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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:45 pm on 5 May 2016.

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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.