Rail Disruption: Social and Economic Impacts - Private Notice Question

– in the House of Lords at 12:06 pm on 13 May 2021.

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Baroness Randerson:

Asked by Baroness Randerson

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the social and economic impacts of disruption to services following the withdrawal of some Hitachi high-speed trains being removed from service after defects were discovered in them.

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

My Lords, the vast majority of services across the national rail network are unaffected. The trains affected are Hitachi Class 800 series units operated by Great Western Railway on intercity services as well as some LNER services, Hull Trains services and a small number of TransPennine Express services. Most of the services used by schoolchildren and local workers are local services which have not been affected by this issue. The Government have asked operators to prioritise services used by schoolchildren where possible.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank the Minister for that Answer and I appreciate the amount of joint working that has taken place to enable some replacement services to run. The abrupt and total withdrawal of Hitachi trains from several routes caused massive disruption to passengers and businesses in some regions. It is an added blow to train operators, which had hoped to be attracting passengers back on to services. This is a crucial time as we establish fresh working patterns and the Government need to lure us back on to public transport. This appears to be an expensive design or manufacturing error.

Does the Minister agree that it is essential the cost is not borne by train operators, passengers or taxpayers? If so, are the Government in discussions with Hitachi about this issue? What steps do the Government intend to take to compensate the businesses and passengers affected? Does she agree that the Government need to fund a promotional period of reduced fares to attract passengers back on to the services, which have been so badly affected?

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

My Lords, the agreements in place to use the affected trains contain provisions that protect the taxpayer. We expect those who have contractual performance and train availability obligations to fully compensate the taxpayer.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for asking this Question. I understand from the technical press that 86 out of 93 of these affected trains have either a failure of the yaw dampers, which connect the bogie to the body shell—they are quite important parts—or the lifting points, with cracks of up to one foot long. On the routes affected this clearly means that there are very few, if any, trains. These are trains designed and procured by the Government—

Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but could he keep his question succinct?

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

Unfortunately I missed the question, but I hope to provide some colour to what the noble Lord was saying. Indeed, there are two different types of crack. One is found on the yaw damper; those cracks were found three weeks ago and are not the reason for the withdrawal of the trains from service. The second cracks are on the lifting lugs and have led to the withdrawal of trains from service. I would like to reassure the noble Lord that there is a very stringent engineering risk assessment in place. These trains are checked every 24 hours and are being returned to service from today; we expect to have up to 25 coming back today. We hope that 60 GWR trains will be back by Monday and we believe that services will significantly improve.

Photo of Lord Davies of Gower Lord Davies of Gower Conservative

The current situation has brought about an intolerable level of stress and inconvenience to the travelling public, not least here in Wales on the GWR routes. It is a relief that Hitachi has issued a statement this morning advising that a significant number of the IETs can return to service. What inquiries have been made of train leasing companies, such as Angel Trains and Porterbrook, to establish the possibility of recommissioning some of their redundant and in-storage HST 125 fleet to provide some alleviation of the current problem and possible future issues?

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

I would like to reassure my noble friend that I spoke to Mark Hopwood, the MD of GWR, this morning. He told me that the major routes of particularly high priority include those from south Wales and the south-west. We recognise that getting those services back is important. He is looking at other ways of procuring modern, clean rolling stock, although he pointed out that the return of HSTs is unlikely and he would hope to get more modern stock from elsewhere.

Photo of Lord Bradshaw Lord Bradshaw Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the question of compensation arises here. Is there a liquidated damages clause in the agreement between the Government and Hitachi about these trains? If not, can Hitachi be pressed to make some ex gratia compensation payment for the huge damage that this delay is inflicting on both passengers and railway staff, through no fault of their own?

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

Of course, we are in conversations with Hitachi, and we welcome its decision to put safety first and take the trains out of service while we properly understand what is going on. As noble Lords will be aware, 122 Hitachi trains are procured via the intercity express programme, while the remaining 60 are under conventional rolling stock leases. We will look into what potential compensation may be forthcoming from Hitachi, but the train operating companies are offering refunds to their passengers for cancelled services.

Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench

My Lords, the noble Baroness and I were in happy agreement recently in your Lordships’ House about the fact that it was not necessary to copy France in limiting domestic air travel here because cities such as Manchester are closer and well connected by fast intercity services. However, of course, this utterly depends on reliable service—so is the Minister concerned that unreliability will inevitably force travellers back into their cars and on to still more polluting airlines?

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

No one wants to see a vast modal shift towards cars, but I accept that, in certain circumstances, when we have a situation such as this, that will occur. However, it is a very rare occurrence for this sort of wide-ranging manufacturing or other fault to be found in the make-up of the units. I am convinced that the Hitachi manufacturers are doing all that they can to get these units back on the rails, and I believe that services will be back to normal in the medium term.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

My Lords, I declare an interest as a regular LNER user—indeed, I experienced disruption to the service on my trip down from Darlington. While it is essential that the defects are addressed, I am very aware of the jobs and investment brought to County Durham by Hitachi. Can the Minister confirm that this issue will not impact the investment in the region and the security of the jobs?

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

My Lords, in general, Hitachi trains have an incredibly good track record. Hitachi built the bullet trains in Japan, which, as noble Lords will know, have an exemplary safety record, and it has a very high engineering pedigree. While it will of course be up to Hitachi’s customers to decide where they make their purchases in the future, I for one believe that that sort of pedigree will not be diminished by these events.

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

What is the estimated likely total revenue loss following the withdrawal from service for repairs of the Hitachi trains? Who will foot the bill for that loss of revenue? I hope it will be neither the taxpayer nor passengers, and I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is the position.

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

It is very tricky to make a detailed assessment of the reduction in revenue, given where we are at the moment and the fact that GWR operates a turn-up-and-go service, so numbers are very difficult to estimate. We estimate that, from an LNER perspective, it is probably a reduction of 1,000 passengers a day, but, as noble Lords will know, this is a fast-moving situation, these cracks were found on only Friday night and Saturday morning and, obviously, much more work needs to be done on the impact in the medium term.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

I also declare an interest as a regular user of the east coast main line. I press my noble friend—because I understand that the department played a large part in designing the Azuma train—to address the part of the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, about whether Hitachi will make good the damage, which is a very serious structural concern? Can she also assure the House today that the Government will review where the carriages will be sourced for the HS2 project?

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

I am not sure that I can give my noble friend all the assurances that she seeks on this matter. In general, Hitachi has a very strong track record in this area. The Department for Transport is not in the business of designing the details of trains—but if there is more information in this area, I will certainly get back to her. I reassure noble Lords that the removal of all these trains was carried out because safety is our highest priority; we are taking a very cautious approach to getting these units back on the tracks. However, we believe that we can do so safely and that we can undertake a medium-term forward repair plan to return them to 100% health.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My Lords, I declare that I am a member of the GWR APPG and a user of GWR’s services. In her Answer to the Question, the Minister said, quite rightly, that the “vast majority” of trains are unaffected, but that seemed to dismiss the experience of those travellers for whom the vast majority of their trains are affected. Perhaps the Minister would like to correct that impression. In doing so, could she outline, in detail, how those passengers will be compensated for this very difficult period?

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

I will not correct the record on that because I was trying to reassure people that the vast majority of train services are actually running throughout the country at this moment. Therefore, it is very important that people do not read the papers and think, “I can’t get on a train”. The most important thing is that you probably can, but check beforehand. However, it is also the case that we experience disruption on our railways periodically, sometimes due to strikes and sometimes to defects in the track—these are incredibly unfortunate. We do not want them to happen; we want our services to run as punctually and effectively as possible.

The operators are offering refunds and delay repay compensation for cancelled and delayed trains. There has been an enormous amount of collaboration with all the train operating companies: I pay particular tribute to CrossCountry rail, which has put on new services to Bristol and Swindon, a route on which it does not normally travel. Tickets are accepted by other train operating companies, and indeed some have offered support by offering rolling stock.

Photo of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Labour

My Lords, I hope the Minister can reassure me that the 7.30 am train from King’s Cross to Edinburgh will be running tomorrow. More generally and significantly, have there been discussions with the devolved Governments about the economic and transport consequences? Given the responsibilities of the Scottish Government in relation to rail services, what specific discussions does the Minister plan to have with them?

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

I wish I could reassure the noble Lord that the 7.30 will operate, but I am sure that the train operating companies are watching and will make sure that it does. I can reassure him that we always engage with our counterparts in the devolved Administrations in these circumstances. Priority has been given to resolving this at an operational level; it has been at an operational level that we have been collaborating. It is interesting to note that this issue has emerged also on the ScotRail class 385 fleet, with 10 out of the 70 units there experiencing a similar problem, but, thankfully, there has been no impact on services in Scotland.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, while safety is of course paramount, I have twice this week had to take a car from Lincoln to London and I shall return by car today. What we need is some degree of certainty. Can we please have for next week a programme of cancellations and running trains given at the beginning of the week?

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

It is in the train operating companies’ interest to provide as much certainty as possible. I know that they are working incredibly hard on contingency planning such that, as we move to the new timetable—which also comes in next week—we will be able to offer as many services as possible. I am aware that the services from Lincoln have been particularly hit; I believe that it is now possible to get to Peterborough and then to change there, but I hope that the noble Lord’s services are back running as soon as possible.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Non-affiliated

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the planned engineering works for the Whitsun bank holiday weekend on the East Midlands Railway line which mean that no trains will be running from St Pancras to Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield and of the additional pressure that that will place on the east coast main line? What steps are being taken at this point to mitigate the potential additional chaos and disruption on that busy weekend?

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

We recognise that that weekend may be busy. It is also the case that bank holidays are often the best time to do much-needed engineering works. The Government have asked Network Rail to review the engineering works for the late-May bank holiday weekend and to work with operators to ensure that passengers can still travel. In anticipation of the potential return of passengers, Network Rail has decided to defer some of the previously planned engineering works where possible—sometimes they are scheduled many months in advance, and it is not possible. However, we have tried to minimise them as much as possible. We will monitor the progress of the engineering works throughout the bank holiday weekend so that as many passengers as possible can travel.