Kevan Jones – 2020 Speech on Rail Services in North-East England

Below is the text of the speech made by Kevan Jones, the Labour MP for North Durham, in the House of Commons on 4 February 2020.

I am very pleased to have secured the debate, but it is sad that it also gives me another opportunity to raise the poor service that constituents of mine who travel from Chester-le-Street railway station are still receiving. I initiated a similar debate on 15 January 2019, highlighting the poor service that was being generated from the change in the timetables in May 2018. The Minister who replied was the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and I think it is worth reiterating what he said. He said:

“There will be no repeat of the processes that led to the failure of May 2018 and that timetable change.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 1139.]

He also said that he entirely agreed with me that services offered to several parts of the country, including the north-east, had been “unacceptable”. Then, trying to strike a bright note and thinking that it was a positive gesture, he said that new rolling stock which would be brought into service in the coming months should make life easier for passengers using Chester-le-Street railway station.

All I can say is that nothing could be further from the truth. We have now experienced the impact of the new timetable that was introduced in December 2019. Given the combination of shocking incompetence on the part of those responsible for the timetable and the blatant disregard of operators—mainly TransPennine Express—for the wishes of the travelling public, the situation is just as bad, and not just in my constituency: I know that it has been affecting others across the north-east.

Mike Hill (Hartlepool) (Lab)

Hartlepool is the third busiest train station in the north-east, which shows that there is great demand for rail travel, yet the trains to Newcastle run only once an hour, and even then they have only two carriages. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is completely unacceptable and that more resources should be put into stations that are well used, such as Hartlepool?

Mr Jones

I totally agree; it is the same story that we get all the time. If Hartlepool, a town adjacent to the two major conurbations of Teesside and Tyneside, were in the south-east of England, it would have a service every half hour, rather than the one my hon. Friend has just outlined.

That brings me to the changes that were brought in in 2019. The timetable for my constituents got off to a flying start, because the two peak-time commuter trains, at 7.10 and 8.03 in the morning, were both cancelled on the first day. A further 11 daily TransPennine services to the north-east were withdrawn by the end of January, which left only 50% of TransPennine’s timetable for the north-east operational. TransPennine had given clear commitments to Transport for the North that there would be a seamless integration of the new timetable.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

The hon. Member is right to bring this issue forward, and he is always very assiduous for his constituency. Does he not agree that in ​order to have a thriving industry and business district, there must be a reliable, dedicated public transport service? Does he also agree that that takes funding and a forward-thinking strategy, and that more of both must go into the rail network in his area and into public transport in general throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr Jones

I agree with the hon. Member. Chester-le-Street in my constituency is a commuter town for Teesside and Tyneside, and it relies on good public transport.

The timetable got worse, and by January it had still not been fixed. Between 1 January 2020 and 24 January 2020, 17 TransPennine services were out of action. The managing director of TransPennine said that performance was “not up to scratch”, but I think some of my constituents would use more forceful language to describe it. The Department for Transport said that it was “completely unacceptable”, which again is a bit of an understatement.

Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is absolutely correct. It is not just in North Durham but in my constituency that the services are a disgrace. The trains are often filthy and they often have only two carriages so people cannot get on to them. We were promised that the ancient Pacer trains would be replaced by Sprinter trains, but they are actually trains of the same age. How can we address the problem of the regional disparities and level up on transport infrastructure investment in rail services, given the terrible state of the services and the terrible record that we have to cope with at the moment?

Mr Jones

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have seen a lot of promises recently about investment in transport infrastructure in the north, but there is a combination of two things here. It is about cash, but it is also about competence in running the network. Before we start opening up new lines, we need to ensure that the existing ones work properly. The franchising system in this country has clearly failed. His constituency, like mine, is next to two large conurbations, Tyneside and Teesside, and his constituents should be able to travel there easily. Again, if it was in the south-east of England, they would be able to do so.

Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)

I thank the hon. Member for securing this important debate. I agree that the TransPennine service has been dire. It was already the second-worst performing franchise in the country, but in December it got much worse. Only half the trains were on time, and 33% were either significantly late or cancelled. Does he agree that there should be a more punitive system of fines to focus the attention of the management and to ensure that these services run on time?

Mr Jones

I will come on to my response to TransPennine, but the underlying problem is how the timetable was drawn up. Durham County Council clearly indicated what it wanted to see at Chester-le-Street, a growing commuter town, only to find that services were taken away. When I wrote to the Transport Minister, I received a letter saying, “Well, you’ve got more stopping services.” We have, but not at the times when people actually want ​to travel. For example, the popular 7.17 am train was taken off the timetable and the equally popular 5.15 pm train southbound from Newcastle was moved over half an hour later. It is no good arguing that more trains will be stopping if they stop at times when people do not want to travel. It is a fundamental flaw. Frankly, Transport for the North should be renamed “Transport for Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool” because it clearly does not seriously consider representations from anywhere north of York.

The ongoing effects have had an economic impact, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned. This is not just about the frustration of individuals who find that trains have been cancelled, because there is an equal economic impact. As I said in my previous debate, people have had to give up jobs or not accept promotions because they cannot get into work, and families who want to come back to look after their children find it difficult to do so. That is just not acceptable.

I would like Transport for the North to tell me about another town like Chester-le-Street, where 30,000 people live, that has such a poor service and is totally disregarded. The facts speak for themselves, because train usage at Chester-le-Street is actually declining—it dropped by more than 9% between 2017 and 2019—and my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) saw usage at Seaham drop by 2.5%. There is this great mantra that we should be getting people out of cars and on to public transport, but the mess with the operation of the timetable is driving people off the railways, and that cannot be good for congestion in Tyneside and Teesside.

Turning to the point raised by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), I have to say that TransPennine is appalling. I hate using the term, but it is not fit for purpose. It could not run the proverbial in a brewery if it was given the instructions. It does not care about passengers. There is no information when services are cancelled. People turn up and they are told the train is late, and then it is just cancelled, leaving people to their own devices. No information or alternative buses are provided. The situation is not down to any lack of trying, because I have raised the matter directly with TransPennine officials, including at a public meeting I held with them two years ago where they said they would provide information, but they just do not care. Their attitude stinks.

I thought April fools’ day had come early last week when TransPennine put out its stakeholder newsletter. I do not know whether any other colleagues received it, but it included a big photograph showing how proud it was to win rail operator of the year at the business travel awards. All I can say is that I would hate to see what the competition was if TransPennine won, and it is quite clear that the judges did not speak to many of my constituents or those of many colleagues. It was a further insult when TransPennine announced on social media that from this week, it is going to stop people buying tickets on its trains, saying that if people get on without a ticket, they will be fined.

Since the ticket office was closed, Chester-le-Street station only has ticket machines on the southbound platform, and they are often not working, but people getting on the train without a ticket will be fined.

In the last week, two constituents have complained to me that they have bought tickets on trains, but have been treated in a threatening manner and told that in ​future they will be fined. I am sorry, but if the company cannot maintain a network and provide the service, it is an insult to my constituents, and other travellers, to make such threats. My constituents do not want threats. They want trains to turn up on time and, in some cases, to turn up at all.

The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton asked what the answer is. I have to say that TransPennine needs the franchise taken away. Northern has had its franchise taken away in the last few weeks, and we need to follow. Ironically, at Chester-le-Street, the trains that turn up on time have actually been Northern, which I know is not the experience of other colleagues. If Northern has had the franchise removed, so should TransPennine. What will happen to the investment that Norther earmarked for improvements at Chester-le-Street station, because there is clearly some doubt about what will happen now? TransPennine has been given enough chances. As I said earlier, its attitude stinks. It is not customer-focused and it is having a detrimental effect on many of my constituents.

Finally, I want to raise a broader issue. I know that in the near future—perhaps this week—the Government will make a decision on HS2. Personally, I have never been a great fan. I do not think it will affect many of my constituents, apart from swallowing large amounts of public investment over the next decades, but there is an issue that the Government could address now. We have had various promises thrown around about opening the Beeching closure lines and others in the past few weeks, but if HS2 is to benefit the north-east—look past York, because there is more to the north than York and Leeds—what is needed is the upgrade of the east coast main line. Without that, HS2, when it finally does arrive—if it ever does—will not be able to increase capacity from the north of York to further north.

Mike Hill

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. First, I wish to correct the record as I ambitiously stated that Hartlepool was the third busiest station in the north-east: I meant on Teesside. Important to that is the condition and state of that line. The Durham coast line has needed an upgrade for years and years. Does he agree that that investment is absolutely necessary?

Mr Jones

I do, and my fear about HS2 has always been that investment will be sucked out of the rest of the network. Although we have now got the magic money tree—if not an entire equatorial rain forest of money trees—from the Government for HS2, plus all the investment in lines such as my hon. Friend’s, we will have to wait and see what actually happens. It is important that if the north-east is to benefit from HS2, that investment is put into capacity in the east coast main line north of York. The Government could do that now, and it would have a beneficial effect for the travelling public by helping capacity, and that should be addressed if we do have the announcement on HS2.

My constituents are frankly fed up with the service that they have received from the rail services from Chester-le-Street. My broader concern is the one raised earlier about the economic impact on my constituents, because Chester-le-Street is a great place to live. People move there because it is a great place to bring up families, with good schools, but people need to be able to travel to jobs in the south of the region and in the ​north of the region. Without a good rail service they cannot do that. What they want is not warm words or political promises of funding tomorrow: they want action now.