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Passenger Train Services

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 29 April 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the arrangements for the operation of passenger train services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the rail industry implemented amended time- tables on 23 March in response to a decrease in passenger demand and reduced staffing across train operators and Network Rail. Train services have since been amended to ensure that they are meeting the needs of those who cannot work from home, and they are being kept under regular review.

Should not the Department for Transport be thinking now about when we exit from lockdown and looking at increasing rail services, limiting the numbers on each train to allow for social distancing, staggering working hours and protecting workers? Surely it would be wise to talk with Network Rail and Public Health England about such arrangements.

I thank the noble Lord for his Question; he is completely and utterly right, and that is precisely what we are doing.

My Lords, I agree that getting train services back to near full operation is absolutely essential. We have all seen reports recently of plans for physical distancing on platforms and seating on the trains, but can my noble friend the Minister explain how to distance oneself from other passengers on a train when using the narrow aisles or going to the toilet? Would compulsory face masks for everyone on a train be a potential solution?

I thank my noble friend for raising this important issue. Of course, we are being guided by the science and, in looking at how we will re-establish train services, we must look to and work with PHE on implementing the social distancing requirements that will still be in place, and whether face masks will be recommended and will have implications for social distancing. We are completely alive to this issue and it is worth recognising that, if social distancing continues as now, the maximum capacity on all public transport will be significantly reduced.

My Lords, my interest is in the service that LNER east coast provides to Scotland, particularly the north of Scotland. It is maintaining a good service between Kings Cross and Edinburgh, but the services to Inverness and Aberdeen have been discontinued. These measures are understandable for the time being, but it should be understood that having to change trains from the ScotRail services further north to the LNER in Edinburgh is time-consuming and particularly awkward for people who are disabled. Can that be kept carefully under review, and these services be renewed as soon as possible?

The noble and learned Lord is completely right: it is regrettable that some services have to be significantly scaled back, and these are being kept under review. I reassure him that station staff are available to help disabled passengers transfer between trains as necessary.

Can we thank all the staff who are working on the railways through this crisis and putting special arrangements in place? Given that the business model of the franchise is of course bust now and is likely to remain so after the crisis, what is the Government’s thinking: to try to reconstitute franchises on a new basis afterwards, or to move further in the direction of nationalisation?

I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to all transport workers; they have done an astounding job during this crisis. At the moment, we do not know what the long-term implications for rail and indeed other public transport modes will be. However, we believe that there remains an urgent case for modernisation and reform, so we will be looking at the recommendations in the White Paper that will come out of the Williams Rail Review. They will be at the heart of any changes that we make to put the passenger at the heart of our rail system.

Since the Government now have much more control over the rail system, will they take the opportunity to simplify the rail ticketing system and to streamline and improve the procedure for claiming refunds? It is ironic that there are different processes for claiming refunds, given that the Government control the whole thing. In particular, will they ensure that refunds are given to people who hold railcards but are unable to travel at this time?

If the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, is referring to refunds to season tickets at the moment, we have spoken to all train operators and made sure that the process is as simple as possible. We have made sure that claims can be made remotely; we have extended the refund period—the time during which refunds can be made—from 28 days to 56 days; and we have backdated refunds for season tickets to 17 March. To date, £120 million has been paid out on season ticket refunds.

As the Minister has sort of said, this is a once-in-two-generations opportunity to change things and actually reform the railway, so how far is the thinking going? Are the Government thinking about changing the very inefficient and illogical pricing structures? What about accommodating the amount of remote working that might continue after the crisis—plus, of course, opening local lines for residents who are asking for them?

The noble Baroness makes a very important point, which is that there is an opportunity to look in more detail at what changes might be needed. We will have to wait until the Williams Rail Review is published and the recommendations made, but one commitment that the Government have already made is to look at so-called Beeching closures. The Restoring Your Railway Fund has £500 million pledged to it. I reassure the noble Baroness that work on that fund continues and that bids put in for the March round of funding are being assessed. Details of a second round of funding for June were published on GOV.UK recently, so work is going on apace in that area.

My question is about Great Northern/Thameslink, which currently terminates at King’s Cross. The Minister will remember the chaos of the introduction of the new timetable, with a lack of drivers, et cetera. Can she ensure that drivers will be available for this really important link once it reopens all the way to Brighton, and that there will be no excuses about new drivers not knowing the route, about there being insufficient drivers because they are on furlough, or something else?

I reassure my noble friend that we are doing absolutely everything we can to put in place the plans we need to restart the railways. They are operating a significantly reduced service at the moment. The challenges are fairly significant, but we are working very hard to make sure that drivers are available on Thameslink, and indeed on all lines, to make sure that when we can restore services, they can be restored fully.

First, can the Government confirm when the Williams Rail Review will be published? Is the publication date being put back by Covid-19? Secondly, do the Government share the view that the present divided responsibilities, for track and signalling on one hand and train operation on the other, cannot continue and that these divided responsibilities should now be brought together, or at the very least be brought together under an overarching holding company or authority?

On the latter part of the noble Lord’s question, I would not want to pre-empt the Williams Rail Review by giving any indication as to what is in it—mostly because I do not actually know, not being the Rail Minister. On the publication date, I will take that back to the department to see if I can get an updated date for him, and I will write to him.

To what extent will demand for rail services be taken into account when deciding which sectors will be unlocked? How will this be managed given the significant regional variations in the use of rail for commuting?

That is an incredibly important question. I am sure the noble Baroness will understand that we are considering all these issues at the moment. There will be regional variations according to which services are more likely to be used. There will also be variations with long-distance services and short-distance commuter routes. All these considerations are being put in. Also, when restarting public transport, one of the key things that we will have to do is look at local impacts—working with metro mayors, for example, and local transport authorities to make sure that they feed into the system and help us plan for their local economies, to get people back to work.

Decisions and actions have serious consequences in these days. While accepting that there were many factors and issues to consider, will my noble friend the Minister comment on whether her department was satisfied with the decision taken by the Mayor of London and Transport for London to reduce capacity on London Underground passenger trains at peak times, causing dangerous overcrowding?

The department was in close contact with TfL. Certainly, the reductions that it made had some consequences for overcrowding. Since then, we know that TfL has made significant changes to the morning service. It has applied station control measures and is working much more closely with the British Transport Police to make sure that overcrowding does not occur. We remain in close contact with TfL and, as importantly, as we restart the system, these issues will once again come to the fore.

My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I apologise that the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, could not ask his supplementary question. We move now to the second Oral Question.