John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I want to talk about a number of schemes associated with such places as Colne, Skipton, Bidston, Halton, Burscough, Todmorden, Fleetwood and so on—places that I know flummox Hansard reporters, so I will give some clarification on those at a later stage.
I would like to start with a largely unquestioned truth that I think most people will buy into, which is that connectivity between centres of economic activity further stimulates whatever economic growth and activity one gets there. I am also happy to agree with anybody who suggests that growth cannot be stimulated simply through connectivity—by building a railway line or a road. A classic example in the north-west is Skelmersdale, which has an excellent motorway joining it to the rest of the world, but which still has a very poor economic performance.
In the past, in bolder days, it is true that Governments built roads to nowhere and built rail tracks that are not used. Private developers also have a sharper eye for what needs to be done. Normally, however, one connects areas on the assured assumption that people or goods will want to travel along the line of connection. In the beginning of rail, the assumptions that were made were very bold indeed. People built trains out into the wild west in the United States. They built trains through the south American jungle. I have even been on a train through a mountain in Switzerland. I am not sure that the Department for Transport would consider such a project in these days, but certainly people were very bold and imaginative. They even built train services—very good train services, at one stage—to the English coast, although they have curtailed some of those in recent years.
They were all, by and large, high-risk ventures with potentially high returns. Increasingly, as time went on, private developers got less of an appetite for that and the state was expected to shell out more to fund, subsidise and back whatever rail infrastructure was put in place. Of course, with state involvement came a gradual sense of entitlement. People feel entitled to connections, whether by road or by rail. In many parts of the country, where the rail connections have gone, they grumble and have grumbled for many decades since they departed. There is, however, an acceptance by most people that the quality of the connections, whether by rail or road, have something to do with the size of the place and how isolated it is.
In the early days of rail it soon became apparent that they had one very big competitor—roads. Roads are an obvious substitute. Certainly, in the 1940s and 1950s roads were seen as an almost lethal competitor, and so we got what we call, or might be regarded as, a managed contraction—an ill-managed contraction—under the much-defamed Dr Beeching. I say it was ill-managed because all sorts of peculiar things were done. For example, Blackpool was deprived of a railway line simply because not enough people bought tickets in Blackpool. The fact that thousands and thousands of people bought tickets in Glasgow to go to Blackpool and then return did not seem to affect the planning they engaged in then.
We have inherited that structure, which did not necessarily occur for the right reasons and not necessarily on a wholly rational basis. In turn, we have had to pick up the economic consequences that that structure gives us. Since then, clearly, there have been changes. Some changes are favourable to rail development, some not so. Recently we have seen oil prices rise and road congestion become an increasing worry to Governments of whatever persuasion, and we have seen environmental concerns move to the front of the stage. Counter to expectations—it was assumed that rail was in decline—we have seen that, despite prices, an element of overcrowding and occasional poor reliability, rail use has increased dramatically. I saw the first transport plan during the course of the previous Government, and even that predicted a decline in train use that was never fulfilled. People were genuinely surprised—I was on the Transport Committee at the time—to see that trend reverse. It did not just reverse as far as passenger traffic was concerned, but for freight traffic as well.
What has not changed significantly, or has not increased, is what I would call the rail reach—the speed with which trains move around the place and the overall capacity of the system. That is despite lobbying from groups and communities across the country. Normally, such lobbying has not been for anorak-based nostalgia schemes, but for quite modest, sensible, rationally argued enhancements—restoration of linkages, replacement of curves that had been taken out by Beeching—and in places where there is clearly some sort of demand, and where a demand case can be made. Those are not demand cases based on nostalgia, but on what people consider to be hard economic realities.
We have to ask the question why. Why, despite the increase in ridership—if I can put it like that—and despite the fact that the rail service has survived relatively intact since the days of Beeching, have we not extended anywhere at all to any great extent? That is something of a puzzle and I have tried to explain why. Several different explanations can be given. One is a belief among hard-edged planners at the Department for Transport that all schemes are necessarily based on sentiment and nostalgia, and not on a dispassionate review of the economic facts. Another explanation—this is clearly a major consideration—is the fact that in rail terms capital works are very expensive so far as signalling is concerned, particularly since privatisation. Signalling has almost become a private monopoly, and it is very hard to get the price down. If there is any kind of plan that involves alteration of signalling, we can expect the figures to increase dramatically beyond expectation.
Another reason why schemes are hard to progress is that unlike roads, the rail planning process is fairly opaque. The fragmented character of the rail industry—with Network Rail providing the track, and train operating companies with relatively short-term leases providing the railway carriages—means that people often work to short-term considerations with limited horizons. The fact that there are a number of players involved—including planning authorities, transport authorities and whoever supports the scheme locally in business terms—means that progressing a rail scheme is no easy matter. Anybody who has been associated with any campaigns of the kind I described at the start of this peroration will know how difficult it is to get all the ducks lined up. One good reason—or one bad reason—why we do not seem to get
anything to happen is that we have not actually done anything. All those schemes have remained in the pending tray for as long as I can remember, so all the fear, bias, anxiety and expectation that people have about such schemes remain exactly in place.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central, Labour)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who represents a neighbouring constituency. He talked about the difficulties of developing new railway schemes. Does he think that it is easier to make more use of the existing network, and what the opportunities are there? There is a scheme in my constituency that he is familiar with—the plan to build a new station in north Maghull. I think that he will go on to talk about the same railway line. That would be a much easier scheme, because that is a development on the existing network. The economic benefits of that should be relatively easy to attain. I wonder what his thoughts are on the cuts that the Government have pushed through, which mean that that scheme and many others on the existing network have gone.
John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
Strangely enough, and I hate to be parochial, I am not completely familiar with the scheme the hon. Gentleman mentions, even though it is close to my constituency. I will say that Governments, and Network Rail in particular, have found it quite easy simply to develop what we have, rather than extend beyond that. Certainly, in discussions I had with Network Rail in the previous Parliament, it was fairly clear that that was the mandate it was being given by Government—to sweat the assets it had, rather than do anything as venturesome as actually building a new track, or putting a new line down anywhere. What the hon. Gentleman suggests is certainly complementary to what I am suggesting, rather than the opposite.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud, Conservative)
After 13 years in which the Labour Government did not invest properly in infrastructure, I welcome and celebrate the Government delivering £45 million to redouble the Swindon to Kemble line. That is exactly the right kind of decision that will develop our infrastructure for an effective, rebalanced and powerful economy.
John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
I certainly endorse that point, which is similar to that made by Bill Esterson, about getting more value and use from the assets that we have.
I would like the Government to be bold just once in a while and to put down a piece of rail that had not previously been there—as happens in other countries—or even to restore a piece of rail. I will talk later about huge schemes such as Crossrail, which are the exception, but all I am pressing for is that the Government advance a small railway scheme—anywhere. At the moment, we have no such practice or history to look at. We know about bypasses and what happens as a result of them, but we have no idea whether restoring the Todmorden, Halton or Burscough curves will involve either the impact that the promoters believe, or some of the costs that the Government fear. We simply have not done anything.
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton, Labour)
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting case and might be getting to the point that I want to make. Is the real reason why there has been little investment in new lines over the past 30 years or so because of the methodology used for new investment? A terrific amount of investment is going into the railways at the moment, but nearly all of it is for the south-east, because the criteria used are about capacity and overcrowding, not about economic development, which is the point he was making. Does he agree that a rebalancing of the criteria of economic development and of overcrowding is needed because otherwise all the money will go to the south-east?
John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
I heartily endorse that sentiment, as well as the hon. Gentleman’s point about methodology. He makes a very good case. However, the Government are in favour of rebalancing the economy, and they accept that one of the ways of doing so is through infrastructure capital projects, particularly on something such as rail. It is sad that really big rail schemes are being progressed in the south yet very little is happening up north, apart from such necessary developments as the Manchester hub.
It is fair presumption that if we want to move people around the country, laying down metal track and then shifting people around in large, uncomfortable iron boxes need not automatically be seen as the best approach. However, if we took that presumption to its logical conclusion, it would debar any tram schemes, although in places such as Manchester they have been extraordinarily successful. Even if that presumption is in place, it has to be tested, although that rarely happens. It is contested, however, when we come to the really large schemes such as Crossrail, high-speed rail and the Thames Gateway, on which the Government seem to be prepared to proceed—most hon. Members would support that.
To be fair, the Government have looked at the area I am speaking about: restoring curves. During the passage of railways legislation under the previous Government, Tony McNulty, the then Transport Minister, let it slip that the Department for Transport was looking closely at some of the schemes to see if they had any value. The Government were taking the folders out of the cupboard, dusting them down and seeing what worked and what did not. However, since that inadvertent confession of what the Government were up to, none of the research has seen the light of day, as far as I know. There is a presumption against such development, and that presumption is not argued but insidious. It was actually contested just before the general election by my hon. Friend Norman Baker, who is now Under-Secretary of State for Transport. He expressed his support for a range of smaller schemes, some of which I have mentioned already.
Being completely fair, there is evidence that rail travel is more expensive than it looks, given that it has a hidden public subsidy, as the Minister will no doubt say at some point. However, there is rather less evidence than there used to be that empty carriages are being carried around unnecessarily. I remember Mr Darling, during his short spell as Secretary of State for Transport, calming things down by suggesting that he was going to contract the network further because parts of it were
full of carriages of fresh air. No one is saying that any more. However, a man would never lose money by betting against the Department for Transport’s dismal projections on rail use. I recently looked at some statistics that demonstrated that even branch lines, which are one of the archaic aspects of our structure, are showing increased use.
There is a case that needs to be answered. Many hon. Members during their time in Parliament make cases for specific schemes, but what happens when we question the institutional inertia on the topic and when rational people bring forward considerations? Whether or not it is because of the methodology used, which Graham Stringer mentioned, hurdles get put in place.
In the past, the Department for Transport has asked me for a business case. Sensibly, I have asked what needs to go into a business case, but the Department is completely incapable of telling me, so I do not know what a good business case should look like. There simply has never been a good business case for a project such as I am suggesting that has been accepted by the Department. Demand studies have been carried out, but they are not so much optimised as—if this is a word—pessimised. People always assume the worst-case scenario, and that if the track is laid and the trains are built, no one will use them. Prices, however, are always maximised, without any indication of how competitive they are by international standards. I point out again that if we had adopted the same approach for trams that we have for small-scale railway infrastructure development, we would never have got a tram scheme off the ground.
If the Department for Transport puts in place the demand and the business case hurdles yet enthusiasm is still not dimmed, it is normally then suggested that the obvious way to promote the scheme would be under some local funding solution. However, there is always an underestimate of what a hard ask that is. Promoters of any substantial scheme would certainly have to talk to local councils to get them lined up, as well as dealing with passenger transport authorities and regional development authorities, when there were such organisations. All such organisations, by and large, have erratic, on-off funding streams. Their strategies have been revised over recent years and then changed again. The demands made of them have also changed, and even the labels of the organisations have changed, given that PTAs became integrated transport authorities. They are subject to changing mandates and central directives, some of which come from the Department for Transport. The promoters are then expected to pull all those organisations together and to work with national bodies such as Network Rail, which are also subject to prescriptions from the Government and the Office of Rail Regulation. Granted, Network Rail is more approachable than the disaster that was Railtrack, but it is still hard to deal with it. Had doing so been easier, we would have got to the yes-or-no stage for a scheme before now. What actually happens is that most schemes exist in limbo—they are simply around; neither in nor out, and neither done nor not done. Periodically, there are outbursts of activity in connection with them, but nothing that would represent substantial progress.
We can ask whether that is a problem, because no progress means that no money is spent, which means that no money is lost. People have a horror of losing
money on railway schemes—of spending money futilely. We can look with equanimity on an unused road, but an unused railway is a different proposition. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton that this does matter. If any such schemes represent economic opportunities missed, they are largely economic opportunities missed in areas that need them: in the north, and outside the south-east and the London area.
Not to progress such schemes leaves in place a transport structure that, post-Beeching, does not make much sense, would never have been designed like that, and has been vandalised. Investigation of such schemes and why some people are keen advocates of them shows that they were often attempts to deal with a huge transport anomaly in their area. The third reason for requiring clarity is that while schemes remain in limbo, the land is preserved, the track bed is kept, and the aspiration and hope is retained—but for what, if there is no case for implementing them?
Many post-Beeching schemes that are still alive and kicking today are not based on pure nostalgia, and there is normally not a case for never implementing them, but there is also no clarity about when all the boxes for implementing them will be ticked. The situation is strange and Kafka-like, and we cannot get out of it. The Government have been honourable and clear in saying that such schemes are off the books for four years, although I understand that some are an exception, but while they are in that strange transport limbo we may be missing serious economic opportunities that we should investigate to a conclusion.
I want to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton about the London parallel. The Chair of the Select Committee on Transport constantly recites figures—they elude me for the moment—on how much is spent on transport in London compared with elsewhere.
John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
I suggest that the ratio is 10:1, and perhaps an hon. Member will correct me if I am wrong. I speak with some bitterness, because I spent two years discussing the Crossrail Bill. Its Committee stage was one of the longest in the past 50 years, and it was pure endurance, but one could not help being impressed by the scale of what was being attempted, although there were days when one thought there were better uses for one’s time. It is an engineering marvel, and will link the bankers of Canary Wharf with their planes at Heathrow. I am not against that, but London is already probably the best connected capital in the world, and it already has a tube and bus network that is the envy of every other city in the UK. I genuinely doubt whether London’s contribution to UK plc will be massively affected whether or not we build Crossrail on the most expensive real estate on the planet, with all that is involved. If the bankers of Canary Wharf, like their Venetian counterparts, are forced to take a vaporetto along the Thames, life would not be greatly worse for the nation or the economy.
Theresa Villiers (Minister of State (Rail and Aviation), Transport; Chipping Barnet, Conservative)
I cannot help intervening. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the coalition has embarked on the biggest programme of rail capacity expansion in modern history, which includes significant projects in
the north of England, not just electrification, but most recently the announcement that the Ordsall chord scheme has had the go-ahead? That will provide significant benefits for people living in cities throughout the north of England.
John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
I am not saying that the Government have done nothing. I am saying that, like all Governments previously, they have in the pending tray schemes on which they have reached no rational conclusion or that have not been investigated thoroughly, and many of them are in the north-west. Even taking into account the investment in the north, which I welcome, applaud and wholly support, the proportion of that investment—the Minister may contradict my figures later—compared with the proportion anticipated for London, including Crossrail and the Thames Gateway, does not chime with the general drive to rebalance the economy.
I accept that there is a problem with overcrowding in London. Anyone who travels on the Northern line at certain times of day will testify to that. However, that is largely because London’s population is always swelled by the enormous number of people coming here every day by train, not because they cannot do business elsewhere, but because getting into and around London is already quite easy for business purposes. It is not easy absolutely, but it is easy compared with many other places.
Anyone who takes a few cross-country journeys by rail, such as from Reading to Liverpool or somewhere that is not on the London axis, knows how difficult they are. Although there has been investment in the north, we often have regurgitated rolling stock that the south-east does not want or has finished using. The bulk of the new rolling stock is coming to the Thames Gateway and the London area, but in Lancashire—the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton will agree—we have the most appalling, aged rolling stock rolling up and down the northern line with no immediate improvement in sight. We have not gone as far as I would like in doing something about regional inequality in transport investment. If I transpose in my mind any of the schemes to which I have alluded and imagine them happening in London and the south-east, I conclude that they would take less time.
The Burscough curve is my scheme of first preference. There are two stations, half a mile apart, in a growing, substantial dormitory town. Trains of two major franchises cover two city regions: Merseyside and Preston, as well as central Lancashire. Those two conurbations have been identified as being poorly linked by transport, but linking those two city regions requires only half a mile of track. If that were the case in Southwark, Kensington, Walthamstow, Richmond or the Thames Gateway, I have no doubt that it would have been funded and done years ago. Colleagues may play the game for themselves with their own pet schemes. What is a no-brainer in London is often a half-century campaign elsewhere.
A simple example with which some hon. Members will be familiar is the snarl-up between freight traffic from the docks and passenger transport trains from Liverpool Lime Street station. That went on for a long time, and arose simply because of the failure to put in the Olive Mount chord. It was wholly supported by all
the economic interests in the area, and it has now been done, but I genuinely believe that it would not have taken the same length of time had it occurred at Felixstowe, near Tilbury or elsewhere in the south-east.
I am encouraged by the pre-election support of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes for smaller schemes. I am heartened by the Secretary of State’s view that even in times of austerity it is sensible to sustain capital investment in transport, and that is what the Government are doing. I am restrained by due and proper caution with regard to some of the schemes, their costs and so on, but we can all travel in hope and never arrive. The Department can set out clearly what it can achieve, or it can simply wash its hands of the matter and put it down to local decision making. I have given reasons why that is not the best outcome.
I want to address the real problem of institutional inertia. We would never have found out that passengers do not suffocate in railway tunnels had we not sent passengers through them—that should not be done in an uncontrolled way, but we certainly managed to find out what happens. We do not know what happens if a scheme such as that at Todmorden progresses, because such schemes do not progress; they remain static. We will never find out whether restoring curves make sense, unless we restore them. That should not be done randomly, and I suggest that the Department rescues its paperwork on curves and their restoration, and prioritises its projects using criteria that can be understood. We must learn lessons by actually carrying out a project and make something happen.
We must also consider other alternatives. There is a long historic link between housing development, which the country sorely needs, and rail development. Housing development often provides a subsidy for rail development. A few years ago I attended a reception—other hon. Members may also have been there—at which the Kilbride Group promoted what it was doing for railway development in the south-west. That was linked to a major housing development, and a similar aspect of housing subsidy could creep into a project such as the Burscough curves. I am aware of the role played by that group and of the possibilities elsewhere. Given that so many people have banged on about this issue for so long, it would not harm the Department for Transport to invite those with such schemes in mind to some sort of seminar, at which problems and prospects on both sides could be aired.
It would also help enormously for the Department to point to an extra mile of track somewhere, and say why it had or had not worked, and to explain why it appears to be neither physically nor financially possible to put back track in England. That would be one way forward. It does not commit the Government to a single penny but it means that we can discuss the various schemes. A while ago I asked to speak personally to the Minister about the Burscough curves, but I understand that she had other priorities at the time and I lay no blame at her door for that. However, I am not comfortable with the strange, Kafkaesque world in which nothing really happens except that the odd consultant gets paid from time to time. The bizarre anomalies that lead to people supporting various schemes continue, but no final decisions are made. I suggest that there is a more intelligent way to do things.
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton, Labour)
I came to this debate to listen, rather than to participate, but that was such an interesting speech and I would like to make three simple points. I congratulate John Pugh on securing this important debate. He made an excellent speech with many important points.
My first point is a bit of a boast. It might come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman to know that, when I was chair of Manchester airport, I was responsible for creating two new railway lines in the north of England. One was to the south of Manchester airport, and one to the north, and they connected the airport to the main rail network. It was tough getting those lines. At the time there was Railtrack—there is much to say about Railtrack and some of the current problems that we have in the railway system of too much money going in and not enough coming out. Turning the railways into a property company was one of the worst mistakes of the 1990s. Having first created a link to the rail network to the north of Manchester airport, we agreed with Railtrack to create a link to the south and the west coast main line. As we reached an agreement, Railtrack withdrew all the funding and Manchester airport had to put in the money. That was a difficult problem.
My second point is to expand on my intervention. If looked at over a period of 10 or 15 years, the amount of money that enters the transport system in the south-east of England and London is unjustifiable on a national basis, given that we are one country with huge regional disparities. Some statistics are worth quoting. The overrun of costs on the Jubilee line extension came to more than the total investment in rail and transport in the rest of England over the 18 months that it took to finish that extension. I am not talking about the cost of the Jubilee line extension itself, which was built partly to connect south-east London and partly to justify the money spent on the enterprise zone in the docklands. That statistic is an outrageous imbalance, and if we take that example, it is not surprising that we have such regional disparities.
If we add up the public-private partnership, which is sometimes left out of the equation, Thameslink, Crossrail and the investment going into the Olympics and transport into east London, the rest of England is left with only about 4% or 5% of that investment—the figure varies depending on how the sums are done. It is interesting to note that whatever area is looked at, such as education or health, London receives more per capita than the rest of the country, probably for good reasons. Nevertheless, the one block of expenditure where the gap between London and the south-east and the rest of the country has been growing is in transport. Ministers have never been able to justify such disparities—I am not talking specifically about the current Minister; I am referring to those in the previous Government—and to explain why that change took place when the London economy was doing better. That comes back to the methodology used for investment in the capacity of the system in terms of carriages, and for new investment in signalling and tracks.
The arguments based on capacity and overcrowding are not stupid. If people have to sit on top of each other there is a case for making platforms longer and putting on extra coaches. However, if that is the main—or
only—criterion, we end up with a final result that means that 90% of investment goes to the south-east. Because that investment is put into transport, which is economically vital and important and helps the economy to grow, more congestion is created. The best way to put that argument is to say that investment is provided to support congestion. As the hon. Member for Southport said, we should not get rid of criteria on overcrowding, but we should balance them up so that investment is also made in places where it will have an economic benefit. That will probably involve a lower cost-benefit ratio than one would get in the south-east, but if we do otherwise, we will create more congestion. As the hon. Gentleman said, London probably has one of the best transport systems of any capital city in the world. It can certainly compare with most, but there is still a lot of congestion because there is an imbalance in the country.
My third point was to compliment the Government—not something I do regularly—on their commitment to High Speed 2. That is a generational project for rail expansion, but it will happen only if all three parties are committed to it. Not long ago, along with other members of the Transport Committee, I questioned Minister after Minister about High Speed 2, and they all gave good reasons for why it was not going to happen. To be fair, the Liberal Democrats have always been in favour of it. The Conservatives came out in favour of it because they thought it was a way of answering the question about capacity in the London airport system and winning the London mayoralty, which was a bad reason, although the outcome was good. The Labour party also came to support High Speed 2, partly because we eventually had a Secretary of State who understood something about transport before he took up his post, which has been unusual over the past 50 years or so. He was committed to High Speed 2, and the Labour party came to support it.
High Speed 2 is vital for the country’s future. It is one of the key measures that will rebalance the economy in the way I described. If it does not happen, the economy will become unbalanced in the opposite direction. At some point in the next 10 or 15 years—I cannot give the exact date, and the projections are never that accurate anyway—the west coast main line, even though it is much improved and has extra capacity, will reach full capacity. That is the best case that can be made to doubters in the Conservative and Labour parties. There will have to be extra capacity on the west coast main line at some time, and it might as well come in the form of High Speed 2, which would link this country to the continent and make us feel like the rest of Europe, with excellent train services. That is the basic case for High Speed 2, and it has nothing to do with the environment or getting people off aeroplanes; it is an economic case and it relates to the north of England.
There are two other things I would like to say. If we are going to build extra capacity down the west coast main line, we also have to build extra capacity into the ordinary rail system in the north of England. It is a shame that we have to wait for control period 5 for that increase in capacity to take place, but I hope that it will be there before High Speed 2 happens. The rail system in the north of England—this is another great statistic that I often use—runs on schedules that are slower than they were 130 years ago. The schedules for the trains running between Blackburn and Manchester, between
Bolton and Manchester and in the rest of the north-west would have shamed Gladstone; they are quite shameful. It takes as long to get from Doncaster to Manchester in round terms—there are a few minutes difference—as it does to get from Doncaster to London, and that illustrates the imbalance in the transport system. By and large, someone can get to London very quickly, but it will take them quite a long time to get anywhere else, and that is true not just in the north of England. We therefore need extra capacity, whether or not that involves electrification. I welcome the commitment to the Ordsall chord. I also hope that we can have the northern hub as soon as possible in control period 5 and that we can really improve the capacity and speed of trains.
I have one final point about high-speed rail. As I said, the case for it is economic. The case for the connection between Birmingham and London is based on capacity. However, High Speed 2 will be a failure if it goes only between London and Birmingham. What is the point of that? It really must go to Manchester and Leeds, and I hope that it will go beyond, to Edinburgh and Glasgow. That will really bring the country together and bring economic benefits to the west and east sides of the country. Although I do not expect this to happen—things have probably gone too far—I would have started building the lines from the north to the south. That is partly because we would have had support for that. I understand why Conservative MPs have done what they have, and they have every right, and the responsibility, to represent their constituents’ interests and to oppose what is going on, but I suspect that it would have been much easier politically to start high-speed lines in the north, given the enthusiasm and support for them in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Manchester and Merseyside. I have tilted at many windmills in my political life, however, and that is not one that I will tilt at too much.
If High Speed 2 cannot be started in the north of England, however, there must be a solid commitment as the hybrid Bill dealing with this issue goes through the House that the lines will go at least to Manchester and Leeds, if not further. Those of us who are long enough in the tooth to have been talking about regional disparities in transport for 25 or 30 years remember the commitments given regarding the Channel Tunnel Bill. There were commitments that trains would come through the tunnel and go to cities in the north of England, including Manchester. Those trains were built, and they were in sheds outside Manchester for years before they were scrapped; indeed, every time anyone got on the west coast main line in Manchester, they would have gone past those sheds.
I will support High Speed 2, and I want the Labour party to stay committed to it. However, in keeping the three parties together, which will be a national project that might take 25 or 30 years, there must be an absolutely solid, unbreakable legal commitment to build the line to the north of England and beyond, if possible. I hope that the Minister can respond to those points.
Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood, Conservative)
I, too, congratulate John Pugh, who gave us a macro appreciation of these rail systems, and he obviously speaks with great experience
and a degree of frustration. I want to deal with a micro issue that affects my constituency, but I hope that it illustrates some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made about people’s frustrations.
First, however, I want to make a couple of general points, prompted by the comments of Graham Stringer. I served on a development agency for four years and I was a councillor for 17 years in what was then quoted as Britain’s poorest borough. If we had spent the money that we subsequently spent year in, year out on system-built council estates and projects to upskill people on getting the transport link right, the rest would have followed, and we would have saved an immense amount. I want to discuss that in the context of regeneration.
Secondly, I congratulate the Minister and the coalition Government on doing the unexpected. Many of us did not expect what happened in the capital budget round, when so much was made available, particularly to the north-west. I am talking about the electrification of the lines between Liverpool and Manchester and between Preston and Blackpool and about the extra coaches on the west coast main line, which will help to relieve some of the pressure. I know full well that the Minister is determined to get the new contracts right and to have longer contracts so that we can deal with the explosion in the number of customers on the west coast main line. As the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton said, the Government’s support for High Speed 2 is also important.
I should put on the record my total support for the hon. Gentleman’s concept that we start from the north and go south. While the home counties have their little difficulties, let us get on with building High Speed 2 from the north. I would start from Glasgow and Edinburgh and prove that we are going to reunite this nation. If we see this project actually happening, that will, of itself, provide the psychological boost that we want in the north and in Scotland. I totally support that concept.
I hope that the Minister does not see this as a north-west conspiracy, although I sometimes wonder what would be wrong with one. However, I want to focus on the town of Fleetwood in my constituency, which has the unenviable record of being one of the largest towns—it has a population of 58,000—without a railway connection. Funnily enough, it was the original end of the west coast main line in the 19th century. We have a Euston hotel because the line ran from Euston station to Fleetwood, where, before the railway managed to get over the Lake district, people got off the railway and got on the boats to get to Scotland. That rail line disappeared with the Beeching axe, as it was known. The four and a half miles of track between Fleetwood and the nearest railway station, Poulton-Le-Fylde, still lie unused. Fleetwood suffered recently when Stena Line pulled the ferry service to Northern Ireland, and the ferry service to the Isle of Man has also gone. To be fair, Fleetwood is at the end of the line for the tram upgrade from Blackpool. That in itself possibly offers some future improvement through getting bigger and faster trams on the line, but in the interim, overruns in the contract have nearly devastated a lot of small family business in Fleetwood; however, at least we are getting near to its end.
The key to Fleetwood’s regeneration is the railway line. The Fleetwood master plan states:
“The reinstatement of the line is physically and operationally feasible.”
That takes us back to what the hon. Member for Southport said. As other hon. Members have said, some of these schemes are small-scale when compared with what happens in London. The plan continues:
“It would create significant economic and social benefits and a positive impact on the local economy supporting further sustainable growth that is hard to envisage without a rail link.”
At the moment, Fleetwood has a tremendous fish processing industry. The bulk of that fish no longer comes from the fishing fleet, which I think is down to two and a half boats, but comes in at night by truck from every other fishing port in Britain down a narrow A road. Even with the freight possibilities, rail could provide momentum to the expansion of an indigenous industry.
I want to illustrate that such a project could be seen as an example of the big society. The Poulton and Wyre Railway Society trust has operated for five years, and I hope the Minister can come and see at some point what it has done to restore Thornton station. It estimates that to reopen the line now would cost £5.5 million, and it hopes to apply for grant funding. I am asking the Minister for support. The trust is negotiating to get the lease for the remaining bit of the line, from Poulton to Fleetwood, to be assigned to it by Network Rail. That would save money, but the dealings with Network Rail have now gone on for more than two years. These are enthusiasts and volunteers, but I must say that the local council, Wyre borough council, supports them. I pay tribute to Councillor Don MacNaughton, who has been remorseless in trying to get this moving, but we seem to have hit an impasse in dealing with all the strands of Network Rail. I would be extremely grateful for any support the Minister could give. She stood beside that track before the general election, so she understands where it goes and the possibilities therein.
I am also interested in hearing from the Minister about the tram-train concept—I have met with a group to discuss that—which operates in Germany and which I understand might be tested in Rotherham. To be fair, that scheme was started under the previous Government. Particularly as Fleetwood is now getting the upgrade of a tram system, such a scheme could provide another solution, albeit a long-term one, for an area that badly needs uplift. I talked about the uplift to the psychology of the north-west from High Speed 2. If work on such a line were started in Fleetwood, that would in itself motivate the people there to realise that they can stay there, bring up their children and run a business, and that they can expect their children to get jobs there. That is the critical nature of the scheme.
In the Association of Train Operating Companies 2009 report, the Fleetwood-Poulton line was fourth from top in terms of cost-benefit when compared with other lines. Such schemes are possible; they do not need the mega-millions and billions that London has. One could argue about that and the justifications for it in different ways. However, we need ministerial support to unlock the connections among Network Rail, the Poulton and Wyre Railway Society and the council, to see if we can provide one more link in the chain that we need across the north-west—I accept what other hon. Members have said—and provide the lift and regeneration we need.
John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
It would seem to anybody listening to the hon. Gentleman expand on his scheme that a very small amount of money is needed to make a very important change. We could almost call it a social experiment, which, if it comes off, we could learn from and apply elsewhere. Does he agree?
Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood, Conservative)
I am grateful for that intervention, because the hon. Gentleman puts the possibilities into words better than I can.
The scheme and the enthusiasts are there, and, as the Minister has seen, the track is there bar one mile of it, but I am sure that we can easily borrow a mile of track from some other disused railway. I am asking for some ministerial support for the scheme, particularly in respect of Network Rail, and for another demonstration from the coalition Government that they are committed to the north and to the north-west in particular.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham, Liberal Democrat)
I add my compliments to those already paid to my hon. Friend John Pugh on securing the debate, and I apologise for missing the early part of his speech. Judging from the part that I caught, however, I am sure that reading his speech in the Official Report tomorrow will be instructive.
Given that the debate is about railway expansion and smaller schemes, the Minister will not be surprised that I wish to talk about several smaller schemes in my constituency about which I have spoken before. Although I support investment in the railway and some of the larger schemes that we have heard about this afternoon, part of the point I wish to make is that there are some very small schemes that do not require new infrastructure, nor even a mile of track, that would benefit the rail network. Decisions taken in previous decades have meant that the network has had to do without such schemes. My concern, and I think the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, is that in the old plans to which we still turn for our railways, we do not have a decision-making structure that is open to embracing such ideas.
The scheme in my constituency and county that I am keen to advocate first and foremost is the TransWilts project. I have been most encouraged for its prospects in the light of the Government’s announcement late last year on additional rolling stock. Given the correspondence and meetings that I have had with the Department, however, I have been on something of a rollercoaster about how optimistic I should be. On the day that the statement was made, I asked the Secretary of State if the determination on where the additional rolling stock would go would be entirely dependent on the commercial strength of the operator on any part of the network, or on wider economic benefits. I was told that it would not be exclusively about the commercial strength of the franchisee, but following further scrutiny, it has become apparent that getting additional rolling stock is a very competitive process, not least because of the strained public finances and concerns about the viability of the subsidy to what are termed the regional railways. The rolling stock will have to be paid for somehow, and without a source of support or the willingness to contemplate including these operations within existing
franchise and support arrangements, it could prove very difficult to get additional rolling stock on to certain services without a franchisee in strong commercial health.
In my case, I am somewhat confident that there will be additional rolling stock on the Cardiff-Portsmouth line, which would address the congested trains on routes in and out of Bath and Bristol. However, it might be rather harder to make the argument—it is probably a much stronger argument from an economic point of view, but it is one that requires time for its case to be proved—for connecting the towns in western Wiltshire with Chippenham and Swindon through a TransWilts service. Given the excellent support that we have from the community rail partnership in Wiltshire and the enthusiasm of at least some of the councillors on Wiltshire council, however, I remain hopeful that between us we will be able to persuade decision makers in the industry about that.
Another long-standing campaign for a small but significant improvement to the railway in my constituency is for the reopening of Corsham station. That seemed very close at hand until around the time of the Hatfield train crash, when something of a retrenchment on the railways led to the withdrawal of plans for services that would have been able to serve Corsham station in a way that current high-speed services cannot. As we no longer have an Oxford-Bristol service passing over that piece of track, the campaign has been very hard to fight. However, moneys have been set aside—through section 106 agreements in relation to the substantial residential development that there has been—for redeveloping that station. We need a more joined-up approach between local government and the funds that it has available in this case, and decision making in the transport sector.
My final example is an extreme case that makes the point about the value that smaller schemes can provide. I am referring to the northern curve at Bradford junction, north of Trowbridge. That is an area where, essentially, tracks heading in three directions meet. At the moment, there is an east-to-south curve and a west-to-south curve. We have a railway line that forks in a Y shape, but traditionally there was a northern curve, which in effect created a triangle at that point. It does not take long to realise the flexibility that that would provide for the diversion of trains. People will know, especially if they travel on a Sunday, as I often do, that there are a lot of engineering works on the Great Western main line, which often mean that trains are not able to travel the full route, such as the one that I take into London from Wiltshire. We might be much better able to deal with that in our rail network if we had the option to divert trains in the way that we could if they were able to travel from Bath and then back up to Chippenham having taken that curve, even if work was being done on the intervening track.
The amount of track that we are talking about is very small. The land is still available for the railway—it has not been developed. I believe that that piece of track was not maintained because of the costs of improving the reliability of the electricity supply to the signalling infrastructure. Now that residential development goes right the way up to the railway line on the eastern side, the costs of improving the electricity infrastructure for that piece of track and the signalling used there would
be rather less than they were at the time it was abandoned. I offer that scheme as an example of something that is very small and simple that would not make an enormous difference, but could prove to be of wider benefit to the resilience and flexibility of our rail infrastructure, especially if we are looking to the future following the Government’s decisions on electrifying the Great Western line, given the likely need to divert trains during the engineering works that will be required.
Time and again when I sought to make the case for many of these improvements, I found that if they did not make it into the Great Western route utilisation strategy produced under the previous Government, my hopes of being able to make the case for them were much diminished. However, the current Government have made some very enlightened decisions about the railways in the past 12 months that were not envisaged at the time of that strategy, whether we are talking about the decision that has already been made about the high-speed fleet for the Great Western line, the decision about electrifying the route from London beyond Bristol into Wales, and the decision that I referred to earlier about additional rolling stock that could be available for my part of the country. I hope that those hon. Members representing northern constituencies will forgive me for saying that my area is not part of the blessed London network that they have described and we have struggled to secure additional rolling stock under previous decisions. The fact that those recent decisions have been made calls into question some of the assumptions in that strategy, but they still exist and underpin the problems that campaigners encounter when trying to have decisions revisited.
I shall conclude shortly because I want to leave sufficient time for the Front Benchers to respond to the debate. If we really want to support and embrace smaller rail schemes, which can provide excellent value for money if we have a little confidence in the potential of our railways, we will need to loosen the straitjacket that I have described. We need a little more joined-up thinking between local government and the rail sector, more enlightened allocations of funding streams—be they from parking or from economic development—and perhaps even the ability for local authorities to take more of an equity stake so that it is not simply a matter of responding to a begging bowl.
I hope that some of these ideas will give us the ability to break the current cycle. Those of us who are campaigners in Wiltshire find that if we want to make an improvement to our railways, the Department says that local government should be able to promote those schemes, but local government says that operators need to be able to pay for them themselves, and operators then say that they will need support from the Department—a subsidy—if they are to be able to support a scheme. We therefore all go round in circles and progress cannot be made on our railways. I hope that we can build on the early decisions that the Government have taken and take full advantage of all opportunities, and not just those presented by the big projects of which we hear so much.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish, Labour)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I, too, congratulate John Pugh on securing the debate, which has been
excellent. Clearly, it raises important matters about smaller rail schemes and how, in many instances, they could benefit local areas by increasing economic prosperity and improving access to the rail network for local communities. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that smaller rail schemes clearly should be considered as we consider how best to deal with expansion on our railway network.
We need to consider all ways of making our railways work in the most economically efficient way. Given that, as my hon. Friend Graham Stringer rightly said, there will be serious capacity issues all over the rail network in the years to come, we need to think about the best ways of expanding the railways for the best value for money, which clearly involves looking at the types of scheme that have been discussed today.
With more and more people wanting to travel by rail, continued investment in increasing rail capacity and expanding the network are vital. With passenger growth expected to increase by up to 50% by 2020, and rail freight expected to grow by 30% during the next decade, substantial changes to the rail network will be needed.
Clearly there has been a great deal of debate in the House and media coverage about larger rail expansion projects such as Crossrail and Thameslink, the electrification schemes in Wales and the north-west, and the ongoing discussions about high-speed rail. Those projects will clearly attract the lion’s share of transport funding in the future. However, growing demand on the rail network can sometimes be satisfied, as we have heard today, by smaller enhancements, such as lengthening platforms to allow for longer trains or doubling single tracks. The former approach has been taken on some London commuter routes, and the latter is appropriate in rural areas that have become bottlenecks.
Of course, local rail expansion has been made more difficult—particularly given the expectation that these schemes and their business cases will be primarily led by local authorities, integrated transport authorities where they exist, local enterprise partnerships where they exist, and so on—following the comprehensive spending review, which left a 28% cut in local government transport spending. That has implications for the immediate future. Sometimes smaller rail projects will not be the best solution all over the rail network. As we see on an increasing number of routes, peak trains are already at maximum length and no further trains can realistically be added.
I welcome the campaigning work of the hon. Member for Southport and particularly the work that he has done to make the case for the Burscough curve, which will help to revive the disused electric track between Ormskirk and Burscough, thus bringing links to Southport. He must have found it a bit disheartening that the present Government in effect slapped a four-year ban on funding such projects, as he discussed in his speech. However, he is to be congratulated on showing the determination to find alternative sources of funding for the scheme, which will certainly benefit his constituents. I wish him well with that.
Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) that people could mistakenly think that this is a north-west conspiracy. However, he knows that there is a great deal of rail congestion in the whole of our region, and many commentators have said that smaller schemes, many of which make up elements of what is called the northern hub, are key components in improving rail services across the north of England.
One ambition of the northern hub project is to increase train services in the north by 40% during the next 20 years, including for cities such as Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. That would mean 700 more trains a day, which would make it possible for 3.5 million more passengers to travel by train each year. The estimated wider economic impact of the project is significant as it involves the creation of 23,000 jobs and a return of £4 for every £1 that is spent.
Although I welcome the recent announcement on the Ordsall curve, it has been frustrating for those of us who believe in the northern hub project that the Government have not yet made a firm commitment about when work on that worthwhile and economically beneficial project will begin. That would be a good starting point. I hope that any approval will not be piecemeal, however, because we need to take the northern hub project as a whole. I welcome the fact that the Ordsall curve will link Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria stations by the end of 2016, but that is only one aspect of the northern hub scheme. There is no Government commitment to the entire programme, so I ask the Minister to give a firm commitment that the project will be included in the next Network Rail control period.
Labour clearly remains committed to dealing with overcrowding and capacity problems on the network, and to considering how best to use further rail expansion to do so in the most cost-effective way. However, rail expansion and investment decisions can have a real impact on regional growth, and may help to perpetuate a cycle of increasing disparity of wealth between regions. Such decisions will be all the more important in the light of the abolition of the regional development agencies.
Smaller rail schemes obviously have beneficial effects in all areas of the country. In a previous debate, I played a parliamentary version of rail Top Trumps with the hon. Member for Chippenham over who had the worst rail service in the country—I think that I won with my example of one train a week in one direction only. However, the hon. Gentleman made a powerful case for extra investment in his constituency. I was disappointed that the Government sneaked out their decision to end all funding for local rail schemes developed by local authorities and integrated transport authorities on the same day that they announced the public consultation on High Speed 2.
Theresa Villiers (Minister of State (Rail and Aviation), Transport; Chipping Barnet, Conservative)
Does the hon. Gentleman know of any local authorities or local promoters that complained about that announcement? The fact is that none of those schemes is ready to kick off before April 2012, so they will still be subject to the same three-year consideration for national funding as under the system that we inherited from the Labour Government.
Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish, Labour)
If that was the case, putting a block on the schemes was a pointless exercise.
The Government’s decision means that no central funding will be available for new schemes until April 2015, which will obviously affect schemes such as that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Southport. Why was that decision not included in the announcement about the comprehensive spending review? Such an important decision should have been announced on its own, rather than being overshadowed by an announcement on the same day about the public consultation on high-speed rail. That is a blow to further passenger choice and to economic regeneration.
The Eddington review outlined the significant returns that can result from smaller projects that unblock pinch points, saying that variable infrastructure schemes to support public transport in urban areas are likely to offer the highest returns. A recent report by the Transport Committee clearly identified the way in which the south, and particularly London, has benefited from rail investment, which was a point made eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton and others. The report also noted that transport investment per head in London and the south-east was three times as much as in other regions of the country. I do not wish to be misrepresented, so I point out that Labour certainly supports investment in London and the south-east, but similar interest should be shown in the needs of the rest of the country, and my hon. Friend made a valid and powerful point in that respect. Some smaller rail projects might be a way to redress the balance, but we will have to wait to see what is included in the next Network Rail control period.
I wonder whether there is a greater role for tram-train, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. Such services could vastly improve local passenger services—and the passenger experience—by utilising existing infrastructure. It will be interesting to see the success or otherwise of the south Yorkshire trial and to note whether that can be adopted elsewhere.
Hon. Members will know that Labour is undertaking a fundamental review of all its policies, exactly as the Conservatives did when the Prime Minister became leader of his party. We are looking at all areas of policy, and I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton that that includes the question of High Speed 2. I urge him to take part in that because his serious points about capacity on the west coast main line and regional economic disparities should be fed into the process. Whatever the outcome of the policy review, the party will remain committed to assisting the Government to secure the legal powers for High Speed 2 in the hybrid Bill. Like my hon. Friend, I urge the Government to do so for the whole of the Y-shape network, not only the route from London to Birmingham.
Local rail schemes can make an important contribution to solving transport challenges. Many of the points raised today will help to inform the debate. However, as we heard from a number of hon. Members, many local rail projects may be suspended until funding is identified. What the hon. Member for Southport said about building a viable business case was extremely valid, and it is difficult to pursue the process through a vast array of bureaucracy. How will the Government cut through
that maze of bureaucracy to bring forward schemes promoted by local partnerships, as described by the hon. Gentleman?
Will the McNulty review make suggestions, and if so what is the Government’s view? What further advice does the Minister have for local authorities to get funding for their projects? Will she make a statement about smaller rail schemes such as the Todmorden curve? What work has the Department done to examine the benefits of reopening other disused rail lines? What will happen to the schemes that were in line for funding before the Government’s announcement earlier this year? The Southport scheme and others represent a small proportion of the schemes on our rail network, and we hope that those and many others will be given due consideration by the Government for the next control period.
Theresa Villiers (Minister of State (Rail and Aviation), Transport; Chipping Barnet, Conservative)
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend John Pugh on securing the debate and on his eloquent and articulate speech. All contributions to this good debate have given us an insight into what approach to take on rail expansion, particularly with regard to local schemes. I highlight the fact that my hon. Friend Alec Shelbrooke is in the room because he also takes a keen interest in local rail services in his constituency and campaigns to improve them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southport acknowledged that there has been a problem in recent years due to a failure to address the increase in passenger numbers by increasing capacity. To be fair to the previous Government, they started to wake up to the problem, but rather late in the day. However, a significant programme of rail investment is now under way. That is a response to the sort of points that my hon. Friend made about the success of the railways in increasing passenger numbers, as well as about the significant economic and wider regeneration benefits that can be produced by the better connectivity that comes with the railways.
I assure my hon. Friend that there is no presumption against local rail schemes, as he indicated that there might be. He and other hon. Members have highlighted the benefits of local rail expansion, whether by reopening disused lines or providing better or more frequent services on existing track. The Government fully recognise the possible benefit of such schemes. I shall set out what assistance we can give on those and the sources of funding that local authorities might look to. However, it is also important to talk about some of the bigger capacity expansion programmes, because my hon. Friend is right that they are much needed.
Despite the deficit that we inherited, the coalition has placed a priority on capital spending on rail programmes for exactly the sort of reasons that my hon. Friend outlined. We have heard about the major electrification programme in the north-west, including for routes between Liverpool and Manchester, Liverpool and Wigan, and Manchester and Blackpool. As well as benefiting long-distance services, that enables local services to be operated by electric trains, thus providing faster journeys for passengers and releasing diesel carriages for use elsewhere on the network.
New Pendolinos will be added to the west coast main line in the months to come. We have announced plans for the electrification of the Great Western line between London, Newbury, Oxford, Bristol and Cardiff. Long-distance services on both Great Western and the east coast will benefit from the new fleet of intercity express programme trains. Line improvements are also going on for the east coast. A major redevelopment at Reading station will benefit railway users right across the south-west of England and south Wales. The long-awaited upgrade of the London underground has been secured. Crossrail and Thameslink are under way and will provide a major boost for public transport capacity in London and the south-east. Funding has been secured for the whole of the CP4 programme of capacity enhancements. More than 2,000 new carriages will be introduced on to the network across the country by May 2019, around 1,800 of which will be additional capacity. That will include 650 extra carriages by May 2014.
We are also consulting on our plans to deliver a Y-shaped high-speed rail network connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. I am grateful for the graciously expressed support of Graham Stringer. I assure him of our absolute commitment that the line will go to Manchester and Leeds, because we believe that will not only provide the vital uplift in capacity that he rightly highlights is needed on the west coast and east coast routes, but help to meet the ambition to rebalance the economy and close the prosperity gap between north and south. Our programme of rail and transport improvements includes significant investment in the north. When taking decisions about which investments to make, we of course take on board the wider regeneration issues and our ambition to rebalance the economy, not just the straightforward business case.
Further investment was announced in the Budget, including for the Ordsall curve, which is another important benefit for the whole of the north of England. A second project was the Swindon and Kemble redoubling, which will help to improve local services and resilience on the route to south Wales. The next high level output specification is in preparation, and we will give full consideration to the northern hub. The shadow Minister asked for the Government’s commitment to that, but I would be interested to know whether such a commitment is now official Labour party policy—I noticed that he did not specify that.
I welcome the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport about the Burscough curves. I know that he has campaigned for that project for a long time. I emphasise that the key first step to make progress on that is to get support from Lancashire county council and Merseytravel. It is important for local authorities to set priorities on a direct rail link between Ormskirk and Southport, and Southport and Preston. It is for local transport authorities to decide the best way to meet a local transport need.
John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)
Several hon. Members have voiced concern —the Minister is helping us a little with it at the moment—about the opaqueness of the procedure for getting these schemes to fruition. It would be helpful if the Department for Transport would give guidance to the campaign groups across the country about the stages through which they must go, the hurdles they
must get over, who the groups need to get buy-in from, and who is necessary and who is incidental.
Theresa Villiers (Minister of State (Rail and Aviation), Transport; Chipping Barnet, Conservative)
Guidance is published on the Department’s website, but officials are always happy to engage with campaign groups and local authorities to help them to navigate something that is not an easy process. When one is talking about significant amounts of taxpayers’ money, we need to ensure that care is taken when judging how to deploy it. The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office analyse very astutely whether we are making the right decisions on how money is spent, and that means that business cases have to be considered. My officials will be happy to engage with my hon. Friend on the issue. I will be happy to meet him to discuss the Burscough curves. My officials are heavily engaged with local authorities in the area about the Todmorden curve, which another scheme with considerable local support.
My hon. Friend Eric Ollerenshaw spoke eloquently about the potential for reopening the Poulton to Fleetwood line. I much enjoyed my visit there. If he is having problems engaging with Network Rail, I will be happy to take that up and to encourage Network Rail to work with the group mentioned by hon. Friend.
In response to my hon. Friend Duncan Hames on the TransWilts rail project, I know that the Secretary of State has looked at that recently. Again, if progress is to be made, the first step is to get the support of the local authorities. We want local authorities to be more heavily involved in decisions about rail and we are actively considering how best to bring down the cost of such rail schemes so that it is more viable to deliver the kind of improvements that hon. Members have asked for. We hope that the McNulty review will generate ideas on that point. In addition, we hope that projects such as the Rotherham tram train and the Abbey line tram project will give us an insight into whether light rail can provide a lower-cost alternative for some of the schemes mentioned today.
Sources of funding for such local schemes might include the private sector, if developer contributions are available. The local sustainable transport fund or the regional growth fund are also available. The spending review has provided significant funds for major local transport schemes—£1.5 billion up to 2015. A number of schemes have already been given the go-ahead, including improvements to Leeds station and the extension of the Midland metro. Projects such as Kirkstall Forge and Apperley Bridge are under consideration.
A further funding source is available after a certain period. For projects that are primarily local in nature, we think that it is fair to ask the local authorities to take initial responsibility for getting the scheme up and running, and funding it. We recognise, however, that the railway network needs to adapt to population growth, and we are always prepared to consider the case for reopening disused local lines or the enhancement of local services on existing lines. When a local authority has chosen a rail solution to meet its transport needs, it is appropriate for it to demonstrate its commitment to that solution by taking initial responsibility for revenue funding. Once the service has run for a few years and demonstrated its success, we will then assess it on the same basis as existing franchised services. If the scheme
has a good business case, and if the ongoing subsidy required is affordable and can be accommodated within available budgets, we are prepared to consider providing funding at a national level from the departmental rail budget. Schemes would normally be considered for such central funding after three years, but because of the constraints on the budget, we have made it clear that new schemes will not be considered for central funding on that basis until after 2015, although we do not believe that that will have an impact on any existing schemes.