HC Deb 21 March 2001 vol 365 cc127-34WH 1.30 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

There are five stations in the constituency of Berwick-upon-Tweed, all on the east coast main line, although only Berwick and Alnmouth are served by long-distance trains. Berwick serves the whole of the eastern borders, and Alnmouth serves the whole of mid-Northumberland. In the case of Berwick, the train is vital to communication. It is a much quicker way of getting to central London than travelling by either air or car, because the town is a long way from the nearest airport. The train is unusually important in the economic life of the town.

Acklington, Widdrington and Chathill stations are served only by a minimal Northern Spirit service, which also stops at Alnmouth. Alnmouth station is operated by Northern Spirit, despite the fact that most of its passengers actually use GNER services. I hope that, in the longer term, the smaller stations will get an improved service from local trains. The service could run from Newcastle to Edinburgh. The trains could be electric, as they would run on the main line, stopping also at existing and reopened stations between Berwick and Edinburgh. Some stations have been reopened, and there are plans to open one or two more.

My main, immediate concerns are the east coast main line services, which have been badly affected by the Hatfield crash and its aftermath, and the unnecessary obstruction of the building of a platform at Belford for local services. I have said that GNER is the main operator on the east coast main line, but I should also mention Virgin Cross Country, which provides daily services to the west country and the south coast. Nobody I know wants Virgin to get the east coast main line franchise. The company would have a monopoly on Anglo-Scottish rail travel, and GNER has shown that it is worthy of the franchise. We all hope that that will be tied up soon, giving GNER the opportunity and encouragement to invest further in its services. Any other outcome would be greeted with absolute horror from end to end of the east coast main line.

However, the Virgin Cross Country service is extremely useful. When it goes wrong, it tends to do so pretty disastrously, because it intersects with so many other lines as it works its way from Dundee to Penzance or from Edinburgh to Bournemouth. It provides connections right into the midlands, into south Yorkshire and other areas for passengers from Edinburgh, Berwick, Newcastle and further south. Standards on the Virgin services have never been as good as those on GNER, nor is Virgin as good as GNER at looking after passengers when something goes wrong, and I have considerable experience of that. Nevertheless, it is an important service.

One problem caused by the services being divided among three train operators is that they frequently fail to give adequate information on one other's services. If there is a limited service, another operator's train may be a vital link in one's journey. I also receive many complaints from constituents about the complexities of ticket pricing. There are some good offers, but if they do not fit with people's journeys, if people do not know about them, or if they are not told about them because they ask a particular company whereas it is another company's offer, they are left with a very high standard fare to pay.

GNER's standard of service prior to Hatfield was generally very high—both speed of journey and on-train service. I feel sorry for the GNER staff, given all they have been through in recent months. I admire the way in which they have coped, not least with the terrible trauma of the Selby crash, in which regular passengers, whom they knew well, and rail worker colleagues lost their lives. Journeys in this period, especially during the floods, have sometimes been a nightmare, but GNER has made great efforts to help passengers to get through it. Thanks to Railtrack's restrictions, and Railtrack's failure to meet targets, journey times are not back to pre-Hatfield levels, and they will not be back to that level by the promised date of Easter.

We heard yesterday that the Rail Regulator has had to place an enforcement notice on Railtrack. Will GNER be able to return to full, normal services by 21 May, the new dare set by Mr. Winsor in that notice? Before Hatfield, the journey from Berwick to London on GNER took as little as 3 hours 35 minutes, which is pretty good timing for a 350-mile journey; but that journey now takes another 40 minutes. The quality of service has been reduced, and the full timetable has not been restored. For example, the 7 pm train to Edinburgh from King's Cross station has not been restored to the timetable, and there are other gaps. The total capacity of train spaces available is not what is was before Hatfield.

In recent years, GNER has added stops at Berwick and Alnmouth stations. Alnmouth has a much more limited service than Berwick, but the service meets people's needs verb well. I hope that GNER will continue to be sensitive to local demand and consider making additional stops, as it has in the past, if it can attract additional business. All three companies should realise that normal fare structures do not always take account of the benefits of charging a reasonable fare for commuting and shopping trips to Newcastle and Edinburgh, especially as it can cut road traffic to both cities. Berwick provides a striking example of the extent to which people use the long-distance train to take major shopping trips to Newcastle and Edinburgh. It is quick and it takes them directly to the shopping centres. Reasonable fares are important because they will encourage such journeys.

Early every morning, a train leaves Belford station for Newcastle. Every evening, it returns to Belford. It would be an ideal train for commuters—people with jobs in Newcastle or people who want jobs in places on that route such as Cramlington—and students going to college. It would take traffic off the Al, and would be much better than going by bus, which sometimes involves two or three changes. However, no one can get on the train. The station was closed years ago, and there is no platform in the siding where the train now waits twice a day.

A group of local people, the Belford rail users group, has set out to put that right. People from that group made sure that everyone in the country knew about the closure of the Belford branch of Barclays bank. They are among the most energetic of campaigners. They have set their minds on getting the rail service at Belford restored, and rightly so. They secured a design for a platform that could have been built in eight days and craned on to the site overnight, and no track or signalling alterations would have been necessary.

Northern Spirit, the company that runs the train service, showed interest and has been supportive. The group secured funding commitments from Berwick borough council, Northumberland county council, the Countryside Agency, Belford parish council and the Johnny Johnson trust. The Strategic Rail Authority indicated that funds could be made available and fast-tracked, because the project would have cost less than £100,000. The Department the Environment, Transport and the Regions, represented by the Minister, seemed encouraging, and the project fitted well with the Government's policy on rail development and their rural transport initiatives.

The next step was for Northern Spirit to carry out a risk assessment. Suddenly, obstacles started to appear. Railtrack told Northern Spirit that a short platform proposal would not be acceptable. I wrote to Railtrack and Northern Spirit on 5 February, and the group drew the attention of those companies to the fact that the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), had opened a station with a short platform at Beauly in January 2001.

On that day, the Strategic Rail Authority issued a press release stating that Beauly had a short, 10 m platform and was a good example for the further development of integrated transport in the rural communities in Scotland and, indeed, in the United Kingdom as a whole. However, Northern Spirit wrote to me on 19 February, saying that the Belford project is unfortunately prevented at present by an HMRI Her Majesty's railway inspectorate— restriction on construction of 'short' stations on safety grounds". Northern Spirit enclosed a further letter referring to the Beauly case, in which it said that Railtrack had said that safety approval would not be forthcoming for a new facility at Belford, permission for the development at Beauly having been secured under a previous regime. What is that previous regime? There has been no change of Government during that time, and there has been no change of railway inspector. No one, least of all the railway inspectorate, could under stand to what that referred. Indeed, Her Majesty's chief inspector of railways is a little puzzled—possibly even a bit annoyed—to find someone else representing his views before he has uttered them. Mr. Coleman wrote to me: I am able to inform you that the Health and Safety Executive's Railway Inspectorate (HMRI) has not vetoed the opening of Belford station on any grounds. He then set out earlier correspondence in which the inspectorate had pointed out what procedure needed to be followed—it had indeed been most helpful and constructive.

Railtrack is claiming an objection from the railways inspector when no such objection I has been entered, and using that non-existent objection to tell Northern Spirit not to proceed in the matter. If Railtrack's advice had been followed, it would have required a full-scale platform 51 m long that would h the cost £250,000 to build. That would have been completely over the top, quite out of scale and definitely not the solution followed at Beauly. A perfectly acceptable procedure currently operates at more than 150 stations for single- door operation at short platforms. The Northern Spirit trains, which provide the service, are equipped for single-door operation. If Railtrack stopped being obstructive, Northern Spirit could submit a risk assessment in terms that the inspector would be likely to accept on the same basis as the Beauly platform.

I am also told that Railtrack is now saying that any station project must be submitted by Northumberland county council. No one said that previously, and that was not the advice of the railways inspector. That may be possible, but it adds an unnecessary complication, and is another moving of the goalposts, such as happens at every stage. Railtrack must now put its weight behind the proposals and take a positive approach. I appeal to the Minister to do whatever he can to remind Railtrack that it is Government policy that a flexible approach should be taken to such matters.

While I am on the subject of Railtrack's approach, I add a further plea for it to take a more positive attitude to the Aln valley railway project, which is a scheme to reopen the line between Alnmouth and Alnwick. It is a widely supported scheme with major tourist potential that has secured big funding pledges from many sources. It would adjoin the east coast main line at or near Alnmouth station on derelict land, but with no direct connection currently proposed with the main line. Again, Railtrack constantly produces objections rather than looking for solutions. That scheme is an opportunity for Railtrack, not a problem. It would greatly increase the use of Alnmouth station. I gather that a meeting is scheduled for 27 March to try to sort out Railtrack's latest concerns about the lease needed, and I very much hope that it will approach that meeting in a positive spirit, and that someone will attend who will have the power to make a decision and get things moving.

Railtrack should get on with it—get the east coast main line back in a condition that will enable GNER to run fast and frequent services once more and cope with rising demand; get on with it by enabling Belford passengers to use the train that already runs to Belford twice a day; and get on with it by dealing with the Aln valley railway project. The three rail operating companies should recognise that there is a local market of people who will use trains if their services, fares, information and promotion take account of what people need from the railway. When companies have done so, it has shown to be effective. I want the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to use every effort to get Railtrack to deliver, to secure a more positive attitude by the company to new facilities, in line with Government policy, and to encourage traffic on to the railways.

1.44 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this debate, giving the Chamber the opportunity to discuss the east coast main line rail services in his constituency.

In the aftermath of Hatfield, most services were disrupted due to speed restrictions imposed by Railtrack for safety reasons. Further disruption was caused by the adverse weather conditions over Christmas and the new year. Virgin west coast services were severely disrupted by problems associated with modernisation work at Willesden and in the Euston area. The disruptions have shown how important the railway is to its customers and to the economy. Much of the network is now operating reasonably consistently, although several long-distance services on the main Great Western and west coast main lines will continue to be affected beyond Easter. The east coast main line should resume normal service in May. The hon. Gentleman referred to what the Rail Regulator said yesterday about getting the service back to normal as soon as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman specifically referred to the performance of Virgin CrossCountry. While a revised timetable remains in place, the service is becoming more stable by the week. I am pleased to say that improvements are in the pipeline, and Railtrack and the regulator agree that services should be back to normal by the start of the summer timetable on 20 May.

New rolling stock is to be introduced from next year and, by 2003, that will facilitate an improved timetable with faster journey times, a clock face timetable, a doubling of train mileage and new services on new routes.

The Strategic Rail Authority has considered the proposals put forward by Virgin Stagecoach and GNER for a replacement east coast main line intercity franchise. An initial recommendation has been made to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, which is being considered. The authority has been criticised for the time it has taken in awarding some of the new franchises. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that, when awarding franchises for up to 20 years, it is imperative not only to secure the best possible deal for passengers, but to ensure that the preferred counter-party has the capacity to deliver the proposals. Franchise replacement aims to secure a sustained improvement in performance and a step change in customer service through increased investment. The authority is currently replacing those franchises that are due to expire in 2004.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the need to improve and increase the frequency of local services, including services from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Alnmouth. The authority will not specify particular improvements to services and make them a condition of acceptance of franchise bids, but will expect bidders to propose improvements where they see merit in doing so, having consulted local stakeholders, local authorities, rail passenger committees and rail user groups.

Services currently run by Northern Spirit and First North Western will be combined to provide a coherent network of local services throughout the north of England. That will exclude fast inter-urban services, which will be provided under a separate new trans-Pennine express franchise. The northern franchise will focus on working with the passenger executive committees, with a separate business unit in each area.

I understand that the Belford rail users group is pursuing proposals for extended platforms at Belford station with Northern Spirit. That is the most appropriate way forward pending replacement of the Northern Spirit franchise. Funding for that proposal, as well as for the Alnwick proposals to which the right hon. Gentleman also referred, may be available from the rail passenger partnership scheme, which is administered by the Strategic Rail Authority.

The rail passenger partnership scheme was set up by the Government with £105 million of new public funding to encourage local rail initiatives. The fund offers support for new investment proposals that produce significantly wider benefits for both integration and modal shift. To take forward a rail passenger partnership bid for Belford, a business case will need to be prepared to satisfy the authority's planning criteria. Bids must demonstrate value for money and the delivery of the scheme.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke at some length about what he considered to be the obstruction of the proposals for Belford station. I am told that the Belford proposals will be considered under a regime similar to the one that applied to the facility that was agreed in the constituency of the right on. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy). No new regime is to be imposed on the Belford proposals. The right hon. Gentleman may have been told that it will, but it is not true. The Belford proposals will be treated similarly to those in the example that he gave.

I am told that the reason for the current delay is that we are awaiting further submissions from the Belford rail users group. If, as the right hon. Gentleman seemed to imply, that is not now the reason, we need to ensure that progress is made. My information is that a submission will be needed. It will be necessary to know, for example, what types of trains will be used at Belford station, how many services will stop there and what passenger numbers are likely. Attention will need to be paid to control of the situation and, with respect to a guard, establishing that there is only a single-door operating system. If the relevant matters are dealt with, there is no reason for a block on the proposal.

Mr. Beith

The Minister is being very helpful, but perhaps he should be told that three of those four points are well known to all the parties concerned. The train is a known feature; it is the same one that arrives every day. Its facilities and requirements are all known. However, new submissions keep being required. Nevertheless, I know that the campaigners will urgently provide all the information that is required, as long as the goalposts do not keep moving. I am grateful to the Minister for telling us that there is a basis on which to proceed.

Mr. Ainsworth

The right hon. Gentleman's account was clearly not in line with the information that I am giving. We need to establish whether my information is correct and, and if it is not, we should get to the bottom of it and understand the hold-up.

I now want to mention the east coast main line upgrade. The east coast main line is the high-speed link carrying Britain's fastest train service between London, Yorkshire, the north-east and Edinburgh, and linking into Scotland's prime routes to Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness. It also handles cross-country, commuter and local passenger services, and carries considerable freight and mail traffic. The route is primarily a two-track railway, with four tracks in certain sections—mainly at the southern end. Speeds over the northern third of the route between Newcastle and Edinburgh range between 80 and 125 mph. On an average day there are 1,900 passenger trains carrying 200,000 passengers, and 250 freight services with a loading of around 200,000 tonnes. The route is therefore vital to the economic health of many regions of Great Britain.

It has long been accepted by all parties that the upgrading of the east coast main line is a necessity and a priority. It would provide additional capacity for both passenger and freight demand while improving the network, enabling train operators significantly to improve the quality and reliability of their services as their customers expect. Railtrack has had a substantial design team working on the scheme for nearly three years to enable the route to carry more passenger trains, faster trains and more freight services. The creation of a four-track railway for much of the route is also a fundamental part of the scheme. The authority was informed by Railtrack in early February of an increase in its cost estimates for the upgrade, and they have recently examined the details of the increases together. As a result, there has been a temporary pause in the franchise replacement process for the east coast main line inter-city services. As I have mentioned, it is important to get the franchise right, even if it means waiting a little longer. It is hoped that there will soon be an announcement about the way forward.

Earlier this year, the authority announced the prospect of a new, purpose-built railway, capable of running trains at 200 to 225 mph. Such a line would provide the necessary capacity and make possible journeys between major cities that were dramatically faster as well as more convenient, comfortable and reliable. Depending on the route, journey times from London to Manchester or Leeds could be reduced to less than one hour 30 minutes; journey to Newcastle could be reduced to around two hours and those to Scotland could take less than three hours.

The authority's preliminary work has enabled it to develop a better understanding of the potential costs and the benefits of a dedicated high-speed line running from London to the north. The authority is now inviting consultants to bid to develop the case for a new line with the aim of determining the best concept by the end of March 2002. Including destinations and corridor options, this stage of the study will need to assess the environmental issues relating to a high-speed line, together with the implications for the existing rail network and franchises, which are unlikely to cope with the demand expected in 10 or 20 years. The high-speed line is a project for the second decade of the 21st century, if the case for it is acceptable. For that reason, the need remains to press on with the planned upgrade of the east coast main line and the replacement of the franchise so that journey times and capacity can be improved as early as possible.

We want to deliver a bigger, better and safer railway, with improved punctuality and reliability, reduced journey times and higher standards of customer service. Our intentions are clear and our 10-year plan provides the mechanism to achieve our aim of 50 per cent. more passengers and 80 per cent. more freight over the next decade.

The £180 billion investment programme of public and private money will include £60 billion to improve the national rail network with new track. signalling, stations and rolling stock. I have already stressed the importance of franchise replacement, which the Strategic Rail Authority will take forward, as well as working closely with other transport providers and promoting integration of different modes of transport.

The authority published its strategic agenda on 13 March. That sets out the course that it will follow to achieve improvements for passengers and freight, and the way that the infrastructure will be enhanced. The agenda reflects considerable consultation and discussion with the industry and other bodies. It describes progress with franchise replacement and sets out clearly the next steps, including details of how the remaining franchises will be replaced.

Freight development will be based on encouraging competition and innovation, increasing capacity and providing more terminals and providing financial support to get the freight off the road and on to the railway. Infrastructure enhancement recognises Railtrack's two distinct businesses—operations and maintenance, and major projects. The agenda sets out how, assisted by the rail modernisation fund, the authority will work to deliver the biggest public-private partnerships in Europe. It also focuses on necessary developments in other areas—including better training and development of staff and building project management skills—as well as more research, new equipment and information systems for passengers.

The authority intends to publish a more detailed strategic plan in the autumn. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is encouraged by the planned improvements that will benefit passengers using services from Berwick-upon-Tweed. We expect the privatised train operating companies and Railtrack to work in partnership with one another and the authority to turn the vision of the 10-year plan into a reality. With the amount of public money that is being invested in the railways, we expect the industry to deliver the goods. With sustained Government investment and determination, we shall get Britain moving and give people a transport system on which they can rely.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.