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11 Mar 2008 : Column 57WH—continued

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): It is a pleasure to see you presiding today, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing this debate. I am reliably informed that the Government Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), suffered a similar experience on the train journey mentioned by the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire, but later on the day in question. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman therefore accepts that this is not personal and that there is no attempt by the Government to make his life more difficult than it is at the moment. There may well be occasions when we would want to do that, but this was not one of them.

The right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) have raised some serious issues that I will try to address and, if I am unable to deal with all of those, I will ensure that we write to both of them.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris)—the rail Minister—apologises for not being able to respond to this debate personally, but he will be informed of the discussion. He will be pleased to hear some of the compliments made by the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire at the beginning of his speech and he will be dismayed to hear the accounts of the difficulties articulated by both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Wellingborough.

The unfortunate, regrettable and lengthy delay experienced on the East Midlands Trains midland main line service on Sunday 2 March 2008 had two causes. The first was scheduled major engineering works on the midland main line and the second was an incidence of cable theft on the diversionary route that had to be used as a consequence of the closure of a section of the main line.

The closure of the midland main line was due to planned Network Rail major engineering works and essential heavy maintenance on Saturday nights and Sundays between 3 February and 23 March 2008. That resulted in train services being diverted off the midland main line, south of Barrow upon Soar, to the diversionary
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route line via Manton and Corby—part of which, from Corby to Kettering, is currently a freight-only route—rejoining the midland main line north of Kettering. Consequently, journey times were longer than normal due to services running over a slower route than on the main line. The diversionary route south of Corby towards Kettering is also single line, which severely restricts capacity and increases journey times. The section of track that was closed is two-track and there is no possibility of carrying out the necessary works without the diversion. The cycle of engineering works means that this route will have to be closed at weekends each year at this time. I understand that this will be frustrating for weekend passengers. Disruption is an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence of maintenance work that is essential for the continuing drive to deliver a safer, faster and more reliable rail network.

Increasing demand for travel has brought a growth in passenger services on the network and the introduction of newer, faster trains—Class 222s on the midland main line—has resulted in increased maintenance work across the network. Maintenance and renewal work is specifically programmed to avoid impacting on peak commuter travel periods when many more people use the trains. The alternative to major engineering work would be temporary speed restrictions, which would affect many more passengers commuting and travelling every working day. Using temporary speed restrictions would not stop, but would only serve to slow the degradation of the track and would eventually result in more extensive engineering work to provide continued use of the line.

As maintenance and renewal work is frequently carried out at weekends, leisure fares are available all day on Saturdays and Sundays and higher business fares do not apply. National Rail Enquiries has details of engineering works and extended journey times, which are published on train operating companies' websites and at stations.

The first that East Midlands Trains knew about the disruption was the failure of signals in the Corby area. The true nature of the disruption was known only later in the evening, which resulted in some confusing communication from staff to passengers, as the right hon. Gentleman explained. As he said, staff endeavour to provide as much information to customers as they possibly can—they did so at the time—but clearly they are reliant on accurate information being supplied to them.

A joint Network Rail and East Midlands Trains control centre is being created in Derby, which will enable the sharing of information and allow people to work together to manage any incidents, including providing timely and accurate communications to staff and passengers. That will be completed by May this year and therefore ought to overcome the difficulties raised by the right hon. Gentleman.

Over the past two years, a cross-industry possessions review led by the independent Office of Rail Regulation has been examining how to address best the growing mismatch between the increasing demand for travel and the service availability of the rail network. That has produced a new cross-industry consensus and a determination to develop ways to enable major reductions in the disruption that arises from engineering works. Critically, how to do so without compromising the safety of passengers and staff will also be considered. Network Rail, which is responsible for programming all
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engineering, renewal and maintenance work, is leading the development of a strategy to deliver on that so that, within seven years, rail users should enjoy a seven-day railway service. The strategy includes initiatives to reduce the typical duration of renewals works to track and bridges from 54 hours over a weekend to eight hours or less overnight.

The second cause of the delay was the theft of 200m of signal cable near Corby on Sunday, which I am advised happened at around 5pm—I know that the right hon. Gentleman said that he was advised that it happened earlier. That put signals out of action and delayed all consequent services. Trains could not be diverted back on to the main line because Network Rail engineers had started their activities and work was in progress. The diversionary route south of Corby is single line, and the emergency procedures in such cases entail trains being allowed through the single line section only if an authorised staff member is travelling on the train—known as a human token. That ensures total safety in the absence of signals and prevents more than one train being present on the single line section at any one time. There is an initial delay while procedures are put in place and staff located to operate them, and a further delay as the authorised person switches from one train to the next. Without signal cable, individual points have to be manually operated.

The British Transport Police are well aware of the widespread problem of cable theft and are trying to tackle it. They encourage better housekeeping and security to discourage theft in the first place and use helicopter patrols and covert and overt police action. They have also targeted scrapyards and metal dealers. Because of the risk to lives and the disruption that it can cause to train services, the BTP chief constable has described line side cable theft as

To assist in the fight against cable theft, Network Rail and East Midlands Trains have jointly offered a £10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of cable thieves who stole cable in January at Pye Bridge between Derby and Chesterfield. That demonstrates a serious commitment to supporting the police in efforts to fight this type of crime. On Monday 28 January 2008, the BTP conducted a day of action and undertook a number of operations to target metal thieves and clamp down on copper cable theft from the railway. Notable success was achieved and four men were convicted in Leeds in February 2007. In addition, three men were jailed for a total of 17 years in London and in Cleveland an operation involving 30 officers resulted in 10 arrests.

If passengers experience delays on top of the extended journey times set out in the national rail timetable, normal delay provisions in the operating company’s passenger’s charter prevail. There are currently two types of compensation payable to passengers of East Midlands Trains. One form of compensation is vouchers or cash given to holders of tickets for problems with one-off journeys. In practice, that is valid for all types of single, return or seven-day tickets. The second form of compensation applies to holders of season tickets valid for one month or longer. The season ticket compensation scheme is not valid on Sundays, but compensation for other tickets is available. For season tickets, a discount
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is given on season ticket renewal at the time of purchase. Delays and cancellations caused by incidents beyond the control of the rail industry are excluded from both compensation schemes, as the right hon. Gentleman has said. Such incidents include security alerts, vandalism and trespass.

As the right hon. Gentleman outlined, from 2009 the two sets of arrangements will become one and the new “delay repay” regime will apply to all ticket holders, which will compensate all passengers for delays regardless of cause. That is a new departure for the rail industry and has changed years of custom and practice. The scheme is being phased in to allow for systems to be altered, staff to be trained and passengers to be informed. That is one of the many tasks that the new franchise has committed to in the first years of operation and was negotiated as part of the bidding process.

Mr. McLoughlin: Is the Minister saying that that will be available across the whole rail network or will it just be applicable to that particular franchise? I realise that he may wish to obtain further information on that point, but it would be interesting to know the answer.

Jim Fitzpatrick: As I understand it, I am advised that it is for the franchise operations. However, on that question and the questions about whether it is possible to advance the introduction of the arrangements, I will ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport who is responsible for rail, to write to the right hon. Gentleman. As I say, because it was part of the negotiations for the franchise, I suspect that that part of the contract will have to be honoured. However, I am happy to consider that matter on his behalf and respond in writing in due course.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough raised the issue of services at Wellingborough. There are currently two trains an hour to London, Leicester and further north. A new timetable will be introduced in December 2008 that will provide a service of two trains an hour from Wellingborough to London and one an hour from Wellingborough to Leicester, supplemented by extra trains at peak times. The reduction in services from Wellingborough northbound is due to the introduction of a new Corby to London service. Capacity constraints on the main line mean that the Corby service cannot be introduced without the reduction in services at Wellingborough.

The reduction of northbound services from Wellingborough reflects existing travel patterns. Industry records show that there are relatively few journeys from Wellingborough to points north. The December 2008 timetable will allow faster journey times to Sheffield and Derby because fast trains will no longer have to stop at some of the intermediate stations that will be served by the revised Wellingborough to London trains, which will start from Kettering. There is a franchise obligation in the new east midlands franchise to spend £2.6 million by 31 March 2014 on enhancements or refurbishment at 11 premier stations, one of which is Wellingborough.

The right hon. Member for West Derbyshire asked about the figures being passed from franchisee to franchisee. The matter that he raised was part of the considerations on deficiencies in the previous franchise arrangements, so it is now incumbent on new franchisees to pass on
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those passenger numbers and data when they pass on their franchises to subsequent operators. That will ensure that the deficiency that has been spotted is dealt with in future. Historically, that is the reason why it was not dealt with in the past.

In conclusion, since 1996, rail passenger kilometres have increased by 45 per cent. People are now travelling further by rail than in any other year.

Sir Peter Soulsby: The hon. Member for Wellingborough mentioned the small number of additional carriages that are destined for the east midlands main line. Does the Minister agree that if the service to Corby that has been mentioned is to be provided and the increased need for capacity on the main line is to be met, the Department ought to encourage the industry to revisit those projections and ensure that that main line gets the additional carriages that it needs to deal with existing capacity problems, never mind deal with predicted growth?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am happy to ensure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport is informed of the points on capacity made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) and the hon. Member for Wellingborough, and that he is told of the request for the matter to be revisited.

In 2003-04, for the first time since 1961, more than a billion rail journeys were made and the number of rail journeys increased further in each of the next three years. We have committed £15 billion in Government support for the railway up to 2014, so that the industry can plan against a secure funding commitment. Among other things, the money will procure the 1,300 new carriages, as mentioned in previous debates.

I thank the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire for initiating this debate. I hope that I have covered at least some of the concerns that he and other hon. Members have expressed and that I have offered them the prospect that matters are in hand.

11 Mar 2008 : Column 62WH

Woodhead Rail Route

1.29 pm

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I think that this is my first opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, and it is not unwelcome. The debate is about the future of the very important Woodhead rail route, which crosses the Pennines from Sheffield to Manchester. The campaign to have the rail route reopened has attracted much interest. The case for reopening it, which is well encapsulated by the slogan “Crossrail for the north”, is supported not only by campaign groups such as the Campaign for Better Transport and Friends of the Peak Park but by the Northern Way group, the city councils of Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds, and IPPR North. That body said:

Apart from the environmental case that I have outlined, what is the case for reopening the rail route? Rail passenger numbers are growing faster in the north than in the rest of the country, and there is increasing demand for rail freight. With a population of 14.5 million, the north is equivalent to a medium-sized European country, such as Sweden. It has a large internal market and its economy is worth in excess of £200 billion. The north has undergone a revival in the past nine years—I would say, of course, that that is thanks to the Labour Government. Its economy is stronger now than at any time in the past 40 years, and employment is at a post-war high.

Research recently published by the Northern Way shows that potential demand to move containers to and from the north’s ports and across the Pennines is in excess of what the railway network can currently accommodate. In an earlier debate today, it was mentioned that Immingham alone carries 20 per cent. of the in-and-out freight traffic of the United Kingdom; 64 million tonnes of freight go through that port alone. If we add Grimsby and Hull to that, we see just how important the Humber estuary is to the north’s economy.

Based on the work that the Northern Way has carried out to date, it is likely that a new higher-speed rail route across the Pennines will need to be built in the next 15 to 20 years or so. Successful delivery of the Northern Way’s goal of closing the £30 billion productivity gap in relation to the north’s economy will result in faster rates of passenger growth than the Government assumed in the recent White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”.

The view of the groups that I named earlier, as well as of the many MPs who have signed early-day motion 459, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), is that the Woodhead rail route offers the most cost-efficient option for building trans-Pennine capacity in the long term. It also offers the most environmentally sustainable option. Indeed, the view is that only the 1953 Woodhead tunnel route offers the prospect of a broadly non-contentious means of enhancing cross-Pennine capacity sustainably. The alternative would be a brand new route, which would entail large-scale tunnelling, the cost and environmental
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consequences of which could militate against its adoption as the preferred policy. That is why there is such opposition to any use of the 1953 tunnel by National Grid for recabling work, unless there is a commitment from National Grid to maintain all three tunnels and to return the cabling to the Victorian tunnels as and when the rail route is required to be brought back into use.

There is an economic case and an environmental case for a Crossrail for the north. The economic case is strong. The existing Hope Valley line is exactly that—much of the time, those who use it do so more in the hope than the expectation of getting to their destination—and there never was a more inappropriately named rail service than the Manchester airport “express” from Cleethorpes to Manchester. I shall give some examples. The journey from Sheffield to Manchester airport on that line, a distance of 30 miles, takes a minimum of one hour and 20 minutes. Sheffield to Newcastle, a distance of 134 miles, takes two hours and 20 minutes—two hours minimum, actually. Doncaster to London—a route well known to my right hon. Friend the Minister—takes a minimum of one and three quarter hours; that is for a distance of 140 miles. The case is clear.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): My hon. Friend represents one end of the Woodhead tunnel and I represent the other. She is absolutely right when she talks of the Hope Valley line, which is not even capable of running fast—I use the word euphemistically—and slow trains at the same time, let alone taking significant amounts of freight. Does she agree that over the years there has also been considerable support from the private sector for the Woodhead freight route, which would take pressure off Hope and the other existing trans-Pennine routes?

Ms Smith: My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, I was contacted only yesterday by one of those companies about this issue. The Woodhead line used to take Sheffielders to Manchester and vice versa in half an hour. That is the improvement offered and that is why there is a much better option for freight on the Woodhead line. We clearly need new capacity, and the Woodhead route offers the potential to link effectively to the east coast and west coast main line networks.

Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. Does she agree that investment in transport needs channelling in the right direction? The fact that it takes just over two hours to go from Wakefield to London by train and that it takes 40 minutes to go from Halifax to Wakefield, which is 10 miles away, speaks volumes. Does she agree that the investment needs to be in the regional links that link to the main line stations, such as Leeds and Wakefield, to improve travelling times and connections?

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