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Railways: Reliability

Volume 795: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve rail service reliability in 2019.

My Lords, the Government will continue the current record level of funding in our railways, with around £48 billion to be spent on the network from now until 2024. This will support more maintenance and a huge uplift in renewals to increase reliability and punctuality for passengers. We are delivering the biggest rail modernisation programme for more than a century. The department, working alongside Network Rail and other industry partners, is committed to investing in the railways so that we can have a modern, reliable and punctual railway system, fit for the future.

Hmm. I accept absolutely that we have put billions into the rail network and rail services, and yet last year we had the worst service over the year for 13 years and the worst summer for 20 years. Will the Minister answer this very simple question: who is responsible for those improvements and who is in charge?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Lord that we had a difficult year in rail last year. Things are improving: punctuality has improved since this time last year; cancellations and significant lateness have improved as well. Previous investment focused on capacity improvements, which was much needed, given the doubling of the number of passengers. For the next control period, however, the main purpose of our investment is to improve reliability, and that involves repairing and replacing worn-out parts of the network to increase reliability. The Department for Transport is working very closely with Network Rail and train operating companies to deliver that.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for all that she has done to try to ensure that we have the promised more reliable service between London and Lincoln. In particular, I thank her for attending the meeting with the chief executive of LNER and the Member of Parliament for Lincoln shortly before Christmas. Can she give the House any further comfort than she gave last week? LNER has said that it wishes to introduce this service in September, but I believe that we are now dependent on Network Rail. Can she put—I will not say a bomb—a boot behind Network Rail to ensure that it enables LNER to deliver on its promise?

As my noble friend said, LNER is hoping to introduce new services to Lincoln from September. As he also said, this is dependent on Network Rail approving its timetable bid. The lesson we learned from the introduction of the May timetables last year, which caused such significant disruption, was that the industry needs to ensure that it is positively able to deliver the services to which it is committed. I know that Network Rail is working hard on that, and I thank my noble friend and the people of Lincoln for their patience in this matter.

My Lords, what is the Government’s response to Network Rail’s proposal to close the trans-Pennine line from Manchester for 39 weeks each year for the next four years? How will that help reliability?

My Lords, we are working on proposals for the upgrade to the trans-Pennine route. It is a significant project worth nearly £3 billion and it will bring alternative routes. We are working through that and will publish details shortly.

My Lords, the latest quarterly statistics released from the Office of Rail and Road show that the London North Eastern Railway has suffered its worst punctuality levels in over a decade and came second—not an honour—on the list of the 10 worst train services for punctuality. As my noble friend Lord Cormack said, we had hopes for the new Azuma trains, but there is a lack of investment in infrastructure in the north—the signalling systems north of York are over 30 years old. Will the Minister tell us when the necessary infrastructure works will take place in order for these trains to run as they should to serve the people of the north-east and Scotland?

My Lords, we hope that the introduction of the trains will happen soon. There remain challenges relating to electromagnetic compatibility, ORR approvals and train design. Obviously, the delay is disappointing for everybody involved, but we should not lose sight of the benefits of this £2.7 billion investment. Each train will have around 15% greater capacity and, once the full fleet is in service, the upgraded timetable will deliver a 28% increase in capacity, so we look forward to their introduction.

My Lords, the Minister seemed to have some trouble with the question of whose responsibility this is. Can I help her on that matter? The railway is run by Network Rail and the train operating companies. The Secretary of State owns Network Rail—I know he probably does not want to but he does—and is personally responsible for its performance. The train operating companies work to a structure that is devised by the Government and supervised by the Government, and that does not work because the two halves have incompatible objectives. Does she agree that the sooner the train operating companies are brought into public ownership and a properly focused railway is created the better?

It will not surprise the noble Lord to hear that I do not agree with him on that point, but I acknowledge that the rail system as it stands is not perfect. We have an ageing railway, which is at capacity. We need to look at how we run things and that is what we are doing through the rail review. It has been well over a decade since the last big change in the rail network. While we have seen record private investment and many more services, the system has of course had its challenges. We think that the time is right for a comprehensive review to ensure that our railways are run in the best way that they can be.

My Lords, this is a specific example, but one of many that have been brought to my notice. In the three months leading up to Christmas, Southern Rail cancelled the Wallington to Victoria service 205 times and it was delayed 896 times. That is 1,101 times that passengers on that route faced disruption and misery. How can the Government justify a 3.2% fare hike on that route in the light of such appalling service—or are the Government not responsible for the fare hike either?

My Lords, we have frozen fares in line with inflation, but I understand the frustration that people must feel when they have seen such significant disruption. We do of course have a compensation scheme that actually amounts to more than the rail fare freeze would be. On the particular line that the noble Baroness mentioned, London Victoria has 240,000 passengers a day. Over the Christmas and new year period, we did some work to improve reliability and make space for new services, and 99% of those engineering projects were completed on time. We installed new tracks, points, signalling and overhead structures to help improve the reliability of services at London Victoria.