10 May 2023
East Coast Main Line Funding

Jesse Norman, Minister of State for Decarbonisation and Technology at the Department for Transport, responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on funding for the East Coast Main Line.

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Jesse Norman)

I would like to offer my thanks to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate and for all the efforts and advocacy she has put into pressing the argument for investment in the east coast main line, in her role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the east coast main line. I am thrilled to hear the news from my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) about the creation of his own APPG, which feels like a very positive development as well.

I must, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North noted, extend my apologies on one front. It will not have escaped notice that, as she pointed out, I am not the Rail Minister, but of course, as she will also know, we try to play total football in the Department for Transport—if Neeskens is going in one direction, we want Cruyff to be heading off in the other one, and we try to do the same thing. At this moment, the Rail Minister is about to get on a train—on the east coast main line—to York to conduct an official visit. I hope the hon. Lady will recognise that commitment to the piece of infrastructure that she nobly champions. Nothing would be easier to do in his absence than the classic ministerial two-step of stitching him up by offering a meeting on his behalf. I am not going to do that, but I will say that I have no doubt that he will be scrutinising the proceedings in this Chamber very carefully and that he will want to act on them with his usual energy and dispatch.

Of course, as the hon. Lady mentioned, we have had an opportunity, in this discussion, to consider one of the most important rail arteries in this country. I am delighted to be able to set out the Government’s position and to respond to many of the issues that she touched on, including the integrated rail plan, timetabling and digital signalling.

Let me start by highlighting the east coast enhancements programme, which began in 2014. The Department and Network Rail are now in the very final stages of delivering that package of investment. When it is completed in 2024, it will, as the hon. Lady recognised, have seen £1.2 billion spent on improvements across the route.

That funding has delivered upgrades to track, platforms, signalling and junctions across the east coast main line, as well as essential improvements to the power supply. Specific examples of projects included in this wider programme of work include new platforms at Doncaster and Stevenage stations, improvements to the track layout at King’s Cross and a new rail junction at Werrington, near Peterborough.

The planning and delivery of such a wide-ranging set of upgrades was the result of close collaboration between the Department, Network Rail and the train and freight operating companies. As the hon. Lady appreciates, these are invariably complex matters.

That investment was delivered in conjunction with the £2.7 billion intercity express programme, which saw the roll-out of state-of-the-art Azuma trains across the east coast main line, with the last trains coming on to the route in September 2020. Each train in the new fleet has around 15% greater capacity than previous units and provides a significant change in accessibility, through increased numbers of wheelchair spaces and improved wi-fi and mobile connectivity.

The full benefits for passengers of both these significant pieces of investment will be realised, as the hon. Lady rightly recognises, only through the introduction of a new and recast timetable for the route. This had been scheduled for introduction in 2022 but was deferred to ensure that the views of passengers and local leaders, which were being captured through the public consultation, were fully considered. There is work under way at the moment with train operators to finalise the specification of a revised timetable that much more closely aligns with the views of stakeholders across the line of the route and that ensures that the running of the railway is fairer to the taxpayer. I know that there is every intention to deliver that revised timetable as soon as possible.

The east coast main line is due to be the first major route in the UK to benefit from digital signalling, which is another issue that the hon. Lady rightly mentioned. Approximately two thirds of signalling equipment on the southern section of the line is reaching its life expiry date and needs to be replaced. The east coast digital programme covers the section of the east coast main line running from King’s Cross to just south of Grantham and is the UK’s flagship digital signalling initiative, aiming to deliver a safer, more reliable and more resilient route. To date, the Government have committed more than £1 billion for the programme, which is expected to be delivered by the early 2030s.

To pick up the point the hon. Lady raised about the integrated rail plan, Members present will be aware of ambitious commitments for further east coast main line upgrades that are included in the integrated rail plan, which was published in November 2021. These plans aim to achieve further upgrades and improvements to line speeds, as well as upgrades to the power supply to allow for longer and more frequent trains, and to increase capacity on the route north of York. That would mean that journey times from London to Newcastle would be reduced by over 20 minutes compared to today and that those to York and Darlington would be reduced by around 15 minutes. A 20-minute journey time improvement would also be achieved for passengers travelling between London and Leeds. Passengers will also benefit from an increased number of seats, as well as from improved performance and reliability—unions permitting.

It is envisaged that these improvements will be delivered in three separate tranches of upgrades, starting in the mid-2020s and running up to the late 2030s. The Department has provided Network Rail with early-stage development funding to consider how these plans can be delivered as efficiently as possible in order to deliver maximum value for money to the taxpayer.

I am delighted to be able to confirm that improvements towards the north of the east coast main line are at a more developed stage of maturity and that they can and will act as early examples of the Government’s commitment to delivering on the aspirations of the integrated rail plan to improve the experience of passengers on the route. They include a package of enhancements at Darlington and York stations, as well as infrastructure upgrades at various other locations between Northallerton and Newcastle. Taken together, this programme of activity aims to allow an increased number of long-distance services to operate between York and Newcastle.

I hope that these planned funding commitments will provide reassurance to the hon. Lady and to other Members that the Government are acutely aware of the strategic importance of the east coast main line. The Department looks forward to continuing its engagement with the hon. Lady and the all-party parliamentary group on the east coast main line, and to engaging with the new APPG that has been unveiled for the first time today, as these ambitious plans come to maturity. I very much thank her for securing this debate.