West Coast Main Line - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:09 pm on 4th July 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Snape Lord Snape Labour 3:09 pm, 4th July 2022

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recent performance of the rail services on the West Coast Main Line provided by Avanti Trains.

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

My Lords, train operating companies’ performances are independently assessed against their contracts periodically across set criteria. An evaluation is under way and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time. Once the evaluation is complete, results will be published.

Photo of Lord Snape Lord Snape Labour

Does the Minister recollect our exchange on 27 April, when she said that this company had the lowest possible passenger satisfaction, scoring only one out of five? Will she accept from me that since then the performance has been even worse? The company is now at the bottom of the intercity league so far as delays and cancellations are concerned. As the company’s contract expires in October, what plans do the Government have to renew it or to find an alternative, bearing in mind that anyone running the west coast main line from October qualifies to run HS2 in the future? Will we really hand over Britain’s flagship railway to a company that is 70% controlled by the Italian Government and that has made a complete mess of the trains that it is responsible for running at present?

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

I do indeed recall an almost identical Question on 27 April. It is a pleasure to be answering it again. Avanti West Coast achieved one out of three, not one of five, which I agree is still terrible—it was at the bottom—but the Government hold it and all other train operators to account via the contracts. Avanti West Coast is still on an ERMA and, as the noble Lord pointed out, we are looking at potentially moving it and allied organisations on to a national rail contract within the third tranche of the national rail contracts. Will it definitely happen in October? That is not certain at all. We will look at its performance. We will think about the other options that we might consider in terms of incorporating HS2, for example, and being the shadow operator of HS2. Nothing is certain at this stage.

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

My Lords, there are reports that Avanti West Coast has withdrawn the 0745 Stoke-on-Trent to Manchester Piccadilly service, a vital commuter service. It has been withdrawn until September, apparently due to staff shortages. This is clearly not acceptable, as it was done without any notice. What are the obligations for train operating companies to give due notice and to undertake public consultation prior to withdrawing train services that they are contractually committed to provide? There is an issue here in relation to season ticket holders. Will they be given full refunds? What penalties will Avanti West Coast suffer if it has not obeyed the rules that are attached to its obligations?

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

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for the warning about the 0745 Stoke-on-Trent to Manchester but, as she pointed out, the removal of that service is temporary. It will be reinstated. Noble Lords will be aware that there has been a significant uptick in the number of cases of Covid recently, leading to short-term staff unavailability. That has had a knock-on impact on training for new staff coming in to support these services. Avanti West Coast is working very hard to minimise the impact on passengers. All cancellations are regrettable. Often these circumstances are quite fast-moving, and changes are temporary, so traditional consultation does not usually happen. However, usually the train operating companies will work with the local markets and with key stakeholders to understand any impact.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

My Lords, Great British Railways is coming into effect in, I am sure the Minister hopes, a couple of years. She will be directly responsible for all the trains that are on time and late, as well as for the infrastructure. Does she relish that? If not, who will she blame?

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

I hope that it will not be me personally, as I am not the Rail Minister, though it will be the Government. However, Great British Railways will be a body set up specifically for all those things that the noble Lord has pointed out, which will be to the benefit of passengers and freight since it will bring everything under one overarching umbrella. Will the Secretary of State and any Rail Minister at that time micromanage the network? Absolutely not. However, there will be one guiding mind. That is our ambition for Great British Railways.

Photo of Lord Goddard of Stockport Lord Goddard of Stockport Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I fear the Minister will never be able to see the virtues of Stockport, which is a vibrant community and is business- friendly. On Saturday, eight trains to Manchester were cancelled; on Friday, two; and on Thursday, one. The 2.40 was cancelled at short notice today as well. Every time a train is cancelled, hundreds of real people are disadvantaged. Is the Minister certain that there is not a sensible alternative to handing over HS2 to Avanti, as the noble Lord, Lord Snape, spoke about? You would not put Herod in charge of an orphanage, would you?

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

My Lords, Avanti West Coast is not the only train operating company currently facing difficulties, which are principally due to the uptick in Covid, as I suggested. There is a downward trend in the public performance measure and the moving annual average across all train operating companies, but it is expected that this will be proactively mitigated. The DfT will actively manage this process through the schedule 7.1 sections in the franchise agreements to make sure that we hold people to account, get the performance data, and understand why things went wrong and what we can do to fix them. Our goal is to deliver for passengers and for freight.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, given the awful service on the west coast and on other railways, and given that fares in the United Kingdom are so much greater than on the continent, including in Italy—which owns a big percentage of the west coast firm—will the Minister not agree with my noble friend Lord Berkeley about moving back to Great British Railways and that the unbelievably complex privatisation of the railways in Britain has been a total disaster? There are some guilty men opposite who should admit it.

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

I cannot agree with the noble Lord at all. Bringing the private sector into the railways probably rescued them. The number of passengers has gone up enormously since the private sector was involved. There have been problems more recently, principally owing to the Covid pandemic, but the Government will keep the private sector involved in our railways. These national rail contracts will become passenger service contracts, and the noble Lord is most welcome to respond to the consultation on them.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My Lords, there seems to be consensus that Avanti is one of the worst train operators in the country, and that is against a very low bar. Can we turn to the other side of the contract? Since 2010, the cost of a season ticket on the west coast main line between Coventry and London Euston has risen 49%, from £7,096 to £10,546. This represents an increase of almost £300 a year. What steps are the Government taking to address increasing rail fares on the west coast main line?

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

The Government are very conscious of increases in rail fares across the entire network, which is why we used the July RPI figure to increase the regulated fares this time around. We could have used the later figure and it would have been higher, but we deliberately decided to use a lower figure. How we will take subsequent rises forward is still under consideration. We recognise the impact that the cost of living challenge is having and will bear this in mind as we think about future price rises.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, does the noble Baroness appreciate the negative effect that performance on the west coast line is having on potential industrial and economic development in north Wales? Undermining rail connectivity between north Wales and other industrial centres in England means that the convenience of being located there is now very difficult to sell to incoming industrialists. Are the Government satisfied with that result from their policy?

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

The Government are not satisfied with the current performance of the train operating companies, and we are doing all we can to work with them and get through this difficult phase of the current Covid uptick and improving timetables. The timetables have been improved, not only by increasing the number of trains coming in on the west coast main line, but by ensuring that future timetables are flexible and respond to demands such that, if people choose to invest in north Wales—I encourage them to do so—they would have appropriate rail services.