Railways: Swansea to Paddington — Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:30 am on 22nd July 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Wales) 11:30 am, 22nd July 2015

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what reasons they have been given by Network Rail for likely delays to the electrification of the Swansea to Paddington rail line, which they had previously indicated had priority status.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

My Lords, the Government are committed to delivering electrification from Paddington to Swansea, which is a priority and part of the largest enhancements programme since the Victorians. Challenges have arisen from electrification, and construction and planning consents have taken longer than expected. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has asked Sir Peter Hendy to look into issues of both deliverability and affordability, and he is due to report in the autumn.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Wales)

My Lords, the Minister referred to this being a top priority. Can he explain why this is being delayed? Is it due to the inability of the Government to provide sufficient funding, or is it because they have encountered fundamental technical problems? I am aware that initially, in answers here and in the other place, Ministers said that there would not be a delay. The reference to a delay came last Sunday, from the Secretary of State for Wales.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

I reiterate that this programme of electrification is a priority. It is not an issue of funding alone. We are spending £38 billion during the next four to five years. That is the largest investment that has been made since the Victorian age. Challenges have arisen over electrification, to which I alluded in my initial response, but other schemes have been put on pause to ensure that we give this particular scheme the priority that we have emphasised before.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Shadow Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

My Lords, the term “on pause” is a very vague concept for a government Minister to employ. Is it not clear that this so-called priority of the west coast main line will not see electrification for some time? Would it be wrong of the Opposition to suspect that it is something to do with funding after all? The Minister can probably confirm that the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s northern powerhouse is having the plug pulled on it with the delays to electrification on the Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds line and the delays to electrification from the London to Sheffield line. Will the Minister explain just what “on pause” means?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

As a general principle in life, it is often good to pause and reflect. I suggest to the noble Lord that it is something he should sometimes deploy. We have asked Sir Peter Hendy to look into the whole issue and the challenges that have arisen around electrification. He will report in the autumn and, after he does, I am sure we will return to this subject. As for the northern powerhouse, the plug is truly in and the switch is turned on.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, is it not something more to do with lack of engineering capacity, because we have not done very much electrification in recent years, until this Government came into office?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

My noble friend speaks from great experience on these matters, no least because he has spoken from this Dispatch Box on the issue of skills. I am delighted that that is one of my specific portfolio responsibilities at the Department for Transport. As noble Lords will know, we have already established the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy, which I visited only last week, an incredible investment that has come out of the Crossrail project. Later this year, I will be joining the Secretary of State for the opening of the National Training Academy for Rail. Britain has some great challenges as far as the skills agenda is concerned. It is certainly this Government’s view that we not only meet the skills challenge domestically but establish institutions to provide for skills abroad as well.

Photo of Lord Richard Lord Richard Labour

The Minister said in his initial Answer that Sir Peter Hendy would look into, among other things, the “affordability” of the project. If funding is not an issue, what on earth is he going to look into?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

I must say to noble Lords that I am very impressed by my popularity on the last day of term. The noble Lord nevertheless raises an important point. I mentioned affordability because of course challenges have arisen. That is why it is important to allow Sir Peter to look into all elements of the challenges that have arisen around Network Rail. As I have said already, we will return to this issue in the autumn.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

May I press the Minister further on that term “affordability”, which he chose to use in his first Answer? If affordability is an issue and if the answer is that the project is going to be more expensive than expected, may that in some circumstances rule out the priority that has been given to this line?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

On the contrary—as both the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have indicated, this project remains a priority. We are working with the Welsh Government on issues relating in particular to the connection between Swansea and Cardiff. We have provided additional funding in that respect. Of course, there are challenges; otherwise, we would not have Sir Peter Hendy reviewing this area.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, it reminds me of aircraft carriers not having aeroplanes—

Noble Lords:

This side!

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords), Deputy Chairman of Committees

Would the noble Lord mind sitting down, please? I think that we should hear from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, as the Question refers to Swansea.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

My Lords, as perhaps the only Swansea resident in the House, might I say that, whatever the priorities of the Government—and we are well aware of the pressure of the 40% cut in public expenditure—for us in Swansea this is a major matter? It is part of a trio of developments, including the lagoon and the new university campus. I therefore assure the Minister that this project is not only important for Swansea and the region but will send a signal to businessmen that there is life beyond Cardiff.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

There is—I agree with the noble Lord. That is why the Prime Minister said on 24 June that he was committed to the electrification of the line to Swansea.