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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 13 March 2007

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Inter-city Rail Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Cawsey.]

9.30 am

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on an issue of great importance to my constituency and my city. The issues that affect Edinburgh affect other communities up and down the country, so I shall want to speak about some of the wider issues, draw some lessons and make some proposals.

I want to raise issues about the east coast main line, the cross-country franchise and the longer term future of the inter-city rail network in the UK. Those are vital links for Edinburgh. They are vital for business and tourism, and therefore for economic prosperity, as well as for family and friends. Some 2 million people in Scotland have links to families south of the border, so the long-term future of the rail network is important for them, too.

We are discussing the issue at a crucial time for the rail network. As hon. Members will know, the east coast main line is up for retender, decisions are to be taken about the cross-country franchise and there is an ongoing debate about the longer term strategy for the rail network. I will say something about that last point in my concluding remarks.

The service operated along the east coast by Great North Eastern Railway is recognised as of a reasonable quality. I agree with that. I frequently use the service—most recently yesterday—and there is a high rate of satisfaction among passengers on the line. The starting point has to be the retender. There should be no deterioration in any service provided by a new operator. Some of the operators who have been shortlisted for the new tender have in the past been associated with rail services that have not always been as popular with their customers as the GNER service has been. We do not want any deterioration in the service, and I would be grateful if the Minister can tell us what he intends to do to ensure that the starting point is maintained.

I want to see—I am sure that cities along the line and users of the line will want to see it, too—the retendering process used to improve the east coast main line service to benefit passengers up and down the route. I am grateful to have seen a recent report by Edinburgh city council that highlighted some of the difficulties that have arisen over the past few years because of what has happened to the operating and regulatory framework for the east coast main line since 2000. The council rightly states that

I agree with the comments from Passenger Focus, which has concluded:

The Government have certainly shown signs that they recognise that—for example, in the strategy that they are developing for the railways—but it must be emphasised that a period of certainty and long-term planning is required, not only for the east coast main line but for the rail network in general.

The uncertainty is bound to have negative consequences. The quality of the staff on the GNER service is good. I am always impressed by their commitment to the service and the facilities that they give passengers. It surely cannot be good for the morale of staff to be uncertain of who their employer will be from year to year. No matter how good the staff are, that cannot help. As well as the intangible effects of such uncertainty, the possibility of improvement for the passengers as a result of the retendering process has not been fully taken up. The process has had a shorter term perspective, inevitably, over the past few years, notwithstanding the attempts to have a longer franchise introduced.

There have been two significant improvements in the service from Edinburgh—and that from Aberdeen, Miss Begg—to London over the past seven years. We have seen a welcome refurbishment of train interiors and the introduction of wi-fi internet, which is used by an increased number of passengers. However, although we had seen an increase in the number of direct services between London and Edinburgh, in 2007 that dropped back to the number that we had in 1996. Average journey times, which had increased to four hours and 42 minutes in 2005, have only now been restored to an average of four hours and 35 minutes, which is not a significant improvement since the service was first upgraded. As passengers will know, no trains are now running the regular four-hour service that was originally provided for when the service was upgraded back in the 1980s.

Clearly, a longer term perspective is needed. The issues cannot be addressed merely through short-term renegotiations. They need to be emphasised because they highlight the longer term perspective that we need to adopt in our policy towards the east coast main line. As far as the renegotiations are concerned, I endorse the shopping list put forward by Edinburgh city council to represent that community in the renegotiated franchise. It is a reasonable list of proposals, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give some suggestion that the Government will be faithful to it in the renegotiation procedures. First, there should be reduced journey times between Edinburgh and London. We need to see more journeys completed within four hours or just above that time, with commensurate benefits for the stations further north of Edinburgh and south of the city. That will mean that passengers in Newcastle, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), or in Stockton and Darlington can enjoy the faster services that they have
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a right to expect in this day and age. [Interruption.] I had better give way to my hon. Friend, as I think that he wants to intervene.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): No.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am sorry. I misunderstood my hon. Friend’s indication of approval from his sedentary position. Those passengers, too, should have those benefits.

We want, too, to see a half-hourly service between Edinburgh and London throughout the day. At times of the day, there is a half-hourly service, but only for part of the day. As any transport operator will say, it is not only the length of the journey but the frequency and regularity of a service that attracts passengers to particular modes of transport. There must be a continuing requirement for Network Rail to continue to strengthen the overhead electrification network’s physical robustness and capacity. Anyone who travels on that line will know the dread announcement over the public announcement system that there is a problem with the overhead line somewhere ahead. If that happens, the journey can be extended by one or two hours, and sometimes by six, seven or eight hours. When the line was electrified in the first place, the system was not as strong as it ought to have been to cope with physical interruption.

On the theme of electrification, there ought to be a commitment to fill some of the gaps in the network that would be ideal candidates for electrification to allow the direct running of electrified, high-quality services between different points on the network. One proposal by GNER, for example, is the line between Leeds and York. It would allow much better use of the link to Leeds from the north, so that passengers from Newcastle, from the north-east of England and from Edinburgh and further north in Scotland could have a higher quality, more frequent direct service to Leeds, and ongoing connections from Leeds to Yorkshire and further points in that part of the country.

There is also a need to develop a clearer, simpler and cheaper fares structure. It has been reported on many occasions that it is often cheaper to travel by air than by rail for some important journeys in the UK. I am aware that if people book rail tickets well in advance, they can get tickets that compare favourably with even the cheapest budget air prices in the UK, but the fact is that at times the system is not easy to use, nor is it very flexible. Again that must be addressed in renegotiating the franchises.

A retendering process is under way. I would not expect the Minister to provide specific commitments today—if he wishes to do so, I certainly would not throw away the opportunity—but I hope that he will give some indication of how the Government will approach the issues, and that he will give reassurances that passengers, consumers and customers in my city and along the line have every right to expect.

I also hope that operators—no doubt they will listen to today’s debate or at least ensure that they are aware of the content of comments made by Members, and certainly those made by the Minister—will recognise
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that MPs from many communities up and down the country support my list of proposals, and that we expect operators to respond positively when they make proposals for the new tender.

Let me turn briefly to the cross-country franchise, another one for which negotiations are under way. Again, it is an important link for much of England and central Scotland. Specifically, given my interest, it is an important link for Edinburgh. In fact, 10 per cent. of all rail journeys from Edinburgh are on the cross-country service, and there are several concerns about it that affect my community and, no doubt, areas along the line as well.

The first concern is the possible transfer, as I understand it, of the Scotland to Birmingham service—more generally the service on the west coast main line—to the west coast franchise. There is concern that overall service levels should, at the very least, be maintained. Indeed, I hope that they will be improved.

There is concern about a proposal that more journeys will require a change of train at Birmingham. If that is to be the case, it is certainly important that there be a significant improvement in the services north of Birmingham to compensate for the fact that passengers would have to change at Birmingham for services to some points in the south of England.

Another concern that has been expressed to me by several passengers’ organisations and by rail passengers directly is the proposed transfer of the Edinburgh to Manchester trains to the TransPennine Express franchise. That is causing worries to rail users. At present, there are no guarantees that overall service levels on the route will be maintained, or, as they ought to be, improved. To be blunt, the present train service between Edinburgh and Manchester is not what it could be in terms of quality of stock and the time that it takes to travel between the two cities and, obviously, places en route. The journey time between Edinburgh and Manchester is not significantly different from that between Edinburgh and London, even though it is half the distance.

Clearly, if passengers are to be encouraged to use alternatives to air travel, they should be able to think that short journeys such as that from Edinburgh to Manchester are significantly better by rail, when they take into account the associated time of travelling to airports and so on, than by air. At present, the service does not meet that standard for journey times.

It is important to take advantage of the massive upgrading that has been done on the west coast main line when the new arrangements are put into effect. Money has been spent on that line. Surely, we should make absolutely certain that the route from Edinburgh to Manchester is able to use the tilting-train technology that is now used on the west coast main line so that there could be a significant improvement on existing journey times from Edinburgh to Manchester.

Of course, the issue is not just about the line between Edinburgh and Manchester and the stations along it. It is also about the connections from Edinburgh northwards and westwards throughout Scotland, the connections from Manchester to areas in that part of England and the links to Manchester airport. As I said, this is a matter of great importance, and I hope that
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the Minister will give us some indication of the Government’s thinking, particularly about the use of tilting trains in the new franchise.

Furthermore, the Minister should bear it in mind that TransPennine Express has no depot or crew facility in Scotland. If it is to be the franchisee, some provision must be made for a depot and crew in Scotland. Clearly, the potential for difficulties, particularly with early morning trains, will be magnified if the operator is not based in the part of the country where the route starts.

We would like, at the minimum, an hourly train between Edinburgh and the south of Birmingham, ideally with the flexibility to run trains every two hours to the south-west of England and every two hours to the south coast.

Another aspect that will become even more crucial if there is to be a break in the service at Birmingham such that there will be fewer through trains from Scotland to the south of England, is the need to maintain the current opportunity that cross-country passengers have to access lower fares across the franchise. If there will be a requirement to use different operators at different points in the service, there will obviously be a danger that passengers will not be able to access the same types of reduced fares that are available with advance booking and so on. That could have an effect on passengers travelling from Edinburgh to Gatwick airport, for example, or to Brighton, Portsmouth or Southampton. We would want some guarantees about the availability of low fares across the routes that are currently operated by the cross-country franchise.

Clearly, issues about the east coast main line and the cross-country franchise are important to Edinburgh and many other communities along the line, but, by the nature of the franchise negotiations, they are primarily short-term concerns. We are talking about making significant improvements with the existing routes, network and technology, and I recognise that only so much can be done in the short term under current franchise negotiations. I want to take a few minutes today to consider some of the longer term issues in respect of the future of rail services in Great Britain, with particular relevance to how they will affect Edinburgh.

One reason why we have problems in making the best use of the current rail network and in combining the need for faster services with the need for adequate services to communities en route is that capacity is limited. The welcome increase in rail passenger use has been accompanied by pressures on the capacity of the rolling stock and of the network. I very much welcomed the Government’s announcements about providing new rolling stock, but we cannot get away from the fact that we also need to address the capacity of the rail network itself—the capacity of tracks to take more, ideally faster, trains.

We must provide substantial extra capacity in the rail network to allow us to meet future demand in the next five, 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 years. We should take the opportunity to provide increased capacity. It would allow passengers throughout Great Britain to use the type of high-speed services that our Edinburgh neighbours are used to but which in the rest of Britain will be enjoyed later this year only on the short stretch
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from St. Pancras to the channel tunnel, when the channel tunnel link is finally fully open and taking passenger services.

I am not one of those who believe that we can create a French-style TGV network simply by drawing lines on a map and spending tens of billions of pounds. We need to think of the economies involved and the business case to be made for such investment. It is all too easy to start playing amateur railway builder and planning the ideal rail system for the United Kingdom without thinking of the costs that would be involved.

In passing, I observe that we should not be too ready to criticise some of our European partners or other nations for developing high-speed rail networks. That policy is being adopted by more and more European countries, and by countries elsewhere in the world. I suggest that they cannot all be wrong in deciding that the development of a comprehensive high-speed network is the right way to go.

I accept that we cannot set up a high-speed rail network just because we think it a good idea. We should have good economic and transport arguments, and environmental ones too. The fact is that much work has already been done by the Strategic Rail Authority, and we also have the Atkins report. That highlighted the economic viability of high-speed rail links and a high-speed network for the UK.

It is important for the Government to indicate their long-term strategic approach to the development of high-speed rail links and to say, when they consider the long-term strategy for rail later this summer, whether high-speed rail has a role in the UK. I hope that the Minister will give us some indication of the Government’s thinking.

Last year, as hon. Members will know, the Eddington report was fairly sceptical about high-speed rail. I have to be blunt: I have heard much criticism of the report. I have read it in full, and if I had the time I would certainly take issue with a number of points in the analysis and conclusions.

Dr. Kumar: My hon. Friend said that the Eddington report was sceptical about the north-south link, but I thought that it rejected the fast north-south link, although the reasons were not clear.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am clear why Eddington rejected it, but his conclusions do not justify that rejection. For example, I do not agree with his analysis of the environmental benefits. He also gave insufficient consideration to the benefits of freight and passenger services making more use of the space that would be made available by new high-speed links freeing capacity on the existing network.

On a number of points, Eddington’s analysis is limited. However, even he does not reject high-speed rail. To some extent, he argues against what is described as a very high-speed rail network, but he really only considers the possibilities of high-speed rail networks that use such things as Maglev technology or those that would require investment on new networks throughout the UK. He does not consider in great detail the possibilities of a more incremental approach to the development of high-speed rail links.

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To be fair, although I criticise Eddington, I qualify my criticism by noting that he concedes the point to a degree. At paragraph 4.174 he states that

Again, he points out in paragraph 4.180 he states:

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