HL Deb 11 January 2005 vol 668 cc129-32

2.45 p.m.

Lord Sheldon

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their assessment of progress in the improvements to the West Coast Main Line.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the west coast route modernisation project is being delivered in line with the strategy published by the Strategic Rail Authority in June 2003. Copies of the SRA's strategy and a progress report are available in the Library of the House. Tilting trains have entered service and a new timetable was introduced on 27 September 2004 with enhanced service frequencies and reduced journey times. Further improvements are planned for June and December this year.

Lord Sheldon

My Lords, as the train contract was settled six years ago, is it not clear that the expectation of the trains travelling at 140 miles per hour—not even 125 miles per hour—has not yet been met? Punctuality is not as good as it was five years ago, tilting trains have still not materialised after all these years, and fares are above inflation year after year. Is that not a consequence of separating responsibility for train and track—one of the important decisions made by the previous Conservative government? With £10 billion being spent on upgrading this line, what assurances are being obtained about meeting the requirements that the money is properly spent and accounted for?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, of course, mistakes have been made in the past but major corrective work has been carried out under the project. I can assure the House that the costs of the project have been substantially reduced, and in that respect the project is very much under control.

I share the view of my noble friend that there are areas of weakness in the performance of the trains. The full list of Pendolino tiling trains will not be available until April next year but, when it is, that will improve the service. As I indicated, improvements are being made with reduced journey times across the line, but it is the case that some of the expectations of a few years ago have not yet been met. We are working towards achieving the highest standards possible.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I note that speeds have increased but fares have risen substantially, reliability has declined compared with 20 years ago, standards of punctuality and comfort have declined and meals have got worse. Can the users of the East Coast Main Line—the franchise which is about to be let—be defended in the franchise round from that kind of progress being inflicted on them?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that the West Coast Main Line project is rather different from the franchise arrangements for the East Coast Main Line. We are describing two different developments. But he will know that the reorganisation carried out by the previous administration resulted in very severe costs to the railway system. Significant costs to the system also resulted from the Hatfield crash, requiring extensive work in relation to the safety of the railway, and that has affected train performance and timetables.

I can only assert to the noble Lord that the East Coast Main Line has improved in recent years and, through investment, the West Cost Main Line is poised to undergo substantial improvements. We are therefore on line to see an improved railway system in which the substantial investment of recent years is justified.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, I declare an interest in having used the service to come to your Lordships' House and another place for some 40 years. My noble friend may be aware that trains occasionally tilt, but they do not perform well. I have heard something like 70-odd different excuses, such as slow-running trains in front, and so on. If my noble friend has tried the service, he will have heard some as well. Is he now telling us that the performance will be better?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the improved service, as I indicated from the timetable that we introduced in September 2004, significantly reduces the journey time from Birmingham to London, from Manchester to London, from Liverpool to London and from Glasgow to London. That is proof of the investment in and improvement to the track and the investment in the Pendolino trains which, I freely concede, have not been without their teething troubles. However, the full fleet will be available from April next year. Therefore, we can look forward with some confidence to improved service on the line, which I believe my noble friend knows only too well.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, is the noble Lord not taking all this rather calmly by referring to areas of disappointment and then adding that the West Coast Main Line is poised for improvement? Is not a little more due by way of explanation?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I was responding to the points that my noble friend introduced with regard to the performance of the Pendolino trains. We have already seen reduced journey times under the new timetable, which is a reflection of very substantial investment in this project in recent years. So we are seeing the first fruits of that investment and improvement. It is a major task. This is the busiest, most intensively used, most complex mainline in the whole of Europe and its refurbishment, across virtually the whole of its length, its resignalling and the development of a new train-set system are bound to produce difficulties in the interim. That is reflected in some of the contributions

Lord Snape

My Lords, does the Minister accept that my Pendolino train yesterday from Birmingham to Euston arrived six minutes early? Pendolino trains are running and, by and large, running well. Does he find it strange that those who profess to love the railways the most, praise them the least? Will he accept from me that those who work in the railway industry would occasionally appreciate a word in favour of their efforts rather than non-stop denigration from this and the other place?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend speaks with great experience of the railways, both as a Member of both Houses of Parliament and as a former railway worker. I hope he does not regard the arrival of his train six minutes early as a particular benefaction to him as a former railway worker. We look upon that as evidence of the fact that the new timetable in many areas is working to great effect and is a great improvement for the travelling public.