Rail (East Anglia)
Therese Coffey (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)
Mr Hollobone, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am delighted that many colleagues from our counties are here today. I extend a warm welcome to Lilian Greenwood, who will be alone on her side of the Chamber because East Anglia has not a single Labour Member of Parliament. However, she will be pleased to know that Labour councillors have worked through their district and other councils, local enterprise partnerships, rail passenger groups and MPs to put together a vision, so she should not feel completely alone. I was delighted to be able to send both her and the Minister a copy of the prospectus before today’s debate.
Investing in East Anglia’s rail will benefit local residents and the national economy. Connecting our economic hubs, moving freight on to rail and improving our branch line services, alongside smarter ticketing, new and refurbished trains and better stations, will make a huge difference to people in Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. That is why we are all united with the people I mentioned earlier to try to deliver a document, “Once in a generation—A rail prospectus for East Anglia”, which was launched yesterday. I am delighted that many MPs were able to put their name to our proposals.
I know that some colleagues are planning to speak and some are planning to intervene. I will indicate the appropriate point, if that is okay, because I will be referring to some colleagues who are not able to be here today. That will be clearly signalled, and I hope that the signalling is better than that which we experience on the great eastern main line.
In putting the matter into context, if I paint a negative picture, I am afraid that it is, sadly, a true one—poor reliability, cramped commuters, old stock, unsmart ticketing and a poor deal for East Anglian rail passengers, who, with the premium in the last franchise, are net contributors to rail services in the rest of the country. However, I am delighted that we have come together to say that we can have a better service. It is possible and feasible, and there is a genuine commitment to try to ensure that the infrastructure for East Anglia is among the best, so that we can harness the economic benefits and a better quality of life for people.
I have just dashed from a meeting of my Select Committee, in which we were interrogating Broadband Delivery UK and the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Mr Vaizey, who has responsibility for broadband. Broadband is another key asset, but better broadband for our counties will not replace the need for people to travel to work and for investors to come out to our communities.
I have mentioned the prospectus already, and I am not planning to regurgitate every single priority in the document. I will try to give an overview and focus on Suffolk.
Some colleagues are not able to attend today—some are ministerial colleagues who approached me to say that unfortunately they have meetings and cannot attend. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich
North (Miss Smith), whom I think should be given great credit for trying to pull together, on a long journey—even longer than from my local station at Darsham—the different interests into one compelling vision for our counties and for growth. She has led the way, and she should be thanked for trying to ensure that her constituents will get a better service out of the vision.
Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend Mr Paice is also unable to be here today. He wanted me to stress the importance of the Ely North junction. I am sure the Minister will hear the words “Ely North” many times in today’s debate, as it is a key interchange, not only for residents in Ely and north Cambridgeshire, but for unlocking our freight corridor and services to Cambridge and the other hubs of Norwich and Ipswich. It is also important to an east-west link so that, instead of going via London, commuters can go from Oxford to Cambridge to Norwich, linking three great universities of knowledge and investment.
My right hon. Friend Mr Burns cannot be here, sadly, because he is trying to run the national health service, but he has been pressing for greater capacity, a new station in his constituency and the track improvements that are required on the great eastern main line to make a difference for passengers.
My hon. Friends the Members for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous) wanted to remind us that we need green transport, enabling green growth in the green enterprise zone shared between Norfolk and Suffolk. Dr Huppert wanted to remind us about increasing connectivity in the key east-west interchange. My hon. Friend Ben Gummer, who is in a Select Committee meeting, has been pivotal in trying to improve investment into Ipswich and surrounding constituencies, including mine and that of my hon. Friend Dr Poulter, who is present. My hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo) and for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who are also in Select Committee meetings, continued to stress, quite rightly, the importance of Manningtree as a commuter station and key attributes such as the investment in the station, but also the important need for accessible platforms.
I will happily welcome interventions from colleagues now.
Jim Shannon (Strangford, DUP)
The hon. Lady is probably thinking, “What is a Northern Ireland Member going to say about East Anglia rail?”, but I would like her to take on board my point. A great number of Army camps are stationed in Norfolk, and service personnel use trains to get from base to camp—one of them reported to me last week that it took an hour and a half extra to get from A to Z. Does the hon. Lady feel that the usage of trains by Army personnel puts a greater onus on rail improvement in the area?
Therese Coffey (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have not considered military travel, although there is an Army regiment in my constituency. However, we should ensure, through our county councils and as Members, that the document—which, although it is a prospectus, is not exhaustive—includes such considerations.
I note that the constituency of Sir Bob Russell, who is present, has a significant Army presence, which is quite close to the railway station, but I am sure that other colleagues whose constituencies have RAF bases, including Marham in the constituency of my hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss and Wattisham in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr Ruffley, will want to follow that issue up.
Other Members present are from different counties, so they will talk about specific lines or issues there in more detail. For investors, including in tourism, the issue is capacity to get out of London to our different economic hubs. We should ensure that it is as easy as possible to get on the train to come to some of our beautiful beaches and our cultural highlights in different parts of our counties. Commuting into London is also an issue. There is no doubt, particularly in Essex, that people are fed up of terrible trains, having to stand for a long time and being crammed in. It is not fair on them. There is a two-way process: one thing that we need to do is boost off-peak services through tourism initiatives. LEPs and our county and district councils are keen to ensure more frequent and reliable services.
There is no question but that Cambridge with its research centre and development of capital, Norwich with the knowledge base in its university, especially in life sciences, and Ipswich and surrounding areas and their software development industry, provide a big opportunity for expanding connections between the counties. The risk is that the Government get it that the east of England is already a net contributor to the national economy and, therefore, do not think it needs investment, but we can generate a lot more investment as a consequence of such improvements.
Bob Russell (Colchester, Liberal Democrat)
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and on her speech. For the benefit of the Minister, will she confirm that there has been detailed discussion among hon. Members from across the four counties? We were not united at the start of the journey; we are now united. I hope that I will have an opportunity to expand on that later.
Therese Coffey (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)
That is a fair point. We have all been united in our vision of wanting better services for our constituents. We may have been less united, in our discussions with Network Rail and LEPs, on what that meant. I would like to think that the intentions of hon. Members across the counties have always been clear. This is not about trying to reduce services for our constituents, but improving them.
Stewart Jackson (Peterborough, Conservative)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She has not mentioned the pre-eminent city in Cambridgeshire—Peterborough, as opposed to Cambridge. I jest. Does she agree that the great advantage of this prospectus, apart from its ambition, is that it is comprehensive and holistic? It integrates different modes of transport. It is not just a list of discrete transport schemes. There are references to the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight corridor, taking the pressure off the A14 and the A11, and traffic movements to Stansted airport, all of which show that
the prospectus is ambitious and, in the long run, will be good for the taxpayer as well as the local people in East Anglia.
Therese Coffey (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and reinforces the point that investment in our rail infrastructure could mean that our region, rather than other parts of the country, can be a huge multiplier. The idea that people want to travel up to Lowestoft by car to have a look at investment is ridiculous. Along the east Suffolk line, sitting in a one-carriage train, perhaps after making the connection at Ipswich, is not always the most attractive way to arrive for an investors’ meeting.
For a quicker service on the great eastern main line, we need to speed up the trains. One way to do that is to focus on level crossings. I will refer to this again when I come on to the issue of branch lines, but we need to ensure that there are stretches where trains are unhindered. We also need to open up capacity at Liverpool Street station. Certain things have to happen before any of that can take place. Crossrail will have to be completed, which we hope will happen by 2018. We have to continue the work at Bow Junction to ensure that those lines can be used and that we get those slots. Peak services along the great eastern main line are already at full capacity. Although freight currently runs on the line, it does not do so during peak times. Extra capacity, therefore, is critical.
I do not pretend to be a rail specialist. I do not know the difference between four-tracking, the clever loops that Network Rail is now thinking about, or the extra bit of track that is needed in that stretch near Chelmsford. What I do know, however, is that there are clever brains working on solutions that will mean that we can open up vital capacity. By doing so, we can increase reliability and speed.
Keith Simpson (Broadland, Conservative)
What a vision of loveliness my hon. Friend is, and I congratulate her on securing this important debate. To cut to the quick, many MPs and many of our constituents believe that, in the past, neither Network Rail nor the franchisees have taken East Anglia seriously. We have the impression that previous franchisees have asset stripped. We have been dumped on with out-of-date rolling stock, and capacity has never been properly considered. The key question is this: is she confident that Network Rail and the new franchisees will take this seriously? If they do not, one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the Government do not have a priority.
Therese Coffey (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We have to be serious and we need to ensure that the Government are serious, so that when the new tender is put out for 2014, the very exacting standards that we are demanding, exemplified by the prospectus, are delivered. Nothing less than that will be good enough. My hon. Friend mentioned rolling stock, and I agree with him. I will come on to the issue of traveller experience later. Yesterday, some hon. Members were on the same train as me travelling to London Liverpool Street. I am convinced that they are the same trains I used to travel on as a student between Liverpool and London, back in the early ’90s. To simply recycle stock when, on average, our carriages are 25 years old, makes me wonder how old some of our stock actually is.
We have a large number of unstaffed stations. Abellio is the current franchisee. It has a very short franchise, and has made some real improvements. We now have print-at-home and mobile phone ticketing. That might not suit every single passenger, with the demographic of our constituents, but it is a huge step forward. Instead of paying the full price, customers can now print at home or get a neighbour to do it for them. That is a big improvement, and I give credit for that to Abellio.
Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk, Conservative)
From the point of view of my constituency, I emphasise the unity behind the proposals. My hon. Friend mentioned bottlenecks. She must agree that unblocking bottlenecks, especially at Ely, is a vital part of the prospectus, not least because increasing the amount of trains to Brandon, with stronger links to Cambridge and Norwich, is vital for its economic future. Therefore, it is not just on the east coast, but throughout East Anglia, that unblocking bottlenecks is critical for our economic future.
Therese Coffey (Suffolk Coastal, Conservative)
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Perhaps we should have started a book on how many times Ely North junction was going to be mentioned. I am sure that the Minister will be fully aware, by the end of the debate, of how important Ely North junction is across the county.
On other aspects of reliability, returning to a point made by my hon. Friend Mr Simpson, Abellio is currently upgrading some locomotives to try and address short-term reliability challenges. There is nothing more frustrating than a lack of reliability. People may be happy with a slower service as long as it is reliable and on time.
My hon. Friend Mr Jackson alluded to the issue of freight. I represent Felixstowe, which has the largest container port in the UK. Placing more freight on to rail is a key strategic priority. Indeed, it is part of the A14 challenge, which the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Mike Penning is leading on behalf of the Department for Transport. We can get more freight on to rail. I am delighted that the Department had already confirmed the funding for the Ipswich north curve, which will mean that instead of trains going into London, they will be able to go straight across Ipswich and on to those lines. In the next franchise, in the longer term, we want to see the electrification of the track, which will improve connectivity, reliability and speed. It is critical for both Felixstowe and Harwich to remove some lorry traffic from the A14. The Ely North junction is key part for further developments up into the midlands. It would make such a difference for quite a small amount of money. To develop both junctions at the same time would make a lot of economic sense. My understanding is that the cost is approximately £41 million. I am a great believer in challenging Network Rail to do work more cheaply. I am sure that I am not the only hon. Member who feels that Network Rail mentions costs in units of £1 million, whether for a lift, bridge or whatever. With the McNulty review, I am sure better ways will be found to bring those bills down.
I am sure that hon. Members from different counties will refer to their own branch lines. My hon. Friend Matthew Hancock has already done so by mentioning Brandon, and the need to ensure that it becomes an inter-county line, not just a humble
branch line. I have nine stations in my constituency. In the past year, when the service went up from two-hourly to hourly from Ipswich up to Saxmundham, we saw an increase in the number of passengers. We know that improving services will provide a return to the Government and to rail companies in terms of fares.
I was delighted to work recently with my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) on pressing the Government for funding for the Beccles loop. I am delighted that £3 million was confirmed a couple of years ago and that Suffolk county council came up with the other £1 million. We broke the ground not too many months ago and work is under way. In December, we will finally have an hourly service. That is compensation for there no longer being any through trains from Lowestoft to London. That sacrifice—made before we became MPs—allows more trains on the line between Ipswich, Colchester and London to increase capacity, preventing a slow diesel train, for example, holding other trains up. My constituents have paid a fairly heavy price until now, but I am sure that we will all be rejoicing in December; it will be a nice Christmas present for rail passengers in my county.
I have already mentioned the Beccles loop. Our county council’s ambition is a loop near Wickham Market station so that more freight can go to Sizewell C during its construction. It is important that we do as much as we can to get lorries carrying freight—construction materials—into the site and removing spoil from it off the mainly single-track roads in Suffolk.
I have already mentioned Felixstowe. I shall mention it again in relation to passengers. The port is keen to move more into freight and is legally obliged to dual the track between Felixstowe and Ipswich. My right hon. Friend the Minister is already aware of this and was kind enough to meet my hon. Friend Ben Gummer and I last week to talk about it. It is crucial that we continue not to reduce passenger services, but to ensure that obligations are kept and that the outcomes for passengers are the same, if not better.
Some colleagues from elsewhere may regard this as a wish list: it is a wish list, but it is a credible one. East Anglia has been the Cinderella of British rail for too long. With a commitment to railways not seen in a century, the coalition Government have the chance to be our Prince Charming, or Princess Charming, depending on legislation next year. I should like the Minister to accept our proposal and let East Anglian passengers travel happily ever after. However, this is no fairy tale; it is a real vision and a tale with a moral. When MPs, councils, businesses and passenger groups come together, we can achieve together, and that matters for passengers, for economic growth and for jobs, which is all great news for our constituents.
East Anglia can provide a huge economic benefit to the country, but we need infrastructure. Broadband is under way and we now need rail to complete the green dream and ensure that East Anglia rail delivers.
Philip Hollobone (Kettering, Conservative)
If hon. Members would like to resume their seats, let me say that there is a wealth of East Anglian talent before me. The running
order, since we are talking about railways, will be Priti Patel, Elizabeth Truss, Sir Bob Russell, George Freeman and Daniel Poulter. The wind-ups will start no later than 12.10 pm, so we have about 50 minutes.
Priti Patel (Witham, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Coffeyon securing this timely and important debate on rail services and infrastructure in the East Anglian region. She has clearly outlined the case for rail investment throughout the region, which is set out in the prospectus, and has given a strong explanation of the reasons for this debate today and the development of the “Once in a Generation” prospectus, which was launched yesterday.
I pay tribute to all hon. Members from the region who have come together on a cross-party basis to draw up the document, because every colleague has had an input. This has been a labour of love, involving many stakeholders throughout the region. I put on record my particular gratitude to Chris Starkie of the New Anglia LEP for putting the prospectus together, corralling most of us to work on it and receiving our input.
I pay tribute to all Essex Members of Parliament who contributed to the document, to Alastair Southgate of Essex county council and to representatives from the Essex Rail Users Federation, particularly Derek Monnery and Mark Leslie, who have been stalwart in representing the voices of local consumers. For once, they have taken the voice of Essex on rail to the heart of the Department. They played a big role in overseeing the document—scrutinising many drafts of the prospectus and making strong contributions to ensure that our needs were met. Indeed, the work put into this prospectus and the big vision that it outlines for rail travel in the region has exceeded any previous endeavour. The outcome produced by the LEPs, councils and MPs is a collective effort that we can all be proud of.
The prospectus is ambitious, innovative and sets out comprehensive policies that are grounded in reality and achievable. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister agrees that those policies are all deliverable—the new post-2014 franchise coincides with Network Rail’s control period 5 for investment—including new trains, improved services for all our commuters, better stations and modern facilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal has already mentioned many examples of the poor and inadequate facilities for all our commuters. Those have to be dealt with.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for always engaging constructively with many hon. Members, including me, on rail issues. Previous Westminster Hall debates were held in 2010 about the poor services to Essex commuters provided at the time by National Express East Anglia. She understood much of the frustration and dissatisfaction felt by our rail users. Of course, the franchise went to Abellio. I trust that she will continue to show understanding of the problems that our commuters face, and that she will support the measures that hon. Members from the region advocate.
Speaking as an Essex MP, it is in the best interests of Essex, the region and the country for the Government to adopt this prospectus and ensure that Network Rail and the future operator of the post-2014 franchise
deliver the measures. First, the prospectus is a robust economic and business case in support of rail improvements. Secondly, it advances proposals that will provide commuters with long-overdue value for money.
There is a compelling economic case for new rail investment in Essex and the Anglia region. Essex is England’s economic growth engine and, as many hon. Members have heard me say before, it is the county of entrepreneurs. Despite the current economic climate, some 6,000 new enterprises a year are set up in Essex, creating jobs, growth and prosperity. These businesses need good rail links, and commuters need punctual, prompt rail services to open up employment opportunities in London as well as across the region.
With an enterprise zone in Harlow set to generate almost 5,000 new jobs, a new business park in Chelmsford, freight and passenger growth at Stansted airport and DP World investing £1.5 billion in creating a world-leading modern deep-sea container port in the London gateway, it is vital that our vibrant, entrepreneurial economy benefits from a modern rail network fit to ensure that the county can achieve its full potential, not just today and tomorrow but in 10, 15 and 20 years.
Let us be in no doubt that if rail improvements are made to support increased freight and passenger capacity, Essex will continue to be the gateway for trade and investment throughout the region and in Europe and the world. However, if our railway infrastructure continues to be overlooked—which is unjustifiable in my view and that of all colleagues—there will be serious consequences not only for the Essex economy but for UK plc. A commitment to investing in railways in Essex and implementing the proposals in the rail prospectus will send out a strong, clear signal to entrepreneurs and investors who come to the county, and Essex will become an even greater place to set up and run a business.
The costs of providing a modern rail service in the regions will be repaid many times over through fares and through the benefits of the extra economic growth that is generated. It is, for want of a better term, a no-brainer. There will be a long-term return on this investment. Increased rail capacity and better services are also needed to support our local population growth. Over the next 20 years alone, it is estimated that the current population of 1.4 million will grow by 14%. To accommodate those new people, who will of course flock to Essex, in the three local planning authorities that cover my constituency the construction of 60,000 new homes is anticipated. Many thousands more homes will be built throughout the county and the region, which will mean more demand for the railways. Moreover, more people are already using the railways. In the Braintree district alone, last year there were 4.2 million passenger journeys, which represented a rise of more than 130,000 on the previous year. More than half of those journeys—almost 2.2 million in total—came from Witham station in the heart of my constituency.
After years of poor service and under-investment for all commuters, many of whom are paying between £4,000 and £5,000 a year to commute into London, people deserve to start seeing some of that money put back into their infrastructure and service. Commuters currently feel as though they are being used as cash cows, with little coming back in return, although their fares have made the Greater Anglia franchise one of the most valuable and profitable, for train operators and
the Government. We are pleading for something to be given back to our commuters. In 2010-11, the last year for which figures are available, the Office of Rail Regulation confirmed that the franchise raised £108.9 million for the Treasury, as commuters travelled almost 4 billion passenger kilometres. Despite all that money going in, however, our commuters have faced miserable journeys and an appalling customer experience, in particular in years such as 2010 and 2009. When National Express East Anglia ran the franchise, the customer experience was terrible and, according to the correspondence we were all receiving, customer satisfaction was at a low. In one study, 62% of passengers revealed that they arrived in London on time while only 48% travelling from London did so. In addition, the overcrowded conditions were horrendous, and they remain so because more and more people are using the service.
I am optimistic that Abellio can make some improvements during its current, short, two-year franchise. It has also been able to press Network Rail again on many of the delays, which is positive. We cannot, however, continue to tinker at the edges, with this sticking-plaster approach. It is all about investment and long-term future-proofing, which is why the implementation of the rail prospectus for East Anglia is so important to commuters in the region.
The prospectus gives all our commuters genuine hope and optimism. It demonstrates a commitment to give them, finally, the 21st-century rail services that they deserve and, to be frank, that they have been paying through the roof for. I urge the Minister to study the prospectus closely and to engage with us all. I know that she will; she is highly accommodating and has been constructive in all our dialogues so far. In my view, the costs will be relatively modest while the benefits will revolutionise our region, travel for commuters and businesses, and the whole economy. It will be worth it for us all.
Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk, Conservative)
I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Coffey on securing the debate. It was tremendous when we all met yesterday at Liverpool Street station—commuters saw the swarm of East Anglian MPs launching the manifesto that we had put together. This is the first time that all of the MPs from East Anglia have agreed on a common platform from which to make progress, which is highly important and significant.
I cannot compete with my hon. Friend, who has nine stations in her constituency. I represent only five, although they are five important stations: Watlington and Downham Market on the Fen line; and Brandon, Thetford and Harling Road on the Norwich to Cambridge line. Those stations are incredibly popular and, over the past four years, we have seen a rise in passenger numbers of 20% at both Thetford and Downham Market, which outstrips the national rise. The reason is the strong growth in employment in Cambridge and throughout the region—Norfolk has bucked the trend in manufacturing, and we are also doing well in the food and farming industries—so we see a growing number of people using the train to get to and from work.
Having used the services many a time, I can testify that the carriages are getting more and more packed, in particular at peak hours, going both ways; an interesting
thing about the Fen line is that it has almost as many people travelling out of London as into London, so the route is well balanced. That is only the start of what we are about to see, with massive growth in population throughout Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. We will see another 200,000 homes by 2021, so it is vital to have the rail services to deal with that increased capacity, because by then the congestion in our region will cost the economy an estimated £1 billion.
At the moment on those lines, we have hourly services, with a few additional services in peak hours, and that simply is not enough with the increased employment, housing and growth in the area. With my fellow local MPs, I have been calling for half-hourly services. The current work that we are doing to understand the effect of improvements to the Ely North junction indicates that investment in it would have a positive net present value of £260 million to our local economy, which is huge.
The Ely North junction is becoming famous in debates on East Anglian rail. It is a small area from which tracks were removed in the early 1980s, making it only a single-track junction. I recently visited it with my hon. Friend George Freeman. Sadly, due to health and safety reasons, we were not allowed to walk along the tracks to see the junction, but we made do with kneeling at the level crossing, such was our commitment to see the junction improved, and driving around the Ely area, which is in neither of our constituencies. We wanted to visit to ensure that we understood the logistics.
To upgrade the junction would be a relatively low-cost endeavour, but the effect would be felt on a vast number of lines; my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal spoke about freight services but, likewise, journeys to Ipswich, Peterborough, King’s Lynn and Norwich would all be improved. The critical importance of the junction came to light in May last year when I had a meeting with my hon. Friend Stephen Barclay and Network Rail. That key bottleneck was identified as what stood between us and getting a half-hourly service.
There are other issues on the line, such as the single track between Littleport and Downham Market, which often causes delays; likewise, a lot of level crossings ought to be dealt with by Network Rail. In the short term, however, opening up the Ely North junction would make half-hourly services possible on the line. In December 2011 my hon. Friend Miss Smith organised a rail summit, at which the issue was highlighted. We had a further summit in January, specifically to discuss the junction.
My hon. Friends the Members for Mid Norfolk and for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) also held a meeting with the Transport Secretary in May. She very much agreed that we needed to see expenditure evened out across the country. She understands, as we do, that for a long time East Anglia has paid into the pot while other parts of the country have taken out of it. Given the economic potential in our area, that is damaging not only for local passengers and commuters but for the economic growth potential of the country as a whole.
Simon Wright (Norwich South, Liberal Democrat)
One of the sectors of the economy that has not been mentioned yet but is incredibly important to Norwich is the retail sector. It is worth more than £1 billion every year, and one of the biggest complaints that I receive from shoppers is lack of parking. Does my hon. Friend agree that encouraging more shoppers to use rail, which we can do by improving the service, will unleash the current block on growing the retail sector of the economy, so ensuring that Norwich will continue to be one of the UK’s top 10 retail destinations?
Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk, Conservative)
I agree with my hon. Friend. There is also huge tourism potential in the region. Along the Norwich-Cambridge line, stations such as Thetford and Brandon could provide a good base for tourism in the Brecks if services were more frequent. People could also go shopping in Norwich when visiting the area.
At the moment, not only do we have unprecedented agreement among MPs of the region but we have a golden opportunity, with the Thameslink franchise coming up in 2013 and the Greater Anglia franchise coming up in 2013, to ensure that we specify the services we want. I encourage the Minister to ensure that half-hourly services are specified in both franchises. Demand exists from passengers, and the train operating companies have the ability to deliver, but it would be helpful to have a resolution from the Department for Transport that it will ask for that level of service, which our local commuters need, so that we have real value.
The other concern that I want to raise is intercity express programme trains, which were scheduled to go to King’s Lynn as part of the Thameslink franchise. Is that still the case, and can the Minister guarantee that we will see the new rolling stock on the line; that if we are successful in securing a half-hourly service we will not have a shuttle service from Cambridge to King’s Lynn, and that direct services to London will continue? Direct services are important for many local residents who either commute to London, or must travel there for business reasons. I would like answers to those specific points, but I am encouraged by the level of engagement of the Department. I hope that that will bring to an end years of under-investment in East Anglian rail, and that we are about to see a new golden era for our transportation. This is a huge opportunity to support a growing part of the country, and I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal for this debate.
Bob Russell (Colchester, Liberal Democrat)
I declare an interest because of my rail ticket from Colchester to London. I believe that Colchester is the sixth busiest commuter station in the home counties, so I have more than a passing interest in the matter. I think my constituents who are commuters would say that at the moment they are not receiving value for money.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Coffey on securing the debate, and on all her hard work. I endorse every word that my neighbour, my hon. Friend Priti Patel, said, with her pan-Essex approach to the driving force of the economy in the east of England.
I would like the Minister fully to appreciate how unanimous MPs from the east of England are. I stress that because a lot of hard work has been done. When
the journey started, not everyone was on board, and I plead guilty to being one of those who kicked up a fuss. One of the weaknesses and strengths of the new Anglia local enterprise partnership is that it is concentrated on Suffolk and Norfolk. It does an excellent job, but in my opinion the initial prospectus was silent on Essex. Others disagreed, and thought that the silence was covered, but I did not think it was. The prospectus now is fully focused on the whole of the great eastern main line from Norwich to London through the three counties. The guarantee in the prospectus is that there will be no reduction in the frequency of inter-city trains stopping at Colchester. I leave other MPs with stations in their constituencies to make their case.
There is a feeling in north Essex, of which Colchester is the obvious capital, that we are a neglected part of the country, because we are not in the new Anglia LEP. We are in the same LEP as Kent and East Sussex. In north Essex, we barely acknowledge Southend, let alone Kent and the outer reaches of Brighton. It is a credit to those who drew up the final prospectus that they widened their horizons beyond Suffolk and Norfolk, and recognised that we are all in this together—to coin a phrase. I regard myself as East Anglian before Essex, being only 5 miles from the Suffolk border. I urge the Minister to appreciate that, as we heard from previous speakers, we are East Anglia-orientated, not south Essex and not London. We are East Anglian in culture. I am delighted that the new Anglia LEP is adopting us, because we will get a better deal from the new LEP than we got from whatever the name is of the one we are in. We are a neglected corner.
I appreciate that others want to speak, so I shall be brief. I endorse the three previous speakers, but I want to put on the record that the guarantee in the prospectus of no reduction in the frequency of inter-city trains is important. We all have wish lists, and I also want to put on the record my four domestic wishes. I would very much like a direct service from Colchester to Cambridge via Ipswich; we must acknowledge that Cambridge is the central place in the six counties of east England. I would very much like a Sudbury to Colchester Town direct service. I do not have five or nine stations in my tight, urban constituency, but I have three stations. I would also like direct services from Colchester Town to London. That is not impossible, and additional capacity and the speeding up of services that others have mentioned is necessary. Finally, we are approaching the summer season, and I would like, if possible, Sunday services to the Essex coast from Colchester Town and my third station, Colchester Hythe.
I thank everyone involved in the issue and, to emphasise the point for the Minister, I repeat that this is the unanimous voice of East Anglia.
George Freeman (Mid Norfolk, Conservative)
It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship. I add my voice to those congratulating my hon. Friend Dr Coffey on our behalf. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Miss Smith on leading the choreography to pull us all together, which is no easy task. I add my name to those of hon. Members who mentioned the local enterprise partnership, Abellio and Network Rail, who have all worked closely with us to make sure that the document has their active support and their approval
of the measures within it as realistic. Jonathan Denby of Abellio has been a powerful force in helping to shape and drive the matter.
The prospectus sets out an ambitious, long-term vision for the East Anglian rail network. First and foremost, for far too long, commuters have had to put up with unacceptable under-investment in a network that they have paid for many times over. I want to focus on the importance of the East Anglia rail network in underpinning our modern economy.
Before coming to Parliament, I spent 15 years in East Anglia helping to build, finance and manage fast-growth science and technology businesses around Cambridge and Norwich. I know well and can testify to the growth potential in the area to which other hon. Members have referred, and which the Government are recognising in a number of their initiatives for an innovation-led recovery. They have powerfully—rightly in my view—set out the need for us to adopt a different model of economic growth and development in the light of the crisis that we inherited. It is a more balanced model of development driven much more from the regions and by business with finance following business growth, and without everyone having to commute to London to feed the banking machine, which is free to support and grow real businesses around the country, particularly drawing on our skills in the knowledge economy, whether life sciences, the digital economy, clean energy, food, nutrition or agriculture.
As hon. Members know, no region is better equipped than East Anglia to grab that opportunity, and to lead a new model of economic growth. Since the war—for far too long—East Anglia has been treated, seemingly, by successive Administrations as an area that can be taken for granted and from which people will commute to London, however poor the investment. Alternatively, it is seen as something of a rural backwater for retirees and house dumping when London targets need to be accommodated.
The area is ready to rise and do something more for this country. It is building great businesses across the board, but it cannot do that without infrastructure. That is why a coalition of Norfolk MPs, and those from across East Anglia more widely, are coming to the Government with a central message: we do not want a handout; give us a way in and a way out and we will deliver sustainable growth.
Fast modern rail is crucial to modern economies around the world for a number of reasons. We live in a global economy, and every start-up business in our area needs to think globally. Fast rail is a crucial link to our airports at Stansted and Norwich, as well as other London hubs, and it is crucial if we are to link the City of London’s world-class financial expertise to businesses in those clusters. In life sciences, for example—my area of expertise—if we do not link better Oxford, Cambridge and Norwich to London, so that people can fly in from around the world, to visit companies, scientists and investors in these areas, we will not unlock our full potential. I like to think that in due course, our Cambridge-Norwich line might be part of a wider emphasis on a Oxford-Cambridge-Norwich railway that links the life sciences.
As we heard in an eloquent speech from my neighbour, my hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss, the cost of the gridlock that is East
Anglia on an average morning or evening comes to £1 billion a year. People are sitting in cars and trains going nowhere in an area that has a lot more to offer.
Finally, Cambridge sits at the heart of the region that has the potential to drive global growth. As I know well because I was working there at the time, perhaps the most powerful thing that happened to unlock Cambridge’s growth—described eloquently as the “Cambridge phenomenon”—was the improvement of fast rail links to London, and principally the two hourly non-stop service. It became known as the “VC Express” or the “Cambridge Flyer”, and it dramatically shortened not only travel times, but cultural perceptions of the distance between Cambridge and London. Investors in London started jumping on the train and popping up to Cambridge for a morning to meet and view interesting companies. That is not happening at the moment in Ipswich, Norwich and other areas, but it could.
As we have heard, our region has been woefully neglected over the years. It was heartening to hear the Minister and the Secretary of State recognise at the highest level the need to balance rail expenditure between areas and tackle regional discrimination. It has also been recognised that the area is a net contributor to the Treasury, and with infrastructure we could deliver growth and sustainable development.
I would like to put down a marker. If the Government are thinking about pilot schemes for integrating the train operating companies with Network Rail to drive new models of more integrated planning, as we mention in the prospectus, we would like East Anglia to be considered for any such initiative.
We will not build a high-quality economy and attract and retain world-class talent if we allow our area to become a giant housing estate, with commuters condemned to traffic and gridlock. That is especially important to residents in my constituency of Mid Norfolk which sits, as the Minister may know, between Cambridge and Thetford on the Cambridge to Norwich line. Average incomes in my constituency are below £20,000—well below the national average. It is a very rural area that some might describe as something of a backwater in terms of national communications. It sits in the middle of the only county that is not yet connected to the national trunk road system, but it is zoned for massive housing growth, particularly in Wymondham and Attleborough, as well as further down the Cambridge-Norwich line in Thetford and Brandon.
The towns of Wymondham and Attleborough are happy to grow, but they want infrastructure so that growth is sustainable and will not be allowed to damage and undermine their quality of life. The railway sits at the heart of that challenge. If we simply build houses, and plan on the basis that everybody will drive, the morning after our beloved A11 is opened in its newly dualled state, it will quickly become a car park. The A11 needs to be the artery of East Anglia, but that will require more people in new homes to jump on the train to Cambridge, Norwich, Thetford or Ely in the morning.
The Minister will not be surprised that I mention the Ely North junction. It is the key bottleneck in plans to unlock the Cambridge-Norwich railway that was reopened less than a decade ago. The plans have strong cross-party
support, but the junction is a bottleneck on the Cambridge-Norwich line, the Fen line and the freight line. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State have been at pains to listen to the problem, and we are grateful for the time and trouble that they have taken. The Minister’s support on this issue has been crucial, and we hugely look forward to her reply.
Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, Conservative)
Many key points have already been touched on, and we have heard a lot from hon. Members about the historical under-investment in the East Anglian rail network. We heard in a well articulated speech by my hon. Friend Priti Patel that although fares continue to increase, the reliability of the service continues to be a problem, and there has been consistently poor value for money for passengers who use the line.