Great Northern Great Eastern Upgrade: Compensation — [Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 5 May 2016.

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Photo of Stephen Phillips Stephen Phillips Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 1:30, 5 May 2016

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of compensation for residents affected by the upgrade of the Great Northern Great Eastern railway line.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz, for what I think is the first time. Let me begin by defining what we are dealing with. The Great Northern Great Eastern line runs through my constituency, as well as those of many right hon. and hon. Members, on its way from Peterborough to Doncaster. Self-evidently, it passes close to the homes of many of my constituents.

The line has, of course, been in daily use for a long time and those who move next to railways lines know—it is not unreasonable—that some noise and vibration can be generated and is expected. However, decisions about where people live and where their homes should be are based on existing use and what is at issue here is the increase in frequency and speed of traffic along the line, following Network Rail’s recent upgrade, and the measures that should be taken to ameliorate the effects of that, which is something that to date Network Rail has been intransigent on with regards to both measures to deal with increased noise and vibration, and compensation for those affected.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Claire Perry, formally opened the upgraded line in March last year. That huge project was a substantial investment in the infrastructure of Lincolnshire and the east midlands. Network Rail apparently spent £280 million on improving the line, including the upgrading of 61 level crossings and 57 bridges and the renewing of more than 80 miles of track to increase line speed to 75 mph for passenger trains and 60 mph for freight trains.

New electronic modular signalling systems mean that the line can be kept open 24 hours a day, which is obviously a problem for residents given that that was not previously the case. Moreover, the upgrade has increased the number of freight trains as part of plans to free up slots for more passenger trains on the east coast main line route between Peterborough and Doncaster.

Everyone appreciates the need for investment in our railways and I understand the benefits of the upgrade: better and faster services, reduction in the need for heavy maintenance over the next decade and a decrease in delays owing to infrastructure faults. Moving freight traffic on our railways also reduces the number of polluting heavy goods vehicles, which helps us all with congestion and is a welcome move for anyone who has been stuck behind a goods lorry on a Lincolnshire A road, as I all too frequently am.

However—here is the thing—since the upgraded line came into full use, serious problems have become apparent that Network Rail is at present failing to address. In particular the Minister should be aware that, as a result of the upgrade, my constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members who live beside the line are now subjected to a level of traffic that they never could have reasonably anticipated when they moved into their homes. These trains—both passenger and freight—are now more frequent, faster and heavier than before. There are more trains during the evening, night and early morning. As one of my constituents, Mr Scrutton, pointed out to me in an email late last night, Network Rail told those who live along the line that the use of continuous rail would improve noise disruption, but the experience of those who actually live along the line is different. Noise and vibration have got worse and, of course, far more frequent.

Those issues were first drawn to my attention some time ago by the Surfleet and Joiner families who live in the beautiful village of Helpringham and who are watching this debate keenly. They are neighbours, and their properties both lie alongside the line. They have been subjected to increased noise and vibration from the upgrade and they have been assiduous in trying to find an amicable solution with Network Rail to the concerns they have expressed.

Over recent months, I have also been contacted by more and more constituents from Helpringham and from other affected villages who tell me of sleepless nights, structural damage to their homes and an inability to sell their properties. One mother wrote to tell me that her young daughter now cannot sleep through the night, which is affecting her school work. However beneficial to the nation’s infrastructure the upgrade is, it should not, I venture to suggest, have come at the cost that it has to those families, with few or no ameliorative measures put in place. The parish council in another village, Metheringham, one of the worst affected, held a public meeting last year. Residents expressed serious concern about the noise and speed of the trains along the line, and the council pleaded with Network Rail at least to reduce the speed of trains as they go through the village, all to no avail.

I have to tell the Minister that we have come up against the same point again and again. In renewing the track, Network Rail has used continuous welded rail, which it says reduces the noise and vibration and lessens the old clickety-clack noise that could be so infuriating to residents. That is cold or no comfort, because even if it is correct, it simply does not address the additional noise, vibration and nuisance that result from more trains, faster trains and heavier trains.

To show the House just how arrogant the unaccountable Network Rail is, I can do no better than offer its own words to one of my local newspapers last year:

“The line was already in daily use for both passenger and freight rail services and there is therefore no automatic obligation to introduce noise or particulate mitigation measures for increases in service levels.”

That not only displays the attitude that I have faced in trying to raise this issue but neatly summarises the problem: there is seemingly no obligation for Network Rail to mitigate those problems or to deal with me or local residents. If it were a new line or if the line had been substantially changed, there would have been such an obligation and residents would have been able either to claim compensation or to get noise mitigation measures installed to improve their individual circumstances. However, we are repeatedly told that in this situation there is no such obligation, so nothing is being done. “Deal with it and get lost” is the clear message that I am receiving.

I well appreciate that Network Rail cannot provide compensation to everyone who lives alongside a railway line, but its response when I have raised individual cases has been that residents can apply for compensation on an individual basis, but the burden of proof falls on them to show that they are suffering from increased noise and vibration. Network Rail seems to think that everyone affected should have to pay for noise monitoring, structural surveys and so on, which are frankly beyond the means of most of those people. Worse still, even if they are successful in claiming compensation, those costs are not covered or taken into account. Although I am not asking Network Rail to pay for a survey every time someone comes along with a complaint, it is surely right, given the volume of people who were misled into thinking that the upgrade would actually improve their lives, that Network Rail should take up the burden and either pay compensation or take steps to improve the lives of those people.

The Minister will know that I have raised this issue in the House before with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, who has responsibility for this area, and she has met me to discuss it. She kindly promised to write to Network Rail to encourage it to engage with me and the problems and to do what it can. I have yet to see a copy of that letter, but perhaps he will in due course tell me and the whole House the current state of play.

In truth, despite their welcome sympathy for my constituents, I suspect that the Department and the Government have not yet given this issue the focus it demands in their dealings with Network Rail, which seems unaccountable to Members of Parliament and Ministers without some sort of adverse publicity, which I hope this short debate will provoke. We can push, we can plead and we can shame, all of which I have sought to do, but in the end it simply seems that none of us can push past the brick wall and make Network Rail address problems if it does not want to.

Colleagues across the House will know how difficult it can be to engage with Network Rail on difficult issues, but the problems that I have experienced in communicating with it pale in comparison with those faced by members of the public, parish councils and others. I would like to hear from the Minister about what more he can do to improve the responsiveness and accountability of Network Rail on this issue. I appreciate that he may say that his power and that of the Department to intervene in this case is limited, but I would say that is precisely the problem. It is a problem that needs to be addressed and one that I intend to keep pressing on behalf of all my affected constituents. It simply must be dealt with.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Transport) 1:39, 5 May 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate Stephen Phillips on securing this debate. In passing, I also commend his courageous stance on child refugees. He made a powerful statement on behalf of his constituents today, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to the important points raised in relation to Network Rail and compensation for local residents.

The Opposition support investment in rail freight. There can be no doubt about its economic and environmental benefits. More than £30 billion-worth of goods a year are carried by freight, generating £1.6 billion for the wider economy. Each freight movement produces 76% less carbon dioxide than the equivalent lorry journeys would produce. I should mention briefly that the loss of coal and steel traffic is a matter of deep concern in the industry, and should be in this House too, especially as the trade in biomass has not met expectations due to the policy decisions made by different Departments.

We can support freight by investing in dedicated infrastructure and upgrading existing routes to free up space on our main lines. Such was the intention behind the Great Northern Great Eastern joint line. I am proud that in government, Labour spearheaded the development of the strategic freight network. It is welcome that some investment has been made in freight, although it is worrying that other projects, such as freight electrification schemes, have dropped by the wayside. However, we must take proper account of the impact that such projects have on local communities. I am sure that all hon. Members sympathise with the position of the hon. and learned Gentleman’s constituents.

Many areas of the country are not well served by rail, and Lincolnshire’s passenger services are certainly inadequate. It is famously home to the Brigg line, which I am told operates passenger services only on Saturdays. Rail funding in the east midlands is proportionately the lowest in the country at just £34 per head, down from £45 per head in 2010. In other words, investment in the region has fallen by a quarter, while fares have risen by the same percentage. It is no wonder that residents and passengers feel aggrieved when they face increases in noise, and yet passenger services are not up to scratch.

In the last 24 hours, freight trains were scheduled to run along the line in question at least once an hour between midnight and 6 o’clock this morning. We have heard today from the hon. and learned Gentleman about the impact of those movements on local residents. He told us that Network Rail was not offering local residents compensation, but compensation is partly a matter for the courts if material loss can be demonstrated—an issue that I know is top of the Minister’s to-do list in relation to diesel emissions. I am sure we all hope it will not come to that.

I would like to a make a few points in relation to Network Rail’s position. Network Rail’s actions have perhaps been referred to in isolation so far, but its spending plans for 2014 to 2019 are part of a plan specified and approved by Ministers in the Department for Transport. Indeed, the completion of the joint line upgrade is commemorated by a ministerial plaque at Ruskington station. The financial consequences of decisions taken in 2012 are well known, after the costs of some projects escalated, and I will return to that.

It is worth emphasising that in September 2014, Network Rail became a full subsidiary of the Department for Transport and is now directly accountable to Ministers in a way that was not previously the case. Conversely, Ministers are also directly accountable in this place for the actions of Network Rail. The Secretary of State has a personal representative on the company’s board, in the form of the Department’s special director. With the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Claire Perry chairing the monthly meeting of the Department’s performance delivery group, which brings together Network Rail and train operators, there is no shortage of channels for Ministers to make their opinions known. The Minister present may reasonably say that it is not the place of him or his colleagues to interfere in operational matters, but they can speak about Network Rail’s corporate policies, and I hope he will do so today.

It is clear that the issues raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman could affect the constituency of any Member with a railway line in their patch. I am sure we all want assurance that if our constituents were to raise reasonable requests for compensation or mitigation, Network Rail would give them a fair hearing. When this issue was previously raised, a spokesperson for the company said:

“I do appreciate the concerns of local residents but Network Rail is not funded to offer any form of compensation for carrying out our statutory obligations in maintaining or enhancing the railway.”

Something important might have been said there. We know that Network Rail is facing a serious budget shortfall. Essential projects have been delayed by up to four years in relation to the electrification of the Midland Mainline and the TransPennine route, which were euphemistically paused last June and then mysteriously un-paused a week before the Conservative party conference.

The cost of the Great Western main line electrification programme has increased from an estimated £548 million in 2011 to £2.8 billion last year. As a result, the company is selling £1.8 billion-worth of assets, including some of our best-known stations, and assuming an extra £700 million of borrowing. Maintenance works are being pushed back, which, according to the regulator, has contributed to the 65% increase in temporary speed restrictions on the national rail network over the past year.

There is a certain irony in the fact that freight sites that were acquired by Network Rail at a cost of £220 million just two years ago are now back on the market as part of the wider fire sale, at a potential loss to the tax- payer. We need clarity. Is Network Rail unable to offer compensation or fund mitigation measures because of some point of legal principle, or is the more prosaic explanation that the company simply cannot afford it? If that is the case, I hope the Minister will enlighten the House, because it is clear that there is more to come into the public domain in relation to Network Rail’s financial position.

The hon. and learned Gentleman has raised an important issue that is clearly of acute interest to his constituents who live adjacent to the line. While we want to see more freight on the rail network, his description of Network Rail’s interactions with the local community gives cause for concern, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to those points when he sums up.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 1:45, 5 May 2016

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I thank my hon. and learned Friend Stephen Phillips for securing this debate on the upgrade of the Great Northern Great Eastern railway line and the impact on the residents of his constituency and beyond.

I will first say a few words about why the Government have chosen to invest in our rail network. We are undertaking the biggest transport infrastructure project in Britain since the coming of the motorways, because we have chosen to invest for the future. We are making journeys simpler, better, faster and more reliable, and we are making transport safer and more sustainable. The investment we are making today will help prepare our country for tomorrow. Our plan will support jobs, enable business growth and bring the distant parts of our country closer together. We are supporting a record £70 billion investment in rail, roads, ports and airports. For our railways, we are undertaking the biggest rail modernisation project since Victorian times.

Building world-class infrastructure is vital if we are to build a stronger economy. We are ensuring that every part of Britain benefits from the growing economy and that everyone who works hard gets the opportunities they need to succeed. That includes, for example, High Speed 2, which will connect London Euston to Birmingham, Leeds and Scotland, as well as new, British-built intercity express trains for the east coast and Great Western rail routes and the electrification of the midland main line. Indeed, on Monday, I will be in Doncaster to mark the start of the building of the HS2 college, which will ensure that we have the skills to deliver such projects.

Rail passengers today are already seeing the fruits of our labour following the renovation of many of our busiest stations, including Manchester Victoria, Birmingham New Street, and the landmark stations at King’s Cross and St Pancras International. We have truly entered a new age of the railway, which will leave a lasting legacy for future generations. Our railway and its supply chain contribute up to £9.3 billion in gross value added per year. It employs 212,000 people and provides tax receipts of up to £3.9 billion. The sector is succeeding in winning custom and investment on a level that was unthinkable just a few decades ago.

The strategic purpose of the GNGE upgrade was to provide high-quality freight paths between Peterborough and Doncaster, via Lincoln, on a 24/7 basis. Modal shift of freight from road to rail is good for the country. Rail presents a faster, greener, safer and more efficient way to transport loads across Britain. It has been said that for every freight train operated, 60 lorries are removed from the road network—lorries that thunder past people’s homes. The upgrade will allow for up two freight trains an hour to be diverted away from the east coast main line, thus freeing up capacity for more long-distance passenger services, which will be needed when the new intercity express trains start operating on that route.

The upgrade complements other vital work that is helping to unlock major bottlenecks at York, London King’s Cross, Peterborough, Nottingham, Hitchin and North Doncaster. For example, passengers from Cambridge no longer have to cross the east coast main line, increasing the reliability of that route and making journeys better. The significant upgrade between Peterborough and Doncaster via Spalding and Lincoln was one element of a wider package of work to improve the region’s railways.

Another strategic objective of the upgrade was to improve safety and to make the railway more sustainable. It now delivers significant operational cost savings through the abolition of 16 manned signal boxes, estimated at £l million per annum. It has allowed for the replacement of 26 level crossings, as well as lower maintenance costs through the replacement of old jointed rails with continuous-welded track, which is designed to reduce noise and vibration for neighbours, while dramatically extending the major maintenance intervention period to 15 years. In fact, comparative analysis between continuous-welded and older jointed track indicates that noise and vibration are reduced by up to 60% as a result of re-railing.

Across the country, Network Rail is developing a range of techniques to reduce rail noise. They include rail grinding, which provides a smoother contact surface, leading to less noise when trains run over it; noise barriers along the side of the track; track dampers fitted to the rails to reduce vibration and noise when trains run over them; and composite brake blocks, which reduce noise significantly compared with previous cast iron ones. The vast majority of the UK rolling stock fleet now has these fitted.

Since completion of the upgrade on the GNGE route, freight traffic has increased as services have been diverted from the busy east coast main line. This obviously represents a change in usage of the line, which previously had a limited day-time passenger service. I am aware that there was extensive consultation about this upgrade, including numerous community exhibitions, drop-in sessions, public meetings and presentations to parish councils. Network Rail also held a comprehensive schools engagement programme to help to raise awareness about safety matters associated with the railway.

My hon. and learned Friend will be delighted to hear that the work to specify the next east midlands franchise is under way. We will be seeking views from stakeholders and passengers later in the year about what they would like from the new franchise, including the GNGE route.

Turning to the specific matter of compensation, I thank my hon. and learned Friend for continuing to raise the issue, which I know is important to him and his constituents. I will liaise with the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend Claire Perry, to address the points he made, particularly the correspondence he referred to.

Passengers are at the heart of what we do in the Department, and the Rail Minister has written to Network Rail to encourage it to take an active interest in noise and vibration on the GNGE line and look into conducting studies of any increase in them caused by extra freight traffic.

Photo of Stephen Phillips Stephen Phillips Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham 1:52, 5 May 2016

I am extremely grateful to the Minister and to Daniel Zeichner, who speaks for the Opposition, for contributing to the debate.

The problem that has not been grappled with is twofold. Yes, the Minister says that extensive consultation took place before the upgrade of the line and that there was a programme with schools, but the difficulty, as adverted to in the email that my constituent, Mr Scrutton, sent me overnight, is that the case presented to local residents, parish councils and everyone else was that the upgrade, with the continuous welding of the track to which my hon. Friend refers, would improve their lives by reducing the noise and vibration to which they were exposed. That might well be the case, and the figure of 60% that he gives for the reduction in noise and vibration from using continuously welded track might well be right, but it is only right if the frequency, speed and weight of the trains are the same, and that has not been the case.

The track, signalling and infrastructure have been improved, but as a consequence, the line is used more frequently, including, as the Minister accepts, through the night, and it is used by trains that are heavier, faster and more frequent. The result is that the case that Network Rail presented during the consultation period, to which he adverts, does not represent the reality to which my constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members, who unfortunately are unable to join us today, are subjected. That is the issue with which Network Rail needs to grapple. I am talking about whether it can offer compensation and whether funding should have been put in place, when the project was announced, to ameliorate the fact that the trains are causing real concerns to those who live along the line and are affecting not only their property values but, much more importantly, their quality of life. That is what needs to be addressed. My hon. Friend says that he will talk to the Minister with responsibility in this area; I hope that that is the message that he will take back.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.