Railways: Newcastle and Edinburgh - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:53 pm on 24th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat 2:53 pm, 24th June 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with train operators about additional train services between Newcastle and Edinburgh.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, there are three possible sources of additional train services between these two stations. LNER is extending two Newcastle services to Edinburgh in September and plans one further extension in December; TransPennine Express plans to extend its Liverpool to Newcastle service to Edinburgh from December 2019, adding a further 13 services Monday to Saturday and 10 services on Sunday; and by December 2021 FirstGroup will start its open access trains, which will provide five trains per day in each direction between Edinburgh and London.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

Bearing in mind that the local stations along the line deserve a better service, will these trains be able to stop at intermediate stations or will capacity constraints mean that they have to run express from Newcastle to Edinburgh? For example, late-evening services are needed because 9 pm is a bit early to say that you have to leave an event in Edinburgh in the evening.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Determining whether there is enough capacity for new or extended services on this or indeed any other route is a matter for Network Rail and for the Office of Rail and Road through the sale-of-access rights process. If a route is congested and needs extra investment, it would be initiated and considered through the new Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline process. The industry is developing the timetable for the east coast main line and it will look at all the bids for timetable slots, whether they are for stopping or direct services.

Photo of Lord Trefgarne Lord Trefgarne Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, SLSC Sub-Committee A

Before my noble friend authorises the additional services requested by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and no doubt well justified, can she do anything about the existing services on South Western Railway, whose services were again seriously disrupted last week?

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I thank my noble friend for his intervention. I too am a traveller using South Western Railway and I was disappointed that services were interrupted last week. Obviously, we are encouraging discussions to continue. It is not good that strikes are taking place and that there are poor industrial relations on that particular line. We are doing what we can to make sure that the conversations continue.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, remaining in the north of England for a moment, the Minister will know that I have tabled a Question about the provision of services between Middlesbrough and Whitby. Despite support from the community rail partnership, Northern railway is declining to put on any extra services. Could I have an Answer to that Question quickly? Perhaps the Minister will write to me if there is a problem with it.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I will have to write to the noble Lord about services between Middlesbrough and Whitby, but I can say that LNER plans to introduce direct services between Middlesbrough and London in due course. However, I do not know about the services to Whitby.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

My Lords, in addition to the congestion experienced by passengers on some fast trains from Edinburgh to Newcastle, there is a problem of congestion with luggage that impedes wheelchair users. I had to take that journey around six weeks ago and I could not get off the train at Newcastle without the help of two members of staff moving around eight suitcases. Some of the staff at LNER are brilliant at providing support, but it is intermittent. On Friday, one passenger said that another passenger had declared that the space reserved for wheelchairs was for their luggage, and no one was available to help her. Will the Government ask LNER to ensure that alternative space is available for luggage?

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I am aware of the issue raised by the noble Baroness, and of course it is quite wrong if wheelchair spaces are used for luggage. I will ask LNER to ensure that its staff are fully aware of that. On a more positive side, the Azuma trains which have now come into service are 15% larger than the previous trains. They have more space and proper turning circles for wheelchairs. Six Azuma trains are already in service and in total there will be 65 in use.

Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Conservative

Can my noble friend confirm what the Government’s attitude is because many of us were inconvenienced last week by the strikes on South Western Railway? Is it their policy that guards should be present on all trains, particularly for long-distance journeys? I have known a train to break down on a dark evening and the guard had to go and inspect the track. What will happen if there is no guard on board?

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

It is the Government’s policy that trains should operate as safely as possible, and certainly it will be necessary to have a guard on board some services. However, on shorter routes it is not necessary to have a guard. Having a train driver who is also responsible for opening and closing the doors is perfectly acceptable.

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

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness referred to more open access services coming up. I think she said that they would be operated by FirstGroup, but if I misheard her, I am sure that she will correct me. Does that mean that the Government already know that the Williams review, which is currently looking at the structure of the industry, will advocate the increased or continuing use of open access, which suggests that the noble Baroness already knows what the response of the Williams review on that point is going to be?

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

We do not know what the Williams review is going to say on that or indeed any other point, but it will be a root-and-branch review of the entire system so that we can create a railway system fit for the 21st century and build up a blueprint of how our future on the railway will look. The review will look at reforms to the structure of the industry as well as to the commercial model within which it operates. Some 600 responses have been made to the call for evidence, so noble Lords will understand that it will take quite a while to go through them all. As regards the new services on the east coast main line, that was an open process conducted between 2014 and 2015. The operator has been granted track access rights from 2021 to operate those services.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

My Lords, my noble friend has answered a series of Written Questions from me about services from Edinburgh to London by air. Does she think it is reasonable for British Airways to charge economy-class fares of more than £600 for a return journey to Edinburgh on planes that are absolutely full—so full, in fact, that the Convenor was not able to get here today?

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I thank my noble friend for his Questions on this issue. As I have said to him previously, air travel in this country is subject to a competitive market and certain services will necessarily cost more than others. Where there is not a sufficient service, the Government will step in and provide support, but that is obviously not the case on the Edinburgh route.