Swindon to Kemble Railway (Redoubling)

– in the House of Commons at 9:49 pm on 30th June 2008.

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

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 10:17 pm, 30th June 2008

I should like to start, Mr. Speaker, by thanking you very much for giving me the opportunity to raise the subject of dualling the Swindon to Kemble railway line. I welcome to the debate my constituency neighbours, the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), and the Minister, who is in his place. [Interruption.] Ah, yes. I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Mr. Dhanda, who is on the Treasury Bench, too.

Two railway lines run through my constituency. In the north, the Cotswold line passes through via Moreton-in-Marsh, and in the south is the Golden Valley line, which serves Cheltenham via Kemble to Swindon, where it joins the Great Western main line to London. Both lines have been blighted by unacceptable delays, and although improvements have been made in recent years, the delays continue to frustrate regular commuters and infrequent travellers alike.

One key factor behind the continued delays is that long sections of both lines are single track. The fundamental nature of the problem is that, self-evidently, only one train can pass on any single section at any one time. The section of single track on the Golden Valley line is located between Swindon and Kemble and is 12.5 miles long.

In April, I, along with my hon. Friend Peter Luff, met representatives of Network Rail to hear their business case for the schemes. The meeting was held in advance of the release on 5 June of the Office of Rail Regulation's "Periodic review 2008: Draft determinations", which defines Network Rail's funding allocations for 2009 to 2014. Although there was some positive news in the ORR's report in that the green light was given for the redoubling of the Cotswold line, it was decided that, apparently, the improvements to the single-track section between Swindon and Kemble on the Golden Valley line do not conform with current Government priorities. Obviously, that was a huge disappointment, which the hon. Member for Stroud and I expressed in a meeting with the ORR on 12 June; it is also, of course, the reason why we are all here tonight.

At this juncture, I hope that the Minister will note that although both lines pass through my constituency, their two closest stations are still about 30 miles apart—a journey that would take nearly an hour by road. The lines are used by completely separate sets of commuters and serve completely different regions of the country. Therefore, any claim that the two are connected in the county of Gloucestershire for funding purposes is completely fallacious. On the Kemble branch, delays and cancellations are frequent. The infrastructure cannot support an hourly timetable; delays are regularly exported from the line and Network Rail believes that significant demand from both passengers and freight is being suppressed because of those limitations.

I should like to highlight what I consider to be a matter of importance regarding the ORR's decision not to allocate funding for this scheme. I have received, via two constituents, correspondence from the ORR. I think it erroneous, so I hope that the Minister will listen carefully. The letter, which has been sent to my constituents, states:

"With regard to the Swindon to Gloucester line, Network Rail has determined that it does not need to redouble this route in order to achieve the requirements of the Government's High Level Output Statement (HLOS) for the period 2009-2014 and so has not put forward this scheme for funding under our present review of its outputs and charges".

The Minister may be interested to know that I had a meeting with senior Network Rail representatives on Thursday and I asked them whether what that letter said was really true. They came out with this important statement:

"Whilst this is correct in terms of the Capacity Metric, it is incorrect in terms of the Performance Metric.

The scheme was identified by Network Rail as contributing to the delivery of the HLOS performance metric, over and above the schemes that are required to deliver the HLOS capacity metric.

We confirm that the scheme was put forward to the ORR within the Network Rail HLOS Submission for funding as a performance scheme."

I hope that the Minister will reprimand the ORR and ask it not to send out misleading information to my or anybody else's constituents.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I, too, wrote to the ORR and its reply to me slightly contradicts the one that it sent to my hon. Friend. It specifically said that it felt that the scheme would have gone beyond the performance and capacity requirements specified in the Government's high level output specifications, and that that was why it had chosen not to fund it. Effectively, it said that it can meet the Government's requirements without implementing the scheme; effectively, it was blaming the Government rather than itself for not funding the scheme. It would be helpful if the Minister could clear up the discrepancy.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

Clearly, this is a matter of contention. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I did not mention him at the beginning because he was not in his place, but I am delighted that he is here. No doubt the Minister will wish to clear up the issue that my hon. Friend has raised.

As I have said, Kemble station on the line is in my constituency. There are 18 daily Swindon-bound trains, of which eight terminate at London Paddington, and 18 Gloucester-bound trains, 17 of which continue to Cheltenham Spa. Passenger use of the station is on the rise; in 2006-07, the numbers were up 17 per cent. on those for 2004-05.

As the current single-track alignment is mainly centred, it does not allow for a simple redoubling of the line. However, Network Rail has noted in a letter to MPs through whose constituencies the line passes that the scheme

"offers value for money and wider benefits to the operation and performance of the route and wider network".

What is really important is that in its assessment, Network Rail estimates that the scheme has a benefit-to-cost ratio of 9.96, which puts it in the category of offering very good value for money—better value for money, in fact, than some of the schemes that are proceeding. There are a number of reasons for that, and I should like to put them to the Minister. First, the scheme will provide for a reduced journey time, due to simplification of the layout at Swindon. The constraint of the current single-line operation will be removed, which, when combined with an increased capacity on the line, will allow for four trains per hour in each direction.

Secondly, a redoubled line would offer a diversionary route for trains from a number of routes, affecting a great many regions. It would allow trains travelling to or from Wales to bypass the Severn tunnel when it is out of action due to maintenance, and it would provide a diversionary route for freight traffic travelling from Southampton to the west midlands and for trains from the south-west to the north of England, which is the preferred diversionary route. Thirdly, a redoubled line would provide much greater route flexibility, which has knock-on beneficial effects for several regions.

Fourthly, another key cause of delays on the line is the age of the tracks, which need regular repair. The current single line limits the amount of work that can realistically be scheduled. A redoubled line would allow track work to occur more rapidly while maintaining a viable service.

Fifthly, First Great Western has written to me firmly expressing its support for the improvements and has commented that the scheme

"makes passive provision for a new station to serve the rapidly expanding North Swindon Area—helping reduce congestion and the broader environmental impact".

The station at Moredon will be vital in working towards achieving the Government's aspirations on community sustainability in this area.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that one thing that would help those of us who desperately want the redoubling to take place would be the publication of all the investigations that have gone on into this piece of line? There is a need for transparency that would help the arguments. We always seem to be there, or thereabouts, and then we fail at the final hurdle. If we got the information, at least we could have an open debate on the merits of the case.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the Minister will have heard what he said. I hope that we can have an honest and open debate and that the Minister will make available to Members of Parliament any information that he has, perhaps through parliamentary questions, and we can get it out into the public domain in that way.

Sixthly, the Golden Valley line is key to the new inter-city express programme— the IEP—from 2015 onwards. The IEP represents the high-speed train—HST—replacement and is designed to provide additional seating capacity and operational performance. Without redoubling, we will not be able to see the full benefits of the IEP.

Finally, there is the possibility of the developments resulting in a saving. The closure of the Minety level crossing box would result in savings of approximately £300,000 per annum.

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Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I congratulate my neighbour on securing this debate; he has my complete support. Does he agree that another environmental benefit of the redoubling taking place would be that many of the journeys that commuters take from towns such as Cheltenham Spa to Swindon to avoid the unreliable service would be improved because they would be able to take the more reliable service that would result?

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I entirely agree with my neighbour. I will come to that later.

I turn to the beneficiaries of this scheme. Where necessary, I will quote from a report from the Minister's Department of May 2007, "South West Regional Planning Assessment for the Railways", from which he will note that many of the aspirations listed are tied up with this 12.5 mile stretch. If—and it is a big if—there are no delays on the line, one can get on the 7.21 at Kemble station and be at London Paddington at 8.40, putting residents well within the magic figure of being two hours from the capital. The report notes:

"Fast, frequent and reliable connections to main city centres and on longer distance routes (particularly to London, the Thames Valley and Heathrow) will be critical to maintaining and improving the South West's economic competitiveness".

As Members here know, but the Minister may not, the south-west is a rapidly growing area. Gloucester is seen as a highly desirable town to live and work in, and it has been estimated that an extra 15,000 houses will need to be built in the town by 2026. That is complemented by the estimated 22,000 to 36,000 new jobs that are being created in Cheltenham and Gloucester in the same period. In Swindon, the population is estimated to grow by nearly 30,000 between now and 2026. In other words, between the three major towns and cities, we are looking at a growth in population of about 50,000 between now and 2026. Unfortunately, taking Cheltenham and Gloucester specifically, I cannot think of many other towns within two hours and 100 miles of London so poorly served by rail connections.

This scheme has the backing of the Gloucestershire county council, The South West of England Regional Development Agency, the regional assembly, the district and urban councils and Gloucestershire's MPs—as can be seen by their presence here tonight. They all recognise the clear need for joined-up thinking from the Government in matching the transport infrastructure of the region with the expansions proposed by the regional spatial strategy.

On 21 April this year, I called an Adjournment debate on another travel-related matter in my constituency, that of the road improvement scheme on the missing A417/419 link, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. Harris responded in that debate also. He will know from that debate that road congestion in Gloucestershire is building considerably. Studies for much of Gloucestershire paint a bleak picture of congestion on the roads. Given the anticipated population growth in the area, and the increased focus on the environment and reduced car usage, rail could provide a key part of the solution, as Martin Horwood indicated.

I have produced a comprehensive list of the benefits that can be gained through a redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble line, and the Minister will have noted that it closely correlates with each of the nine key development objectives for the railway listed in his report, from which I have been quoting. Having shown the clear need to make this improvement, I would like to finish by highlighting the imperative of time. If the Swindon to Kemble redoubling does not feature in the ORR's funding priorities now, it will not feature again until 2014 at the earliest, because by 2010, we will see the massive redevelopment of Reading station, the Crossrail development and, perhaps, the recently announced proposed development of high-speed tracks throughout the country. My concern is that the budget, equipment and manpower for this scheme will not be in place if it is not scheduled by 2010.

If the Swindon to Kemble improvement is not made now, it is likely that it will be delayed not just for five years but perhaps for another 10 or 20 years. Given that Network Rail estimates the cost of this scheme to be just £38 million, there can be few schemes in the country that offer such sustainability and connectivity, or which ensure regional economic growth for such good value for money, as I stressed through the indices I cited earlier. I hope that the Minister will cheer up the constituents of all my colleagues here tonight, and of others in the south-west, by assuring me that he will press the ORR to reconsider its decision.

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Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 10:32 pm, 30th June 2008

I begin by congratulating Mr. Clifton-Brown on securing this debate so soon after I responded in his earlier Adjournment debate on the A417. This is an important issue for his constituents and for rail users, especially those travelling on the Great Western main line. I also extend a welcome to other colleagues, particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr. Dhanda and my hon. Friend Mr. Drew.

Our railways are experiencing record numbers of passenger journeys and levels of freight. The Government's unprecedented levels of investment in the network are paying off, and that investment is set to continue. I begin by reminding the hon. Member for Cotswold that far from ignoring the need for crucial strategic investment in the railways, we are meeting our obligation to make record real terms investment in the railways—more than any other previous Government in the history of the railways, either Labour or Conservative.

Last year's rail White Paper, which set out the high level output specification—HLOS—contained the improvements the Government want to buy over the five years to March 2014, and the money that we will commit to this. Our plans are for the biggest increase in rail capacity in a generation, which will result in a system capable of carrying a 22.5 per cent. increase in passenger demand by 2014. That equates to 6 billion additional passenger kilometres each year, and it will also accommodate 34,000 extra high-peak-hour passengers travelling into London each day and 10,000 extra into our other major cities. Some 1,300 additional carriages are being procured to help provide that capacity. We require reliability to improve further, taking the public performance measure from last year's high of 90 per cent. of passenger trains arriving on time to a new average high of 92.6 per cent across the network. Safety, too, will continue to improve, and we will introduce measures to reduce risks to passengers and workers by 3 per cent over five years.

The Government's plans are affordable and deliverable, as the independent Office of Rail Regulation has just concluded. I emphasise the word "independent", because the independence of the ORR is a crucial part of the effectiveness of the rail industry structure. Earlier this month, the ORR published its draft determination of the funds that Network Rail should be allowed for the five years to 2014. It drew on the work that Network Rail and the train operators have done to show how they would deliver HLOS—work that Network Rail published in its November 2007 strategic business plan and updated in April 2008.

The ORR has undertaken a detailed and thorough review and has challenged and tested each element of Network Rail's industry plan to see whether it is efficient. It has assessed the nature and extent of Network Rail's enhancement expenditure to determine whether it contributes towards the improved output that the Government want. In its draft determination, the ORR sets out the infrastructure schemes that it considers Network Rail should be funded to deliver. It explains the reasoning behind its conclusions and invites comments. It will take all comments into consideration before publishing its final determination at the end of October.

The Great Western main line, of which the Swindon-Kemble line is part, is expected to benefit from huge investment, as it has expanded to be ready to accommodate the extra 637 million passenger kilometres of journey that we want it to carry by 2014. Longer peak trains will provide for the extra 2,900 peak passengers arriving at London's Paddington station every morning, and Maidenhead and Twyford station platforms will be extended to cope with them. As the hon. Gentleman said, Reading station and the surrounding rail junctions are to be rebuilt to deliver the increased network capacity required by 2014 and to meet the longer-term passenger and freight requirements at that busy crossroads.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I am grateful to the Minister for his patient explanation, but would he not accept that a more reliable and regular service from Kemble to Swindon would enhance the modifications that he is making from Swindon to Paddington? If an unreliable service feeds into a more reliable service, the latter will be hampered.

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Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

If the hon. Gentleman will just be patient, I have some positive things to say about the Swindon-Kemble line. I shall get round to them.

In Bristol, train lengthening plans are being developed to provide additional peak commuter capacity. The route between Bristol and Birmingham is to benefit from line speed improvements, to enable faster journey times between the cities. In Cardiff, there will be a wide range of track, signal and station improvements to increase the capacity of the local network, with the Welsh Assembly Government contributing to a shared investment in the network that will let more and longer peak trains run.

It is anticipated that our national stations improvement programme will fund improvements at Swindon, Gloucester and five other busy Great Western stations—Slough, Cheltenham, Chippenham, Newbury and Didcot. We plan that our access for all programme will, among other things, improve disabled access at Chippenham and Severn tunnel junction stations on the Great Western line. Station and track works will be undertaken to prepare the Great Western main line for the operation of a new generation of inter-city express trains, with services expected to start in 2016. At the London end of the route, we expect much of the work for Crossrail to be undertaken during the first HLOS period.

Those schemes are all driven by the need to create the capacity and quality needed for the forecast growth in passengers and freight. The Swindon-Kemble line redoubling scheme that the hon. Gentleman supports has been developed more for the performance benefits that it would bring than for the capacity that it would provide. The demand that is forecast on the route can continue to be met by the current train services. Performance on the Great Western line has been so poor that earlier this year, the Government took formal action against the operator, First Great Western, to insist on improvement. In parallel with that, the ORR has warned Network Rail that there must be an improvement in punctuality and reliability or it will consider enforcement action.

A joint performance improvement plan for the route has been developed by Network Rail and First Great Western, and the ORR is overseeing its implementation. Extra carriages are being obtained and additional drivers, guards and technicians recruited to improve reliability. There has been a steady overall improvement in route performance since April. I am cautious at this stage, and a lot remains to be done to ensure that better performance is embedded in the operation and becomes consistent, but the first signs are encouraging.

It is in that context that the ORR has had to consider the two track redoubling schemes for Great Western routes put forward by Network Rail as candidates for investment in the HLOS period. Network Rail offered both the Swindon-Kemble line and the Oxford-Worcester line—the so-called Cotswold line—as optional enhancements in its April strategic business plan update to the Office of Rail Regulation.

The Cotswold scheme involves partial redoubling between Oxford and Worcester to deliver performance benefits on the Cotswold line and consequential improvements along the Thames valley. It is calculated that the Cotswold redoubling would bring First Great Western performance to more than 90 per cent.—closer to the 92 per cent. performance requirement sought from long-distance routes in 2014 under high level outputs.

The ORR heard evidence from the rail industry on both redoubling schemes for the Great Western main line. The train operators and Network Rail identified the Cotswold line as the preferred scheme, and not enough evidence was submitted to make the case for both schemes going ahead. The ORR's draft determination—I stress that it is only a draft determination—is that Network Rail should be funded to redouble the Cotswold line.

That is welcome news for the Cotswold line, and it should bring significant benefits for the hon. Gentleman's constituents and the wider group of users of the Great Western main line. Network Rail plans to undertake the work early in the HLOS period, commissioning the enhanced line. It is not a case of choosing the cheapest. Network Rail estimated the cost of the Cotswold line works to be £51 million, against £32 million for Swindon-Kemble. The ORR has chosen the most efficient option and has satisfied itself that, overall, Network Rail is on target to deliver the service performance sought by the Government for 2014.

I recognise the benefits in doubling the Swindon-Kemble route and we have heard several examples tonight from the hon. Member for Cotswold, my hon. Friend Mr. Harper. The project would improve performance on the Swindon to Gloucester route and on the Great Western main line. It would reduce the impact on train services to and from south Wales when the Severn tunnel and the route to Bristol Patchway are disrupted. Local and diverted long-distance train services could operate during planned engineering works instead of local services being displaced by diverted long-distance trains.

Journey times would be fractionally improved as trains would not have to slow down for the turnouts into and out of the single track section. There is an aspiration for a new station in north-west Swindon that becomes more practicable if the line is a double track. The extra capacity would make it possible to operate additional local trains, should there be the demand for that.

I understand that the rail industry now intends to develop the case for doubling the Swindon-Kemble line as well as the Cotswold line, and to put that case to the ORR as part of the response to the consultation. Although the ORR has determined that it would not fund Network Rail for projects the primary benefit of which is to improve performance or capacity beyond levels explicitly specified in HLOS, the ORR will take account of the need for a sustainable network plan and the longer-term needs of the railway. There must also be evidence that projects offer value for money. The hon. Member for Cotswold covered that in his comments.

I encourage the hon. Gentleman and the rail industry to take account of those points in commenting to the ORR. At this stage, the case for redoubling the Swindon-Kemble line must be addressed to the ORR.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend is saying. Will he encourage the ORR to look at modal shift? We are not considering simply a route to London, but an opportunity to get people to work and live along it. Rather than using the car, they can use the train. It is vital to take that into account.

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Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

That is a valid point in the general debate about achieving modal shift. I caution my hon. Friend against using the modal shift argument to the ORR during the consultation period. My understanding is that ORR will consider the scheme based on the capacity and performance targets that can be achieved in 2014 rather than on the modal shift. If I am wrong, I will write to my hon. Friend, but I understand that modal shift is not one of the metrics that the ORR would use to determine whether the scheme should receive funding.

I understand the arguments in favour of doubling the Swindon-Kemble line. I will not comment on whether I was disappointed about the decision that the ORR reached in the draft determination, but I will commit my officials to working with the industry to make the case strongly to the ORR that redoubling the line should go ahead.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

What the Minister has just said is very helpful and sounds like good news as far as it goes. I was careful in my speech not to link the Swindon to Kemble line with the fact that the Cotswold line is to be partly redoubled. The Minister seemed to indicate that the performance target of the overall First Great Western area could be achieved by redoubling the Cotswold line. However, let me say to him gently that that line is used by a completely different set of commuters in a completely different part of the country. It would not be fair to the people who use the Kemble to Swindon line if it was knocked out because the Cotswold line was dualled.

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Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

The hon. Gentleman does not have to worry too much about speaking to me gently or otherwise. I am quite happy to be talked to in a less then gentle way by him. I did not want to give the impression that the ORR was faced with an either/or decision on those schemes. The ORR will assess the schemes on their individual merit and on their effect on the performance and capacity of the network as a whole.

As I said at the start, the Government have set out in the HLOS the improvements that we want to buy by 2014 and the money that we will commit to them. Having set the direction, and with the necessary funding, we now look to industry to deliver that. I understand the case that the hon. Gentleman and others have made for the redoubling of the Swindon-Kemble line, but we need to wait for the ORR determination process to finish. There is currently no case for the Swindon-Kemble project to be considered for exceptional funding outside HLOS. However, with the appropriate arguments made and the appropriate data provided to the ORR by the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends, I am confident that the case will be given a proper hearing. The ORR will be making its final determination in October. From my personal perspective, I wish the scheme a fair wind.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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For those who travel frequently between London and Stroud and Gloucester, the delays and cancellations on the Swindon-to-Gloucester section are endlessly frustrating. Those in the Office of Rail Regulation should try making the trip some weekend. If they did, the re-doubling between Swindon and Kemble would get fast approval. The ORR has approved £51million for the Oxford-to-Worcester route, but that won't cover the re-doubling of the whole of that route; it might cover one-third or one-quarter of the cost of making that route double track throughout. Swindon-to-Kemble has not been approved, so you will have the ridiculous situation after spending £51million that the two routes through the Cotswolds are still in part single track. If the £32million needed to redouble Swindon-to-Kemble were spent, that route would be total double track, and then only the...

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