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13 Nov 2001 : Column 242WH

East Coast Main Line

1.26 pm

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I am pleased to have secured today's Adjournment debate because it allows me to raise a matter that is of particular significance to my city, my constituency and many other communities situated on the east coast main line, and is also of national importance.

As hon. Members will know, in terms of both passenger and freight transport the east coast main line is one of the most heavily used lines in the country. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the line is operating at or near to full capacity. As with other services, increased demand for passenger and freight services in recent years has stretched the line to its limit and exposed a number of structural weaknesses, such as overhead power lines that are in need of remedy. As the Minister, will know, the matter has been the subject of several recent parliamentary questions.

I know that the Government are committed to upgrading the east coast main line, and I welcome that, but today I want to raise several concerns about the short-term extension of the franchise. As hon. Members will know, earlier this year my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions announced that the Government favoured a two-year extension to the current franchise, rather than the longer-term franchise that was originally envisaged. I share some of the worries about granting a two-year franchise, and I shall return to them briefly later. Having said that, I can appreciate why my right hon. Friend decided to ask the Strategic Rail Authority to proceed on the basis of a two-year franchise, and I do not wish to argue against that decision in principle. Instead, I want to express my view that a short-term franchise extension should not result in a freeze on improvements to east coast main line passenger services for Scotland in general and Edinburgh in particular.

Hon. Members might recall that when the Secretary of State invited the SRA to negotiate extension of the existing franchise, he set out a number of new passenger benefits that he wanted to emerge from those negotiations. According to the press release, those benefits should include a service every 30 minutes from London to Leeds, early placement of orders for a new fleet of inter-city trains, improvements to existing rolling stock, early investment in station improvements, for example at Doncaster and York, and a range of other potential benefits, including spare locomotives to improve service reliability.

Those are all admirable objectives. However, my concern from a constituency perspective is that the bulk of the benefits will be enjoyed by those using the more southerly sections of the line. Improvements to the London-Leeds services and at Doncaster and York were mentioned, but nothing was said specifically about improvements to services to and from Scotland or the north-east of England, or about long-awaited station improvements such as those required at Edinburgh Waverley. The apparent concentration of benefits on the more southerly sections of the line in the requirements for the franchise negotiation is paralleled by the fact that the first two phases of the infrastructure upgrades will feature improvements at Leeds, Peterborough and King's Cross, but not further north.

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I appreciate that improvements at any point on the line have benefits elsewhere on the line—for example, more trains on the London-Leeds service will benefit services running further north by providing extra capacity. I also acknowledge the references to new investment, namely a new fleet of inter-city trains and spare locomotives.

Notwithstanding the promised improvements, I am concerned that the basis on which the SRA has been asked to negotiate the two-year franchise extension is too limited and that consequently services to Edinburgh, the east coast of Scotland and the north-east of England will not be improved over the next three years as they should and could be. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider some specific ways in which the negotiations on the franchise extension could be widened to bring benefits to the communities on the northern section of the line. I shall outline a few suggestions that are supported by a body of opinion in south-east Scotland and beyond.

First, we need a faster service with fewer stops between London and Edinburgh. Cutting out some stops should be possible, given the new half-hourly service from London to Leeds and the additional services that Virgin Cross Country is beginning to provide on the northern section of the route.

Secondly, we want guaranteed journey times of four hours or less from London to Edinburgh on as many trains as possible, preferably all. Shorter journey times are needed to compete to any greater extent with air travel, and reliability and consistency are also important, especially for business passengers.

Thirdly, we need to increase the frequency and consistency of the journey time of trains running from London to Newcastle and Edinburgh. That would allow for greater consistency of departure times and, perhaps more importantly, arrival times at Edinburgh. Arrival and departure times should, as far as possible, remain consistent throughout the day in summer and winter timetables and from one year to the next. As well as bringing benefits to the inter-city traveller, that would have the knock-on effect of making it easier to plan local train services on the basis of inter-city timetables. Another advantage of a more fixed timetable is that it would enable the scheduling of more local trains on the tracks south and east of Edinburgh.

Finally, we need improvements in track capacity in the Edinburgh area. That is important for long-distance services, not only for Edinburgh, but to serve cities and towns further north such as Dundee and Aberdeen. Track capacity improvements also allow for improvements to suburban rail services in the Edinburgh area, for which the city council and the Scottish Executive have ambitious plans.

All those improvements could be included in the short-term franchise extension, and I urge Ministers to consider asking the SRA to include them in the negotiations with the franchise holder.

As the Minister will no doubt be aware, a rail capacity study is under way in central Scotland, but it seems to be proceeding at a snail's pace. The lead body is the Scottish Executive, but I urge the Minister to do what he can to ensure that the study is completed as soon as possible. I have little doubt that the study will also recommend capacity enhancement. I ask the Minister to

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ensure that the Strategic Rail Authority takes early steps to begin the enhancements identified in the study, rather than waiting until the end of the two-year extension of the franchise before making any commitment recommended by the study.

I ask the Government to ensure that the SRA takes steps to ensure that the promised early placement of an order for a new fleet of inter-city trains is carried out, by including some funding or guarantee, if that should be required. Some in the industry suggest that the current franchise holder will be unable to commit itself to such orders on the basis of a two-year extension and that the SRA will be required to make a purchase, or underwrite such a purchase, if the new trains are to be provided. I do not know whether that is correct and I appreciate that there will have to be tough negotiations on such matters with the franchisee. It is essential that the order for new stock is placed and I ask the Minister to do everything he can to ensure that that is done.

Hugh Bayley (City of York): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important and timely debate. I agree with him about the importance of improving services to Scotland and the north-east of England, as well as to my constituency of York. New rolling stock is essential to such improvement because without additional trains we cannot have more services.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. The rules for debate allow only for short interventions in speeches by hon. Members, and a speech can be made only with the prior agreement of the Member and Minister concerned, and notified to the Chair.

Hugh Bayley : We had spoken about this beforehand, Mr. Hancock, but I shall be brief.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be sensible for the SRA to consider whether it is necessary to extend the franchise by a further one or two years to ensure that we get additional rolling stock?

Mr. Lazarowicz : My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. If the short extension already proposed were necessary to ensure the provision of new rolling stock, it would have much merit.

I ask the Government to reconsider providing direct passenger train links from Scotland and the north of England to the continent through the Channel tunnel. As hon. Members will be aware, such links were promised when the channel tunnel legislation went through Parliament but that promise was not fulfilled. Those of us who use the east coast main line regularly can enjoy the fine, new White Rose train service from London to Leeds in the trains that were originally built for the European service and that have now been leased to operate from London to Leeds by GNER.

In the present economic climate, and given the current contraction of the airline industry, the need for our tourist industry to have direct European links is stronger than ever. Although I appreciate that it is a separate issue from the east coast main line franchise, there is no better time to reconsider the possibility of acquiring such services and I urge the Minister to look at the issue.

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I shall to dwell a little longer on the two-year franchise extension rather than the granting of a longer franchise. I understand why the Government took that decision but it is essential that once the current restructuring of Railtrack and the rail industry and the strategic and regulatory framework is completed, the long-term strategic vision for the east coast main line must be clear. We need a 10, 15 or 20-year perspective, not just a five to seven-year one. That position of long-term certainty needs to be reached sooner rather than later. There is no need to wait until well into the term of a two-year franchise to reach decisions for the long term.

I know that the Government do not want a lengthy hiatus in decisions about the future upgrading of the east coast main line. I urge them to ensure that the negotiations for a two-year or perhaps slightly longer franchise extension, hopefully including the improvements to services to Scotland that I have outlined today, are brought to an early conclusion. Thereafter, the industry needs an early decision and a response to the Strategic Rail Authority's strategic plan when it is published. Like other hon. Members, I welcome the vision and commitment to the future of our rail industry shown in the 10-year plan and I want to see that vision resulting in concrete improvements in the long term. If we are to give travellers faith that the long-term vision will be delivered, we also need significant improvements in the short and medium term.

1.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) on securing the debate. I have had the pleasure of hearing him on a few occasions and, at the risk of embarrassing him, I must say that his contributions are well considered and well argued. He speaks well and powerfully for his constituents. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) is here. His interest in the subject that we are considering is well known.

You were in the Chair, Mr. Hancock, for our debate on Railtrack. I contrast the positive and inquisitorial way that my hon. Friend has tackled matters with the point scoring in the earlier debate. I am glad that my hon. Friend also recognises that the improvements on the line that benefit England also benefit his constituents in Scotland. At the outset, I reassure him that the Government remain committed to delivering a better, safer railway with increased punctuality and reliability, reduced journey times and higher standards of customer services. Our intentions are clear and our 10-year plan provides the mechanism to achieve our aim of 50 per cent. more passengers and 80 per cent. more rail freight over the next decade. The east coast main line is a strategically important route that will no doubt have a key role to play in achieving those targets.

As my hon. Friend knows, the east coast main line carries Britain's fastest passenger train service and also handles heavy bulk freight and mail trains. On an average day it caters for 1,900 passenger trains carrying 200,000 people. Yesterday it was 200,001 because I, too,

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was on the line, although not travelling as far as York. The latest figures, for the period from 24 June to 21 July, show that 69.9 per cent. of GNER's services arrived on time. Since those statistics were published, I understand from the Strategic Rail Authority that performance has improved over each of the last three months. I hope that that trend in service improvement will continue. The SRA will publish updated statistics in due course.

The spring 2001 national passenger survey revealed that 84 per cent. of GNER passengers were satisfied with their overall service. Only 52 per cent. were satisfied with the punctuality and reliability of services and a disappointingly low 38 per cent. of passengers believed that GNER offers value for money. My hon. Friend explained that the SRA is negotiating a potential two-year extension to GNER's east coast franchise. We are looking to the SRA to use the negotiations to secure improvements that will make a real difference to passengers' journeys, the need for which my hon. Friend articulated so well.

We want better rolling stock, refurbished stations and new services. New services are on the table but I cannot say today exactly what a two-year extension would deliver. In a single-tender negotiation such as this, it would be irresponsible of the SRA or Ministers to be wedded to particular outputs, regardless of the price. Whether a deal can be reached will ultimately depend on what is on offer. Similarly, I trust that the House would not expect me to weaken the SRA's negotiating position. There is potential value in terms of saving the taxes of my hon. Friend's constituents in setting a public deadline by which negotiations will be completed. We will not let them drag out indefinitely and good progress is being made. Passengers rightly demand improvements and, as my hon. Friend outlined, we want them to be delivered as quickly as possible.

I am aware of the accusations of short-termism generated by the decision of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to ask the SRA to negotiate a two-year extension to the franchise. I would therefore like to put the decision in context, which would be helpful to my hon. Friend. The Secretary of State could give the SRA the required direction to award a new franchise early if he were satisfied that there were particular benefits to be achieved. A 20-year franchise would have provided extra capacity through additional rolling stock and improved infrastructure. The costs and design of the east coast main line upgrade were therefore central to maximising the benefits of a long-term franchise. However, it had become clear that neither the design nor the cost of the upgrade was finalised. Indeed, SRA papers indicated that it could take a further two years to finalise.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State concluded that better terms with reduced risk for both parties were more likely to be achieved nearer the expiry of the current franchise, when the upgrade would be better defined. No one wanted a repeat of what happened with the west coast main line. He was also clear that benefits should in the meantime be obtained for passengers on that important route. That is why we believe that a two-year extension is the best way forward. It delivers investment quickly without prejudicing options for the longer term.

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The objectives of the east coast upgrade project are to provide for an increase in passenger and freight capacity between London King's Cross, Leeds and Edinburgh. I summarised earlier how busy the line is; it is clearly running out of capacity, and accommodating extra trains for both passenger and freight operators is not possible within the existing infrastructure. The proposed solution is to reduce the number of conflicting movements through infrastructure works at known pinch points and to use better parallel lines for freight. The SRA, which is working closely with Railtrack, continues to drive forward the upgrade project.

As recently as 14 September, a further £17.5 million of development work was provided for phase two of the upgrade. That has not been affected by the decision to put Railtrack plc into railway administration. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced last April that we had reached an agreement with Railtrack that the east coast upgrade would be taken forward as a joint venture project known as a special purpose vehicle—an SPV. Special purpose vehicles bring together specialist project managers, private sector financiers, relevant train operators, the SRA and Railtrack to provide a specific major enhancement or project. They are also being developed for other projects such as the infrastructure elements of the south central franchise. The SRA will set out its proposals for SPVs in more detail in the forthcoming strategic plan.

I also assure my hon. Friend that the enhancement project for Edinburgh Waverley station will not be affected by Railtrack's current situation. I hope that that brings some comfort to him. Railtrack is working on a business as usual basis, and we have no reason to believe that that will change once its successor is in place.

I would like to comment on some of my hon. Friend's other specific points. He mentioned direct services through the channel tunnel to Scotland. The Channel Tunnel Act 1987 placed a duty on the British Railways Board to prepare and publish a plan for the provision of regional Eurostars. The board's original plan was published in 1989 and last year a revised plan was published following a review. The plan concluded that regional Eurostar services would make a heavy loss and that there were no economic, environmental or social grounds for providing a subsidy. The Transport Act 2000 requires the SRA to formulate a strategy relating to services in various parts of Great Britain for facilitating the carriage of passengers or goods by rail through the channel tunnel. The formulation of the strategy is currently under review.

My hon. Friend also rightly raised the matter of the two-year extension for the northern section of the east coast main line. I have noted with interest the list of improvements that he would like to be included in the franchise extension and I undertake to ensure that the SRA is aware of them. He will understand that I cannot commit myself to the improvements in this debate, but I will ensure that they are brought to the attention of the relevant parties.

There are two main reasons for that. First, negotiations have been under way for some time and are already working within established parameters. Shifting them now could significantly delay agreement on an extension. Secondly, and more importantly, the development of a railway timetable is a complex and long-term process. Making some of the changes that my

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hon. Friend suggests could reduce the capacity on the east coast main line and potentially conflict with our objectives of improving performance and reliability. I recognise my hon. Friend's concerns and I agree that he raises some real issues that the SRA will examine within the flexibility available to it.

On franchising policy, it may be useful if I set out our proposed new approach, which the Secretary of State announced in July. It focuses on key 10-year plan targets and aims to deliver early passenger benefits such as better performance, rolling stock and passenger facilities. It points to the possible alternative of shorter-term improvements that make a real difference to passengers by making existing franchises work better and, where necessary, improving or extending their terms.

Such short-term improvements sit alongside longer-term investment. It is not, as was widely reported, a short-term policy but a horses for courses approach. We are not precluding the early replacement of the shorter seven-year franchises, but that approach will be adopted only when benefits cannot be obtained in other ways. Neither does our approach rule out a long-term franchise for east coast services in due course. However, long-term franchises need to be tied to long-term investment and in the case of the east coast, that investment is most likely to take the form of the upgrade of the line.

We also issued for consultation new draft directions and guidance for the SRA. The draft sets the authority objectives that cover the need to improve standards of punctuality, safety and comfort throughout all franchise services and the much clearer and more focused approach to franchising that I have just mentioned. The consultation period ended on 21 September and we hope to issue the guidance and directions formally as soon as possible.

I am sure that I do not need to remind hon. Members that the Secretary of State appointed Richard Bowker as the new chairman of the SRA on 24 October. He will play a key role in delivering a better, safer railway. Under his leadership, the priorities of the SRA will include working alongside train operators to give passengers a better deal, implementing its strategic plan for the industry, increasing passenger numbers and the rail share of the freight market, and driving forward the £60 billion, 10-year rail investment programme.

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured by the SRA's approach to balancing the short-term delivery improvement to passengers with the long-term needs of the east coast line. We are aware that much needs to be done, but we are moving in the right direction, as I am sure he agrees. The 10-year plan provides the investment and the mechanism to improve the national rail network and achieve our aim of 50 per cent. more passengers and 80 per cent. more freight over the next 10 years. The SRA's forthcoming strategic plan will set out its priorities for enhancing the network, and will identify improvements that can be achieved in the short term.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing us to discuss the subject, and I was interested to hear what he said. If he feels that any of his points have not been covered in the clarity or detail that he would like, I would be happy to correspond with him.

Question put and agreed to.

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