Orders of the Day — Midland Railway (Electrification)

– in the House of Commons at 11:52 pm on 20th November 1990.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz , Leicester East 12:14 am, 20th November 1990

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter in the House. I understand that this is the first time that the issue has been debated in this place, and I want at the outset to recognise the work of several individuals in Leicestershire who have campaigned on the subject. They are: councillor David Radford of Leicestershire county council; Mr. James Holden, who is an officer of the county council; councillor Henry Dumphy of Leicester city council; and Mr. John Armstrong of the Railway Development Society. I thank the Minister for his attendance and I hope that he, as an east midlands Member, will demonstrate a little regional pride this evening.

The midland main railway line links Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby and Leicester with London. It is electrified as far as Bedford for suburban services. The InterCity services are operated by diesel InterCity 125 trains half hourly to Leicester and hourly north of there. The line serves one of the largest populations of arty line in the country and it is profitable. In 1988 it carried 5·8 million passengers, including myself.

Train services have improved in recent years. Average journey speeds from Leicester to London rose from 55 mph to 72 mph between 1980 and 1988. However, the midland main line has suffered for many years from under-investment. The parallel east coast and west coast main lines are electrified while the midland line is not. The west coast line is to have a further £750 million spent on upgrading. What appeared to be a commitment in the early 1980s to the electrification of the midland main line has been abandoned.

In 1988, concerned at the lack of plans for the line, a consortium was formed comprising the major local authorities that it serves: Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire county councils and Sheffield city council. They commissioned consultants to investigate investment options for the line. The campaign for electrification based on the results of the study was launched in April 1990.

Fast high quality trains are not good in themselves, but they stimulate the economy that they serve by providing a vital communication link. The regions rely on good transport to be competitive. With the single European market and the channel tunnel, distances become greater and good transport even more important. There is strong evidence across Europe of a link between high quality train services and economic prosperity.

Places north and west of London will lie at the edge of the European market, even after the channel tunnel opens. To compete effectively, Leicester and the east midlands need excellent transport links, both passenger and freight. The lack of international rail services will fail to enhance our competiveness when the opportunities will be greatest.

The east midlands will have the largest population in the country with no direct European services. Potentially, one could travel from Leicester, Derby or Nottingham to Paris or Brussels in four hours via the tunnel.

Electric trains are better than diesels at delivering economic development benefits. All new high-speed services are electric, not diesel. Electric trains can be faster and quieter than diesels, and the mere act of putting up the wires shows a commitment to the service.

The consultants estimated that 3,500 jobs could be created in the region as a direct result of electrification, 800 of those jobs being in Leicestershire. That will come from business relocating there and also expanding. In the longer term, the numbers could be greater than that. Midland electrification is vital to secure the economic prosperity of the region.

Investment of only £5·5 million in the track would bring big journey time savings—up to 20 minutes off the Sheffield to London journey, and 74 miles could be cleared for 110 mph travel and 22 miles could be cleared for 125 mph travel. Investment of just £95 million would complete electrification of the line from Bedford to Sheffield, and a further £48 million would equip it with the most up-to-date electric locomotives and coaches. The total cost of £150 million is nothing compared with what is being spent elsewhere.

As the Minister knows, Government rules demand that British Rail investment makes an 8 per cent. real return on capital. The consultants have demonstrated in their report, a copy of which was handed to the Minister of State at my meeting with him earlier this year, that midland electrification meets that target. Electrification, therefore, is profitable.

Investment in new roads is appraised using cost benefit analysis, which gives financial values to savings in travellers' time and fewer accidents, but inter-city rail investment is judged only in pure financial terms, so the benefits of electrification in strengthening the regional economy and helping to relieve congestion on the parallel M1, probably the busiest road in the country, cannot be counted. A growing body of opinion says that public transport and road building schemes should all be appraised even-handedly using cost-benefit analysis. If they were, midland electrification, with its large cost-benefit return, would have a high priority.

Electrification is also the green option. Trains can make a major contribution to an environmentally responsible transport strategy. Fast, high-quality passenger train services attract many of their customers from car users. If midland main line services are improved, many new passengers will leave their cars at home and travel by train instead. That transfer from road to rail makes a real contribution to reducing environmental problems.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes , North East Derbyshire

There is heavy road and rail congestion in the east midlands during peak times. In my constituency, where the east midlands line passes through, and in the southern area there is great road congestion. In the northern area, from Dronfield to Sheffield, there is also considerable congestion. if the electrification for which my hon. Friend asks takes place, it will help to deal with road and rail problems. There is considerable congestion at peak hours in Leicester, in my hon. Friend's constituency, which would be overcome to a large extent by the electrification developments that he is stressing.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz , Leicester East

My hon. Friend is quite right. Our roads are already congested. Instead of proposals for private roads and extra lanes on motorways, let us save some money, lives and injuries and spend more money on our public transport system.

I now refer to the two advantages of using trains as opposed to cars in the environmental strategy. First, trains use less than half the fuel that cars use per person carried, so total consumption of non-renewable resources will be less. Secondly, because trains use less fuel, they also produce smaller amounts of the polluting exhaust gases that threaten the ozone layer.

If the Minister tells us that he is not prepared to make a commitment to this proposal today, and if the line is not electrified, the present trains will be worn out by the turn of the century. They are already 15 years old. Nearly all other high-speed lines are electric, so there is little prospect of replacement diesel trains of the speed and quality necessary to remain competitive. The fear is that a service of declining quality could eventually be truncated at Leicester, with Leicester served by slower, outer-suburban trains, and Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield being served by branch lines off other main lines. We do not want to be left behind as also-rans as we have been in the past. We will not accept everyone else's cast-offs.

The campaign has cross-party support. It has the support of all the region's Members of this Parliament and its Members of the European Parliament, including my own MEP, Imelda Read, who is to raise this matter in the European Parliament. It also has the support of the district and county councils, trade unions, chambers of commerce and other bodies. I have agreed that the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), who is in his place, should speak briefly when I have finished. I shall be joining him at a meeting at 9.15 am tomorrow at the Department when we shall continue to raise this issue.

We want some positive comments from the Minister tonight. We want three basic commitments. First, we want a commitment to electrification. Electrification has a long lead time—about seven years. We need a commitment to that investment now so that it can be completed before the turn of the century.

Secondly, we want the Government to insist that British Rail InterCity quickly employs resources to research the case for midland electrification. We estimate that it will take no more than six months to do that because most of the heavy work has already been done by the consultants.

Thirdly, we need the Government's assurance that midland electrification will not be delayed by the limits on British Rail's borrowing powers. Easing those constraints could bring electrification much sooner.

I urge the Minister to set a more positive climate in which British Rail InterCity can work by taking this opportunity to endorse the benefits, both economic and environmental, of having a high-speed, high-quality electrified network of InterCity services and setting a target for its achievement. This is not just a regional matter. The economic and commercial potential for cities such as Leicester and the east midlands region as a whole is so great that the whole country must share this concern. I urge the Minister just to say "Yes".

Photo of David Tredinnick David Tredinnick , Bosworth 12:26 am, 20th November 1990

I thank the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) for making time available to me this evening. I also thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for agreeing to meet a delegation of Leicestershire Members tomorrow to discuss the specific problem. That demonstrates that the Government care about this issue and that they recognise the concern in the county. I am sure that the fact that we are meeting the Minister tomorrow will be widely welcomed by my constituents.

I have argued long and hard, since my election to the House, for the electrification of the midland main line. I believe that the future prosperity of the midlands, and especially of Leicestershire, including Leicester and Hinckley, depend in the long term on the electrification project. Given the £750 million that has been invested in the west coast main line, the £1 billion on the Al and the multi-million pound investment on the M1 , it seems reasonable for the £160 million proposed investment in the midland main line to proceed. However, if that is not possible, a good second option would be to electrify the line from Bedford to the city of Leicester. A third option which my hon. Friend the Minister might consider, and which has already been referred to, is to encourage British Rail to spend £5 million to cut the rail journey time from Leicester to London by 10 minutes. I understand that that would mean removing the curves at Harborough and Wellingborough.

I ask my hon. Friend one question: does British Rail need permission from the Department of Transport to spend that money? Can he answer that question?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport 12:28 am, 20th November 1990

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on securing this debate on the electrification of British Rail's midland main line. I am pleased that I am also joined on the Front Bench by my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) and for Derby, North (Mr. Knight). That shows the importance that is felt cross-party about this issue. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Hallam is the only Sheffield Member who is present. I am grateful for the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) and for the presence of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes)—how could I ever leave him out?

I, too, represent a constituency close to the line, and many of my Derbyshire, West constituents are regular users of the line. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), the Minister for Public Transport, also takes a close interest in the line, and he recently met members of the consortium of midland main line local authorities to discuss its future development.

I assure the House that the importance of the midland main line to the region is well recognised. The spirited and lively campaign organised by local authorities and other interests in the east midlands has also succeeded in highlighting the importance of the line, which only a few years ago many people felt was in danger of becoming a Cinderella line. Today, nothing could be further from the truth. The midland main line is an important line for InterCity, British Rail's profitable passenger section. The line is bringing in money and is highly valued by British Rail.

I remind the House just how good the midland main line service is today. There are currently 68 trains each weekday to and from London. The quickest of those has an average journey time of 75 minutes from London to Leicester. That is an average of 79 mph. The fastest journey time achieved by British Rail—compared with the average that I have just noted—is 66 minutes. The speed and quality of the service has improved considerably in the past 10 years. BR tells me that in 1980 the London to Leicester time was 106 minutes, half an hour slower than today, and with an average speed of only 56 mph—23 mph slower than today.

Similar improvements have been made in journey times to Derby and to Sheffield. In 1980, the average journey time to Derby was 146 minutes; now it is 108 minutes. The average speed of that journey has increased from 52 mph to 71 mph. I think that it is right to point to that, because it shows the improvements that have been made on that line, which I use on quite a few occasions.

The hon. Member for Leicester, East spoke about attracting more investment into the area. With the greatest respect, I wish that Opposition Members would not keep talking down the region. It gets investment now—for example, Toyota has invested in Derby, and it is the largest single investment ever contemplated in Europe. That has happened without electrification. The region has a great deal going for it because of the successful economic policies of this Government.

Major work has taken place over the past few years at terminals on the route, with improvements to car parking at many stations, including Derby. There have also been improvements to passenger facilities and to travel centres such as the one at Leicester. Schemes completed this year include refurbishment of the passenger lounges at Derby and at Leicester, extension of the car park at Leicester and its improvement by installing closed circuit television, and the building of a new pay-and-display car park at Market Harborough. Total expenditure by British Rail on the infrastructure at Leicester has been over £400,000 this year alone. On the whole of the midland main line, British Rail has spent over £800,000 during this financial year.

Additional improvements are in progress at St. Pancras. At Sheffield—my hon. Friend the Member for Hallam will be interested in this—over £800,000 is being invested in the Sheffield travel centre and the barrier line. Sheffield station, which I visited recently, generally is being upgraded in time for the world student games that will be held in Sheffield next year. There has been continual investment in track renewal to raise the speed of the line. By the May 1990 timetable, more than 40 miles of track south of Leicester had been upgraded to operate at 110 mph resulting in quicker journeys. All of that investment is paying dividends.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth asked about British Rail's position on investment. It needs to come to the Department for investment approval only for schemes above £10 million. Schemes under that figure are solely a matter for British Rail, which must decide its priorities. I hope that that answers my hon. Friend's question and goes some way towards reassuring him on that point.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz , Leicester East

Hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that the position has improved over the past 10 years. Will the Minister turn his mind to the subject of this debate, which is the electrification of the midland main line? Does he believe that electrification will benefit the region economically and commercially?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

I hope that there is time to answer that as it is the substance of the debate.

The performance of the trains on the route is persistently good. Midland main line trains are exceeding the InterCity punctuality target that 90 per cent. of trains arrive no more than 10 minutes late. The figures for October are typical for achievements this year. They show that on the midland main line 92·7 per cent. of trains were no more than 10 minutes late.

British Rail also introduced a new route control on the midland main line in April this year. It is based at Derby and is responsible for the minute-by-minute control of services. It ensures effective communication between all the various functions on the line, including catering.

There have also been a number of improvements to the timetable. As I said earlier, journey times have decreased significantly in the past 10 years. Other developments have included an additional high-speed 125 train and the introduction of a half-hourly service from Leicester to London in May 1988. In May 1989 there were also journey time reductions.

In October 1989 an hourly service from Nottingham and Sheffield to London was introduced. This year, in May, we saw the introduction of the "Robin Hood" Pullman service from Nottingham and Leicester in the morning to London with a return train in the early evening. British Rail also increased the evening peak capacity from St. Pancras by 33 per cent. between 1987 and May 1990, in response to the growth in traffic.

This is clearly not a line in decline—it is a line with increasing investment, improving services and more passengers. Yet I understand the widespread desire for even further improvement. The campaigners want their line to be electrified, but electrification would not necessarily make the trains run any faster. That could be achieved with current rolling stock were it not for the layout of the line. The midland main line contains a high proportion of curves, junctions and stations which mean that very high speed is impracticable. Although the speeds on the line are good, they could be even better but for speed restrictions of 80 mph through Market Harborough.

Comparatively modest further investment of £5 million in infrastructure could improve the speeds of existing trains on the line, and we are encouraging BR to discuss that option with local authorities and others in the region. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth, BR could take such decisions without necessarily referring to the Government.

Nevertheless, I appreciate that there may be a feeling that, with the completion next year of the electrification of the east coast main line, the people on the midland main line may feel that they are in danger of being left behind. That electrification, the largest electrification project ever and the largest railway project for more than a quarter of a century, will reduce journey times from London to Edinburgh by 35 minutes. New class 91 locomotives and mark-four rolling stock will carry passengers in air-conditioned comfort providing a worthy rival to the airlines for passengers from Scotland and the north-east of England.

People in the east midlands may also feel that without electrification they cannot plug into the channel tunnel network. It is true that in 1993 the range of transport options for travellers all over Britain will be widened with the opening of the channel tunnel—another project introduced and supported by the Government. It is important, however, not to overestimate the importance of the tunnel. It will be just one additional route linking Britain and Europe. Although it will offer new opportunities, particularly for freight transport by rail, it will not supersede the other links such as planes and ferries which will continue to operate and it may well be that air travel continues to be the preferred option for many passengers from beyond London, particularly those travelling on business, for whom time is the crucial factor.

British Rail is required by section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 to operate its international services on a proper commercial basis. It can therefore plan services only on the basis of demand that has been demonstrated through market research. It would not make sense for BR to put on speculative services simply in the hope that the market will grow. Its initial plans for channel tunnel services were set out in its section 40 plan last December.

British Rail's channel tunnel day-passenger trains have to run on the electrified network, so there are no current proposals to run such services on the midland main line. It is for British Rail to decide the best means of traction on any line in the first instance. It is unlikely, as far as the midland main line is concerned, that the very large costs of electrification could be commercially justified at present by cost savings or by increased revenue from fares. British Rail does not believe that the additional international traffic alone would tilt the balance in favour of electrification where no sound case otherwise exists.

But I wish to emphasise that the midlands have not been overlooked by BR in its future plans. Excellent interchange connections from the midlands are planned as part of the King's Cross development which is currently the subject of a Bill before the House. The international trains are expected to call at Newark and Peterborough on the east coast main line and at Milton Keynes on the west coast main line, and there are plans for trains from Nottingham, Lincoln, Grimsby and Northampton to connect with those stops.

British Rail will be keeping under review its plans both up to the opening of the tunnel and thereafter. It will welcome an input from local businesses and authorities so that it can formulate an accurate assessment of the developing demand for its services. In view of its commercial remit, however, it can consider proposals for further services only where a viable demand can be demonstrated.

International freight trains will also be able to operate on non-electrified lines. British Rail expects the midlands to account for some 18 per cent. of channel tunnel freight. It is also considering options for regional freight terminals in the midlands and negotiations are continuing about possible locations.

As I said, there has been considerable investment by British Rail in the midland main line, which will continue. Further investment schemes for terminals, track and signalling on the line are being developed by British Rail. I think that we can expect to see further upgrades of track to increase line speed and reduce journey time. The extremely successful current timetable will be continued in May 1991 and there will continue to be focused route management and work to identify potential speed improvements.

I am keen to see positive planning by British Rail for further improvements to the midland main line, which I frequently use. Intercity expects to take key decisions about the longer-term future of the line over the next two or three years. It would be premature to bring that forward, since the rolling stock on the line will not need replacement until early next century, and there are clear constraints on the resources available to British Rail.

It is a question not just of money, but, equally important, of manpower and other resources. British Rail must put its spending into an order of priorities. There are lines where the service is not as good as it is on the midland main line, and those are the lines where British Rail must invest first. British Rail highly values the midland main line and is favourably disposed to improving it. That is shown in its investment record. I would expect British Rail to be able to make a commercial case for investing in new rolling stock—either electric or diesel—later in the decade. We must wait for those proposals and plans to come forward.

I hope that I have demonstrated the keen way in which British Rail has invested in the line and created a better service. I believe that passengers using the service are much more satisfied with it than they were a few years ago. I want to see the various services continue to improve, and I am sure that they will.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to One o'clock.