East Coast Main Line debate 

Catherine secured a Westminster Hall debate on East Coast Main Line investment today, in her capacity as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the issue. Catherine established the East Coast Main Line APPG earlier this year, and you can read a copy of her speech in this afternoon’s debate below. A full transcript of the debate – including the Minister’s response – can also be read here, and the debate can be watched here.

Catherine McKinnell: I beg to move, that this House has considered East Coast Main Line investment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, not least because I have attempted to secure a debate on this issue for some time in my capacity as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the East Coast Main Line. I also represent one of the constituencies served by this vital route.

I am grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for attending this debate during an important Opposition Day debate in the main Chamber on Universal Credit and social care funding, to which I would ordinarily want to contribute. Newcastle has been particularly hard hit by the roll-out of Universal Credit, for which it was a pilot area, and by the social care crisis. Sadly, the reality is that none of us can be in two places at once.

I declare an interest: like many hon. Members, I use the East Coast Main Line on a weekly basis, so I can personally testify to the pressing and increasing need for investment in the route.

I am proud of the pivotal role that Newcastle and the wider North East have played in the development of rail travel through George Stephenson, the father of the railways, who was married at Newburn church in my constituency, and his son Robert and others, who pioneered their world-leading technology from our region through the Industrial Revolution. Whether it was the Stockton and Darlington railway; the Stephenson Gauge; Locomotion No. 1 and the Rocket – which were both built at Stephenson’s Forth Street works in Newcastle – or William Hedley’s earlier Puffing Billy, the world’s oldest surviving steam engine that ran between Wylam in Northumberland and Lemington in my constituency, the North East’s contribution to Britain’s railways has been second to none.

That impressive history was celebrated this summer during the Great Exhibition of the North, which was held across the region and included the – sadly temporary – return of Stephenson’s Rocket to the region.

Chi Onwurah (Lab, Newcastle Central): I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate and for her excellent opening, which focuses on our proud history in transport and particularly in railways. As she said, it is unfortunate that Stephenson’s Rocket apparently had to return to London. Stephenson’s notebooks were recently found in York. Does she agree that there is now an excellent opportunity to bring them back to the city that she proudly celebrates?

Catherine McKinnell: That is off-point with regard to the East Coast Main Line, but it is an excellent suggestion that we should pursue. I am sure that there would be a lot of support for bringing home – back to Newcastle and the North East – more of what is rightly ours when it comes to our contribution to engineering and railway history in Britain.

Alex Cunningham (Lab, Stockton North): We are extremely proud of our railway heritage, particularly in Stockton, from where the first passenger train left on its journey to Darlington. Across the country, people are bringing heritage lines back into use, but we do not need that on Teesside, because our trains and lines are so decrepit, old and run-down that they ought to be confined to history. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although we desperately need more investment in the North East line, we also need to cover the branch lines so that the people of Teesside and beyond have proper services to get to the main line?

Catherine McKinnell: I absolutely agree. I will make the case that investment is not only about the infrastructure of the vital East Coast spine that runs up and down our country, but about the major impact that that would have on all the contributing branch lines and communities that rely on that infrastructure and the infrastructure that connects to it.

Karen Lee (Lab, Lincoln): I represent Lincoln, which was promised six extra train services. We have one train to London in the morning at half seven, and one train back at six minutes past seven in the evening. Other than that, everybody has to change at Newark – it is a nightmare; I park at Newark. I have heard through the grapevine – even though I am the MP – that we are not now getting those extra trains. Apparently there is a problem with the trains and the timetables. Does my hon. Friend agree that I should have been properly informed about that, along with other people, and that a formal announcement should be made?

Catherine McKinnell: My hon. Friend has put her concerns firmly on the record. The Minister may wish to refer to them at the end of the debate. Otherwise, I am sure that she will make her concerns about the issue known again.

As well as celebrating our railway of the past, this debate is about our railway of the future. The North East can celebrate its proud role in that too, including through the manufacture of the new Azuma trains at Hitachi’s Newton Aycliffe plant. That is the East Coast Main Line of tomorrow, which is what we must focus on today.

The East Coast Main Line is a critical piece of our national rail infrastructure. It is one of the country’s most strategically important transport routes and enables more than 80 million passenger journeys a year, according to Network Rail. Between Berwick-upon-Tweed and London, the East Coast Main Line carries more than 58 million tonnes of freight annually, equivalent to 6.9 million lorry loads. The Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities (ECMA) has estimated that the local area served by the route contributes £300 billion to the UK economy every year—and that figure doubles if London is factored in to the calculation.

Stephen Hepburn (Lab, Jarrow): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely and important debate. Does she not think it ironic that we have those new Hitachi trains, but they cannot go at their maximum speed because the lines are decades old? We are getting new trains, but the lines do not match them.

Catherine McKinnell: I would go further than my hon. Friend and say that it is not only ironic but completely unacceptable. That is part of the case that I want to make to the Minister.

The East Coast Main Line is a significant employer in its own right, as more than 3,000 people work for LNER. Trains that use the East Coast Main Line operate as far north as Inverness and as far south as London, and one third of the UK’s population live within 20 minutes of the East Coast Main Line, so the quality of the service and the capacity of the route has a real impact across the country.

The East Coast Main Line is the fastest and most environmentally sustainable way to connect many of those locations, and enables cities in the north of England – or the Northern Powerhouse, to use the Government’s terminology – to do business elsewhere in the country and with one another. When the railway works, its key city centre to city centre journey times compare favourably with air travel, which allows slots at airports to be reserved for connectivity into international economies. The East Coast Main Line should always win hands down against road travel as an attractive alternative to slow-moving traffic and motorway driving, with all the air quality issues that they bring.

The line does not just facilitate the famous Anglo-Scottish trains of past and present that travel to and from London, but a multiplicity of other journeys that utilise every part of the route, such as Edinburgh to Leeds, Newcastle to Birmingham, Darlington to Bristol, Middlesbrough to Manchester and Stansted Airport to Leicester. The East Coast Main Line and this debate are important not just to the grand cathedral stations of King’s Cross, Edinburgh, York and Newcastle, but to the other stations that serve commuter towns and larger villages across the route. When all those connecting lines are taken into account, that includes a far bigger swathe of the country than just those places immediately near the East Coast Main Line.

For all those reasons, the East Coast Main Line is a national asset to be prized and nurtured, not taken for granted. That is why I established the All-Party Parliamentary Group to focus on the issue earlier this year, so hon. Members from both Houses could campaign together to secure investment in the route for an improved passenger experience, for capacity and reliability, and for shorter journey times.

The APPG is also looking at the economic growth that could be unlocked in the areas served by the East Coast Main Line if those improvements are delivered, and at the future operation of the route, which has been beset by significant problems over the past decade. Given that the APPG’s vice chairs are the hon. Members for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), there is clearly strong cross-party and cross-country interest in this issue.

Of course, the Minister here today is well aware of the APPG’s existence, having attended one of our meetings back in June, for which we are grateful, and having corresponded with me since. I am quite sure that we will remain in contact in the months ahead.

I am acutely aware that the performance issues facing East Coast Main Line passengers do not come close to the frankly catastrophic service issues faced by people who ​had the misfortune of having to use a number of other lines over the summer, including Arriva’s Northern Rail passengers and those on the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern routes.

However, there are also real problems on the East Coast Main Line. The latest performance measures published by Network Rail indicate that in the year to 15 September, just 75.2% of trains on the East Coast Main Line, under the former franchise and the current operator, arrived within 10 minutes of their scheduled time. That is well short of the national figure of 86% and even further adrift of the target figure, which is 88%.

Over the same period, almost 9% of East Coast Main Line trains were cancelled or classed as being “significantly late”, against an England and Wales performance of 4.6%. Of course, this issue is most serious for those communities not directly served by the line – for them, reliability is absolutely crucial if connections to adjoining routes are actually going to work.

Although passenger satisfaction data for LNER is not yet available, the spring 2018 figures from the independent transport user watchdog, Transport Focus, found an “overall satisfaction with the journey” rating for Virgin Trains East Coast of 87% – the worst score on the East Coast Main Line route for five years. It will be very interesting to see what happens to that figure when Transport Focus publishes its autumn 2018 results, which will incorporate LNER’s performance for the first time.

I am seriously concerned that the quality of the service currently being provided simply does not “sell” the line, or the local communities that it is supposed to serve. Why would anyone from overseas or from elsewhere in the UK want to come back to places they have visited on the route, or do business or invest there, if they have had a poor travel experience, as is far too often the case? Similarly, how can we possibly persuade more people to stop using their cars, to reduce congestion and improve poor air quality, if they simply cannot rely on the railway to get them from A to B on time and at a reasonable price, whether it is for business or leisure?

Alex Cunningham (Lab, Stockton North): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me again. She is championing people along the line. Across the line and the area, there is very poor access for disabled people – particularly at Billingham, where they cannot get on to a train at all. Will she join me in encouraging the Minister to back the application for a grant to give disabled people in the Billingham area proper access to rail services, from Teesside to Darlington and beyond?

Catherine McKinnell:  My hon. Friend makes a vital point very well. I absolutely support that call – indeed, I support the call for such improvements to be made right up and down the line. That is something we should all focus on.

I am sure that many hon. Members will want to raise such concerns directly with LNER at the drop-in briefing that I will host next month, and that they will wish to update colleagues on their plans. That briefing is also an opportunity to put to LNER the case for some of the improvements that we would like to work together to secure.​

It would be wrong to lay all of the problems that I have outlined today at the door of LNER, or indeed that of Virgin, given that the latest performance figures published by Network Rail show that some 58% of the delays and cancellations on the route over the last year were caused by Network Rail itself. Those figures are a clear reflection of the East Coast Main Line’s ageing and unreliable infrastructure. I suggest again to the Minister, as I have done at the APPG meeting that he attended and in writing, that that infrastructure is in urgent need of improvement or replacement, including of track, signalling and overhead power lines on the electrified sections. Also, far greater resilience is required in bad weather, which the rail networks of many other countries that have far more challenging climatic conditions than we do appear able to cope with.

Julian Sturdy (Con, York Outer): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She is making a powerful argument, and I agree about the need to improve the infrastructure. There is a lot of talk about overhead cables and track, but does she agree that, given the new rolling stock, we should also look to invest in new digital technology, such as in-cab signalling? The Government have talked about bringing that forward, but there is no timetable for doing so. Does she agree that we should be looking at a timetable for that digital technology?

Catherine McKinnell: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman has put that clearly on the record, and it would be good if the Minister referred to it in his response to the debate. Indeed, it is also an issue that the APPG can take up as part of the wider call to ensure that on the East Coast Main Line we have the railway for the future and the investment that is required to deliver it.

Of course, the infrastructure-related poor performance on the east coast main line is not really surprising, given that the last significant large-scale improvement on the route was electrification to Edinburgh, which was completed back in 1991. To some of us, that feels like yesterday, but it is almost three decades ago.

In contrast, the West Coast Main Line benefited from a major upgrade in the period between 1998 and 2009, at a cost of £9 billion in today’s prices, accelerating journey times and offering greater passenger and freight capacity. That has resulted in at least 20% more passengers on the West Coast Main Line, which is evidence that investment in existing rail infrastructure works.

So it is clear that the East Coast Main Line, with its creaking infrastructure, is not currently fit for purpose and the demands that are already being made on it, but what about the demands of the future? Even without High Speed 2, forecasts predict that passenger demand on long-distance services will increase dramatically in the coming decades. For example, it has been estimated that between 2012 and 2043 there will be growth in demand of up to 175% for London to Edinburgh journeys, up to 145% for London to Leeds journeys and up to 62% for Leeds to Newcastle journeys. Therefore, increased capacity and, crucially, increased reliability will be vital for the East Coast Main Line in the coming years, requiring short to medium-term investment regardless of any plans for HS2.

However, it is crucial to highlight that HS2 does not remove the need for longer-term investment in the East Coast Main Line, as the benefits of HS2 phase 2b will be ​fully realised only if there is an associated investment in the East Coast Main Line. Also, as I am sure the Minister is well aware, the northern part of the line needs improvement so that HS2 trains can operate on it at high speeds. The East Coast Main Line needs to be fast, reliable and resilient, day in and day out, as HS2, which aims to achieve Japanese-style timekeeping at a level that the East Coast Main Line does not even aspire to yet, comes into use. Passengers must experience the same service when HS2 runs on the East Coast Main Line as they do on the rest of the HS2 route. Of course, the far northern, central and southern parts of the East Coast Main Line, which will not be served by HS2, also need such longer-term investment, so that they do not become more remote in terms of connectivity and prosperity.

However, the Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities has made it very clear to me that the Department for Transport’s current proposals are insufficient to ensure that the East Coast Main Line is HS2-ready by 2033, which is the point when the link between HS2 and the East Coast Main Line is intended to be in place.

I know that on 23 July the Prime Minister made a somewhat unexpected announcement to

“confirm an investment of up to £780 million for major upgrades to the East Coast Main Line from 2019, to be completed in the early 2020s”,

which would give passengers

“more seats and faster, more frequent journeys”.

Lilian Greenwood (Lab, Nottingham South): My hon. Friend is making a passionate case on behalf of her constituents, and indeed on behalf of all the constituencies that rely on the East Coast Main Line.

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is that over a long period the Government have not invested sufficiently in the rail infrastructure of the North East? For example, we know that in 2016-17 transport spending per head in the North East was just £291 per person, compared with £944 per head in London. However, what is more concerning is that even if we project forward and look at the figures for the future, as the Institute for Public Policy Research North has done, the North East will remain in second place among the regions and far behind places such as London.

Catherine McKinnell: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I have huge respect for her grasp of detail as Chair of the Select Committee on Transport. I thank her for her support in this debate. She has highlighted some of the issues specific to the North East, whereas I have been working hard to speak for the whole East Coast Main Line route and make the case for it as national infrastructure, but I agree with what she has said and I am grateful to her for putting on the record some stark figures that need to be addressed by the Government.

Going back to the Government’s surprise announcement of £780 million of investment, somebody considerably more cynical than me might suggest that the timing and content of that pledge was more to do with the Cabinet’s visit to the North East that day and the pressing need to announce something North East-friendly. Indeed, they do need more North-East-friendly announcements; my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) has pointed out the disparity in the investment ​that goes into the region. That concern is possibly backed up by the fact that it took several days for the Department for Transport to confirm what the funding would be used for. However, as was eventually confirmed in writing following the Minister’s attendance at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the East Coast Main Line, it is intended that this control period 6 investment will include power supply upgrades between Doncaster and Edinburgh, a new junction near Peterborough, a new platform at Stevenage, and track layout improvements at King’s Cross – improvements that are mainly paid for by necessary maintenance and renewal expenditure.

Let me be clear: any investment in the East Coast Main Line is welcome, given the scale and nature of the improvements required. However, the Minister will also know that Network Rail published its East Coast Main Line route study covering the section from London to Berwick-upon-Tweed, which contained a long list of potential investment projects or investment opportunities that would deliver much-needed improvements to the East Coast Main Line. Most have been known about for some time and have been mooted repeatedly, including some that have not been delivered in Network Rail’s control period 5, 2014 to 2019. The Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities estimates that the route requires at least £3 billion of investment to fulfil Network Rail’s proposals, but there is no indication of where the remainder of the funding to pay for these projects will come from, either via Government funding or third-party investment. Meanwhile, Network Rail’s renewal and maintenance fund for control period 6, 2019 to 2024, is barely enough to stand still, replacing items on a like-for-like basis.

I acknowledge that, as is made clear in Network Rail’s route study, “recent rail industry developments” have seen a shift away from the historical model of railway infrastructure improvements being provided and funded centrally, via national Governments and Network Rail raising capital against its asset base. However, as a reclassified publicly funded body, Network Rail can longer finance enhancements through financial markets. A welcome devolution of funding and decision making on transport infrastructure means that more local, regional or sub-national bodies – such as LEPs, combined authorities, and Transport for the North – have been tasked with defining the railway needs in their area and applying for Government funding or attracting third-party investment. However, the Network Rail East Coast Main Line route study states:

“Overall, this means that improvements in rail infrastructure should not be seen as an automatic pipeline of upgrades awaiting delivery; rather, they are choices that may or may not be taken forward depending on whether they meet the needs of rail users, provide a value for money investment, and are affordable.”

I understand that could mean the Treasury taking final decisions on individual rail improvements in England on a case-by-case basis. I fear that does not bode well for the comprehensive, coherent programme of infrastructure improvements that I and others believe is required for the East Coast Main Line route. To that end, it would be helpful to hear what the Minister’s plans are for working with the Scottish Government to secure that investment right across the line.

Chi Onwurah (Lab, Newcastle Central): I thank my hon. Friend for being generous with her time, and for the points that she is making. Specifically regarding the way in which the ​Treasury assesses opportunities for investment in North East infrastructure, we have heard how discriminated against that region has historically been. Will the Minister look at the definition under which that assessment is made, taking into account the economic value of infrastructure investment in the North East region and how it contributes to delivering a less unequal society?

Catherine McKinnell:  Again, I echo my hon. Friend’s comments, and I thank her for putting on record some of the specific requirements of the north-east as part of the wider East Coast Main Line infrastructure demands that we are making.

Lilian Greenwood (Lab, Nottingham South):  My hon. Friend is being generous with her time. Is she aware that the Transport Committee’s report into rail infrastructure investment called on the Government to do more to reflect the fact that the way they deal with business cases disadvantages places like the North East that are in need of economic regeneration? Does she share my disappointment that the Government’s response to that report does not take on board the Committee’s recommendations, which might help to ensure that such places get their fair share of transport funding?

Catherine McKinnell: Absolutely, because apart from the other issues that have been raised, businesses need certainty about infrastructure and the quality of any improvements on a route before they will bring new investment and jobs to communities that depend on that line. It is not clear how that will be delivered under the current system, or whether we can expect a series of unexpected announcements from Government Ministers, such as the announcement that was made over the summer.

Although that announcement was welcome, I would be interested to hear whether the Minister believes that the issues now arising with the long-awaited Azuma trains, which have been 10 years in the planning, reflect this piecemeal, seemingly un-strategic and ad hoc approach to investment in the East Coast Main Line’s infrastructure. Last month, it was reported that ageing track-side equipment on the line north of York meant that the electro-diesel trains would have to operate only on diesel on that part of the route, travelling much more slowly than their promised speed, with all the air quality issues that would create. In Hitachi’s words,

“There are a number of 30-year old signalling systems on the East Coast line which require modifying to operate with modern electric trains”.

I am acutely aware that there are myriad issues affecting the East Coast Main Line that I have not touched on today, including the never-ending franchising sagas that were covered so well in the Transport Committee’s recent excellent report; the future operation of the route; the Government’s ongoing proposals for a new East Coast Partnership, which the Transport Committee has described as an experiment; and how any of this fits into the root and branch Rail Review announced by the Secretary of State last month and re-announced by the Secretary of State last week. However, I hope I have made it clear that the East Coast Main Line, one of the country’s most important transport routes, is in urgent need of a significant, coherent programme of investment for the short, medium and long term if it is to be fit for purpose now and into the future.​

Such an investment programme would include improving the resilience and reliability of the East Coast Main Line. It would include improving signalling, power supply and tracks, so that the Azumas can run at their full speed, offering faster train journeys and better connections. It would include improving capacity, particularly between York and Newcastle, for the East Coast Main Line, HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. Ideally, it would ensure that HS2 services can continue north from Newcastle to Edinburgh, both from the start of phase 2b and in the longer term as an upgraded route north of Newcastle.

Such an investment programme would deliver real returns for the whole country. Independent research undertaken on behalf of the Consortium of East Coast Main Line Authorities estimates that the scale of investment required and subsequent improvements to passenger services could generate more than £5 billion in extra GDP, or an additional £9 billion per year when combined with HS2 phase 2 and the link to the East Coast Main Line in the York area.

I look forward to the Minister’s response, and to hearing what he believes to be the main issues that the East Coast Main Line faces and, therefore, what his future priorities might be in terms of investment. I would like to hear what additional money for investing in the route could, and will, be made available for devolved bodies to bid for, and at what point the Government will enter into meaningful dialogue involving Network Rail and key stakeholders along the route to develop a series of interventions to ensure that the East Coast Main Line is fit for purpose, both now and in the future. Crucially, I would like to hear how he intends to ensure that a significant, coherent programme of East Coast Main Line investment is delivered.