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Railway Timetables: Disruption

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 13 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that full railway timetables are restored as soon as possible, following the disruption caused by staff absences.

My Lords, the department has been working closely with rail operators to mitigate the impact of Covid-related staff absences on train services. Many operators have implemented temporary revised train timetables, which are providing passengers and especially the country’s key workers with certainty so that they can plan their journeys with confidence. The department will continue to work with operators to ensure that services meet demand as staff absence pressures ease.

My Lords, I regret that there was no absolute reassurance in that Answer that timetables would be restored. At the same time as reductions, the Government are requiring train operating companies to make 10% savings and imposing a 3.8% increase on fares for passengers. The Government found the money for freezing fuel duty and reducing domestic APD, but rail passengers face the double whammy of reduced services and higher prices. Does the Minister recognise that the Government should do everything they can to encourage us out of our cars and back on to public transport, but instead government policy is setting the railways up to fail?

I do not agree with the noble Baroness’s assessment that government policy is setting the railways up to fail. We are introducing all sorts of measures under the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail which will improve rail services and make them fit for the future. It is the case that demand is currently running at around 55%; because of Covid absences, we have a temporary timetable in place—I reassure the noble Baroness that it is a temporary timetable, which she will know expires on 26 February. We are working closely with the rail industry in relation to the progress of omicron and how timetables may look in the future.

My Lords, is not the more potent factor in this situation the lack of passengers, which is making train operators wary of introducing services across the country that are visibly empty?

Not entirely, my Lords. Clearly, the rail operators working with the Department for Transport want to provide the services. At the moment, they cannot do so because of Covid pressures on staff, but we will work in the longer term with the rail industry to streamline the passenger offer, to remove duplication of services and to ensure efficiency.

My Lords, we are obviously in the middle of a public health crisis and the Government have difficult decisions to take, but will the Minister repudiate the prophets of doom who somehow think that we are all going to stop travelling in the usual way once Covid has ended? Will she acknowledge that in the periods when we have opened up between the waves of the pandemic, passengers have returned to the railways very quickly—passenger usage on the Tube in London was up to two-thirds before we had the latest lockdown—and that it would be a huge mistake if the Government were to start cutting services, which would discourage people from returning to the railways after 20 years of massive investment in them, which has been a great good news story for this country?

The Government are very keen for passengers to return to the railways. We are working closely with the industry as it supports demand and revenue recovery. However, we accept that there may be enduring changes in the way in which people travel, whether it be for work versus leisure. That is why the Rail Delivery Group is working closely with VisitBritain to establish a new domestic rail tourism product, so that we might perhaps go interrailing around our own nation.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, mentioned the 10% cut that the Treasury has asked all the rail industry to impose. Can the Minister confirm that the Night Riviera sleeper, which keeps Cornwall connected to London and the rest of the country, is safe from this, or will that be cut as part of the 10%?

My Lords, I cannot comment on the Night Riviera sleeper; I wish I could, but I will write if I can find out any information on it. However, we do need to look at our railways to ensure that they are financially sustainable for the future. The Government have committed £14 billion since the start of the pandemic to support our rail sector. We know that in future, we will be looking for workforce reforms and cost efficiencies. We want passengers to come back and, of course, overall, we want an excellent performance for all passengers and freight.

My Lords, the less than full railway timetables are not solely caused by Covid-related staff shortages. The hourly Chester to London and London to Chester direct trains have just disappeared. Whenever I make any queries about the return to the pre-lockdown timetable, I am met with an “It’s Covid, innit?” shrug. Can the Minister look at this cavalier establishment of the new normal as a cover for what are, effectively, cuts in services? Worryingly, it is not just confined to the rail network, but it is always at the expense of the public and it is happening without anyone discussing it.

I am not sure I agree with the noble Baroness. Clearly, we are discussing it today and we have discussed timetables in the past. Timetables are never static: they have changed twice a year for a very long time. It is true that we will be asking the rail industry to submit plans through the routine business-planning process, and it may well be that there are further changes to timetables. We do, however, ask all the rail operators to engage very closely with local communities to ensure that we are able to deliver the right services to the right places.

My Lords, the Government recently announced that 100,000 tests would be made available for key workers, but the Minister will be aware that the number of key workers available is many millions. Can she confirm how much of the 100,000-testing commitment will be designated for public transport, and what proportion of the workforce she expects that to cover?

I do not have the figures with me today, but I can say that those 100,000 tests were actually for critical workers rather than key workers. These people are even more critical than key workers. The sort of places we will be using those tests for are places such as operation centres: you literally cannot replace one person for another when it comes to rail service operators. We are looking at those people without whom we cannot do. That is really important, because they are critical—more critical than some other workers.

My Lords, can the Minister say—she did not really answer the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, fully on this—when we can expect to have a reasonably certain timetable? Those who travel by train regularly need to be able to plan carefully, and many of us feel that, although Covid has been a reason for much, it has been an excuse for many things as well.

I completely accept my noble friend’s point. It is the case that we want all passengers to be able to travel with confidence. At the moment, we are advising passengers to check first, but that is why the process that we put in place because of the Omicron intervention was two-phased. There was a reactive phase over Christmas, which necessitated some short-term cancellations. We knew that employee absences would possibly rise, so that is why we were proactive and put in place this planned timetable just for six to eight weeks until 26 February. That will provide some certainty until then. Then, of course, I would have to ask my noble friend to look at the timetable again.

Earlier, the Minister said that the Government were very keen for passengers to return to the use of rail. What would she say to rail travellers in Yorkshire, who are facing the insult of increases in rail fares totalling nearly 50% over the last 10 years or so, yet are also facing services in relative decline? There will be no HS2, no HS3 and no full electrification. Yorkshire folk like value for money and they are not getting it. What does the Minister have to say to them?

I just point the noble Baroness to the Williams-Shapps plan for rail. There is an enormous amount in there that will be beneficial to passengers in Yorkshire and beyond. We will be looking at ticketing, which is insanely complicated. Sometimes multi-leg ticketing is cheaper than a single leg and it is all slightly mad. Obviously, we will be very passenger-focused to make sure that the right services exist for people in Yorkshire and beyond.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that those drivers of trains on shunter routes are paid less than those on, for example, the east coast main line route and the west coast main line route? Is there any evidence of an exodus of these drivers to earn higher salaries as lorry drivers?

I am not sure that the skills are interchangeable, but it could be that some people have chosen to become HGV drivers instead. However, I reiterate that the rail services that we currently have are not financially sustainable without workforce reforms. That is going to be an absolutely essential part of the way we take forward rail services in this country. We need to make sure that we have the right people on the right trains on the right pay and with the right conditions.