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4 Feb 2010 : Column 509

The franchise document refers to increased frequency of services between Newcastle and Edinburgh, with no mention of Berwick, Alnmouth or Morpeth. Anyone from the latter places reading the franchise document immediately thinks, "There's nothing in this for us." There is no attempt to specify that there should be an adequate sharing of those trains among some of the stations in Northumberland.

There is scope for a stopping service from Newcastle to Edinburgh. The Scottish Government have been interested in that for some time. They have been considering options such as opening one or two new stations on the Scottish side of the border at, for example, Reston, and having a service that would come through from Scotland and stop at Morpeth, Alnmouth, Berwick and Dunbar, and perhaps some of the intermediate stations such as Acklington or Chathill. I hope that the door is not closed to that possibility, although whether it can be profitable or would require subsidy is not clear. If there is a possibility of a decision in Scotland to offer some element of subsidy to a service, which seems necessary on the Scottish side, I would like to grab hold of the possibility for the English side, too. As I said, as far as train travel is concerned, people do not stop at the border-people who live in Scotland use Berwick station extensively and travel across the border is a great feature of life in our area.

My primary aim in this debate is to get the Minister to make it his business to ensure that services to Berwick, Alnmouth and Morpeth are not reduced, and that they get a net improvement, in both the 2011 timetable and the franchise negotiations and specifications. The Secretary of State has taken a genuine personal interest in the future of the east coast main line, and I want him and the Minister to ensure that that includes the stations in Northumberland.

I should like to talk about two wider issues that are part of the franchise document. First, on ticket prices, even regulated fares and many cheaper fares are uncompetitive with car and plane for many customers. I quite often get letters from customers saying, "I looked into the possibility of making my business trip by train, but then I found I could drive 50, 60 or 70 miles to an airport, catch a plane and pay significantly less than I would be paying even for a reduced-price first-class fare on the train." Many such offers are made, but the price has crept up in recent years. Unless we ensure that ticket prices are more competitive than air travel, we will continue to encourage people to make long car journeys, which they must do in my part of the world to get to an airport, which is inconsistent with general Government policy.

Secondly, there have been significant station improvements over recent years, including to Berwick station-I had the odd experience of opening the lifts for the footbridge over the station a few years ago. Celebrating the opening of a lift with a glass of champagne is a variant on the many duties of a Member of Parliament, but the facility was much needed by disabled people and people with heavy luggage. The absence of lifts at Alnmouth has been a serious problem. People with disabilities have been told that if they arrive from London in the evening, when there are no staff at the station, they will not be able to leave the platform-they cannot
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use the bridge and there is nobody to supervise crossing the track. That serious problem is being dealt with, but it is long overdue.

Such improvements are very important, as is parking, at both Alnmouth and Berwick. The county council is pushing ahead with plans for increased parking at the former, but the plans for Berwick have proved difficult. My original hope was that Network Rail would give up its land, because it could be stationed somewhere else-it does not have to be based right by those stations. That would open up more parking spaces.

There is a possibility of getting more parking spaces, the need for which is obvious from the amount of parking in roads round about. I happen to live in one such road. I do not mind people from Scotland parking their cars outside my house to go to the station-I am glad they are using the train-but that has created some problems, and traffic management changes have had to be made to accommodate them. Continued station improvements are very important to the franchise and the future of the service.

The oddity with Belford station is that the only local service that goes into north Northumberland beyond Morpeth goes twice a day to Acklington, Woodrington, and Chathill, and then turns round at Belford, but there is no platform there-there used to be years ago, but not now. Therefore, a train goes to Belford twice a day, but people cannot get on it.

A great deal of effort by local people, with genuine co-operation from rail operators such as Northern Rail and from Network Rail and the county council, is enabling things to be moved forward, and I hope the Department for Transport will also co-operate. The executive of the county council is currently recommending that the council spend money on installing the platform. We have had many battles over how long a platform must be and the greatness of the risk of someone getting out of the wrong door and such things. At times those have seemed absurd, and they have perhaps led to higher costs than necessary. However, I believe we are in sight of achieving that objective, and I hope the Minister continues to offer his encouragement.

There is a lot of scope for transfer to rail travel in Northumberland and a great need for rail travel because of the distances involved. Not many people have to travel 50 or 60 miles to get to a main hospital, to go to a theatre that is not a small local arts centre or to visit all the main chain shops, but that is the situation in north Northumberland. Rail travel is very important, so it is also important that we retain a good service. The timetable drafts left people very worried about losing the gains that we had made in recent years, when we should instead be improving the service, and I hope that the Minister's initial indications that some of those worries are being addressed will be backed up by more restoration of trains to the timetable and some additional stops.

2.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss rail services on the east coast main line in Northumberland. I know that this is a subject of interest to many hon. Members, and I will discuss points
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of detail further with the right hon. Gentleman if I do not successfully address them in my response this afternoon.

The east coast main line is an exceptionally valuable asset in the national transport system. It provides the fastest surface transport between London and the Yorkshire and Humber region, north-east England and Edinburgh. It also provides key links between Scotland, the north-east and routes to the midlands and north-west. It is also of vital importance for freight, particularly as part of the link from major ports to distribution centres in large conurbations, and to coal-fired power stations. Further, it supports the long-distance passenger services provided by the public sector train operator, East Coast Main Line Company Ltd, which pays a substantial premium to Government, thereby reducing the level of taxpayer support needed for the railway as a whole.

The challenges faced by the railway industry on the east coast route are principally associated with the volume of traffic, and the reliability of the services. Growth over the next 10 years, despite the present financial difficulties, is expected to be substantial in almost all the markets served by the route. Passenger demand for rail has been growing strongly over recent years. That is due to a combination of several factors, particularly economic growth and increasing road traffic congestion. On many routes, including the east coast, the growth has been stimulated by additional services and ticketing initiatives that have been developed by the train operators to encourage off-peak travel.

The most significant use of long-distance passenger trains is for business and leisure travel to and from London. The high number of passengers travelling between London and cities such as Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh is due to the size and significance of those major conurbations, and transport links among them are of national economic importance.

In Northumberland, stations at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnmouth and Morpeth are used by long-distance passenger services. As well as serving their immediate towns and surrounding areas, those stations act as railheads for large parts of Northumberland and the Scottish borders that do not have the benefit of rail connections. In addition, stations at Chathill, Acklington, Widdrington, Pegswood, and Cramlington are used by local services, providing important journey opportunities to Newcastle.

Long-distance passenger services at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnmouth and Morpeth are provided by East Coast and CrossCountry train operators. East Coast provides direct trains from those stations to London King's Cross and to principal intermediate stations on the east coast main line. CrossCountry provides direct trains to east coast main line stations as far south as York, then stations towards the midlands and south-west including Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bristol, Plymouth and Penzance. East Coast and CrossCountry also provide direct trains from Morpeth, Alnmouth and Berwick-upon-Tweed to Dunbar and Edinburgh, some of which are extended to serve other stations in Scotland, including Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness.

The current east coast main line timetable does not have a regular repeating pattern and, consequently, train times at stations in Northumberland are at irregular intervals. Broadly speaking, Berwick-upon-Tweed has an East Coast London train most hours and a
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CrossCountry train approximately every two hours. Alnmouth has six London trains per day and a CrossCountry train approximately every two hours, and Morpeth has three East Coast and three CrossCountry trains per day. Those levels of service reflect relative numbers of passengers travelling from each of those stations.

In 2008 Network Rail published its route utilisation strategy-colloquially referred to as RUS-for the east coast main line. The RUS, which was compiled with the assistance of industry parties and other key stakeholders, considered the current and future passenger and freight markets, and assessed the future growth in each. It then sought to show how growth could be accommodated effectively and efficiently, and proposed measures ranging from the lengthening of trains to the provision of additional infrastructure. It recommended that additional long-distance high-speed passenger services should run to and from King's Cross both in peak times, with up to eight trains an hour, and in off-peak times, with six trains per hour. That strategy is expected to cater adequately for forecast growth in passenger demand at least until the end of the RUS study period in 2016.

In the longer term, increasing train capacity through the use of new high-capacity, super-express trains and increasing network capacity by rolling out 21st-century signalling technology, in the form of the European rail traffic management system, might create the potential to double capacity. However, it will be several years before those enhancements can be delivered, so the Government believe it necessary to develop and implement an improved timetable in the shorter term, essentially using the current infrastructure.

We recognise that any increase in service frequency in advance of infrastructure enhancements is likely to be limited to off-peak periods, when the performance impact of such an increase can be largely offset by improvements to the structures of the timetable, including through adopting a regular repeating service pattern. Additional services to accommodate growth are likely to be necessary first at the southern end of the east coast main line, where traffic volumes are greatest. North of Newcastle, trains are generally less crowded and additional services less likely to be justified in the short term.

The Government have adopted a three-stage approach to the development of east coast main line train services. First, the timetable will be changed to provide some additional trains south of York and to adopt a more regular pattern of services, with improved average journey times. The new timetable will be introduced by East Coast in May 2011. Secondly, through their high-level output specification for the rail industry, the Government have specified a package of infrastructure enhancements to increase the effective capacity of the route. Those enhancements have been included in Network Rail's funding from 2009-2014, and will enable additional peak and off-peak passenger services to run after 2014, while preserving capacity to accommodate important freight flows. Thirdly, the Government are leading the procurement of a new generation of super-express trains for introduction to the east coast main line from about 2014. Those trains will have greater carrying capacity and better performance than current trains, allowing services to be speeded up and additional services to run.

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Although the most critical capacity issues are likely to be south of York, the stations in Northumberland will benefit from each stage of the Government's strategy to improve east coast main line services. The new May 2011 timetable will adopt a more regular pattern of station calls in Northumberland, and average journey times will be reduced. Berwick-upon-Tweed will be served each hour by a fast train between Edinburgh and London, calling at Newcastle, Darlington and York. The journey time between Berwick-upon-Tweed and London King's Cross will be about three hours and 38 minutes northbound, which is six minutes faster than today, and three hours and 40 minutes southbound, which is 23 minutes faster than today. That is because the southbound trains from Berwick-upon-Tweed in today's timetable call at many intermediate stations, whereas in future they will be fast trains normally calling only at Newcastle, Darlington and York. Other stations will be accessible by convenient connections, at either York or Newcastle.

Berwick-upon-Tweed will continue to be served by a CrossCountry train on alternate hours, giving through-journey opportunities to Leeds, Sheffield, the midlands and the south-west. Alnmouth will gain a significantly improved service, with a train each hour provided alternately by East Coast or CrossCountry, and running alternately to London or to the midlands and south-west. The total number of long-distance trains per day will increase by 30 per cent., from 27 to 35. At Morpeth the service will increase from six to seven long-distance trains per day in each direction, providing a greater choice of journey times while retaining the current commuting and business travel opportunities.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about the timing of the first train of the day between Berwick-upon-Tweed and London. At present the first train from Edinburgh to London calls at Berwick-upon-Tweed at 06.29 and arrives at London King's Cross at 10.11. The Government believe that there are significant benefits to be gained from providing a very fast business service between Edinburgh and London, to encourage the use of rail rather than domestic air travel. My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has therefore challenged the industry to provide a morning train with a journey time from Edinburgh to London of less than four hours and an arrival time before 10 o'clock. To achieve that demanding target, the first train from Edinburgh will be given special priority in the timetable, and will call only at Newcastle. Consequently, the earliest service from Berwick-upon-Tweed will be provided by the following train, which is planned to arrive in London at 10.41.

I recognise that that change is undesirable from the point of view of travellers from Berwick-upon-Tweed, and options to provide an earlier arrival time are being examined. However, it is an unfortunate fact of railway timetabling that the large overall benefits arising from a major timetable change are sometimes deliverable only by making compromises for some of the smaller traffic flows.

Sir Alan Beith: I hope that the alternative options for an earlier arrival in London will be pursued vigorously, because many of the people who now get that train will
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otherwise transfer to air travel. That would be inconsistent with what the Secretary of State is trying to achieve by establishing the early departure from Edinburgh. Air travel would be more attractive, and provide a shorter journey, for the people travelling from Berwick.

Chris Mole: I take the right hon. Gentleman's point, but I ask him to accept that in this instance a later arrival time might be unavoidable. However, we will explore all possibilities.

The right hon. Gentleman has expressed concern about the widely misreported plan to withdraw through services between the east coast main line and Glasgow. I would like to set the record straight on this matter. At present, East Coast services between London and Edinburgh are extended to and from Glasgow Central at two-hourly intervals throughout the day. In the May 2011 timetable it is proposed that most of those trains should run only between London and Edinburgh. Instead, CrossCountry services between Edinburgh, Yorkshire, the midlands and south-west England would be extended to start and finish at Glasgow Central at two-hourly intervals. There would be no withdrawal of services-simply a change of train operator-and there would continue to be opportunities to make through journeys between stations in Northumberland and Glasgow.

The East Coast train operator has recently commenced consultation with passengers and other stakeholders on the details of the May 2011 timetable proposal, and I am sure that many Members of the House will wish to contribute their views. I take the right hon. Gentleman's point that some of the consultation documents were not easy to find. The rail regulator's documents were perhaps more technical in nature, and therefore not intended for widespread access. However, the Department for Transport's franchise consultation is available on our website and as a hard copy, and the Department will be holding stakeholder events on the proposed franchise arrangements, including one in Newcastle. With regard to the information provided by the East Coast train operator on its ambitions for the timetable, I will draw the right hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of the company.

Sir Alan Beith: The Minister has said some very encouraging things this afternoon, but they are so far from the draft timetable originally produced that I hope that he can secure some means by which a realistic timetable, incorporating some of what he has described, can be made available so that it can be examined by the public. If he has a good story to tell, it would be better to tell it, rather than the weak story that the present draft timetable represents.

Chris Mole: I honestly take the right hon. Gentleman's point, but I fear that for some individuals looking at the information, a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, as they were reading more into it than was perhaps justified. Because of the extent of the proposed timetable changes, the Office of Rail Regulation will need to approve amendments to the track access agreements that enable the train operators to gain access to the railway network. This will require the ORR to be satisfied that the trains and train operators granted access to run on the route are those that will make the best use of it and make the greatest contribution to the economic
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health of the regions it serves, as well as to the financial health of the railway system. I understand that the ORR will publish its decisions within the next few days.

I should explain that, in addition to the proposed changes to East Coast and other franchised passenger services in May 2011, the ORR received a number of other applications for additional access rights on the east coast main line from open access passenger and freight train operators. The total demand for train paths exceeded the available network capacity, so it has been necessary for the ORR to determine which applications for track access it will approve and which should be rejected.

In reaching its decisions on the best use of capacity, the ORR has a statutory duty to balance a large range of factors, including promoting use of the network for the carriage of passengers and goods, protecting performance levels, encouraging competition and having regard to the available funding for the railway system. There are some difficult trade-offs here. For example, while new open access passenger services generally increase the overall number of passengers travelling, and compete with established operators, they often require non-standard train paths, which could be a performance risk, and much of their revenue is abstracted from franchised operators, thereby increasing the cost of the railways to the taxpayer.

In addition to providing its own economic and financial analysis, the ORR asked Network Rail to report on the extent to which the competing applications for capacity might be accommodated. In accordance with its usual policy of transparency, the ORR published on its website Network Rail's reports on associated timetabling work, which is what we are talking about.

Unfortunately, this preliminary timetabling work, which was carried out purely to inform the ORR's decision-making process, has been misinterpreted by some as a final timetable. That is particularly unfortunate in the case of East Coast and CrossCountry services at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Alnmouth and Morpeth, which had not been fully specified when Network Rail's preliminary timetabling was carried out, as they were not directly relevant to the key capacity allocation decisions for the route south of York. Specification of these services is now complete and, subject to the ORR's final decisions and any adjustments arising from consultation, the May 2011 timetable in Northumberland will be as I described it a few moments ago.

Although the May 2011 timetable will be implemented by the public sector train operator, East Coast, it is the Government's policy that passenger train services should be provided by the private sector through franchising agreements with the Department for Transport. Thus, on 21 January my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced the start of consultation on the specification for a new inter-city East Coast franchise to commence in autumn 2011. The consultation document is available on the Department's website; I encourage hon. Members to read it and to let us have their views on the proposed specification.

The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically about Friday services. I can assure him that the 19.00 service from London will run every day and that the 19.30 from London to Newcastle will be extended to Edinburgh on Fridays only, calling at Morpeth, Alnmouth and Berwick-upon-Tweed.

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