interest as an occasional customer, with my children, of Southern Rail. My wife is a much more regular user, often with our disabled daughter. Using the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, my wife definitely has a “crisis of trust” in Southern Rail.
Southern Rail’s industrial dispute has been catastrophic for passengers and our local community. In a Written Statement last month, the Secretary of State said that the Government are determined that the railway becomes more focused on issues that matter most to passengers, such as punctuality and overcrowding. My family’s experience is that Southern trains hardly ever arrive on time. I was amazed at my noble friend’s predecessor’s answer last month to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, saying that the punctuality of Southern Rail is currently 82%. Locals take these figures with a pinch of salt. How are these barely believable figures arrived at? Are they provided by the train operator, and who monitors them?
There is a strong case for more clearly identifying, and taking action to alleviate, substantial overcrowding on specific services across the network. At peak hours, Southern has some of the worst overcrowding in the country, and this can be a serious health and safety issue. What strategy do the Government have for tackling overcrowding? Have they considered incentivising train operators, through franchise agreements, to alleviate the worst examples of persistent overcrowding? Will the Government encourage train operators to publish reliable and informative information about delays and disruption in a format that will allow passengers to make informed decisions about their journeys and avoid crowded services where possible?
The department recently announced that £20 million will be allocated to address the problems on Southern Rail. What outputs do the Government expect this money to achieve? When will we see a timetable for the publication of the project board’s plan and the implementation of its actions? Hopefully, Southern’s service will improve, but if it does not, has the department worked up a plan to terminate GTR’s franchise and transfer some, or all, operations to one or more operators? The department should, for example, be working with Transport for London to develop plans, in the event of a default, for the transfer of Southern’s suburban rail services to Transport for London before the scheduled end of GTR’s agreement in 2021.
I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for securing this very interesting debate. I too welcome the Minister to her first railway debate. I am sure there will be many more and I hope she will be here to take part in those as well. There can be no one in your Lordships’ House who disagrees with the aspiration to improve the quality of Britain’s rail services. I remind the House of my railway-related interests as declared in the register, particularly my chairmanship of the Great Western Railway advisory board. I am also president of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, and chair of the North Cotswold Line Task Force, which has been set up by Worcestershire County Council and is supported by all local authorities and local enterprise partnerships in the area to act as the catalyst for a better and more reliable train service.
As the noble Lord, Lord Patten, may remember from his days as the Member for Oxford, the principal obstacle to achieving this is the infrastructure, as there are still substantial lengths of single-track railway at both the Oxford and Worcester ends of the line. Short of closing the route altogether, which was talked about in the immediate post-Beeching era, no single decision damaged the reliability of rail services—not just on the Cotswold Line but on routes such as the noble Lord’s South Western Main Line to Exeter—as much as that to reduce a double-track main line railway to single track, because of the delays that inevitably creates at the passing points.
Apologists for the Governments at the time—both Labour and Conservative—argued that, as the railways were thought to be in terminal decline, taking out excess capacity and eliminating alternative routes were inevitable and necessary cost-cutting measures. What utter nonsense that was, and how short-sighted. While none of us who were working in the industry then could have foreseen the astonishing growth in passenger demand over the past two decades, just a small degree of foresight in the 1970s and 1980s—particularly leaving infrastructure in place rather than ripping it out—could have saved hundreds of millions of pounds today as Network Rail battles to restore capacity and reopen routes such as that from Oxford to Cambridge through Milton Keynes.
That leads me to High Speed 2, the project conceived by my noble friend Lord Adonis and supported steadfastly by all transport Ministers after him, and by an overwhelming majority of Members of this House and the other place. In my view, the argument in favour of High Speed 2 has now been comprehensively won, and we look forward to the publication of the hybrid Bill which will take the railway north from Birmingham towards the end of the next decade. When we weigh up the arguments, we should take account of what we know about High Speed 1, Britain’s first high-speed line, from London to the Channel Tunnel through Kent. As recently as last September, Visit Kent published a report to mark the 10th anniversary of the line. It found that since 2010, leisure journeys to Kent via High Speed 1 had increased ninefold, from 100,000 to 890,000 in 2016, and that the total economic impact of HS1 on the visitor economy in 2016 alone was valued at £72.7 million. For every High Speed 1 leisure journey made to Kent in 2016, £81.65 was added to the local economy. Since 2010, High Speed 1’s activity has led to the creation and support of 5,766 tourism sector jobs in Kent. These are real facts relating to a real railway, so when we hear about projections for High Speed 2 we need to take those into account and realise what the benefits to the Midlands and the north of England will be when the railway gets there.
The other really significant point to make about High Speed 1 is its astonishing reliability. In 2017, the average delay affecting all operators, including the high-speed domestic Southeastern services as well as Eurostar, is just six seconds per train—the sort of reliability figure that the Japanese railways achieve regularly with their high-speed trains. So, the lesson for High Speed 2 is that a new railway is a reliable railway. It is also a popular railway which attracts customers in greater and greater numbers and provides the capacity which our conventional main lines can no longer offer because demand has grown so much. Above all, these railways demonstrate, and provide the proof, that railways are central to economic growth and prosperity.
We have had a number of briefings for this debate. I particularly commend that of the Railway Industry Association, which points out that passenger numbers have doubled in the last 20 years, that the rail industry employs 240,000 people and contributes £11 billion gross added value to the economy, and that with a vibrant rail industry at home, we are now again able, as we did in the past, to sell our railway expertise abroad. As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Taiwan, I have had the privilege of leading a railway industry delegation to Taiwan, where there is huge interest in buying British expertise. I anticipate that I shall do that again in January. However, you need a vibrant rail industry at home before you can be credible when you are selling your expertise abroad.
This has been a good debate, and everybody has been reasonably positive. I learned more about the railways of north-east Lancashire than perhaps it was necessary to know, but it was great all the same to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, speak about that. I support his aspiration to take the Colne line through to Skipton. Indeed, I am a member of the pressure group that is attempting to do that. I look forward very much to hearing what the Minister has to say on her first outing at the Dispatch Box.
My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for this debate. I, too, extend my welcome to the Minister. She will have quite a lot to contend with, not just with railways but with transport as a whole. I am not going to take a tour of my local railway line but talk about a very important railway line on which I rarely travel.
The business case for extending the electrification north of Bedford to the east Midlands was stronger than that of the Great Western, but the Government of the day decided otherwise. Subsequently, an expensive scheme of electrification was initiated on the Great Western when skills were at an appallingly low level. The trains themselves were developed by the Department for Transport, rather than by railwaymen. The result has been an extraordinarily expensive electrification scheme on the Great Western that has absorbed all the money which it had been hoped was available for electrifying the midland main line. The east Midlands cities of Derby, Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield have paid a high price, and they are justifiably furious that this is so.
There is a way out of this if the Government will listen. As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned, Network Rail has recently stated that it would let private contractors bid for and deliver “big schemes”. A competition put to the market would allow a contractor to bid for the whole of the electrification scheme, including any modifications to the signalling. I am quite sure that this would attract bids from a number of multifunctional operators, or even from the regions in Network Rail itself if it were freed from the cloying influence of the infrastructure section of that company. The risk would be mitigated by coming to a long-term contract with the bidders, who would be responsible for delivering and maintaining the system, and who would, of course, be paid only on the results that they achieved. As a railwayman of long standing, although I have no interest to declare, I am absolutely certain that the whole scheme would come in at a price very much lower in unit cost terms than the Great Western, and it would avoid the expense and poorer performance of producing bi-mode trains. The plain fact is that straight electric trains are lighter, provide a more reliable railway, use less power, are cheaper to run than bi-modes and require less maintenance. They benefit far more than bi-modes from regenerative braking and I am quite certain they will make a significant reduction in journey times. I estimate a reduction of six minutes in the London to Sheffield journey time, which is very significant.
If this option were on the table, it would come in at a price level that would prove an attractive proposition—one that Ministers would be willing to accept—and it would give the east Midlands community something that it would accept. I beg the Government to look at this proposition very seriously, and I am willing to help deliver it. As the east Midlands franchise is now in course of development, now is the time to take a completely new look at this.
My Lords, I too extend my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for securing this debate. I also take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to her new and enhanced role, and extend to her my congratulations. I also extend my best wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, in his new role. Clearly, he is not looking for a quiet life. The Minister’s two most recent predecessors have moved on to departments dealing with people and issues outside our national boundaries; clearly, being a Transport Minister produces a desire to travel beyond our shores.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, made reference to her lack of enthusiasm for seeing train operating companies in the public sector, so it would appear likely that the Government will be rather more in agreement with what the noble Lady, Baroness Randerson, had to say than they will almost certainly be with my contribution to this debate. Railway operation being in the public sector is not something new or original in this country, even today. London Underground is in the public sector, and it carries quite a few passengers. Even the previous Mayor of London did not seem to think this was an unacceptable state of affairs that had to be changed. There also seems to be quite a wide measure of public support for having the railways in public ownership, judging by opinion poll data.
However, I will use the time I have—indeed, I shall not take up all the time I now have—to raise a few specific questions with the Government on issues that potentially affect reliability and quality of service. In so doing, I make it clear that I would be more than happy to receive the responses in a letter following this debate.
Recently the Secretary of State wrote—as set out towards the end of the helpful House of Lords Library briefing for this debate—that, while one of his “biggest priorities” was northern transport projects,
“they must be designed and managed by the North itself”,
“It is not up to central government to grasp these opportunities”.
He said this despite the fact that Transport for the North is dependent on central government for the necessary resources to carry out projects of substance. In the light of rumours—let us hope that that is all they are—that seem to be circulating, can the Minister give a clear assurance that the Government are not contemplating or considering any change in the status, role or powers of Transport for the North?
I would also be obliged if the Minister could clarify—I sometimes get confused by this—which electrification proposals or schemes, or parts of electrification proposals or schemes, have recently been abandoned and which have been officially paused or deferred. I refer in particular to the Great Western electrification, the Midland Main Line electrification, the electrification of the trans-Pennine route and the Oxenholme to Windermere electrification.
On the Great Western electrification, when will the electrification of the route into Bristol now be completed—assuming that this part has been deferred or paused and not abandoned? As has already been said, at a time when the Government are seeking to reduce the use of diesel fuel and vehicles on our roads, they have just made a decision on railway electrification which will increase the expected future use of diesel power on our railways. The Government’s left hand does not always seem to know what their right hand is doing.
As is clear from this debate, we all want to see the railways expand and progress and have a successful future. However, this Government have almost certainly cancelled or deferred more electrification projects than any previous Government, on top of their record of hitting passengers by increasing fares faster than the rate of inflation at a time of austerity and no or low pay increases.
To come back to the Great Western electrification, what aspects of the contracts with Hitachi are having to be revised or renegotiated in the light of the Government’s decision to delay or abandon parts of the electrification scheme? Since the new bi-modal trains will now have to be used more than expected in diesel rather than electric mode, running costs and maintenance costs are likely to be even higher. That is on top of the fact that the bi-modal trains are presumably heavier than all-electric trains, since they have a diesel engine to carry around, which in itself already makes them more expensive, with higher running costs. Electric trains are usually regarded as being more reliable and cheaper to run than diesel trains. Do the Government accept that view?
There has recently been a change to the operation of the south-western franchise. Is the introduction or extension of driver-only operation included as part of the contract signed by the new operator of the south-western franchise?
On the issue of reliability, how much of the network grant to Network Rail, both in the current period and the next, is needed to meet contractual commitments to franchise operators under franchise agreements covering, for example, infrastructure improvements and levels and standards of maintenance—and thus presumably is not an amount that can be cut by central government—and how much of the network grant to Network Rail is potentially vulnerable since it could be cut by the Government without adversely impacting on contractual commitments with franchise operators under franchise agreements?
Talking of franchise agreements—this relates to something that the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, said—how much have train operators been fined or otherwise penalised under the terms of their franchise agreements, and how many operators, for poor performance?
The Government’s statement of funds available in the period from April 2019 to March 2024, states that the Secretary of State is,
“looking to the ORR to ensure a strong and robust challenge on cost and deliverability. An important part of this will be to support an ambitious implementation of route devolution to deliver the benefits of competition and improved understanding of costs through better benchmarking”.
Can the Government say what precisely “route devolution” means in this context and what it is expected to deliver, and what is the nature and extent of the competition that will be created, as referred to in the statement of funds available?
I repeat that I would be happy with a written response to the questions I have asked, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the many interesting and different points and issues raised during the course of this debate.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their enthusiastic and expert contributions this evening, and in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for providing us with the opportunity to discuss this important issue. I also thank noble Lords for their kind words of welcome, and I look forward to working with all noble Lords on all issues around transport. It is a great pleasure that my first speaking duty as Transport Minister is to debate one of the most important challenges for every transport mode: reliability. I hope that noble Lords will bear with me if I am not able to answer all questions on day two of this brief. If I am unable to answer everything tonight, I will write.
Other than safety, there is no more important goal for the rail industry than to deliver reliable services for passengers. This is why the Government are investing at record levels in all our rail services. In October, the Secretary of State announced our intention to commit some £47.9 billion to improve the reliability of the rail network in the next control period. This is on top of the current record levels of investment, which will see £50 billion spent on reliability and transformational infrastructure enhancements. All that is in addition to the £55 billion already planned for HS2. Of course, high-speed rail is not just about faster trains; it will add desperately needed capacity to a network that is already under unprecedented strain.
There is no denying the fact that, as trains vie for space on a network unchanged in size since 1996, reliability has suffered, as several noble Lords have mentioned. Therefore, although we are dealing with a problem that is associated with success, not failure, we recognise that passengers have not always had the high-quality service that they deserve. One of the most effective measures for improving reliability has already been introduced: namely, allowing the industry to forward plan with certainty by replacing annual industry funding cycles with five-year control periods.
We are also fully focused on what can be done in the shorter term and are taking steps to deepen the collaboration between Network Rail and train operators on a franchise-by-franchise basis. This alliancing will create a culture of shared responsibility with the aim of achieving one goal—a more reliable service for passengers.
I have many more examples of what the Government are doing to improve reliability across the country, but I am keen to answer as many questions from noble Lords as I can, so I will move on to those and perhaps return to the other matters.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, and my noble friend Lord Patten raised the issue of better performance measures. We are working with the industry to improve the focus on right-time arrivals. The noble Baroness rightly explained that at the moment we rely on arrivals within five or 10 minutes of the due time, which is not ideal. For the next five-year control period we will be reporting on-time performance at each and every station—that is, arrival within a minute of due time. There will be a heightened focus on performance, and it is hoped that this will improve reliability as the industry becomes more accountable to passengers.
The noble Baroness also asked about compensation. Again, we are working with the industry to try to improve this, most notably through the Delay Repay 15 scheme. However, we recognise that this is not always good enough and, as I said, we are working to improve it further.
My noble friend Lord Patten asked about the rail ombudsman. This was a manifesto commitment and we are working to deliver it as soon as we can. The ombudsman will help industry and government to identify issues of general consumer concern. I can confirm that we and the industry are very clear that the ombudsman must be independent.
I anticipated that my noble friend Lord Patten might raise the Tisbury issue. I am afraid to say that I understand that Network Rail’s Wessex Route Study concluded that the forecast levels of growth between Salisbury and Exeter did not justify the need for additional sections of double track.
My noble friend Lord Patten and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about the remedies available if franchises fail to deliver. All our franchises include a provision to take enforcement action in the event that a franchise fails to deliver on the obligations to which it has committed.
The noble Lord, Lord Snape, provided me with an education on bridge-bashing incidents. I believe that Network Rail is currently running a campaign to educate haulier drivers, but I will certainly take that issue back to the department to discuss it further—as I will the issue of suicides on track.
I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talk about Colne, with his numerous examples from “Colne Talk”. I was unaware of the issue but I certainly got the message, and we will take up his concerns with Northern Rail, including the need for bus substitution.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked about the age of maintenance equipment. I am afraid that I will have to get back to him on that, although I can tell him that the example he gave was older than I am.
I can confirm that the Government are absolutely committed to working with the rail freight industry to support its continued success. I have not yet read the report from the National Infrastructure Commission but I will certainly do so. The noble Lord also made interesting points about Network Rail and I will reflect on them.
The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, spoke about Southern Rail, I am very sorry to hear of his personal experience. We are of course all aware of the frustrations that passengers feel. I reassure all noble Lords that we are doing our best to resolve the issue. The performance of Southern is still not good enough. It has improved in recent months but, as the noble Lord mentioned, in the four-week period to 14 October only 80% of trains met the PPM target—which, as we discussed, is getting a train to its final destination within five minutes of its scheduled time.
We are determined to tackle overcrowding. A key aim of our investment strategy is to increase capacity for passengers, including with the new high-capacity 12-car trains on the Brighton route. We are working with train operators to improve the information available to passengers so that they can make an informed decision on how to locate the less busy services.
My noble friend referred to the £20 million announcement which we made in 2016 as an initial package. In January, the DfT also announced a £300 million package for work on Southern’s routes. The funding will improve reliability and allow us to replace old track, old points and signals and deal with some of the structural repairs in tunnels. We are working very closely with GTR to hold it to account.
The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, spoke in support of HS2. Of course, this will form the new backbone of our national rail network, providing new capacity and better connecting our major cities while creating more space for commuter and freight trains on our busiest lines. This will cut congestion and improve service reliability. I look forward to working with noble Lords when we take the next iteration of the Bill through the House.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, raised the issue of the East Midlands franchise. I would be delighted to meet with the noble Lord to discuss that in detail further. I am afraid that I do not have a more detailed response at the moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, raised a number of points on electrification and bi-mode trains. Our decision to not progress with some electrification was made in order to deliver benefits to passengers sooner than otherwise would have been possible. While I listened carefully to his detailed questions, I will take him up on his offer to respond in writing and I thank him for that.
I thank all noble Lords for participating in this evening’s debate. Our railways are crucial to their daily users and to the UK’s long-term economic prosperity. However, their success is determined predominantly by the reliability of the services they offer. We have a strategy for turning this round. We have a clear vision for change and industry collaboration; unprecedented investment, past and future, targeted directly at the causes of poor performance; transformative infrastructure schemes across the country that will reduce congestion and improve reliability; brand new trains for passengers across the north, south, east and west of the country; and investment in electrification, bi-mode trains and state-of-the-art digital technology where it will best serve passengers. All of this is aimed at one outcome: improving reliability.
The Government are committed to providing funding for the framework and the incentives that the industry needs to improve performance and give passengers the reliability they expect from a 21st-century railway.
House adjourned at 8.17 pm.