Rail Disruption (Cleethorpes and Doncaster)

– in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 20th March 2013.

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Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes 4:00 pm, 20th March 2013

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

The reason why I asked for this debate is the closure of the main rail line out of my constituency—the line from Cleethorpes to Doncaster, Sheffield and on to Manchester—as the result of a landslip at Hatfield, between Scunthorpe and Doncaster, early last month. I welcome the Minister to his place and thank him for the help that he and his colleagues in the Department have given to date, through the influence that they have brought to bear.

I should set the scene by pointing out that the main Cleethorpes to Manchester line is the main route out of Cleethorpes and, importantly for the tourist trade, it is the main route into Cleethorpes—[Interruption.] It is the premier resort of the east coast, as my hon. Friend Andrew Percy reminds me. The alternatives are less than adequate, it has to be said. There are three lines out of Barnetby, the junction about 15 miles west of Cleethorpes, all of which go to Doncaster, Sheffield and Manchester, but the line through my hon. Friend’s constituency—through Brigg, Kirton Lindsey and Gainsborough to Sheffield—is, in part, a single track and passenger services are provided only on Saturdays. There is an alternative route to the east coast main line, with a connection at Newark, via Lincoln, but the service on that route is intermittent to say the least, and it is not a reasonable alternative.

The main operator on the Cleethorpes to Manchester line is First TransPennine. I have to say that it provides an excellent service and has done an excellent job in recent years to build up the patronage on that service. Of course, First TransPennine is also suffering, although there are compensation arrangements such as from Network Rail. As it pointed out in an e-mail to me, it is losing 25% to 30% of its customers from Grimsby and Cleethorpes, which equates to 2,500 a week. Clearly, many of those people might be permanently lost to First TransPennine.

Those people who wanted to come to Cleethorpes at Easter and into the summer season, for a day or a few days in the resort, will be completely lost to the tourist trade. The inconvenience is not only to individual travellers, including Members of Parliament I have to say, but more importantly to people accessing leisure services. It has a real impact on the local economy, and that is particularly relevant with the approach of the Easter weekend, which is the traditional start of the tourist season.

I met Network Rail and First TransPennine on Friday, and I acknowledge the difficulties that they face. The first priority is to get the line clear and to get at least a limited service up and running. At a conservative estimate, that will take another 12 to 16 weeks. As Network Rail pointed out to me, there are still considerable unknowns. I understand that Network Rail needs only three to four weeks to replace the track, but it does not yet have access to the track, because it has to move the slag heap that caused the slip and ensure that it is safe for the workmen.

I have already mentioned alternative routes. I accept that one priority must be getting freight from Immingham docks to the power stations. In the main, that uses the alternative Brigg and Gainsborough line, but there is some limited access and First TransPennine is training its drivers with the necessary route knowledge to run on that line. That is proving difficult, but I understand that it is ongoing, although it will take six weeks. First TransPennine is halfway through that process, so there is hope that a skeleton service might be provided on that line by mid to late April. As I have mentioned, Northern Rail operates a Saturday-only service. It would surely not be beyond the wit of man to use those particular slots, at least on Saturdays, and those available on Sundays, when there is less freight traffic, to provide direct services. At least getting people there for the weekend would be a boost to the tourist trade.

It is worth pointing out that one of the alternatives is the East Midlands route via Newark, which, as I have said, is an intermittent service. It is one of the faults of the present franchising system that there does not seem to be an incentive for East Midlands to take advantage of the lack of trains on the other route by providing additional trains. I recognise that, as I know from correspondence about its normal daily services, there are problems. Anyone who has travelled on peak-hour services—most noticeably, for example, the 17.23 from Lincoln, via Market Rasen, through to Grimsby—will know that the rolling stock is totally inadequate, being provided by a single unit. East Midlands readily says—I have quite a bit of correspondence about this—that the rolling stock is simply not available. Clearly, if rolling stock is not available to provide existing services, there is very little scope for it to provide additional services.

Through First TransPennine, I have asked whether East Coast, which provides most east coast main line services, would consider deregulating some of the ticket restrictions that currently operate, at least to allow people to leave London and get back to Cleethorpes by train, by changing at Newark. In the evening, that unfortunately means having to leave before the 7 pm cut-off at which cheaper tickets begin. East Coast told First TransPennine that it was not prepared, in more or less any circumstances, to do that. I subsequently wrote to East Coast, but, sadly, it has not as yet bothered to reply. It does not seem unreasonable to request that, for the 18.03 from King’s Cross to Newark, which has a good connection through to Grimsby—not to Cleethorpes, unfortunately, but at least people can get to Grimsby—it could provide a derestriction to allow passengers to Barnetby, Habrough and Grimsby to use that service.

The main concern now is clearly to get services up and running, but I think questions need to be asked, although the Minister does not have direct responsibility for most such areas.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, who is my parliamentary neighbour, on securing this important debate about a significant event in our part of the world. Does he agree that, at the same time as addressing the issues that he quite properly raises, Network Rail has an opportunity to look at bringing forward its upgrades to the line? My constituents in Scunthorpe, who are being significantly disadvantaged, would then get a future advantage through improvements to the railway.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. At our meeting on Monday, Network Rail told me that it intends to schedule some of the works on other parts of the line while it is closed, which is obviously a sensible move. There is therefore some hope in that respect.

I want to move on to the actual incident, why it happened and who, if anyone, was responsible. The slippage of the slag heap may have simply been the result of movement in the earth—one of those terrible things that, although it blocked a railway line, thankfully did not cause any loss of life. However, I know from Network Rail that it has had discussions with the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the mines inspectorate. I am in the process of corresponding with those agencies to see what their response is. It is worth mentioning in this debate—I hope the Minister will convey this to other Departments—who, if anyone, is responsible for monitoring the safety of the slag heaps. Agencies such as the HSE moved in after the event, but was anyone other than the operator of the site responsible? The operator, which was Hargreaves Services, only owned 10% of the operation; the rest was owned by foreign investors. Do the HSE, the Environment Agency and the mines inspectorate have responsibility—

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

I thank the Minister for that and I look forward to hearing from the agency. It is important that it is able to confirm what, if any, responsibility it had before the incident and whether it discharged those responsibilities in the proper manner. I do not want to indulge in scare stories, but a train could have been on that section of track when the incident took place. I hope that the matter is taken extremely seriously.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has made a fantastic case for all our constituents and commuters on the south bank of the Humber, but my constituency will experience a double whammy in that the Hull, Goole and Doncaster line is also affected. I had to use the bus replacement this week. [Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is a risk of a triple whammy coming our way, because there will be closures on the Hull, Selby and Doncaster line in a few weeks, and we need an assurance from the Minister that that will not be allowed to happen until the works have been completed?

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I know that both his constituency and other constituencies on the north bank of the Humber are extremely concerned that they may be effectively cut off from the rail network.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman has said a lot about passenger services, but he will know that 20% of the freight coming into the UK goes through Immingham. Will he say something about the impact on freight services?

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. In fact, it is more than 20%; 25% of freight tonnage moved by rail starts or ends in Immingham. It is a vital hub, especially for the movement of coal to power stations.

I understand from the train operators and Network Rail that they are able to manage the freight operations using alternative routes, but it is a particular concern, and the hon. Gentleman is right to mention it. His own constituency, which encompasses Scunthorpe and the steel works, is a vital part of that freight network.

In conclusion, will the Minister address my key points in relation to alternative TransPennine routes via Brigg or Lincoln, and an improved rail service on East Midlands Trains, perhaps with some joint working with TransPennine? I presume there are surplus units at the moment that we might be able to use.

The Minister will know that my neighbouring colleagues and I are pushing hard for a direct rail service between Grimsby, Cleethorpes and London. At the moment, there is an East Midlands train that goes from Lincoln to King’s Cross in the morning and King’s Cross to Lincoln in the evening. It would be a golden opportunity to test the market for a future service if that route could be extended to Cleethorpes for a short time. Let us see some entrepreneurial activity by East Midlands Trains pushed on by the famous entrepreneurial Minister. I hope for a positive response in that respect. One final matter for the Minister is the ticketing regulations on the main line, which must be a simple thing to deal with. I look forward to hearing his response.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns The Minister of State, Department for Transport 4:15 pm, 20th March 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. It is a particular pleasure for me because it is of course the first time that I have had that privilege and honour. I congratulate my hon. Friend Martin Vickers on an important and pertinent speech concerning the response to the natural disaster that has so adversely affected the railway lines and his constituents, and also the constituents of my hon. Friend Andrew Percy and Nic Dakin. I fully appreciate the importance of rail services to people in Cleethorpes, Grimsby and Scunthorpe and the significant inconvenience that the collapse of the spoil heap is causing to people wanting to travel from those towns and others wanting to travel to them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes on the efforts that he has taken with meetings and lobbying to secure the best services for his constituents in respect of the disruption. I welcome the work that the industry has done to mitigate the disruption caused to both passengers and freight operators following the incident, which, as all hon. Members will accept, is beyond the control of the railway.

First TransPennine Express operates an hourly service from Cleethorpes to Manchester airport via Scunthorpe, Doncaster and Sheffield. Northern Rail provides local services between Doncaster and Scunthorpe and between Doncaster and Goole. The collapse of a spoil heap at Hatfield colliery, which was initially noted on 9 February, destroyed the adjacent railway line that links Doncaster with Scunthorpe and Goole. The subsidence did not cease until the end of February, which has compounded the problem. The collapse was not just a one-off incident on 9 February; it continued for almost another three weeks, resulting in a clear-up problem of enormous size and magnitude.

On 15 March, Network Rail advised that clearance of the spoil had commenced. However, it now anticipates that the reinstatement of the railway will be in early July rather than in June, as it had previously advised. Network Rail hopes that there is no further slippage and that it will continue to make progress to achieving restoration. Network Rail cautions that any date is subject to revision in the light of uncovering further problems as the work progresses, or the recurrence of movement in the spoil heap.

Train services have been replaced by buses. Buses between Scunthorpe and Doncaster are running every 30 minutes. Additional buses serving local stations are operating each hour. Northern Rail is providing limited stop buses and rail replacement buses serving all stations between Doncaster and Goole. Northern Rail express trains linking Sheffield, Doncaster, Hull and Bridlington have been re-routed via the east coast main line and Selby.

Northern continues to provide three trains between Sheffield and Cleethorpes via Brigg on Saturdays as required by its franchise agreement. Those services offer people the opportunity of a day out in Cleethorpes, and therefore are maintaining a direct rail service in support of the local tourism industry in Cleethorpes. East Midlands Trains provides seven trains on weekdays between Grimsby Town and Newark North Gate. Those trains connect with East Coast trains for passengers travelling to London. To extend the existing service to Cleethorpes would require additional resources, including additional rolling stock, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes mentioned in his remarks. It would be for EMT to determine the business case for sourcing any additional rolling stock. I know that EMT has increased the capacity on trains between Grimsby and Newark North Gate on Saturdays, when it has rolling stock available to do so, so as to meet this short-term problem.

As my hon. Friend is also aware, management responsibility for the removal of the spoil falls to the colliery operators, Hargreaves. Network Rail is responsible for rebuilding the railway once the spoil has been removed. During the period that the railway is closed for reconstruction, Network Rail is investigating options for bringing forward investment work that is due in 2014. The removal of lineside vegetation has already commenced. Further options for expediting future improvements are also being considered. This may help to reduce the number of times that engineering work causes future disruption to passengers.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, it is estimated that it will take between 16 and 18 weeks to reopen the railway. Around 1 million cubic metres of spoil will have to be removed before Network Rail can commence reconstruction. Work has started to remove the considerable amount of spoil and to restore the railway, and I welcome the considerable effort that Network Rail and others are making to expedite the task. Network Rail’s mining team is carrying out a review of other sites around the network with built spoil heaps, and no cause for concern has been identified.

My hon. Friend mentioned Selby swing bridge; I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole also mentioned it. The bridge is due for renewal between 28 July and 9 September. Network Rail is currently planning that the investment in that historic bridge will go ahead as scheduled. In the event that the work at Stainforth is still under way, that will limit the diversionary routes available to passenger services. Network Rail is working with the train operators to identify alternative arrangements if they are required.

On the question of Immingham port, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, he knows as well as I do that it is one of the busiest ports in the country, and both he and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe mentioned it in their contributions. It receives 55 million tonnes of freight annually, including around 20 million tonnes of oil and 10 million tonnes of coal. These considerable fuel supplies are sent by rail, there being more than 250 rail movements at Immingham each week. Coal trains run from Immingham to power stations in the midlands, including West Burton and Ratcliffe power stations, and to Eggborough power station in North Yorkshire. Immingham also supports the UK economy in landing container traffic, animal feed and forestry products.

It has been suggested that passenger trains be rerouted via the Brigg line. Following the loss of the railway via Scunthorpe, Network Rail has rerouted a considerable number of freight trains via Brigg and via Lincoln. Given its strategic importance, Network Rail rebuilt sections of the Brigg line for freight traffic in 2009. The line is currently being used by around 120 freight trains a day, rather than the usual number.

To maintain fuel supplies and other deliveries, freight trains are now running every few minutes in both directions throughout the day along the 12 miles of single track between Gainsborough Central and Kirton Lindsey, and along a further single line between Brigg and Wrawby Junction. Although there are no immediate plans, or ability, to run passenger trains via Brigg, it is for First TransPennine Express and Northern Rail to work with Network Rail to assess whether there are any available train paths for passenger trains via that route, or whether amendments to the times of freight trains might be possible in the future. I certainly urge my hon. Friend, in the light of what I have just said, to go back to the companies and suggest that they contact Network Rail again to discover if there are any opportunities along those lines that might help—up to a point—in alleviating part of the problem that his constituents are facing at the moment. However, I also advise him that operating passenger trains via the Brigg line does not benefit passengers travelling from Cleethorpes and Grimsby to Scunthorpe and Doncaster as it does not serve either place. There are also fewer connection opportunities at Retford.

Around 15% of passengers from Cleethorpes and Grimsby travel to Scunthorpe and Doncaster—more than travel from Cleethorpes to London. Noting previous comments by my hon. Friend, it would be for East Coast to assess any options there may be for extending its Lincoln to London services to serve Grimsby and Cleethorpes. To do so, East Coast would require time to amend train diagrams and crew rosters. It would also have to follow industry processes to assess whether the trains used are suitable to run east of Lincoln. If this were achieved, East Coast would then have to release members of its train crew from other duties to learn the route between Lincoln and Cleethorpes.

I appreciate the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed about the disruption to rail services in Lincolnshire and the knock-on effect in South Yorkshire, which have been caused by the collapse of the spoil heap near Hatfield and Stainforth. I welcome the efforts that the rail industry has made to reduce disruption to passengers and freight traffic, including advising passengers of changes to train services and taking an opportunity to bring forward maintenance work where that is possible.

However, I also appreciate the impatience of my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes and for Brigg and Goole, and of the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, to have the very best for their constituents. The problem facing us all is that this slippage was an act of God, so to speak, and because of the sheer scale of the slippage the problem cannot be solved overnight, despite everyone’s best intentions to find a solution as quickly as possible. That does not help the hon. Members’ constituents, because obviously they want the service restored as quickly as possible, but I know that their constituents are reasonable people and that they appreciate that we cannot solve a problem of this scale overnight, or with the click of a button. Nevertheless, I hope that they are reassured by the considerable amount of work that has been done and that is still being done, not least by my hon. Friends and the hon. Gentleman in the way that they have engaged with the rail companies and Network Rail to try to limit any potential delays, and in their exploration of all possible avenues to try to find a solution that minimises the disruption to their constituents at the present time.

In conclusion, I can only say—

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns The Minister of State, Department for Transport

I will give way very briefly, because I am almost out of time.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

I thank the Minister for his response, and I appreciate the work that Network Rail and the operating companies are doing. May I just ask him to see if he could pass on to East Coast my comments about the issue of ending the restrictions on its tickets?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns The Minister of State, Department for Transport

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I certainly listened very carefully to what he said. As he will appreciate, the rules and regulations governing tickets are a matter for the train operators, but it would give me considerable pleasure to get in touch with them and draw to their attention the comments that he has made during this debate, and I will ask them if they will look at this issue to see if there is some way, and some flexibility, that might help to make life easier for some of his constituents, and for some of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole and of the hon. Member for Scunthorpe.

Before I sit down, I can say that no one is more anxious than I or my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes and for Brigg and Goole and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe to see this matter resolved as quickly as possible, so that normal, effective, efficient services can be restored to the local communities that all three hon. Members represent so well.