Skip to main content

Railway Services: The Pennines

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 17 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made on the improvement and enhancement of railway services across the Pennines.

My Lords, the TransPennine Express franchise will see brand new trains introduced on the route this year to improve and enhance the service. We also plan to invest £2.9 billion in the trans-Pennine route upgrade to deliver faster, more frequent and more reliable journeys between Manchester, Leeds and York, with work beginning this spring. This is our biggest planned investment project on the existing railway.

My Lords, the problem is that services in the Pennine area, where I live, and in the north as a whole have got worse. One reason for this is the continuing industrial action between Northern, Arriva and the RMT union. There was another strike on Saturday, which I believe is the 45th strike in the past year. Do the Government understand that they specified the services to be provided in the north and that the Northern franchise is a contract between the Government and Arriva? Is it not time that the Government stepped in to assist in sorting out this present shambles?

My Lords, we want to see further significant improvements in reliability for Northern passengers. The problems we have seen have been caused by a number of factors. We are working closely with Transport for the North, which co-manages the franchise, to drive this, and we have seen significant improvements in reliability, especially since the December timetable changes were successfully introduced. But there have been, as the noble Lord points out, more than 40 days of strikes on Northern and ending these strikes would of course significantly improve reliability. Although the disputes are between the union and the train operators, the Government are doing all they can to help resolve the issue.

My Lords, the Minister has announced the improvement in the service. Is it true that Network Rail wrote to the Transport Secretary in September 2018 saying that from next year for the next five years the line will be closed for 39 weeks each year? Is that right?

My Lords, I am afraid I have not seen the letter to which the noble Lord refers. This is a huge project—nearly £3 billion to upgrade the route. Of course, there will be disruption alongside that, but we are working hard to make sure that we get the balance right in ensuring that, while we are improving reliability, there are alternative services. We recently completed upgrade works on the Calder Valley line to ensure that there is an alternative route, and we will set out further plans in due course.

My Lords, further north there is already a railway line linking Clitheroe in Lancashire to Hellifield, which is in turned linked to the Skipton-Carlisle line, that would open up enormous passenger opportunities. That line was closed in 1964 for passenger services, but has continued to be used for freight. Representations have been made to the Government by Lancashire local authorities, including Ribble Valley, asking for the restoration of passenger services on that line. In comparison with things such as HS2, this would call for very little public money to be spent and would link towns in Lancashire with places in Yorkshire. It would be of enormous economic value in the region, and I hope the Government will consider it seriously.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. We have a new approach to rail enhancements—the rail network enhancements pipeline—which is following lessons learned from previous commitments. We are studying each of these cases carefully. I am not sure about the specific line to which the noble Lord refers, but I will certainly follow that up and write to him.

My Lords, the Secretary of State blamed the trade unions for the excessive fare rises at the beginning of this year, but across northern England, as elsewhere, last year passengers had a very poor deal. It was caused by a lot more than trade union action alone. Will the Government consider using a fare freeze in future years for companies that fail to deliver a decent service, as they have promised?

I agree with the noble Baroness that the passenger services provided to many parts of the railway system last year were not acceptable. We are working hard to improve them. I know that passengers who have experienced significant delays will be frustrated with rising fares, but we need to be fair to taxpayers as well as passengers; unlike the special compensation scheme we have introduced, which is funded by industry, it would be down to taxpayers to make up the amount if we froze fares. We think that introducing compensation schemes funded by the franchise companies is the best way to target those most affected.

My Lords, I declare an interest as living in west Cumbria, where the problems we have been hearing about are acute. Does the Minister agree that at the heart of this ongoing story there is an issue about the safety and care of passengers in a one-person operated rail system?

My Lords, passenger safety is our top priority. Driver-controlled operation is safe, and more than 50% of all rail journeys in the UK are made on driver-controlled trains. On the specific issue in question, the Transport Secretary has offered guarantees of employment to members who currently fulfil the role of a second person on the train—that is beyond the length of the franchise.

Will the Minister outline what improvements there will be for Bradford? It is our fifth-largest city, and yet it still takes more than 20 minutes to make the seven-mile journey to Leeds. It is not good enough.

We have extensive investment planned for the north. Northern Powerhouse Rail is currently in the development stage, and options are being considered which include serving Bradford. We will be working closely with cities across the north to deliver those improvements and services.

Does my noble friend have any news on the improvements that are needed on the line between London and Lincoln? Does she realise the acute disappointment that was manifest throughout the House when the special House of Lords awayday had to be postponed, particularly since my noble friend Lord Cormack was looking forward to entertaining us all in sumptuous style in the city of Lincoln?

I thought that a different noble friend would ask that question, but I thank my noble friend for his continued interest in this subject. I have met LNER and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, in an attempt to make progress on this. LNER is hoping to introduce new services to Lincoln from September this year. This is dependent on Network Rail approving its timetable bid, but its services will operate from Monday to Saturday and will include services suitable for day trips from London to Lincoln, so perhaps the awayday could still go ahead.