House of Commons
Monday 8 February 2016
Great Western Railway Routes
8 Feb 2016 : Column 1363
Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House believes that the routes of the Great Western railway are not just a transport system, but the heart of the regions they serve; and calls on the Government to ensure that plans for further electrification and improved resilience of the Great Western railway routes are progressed urgently.
I thank hon. Members from both sides of the House who supported the application for this debate at the Backbench Business Committee. I also thank my colleagues on the Committee for agreeing to allocate the debate to this slot in the Chamber, rather than Westminster Hall, where it would have ended up. We have three hours for this debate, and it is encouraging that we are starting almost bang on time, given that we are discussing trains and railways.
It must be said that this is an apt day for such a debate, as Storm Imogen has hit Devon and Cornwall. One hon. Member, who I hope will join us later, texted me earlier to say he was hoping to get to Westminster but that there was a tree on the line at Bodmin, which sums up the issue of resilience.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that three trees have come down on the line?
Kevin Foster: I thank my hon. Friend for sharing with the House his superb knowledge of the vegetation on the Great Western main line in Devon and Cornwall. His point absolutely rams home the message that a tree falling over, a cow breaking out of a field, or a small amount of earth moving at a critical point can close huge parts of the network. That is why it is so important to hold this debate about resilience. In addition, the cross-country services have been cancelled at Dawlish again today. I must say that that is not due to the line but to a fault with the trains, but that again brings home to us the vulnerability of some key routes and networks on which many people depend.
I hope that this debate will not be about being negative and having a moan. We could all spend the next few hours whingeing and sharing our stories about various poor train journeys. One that sticks in my mind was when I and my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) got on a train that had what was charmingly described as a “toilet spill”, which was particularly interesting. Being negative will not achieve anything: it may make us feel a bit better to get a dreadful journey off our chests, but it will not actually make a difference.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am sorry to bring a disagreeable note into what has, so far, been an extremely agreeable debate. Of course we all love to moan and groan about our rail journeys, but I have travelled with First Great Western twice a week for 20 years and I find it extraordinarily good. We have criticisms of some things—the catering, the toilets and one or two other matters need to be sorted out—but overall, the punctuality and the service are extremely good.
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Kevin Foster: My hon. Friend is right that there are many positive stories to be told. Let us be blunt that a key one is the amazing legacy of innovative engineering we have been left by the Victorians. The Royal Albert bridge was built using innovative techniques and was a feat of engineering at the time. It created the link between Plymouth and Cornwall that exists to this day and carries trains far heavier than it was ever designed for. Box tunnel is now one of the most well-used tunnels. It was so innovative when it was built that there had to be a station at both ends, because some Victorian travellers were rather frightened of going through a tunnel, so there was the option of getting off the train, taking a horse and carriage ride around it and getting back on a train at the other end.
Mr Gray rose—
Johnny Mercer (Plymouth, Moor View) (Con): I think my hon. Friend was there.
Kevin Foster: That is very ungentlemanly of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) again.
Mr Gray: My hon. Friend is being very generous. Box tunnel is, of course, in my constituency. He will know that the only time one can see from one end of the tunnel to the other is once a year on Brunel’s birthday. [Interruption.] The Minister says that it is not true, but we believe it is true—I have seen it myself. More importantly, we think that we are close to reopening an important station at Corsham, which is at one end of Box tunnel. I hope my hon. Friend will agree that opening such stations along the route is extremely important.
Kevin Foster: Absolutely. I do not want to get involved in a cross-Wiltshire debate about tunnel openings and people’s birthdays, but it is important to think about the communities along the route. One reason why the theme of resilience is so important is that having a station is great, but if a train does not run at certain times, people do not have the service they want.
Let us be candid: this is the positive story of a network that stretches from London to Swansea, that runs through Cheltenham and Bristol, and that goes down to Penzance. It revolutionised a whole region that had been fairly isolated until the trains went through.
Over the past few years, we have seen huge growth in rail travel across our region, with many branch lines, particularly in Cornwall, seeing passenger levels that have not been seen for decades. All that is being delivered with the well-known limitations of the network in the area: the relatively old rolling stock, some of which has seen better days, and issues with the network in terms of resilience, signalling and other things that I will come to in a minute.
The point of this debate is not to share jokes or reminisce about poor train journeys, but to say that there could be an even more positive story in the future that would boost productivity and deliver more jobs and investment.
Scott Mann (North Cornwall) (Con): My hon. Friend’s constituency is very similar to mine in that it is very tourism-based. Does he agree that the more trains and branch lines we have in such areas, the better it will be for the tourism economy of the south-west?
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Kevin Foster: Absolutely. As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the early figures for the Borders railway that is being built in Scotland show higher than expected levels of usage. In St Ives, good park-and-ride services are crucial to the tourism industry. Having good trains makes for good tourism.
Mrs Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?
Kevin Foster: I will give way once more, but then I must make some progress so that I do not hog the time.
Mrs Murray: Does my hon. Friend agree that we should expand the existing park-and-ride services? In my constituency, there could be another park-and-ride station to the east of Bodmin Parkway to allow people from areas that do not have access to a railway station to commute and travel to places such as the city of Plymouth?
Kevin Foster: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that park and ride can play a huge part in giving rural communities in particular access to rail services via parkway-style stations. Looking at north-west Devon and north Cornwall, it might be an interesting project in years to come to provide parkway stations near the A30 as it comes into Devon, using the spur that heads towards Okehampton. That could provide a service to the area without competing with the Great Western main line in south Devon.
We must ask what investment can deliver. It is estimated that even a relatively modest improvement of 15 minutes in journey times between the south-west peninsula and London would deliver £300 million in increased productivity. However, this debate is not just about economics; it is about communities along the line and their needs for travel and growth.
I will not look to play our region off against another. Just as investment in Crossrail and new rail capacity in other parts of the UK will deliver for those communities over the next 10 to 15 years, delivering on the issues we are discussing can deliver for ours. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that investment in the Great Western railway supports other key projects across the UK. For example, the expansion of Heathrow as the UK’s hub will be supported by the western rail access. I hope the Minister sees the urgency of that.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman share my profound disappointment over the delays in the western rail access to Heathrow, which the Hendy review announced would be put back a further two years? This access will bring the biggest inward investment to the UK, as well as helping travellers from all over the west of England—
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): And Wales.
Fiona Mactaggart: Indeed, and Wales. It will help those travellers to get to Heathrow—our premier hub airport. Will the hon. Gentleman press the Minister to ensure that, as a result of this debate, someone in her Department puts their foot on the accelerator of western rail access to Heathrow?
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Kevin Foster: I thank the right hon. Lady for her passionate and well-argued intervention. She is absolutely right that the western rail access to Heathrow makes eminent sense for south Wales, my region and the Slough area. It will support not only the economies of our areas but the national economy, by making it easier to expand and develop our key hub airport. I hope that one thing the Minister will look at is the timeline for the western rail access. Given the widespread support across the House for that access, I hope that the timeframe will be greatly shortened so that people can get the shovels in the ground on this project, which makes eminent sense.
I am conscious that I could give a long list of improvements that are needed. I am sure that several contributors are about to highlight those they see as vital for their areas. For me, there are two key issues that affect the whole network—resilience and electrification. The Dawlish collapse brought into stark view how vulnerable parts of the main line are. That is not the only issue, but it has given us the opportunity to debate all these other issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) said in his foreword to the “On Track” report by the Peninsula Rail Task Force:
“It took a crisis to get here, but this is our chance”.
It is worth looking at the impact that that crisis had. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) reminded us of the impact that the railway has on tourism. Some 7% of Torbay’s tourist visitors come by train. After the pictures of the hanging tracks in the media, there was a 20% drop in tourism bookings because of the image it created. That shows that this is not just a transport issue.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I want to support the point the hon. Gentleman is making. The incident he is talking about was the most extreme example of damage to a piece of major rail infrastructure. It is no fault of Great Western Railway, but I travelled up from south Wales by bus for part of my journey today because of flooding on part of the line. Okay, that is an extreme event, but we are having more and more. There is also regular flooding around the Severn tunnel. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to be absolutely sure that we have a resilient railway structure, as well as having electrification?
Kevin Foster: I agree completely. My constituency is not scheduled to benefit from the electrification project, but it is affected by flooding on the Somerset levels. It is vital that we make sure our railway is future-proofed. A few years back, I took a bus in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) when there was flooding on the railway line across Cowley bridge that looked like something out of the Bible. It is vital that we tackle the range of resilience issues, not just the very famous issue on the coast. I know that Network Rail is looking at the cliffs near Teignmouth. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) will talk a bit more about that in her contribution. That aspect needs to be looked at too, not just the sea wall. Much of the signalling throughout Devon and Cornwall was installed in the 1960s. It is listed for consideration in control period 6, which is between 2019 and 2024, and it is vital that that goes ahead because we must improve journey times and ensure a modern infrastructure.
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The issue of resilience has been brought into focus by the imminent publication of the final report from the Peninsula Rail Task Force, which will set out its 20-year plan for railways in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. Resilience will be at the heart of that, and it is vital to have the funding needed to complete such a commitment. There have been encouraging noises on that issue over the past week or two, and I hope that we might hear a couple more words from the Minister when she responds to the debate. It is clear just how vital it is that we secure that line.
Electrifying the Great Western route into south Wales is probably the single biggest project on that line since the Severn tunnel, and it will electrify the line in communities along that route—I suspect that colleagues may wish to speak a little more about that. It is pleasing that in the south-west it is no longer the case that the only way to get close to a bit of electrified track is to buy a train set! As a member of the Public Accounts Committee I have sat through a discussion on progress so far—not least the estimated cost of that electrification, which has now reached £2.8 billion—and I imagine that the Minister might not be relishing the thought of committing to more such projects. However, it is right that those issues are highlighted, as investment must not just be about creating a corridor for electric trains to speed through to south Wales; it must be the starting point for an integrated network of electrification across the areas served by Great Western Railway.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. One major reason for the escalating cost is compensation payments to train operators—the so-called schedule 4 payments. Does he share my concern that the UK Government will not publish the level of schedule 4 compensation payments made, because we talking about many hundreds of millions of pounds of public money? There must be transparency about those rising costs.
Kevin Foster: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interesting intervention, and I am sure that the Minister will wish to respond to his detailed point. In the Public Accounts Committee discussion, one of the main issues was the signalling that was installed in the 1960s. When the piling was done, the cables were not mapped. Hopefully, as with the re-signalling in Devon and Cornwall, knowing exactly where the signalling cables are might make those lines more suitable for future electrification.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is talking about electrification in south Wales, but does he agree that it is also important to electrify at least part of the route from Paddington to Penzance? Does he welcome the proposal to bring forward AT300 Hitachi trains, which are bimodal? Given the speeding-up of the service that that would introduce, does he share my concern that we could be tempted to delete some stops along that route? That would be a pity—perhaps he will come on to this point—since it would mean that some of our constituencies would simply become transit corridors. Does he agree that Westbury station, which is a vital north-south-east-west hub, must not be deleted from any forthcoming plans in the new franchise?
Kevin Foster: Having changed trains at Westbury, I share my hon. Friend’s concern about maintaining the ability to interlink with the rest of the region. As we have
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said, this must be about viewing the railway not as a transport network in aspic that we stand around like trainspotters, discussing exactly how long it will take and what number train will travel down that line; this is about where people want to get to, linking economies and ensuring that people can use the service. I share my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I am sure that colleagues in south Devon and neighbouring constituencies would be concerned if we sped journeys up by driving past passengers. This is about improving the network for everyone, not just making it quicker to get from one end of the network to the other with nothing in between.
I am conscious that time is moving on and that I am stretching your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will try to press on because other colleagues wish to speak. The introduction of bimodal trains due in 2018, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) mentioned, will make a real difference and open up many opportunities for our region, not least because it will allow the potential for partial electrification on sites that would most enhance the journey time. In the past, for obvious reasons—not least the potential impact of mixing high-voltage cables and sea water at Dawlish—a purely electric train might not have been considered west of Exeter, but bimodal trains will give us real options for future development. Again, that is why the reports are so important.
I could reel off a long list of issues that affect train lines, including prospects for new stations in my patch for the first time in decades. However, there are five issues that I believe it is most important for the Minister to consider as we look ahead to the work in control period 6. The first is whether funding for the two reports that will form part of the work of the Peninsula Rail Task Force will definitely be provided. I know that Network Rail is, in its own words, ready to start work on that immediately once that funding is confirmed. Secondly, is there a clear commitment to the re-signalling work for Devon and Cornwall that is scheduled to take place in control period 6? Thirdly, will the project to secure our main line at Dawlish be committed to, including any work needed to secure the cliffs? Fourthly, will work to secure the line against flooding on the Somerset levels and other key points be progressed? Finally, will the electrification project to south Wales be completed with a view to being part of an electrified network for the Great Western region, rather than just an electric cable running through the middle of our constituencies?
Those are clear questions, but I believe the benefits are also clear. We must ensure that in the 21st century, the vision for the Great Western line is as great as it was when Victorian engineers rode the route on horseback, imagining what could be in the future. They could not have imagined the type of trains that they would have, or the uses to which people would put the railway, but they could see that in building a railway they would build a region. I believe that we can do the same now and show similar vision, and I commend the motion to the House.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for arriving a few seconds after he rose to his feet. The previous business finished rather earlier than a lot of us expected or had been forewarned about, but I congratulate him on being the driving force behind this timely debate.
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At the end of the week, when I get into carriage A at Paddington with my bike in the bike space just in front of it—carriage A is the quiet carriage—I sit down, and I usually have the best two hours of my week. Every time I am on that journey, I give thanks to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the brilliance of the line that he created back in the Victorian age, from which we are still benefiting. It still think it incredible, given that very little has happened since, that on a good day someone can get from London to Exeter—quite a long way, as I am sure hon. Members who know their geography realise—in under two hours, and that is very much thanks to Brunel.
I completely agree with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), because for all its frailties, Great Western is my favourite railway line. I travel across the UK quite a lot, and it is certainly better than the new franchise owners on the east coast main line, and the pokey little carriages on Virgin and the west coast main line. Great Western is comfortable and bright. The loos do not work, and when they do they flush straight on to the tracks. That is completely intolerable and unacceptable in the modern age and must change as a matter of urgency. The ventilation is idiosyncratic, and one can often find a carriage that is far too hot or far too cold, but the staff are always delightful and friendly, and the service is excellent.
I have one plea to all railway companies, which is that they should do much more to publicise a passenger’s right to a full refund if they are delayed by more than an hour. I really think that they are getting away with too much, and far too many people do not realise that they are entitled to a refund. I was an hour and a half late coming back at the weekend because of some of the problems that the hon. Member for Torbay referred to, and, in terms of good customer service, such compensation should be announced on the trains as a matter of course.
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): In highlighting the beauty of the line to Exeter, may I encourage the right hon. Gentleman to stay on the train and see how even more beautiful the line gets once it passes along the coast? It is not just about the beauty of the line, which I hope everyone will experience, but the economic importance of the line via Dawlish to the economies of south Devon. Will he join me in saying that whatever we do we must protect the line through Dawlish and protect the economies of south Devon?
Mr Bradshaw: I know the line through Dawlish very well. I spent childhood holidays in Salcombe. In fact, my parents used to get a train all the way to Kingsbridge in the good old days before Beeching took his axe to our rural rail network. It is beautiful, but vulnerable. I will come on to say something about it in a second.
Having said all those positive things, we still have rolling stock that was introduced, I think, in the early 1970s. As I have said, travel speeds have not actually increased very much for decades, if not for a century. I mentioned the loos and the heating, and the hon. Member for Torbay mentioned electrification. It is puzzling that Spain and Italy have full comprehensive networks of high-speed electric trains, but in this country we still do not have a network of high-speed trains. We are getting one slowly, but in the south-west we are set to be probably
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the only major region with big cities left in western Europe that does not have either high-speed trains or electrification. There is absolutely no reason why we should not already have electrification down to Exeter. There have been technical challenges, but having been on electric trains in the Alps that go up steep gradients I have never quite understood what the barrier is to electrification where there are gradients. As the hon. Member for Torbay says, we will very soon have the technology to overcome that.
Kevin Foster: I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who, given the speech he is making today, I will call my right hon. Friend even if that is not strictly correct. Does he agree that the question arises of how long it takes us to deliver infrastructure projects in the UK? We touched on this in relation to western rail access to Heathrow and electrification. We just take too long to make decisions and to deliver on them.
Mr Bradshaw: I entirely agree. The Labour Government set up an independent infrastructure body—I cannot remember its name—and the hon. Gentleman’s Government have gone on to do something similar. We need to be much more radical in how we manage big infrastructure improvements. Network Rail is currently pleading, in today’s Financial Times, with the Government not to privatise it, but instead to hand over such decisions to an independent rail commission. That is a very sensible and sound idea, and I hope the Government will listen to it. The fragmentation and privatisation of Network Rail would be an absolute disaster. It is worth reading the piece in today’s Financial Times.
Oliver Colvile: If we want business to use railways, we also need to ensure a good level of broadband so that people can actually work on them.
Mr Bradshaw: I forgot to mention that broadband is terrible in standard class. It never works. I just use 3G, or 4G, if I have it, on the train. I raised this issue with First Great Western a number of times, but it still has not been resolved. I am told that it is fine in first class, but who travels first class? MPs certainly do not; not in my experience, anyway. I never have and since the new expenses system came in we are quite rightly not allowed to.
As hon. Members will remember, two years ago last week we had the catastrophic severing of the line at Dawlish. As the hon. Member for Torbay said, it had a huge impact on the region’s wider economy. Flooding then cut the line on the Somerset levels and this weekend there was flooding between Taunton and Castle Cary. My train was diverted from Exeter because of flooding. There are a lot of resilience problems throughout the network. As we all know, with the growing threat from climate change there will be increasing occurrences of extreme weather events. There has been meaningful and substantial investment in the railways, including in the south-west—although not as much as in other parts of the UK. Following the Hatfield disaster, hon. Members will remember that under the Labour Government there was a major programme of work to make signalling and track safer. That work is ongoing. Improvements at Reading have already made a significant positive difference to the reliability of the service. There used to be regular delays, in particular when coming into Reading on the return journey.
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There have been improvements, but we in the far south-west, as opposed to the Bristol-south Wales corridor, where major electrification is planned, still feel the poor relation when it comes to investment. There were a lot of generous—I will use that term rather than grandiose, because we took them at their word—promises made by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary after Dawlish and particularly in the run-up to the general election. I lost count of the number of times the Chancellor and the Prime Minister appeared in Devon and Cornwall wearing a hard hat and a fluorescent jacket and promising us more than £7 billion of rail and other infrastructure investment. They will be held to those promises. A whole swathe of Conservative MPs were elected in Devon and Cornwall on those promises. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] They are laughing, smiling and “hear-hearing” now, but if those promises are not delivered the smiles will be on the other side of their faces come the next general election. It is up to them to get their Government to deliver.
I feel sorry for my Conservative colleagues. We are friends—we have regional solidarity—and I feel sorry for them. In the past two weeks, we have had an absolute public relations fiasco over a tiny sum of money. The Peninsula Rail Task Force in the south-west is a group that got together after Dawlish. It is run by a Conservative councillor. All the councils have taken part and most of them are Conservative. It came up with a fantastic document, on which the hon. Member for Torbay based most of his speech, about what needs to happen in the south-west. Its very small initial ask is for £250,000 for the necessary feasibility studies into electrification and resilience, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We were promised that this would happen. There was going to be a press release. It was going to be announced last week on the second anniversary of Dawlish. I hope the Minister will use the opportunity this evening, when she responds to the debate—it is not a very good time to put out such a fantastic news story that our media in the south-west would absolutely love—to come up with this small amount of money. It is £250,000 for two feasibility studies. Nothing has been said about when the work will happen.
Johnny Mercer: Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that Network Rail committed to paying for the studies? The Government have not given money to a project and then taken it away. The money has fallen through as a result of what Network Rail has done. We have asked the Government to step up and deliver in its place.
Mr Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the Government have never come up with the money. I am suggesting that they should. Network Rail is not able to come up with the money because of the massive cost overruns and delays on the whole of the rest of its infrastructure investment projects; not just the huge cost and time overrun on the Great Western line into south Wales but on its overall investment all over the country. Incidentally, the Government knew about that before the general election when they were making all those great and grandiose promises about what they were going to deliver to us in the south-west. Those are the conversations the hon. Gentleman needs to have with his Front Bench colleagues. I will leave that to him and wish him the very best of luck.
It is completely obvious to me why the money has not been made available. Network Rail has not got it because it has massively overspent and overrun on all its other
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projects. I hope that when the Minister responds we can hear a little bit more detail on exactly what we can expect in the far south-west and when. If she cannot tell us about the feasibility study money this evening, perhaps she can tell us: when we might be able to hear about it; when we might have some hope about the prospect of electrification beyond Bristol into our part of the region along the lines that have been suggested; and when we might have some idea about the timetable for an additional alternative line to Dawlish.
I completely agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). We do not want to lose the line at Dawlish. It is beautiful and the people of Dawlish do not want to lose it. However, the fact is that if we talk to any engineer or climate change scientist about the long-term viability of the route, they do not just talk about storms and sea level rises but the fragility of the cliff. The biggest problem with the block last year was that the cliff kept falling down. It is a multiple problem and the line is between the sea and quite a soft cliff. As hon. Members will know, there was a plan back in 1939 to build a sensible, slightly inland alternative from Powderham Castle to Newton Abbot. That did not go ahead because the second world war broke out. There are other options. I can understand that people in north Devon and north Cornwall like the idea of the Okehampton line being reopened. Let us have a look at that and have some idea about what is going to happen and when. As the Prime Minister himself said, we cannot afford to have the south-west cut off like that again. Our economy cannot afford it. I was on the right side of that block, so it did not affect me, but the Plymouth, Cornwall, South Devon and Torbay economies were seriously affected by it.
James Heappey (Wells) (Con): May I add to the right hon. Gentleman’s shopping list? The Minister might like to reassure us about where the south-west and south Wales sit in the Government’s wider priorities. It would appear that we have neither resilience in our network, nor had significant investment in the speeds of our journeys since the ’70s—certainly beyond Bristol, there is no evidence of that coming soon. Other regions, therefore, will zoom ahead with much faster high-speed rail within a decade or two. It would be useful if the right hon. Gentleman added to his list this question about where we stand in the Government’s priorities.
Mr Bradshaw: I entirely agree, and we look forward to hearing the Minister respond at the end of this debate. I intend to finish with what I hope will be an attractive suggestion to all those Conservative Members who were swept to power—
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): I simply hope that at some point the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that there will be a new station opening in his constituency next year.
Mr Bradshaw: Yes, and we have already had a new station opened just outside my constituency—and the investment programme for it was put in place by the Labour Government, so I am very grateful that the Minister did not cut it.[Interruption.] Of course I am grateful for that.
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Claire Perry rose—
Mr Bradshaw: I am sorry, but I am not giving way again.
Several hon. Members rose—
Madam Deputy Speaker (Natascha Engel): Order. The right hon. Member is not giving way.
Mr Bradshaw: I have said I am grateful for that station and that I am grateful for the investment programme that the Labour Government initiated. I say to the Minister simply that she has cut that investment programme over the last six years at a time when every sensible economist in the world thinks we should be investing in our infrastructure for the long term. We have record low long-term interest rates in this country and a faltering economy, so now is the time when we should be investing in infrastructure, and particularly in rail. I repeat that I am very grateful that the Minister did not cut the money for that station and that we are going to get another station—but, incidentally, the Labour Government initiated the plans for that, too.
I am going to end with the following suggestion to the Conservative MPs in Devon and Cornwall who were swept to victory last May on great and grandiose promises of a rail revolution and renaissance in the south-west. I got into a great deal of trouble with my Whips in the last Parliament for refusing to vote for the money for High Speed 2 up to the north. To give credit where it is due, one Conservative Member, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter)—sadly, he is not in his place tonight—did the same. We withheld our support for that money. The Government now have a majority of only 12—
Mrs Sheryll Murray: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Bradshaw: No, I will not. I am finishing and the hon. Lady can speak in the debate.
More than 12 Conservative Members with constituencies in Devon and Cornwall could stop the Government putting that money through if they do not get what this Government promised over the next five years. I challenge them to do that—to stick up for their constituents, stick up for the south-west and stop taking no for an answer.
Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): I think that all Conservative Members will be sticking up not just for their own constituents but for the country as a whole. What we want to see is growth and productivity improved. We have to repair the damage done by the previous Labour Government that resulted in our having to make the cuts that we are now making. It is undoubtedly this Government, and the previous coalition Government, who have focused on the need to do something about the whole infrastructure mess.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), my constituency neighbour, for securing tonight’s debate. It is undoubtedly true that the Great Western route is critical. It is fair to say—here the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and I might agree —that we need to give some priority to the infrastructure
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in the south-west. Where we would disagree is that I believe that we have already seen action taken and seen more than just warm words. Frankly, as the Member representing Dawlish among other places, I have seen it in spades. We all want to see this commitment. I believe it is fair, but we need it on the record.
Mrs Sheryll Murray: The very fact that the trains running between Penzance and Paddington were first introduced in 1976 just goes to show the lack of investment initiated by the Labour Government about which the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) talks. They did nothing for the south-west when they were in government for 12 years.
Anne Marie Morris: My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. It is this Government, and the former coalition Government, who have begun to look at the south-west and to recognise that we have a motorway, the M5, which ends at Exeter, and that the road infrastructure therefore needs sorting. They recognised, too, that broadband needed sorting, which is not something that the Labour Government did much about. They have also recognised that, frankly, our railway needs resolution.
The gross value added of the south-west is 72% of the national average, and if we could just deal with infrastructure issues, we would open up the opportunity and really deliver on the potential by raising the productivity of our area as a whole.
Given that so many colleagues have mentioned Dawlish, let me say a few words about it. This was an extraordinary event. It is, I suppose, a truism that after some of the most disastrous events, we sometimes see some of the best things emerge. It is undoubtedly true that what happened in Dawlish on that fateful day shined a light on the challenge. Rather than running away from it, the Government said, “This is something that matters; we are going to spend the money.”
I remember that storm in February 2014. The Government put in £35 million at the time, and I recall constituents telling me, “This can’t be fixed,” while the engineers were saying, “It can’t be done,” yet Network Rail and the Government told me, “It can; it will be; and it will be soon.” In the end, I think it took about six weeks. It was absolutely phenomenal. Having fixed it, they continued to spend another £6 million sorting out some further individual problems.
Clearly, there is more to be done, but if we look at what happened, we find that we had 300 engineers—that wonderful orange army—who worked solidly pretty much round the clock for two months, sorting out our railway. They were ingenious. Despite what the engineers said, they came up with the idea of using 19 sea containers to provide a temporary sea wall. That was quite an innovative idea. The only challenge they had, once it was put in place, was how they were going to remove it. That turned out to be more of a challenge than putting it in place. Yet 6,000 tonnes of concrete and 150 tonnes of steel later, along with the 25,000 tonnes of the cliff being removed, we are now in a good, resilient position for the railway at Dawlish. We have repaired 600 metres of wall and Dawlish station, including the platform, and we have 700 metres of new track.
Still more work is ongoing. The point made about signalling is absolutely right. More signalling repair and restoration is going on, along with more repairs to the
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sea wall, whose footpath has been repaired. Riviera terrace, which disappeared overnight, has now been rebuilt. As for Dawlish Warren along the coast, the point has been made that there are some natural climate change erosion problems, but work is already going on to deal with them through beach recharge and trying to realign how the natural coastal flow works.
The point of this debate—other than being able to say, “Well done, Government, you sorted out Dawlish; thank you very much”—is to flag up to everyone the need to do more. There is a bigger picture.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay mentioned, the Peninsula Rail Task Force has been one of the key drivers. It was established to look at a 20-year plan, and I think that it has the support of everybody in the area. It is a great credit to the area and it shows how strongly we all feel about getting this right. If we can get this right, if that taskforce is allowed to complete its job and if we get that 20-year plan and the Government to commit to investment in the south-west, we could have a GVA uplift of £520 million by improving journey times.
It is fascinating that the potential for this area is so clear. Passenger numbers are many times that of any other area. I think they have gone up by 126% over the decade compared to a national increase of 61%. The tourism potential is already well demonstrated. In 2014, over £1 billion was spent by visitors to the south-west. Believe it or not, in 2013, Saudi and Russian visitors spent more in the south-west than in London.
If those who enjoy travelling using the “Lonely Planet” guides have a look, they will find that the south-west is situated in the league tables as the third best place to visit—ahead of Italy and Denmark. So the potential is there, and there is a win-win—not only for the south-west, but for the Government, because we will get productivity up, which is what the Chancellor wants to see above everything.
The Government have already committed £400 million, and we have had 11 individual reports since the Dawlish events, looking at resilience and reliability, faster journey times and sufficient capacity, and five more reports are coming. No one could honestly say that that did not represent a serious commitment to understanding the problem and then getting it right.
A number of crucial issues need to be addressed. I think every Member agrees that the Dawlish coastal route must be a priority, because unless it is running as a “forever, forever” resilient line, shoring up the whole peninsular network, everything else will begin to become secondary.
I take issue with the challenge from the right hon. Member for Exeter, who, like King Canute, seemed to fear that at some point we would all be washed away. I suggest that we should take account of British scientists, who have been incredibly resilient over the years—as, indeed, were those intrepid passengers who, when the line broke down all that time ago, simply got out of one carriage, climbed over the rocks, and got into another carriage to continue their journey. We are a resilient nation, and that line will survive. It too will be resilient, and it is there for the long term. I am sure that the Government will ensure that that can happen. Nothing is impossible; all that is needed is a little imagination and some intelligence.
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The coastal route is crucial, but it is in all our interests to look at the whole area, and the east of Exeter project for resilience is equally important. Bridgwater and Taunton are also crucial, as are Yeovil and Castle Cary. They must be on the must-do list.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I agree with my hon. Friend that what was done in Dawlish was absolutely right and that we must keep that railway going. However, we must also consider the line from Bristol to Taunton. We need new stations at Wellington and Cullompton, and we need some metro trains as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) cannot be here today because of ill health, but I know that she would agree. We need to increase resilience. We need to bring more trains down existing tracks; we need more stations; and we need to use our tracks much more effectively.
Anne Marie Morris: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At present, we have just one spine going along the south of the peninsula. We need another spine going along the north and opening up the Okehampton line. We also need a network rather like a spider’s web. If we are to take full advantage of what is happening to the economy and if productivity is to increase, we need the smaller stations to which my hon. Friend refers. As was pointed out earlier, stations such as Dawlish should not become secondary branch stations. If that happened it would be a disaster, because our economy is set to grow. We need those two spine routes, but we also need the connectivity—the spider’s web—that will enable all our communities to be successful. For rural communities, travel is mission critical.
Shortening journey times is crucial. I welcome the bimodal rolling stock that we shall have in 2018, but, meanwhile, it would be helpful if the Minister told us a little about any cast-offs that might increase the current number. I agree with what has been said about electrification. I think that bimodal rolling stock is the solution, but, as others have said, we need a plan. We need to know that the Government are committed to dealing with more than just one piece of the south-west. The south-west does not stop at Bristol, although—dare I say?—some people seem to think that it does. We also need to consider the calling patterns, and we must give some thought to capacity and quality. The issue of the additional routes is crucial. I have already mentioned the Okehampton route and the concept of a spider’s web.
Let me now mention some keynote events in the far south-west. A geotechnical study, which is due to begin in April 2016, will look specifically at the Dawlish issue, the Teignmouth cliffs, the sea wall, and whether or not there is a need for a barrage out at sea. I am pleased that the study has gone full steam ahead and has not been subject to any cuts. I hope that the Government will undertake to take its findings seriously and to give us a chance to work and lobby hard to find the right solution. I hope that they will commit themselves to spending the money that we need to sort out our resilience once and for all.
Another key event is the 20-year plan report from the Peninsula Rail Task Force. As has already been said, the plan needs to be properly funded, but we hope that there will be some pre-planning in control period 5. Although control period 6 will not begin until 2016, I think that, once we have the report, the Government should say, “Now that the plan is in place, this is what
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we can do,” so that we are ready to go. We need the Government to invest during the planning phase. I would love CP6 to happen sooner, but it is realistic to assume that, by the time the planning has been completed, it will be 2018. But a commitment to investing in that planning and to the resolution of the problem would be brilliant.
If we invest in the south-west, our gross value added will increase, our productivity will increase—the Chancellor will be very pleased—security will be improved, and we will unlock the marine potential of the area, which is already worth £410 million in GVA. We will also be able to build on the nuclear potential. Currently, the UK nuclear market, much of which is in our part of the world, is worth £50 billion. We will also be able to take advantage of the aerospace advanced engineering, which is already worth £16 billion in our part of the world, and of new data analytics, which are based primarily in Exeter. The super-computer there gives us a potential income of £97 million in the area.
I will end my speech now, because the Minister has heard enough about me, the lady from Dawlish—[Hon. Members: “No, no! More!”] Let me finally ask you for your commitment to the south-west: a commitment to find the funds that we need, to give us the security that we need and to help us deliver the productivity that the Chancellor wants, that we want and that the country needs.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), whose stirring speech I thoroughly enjoyed. Let me also commend the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing the debate, which I think will prove very useful.
The Great Western Railway is important to me, because, along with my Welsh colleagues, I use it regularly. I have used it for the last 15 years, and, if I am fortunate—I am assuming nothing—I may be using it shortly to travel back in that direction for the final time as I head down to the Welsh Assembly. It all depends on the electorate. However, as others have said, the railway is critically important not just to politicians who travel back and forth to work and to represent their constituents, but to the economies of the areas involved. As we heard from the hon. Member for Newton Abbott, the GWR will provide great GVA if we get it right.
I must thank the GWR for getting me here almost on time. I apologise to the hon. Member for Torbay for being a couple of minutes late; that is because part of my journey was on a coach. Fair play: the company ensured that the coaches were running, and managed to deal with the traumatic weather. I thank it for sorting that out for me, and for all the other passengers. However, it raises the issue—regardless of electrification—of run-of-the-mill resilience. Too many parts of our existing railway stock have a fluctuating ability to deliver the timetable that we need. All too often there is a shutdown, and even if it lasts for only two or three hours, trains back up in the wrong places, and the timetable has to catch up with where the rolling stock is. No doubt, following today’s debate, GWR, Arriva Trains Wales and the branch lines will be shuttling stock to try to catch up after the delays.
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Kevin Foster: I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but does he agree that we must ensure that the rolling stock that we have is correctly specified? Cross-country journeys connect parts of south Devon and, sometimes, south Wales on the route to Birmingham, and some trains have not been not specified to go along a piece of track that a wave might go over.
Huw Irranca-Davies: That is a very good point. I hope that what has been said today will be noted not just by the Minister, but by train operating companies and infrastructure companies. I hope that they will act on the suggestions that have been made by Members, so that their services can work better for commuters and other passengers.
Several Members on both sides of the House have drawn attention to the importance of the spine of the network to all the branches that flow from it. It is not just to do with high-speed links or electrification. I travel here from Maesteg, where I live with my family—it is north of Bridgend, up the Llynfi valley—and I am fortunate that we still have a branch line there. Thank goodness that, at the height of the Beeching cuts, there was local opposition and strong-minded leadership in the Labour authority, and people fought and said that they would be damned if that line would close. They managed to keep it open, and nowadays it is a tremendous success. That route from Maesteg down to Bridgend, and all the way up to Chepstow and beyond, is a very popular route and we need to go further. We talk about travel-to-work areas. The people in my constituency travel down from Maesteg and from all the valleys I represent to work in Swansea, Bridgend and Cardiff, and they need good reliable and affordable transport in order to do that. We are fortunate that we have that in the Llynfi valley and we need to keep it that way.
We are also fortunate that we were able to open a new station on the Great Western mainline spine. It is rare to see that happen nowadays. The station at Llanharan, between Cardiff and Swansea, was closed in the ’60s under Beeching, but after a fight lasting more than 40 years, we were able, along with local Assembly Member Janice Gregory and local councillors Geraint Hopkins, Roger Turner and Barry Stephens, to reopen it. It has had great benefits, with more than 2,000 homes being built in the area and possibly another 2,000 on the way. The station has been an economic boon to the area. People want to come and live there because it is not just a place along the Great Western spine route; it now has a station. The point has been well made that we must ensure that we do not bypass communities when we deliver the electrification and the mainline spine; we also need to connect the spine to the communities.
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman seems to have neglected to mention the role played by Ieuan Wyn Jones, the Transport Minister in the Welsh Government at the time, and a member of my party.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Ieuan Wyn Jones played a good hand in that campaign, and so did Andrew Davies, the Economic Minister at the time. His officials were telling him that the economic case for the station did not quite stack up, but he told them that it would when they saw the 2,000 new homes and the new schools that would come in as a result. My goodness, he was right. When I travel through the new station now, I see scores of people using it at every hour of the day as they commute
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to Cardiff for shopping or visiting relatives or to go to work. It has been a tremendous success, and we need to think more about these projects alongside the electrification.
Another critical aspect of using the spine along the Great Western railway is to ensure that it also connects to the south Wales metro. I use that name deliberately; I am not talking about the Cardiff Bay metro. This needs to be a genuine south Wales metro. In my area, linked to the Great Western line, we have the Llynfi line that was protected all those years ago, but we also have three valleys that have no connections to rail links at all. They need to be linked in to the First Great Western line when it is electrified and delivering faster services. That link might take the form of light rail, or perhaps good coaches and buses operating to the right timetable to enable them to make the connections at the right times of the day.
That kind of thinking has to happen, and representatives of Bridgend County Borough Council, under the leadership of Mel Nott, are now sitting down with the Welsh Government to work out how to join those communities that have no rail links to the Great Western spine, so that people in those communities can get to work and go to meet their friends and so that elderly people there can socialise with friends who live further away without having to get an expensive taxi.
Byron Davies (Gower) (Con): You are making some important points. Would you accept that the electrification of the line down to Swansea by the Conservative Government is going to result in greatly increased social mobility for the people of the valleys?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that he will support my point that this project must be delivered on time as originally pledged and, hopefully, on budget as well. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot said earlier that too many people think that the south-west ends at Bristol. Well, too many people up here think that south Wales ends at Cardiff. Cardiff is a brilliant city—please go there and visit. Newport had the NATO conference and Cardiff has the greatest stadium in the land, with the only covered surface. Wales also has the best national opera company. Cardiff was third in the top 10 short break destinations in the whole of Europe recently. However, south Wales does not stop at Cardiff. Just beyond that line, there is Bridgend, and just beyond Bridgend is Swansea. Beyond that is west Wales.
So I fully agree with the hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies), but I want to say to the Minister today, “Don’t short-change us through these delays.” We have been talking about the economic benefits and we were told that the electrification project would be delivered to Swansea—not to Bristol, not to Cardiff, not to Bridgend, but to Swansea—and we want it to go to Swansea. Let us look at the developments that are happening in Swansea at the moment. There is the SA1 project and the new university campus out at Briton Ferry. These are tremendous jewels in Swansea’s economic crown, and they need to be joined up. South Wales does not stop at Cardiff—brilliant city though that is. It goes way beyond that, and we need this project to be delivered.
I agree with the hon. Member for Gower’s primary point that we need to get the electrification completed, but I hope that he would agree with me that we need to
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get it done promptly and on time, without the delays that we have been talking about. We have now been told that it is to be put back into control period 6. For those who do not know what that means, control period 6 is between 2019 and 2024, which would mean that the project would not be completed at the same time as the rest, around 2018. So in effect, Christmas will come late for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and for mine. We are going to have to wait for our Christmas presents, and that is not good enough. His constituents are not second-class citizens of this nation and neither are mine. Let us have this project on time, at the same time as everybody else. I know that he agrees with me on this.
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point. Does he agree that it would be far better if these large infrastructure development projects started in Swansea as opposed to starting in London? If they started in Swansea, you can guarantee they would arrive in London on time and in budget.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I would certainly be reasonably happy with that. I would probably start them from Bridgend and work outwards in both directions, but starting from Swansea would be a good second option.
I was talking about connectivity with the Great Western rail line, and the necessity of delivering the Heathrow link has been mentioned in this regard. Come what may in terms of capacity expansion at Heathrow, that link needs to be made. The journey from South Wales to Heathrow is preposterous at the moment, and that link needs to be delivered. Again, it would provide a major economic boon. It is not only business people who say this—although they do, repeatedly; it is also commuters. It is also myself. I fly from Cardiff and from Bristol, and I also fly from Heathrow. These preposterous patterns of travel need to be remedied, and that needs to be done quickly. These plans have been sat on for years and years.
The hon. Member for Gower has said that the electrification plans are good, but they must be delivered on time. The Welsh Government have made it clear, as have other parties in Wales, that we are holding this Government to their original commitment of delivering it on time and on budget. I would ask the Minister to ensure that, when this is done, full discussions are held with the communities along the routes about the related infrastructure developments that would really benefit those communities. I will give the House an infamous example, from my own constituency. The lovely town of Pencoed still has a traditional level crossing, and it is one of the busiest in the land. It is right in the centre, next to the cenotaph and the shops. When we march there on Remembrance Sunday every year, we have to time our marches to take account of what can be a 15-minute wait while the level crossing is closed. Of course, that happens every day of the week, not just on Remembrance Sunday.
If we have this major investment that will require not only electrical infrastructure but raising the height of bridges and making major structural changes in different communities, I would love to meet the Minister, with Mel Nott from the local authority and the town council, to discuss how we can all work together to get rid of the level crossing and upgrade the bridge which is only half a mile or less up the road, so that we can get two lanes of traffic over it. That would allow us to solve the problem
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the level crossing causes, as well as drive electrification all the way down the line. Perhaps the Minister would invite me to meet her, along with a small delegation, because we think we can bring something to the table—the town council can, as can the county borough—and we can make this work for those communities as we drive electrification through.
My final point on electrification goes back to one made by the hon. Member for Gower, who represents constituents at the end of the main spine of the line. In case Ministers are confused, I should say that it does not finish there; it goes way beyond that, up into west Wales. For the purpose of this project, however, Swansea is regarded as where the Government originally said they would deliver electrification to. We are not talking about hybrid electrification—half diesel, half electric—variations or something that is late, but about electrification on time.
Regardless of that, at the moment we have been told that because of the delay we have no clear costings—to my knowledge, they have not been done—no clear start date, and thus no certainty. My worry is that this will drift, so I want some more clarity from the Minister today. I would love her to say that this is going to start between 2019 and 2024 and to give a date for delivering the full costings, so that we have a little more certainty that even though this is drifting, it is not drifting into the back of beyond. This is a great project. I wish all south-west Members, including the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones)—we stare at each other across the Severn estuary or the Bristol channel from our glorious coastlines—well in their aspirations for their areas. But my area needs electrification on time and on budget, so that we can link up all the other things we have been talking about in a cohesive infrastructure for south Wales and on to west Wales.
Several hon. Members rose—
Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say that there is something strange going on this evening? Each of the previous three people who have spoken in this Chamber has used the word “you” in reference to other people. It is not just one person—everyone is doing it. I have been reluctant to intervene and I try to not to, but after three times I must point out to the Chamber that when the word “you” is used, it means the Chair. If you are asking the Minister to do something, you ask “the Minister”. I call Oliver Colvile.
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Thank, you for calling me in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will try very hard to do that. I hope that if I do make a mistake, you might forgive me. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this debate. Obviously, he has something more important than I have, because I have tried for five years to get a debate on the future of the railway down to the south-west and have always failed; he obviously has something more alluring and has therefore delivered. Also, let me say that I hope I will not get accused of being a fat controller at the end of my speech. [Hon. Members: “No!”]
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Last week, we had the unwelcome second anniversary of the Dawlish line being swept into the sea, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) has pointed out. That was a huge wake-up call to the Government and to all of us in the south-west region. Interestingly, we have all worked together to make one common cause: to make sure that the Government understand the importance of this issue. If there is one thing we have been successful in doing, it is in ensuring that we have spoken with one voice, as have done this evening. We need only look at what happened today, when trains on the line out of Cornwall were once again delayed, because of the appalling weather and the three trees that fell on to the line at Bodmin, to see how fragile our railway line is. As chair of the all-party group on south west rail, I am fighting, alongside my fellow Devon and Cornwall MPs, for better train and other transport links to the region. I have campaigned for that over the past 15 years, initially as a Conservative candidate and more recently as the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport.
Neil Parish: This is very much about the resilience of infrastructure into the west country, because we have not only the Great Western line but the Waterloo to Exeter line, where we could make big improvements by, for example, using loops around Honiton. We could also open Seaton Junction and bring back the trams to meet the service. This is also about carrying on from Exeter down into Cornwall with a second line, because although it is absolutely right to keep the Totnes and Newton Abbot line, we need that second line so that we have resilience. We seem to be having more and more bad weather, so the first line will get blocked and we have to have a second route into Cornwall.
Oliver Colvile: My hon. Friend is 100% right about the need to have that second line. My personal preference is for it to go through Haldon Hill, as that would be ideal, but I understand that it may be too expensive. We therefore need to make sure that we have one that has the potential to go through Okehampton and Tavistock, purely because we have to make sure there is increased capacity and we can put freight on the line, too.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot said, two years ago the line at Dawlish was washed away, and for the following six weeks there were no trains west of Dawlish to the biggest conurbation west of Bristol—Plymouth. Having lost our airport and our trains, the only way anyone from Plymouth could get to London and the midlands was by using the partially dualled A303 and the M4 and M5—we are talking about the only single dual carriageway at the moment. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to dualling the whole of the A303. I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), would like to see it go through the Blackdown hills as well, but I may be being too greedy in that.
In the aftermath of the Dawlish disaster, the Prime Minister visited the Laira depot in my constituency, and I was very reassured to hear today, when I met people from Great Western Railway, that the company is going to be seeking to make full use of Laira and it is not going to be closing. The Prime Minister’s persistence ensured that the orange army worked tirelessly to fix the line before Easter 2014, which of course was the start of the tourist season. This time last year, the Prime Minister
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met my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), the chairman of the local enterprise partnership and the leader of Plymouth City Council, and he warmly supported the setting up of the Peninsula Rail Task Force to undertake research into what needs to happen to deliver a resilient railway line. Although I understand that much progress has been made, I was slightly dismayed to learn two weeks ago that Network Rail did not have the money to deliver on the research into journey times and electrification. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to help me on that this evening and make sure that that work happens.
Last Monday, nearly all my fellow Devon and Cornwall MPs met the Chancellor and set out our concerns. We were all elected on a promise to try to make sure that we could deliver a decent railway line to and from the west country, and to improve other transport links. I am very grateful that he met us at such short notice and that he understands what our peninsula’s needs are. On Tuesday, we met the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry)—we hope she is soon to be our right hon. Friend—who is both responsible for rail and a south-west MP. She told us she would do everything she could to find the £300,000 for this work, and I am delighted that it seems she is going to be able to find that for us.
Let me remind the Minister what we in Plymouth and the far west want. She may be bored with hearing this, but I have been saying it for the past five and a half years and I am going to say it one more time. We want more three-hour train journeys from London to Plymouth and vice versa; and we want trains getting into Plymouth from London before 9 am, so that business people can do a full day’s work in Plymouth. We are the largest urban conurbation west of Bristol—bigger even than that in Wales—and it is important that we be an economic motor to deliver the growth that my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot talked about.
Never again must Plymouth and the far west be cut off from the rest of the UK. I was delighted when the Transport Secretary came to Plymouth before the general election and announced we would get the new high-speed Hitachi AT300 trains in 2018. It was very positive news. I am concerned, though, that it could be subject to further delays, given that the electrification to Newbury is delayed and over-budget. If I have got that wrong, perhaps the Minister will correct me.
We need more three-hour train journeys between Plymouth and London and more trains arriving before 9 am; we need to straighten the tracks and improve the signalling between Totnes and Cornwall; and we need an additional line to the one at Dawlish so that never again can the far west be cut off. Plymouth can only play a significant part in growing our economy if we have a decent transport system—and skills base. I am acutely aware, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), of the low-skills and low-wage base in our city.
In 2020, an important event will take place in Plymouth, when we commemorate the Mayflower’s leaving the city in 1620 to found the American colonies. To make that a success, people need to be able to get to Plymouth to see where that great ship sailed from.
Just in case the Opposition think they have got off lightly—as I slightly hold the Minister’s feet to the fire—I remind Labour that it does not have a particularly
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good record on delivering in the peninsula. It announced in its manifesto that it would cancel the dualling of the A358, which would move the bottleneck from Stonehenge down to South Chard. I am delighted that we are continuing with the dualling.
Without the south-west, the Government would not have an overall majority. We have done our bit to ensure a Conservative Government, whom I am delighted to support, so will they please help us deliver for them?
Peter Heaton-Jones (North Devon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) said he might be departing for pastures new. As he kindly namechecked me, may I say what a pleasure it has been to serve under his chairmanship of the Environmental Audit Committee? It has been my first experience of a Select Committee, and it has been extremely fruitful. We will miss you—I mean, we will miss the hon. Gentleman. I apologise. Ooh, I think I’ve got away with it.
Like many Members on both sides of the House, I am a regular user of the Great Western main line. I travelled up this morning. As others have said, the journey was considerably delayed, but I pay tribute to the GWR train staff, who always kept us well informed and advised. On such days, they operate in extremely difficult conditions. It can only be a challenge to deal with a lot of stroppy passengers who want to know why they are an hour late, but they performed in an exemplary fashion this morning and kept us all advised. Although we got into Paddington an hour late, that was fine.
As mentioned, faster broadband would be gratefully received. The train is a valuable opportunity to work—I had an unexpected extra hour this morning—but although the broadband works after a fashion, it is, like the curate’s egg, slightly patchy. Like the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), I choose to travel in the quiet carriage, but never has anything been so misnamed. It is certainly not always quiet. The train is a vital place of work for people on their journey from the south-west to London and elsewhere.
Mr Bradshaw: This has been suggested to me once or twice before. In my experience, if one politely asks somebody making a noise in the quiet carriage to desist or move, they do so. It is a great example of British self-policing. I recommend that the hon. Gentleman try it, if he has not already done so.
Peter Heaton-Jones: I am a shrinking violent and would never presume to do such a thing, but I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
The vital nature of this main rail link for the south-west—our major rail artery—has to be stressed again and again, but it is extraordinarily important for another reason. As others have said, not only is it a fragile link, but it complements what is, by any definition, a fragile series of road links to the south-west. On the M5 or the A303, you pays your money and you takes your choice. There are times when both are unhelpful to the travelling public. For that reason and many others, it is vital that the south-west line is resilient, as many Members on both sides of the House have said.
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Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con): As well as resilience, do we not need to get the network running smarter? For example, a great train robbery takes place every day when my constituents are robbed of 15 minutes of their lives because the train from London leaves the main line and parks in Gloucester, where the driver gets out from one end of the train and walks to the other, before the train rejoins the main line and continues to Cheltenham.
Peter Heaton-Jones: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am not aware of the particular jiggery-pokery he mentions, but it sounds like an extraordinary bit of choreography.
I have mentioned the difficulty with transport links as a whole. That is why the resilience of the south-west main line is vital. I also want to talk about the spider’s web, as others have called it. We need to ensure a good and widespread rail service across the south-west. It needs not just a spine, but ribs coming off it—to stretch the analogy to breaking point.
I am bound also to mention the vital rail link in north Devon connecting Exeter with Barnstaple. Over the years, it has survived the Beeching cuts and many other problems, including flooding and underuse, and now it has turned a corner. The number of passengers using it is growing almost exponentially. It used to be used primarily in the summer months. Indeed, at some points, it is still signposted with signs of the brown tourist variety, which rather gives the impression of its being a quaint Puffing Billy line, which it is not. It is a vital artery, and if we can improve it, we will improve the economic vitality of north Devon.
The fantastic work of the Tarka Rail Association in promoting and operating the line has helped to drive its increased use, so I was delighted when, just three weeks ago, I arranged for the chairman and me to meet my hon. Friend the rail Minister. We had an extremely productive hour-long meeting at which we discussed the importance of the north Devon main line, as we are hoping to rechristen it. I hope that my hon. Friend will refer to that in her comments. Having these ribs off the spine are absolutely vital if we are to ensure that we have a rail service that is truly of use to the maximum number of people in the south-west. It is of particular importance to north Devon because of tourism.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I feel like an intruder in this debate, as I do not represent a south-west constituency. However, I was at Exeter university and I regularly visit north Devon. I absolutely concur with his point about the Barnstable line. A key thing that is needed is enhanced rolling stock. Very often what is in use is a single carriage train, which is woefully inadequate. I hope that when the Great Western franchise comes up in a few years’ time, proper consideration will be given to procuring better rolling stock for that line.
Peter Heaton-Jones: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am delighted to welcome him to beautiful north Devon. The rolling stock is an essential matter, as it has been left to decay to the point that it is only just fit for purpose. I have held a significant number of meetings with the operators, GWR, Network Rail and the Tarka Rail Association and we have discussed at length the importance of acquiring significant new rolling stock. I am delighted to say that we now appear to have reached
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a position where there will be a “cascade” of rolling stock. I would rather not use the phrase “cast-off” that was previously used, because I want to strike a more positive note. We will have a cascade of—almost—21st century rolling stock coming towards us for that line.
Huw Irranca-Davies: May I take this opportunity to stress the importance of access for wheelchair users? My friend Simon Green from the Bridgend Coalition for Disabled People stresses that, very often, in railway carriages there is space for only one wheelchair, so two people travelling together have to be split up. It would be great if we looked at the possibility of different variations in the new rolling stock.
Peter Heaton-Jones: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I have travelled on the north Devon line between Barnstable and Exeter, and, quite often, there is no room at all for a single wheelchair user, which is why we need to get this new rolling stock cascaded to us as soon as possible.
Let me turn away from the specifics of the north Devon line to the Great Western main line, which is a vital artery for the south-west. We have talked a lot about the resilience of the line. We absolutely rely on that single rail line to provide us with a transport artery to the south-west. When incidents occur, such as the one in Dawlish, the effects are devastating. Even though people who come to north Devon often jump off the line well before Dawlish—like me, they usually get off at Tiverton Parkway—the fact is that when we have the sort of incident that happened at Dawlish, the whole of the south-west and all the constituencies represented by Members here are affected. We need to ensure that we have the resilience of that line sewn up for the future, which means addressing the difficulties at Dawlish. The right hon. Member for Exeter made the point that the cliffs on one side of the line are just as much a problem as the coast, on the other side of the line. I have seen for myself that that is a problem. We also need to consider this second line—the Okehampton route—that will start to open up a vital northern corridor. I have an interest in such a route, as I represent north Devon.
The flooding issue is also of significance. As I came up on the train this morning, I saw how close the line was to the Somerset levels. Then there is the electrification issue. I absolutely agree with Members from all parts of the House that we need to speed up the process of electrification of the line. I am delighted that it is planned to go through to south Wales, but we need to ensure that we get it down to the south-west.
I add a note of concern here: if we get no significant movement on this until control period 6—in other words starting in 2019—we will be pushed back to the end of the queue. I hope that the Minister can give us some positive news in this regard. In particular, I hope that she can provide us with some reassurance on these two feasibility studies into the resilience and the electrification of the line, which have been mentioned a few times already. Without going into all the do’s and don’ts of who said what, of where the money was coming from, and of whether it was cut from point A or from point B, the fact is that we need a relatively small amount of money to undertake those two vital reports, and they really need to be done. I hope that, when the Minister gets to her feet at the end of the debate, she will have some positive news for us. One cannot stress too much how important it is to have those two studies done.
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Let me briefly mention the Peninsula Rail Task Force and the excellent work it has done. Its 20-year plan certainly bears reading and taking seriously, because it has a vision for the rail line that we in the south-west deserve.
As has been mentioned, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor came down to the south-west on a number of occasions. They came to my constituency—to Saunton in the case of the Chancellor—and announcements and promises were made and ambitions mentioned. They talked about investment for the south-west rail line. I feel sure that, when the rail Minister gets to her feet, she will be able to reassure us that those promises will be delivered. It is vital for all of us in north Devon and the wider south-west that we have a resilient, fast and efficient rail service.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I am sorry that I had to miss parts of the debate, but I was rehearsing with the Parliament choir. I was trying very hard to be in two places at once and, as usual, failed.
I really welcome this debate. I know, because I have heard reports about the speeches that have already been made, that the focus of the debate has not included the commuter service provided on the Great Western railway. I urge the Minister to respond to the issues relating to the passengers who commute on those routes. If we look at passengers in excess of capacity on a typical autumn week day by operator, we will see that Great Western Railway exceeds all other companies, not because of the long-distance services that we have heard about, but because of the chronically overcrowded commuting services provided on the railway. On an average day, there are something like 1,000 people in excess of capacity in the three most overcrowded trains on the rail line, and 30% of the 10 most overcrowded trains are on the Great Western main line. There is a serious problem. Too often, I have been in one of those trains, with my nose pressed into the armpit of someone whose name I do not know. I find that offensive. We have standards for carrying animals on lorries, but we do not have standards for carrying humans on trains. The Great Western commuter rail service is, on many occasions, quite disgusting for passengers, and we have to do more than adapt a few carriages that were used to feed people—we have given that up—by putting in a few more seats. We need to do more to provide sufficient stock for the commuter service to serve the people who depend on it.
The Thames valley is the most productive region of our country. It makes more profit per worker than any other part of Britain. We need to make sure that those people can get about. My constituency—I often say this in the House, and I am sure Members are bored of hearing it—has more European headquarters of multinational companies than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together, because Slough is really easy to get to. It is really easy to get from Slough to Heathrow, to London, to the west country, or up the A40 to Birmingham, or along the M3 and around the M25. It is a well-connected town, which is why we are successful in drawing investment into Britain. I am not competing with other towns in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland particularly; Slough tends to compete with cities in Europe.
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When I talk to companies about the issues that impact on their profitability, they say that they want to be confident that Heathrow has a secure future and they want to reach it more easily. The best way to do so is by rail. I persuaded the previous head of the Berkshire local enterprise partnership to do some research, over 10 years ago, on what companies in the Thames valley spent on taxis to Heathrow. The figure was £10 million a year. If that money was spent not on taxis going to Heathrow on the excessively congested M4 but on a train service to Heathrow, those companies would have a more reliable journey that did not depend on what was happening around junction 5, 6 or 7. They would not face overcrowding on the M4. We are going to get smart motorways, but with hard-shoulder running, if there is an accident, it takes longer to get round it. At the moment, they have serious problems using that route properly.
I have a feeling about how the Department for Transport works. It can do only one thing at a time. It looks down a little tunnel, saying, “This is my project.” Its project at the moment on my bit of the railway is creating a train park for the Heathrow express, which I would rather not have. The Minister has been helpful on some of these issues, but the failure to put a foot on the accelerator of western rail access to Heathrow is truly foolish, given the impact not just on this bit of railway but on the national economy. If the project had as much energy behind it as other rail projects it would attract significant inward investment. We are failing to attract that investment and are failing to create the jobs that would inevitably follow better connectivity for Heathrow because no one is pushing this forward.
I was concerned that we would not get the project done by 2018, which was the first chimera of western rail access to Heathrow, but then it was pushed back to 2020. Now it looks as though it might be done by 2023 or 2024. I suspect that the project will probably not be completed until we have the additional runway, but we need it before then.
I urge the Minister to set someone—one of her nice tunnel-vision civil servants—to focus their tunnel vision on Western rail access to Heathrow. I promise that companies in this country are desperate for it and they will back it. Perhaps she needs a bit of private investment. I had a meeting some years ago with officials in her Department and one of them said, “We’re spending blah million”—I cannot remember how many—“per month on the airport.” I looked around at the company representatives who had come with me, whose companies were spending that much per month on their own development.
The time has come to ensure Western rail access to Heathrow. It does not need complicated consultations because most of it is on the existing rail line and the rest of it is in a tunnel, so there is nothing to delay the project. This Minister, whom I admire, would forever be in my glory books if she would make sure that somebody put the accelerator under this project. At present, her Department is failing and letting down the Thames valley and the whole of the south-eastern economy as a consequence.
Several hon. Members rose—
Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. There is no need for a time limit in this debate as we have plenty of time, but when we have plenty of time, speeches and interventions tend to expand, so it would be helpful now if Members would take around 12 or 13 minutes, which is a long, long time.
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Johnny Mercer (Plymouth, Moor View) (Con): You will be delighted, Madam Deputy Speaker, to know that my speech will be very brief indeed.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing this debate. I shall not repeat what has already been said. I am going to disappoint my father again—I am no railway engineer. He dragged me round, trying to introduce me to the lost art of trainspotting when I was a young man, but it never caught on.
I want to talk about why the rail connection is important to my city, Plymouth, and why we as a Government need to get it right, to deliver for that part of the world. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). For much of the time we have a remarkable service, though there are some serious challenges to be faced. We must rise to the challenge of severe weather, without denigrating everything we have already achieved. That would do us a disservice.
Almost two years ago exactly, the Dawlish rail disaster happened. The railway fell into the sea, cutting off my city, as has been mentioned. The idea that the Government have done nothing since then is one of the myths in the literature from the Opposition that is piling up in my office. In the past two years, £70 million has been invested to keep that railway open and to increase resilience generally in the south-west. That is not an insignificant sum. We have that resilience at Dawlish. Admittedly, it sometimes faces challenging weather, but the weather may be a little beyond our control.
I urge the Government not to heed the divisive words of those who seek to further their own personal agenda in this rail debate. Many of us in the south-west feel that we have had investment to a point, but we now need to go to the next level. Let me explain why that is important. As I said, I am no rail engineer, but I am an extremely mediocre politician. That gives me the opportunity to knock on people’s doors in Plymouth and hear what is important to them. People often ask me why, despite our history in Plymouth and our astonishing Janner spirit that has seen us conquer the seas and make the largest contribution to this country’s defence in matériel and men, and despite reviving ourselves spectacularly after a devastating blitz during the second world war, we still have in our city some of the most deprived communities in the United Kingdom. The reasons are many, and clearly far too varied for this debate, but the answers are part of it. We must address the life chances we give people in Plymouth. If we were to cross a particular bridge in Plymouth tonight, we would see the average life expectancy drop by seven and a half years—that is seven and a half years in my city.
We must aggressively fight our way out of the state dependency that has dominated our city since the heady days of the 1980s, when 35,000 Plymothians worked at the dockyard. As the economy and society have changed, we as a city have changed with them; the central economy based around the dockyard has given way to a bright, positive and emboldened city that has become a hub for small businesses and start-ups, driving an astonishing 48% drop in unemployment in the last Parliament.
We have two world-class universities, but they are further from an airport than any in the UK. Marjon University is ranked first in this country for social mobility, which is
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really important in Plymouth. We as a Government must do everything we can to assist its onward development in that respect.
Kevin Foster: My hon. Friend is making some powerful points, which also relate to my constituency, where we, too, are trying to diversify. Does he agree that that is what makes the debate so important, particularly given the comments by the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) about the need for western access to Heathrow, which acts as the south-west’s key air link?
Johnny Mercer: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At its heart, this is about developing opportunities and bringing skilled employment to places outside London—to communities that have been deprived for so long.
Plymothians have adapted to the challenge of modern Britain in a way that only they can—with a positivity and a spirit that make some of us proud to call Plymouth our home. However, we as a Government must now play our part in that revival and tackle the single totemic issue that will fuel this onward journey towards a better, more prosperous and more healthy Plymouth. The biggest, most rewarding and highest-pay-off issue the Government could get right in the next five years is this railway. The jobs, the opportunities for our young people and the skilled manufacturing opportunities will come only if we have a transport link that is resilient, fast and befitting of a 21st century Britain. I say again that this is the totemic issue for this Parliament for us in the south-west.
At the last election, Plymothians showed their true colours and, for the first time, elected three Conservative Members of Parliament. Plymothians have aspirations, and they want life chances, and we need to do everything we can as a Government to enable them to achieve those and to provide them with the ladder, so that we can bring my city forward and enable it to achieve the potential it so clearly has. The rail link is the single thing that will do that to the greatest effect.
Scott Mann (North Cornwall) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for bringing this debate about.
I would like to talk for a few moments about my experience with the Great Western railway and about how beneficial the railway has been. I was not previously a huge user of the railways, having not travelled from north Cornwall to London that much. However, I use them regularly now, because I have to travel up to London and back twice a week. For me, the best part of the week, as the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) mentioned earlier, is getting back on the train at Paddington. I use the sleeper train, and I would urge him to use it as well; there is nothing better than leaving London at midnight and waking up in God’s country, in the south-west, at six o’clock before going back to work on Friday morning. It is an excellent service.
I represent a constituency that is barren in terms of its railways. North Cornwall has no branch railway links. The south-west saw huge reductions under Beeching’s cuts, and North Cornwall lost stations in Bude, Launceston, Padstow and Bodmin, which served the original Great
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Western railway. I pay tribute to the Peninsula Rail Task Force, which has worked tirelessly in the south-west to attempt to deliver a plan for the south-west. In recent days, we have seen that plan and presented it to the Chancellor and to the Transport Secretary. I hope that later we will hear some positive announcements regarding the funding for that plan.
We have also seen in recent days how groups of MPs can join together and work for a region. Today we had the example of the securing of the local government funding settlement and the increase for rural areas, which has been hugely beneficial to residents in Cornwall, and I am grateful for that. We have a rather seamless tide of blue in the south-west, and it would be beneficial for us all to work together to try to get the best we can for our region. The Great Western Railway franchise, or First Great Western as it used to be called, has had a significant presence in Cornwall. In the past, other operators such as Virgin, CrossCountry and Wessex have come and gone, but trains operated by FirstGroup have served the Cornish people for many years. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for her continued support for the train network in the south-west and for recently agreeing to meet us.
We noticed how resilient Cornwall and Devon can be when we saw the events in Dawlish in 2014. Those events cannot be ignored. Dawlish is a fantastic place to pass on the train—it is one of the best advertisements for the south-west. For any Members who have not ridden through Dawlish on the train, if you look over to the left-hand side, you can see a huge amount of sea and swell. That is exactly what the south-west is about—it is coastal, it is rugged—
Johnny Mercer: Like you.
Scott Mann: Thank you—likewise!
Millions of people from across the world saw the scenes of the railway hanging into the sea at Dawlish. At that time, we were reliant on the one arterial road that comes into Devon and Cornwall, and that was difficult. We saw the orange army out working—they did a huge job for us, and I am very grateful—but I feel that we should explore other opportunities and other branch lines that might well help us out. An Okehampton link on the line from Exeter to Plymouth would be viable, and it would bring benefits to tourism not just in North Cornwall but in the area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) and in other parts of the region. I am sure that Great Western Railway would welcome the opportunity to serve more stations and facilitate the return of trains to North Devon. That would help thousands of people right across North Cornwall and North Devon, many of whom have to travel huge distances to access trains.
I might be the only speaker in the Chamber this evening who does not have a branch line running through their constituency, and I would very much like one, so I am going to make another case—for a Bodmin central branch line. There are only two standard-gauge railway stations in North Cornwall, both of which are served by the Bodmin and Wenford steam railway, which runs to Boscarne and is fantastic. However, Bodmin Parkway is located about five miles outside the town centre, which means that it is not easily accessible if there are roadworks or problems on the roads. I would therefore like a proper
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dedicated mainline link to be implemented between Bodmin Parkway and Bodmin General. The steam trains do a great job in the summer, but we need a 365-day-a-year link. I would welcome Great Western Railway considering putting in a link to connect Bodmin town up to Bodmin Parkway.
Kevin Foster: Does my hon. Friend agree that what he is saying about where train services could be developed shows the latent demand in the south-west region, particularly on the peninsula, for the creation of additional services not just on the Great Western Railway route but through the further extension to Okehampton of the old Southern route that still exists between Exeter and Waterloo?
Scott Mann: I do agree. The more branch services we get, the better. Our public transport system in Cornwall and Devon is not great, and we struggle to provide sufficient bus services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View said, if we make these investments, that will drive jobs and drive the economy in our areas.
I thank the Minister for the investment that has already gone into the south-west, including in the points systems in Penzance, the new bimodal Hitachi trains, which will be ready for use by 2018—that is a fantastic investment and we are grateful for it—and the sleeper trains. I talked earlier about being rocked to sleep on the sleeper trains, which are a fantastic service. A gentle relaxation and a rocking to sleep is a lovely feeling, and it takes six and a half hours to get from Paddington to Bodmin Parkway, so I look forward to those sleeper trains coming online.
The bimodal trains will reach Cornwall faster, so we could do with them. It is also imperative that we look at electrification and line speed improvements. I know that is not going to happen overnight, but I would like the Minister to consider it. The sleeper train is an integral part of south-west connectivity. With the region being three to six hours away from London, night sleeping is important because it means you can have a restful night’s sleep and then get to work first thing on a Friday morning.
I thank the hon. Members for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who is no longer in her place, for raising the Heathrow proposals. For me, Heathrow is not a London issue; it is a countrywide issue. Linking up areas such as the south-west means faster journey times to Heathrow and it connects us to onward travel. I am grateful to the hon. Members for pointing that out. In 20 years’ time, we could be living in a region that has direct flights from Newquay to Heathrow, and direct trains from the region to Heathrow. People from Cornwall could then fly to Heathrow in an hour, and people in east Cornwall and Devon could hop on an electric GWR service and alight at Heathrow in under three hours.
Johnny Mercer: I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend’s stories of rocking the sleeper to sleep, or whatever it is. Does he agree that in order to upskill our part of the world and change the character of the south-west economy, it is fundamental that we attract bigger manufacturing companies to give our young people the skilled opportunities and skilled manufacturing jobs that will keep them in the south-west?
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Scott Mann: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Train connections have raised the wage base in other areas, and over the years the south-west has suffered from a low wage, high house price economy. Many of our young people struggle to get houses and to get on in life. If those rail services come online, businesses will invest in the south-west, which will give our young people every opportunity, which is great.
Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman is making a fine speech. I urge him to look, when he has time, at the development of the south Wales metro concept, because it covers urban and rural areas, and valleys as well as major conurbations. It is a great idea, because it relies not only on rail, but on other modes of transport that work on time and are affordable. It has a way to go, but a south-west metro concept comes to mind.
Scott Mann: I will, of course, have a look at those reports. The hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently about his valleys and the branch lines within his valleys, so I look forward to reading those reports.
In conclusion, the Great Western railway is a valuable asset to the south-west and it could be improved. Without it, the region would crumble, which is why we must make it better, faster and more resilient. Today, many of my colleagues will have been affected by the severe weather in the south-west. In fact, we have heard that four fallen trees have affected the railway service in Bodmin and around the south-west. It is quite fitting that those trains have been delayed on the same day as this debate. I am confident that the GWR franchise will continue to serve our region well, linking it to the capital, and that the Peninsula Rail Task Force and the south-west MPs will all work together for our corner of Britain and make it a better place to live, work and play.
James Heappey (Wells) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this important debate. It is important for two reasons. First, rail infrastructure in the south-west was a central part of the Chancellor’s long-term economic plan for our region. As such, it is important that we hold the Government to account in the delivery of that plan. Secondly, the south-west as a region is, unfortunately, defined by its poor infrastructure. We have a poor road network beyond the M5, we have relatively poor broadband, and access to the national airport is difficult. We have some fantastic and growing regional airports, but still nothing on the scale of those in other regions. Our rail network is only one line deep, and that line, not too long ago, was washed into the sea. That shows just how vulnerable we are. Moreover—although the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) made the point that broadband could be better integrated into the rail service, I will exclude broadband from what I say next—our roads, our rail and our airports are poorly integrated. Not only are they individually bad, but collectively they do not create a particularly well joined-up network. That adds to our woes as a region.
My remarks come under two headings: the inter-regional and the intra-regional. On the first, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay was noble in resisting the temptation to compete with other regions, but I believe that the important thing is how the south-west fares against other regions, and therefore where the region should be
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in the Government’s priorities. It takes one hour and 42 minutes—give or take—to go from London to Bristol Temple Meads. That is 118 miles. On the west coast main line, we can go from London to Crewe in an hour and 34 minutes. That is 183 miles. On the east coast main line, we can go from London to York in an hour and 50 minutes. That is 215 miles. Already, our region is at a huge disadvantage relative to other regions, because of the speed of access into the south-west. The new Hitachi bimodal trains will reduce the journey to Bristol to around an hour and 25 minutes, which is very welcome indeed, but our line will still be slower, mile for mile, than the lines serving the midlands, the north-west, the north and the north-east.
I make three points about that. First, I have just given for comparison the journey to Bristol, which is in the northernmost part of our peninsula where the lines are fastest, so it is, in theory, the quickest to access from London. Secondly, in other regions, huge further improvements are expected to the rail infrastructure that will accelerate journey times into those regions. While we catch up with the bimodal trains that will get us to Bristol in an hour and 25 minutes, the other regions will sprint ahead, so we will remain in the second division. Thirdly, the effect of limited electrification will be marginal. Electrification only to Bristol, or only part way down the west country line, will mean that passengers reach the end of the electric line relatively quickly, but thereafter their journey will be relatively slow. Proceeding beyond Bristol will be rather like jumping off a cliff back into the slow world of diesel trains. I fear that that will accelerate investment into the Thames valley and the M4 corridor, but not necessarily beyond Bristol and into the south-west peninsula at large.
What do we ask, from an inter-regional perspective? Clearly, our connection to London—and London Heathrow, which has been mentioned a few times—is vital. It would be churlish not to say that it is the most important connection, so it is absolutely right that it is the key aim of the Government’s rail plans for the south-west of England. It is not the only inter-regional connection that matters to the south-west, however. Our visitor economy will benefit enormously from improvements to the cross-country network, because so many of our visitors—they are very welcome indeed—come down from the midlands, the north-west and the north-east to find some sun in the west country.
Clearly, the Government have only so much cash, so what matters is the way they sequence how the cash is spent. This is rather like the debate about broadband. We talk endlessly about whether our responsibility is to deliver superfast broadband to as many people as possible or to deliver broadband just to those left without it altogether. The debate about rail in the south-west of England is very similar: do we sprint ahead with the development of high-speed rail into the north of England, when the south-west still has bimodal trains, because we can only get electrics so far down the line and thereafter have to revert to a technology not employed elsewhere? From the nodding of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), I suspect that very much the same applies in Wales, once people go beyond Cardiff. This is an opportunity for the Government to state very clearly—I shall come back to this point later—where the south-west sits in their priorities. Those priorities are very clearly demonstrated by the way in which the Government sequence the spending of cash on rail infrastructure.
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On intra-regional train networks, the Peninsula Rail Task Force has rightly received praise this evening, but there is a danger with PRTF. Its genesis lay in the difficulties we had in accessing Devon and Cornwall after the floods a few years ago, so much of the plan it has come up with addresses those difficulties. There are some benefits for Somerset in that, because the lines affected by flooding need to be made more resilient, but Somerset is an integral part of the Peninsula Rail Task Force, not just a territory to enable quicker travel down into Devon and Cornwall.
I want to plant it in the Minister’s mind that the PRTF has responsibility not only to get greater resilience in Devon and Cornwall and to look at commuter capacity in and around Plymouth and in Devon, but to recognise that within Somerset—certainly north of Taunton—the requirement is to generate commuter capacity to Bristol and Bath. When I speak to people in that part of our county, which includes my constituency, about faster rail connections, they may or may not mention London first, but many of them will certainly talk about their inability to commute by train to work in Bristol or Bath. We need to make sure that that is addressed.
I have met the Peninsula Rail Task Force, which assures me that that point is part of its thinking, but one cannot help but notice that there is no specific mention of it in its interim document. I hope that from our meetings so far, from this debate this evening and, I hope, from the Minister feeling suitably animated by this matter, more explicit mention may be made in the future, because this is hugely important to the economic development of our part of the county.
There are a number of challenges when it comes to increasing commuter capacity from Somerset up to Bristol and Bath. The arrival of rolling stock from the Thames Valley will be very welcome. However, plenty of our stations have platforms that are not quite long enough for them, and we need to address that; plenty of them do not have the car parking capacity to meet the growth in demand that I hope will come, so we need to address that; and many of them have no disabled access whatsoever, and we need to address that.
We also need to look at timetabling services better. In my last job in the military, when I was working in the Ministry of Defence, I saw how South West Trains has services coming in from Hampshire and Surrey that stop relatively frequently until Woking or Surbiton and then go straight into London Waterloo, while others stop hardly at all and then stop all the way up from Woking or Surbiton. Given that people are now willing to travel a bit further to work and that the Bristol and Bath economies are growing very fast, I wonder whether there is an opportunity to have services that stop at Taunton, Bridgwater, Highbridge and Burnham in my constituency and perhaps Worle on the outskirts of Weston-super-Mare, but then accelerate through into Bristol to deliver a journey time that encourages people to live a bit further out in Somerset.
That is hugely important for creating jobs that people in Somerset can access through this new public transport link. It is also important because one of our great problems in the south-west is that houses are very expensive—those within the Bristol and Bath commuter belt are cripplingly expensive—but accelerating commuter traffic from Somerset up into Bristol and Bath would allow people in Bristol
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and Bath to access cheaper housing in Somerset. That is a win-win, given the Government’s priorities in those areas.
Highbridge and Burnham is an interesting case, if I may be slightly parochial for a few minutes. It is the only station in my constituency—a constituency of about 750 square miles. It is on the no-man’s-land bit of line between Taunton and Bristol, which may or may not be electrified. Improving that station presents a real opportunity, given the frustrations that so many people in my part of Somerset have in accessing Bristol. More parking could be delivered. There is no disabled access whatsoever on the Taunton-bound platform when coming across from the car park, other than by going out on the road and over a bridge with no traffic lights or anything. There are huge opportunities for improvement, but because the station is in a quiet backwater of Somerset, it is too easily forgotten. The opportunity that sits there just waiting to be harnessed, which would require a relatively small amount of money, is too often overlooked. [Interruption.] I have placed it on the record now, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I will move on.
To conclude, the Government have committed a welcome amount of investment to the south-west. We now need to deliver on what has been committed. The Government made some exciting promises on rail in the south-west in their long-term economic plan. We now need to deliver. Although we recognise that the public purse is stretched, the Government need to come good on the things they said in the west country during the election campaign and make it clear that the south-west is a priority for them. We believe that the Government’s majority was made in the south-west.
The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) has left his seat, so I can say without fear of reply that the south-west benefits enormously from being represented almost entirely—bar one—by Conservative MPs. We speak as one voice on all sorts of issues, from school funding to local government funding, which we talked about here the other night, and rail, which we are talking about tonight. That one voice gives the south-west an opportunity in this place that it has not had before. We need to harness that by making sure that the Government deliver on their promises and on the things that we are so keen to see happen in our constituencies.
Our region has poor infrastructure. The road improvements that the Government have promised are very welcome. The broadband improvements that the Government have promised are very welcome. The rail improvements that the Government have promised are absolutely vital. I hope that the Minister will agree that it should be a priority to deliver them in the south-west, and that if money does not allow for things to be done at the same time, the south-west will get priority over other regions so that we can catch up with everybody else.
Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on securing this debate on an important subject. There has been many an excellent contribution. I agree with the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) that the Great Western railway is more than just a transport system; it is vital to the areas that it serves, which is why it is so important that the Government deliver on their promises on electrification and improved resilience as a matter of urgency.
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As was identified by my hon. Friend the Member for the Crown principality of Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), the recent flooding in much of the country has further highlighted the importance of ensuring that our railways are resilient in extreme weather conditions, which we are witnessing with increased frequency. Commuters on the Great Western railway know that only too well. The breach of the Dawlish sea wall in 2014 forced the closure of the line for two months, creating significant disruption. We saw the rails hanging in the air like a rope bridge. I, too, applaud the heroic efforts of the engineers and workers of Network Rail who brought the repair to a speedy conclusion.
A report published in the Journal of Transport Geography on the likely future impact of weather on trains travelling to and from the south-west predicted that up to a third of rail services could be disrupted over the next 100 years. That report, which was described by Network Rail as “key” to long-term developments, underlines the importance of improving resilience in the region.
The Labour party agreed with the Prime Minister when he said that the Government “needed to find answers” because the Dawlish disaster of 2014 “must not happen again”, but his rhetoric has yet to be matched by action. Despite it being said that “money is no object”, the Peninsula Rail Task Force—we have heard a lot about that this evening—has been examining how to improve the south-west’s rail network following the storm damage, but is currently unable to complete its final report because funding is unavailable.
In a letter to the Secretary of State, Tim Jones, chairman of the Devon and Cornwall Business Council, said that the south-west would be at a “severe disadvantage” should no funding be found to complete those studies. If we are to accept what the Prime Minister told the House when he said that “money was no object”, and if we are to believe that the Government are serious about making our railways resilient to extreme weather conditions, they must ensure that funding is available to complete the report. It is of paramount importance that resilience is improved, and the Government should give their backing to the report so that the task force can get on with delivering a railway that is to be relied on come rain or shine.
A number of suggestions have been made for an additional route to Dawlish, including by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), and by Labour South West, including Tudor Evans, the leader of Plymouth City Council. However, the Prime Minister appeared to prejudge any fair assessment of the options when he backed a new Okehampton railway route as the “most resilient” alternative to the vulnerable Dawlish route, saying that the UK is a “wealthy country” that should be making long-term investments in rail, and that the Okehampton line was worth a “long, hard look”. Will the Minister guarantee that all options for an additional route in the south-west will be assessed on a fair basis? Will she also reassure the House that the funding that the Prime Minister promised will be made available, and that no decision has yet been taken on the route that an avoiding line might take?
So far the Government’s track record on delivering the Great Western main line is poor. Electrification will be delivered late and cost substantially more than initially estimated. Labour committed to electrification of the
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Great Western main line in 2009, but the estimated cost of that has escalated dramatically since Network Rail made its first assessment in 2011.
Mrs Sheryll Murray: The hon. Gentleman has criticised this Government’s track record. Will he enlighten the House about the previous Labour Government’s track record on investing in the Great Western railway line?
Andy McDonald: I will happily do so. Let me remind the hon. Lady of the pieces that we had to pick up when coming into government after the disaster of Railtrack and the deaths that were caused as a result of the privatisation of the railways. We do not want to hear any more about that—the investment was significant.
Mrs Murray rose—
Andy McDonald: I have given way. Mark Carne, Network Rail’s chief executive, told Members of Parliament in October that the estimate for the project had been £874 million in January 2013, and £1.5 billion in September 2014. He said that because of “inadequate planning”, the cost of electrification could now reach £2.8 billion.
The upgrades that were expected to have been completed by 2018 are significantly behind schedule. Under the original plan, the Reading to Didcot route should already have been completed, and routes to Oxford and Bristol were on schedule to be completed this year. Didcot is now expected to be two years late, in 2017, and Newbury and Oxford three years late, in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Bristol Temple Meads will not have electric trains until 2020, and the east-west rail link from Oxford to Bletchley is delayed until the early 2020s.
Some of those improvements have been delayed by up to four years, significantly affecting commuters who rely on the Great Western line, as well as on the towns and cities that the line serves. Progress on the Great Western electrification has been hampered by this Government putting electrification on hold after the 2010 election, and not fully confirming the project until July 2012, meaning that essential planning work was delayed. The Office of Rail Regulation has said that because a number of major enhancements were added to control period 5 at a relatively late date, several important projects were started in 2014 without being fully assessed. At the start of control period 5, £7 billion of the £12 billion of enhancement spending had not been signed off by the regulator. Calvin Lloyd, Network Rail’s head of long-term planning and funding said:
“There are cost pressures across the whole portfolio of enhancement projects, which should not be a surprise to anyone given that we did not have the level of confidence we might have wished at the start.”
It is the taxpayer, commuters and those who rely on Great Western who will suffer the consequences of poor cost estimation and poor planning. If the Great Western tracks are not electrified according to schedule, the Department will be liable to pay compensation to the private consortium that is delivering the new generation of electric intercity express programme trains. The Department for Transport is considering converting electric IEP trains so they can run on diesel, at an unclear cost to the taxpayer. They may not be able to reach speeds of 125 mph, raising fears that some journeys could actually slow down, compared with today, if electrification is delayed.
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The Government’s plans for replacing uncomfortable and inaccessible Pacer trains on branch lines in the south-west are dependent on the success of the electrification programme. If the Great Western electrification project is significantly delayed, passengers in the south-west could endure vehicles for years that the Government have, quite rightly, said are unacceptable in the north of England.
Poor planning and the premature announcement of projects have left commuters uncertain of the future of the Great Western, yet the Government were repeatedly warned that rising costs could lead to some projects being delayed or cancelled. Labour first raised problems with the Great Western main line electrification programme in May 2014, just weeks into the start of the investment period, and challenged the Government to explain which electrification projects will be delayed or cancelled as a consequence of rising costs. Those concerns were echoed by the Transport Committee, which warned in January 2015:
“We are concerned that key rail enhancement projects—such as electrification in the North and North West of England—have been announced by Ministers without Network Rail having a clear estimate of what the projects will cost, leading to uncertainty about whether the projects will be delivered on time, or at all.”
Worse still, commuters were kept in the dark by the Government throughout this period. The chief executive of Network Rail confirmed:
“In mid-March 2015, Network Rail informed the Department for Transport that decisions may need to be made in the coming months about the deferral of certain schemes.”
However, Ministers in the Department are still refusing to say whether they were informed before the election of the plans to defer major schemes. It is now clear that the agreed work could never have been delivered within the agreed budget and timeframe. Yet Network Rail, the Department for Transport and the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, signed up to the plans anyway, resulting in a great deal of unnecessary uncertainty and confusion. It is passengers and the public who pay the price for such failures, and serious questions must be asked of the Government about how such a shambles was allowed to occur on their watch.
It will be a great relief to passengers reliant on the Great Western that track upgrades will arrive late rather than never. We on the Labour Benches encourage the Government properly to examine their adequacy and the adequacy of Network Rail in budgeting, planning and delivering such programmes in future. It is those issues that should be focused on, so it is an issue of concern that Nicola Shaw, who is heading the Department’s review of the future of Network Rail, has said that privatisation of Network Rail is an option that is on the table. The Government should be asking how better to deliver major projects such as rail electrification in the future, not looking to devote time to managing yet further privatisation and fragmentation of our national rail infrastructure.
Mr Bradshaw: Is my hon. Friend aware that, according to the Financial Times, Great Western also raised objections to the possibility of privatising Network Rail, saying it would fragment the system and remove the advantage Network Rail has currently in being able to buy in bulk—and therefore cheaply—on behalf of the taxpayer?
Andy McDonald: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a matter of huge concern that the critical mass of Network Rail is now under threat from this review.
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It makes no sense whatever to break up a national network. We all remember the days of the private enterprise adventure into our country’s rail infrastructure—and the consequences that flowed therefrom. I would therefore encourage Members strenuously to resist the proposals for the privatisation of Network Rail.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing this excellent, coherent, thoughtful and wide-ranging debate. He has heard many reports, as have I, of the damage created by Storm Imogen during the day. I am just thankful that everyone is here in one piece. So far, there has been no report of injuries. I am sure we will all be thinking about what our constituents have had to deal with during the course of the day.
Let me deal with a couple of points before answering some of the outstanding questions put to me. A broad set of issues have been raised by Members and I am tempted to respond to many of them.
The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) is one of the few Labour Members, I am pleased to say, representing the south-west, but he is an assiduous campaigner on behalf of his rail users—[Interruption.] He is probably the only Labour Member representing the south-west. I am pleased to hear that he enjoys his journeys, accompanied by his bicycle, but I am disappointed that he tends to produce a tirade of misinformation and never likes to have the facts put to him.
I was interested to hear that he rebelled against his party Whip on HS2. I wondered whether he rebelled against—or at least had stern words with—shadow Ministers on issues such as the pitiful performance of the Labour Government on electrification. I know that the right hon. Gentleman was one of a revolving door of Ministers whom I had to face, but let me ask him once again—he could not answer one of my hon. Friends earlier—that at a time when we had a go-go economy and a light-touch regulatory system that was pouring money into the Treasury’s coffers, how many miles did the Labour Government electrify in 13 years? It was fewer than 10 miles.
Do you know why, Mr Deputy Speaker? In Labour’s view, the railway was not something that really mattered. The view of the Labour Government was that they could jack up the fares with the flex and have inflation-busting fares year after year. They did not invest a penny in electrification in the south-west. Here is the thing, though: they could have replaced the Pacers. Do we all remember the Pacers? Do we remember all the heat and fury from Labour about the dreaded Pacers that were carrying thousands of people around the north? Could they have replaced the Pacers in 2003-04? Yes, they could. Did they? Did they heck. Let me tell you why, Mr Deputy Speaker—it is because they do not give a stuff about transport investment. It is not important in Labour’s view, and their track record is disgraceful. Frankly, I will take no lessons whatever from the Labour party on the railways.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Exeter will also have stern words with his party about its plans to abandon the upgrade of the A358, as set out in his party’s manifesto, and about its lack of a word in support of the dualling of the A303, which is vital to
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the economy of the south-west. If he did not complain about that, which is a road so close to his constituency, I hope he would complain about his party being monetary fantasists who had no plan at all to generate a strong economy, without which we cannot invest in transport infrastructure and in vital public services. I think the whole House can agree that we will take no lessons whatever from—
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I am going to help a little bit. I am not quite sure how the A303 fits in with a rail debate on the Great Western line. I know that the Minister wants to deal with the railways. Her reputation as the rail Minister is what I want to see tonight.
Claire Perry: Far be it for me to criticise you, Mr Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.]
Mr Deputy Speaker: We both know that that is not an option.
Claire Perry: But the roads and rail investment is vital to this region.
Mr Deputy Speaker: It looks like I need to be even more helpful. If the Minister looks at the title of the debate, she should realise what it is about, and Members have tried to stick to that subject. I know the Minister has a lot to cover, and I want her to concentrate on what Members have said and on the railways. I know that that is what she wants to do, too.
Claire Perry: I will follow your excellent advice, Mr Deputy Speaker.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) made possibly one of the most impassioned speeches we have heard in the House, drawing attention to the value of this investment and what it does for the region. As for the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who made a powerful speech about the extension of the line to Swansea, I am very sad that he will—potentially—leave us in May. I hope that it has nothing to do with anyone whom he nominated for the Labour party leadership; it would be awful to think that he was disappearing on that basis. He will be much missed by many Members on both sides of the House. I have asked my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, if he will meet the hon. Gentleman, as a matter of urgency, to discuss the important infrastructure issues that he raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) was, I believe, the only Member who mentioned the vital role of freight on the railways, and he was very clear about his priorities for the constituency. I am delighted that the Laira depot, which I have visited, is being retained, because of the important jobs that it brings, although I was disappointed that he did not mention hedgehogs once. I had hoped to hear a plea for a hedgehog crossing.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones)—whom I have enjoyed meeting many times, along with Mr Mike Day—raised the possible
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opportunities on the Tarka line, which are fantastic. My door is open, and I am happy to give further consideration to his proposals.
The right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who is no longer in the Chamber—I think that she had to leave early—is another passionate campaigner for rail. Her constituency will, of course benefit from the Government’s record investment in the railway, and particularly in Crossrail. I take her point about the Heathrow spur. However, she accused my Department of having tunnel vision. Far from it: we are multi-tasking on a daily basis. We are delivering the electrification of the midland main line, the Great Western main line electrification—about which I shall say more shortly—the multi-billion-pound Thameslink programme, and Crossrail. We are delivering £38 billion of investment on the country’s railways. That is the biggest investment programme since Victorian times. However, one of the lessons that we have painfully learnt is that if we are committing money, it must be spent wisely. The hon. Lady was right to raise the Heathrow issue, and it will be delivered, but it is a question of appropriate sequencing.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer)—who is not a trainspotter, I gather—made a powerful point about the regional need for transport investment to drive entrepreneurial growth. He made the important point, which was received rather churlishly by Labour Members, that private sector economic growth drives the best improvement in life chances, particularly in a disadvantaged constituency. I was disappointed by Labour Members’ reaction to that.
Huw Irranca-Davies: In fact, the private sector has an important role to play in development and growth. However, as the Minister will know, the company that has achieved the highest satisfaction, the highest investment and the lowest bills is a not-for-profit water company called Dwr Cymru, which returns its surpluses to shareholders. Does she agree that the Wales consultation—it was launched on my birthday, 22 January—on a not-for-dividend model for the Wales and Borders franchise is a worthwhile exercise, given that it is considering a different way of delivering more value to rail users?
Claire Perry: When the hon. Gentleman becomes First Minister—which is, I am sure, his aspiration—he will have every opportunity to look at models for that franchise for the Welsh railways, because it is a devolved matter. However, I hope that he will be grateful, as I am, for the Government’s commitment of £125 million, over and above the Barnett consequentials, to ensure that electrification of the Welsh valleys is delivered. How the work is sequenced will, of course be within the purview of the Welsh Government.
As always, my hon. and, allegedly, rugged Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) spoke passionately about the potential of his constituency. He also made the important point that branch lines that create local connectivity are vital to the railway. I hope that the Peninsula Rail Task Force, about which I shall say more later—I know that there is bated breath in the Chamber—will capture some of the investment. My hon. Friend also made an important point about the sleeper service, which the Government have supported with a multi-million-pound investment. I am glad that it is rocking him to sleep every Thursday night, but it is
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also a vital way of building the tourism and business pathway down to the south-west, and I am very pleased that that work has been done.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) pointed out the importance of transport links, including road links. I am sorry that I was ruled out of order by mentioning road links earlier, so I will not mention them again, Mr Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend made a point about regional investment, and I want to assure him that this is not a zero-sum game. It is not a question of pitching the north against the south-west or the south-east. In this Government’s view, transport investment across the local, regional and national economies drives up economic growth, and economic growth delivers greater tax revenues and greater skills. That is a boat that floats the entire country higher, so if we can generate economic growth from transport investment, we will all benefit from that.
My hon. Friend made the fascinating point about regional transport around an area and talked about commuting into Bristol, where house prices can be very high. I hail from that area and I know it very well. In this regard, we would be looking to organisations such as the Peninsula Rail Task Force to help us to understand where every pound of spending can deliver maximum economic growth.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) cannot be here tonight as she is recovering from surgery, but she too has campaigned on the vital issue of regional connectivity and is working hard on proposals to put forward to the new station investment fund, to which this Government have committed another £20 million in the latest spending review. I hope that I have now mentioned everyone who has contributed to the debate.
What is going on with this line? This debate is about the future of the Great Western railway. Some people have called it “God’s wonderful railway;” others have called it the “great way round.” It is a railway that I know very well. I grew up in Bristol and I remember when the InterCity 125s came to the city. It was as though we were no longer cut off; we were finally connected. However, as many Members have pointed out, those self-same trains are still running today. Some of them have been re-patched; they have been rebranded and refreshed. They still work, and they are a tribute to their engineering, design and maintenance, but they are now old trains. In the past 20 years, passenger numbers have doubled on that line. Indeed, since privatisation, passenger journeys are at a record high, with numbers having doubled across the country.
Too many trains are overcrowded and too many paths are full. Successive Governments of all political colours—I hold my hands up here—have not taken the necessary tough decisions on railway investment. Too many difficult decisions have been ducked and, as I have said, Labour’s record on this is really nothing to shout about. However, despite the appalling economic chaos that we inherited, this Government have picked up the pieces and said, “We will invest more than £38 billion on our railways.” Moreover—if I may crave your indulgence for a moment, Mr Deputy Speaker—we will put our road investment budget on a sustainable basis, so that all our transport systems can be protected.
This is truly the most ambitious rail upgrade since Victorian times, and it is being directed at the south-west because that region is a priority for this Government.
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Good transport reduces the cost of doing business. It helps local companies to reach new markets and to grow, and it helps local people to travel to new opportunities. It helps students to travel to our wonderful universities. However, poor transport acts as a drag on growth and on social aspiration, and this Government understand the importance of rail investment in the south-west.
Powerful cases have been made tonight about the need to transform the Great Western main line. Over the next four years, the 40-year-old InterCity 125s will be replaced by reliable cutting-edge intercity express trains. I have seen them, and they are great. Along with the electrification of the fleet running on the suburban lines around London, they will deliver a 40% increase in the number of seats coming into Paddington. That is an incredible number, and it will start to deal with the overcrowding problems that we have heard about tonight. Also, journey times will be cut by up to 15 minutes, which will help to achieve some of the ambitions that have been described today. Fifty stations and 170 bridges will be improved, along with 200 miles of track and 17 tunnels, including the Box tunnel, which I have been through on a people-mover. All this work is going on.
The hon. Member for Ogden—[Hon. Members: “Ogmore.”] The hon. Member for Ogbourne—
Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab): Do you know Wales very well?
Claire Perry: I know Bristol much better than Wales. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) made an important point about electrification. I want to tell him that the commitment to electrify the line to Cardiff is absolutely baked into the new Hendy plans, and he must consider that as preliminary work towards Swansea—[Interruption.] It is difficult to get through the Severn tunnel, as he knows, but the work is going on and the gantries are in place. We have made the commitment that the electrification will continue on to Swansea the next capital period. [Interruption.] He says, “What about the new trains?” Of course the hybrid trains that we have purchased will be able to run on those tracks, so his constituents will see the journey time and capacity improvements, and those brand-new, state-of-the-art trains. I hope that he will at least be happy with that—
Huw Irranca-Davies rose—
Claire Perry: I can tell that the hon. Gentleman is not and that he is going to ask for another piece of infrastructure.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I winced only because I could feel the whole population west of Cardiff wincing at the same time as we were told that that was an interim measure to get us there. I do understand the point the Minister was making, however. Will the right hon. Lady—
Claire Perry: Hon. Lady.
Huw Irranca-Davies: She would be right hon. in my eyes if she could give the date when we will see the completion to Swansea.
Claire Perry: I am sorry, but I do not have that completion date. As the plans proceed and the work accelerates on the electrification to Cardiff, I will be happy to make sure that the hon. Gentleman is one of
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the first people to know, in whatever the capacity. I was invited earlier to choose glory, but my job is to serve—that is it.
Let us talk a little about the direct investment, as well as this Great Western line, because some people, including the hon. Gentleman, might legitimately say, “That is fine, but it just goes to Bristol and the south-west is much more than just Bristol.” Indeed, it is much more than just Cardiff, if we are talking about south Wales. What is actually happening for the south-western peninsula? Hon. Members were right to say that the south-west has sat and watched other regions pull ahead and wondered why that was happening. The south-west has vital extractive industries and some brilliant talent, but we are, in effect, cut off. Whether it was what happened at Dawlish or other transport network issues that had to prove that, the events at Dawlish were a wake-up call for so many of us. The work done on restoring that line showed that where there was a will and funding, there was a way to deliver. That is why in this Parliament the Government are investing more than £400 million directly in the rail system for this region. We are providing the class AT300 trains—the bimodal trains—which go through my constituency, too. I put my hands up: this is a great thing for my constituents, too. Those trains will provide fast, reliable journey times down to the south-west.
We have opened a new station at Newcourt, with others to come at Marsh Barton and at Edginswell, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay in the next 18 months. We are re-signalling the main line from Totnes to Penzance, which is vital. The right hon. Member for Exeter mentioned Reading station, where this Government are making a £700 million investment in untangling freight and passenger lines, so cutting a key source of delay on that line. We have overhauled the Night Riviera sleeper trains, and I am told that the new launch will be before the vital tourist season this year. We are expanding the Long Rock train maintenance site at Penzance to maintain those trains, and of course we spent £35 million at Dawlish at the time of the works, and money has continued to go into that project since, because it is not enough just to stabilise the track for now.
As we have heard over and again tonight, the challenge will be in future-proofing these lines, which are in some of the most exposed parts of the railway network. That is why £3.5 million has been spent by Network Rail on the geological analysis—on the cliff resilience analysis—to make sure that what is proposed for Dawlish works for the future. An additional £31 million is also being spent at 10 sites across the south-west, including the works at Cowley bridge, and the installation of rainfall and other monitoring. We are trying to make sure that the flooding problems we saw in 2014 do not happen again.
We have a plan for the south-west and we are determined to improve the resilience for the south-west. We also have a plan for Wales, and although the hon. Member for Ogmore may not be entirely happy with it, this Government are delivering for Wales, too. I was pleased to hear an almost universal series of comments about Great Western Railway today, which is delivering its highest ever score for overall passenger satisfaction. As has been said time and again today, it has really delivered
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at a time of tough service disruption. It is delivering 3% year-on-year increases in customer scores and it is determined to do more.
There is a No.1 question today. People have said, “Okay Minister, you have told us that this matters and clearly there is a long-term plan, but what about the resilience study?” I am delighted to assure the House that we have indeed negotiated a package that will make sure that those relatively small but important studies do go ahead, to form part of the plan that we are expecting to get from the great Peninsula Rail Task Force. I wanted to keep everyone in suspense until the last possible moment. Therefore, the GRIP 2 study—governance for railway investment projects—into line speed improvements between London and Devon and Cornwall can go ahead to establish what more can be done to bring about track and signalling improvements. That is an important but not the only part of the study. I am really excited that the Peninsula Rail Task Force will report in June with a vision for the next 20 years. That work will include the resilience questions at Dawlish and the journey time improvements we need. That is no easy task, so we should all thank the relevant parties, led ably by the chair of Devon County Council, for putting that work together.
Mr Bradshaw: I think what the Minister just said is welcome, but she used the expression, “We have negotiated a package.” How much are the Government putting on the table compared with the local authorities, which have already put quite a lot on the table?
Claire Perry: We have not been asked to put in a penny. Great Western Railway has funded the study, as part of our negotiations with it. No Government money was ever being put into these studies. We stood by to make sure the studies happened—
Andy McDonald: Stood by!
Claire Perry: No, we were prepared to backstop any shortfall, but Great Western Railway agreed to fund this small part of the overall plan. We are talking about £200,000 to £300,000, as opposed to the £3.5 million Network Rail has already spent. I hope the right hon. Member for Exeter, just for once, is going to crack a smile and welcome something. Go on! Just welcome something the Government have done. No? I think we will move on.
The Government are committed to the region, and these studies will go ahead. This is a vital region of the country for transport investment and economic growth, and I am delighted, as both a south-west MP and the rail Minister, to confirm that those studies will go ahead.
Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): This has been a fascinating couple of hours. We have managed to keep the debate on track and, as I told the Backbench Business Committee we would, to build up a head of steam behind these issues, and hon. Members will be pleased that the debate did not hit the buffers, as some suggested it might.
Leaving aside the puns, I think this has been a good debate. It was encouraging to hear that the studies would go ahead, as a key part of identifying exactly
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what needs to be done on our railway to secure it for the future. It is right that we heard the commitment that Dawlish and the Great Western main line would continue to be at the heart of the community in the peninsula. I know that the line into south Wales and Swansea is at the heart of that area and its economy, too, and I hope that people will support the motion without the need for a Division. It reinforces the importance of the network. This is not just about a transport system to get people from A to B; it is about the heart of a region that could deliver so much more with the investment that we hope will come.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House believes that the routes of the Great Western railway are not just a transport system, but the heart of the regions they serve; and calls on the Government to ensure that plans for further electrification and improved resilience of the Great Western railway routes are progressed urgently.