Railways: East Coast Main Line - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 30th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat 2:45 pm, 30th October 2018

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when new trains will be in service on the East Coast Main line between Newcastle and Edinburgh.

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, passengers across the east coast main line, including in Newcastle and Edinburgh, will benefit from the introduction of new trains by London North Eastern Railway, delivered through the Government-led intercity express programme. These new trains will transform passenger journeys, providing more seats, more frequent services and faster journeys. LNER is working closely with Hitachi Rail Europe, Network Rail and other industry partners to bring these trains into service as soon as possible, with a full rollout scheduled to be complete by 2020.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the noble Baroness did not say very much about when these particular sections of the line will have the service. Because these new trains apparently interfere with the outdated signalling and points system on the east coast main line—and also, bizarrely, because the regulator thinks people might use the interconnecting things to climb on top of the trains—the introduction north of York has been delayed. In what year will each of these sections of the line get new trains, and for how long will the service depend on worn-out HST trains which are 40 years old?

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, I am happy to give some more information on the timings. The first trains were due to enter service in December this year, but LNER has recently announced that these will not be introduced until early next year. There remain challenges relating to electromagnetic capability, ORR approvals and train design. Of course, this is disappointing for all involved, but when introduced the trains will provide more seats and faster journeys. As I said, the full rollout of the east coast fleet is still scheduled for completion in 2020.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of my interest in this. I congratulate the Government on their involvement in this programme. Can my noble friend put a date on when the trains will actually run the full route to London? How will this coincide with the improvements to King’s Cross station that have been announced?

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, I am afraid that I am not able to give a definite date. We are trying to introduce the trains as soon as possible, but there remain issues that we need to work through. LNER has said that it hopes to start introducing the trains early next year. On my noble friend’s point about King’s Cross, we are carrying out essential works on King’s Cross to replace the expired track and signalling to ensure that we can see the full benefits of the east coast main line enhancements.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

It was from the government Dispatch Box that we were told on 23 May this year that:

“The good news also is that we fully expect the new intercity express trains to be introduced on the east coast main line from the end of this year, as planned”.—[Official Report, 23/5/18; col. 1032.]

Is this episode yet another example of the reality that, in our fragmented railway system, no one is in overall charge? No one is ultimately accountable for the performance or lack of it of our national railway network and, as a result, no one accepted responsibility for ensuring that the new trains would start running on the planned date. If the Government disagree that that is the case, then which individual or body was accountable for ensuring that the new trains would start running on the planned date on the east coast main line?

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Well, that was not me. The noble Lord is quite right to say that in May I gave reassurance that those trains would come into service. At the time, that was very much what we were planning. However, as I said, there have been emerging issues on that which we need to work through. It is not unusual with delivery of a whole new infrastructure—and this is a £2.7 billion investment, which we should welcome—that there are some compatibility issues. We are working through them. On the noble Lord’s point about the rail system, it has been well over a decade since we have seen a large change in the rail network and, while we have seen record private investment and the doubling of passenger journeys, of course it has had its challenges. The time is absolutely right for a comprehensive review, and that is what the rail review will do.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the help that she has given in recent weeks to try to ensure that we have a happy resolution to the better, promised service—I repeat promised service—between Lincoln and London. Is she confident that she will be able to join me on one of those trains during the course of 2019 with those colleagues from all parts of the House who have already accepted my invitation?

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, we have discussed this specific service many times, and I know that it will disappoint my noble friend, as it does me, that we are unable to guarantee that those services will be introduced in May 2019—and I am not able to give an exact date either. I know that that will also disappoint the people of Lincoln because those extra services will enable more people to visit that great city. However, I can absolutely reassure my noble friend that both LNER and the Government are committed to more trains to Lincoln and we will deliver them as soon as possible.

Photo of Lord Steel of Aikwood Lord Steel of Aikwood Liberal Democrat

My Lords, next year, when the new sleeping cars are reintroduced to the railways, will they be run on the east coast line to Scotland as well as the west coast line?

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

There are some issues with trains to Scotland at the moment, so I am afraid that I am unable to give that guarantee. We are working very closely with the Scottish Government to deliver that.

Photo of Lord Watts Lord Watts Labour

My Lords, how can the Secretary of State keep his job? What has happened to ministerial accountability for this shambles?

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, we are overseeing, as I have said many times, record investment in our railways: £48 billion over 2019 to 2024. Obviously, with all these improvements, that has given us challenges, but we should not lose sight of the benefits that are being seen through this investment. The Azuma trains alone will have 15% greater capacity, and once the full fleet is in service they will deliver a 28% increase in morning peak services. There will be improvements in accessibility, and they will be more reliable, with more storage room. That is what we should aim for.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

My Lords, the Azuma train appears to have fewer disabled spaces than the current high-speed trains. Can the Minister confirm that first, that will be rectified, and secondly, that passengers will not be able to store suitcases in the wheelchair spaces? Becky Whitworth could not get on a train because the entire space was filled with cases.

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, I understand that the new trains will have improvements in accessibility, with more wheelchair spaces, which will not include flip chairs. There will also be universally accessible toilets. However, I will write to the noble Baroness on her specific question.