Cornwall Sleeper Service

Oral Answers to Questions — Transport – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat, Truro and St Austell 2:30 pm, 28th June 2005

If he will take steps when assessing franchise applications to ensure the future of the Cornwall sleeper service.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

The Strategic Rail Authority issued invitations to tender to bidders for the new Greater Western franchise on 2 June. The invitation to tender's base case includes provision of the sleeper service, which will be considered as part of the evaluation of the franchise. At the same time, the SRA initiated a consultation exercise on the service provision for the franchise. The formal consultation runs for eight weeks.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat, Truro and St Austell

Does the Minister agree that, at a time when hundreds of millions of pounds are being invested through the objective 1 process to help business in Cornwall, it would make no sense to cut the vital sleeper service as a result of the process that is isolating that service from the rest of the franchise? The sleeper service provides the only way for businessmen to avoid wasting half a day travelling in one direction or another. Will the Minister look into the economic impact on the wider business community in Cornwall of removing the sleeper service?

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Obviously, I understand the concerns that have been raised, and we had an Adjournment debate on the matter recently in Westminster Hall. The issue is part of the base case for the tender. Bidders are being asked to propose an alternative way of serving the market for overnight travel between London and the south-west. I understand the economic concerns and the concerns of the business community, but we are in a consultation process in which business, local people, Members of Parliament and other organisations can make representations. As I said last week, no decision has yet been taken.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Labour, Plymouth, Devonport

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. About 18 months ago, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, now my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, said:

"when you're looking at the South West, getting the Transport system right is one of the most important things you can do to help . . . business and bring investment to the Region."

Does he agree that getting the transport system right includes ensuring that the overnight service to Plymouth and Cornwall is retained?

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I understand that my hon. Friend has made representations and has been actively campaigning on this issue. Affordability and cost-effectiveness are also issues, however, and we must consider that in relation to the overall bid, as the service is not as well used as some people try to make out. We need to take account of those considerations when making a decision.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I invite the Minister to spend some of the summer recess down on the south-west peninsula, where he will be able to see for himself the appalling congestion on the roads going through Devon into Cornwall. The question of the sleeper service is more than anything else a symbol of the Government's commitment to the rural transport infrastructure of the south-west peninsula. We have just witnessed the downgrading of many arterial roads into the south-west, and it is critical that the Government commit time and money to maintaining a sleeper service and to examining how motorail could get more traffic off the only existing roads and on to rail.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

As I have said, record investment is going into our railways, and we have seen a massive improvement in performance and reliability, as well as investment in the region. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman's Government did about that when they were in power, but they do not seem to have invested in the way that we are doing. I do not know whether he is offering to put me up during a visit to the south-west, but we shall wait and see.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

The sleeper service terminates at Penzance in my constituency, and we know that the Secretary of State will ultimately decide whether we will keep the sleeper service. Can the Minister assure me that instead of salami-slicing out the so-called non-profit-making elements of the service, which will ultimately result in the salami-slicing of other parts of the service, there will be a service after the 6 o'clock service from Paddington on which people from west Cornwall can depend to get them home late at night?

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

As I said when I started responding to the questions, we are in a consultation period in which hon. Members can put forward their views on what is proposed, which does not mean that things will not be altered. At this stage, there has not been a decision to stop the sleeper service. It is an expensive service, however, costing around £5 million a year, which takes up a lot of engines and resources. We need to consider that, it is sensible to do so, and that is why we have asked the bidders to outline the costs separately as well.