East West Rail

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:32 pm on 4 December 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Iain Stewart Iain Stewart Conservative, Milton Keynes South 2:32, 4 December 2015

I am delighted to have secured this debate. My reasons for doing so are to re-emphasise the importance of the east-west rail project to regional and national infrastructure, and to urge my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues at the Department for Transport to do all they can to deliver the project as soon as possible in the light of the Hendy review.

Let me first explain the scope of east-west rail. This is not a new line, but a project to restore the old varsity line between Oxford and Cambridge, via Bicester, Milton Keynes and Bedford, with a spur to Aylesbury. Much of the line already exists. Part of it is used as a freight line, part of it already has local services running on it and large parts of the old infrastructure are still in place, if mothballed.

The line was not closed by Beeching, but declined in the 1970s, when it became faster to travel between Oxford and Cambridge by going through London, rather than taking a slow, diesel multiple unit winding its way through such wonderfully named places as Swanbourne, Verney Junction, Claydon, Launton and Wendlebury Halt. East-west rail is not, however, a misty-eyed rail enthusiast’s scheme to evocate a bygone age of rail travel, in the style of that wonderful Ealing comedy “The Titfield Thunderbolt”. Rather, it is about creating a fast, modern rail link between some of the fastest growing towns and cities in the country and adding a vital link in the nation’s strategic transport infrastructure.

The positive case for the east-west rail scheme is currently being refreshed by an independent analyst. I have seen the draft report by Rupert Dyer of Rail Expertise Ltd. His refresh of the evidence for the western section of the project concludes that the new business case continues to produce a strong financial case for the project, with the core scheme delivering a benefit-cost ratio of 4:1 and some of the incremental options delivering much higher results of up to 40:1. The benefits of the project to my constituency and neighbouring constituencies cannot be overestimated.

Dyer’s draft report states:

“East-West Rail will open up new travel and employment opportunities in the main conurbations of Oxford, Milton Keynes, Aylesbury and Bedford and communities along the line.”

The wider economic benefits have been reviewed and found to have increased significantly since the initial scoping of the project. The Dyer review suggests that the south-east’s regional gross domestic product will increase by £135 million per annum with the core scheme and £268 million per annum with the enhanced scheme.

The east-west rail project is vital to improving the transport infrastructure of the area. Many who have ever driven west from Milton Keynes along the A421 and the A34 will know that it can be a very miserable experience. The economic and environmental costs from that congestion should not be underestimated. Without east-west rail, the area will become increasingly congested and that will impair the aspiration to develop the Oxford-Cambridge arc for economic growth.

On the section between Oxford, Aylesbury, Milton Keynes and Bedford, some 120,000 new homes and a similar number of new jobs are planned over the next few years and will be underpinned by the line. In my own area of Milton Keynes, we have some 20,000 housing permissions over the next decade or so. That will underpin our business growth and it will be important for tourism and new housing.

Mr Speaker, in his capacity as the Member for Buckingham, which adjoins my constituency, has pointed out that the Aylesbury Vale district council is currently working on its local plan, which will ultimately require the delivery of over 30,000 new homes by 2033. East-west rail is imperative to support that. Similarly, my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis has reminded me that 18,500 new jobs and 30,000 new homes are being developed in Bicester in her constituency.

This is not just a transport project; it is essential to delivering other Government policy objectives. I contend that it will help to deliver some of the Government’s broader transport objectives. I am not expecting the Minister to comment on this, but if London Heathrow is chosen as the airport for expansion in the south-east, east-west rail will provide a direct rail link from many towns and cities. That will not only enhance the economic case for Heathrow, but help to mitigate concerns about environmental pollution from additional road traffic movements to an expanded Heathrow.

This is important for High Speed 2, too. With the link from Milton Keynes to Aylesbury and then into London, we would create an additional relief line between Milton Keynes and London. Should Euston, in its redevelopment for HS2, require some line closures, that additional relief line would help to link in services in the interim period.

On HS2, which I support, there is a wider political point. Many people in Buckinghamshire object to HS2 because they see no benefit from the project but suffer considerable disruption as a result of it. I have always been strong in arguing that the Government’s transport investment is not just about HS2; it is a substantial investment in the classic rail network. It is therefore important to demonstrate to people in Buckinghamshire that we are going to deliver this project as soon as possible, so that they, too, can see the benefits of investment in our infrastructure.

The line will also increase the nation’s capacity to transport goods by freight, which we all want to see, both on a north-south line and going east to west. My hon. Friend Richard Fuller has asked me to urge that, although we are talking about the western section today, hopefully, we will see progress on restoring the line between Bedford and Cambridge as soon as possible and that will follow in later control periods.

My final point on the wider transport infrastructure is that this project will be a key element of passenger connectivity across the whole network. Some 41 of the 46 principal towns and cities in this country will be directly connected by rail, either without a change or with just one change of train. That will be a long-term sustainable improvement in our rail infrastructure across the country.

There are enormous benefits from the scheme—both locally and nationally. I welcome the significant progress already made in delivering the project. Indeed, the first section has already been opened: my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister opened the Oxford to Bicester section a few weeks ago. The new chord to the Chiltern main line allows an additional service from Oxford to London.

It was announced today that Network Rail had appointed its partners to deliver the next phase of the scheme. An alliance of four equal partners—Network Rail, Atkins, Laing O’Rourke and VolkerRail—will construct phase 2, linking Bicester and Aylesbury to Bletchley and Bedford. The alliance is currently working on the outline design and construction programme. Once that initial segment of the work is complete, the alliance will consult with the Department to agree on a final design and construction timetable and costs. It aims to submit an application for an order under the Transport and Works Act 1992 in the autumn of next year.

However, despite that welcome progress, a number of concerns have been expressed recently about some slippage in the timetable as a result of Sir Peter Hendy’s review of Network Rail’s control period 5 investment programme. I do not intend to rehearse the arguments about that review, but I support it as a way of ensuring that the Government’s record investment in our railways is delivered in a robust and achievable way. That said, I do not want a well-advanced, deliverable and vital project to suffer undue collateral delays as a result of overruns elsewhere in Network Rail’s programme.

It was feared that this project, which was initially due to be operational by early 2019, might be delayed by between three and seven years, but I understand from conversations that I have had with Ministers and the East West Rail consortium that that worst-case fear will not be realised. I welcome the assurances that I have received from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Transport and the Rail Minister that east-west rail will happen. I also welcome the assurance in Sir Peter Hendy’s report that significant development of east-west rail will happen in control period 5. What I seek today is an assurance that the Department will do all that it can to ensure that construction of the project can start in CP5, and will be completed as early as possible in CP6.

My understanding is that there is a very healthy and positive working relationship between Network Rail and the East West Rail consortium. The Network Rail delivery team is among the best that it has. I suggest to the Minister that, if its members can be unleashed as much as possible and are able to respond as positively as possible to the offers from the consortium, the project can be accelerated as much as possible. If there are concerns about the capacity of Network Rail to deliver all its envisaged programme within the timescale that is envisaged, I would ask whether it would not seem odd if one of the best teams, working on one of the most beneficial projects, was unduly delayed because of slippage in projects elsewhere.

I hope that I have demonstrated the value of the project to my local area, to the wider region, to the Department’s strategic transport priorities, and to the Government’s wider objectives. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to encourage and facilitate all the players in the scheme to get on with the job as quickly as possible, so that we may all reap the benefits as quickly as possible.