– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 25th May 2006.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. The debate is timely given that this week we published the west coast main line progress report, which I commend to all hon. Members as good holiday reading. I am sure that most will find it fascinating. I am grateful for the opportunity to give details of the latest progress to be made on the west coast route modernisation project, and plans for action in the next few years.
I remind hon. Members that Britain has the fastest growing railway in Europe, and that over 1 billion passengers were carried last year—the highest number for more than 40 years. More than 40 per cent. of the trains and carriages have been replaced in the past10 years, and Britain now has one of the youngest train fleets in Europe. The west coast main line, running between London Euston, the west midlands, the north-west, north Wales and Scotland is probably the busiest mixed-traffic railway in Europe. It carries 40 per cent. of the country's rail freight and handles both long distance and regional passenger services, as well as shorter distance commuter movements. It is certainly one of the oldest railways, with origins going back168 years to June 1838, when passenger services commenced.
Since then, it has had mixed fortunes. It was once known as the premier line, partly because of the high volumes of traffic that it conveyed, but it was only partly modernised and electrified over core sections in the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1980s the then British Railways recognised that further renewal work was needed, and contemplated such action, but nothing was done at that time. The present west coast strategy on which the modernisation work is based was published in June 2003 after a period of extensive consultation and involvement with stakeholders, together with a considerable team effort within the railway industry. I congratulate Network Rail in particular on its role in turning round the project delivery and cost control.
The strategy emerged out of an urgent need to complete work that had started some years earlier, under a joint plan between the Virgin Rail Group and the defunct Railtrack company. That was developed during the period immediately after railway privatisation, when there was perhaps a great deal of naivety about how to achieve success in such an environment. The proposals at that time recognised the need to address the backlog in maintenance and renewals, as well as to increase capacity, but they were very reliant on new and unproven technology, such as moving block or in-cab signalling, which was found to be undeliverable. The plans were based on providing lots of express trains, but took little account of freight and local passenger train requirements. Costs were increasing at an alarming rate and delivery was slipping. Estimates of £13 billion or more were being quoted at that time.
An urgent review was necessary, as it was clear that the project was going nowhere. Railtrack entered into railway administration and shortly afterwards the Strategic Rail Authority was asked by the Government to review the whole project and to secure a clear way forward. That task is now led by the Department for Transport. The Government have been clear about exactly what is required—in particular, value for money. Through the strategy, the Government have defined the outputs, particularly in terms of train services, while Network Rail has the task of efficient delivery of the agreed specification and network operations. The passenger and freight train operators are responsible for service delivery and customer service.
The cornerstones of the 2003 strategy were quite simple and straightforward: first, to make up the backlog in maintenance and renewals while achieving value for money and addressing the decades of under-investment; secondly, to establish a sustainable maintenance regime that minimises disruption to passengers and freight traffic—once that work is over I expect the railway to be open seven days a week; and, thirdly, to provide extra capacity for anticipated growth in passenger and freight business. We are planning for 80 per cent. more passenger trains and capacity for up to 70 per cent. more freight business. Of course, all that is to be done on a busy working railway. Much has been done and there is more to come. I will speak about that in a moment.
A turnaround compared with the previous attempts to upgrade the line has been a reliance on proven technology, including, in one case, old block signalling. However, the new trains in particular have required new skills on the part of those looking after them day and night. At this stage I want to put on the record my thanks to all those involved in the rail industry for the way in which they have delivered and worked together.
What has been delivered? There have been line speed improvements throughout the route, including the ability to operate at 125 mph in tilt mode. Track renewals, overhead line overhaul and power supply upgrades have been carried out to handle the new business and resignalling schemes have included a new signalling centre at Rugby. There are also new platforms at Birmingham New Street, Wolverhampton and Stockport, with improved turn-back facilities at Tring, Birmingham International and Wigan, as well as platform extensions for the new Pendolino trains and the commuter services into London, and a flyover at Nuneaton and a new island platform.
Those developments have enabled new timetables to be introduced in accordance with the requirements of the strategy. To deliver the timetables two new fleets of trains have been successfully commissioned and are now in service. The core of operations is based on53 nine-car Pendolino trains, operated by Virgin West Coast, but in close partnership with Alstom Trains. They are capable of working at 125 mph and of course have the tilt mechanism to negotiate at high speeds the many curves on the line—I think that we have to thank our forefathers for designing the railway with so many curves. They are now working with considerable reliability and I am pleased that Chris Grayling has managed to get back in time from his previous engagement using the west coast line. Forty-six of the trains are required for service each day and that is what is provided. There has been a step change in technical demands on both depot and train staff; it can be said that they have moved successfully from the hammer to the lap top. There are also 30 100-mph Desiro trains for the regional and more local services. However, they are equally capable of providing some longer distance services. A new maintenance depot is shortly to open for such trains at Northampton.
To return to the subject of timetables and services, all main line west coast services are operated by the Pendolino fleet. On the Manchester-London route, prior to September 2004, there was only an hourly service, with a journey time of almost two and three quarter hours. It now gets a half hourly service with a journey time of two hours and 15 minutes, and there are some fast services with a journey time of two hours and five minutes. By early 2009 there will be three trains an hour—effectively a turn up and go service—with average journey times of about two hours. Similar improvements apply on the London-Birmingham route, where journey times have decreased from one hour and 43 minutes to one hour and 30 minutes; that improvement will continue during 2008 to achieve journey times of just over one hour and 20 minutes in 2009. Importantly, at that time, service levels will also increase so that there will be a train every 20 minutes.
Turning to the north and Scotland, 125-mph running has also reached Scotland. My hon. Friend Mr. Martlew who chairs the all-party west coast main line group would have liked to be here today. He has been particularly active in bringing about better journey times to Carlisle and Scotland. Journey times on Anglo-Scottish services have already been reduced from more than five and a half hours to five hours, and on fast journeys four hours and 24 minutes; and in 2008 that will be reduced to four hours and 15 minutes.
The railway is regaining lost markets. Air travel previously dominated the London-Manchester corridor, but it no longer does. Before the 2004 timetable change, air had 60 per cent. of the total rail-air business between those points. Today, that position has been reversed and rail has 60 per cent. of the business and air the minority share. Rail travel is growing on the west coast route in terms of revenue as well as passenger numbers. In 2005-06 the figures were some 30 per cent. higher than in the year prior to the timetable change in September 2004. Performance is also much better. The strategy required 88 per cent. of trains to arrive within 10 minutes of their scheduled time. That has been more than achieved, with about90 per cent. meeting the target. On the Silverlink County services, which provide commuter services from Northampton, Milton Keynes and London, the figure is over 95 per cent.
What is there to be completed? The bottleneck at Rugby is being removed and a much enlarged station is to be provided, which will also avoid the present conflicting movements at that busy junction. Maximum speeds will be raised from the present range of 60 to 75 mph to, in places, 125 mph. The station itself will get some improved services—for example, there will be increased frequencies to the west midlands and a new semi-fast Desiro service, giving new links along the Trent valley.
Four-tracking 14 miles of the Trent Valley line will remove another bottleneck and Milton Keynes station is to be enlarged. At this point, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Dr. Starkey, who has been assiduous and redoubtable in her campaign for additional services, improvements and funding at Milton Keynes. I was pleased to visit her constituency the other day. Work at Weaver Junction and Wigan North Western will provide extra capacity. More car parking and passenger facilities are to be provided at the key west coast stations.
Costs are being kept firmly under control and well within the 2003 estimate of £9.9 billion. Once we get the work that I have outlined done, there will be more to be considered, such as removing the other bottleneck at Stafford and providing more train capacity. My hon. Friend Mr. Kidney takes a significant interest in what happens on the rail network as a whole, but particularly in Stafford, and he is committed to getting improvements there.
The project is about investing in the country as a whole, but the north in particular. It is helping to rejuvenate many town and city centres, such as Liverpool and Manchester. There are opportunities elsewhere—the Potteries is now linked by a half-hourly service to London and Birmingham, and there are four trains an hour to Manchester. At around two hours' travelling time from London, Liverpool and Runcorn, which is in my constituency, are now closer to the capital as a result of the work. The project is firmly on course to be completed on time and within spending limits, and I commend it to the House.
Allow me to liken this debate to a journey by train, Lady Winterton. Let us imagine the journey from Euston to Stafford on a new Virgin Pendolino. Just like this debate, it will start on time, it is a comfortable ride and it has an unplanned stop at Milton Keynes. I am hoping that, like the Pendolino train to Stafford, this debate will end early.
That is today's railway on the west coast main line, after the upgrade that we are debating, but like my hon. Friend the Minister, I want to take a few minutes to go back to the situation that existed before. Let me start in 1997, when I was a new Member of Parliament who travelled to Parliament by train. One day, after one of the terrible disasters that we had in the south, I could not get to London by train until 9 o'clock in the evening, having set off for the station at 7 o'clock in the morning. On other occasions, trains were cancelled at short notice and journeys took an hour longer than timetabled to arrive into London. That was the kind of railway system that was inherited in 1997.
Before I was a Member of Parliament, I took an interest as a local councillor in our railway service from Stafford to London. At the beginning of the 1990s, British Rail told the world that the west coast main line was worn out and that a major upgrade was urgently needed. Major investment was called for, but we did not get it. Instead, we got a rail privatisation that delayed any decisions about investment for most of the 1990s. We then had Railtrack making the decisions, but its strategic and financial failings were arguably uncovered as a result of the west coast main line project. It was beyond Railtrack's ability to come up with a scheme that it could cost and deliver before it went the way that it did.
Then came Network Rail, and I am pleased to say that it was like a breath of fresh air. I welcomed the early commitment to bring maintenance work back in-house, which was a sign of things to come. Indeed, sure enough, the report before us today tells us that Network Rail got to grips with the need to upgrade the west coast main line and came up with a proper planned project. So far, it has delivered on all the targets that it was set and it has done so within budget. That is a commendable achievement, for which I, like many of my constituents, thank Network Rail. It is fair to say that Network Rail is not simply throwing money at the problem because it is urgent and that it is planning expenditure and getting good value for money.
The west coast main line is a constituency interest of mine, and I should like to concentrate on three points from the report that affect my constituency. The first, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is the Trent Valley four-tracking. It is amazing to think how long we have waited for Trent Valley to have four lines instead of two, given that it is the major artery for the entire west coast as far north as Scotland. Until now, we have had a blockage at Trent Valley every year that I have been an MP, because four lines reduce to two, which clearly affects train speeds and line capacity.
If we are to meet our ambitious plan of seeing present growth continue into the future, as my hon. Friend said, the Trent Valley line cannot stay at two lines. It is therefore a delight to read in the report—the relevant section starts at page 31—of the progress that is being made in delivering four tracks through Trent Valley. It is also interesting to read in the report of the innovations that have been necessary to deliver the project, and I see some of them from the carriage window as I pass by. One is the haul road, which gives all-weather access along the entire length of the track. It is a temporary road that has been put in especially so that earthmoving and engineering equipment can get to the site, whatever the weather, at any time, night or day. That is an impressive development.
I also read with interest about the soil nailing of the embankment. That is an important part of the development, which is intended to satisfy neighbouring landowners. Some people do not appreciate that the entire Trent Valley four-tracking development is contained in the width of the existing train corridor, and soil nailing is part of the process of enabling an embankment to be built between the rail land and neighbouring land, without the need to take more land from the neighbours.
Although I have not seen this, because my constituency is slightly north of the location, I was also impressed to read about the so-called 4D modelling that has been used to simulate the work that will need to be done, and which has helped the project team to plan it. I read from the report that the technique has also helped communities along the route where the work is being done. At consultation meetings, they have been able to see what will happen in all three dimensions, as they would want to. All that work has been very innovative, and it explains to me how the whole upgrade, which is such a magnificent and major project, has been kept within budget.
One last innovation that I notice from the report involves significant investment by the rail industry and relates to the use of a parallel widening form to widen bridges. An extra railway bridge is put in, the railway is moved across on to it and the first bridge is then taken away. That is an impressive way of proceeding.
The place where the four-tracking project joins the existing four tracks is Colwich in my constituency. Unfortunately for those of my constituents who live in that beautiful village, which is on the edge of Cannock Chase and Shugborough lands, just outside the town of Stafford, the line divides between the route to Stafford and the route to Stoke-on-Trent, which makes Colwich a very busy place. Being a very busy place, it had a little railway station once upon a time, but that station was closed many decades ago. Ever since, residents who remember the station have said that it would be helpful to have one again. Unfortunately, given the speed of modern trains and the demands on the track, there is no way of having another station. I mention that, however, because there is still a great love of the idea of having a station in Colwich and because I would like the people who plan these things to read the report of this debate and say, "We did reject Colwich, but do we have to reject it for ever? Is there anything we can do about it in the future?" I would be glad if they went away and thought about that.
The second of the three points that I want to raise relates to Stafford railway station. This is perhaps where the Minister will think of me as persistent or assiduous—or whichever adjective he cares to use—because we have had a long-running correspondence on this issue. For a long time, I have been asking for work to be done at Stafford station to make it modern, efficient and consumer friendly. I have campaigned for lifts to be installed there and I have been helped in that by a public consultation. I am pleased to say that we finally got new passenger lifts last year, and it was a pleasure to see them installed. They now work perfectly.
There are two things that we do not have, however, and I have been arguing for them for a long time in public meetings in my constituency, correspondence with the Minister and meetings with Network Rail and Virgin Trains. The first is a modern foyer, with all the modern services, in the station. I simply have no news about when the issue will be dealt with, but it has been on the cards for a long time. The other development is a car park.
For a very long time, it has been part of Virgin's business plan that with the new Pendolino train should come a doubling of passenger traffic at Stafford railway station, but there has not been a single extra car parking space to accommodate all the customers who will be drawn from a wide area around Stafford, not just the town. The plans have been drawn up—as far as I know, they have even been submitted to the local council that decides planning permissions—but there is still no news of the investment to make a car park possible at Stafford station. The Department's progress report has a section on stations and car parks at page 39. There is a list of the next stations that will have some attention, and Stafford is not in that list. I would like the Minister to examine why. Will he remind himself of our correspondence over the past 18 months on this subject, and tell me when Stafford station will get those improvements?
Before I leave the subject of stations, I want to comment on another related aspect of the report. I am a strong supporter of the huge regeneration project at Birmingham New Street station. England's second city has a station that is well known to be inadequate in its design, in relation to its access at either end of the station for railway traffic, and inadequate for the passengers and other consumers who use the station premises. There are magnificent and ambitious plans to make it the kind of station that the second city of England deserves, and I support those plans wholeheartedly.
My third and last point regarding my constituency interest is that the report tells us of problems in and around the Stafford area on the network. Clearly, the biggest problem is just south of the railway station, where the lines from London and from Birmingham and Wolverhampton cross each other, causing congestion. They cross on a bit of a bend, which means that trains have to slow down twice as much—for the bend and the crossing of the lines. They have to slow down even if they are not stopping at Stafford station. I well understand the problem that that causes to the entire network, and I had meetings with the now defunct Strategic Rail Authority about a plan that was devised to solve that problem, which is discussed in the report at page 59. I read in the report that the plan for a "dive-under", which obviously means a bit of a tunnel on the approach to Stafford station to enable one side of the track to get under another without them crossing each other, has been dismissed.
The report discusses alternative works that are under consideration and being planned, but there is no detail in it; everything is vague. I ask the Minister—from the conversation that we had before the debate, I think that the answer will be yes—whether I can have meetings with those who are considering what should be done so that I can be involved in the discussions and learn what is planned for the area around Stafford station.
There are some points that I would like to be taken into account when the considerations are under way. First, not so long ago, an additional platform was built on the west side of Stafford station so that Royal Mail trains could load and unload mail at its immediate west-side neighbour, a Royal Mail sorting office, for sorting and delivery. I thought that that was a good, sustainable, green development. It is still quite a model development, but the rail mail journeys have stopped because of cost decisions taken by Royal Mail. I still have a fond desire for a resumption, one day, of rail mail at Stafford.
My second point about the development might conflict with my first. The land to the west of Stafford station is under serious consideration by landowners, developers and local councils for major redevelopment works in the not-too-distant future. It occurs to me that there might be opportunities for additional development involving railway land, and that that might be relevant to the funding and extent of the planned scheme. I would like Network Rail and other planners of the railway development to have regard to that.
Thirdly, I want to voice my support for the Institution of Civil Engineers and its campaign for a new, high-speed rail link from the north to the south of this country. I mention that point because it is likely that any route drawn on a map for such a high-speed link would probably include a line that passed through Stafford. Far from saying, "Draw the line somewhere else," I would welcome such a development. If we are talking about works that will need to be done in the not-too-distant future at Stafford for one purpose, perhaps we should have a weather eye to a possible future additional purpose and ensure that the plans are drawn up in such a way as to accommodate any such future additional development, which I would welcome and support. Those are my points about Stafford station.
I move to a general issue that is mentioned only briefly in the report: freight rail. I am a strong supporter of moving as much of our freight as possible around the country by train. I have always been disappointed that we never developed a system in which whole lorries could drive on to trains, be moved 300 miles across the country and then complete their journeys at the other end. We do not have much piggyback facility of that sort in this country, and many of the bridges and tunnels on our railway network would not allow it. As far as possible, when we carry out new works, we should plan for extra freight capacity, whether that means more lines—the report discusses a possible new line between Leicester and Birmingham—or making more of the existing network capable of carrying high-gauge traffic. The report also mentions the Felixstowe to Nuneaton line in that respect.
I urge the people responsible for the west coast upgrade to continue to think of ways to support and promote freight on our railway system as part of a package. Important though we the passengers might think our journeys are, freight journeys are also important to the future environment of our country and the world as a whole. We should therefore be determined to try to improve things.
The report rightly has a section that looks to the future and talks about how, after having made a huge investment, the wonderful improvement to the network will be sustained. That is a good section, and I hope that we will be able to hold future railways Ministers to account in delivering on it. My experience of using the railway system today is much better in terms of reliability, speed and comfort than it was in 1997. Much of that is thanks to the Pendolino stock of trains on the London to Stafford line, but of course, we now also have the Voyagers from Virgin and the new electric trains used by Central Trains between Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester.
If there is one fault that I find in today's system—this was again the subject of a report last week—it is the pricing of rail travel. There is a confusing array of prices, and staff sometimes appear to be unwilling to share with customers the price options for journeys. Those in the business community, with whom I often rub shoulders on a Monday morning when travelling to London on my very satisfactory Pendolino train, are a captive audience for paying high prices for their tickets. The current situation rather crowds out many people's ability to use trains as much as they would like.
On the whole, however, my message to the writers of this report, and to the people who are delivering the work about which the report tells us, is, "You are doing a good job; keep up the good work."
I start by endorsing the comments that my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney made about the enormous improvements on the west coast main line, particularly his point that all of this work should have been done about 20 years ago—certainly before privatisation. However, I am extremely pleased that it has now been done, and that it has been done by a Labour Government.
I congratulate the Minister and all his predecessors on bringing the project to such a satisfactory point—not a conclusion, because the project is ongoing—at which real improvements have been delivered in a cost-effective way. I hope to console him for the absence of crowds of Back Benchers wanting to harass him during the debate by saying that he should take it as a sign of success. I feel confident in saying that had the debate been held at almost any time during the preceding 15 years, regardless of the party of the Minister who would have been speaking, the room would have been crowded with Back Benchers who would not have been wanting to say complimentary things about the west coast main line. They would have been falling over themselves to explain its deficiencies and their constituents' need for progress to be made. It has now been made and the Minister should take the lack of speakers as a sign of his success. In that sense, I look forward to a debate that nobody attends because everything is so hunky dory that people cannot be bothered to turn up and say so.
The Minister can be reassured that, given the Government's successful response to my past harassment of them—that is an accurate way of describing it—I do not intend to repeat in mind-numbing detail all the reasons why Milton Keynes is so extremely important. I have clearly convinced him of the fact. I simply say that for my constituency, the issues have always been twofold.
First, we have wanted to ensure that we have good, reliable and fast inter-city services, because Milton Keynes is an extremely dynamic local and business community. The chamber of commerce in Milton Keynes has, rightly, always insisted that we need a good inter-city service and good inter-city links both north and south throughout the day, including at peak hours, to ensure that our businesses can get the business visitors that they require at all times of the day from both north and south. In that respect, I am extremely pleased that the progress report details improvements in peak time services as well as those during the rest of the day, including services from the north to Milton Keynes in the morning and in the opposite direction in the evening.
As well as business visitors, a significant and growing number of people work in Milton Keynes but live elsewhere, although a larger number live in Milton Keynes and commute to London and, of course, an even larger number both live and work in Milton Keynes. It is therefore important to us that the focus is not only on commuter services between Milton Keynes and London, but on commuter services to Milton Keynes from both London and from the north. The expansion of capacity mentioned in the progress report and the new timetables that are planned meet that need.
I pay tribute to the Milton Keynes chamber of commerce, which has been extremely constructive in working with me and the Government on the improvements to the service to Milton Keynes that we need to meet business needs. I also give credit to the Milton Keynes and Bletchley rail users group, which has effectively co-ordinated the views and needs of rail commuters and fed them into the debate on improvements to the west coast main line in Milton Keynes.
The improvements set out in the progress report are extremely welcome, particularly the planned extra platform for Milton Keynes Central station. That will greatly increase track capacity and enable the new timetable from 2008 to incorporate an increased number of trains at peak commuting times. It will also provide, through the turn-back facility, the ability for trains to turn round at Milton Keynes, which will increase the ability to fit in at peak times train services between Milton Keynes and London. That will be of enormous advantage to my constituents.
The extra capacity is particularly required because Milton Keynes is a growth area and we expect its population to have grown by 80 per cent. by 2030. I am hoping that most of those new people will live and work in Milton Keynes, but clearly a proportion of them will commute to London, so one can expect the number of commuters to increase, although perhaps not by as much as 80 per cent. The increased capacity is therefore extremely important.
I am also pleased that mention is made of the improvements in journey time and comfort that are being made to the Silverlink County rail services, which carry the bulk of commuters in the new Desiro rolling stock, which is far more comfortable than the older rolling stock that it replaced. The comfort level is important to regular commuters, who—however fast the journey is—spend a considerable proportion of their lives on trains. They appreciate the improved quality of the trains, not to mention the air conditioning, which is particularly important in the summer. The improved track reliability is also immensely important to everyone on both the Virgin and the Silverlink County services, in that the trains run on time and arrive as expected.
An issue raised in the west coast main line progress report relates to Milton Keynes Central station. It is an excellent station on the whole, but it has one defect: it does not have proper passenger lifts. Its lifts are essentially goods lifts and they have extremely heavy doors that are difficult for passengers to use, especially elderly passengers, who are exactly the people who are most likely to want to use the lifts. I hope that the passenger lifts are upgraded so that they are more suitable for the 21st century and the many more people who will wish to use the station.
The second issue involves both Bletchley station and Milton Keynes Central station. There is a welcome mention in the progress report of the fact that the planned improvements will not only be of benefit to the west coast main line, but be significant to the sought-after reopening of the Oxford to Bletchley rail link with the Aylesbury to Bletchley spur. At both Bletchley and Milton Keynes Central, the works have been carried out so that they will facilitate the future reopening of the east-west rail link and enable the east-west service to go up to Milton Keynes Central from Bletchley. That would enormously increase potential usage and hugely strengthen the business case for the reopening of the railway link. I am pleased that the Government have taken note of that.
However, I ask that in the remodelling of Bletchley station, which is also important for the regeneration of Bletchley, and the construction of the new high-level platform, enormous care is taken to ensure that the remodelling is passenger friendly. It should take particular account of the need to make the transfer of passengers from the east-west line—the Bedford to Bletchley line—to the west coast main line as easy as possible to encourage passengers to use it. It should also take account of some of the concerns that are being raised by the rail users group about whether the placing of that high-level platform is quite as convenient as it might otherwise have been for pedestrians, and in particular for disabled customers. Will the Minister keep a watching brief on those planned works and ensure that they are as friendly as possible to rail users?
I thank the Minister for listening so carefully to all the representations that I have made in the past and for delivering so effectively for the people of Milton Keynes. I also thank all those people in the various parts of the rail industry who have participated in those discussions and contributed to the scheme that will now be advanced. It will enormously improve life for my constituents.
It is a pleasure totake part in this debate under your chairmanship,Lady Winterton.
Like others in the Chamber, I welcome the publication this week of the progress report on the west coast main line. Typically, the Minister understated some of the past problems and the progress that we have made since the publication of the west coast main line strategy in 2003. I am a former member of the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority and now a regular user of the service between Manchester and Euston. During the 12 months that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have seen a vast improvement in the quality and reliability of the service, so much so that it is easy to forget how poor it was prior to modernisation.
During the 1990s, I visited Kenya and travelled on the line from Nairobi to Mombasa. I told friends that the rolling stock on that line was newer than the rolling stock on the west coast main line at that time. Sadly for Kenya, that would not be true now. That is an example of the fact that one must continue to upgrade and improve not only the rolling stock, but the condition of the line. The modernisation of the west coast main line has been a long-held wish. The Minister referred to the upgrade in the 1960s and 1970s, which did not deal with many of the structural problems on the line that would have allowed the sort of speeds that people wanted.
When preparing for this debate I read a Westminster Hall debate of
"Where is the industry going? Where is the strategy to produce the railway industry that the north-west, the industry, the public and business want? Do the Government have a plan? Will they act to reduce the uncertainty crippling business? The north-west needs the upgrade, as do the midlands, Cumbria and Scotland, for local, national and, ultimately, international traffic. The country needs to hear from the Minister that the Government have at last got a grip on this out-of-control project."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 23 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 97WH.]
She accurately underlined the problems at the time—for example, the cost overruns—and the fact that it looked as though we would never have the railway that the west coast main line deserved.
Savings were made by reducing the speed on the track from the 140 mph originally planned to 125 mph. At Stockport station, the signal box, instead of being replaced with modern electronic signals, was refurbished by Chinese engineers because no one in Britain could master the mechanical devices. Despite all that, this week, improvements to the service have been announced. Birmingham will have two to three trains an hour with a journey time of one hour23 minutes instead of one hour 43 minutes, and Manchester will have a train every 20 minutes and a service that peaks at less than two hours. Those are remarkable achievements and, as a regular user, I understand why those services are popular. The Minister rightly said that the train is now beating the aeroplane in terms of passenger usage from Manchester to London. During the past 12 months, reliability and frequency on that line have improved considerably.
I am pleased that we have made good progress, and done so within the original cost estimate. In the past, we have criticised the Government for cost overruns, but I pay tribute to them for keeping the west coast main line project on budget and on time. That is a tribute to all who work in the rail industry.
I want to raise a couple of issues with the Minister about how we can further improve the service. Mr. Kidney mentioned Birmingham New Street station, where there are capacity issues. Plans are being drawn up to deal with that problem, but it is important to have some news soon about what will happen, not necessarily in respect of the long-distance fast trains, but to ensure that there is continued growth of commuter trains feeding into the fast trains. The same applies at Manchester Piccadilly station. As I have said, we need to know when platforms 12 and 13 will be upgraded because they are limiting capacity to improve services into and out of Manchester Piccadilly.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned fares, which spoil the progress that has been made. It is now more expensive to travel first class from Manchester to London by rail than by air. As the Transport Committee said last week, the pricing system is complex and unintelligible to even the most intelligent person. It needs simplifying and sorting out.
On future issues, the hon. Gentlemen mentioned the bottleneck at Stafford, to which the report refers. That is a complex problem. The Trent Valley line has been sorted out and I understand that, given the original milestones and deadlines, everything cannot be done at once. However, I hope that by the time of the next debate that issue will have been resolved. It is important for people in Stafford and for regular rail users to develop the network line.
On freight, the report does not contain a resolution that achieves the original plans, which referred to 60 to 70 per cent. more freight on the line. The report refers to some of the fast mail services, but we have not been told how those will be provided. If we are to be green and environmentally friendly, it is important not only that we have more passengers, but that more freight is moved around by rail.
There are future issues. I hope that a plan will be introduced so that renewals of the line are built into the system and are not neglected, as happened in the past, and that speeds increase from the current maximum of 125 mph. I hope that we can have a proper dialogue on the development of the high-speed line between London and Scotland. The Northwest Development Agency rightly said that the west coast main line is the economic lifeline of the north-west. The next phase should be a high-speed line between London, the north-west and Scotland, which will be a further motor to the economic progress that we are seeing in the north-west and beyond.
I thank the Minister for initiating this positive debate. At last, we are seeing some of the long-sought-after benefits that we were promised back in 2003.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I do not intend to delay Members for long, but there are a few issues I wish to raise with the Minister, and I have a couple of introductory points.
Those of us who use the west coast main line recognise that it is much better and that the project has transformed what was a pretty shaky part of our transport infrastructure into something that works well and appropriately. I congratulate the Government on their work on the project. It is one of two promises they made in their 10-year plan that they have kept—the other being the channel tunnel rail link. All the rest have gone by the board, such as Crossrail, the suburban improvements in London and Birmingham, Thameslink 2000, platform extensions on the South West Trains route and the upgrade to the east coast main line. It is good that at least some of the promises—commitments—of projects that would be finished by 2010 that were set out in the document of five years ago have come to fruition.
Dr. Starkey is right that the project has made a significant difference to people in Milton Keynes, as well as in Stafford and Manchester, but that has come at a price. I would be pretty worried—as I am sure would the Government—if after having spent £10 billion there had not been a transformation of the service. Bearing in mind the estimates that Iain Coucher of Network Rail made a couple of weeks ago of the potential cost of a high-speed line to the north, the truth is that the upgrade has not cost an awful lot less than building an entirely new line from scratch. It has been a big, significant and complicated project, and the Minister is right that the route is probably the busiest and has the biggest mix of traffic in Europe, but I would be worried if it had not made a big difference, because it is of a scale almost comparable to building an entirely new route.
I wish to raise a number of issues with the Minister about the west coast route and related matters. The first is the length of the trains. One of the absurdities over the past few years—it was quickly discovered to be such—has been that the original Pendolinos had eight coaches. They now have nine, although traditionally express trains on the route would have had 10, 11 or 12. Therefore, we have had shorter trains over the past few years, which has inevitably meant less capacity.
There is talk—it is mentioned in the document—of adding an additional coach to the Pendolino trains. Is that the case? If it is, will that be funded by the Government or from the additional passenger revenues that Virgin Trains will secure from such an expansion? Is it true that Network Rail is considering procuring those trains? If it is, that would represent a significant change in the procurement practices of the industry. I would be grateful if the Minister answered those questions.
There are still some big unanswered questions to do with the route—major bottlenecks and major issues that have not been addressed. The most obvious of them concerns Birmingham New Street station. After the Birmingham, Hodge Hill by-election, the Prime Minister promised that the station would be dealt with quickly. That has not happened. There is no sign as yet of confirmed funding. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what is happening about New Street station.
Also, given that the Government are open about their consideration of high-speed rail, what consideration has been made in thinking about station provision in central Birmingham of the potential capacity needs of a high-speed line? In the discussions that the Minister and his Department are having about Birmingham New Street, has any thought been given to where high-speed trains to central Birmingham could be fitted in if bringing high-speed rail beyond London to the north of England is a part of the next stage of development on which this Government—or a future Government—decide?
I wish to intervene because that is the second slightly negative comment about the Birmingham New Street project. It is true that we are waiting for decisions about the rail industry's contribution to the scheme, but I would like to put the positive side of the matter. The whole region has come together, with money, to back the plan. There is strong support for it, including from Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency; Birmingham city council; the chambers of commerce; and the rest of us in the wider region, and a lot of money has already been identified.
The hon. Gentleman talks about slightly negative comments, but two weeks ago I met the West Midlands chamber of commerce to discuss the project, and I met the leader of Birmingham city council to discuss it yesterday, and the practical truth is that there is no money from central Government to make it a reality. There is no timetable, and there is no confirmed project; nothing is happening at present. Whatever good will for it there may be in the west midlands and whatever money that region may make available for it, this is a project in a siding. Given that Birmingham is Britain's second city, it is beholden on the Minister to make it clear what the Government are going to do. We are discussing a central part of the west coast main line.
My point about high-speed trains is that the Government would not be doing their duty in considering high-speed rail for the future if they were not to demonstrate a bit of joined-up thinking by asking this question: if we are going to rebuild the major station in the centre of Birmingham and we might build a high-speed rail line a bit further down the track, where would the trains actually go? Is there a part of the plan that shows where they could be added in?
The second big flaw is Manchester Piccadilly station. The suburban rail improvements around Manchester Piccadilly promised in the 10-year plan have not come to fruition. It is a bottleneck in the network. I would like to understand the Government's thinking on Manchester Piccadilly, and how they plan to take forward the various ideas for improving the situation there.
The issue of Stafford is explained in some detail in the document. It basically says, "Oh dear, big problem for the future, and not quite sure what to do about it." What are the Government planning to do about it, and when?
There is another significant capacity issue in the west midlands: four-tracking the stretch from Birmingham to Coventry. The lack of four-tracking is a major constraint on the ability of the rail network to take additional passengers in that part of the country. What work have the Government done on assessing the options for turning that stretch into four tracks? What estimates have they made of the cost? Do they have any plans to do so?
The document mentions a third platform at Manchester airport. Manchester airport is growing; it has a second runway and aims to increase significantly the number of passengers who arrive there by public transport, but it has a very small railway station and increasing demand. The document seems to be slightly equivocal about whether the third platform will be built. I would be grateful if the Minister set out whether it has been approved, whether the funding is in place, and whether he is committed to ensuring that it is in place by the time of the 2009 timetable.
I have looked carefully at the sections on freight-loading gauges. It is desirable that higher-gauge freight vehicles can make it through to Trafford Park, and it now appears that that is the case. I also note with interest that reference is made to the Felixstowe route:
"Should the Felixstowe-Peterborough-Leicester-Nuneaton line be developed for high gauge traffic, this additional line would enable a conflict-free link with the West Coast route to be provided."
The improvement of the Felixstowe route to take high-gauge freight traffic is of course another commitment in the 10-year plan that has not happened.
The Minister and his Department have made quite a play over the past couple of months about double-decker trains. What steps has his Department taken as part of the project to provide for future introduction of double-decker trains on the west coast route? Is it practical to do so? Has that work been done, or was the west coast route shut off to the Government's plans for double-decker trains—as are many other parts of the network?
Will the Minister address the question of the future franchising arrangements on the west coast route? He will be well aware of the GNER experience, which has become doubly complicated with the Grand Central debate, and which is in the courts. Owing to the nature of the franchise renewal process—because the Government have taken such close control over the day-to-day operation of the rail network—the railways are in effect run by the Government, not by independent companies. The rail companies are subcontractors to Government who work to very tight specifications set out by the Department. The Minister has a team of civil servants working for him, who write train timetables to which the would-be bidders must conform in their bids. To meet the Government's aspirations to extract as much value from the franchise agreements as possible, the bidders then bid as high as they dare. It is a popular received view in the rail industry that GNER bid quite high for its franchise. We saw one of the consequences of that on
I have a question for the Minister about the west coast route, which has been hugely costly for the Government. The route has built up a substantial debt burden for Network Rail to service over the next few years. Today, Network Rail's debts are about £18 billion, and it will take well over £1 billion a year of public money to service that debt. Certainly half that sum has gone into the west coast project. What is the Government's policy on fares for the west coast route? When the franchise is renewed, do they expect to end up with an agreement comparable to the one for the east coast, under which it is clear that passengers who fall outside the scope of the regulated fares structure will pay ever higher fares to travel on the line? I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that.
Let us be clear: anyone who looks at the west coast route will say that there has been significant improvement, although it has cost a lot of money and taken a huge amount of engineering. We need a strong, good, effective rail network for the future, and we will need improvements in other parts of the country. We will need to work to address capacity problems; one of the big challenges that the Minister faces in the next few years is how on earth the Government will do that—and when they will do it, because it needs to happen now, not at some distant time.
The west coast story is a good-news story that has made a difference to the constituents of the Members here today and others on both sides of the House. Those who worked so hard on the project should take credit for transforming a decaying and declining route into one with a clear, strong and promising future.
This has been an interesting debate, but I accept that a lot more people were present when the subject was debated three or four years ago—Paul Rowen referred to that occasion. I wondered for a minute whether that was just because I am speaking today, but that would be another issue.
The west coast route certainly is a good-news story.I might have understated the previous problems. I assure Chris Grayling that I have stood at Crewe station at2 o'clock in the morning, having set out at half-past 6 from London Euston, so I am well aware of the tremendous difficulties that have occurred. I have travelled on the line for 26 or 27 years, and have seen the ups and the downs—there have been a lot of downs during that time—so it is pretty pleasing to see the significant improvements that have taken place in the past few years. I put on record my thanks to officials in the Department for Transport, who have been very much involved in taking the project forward, and who have worked tremendously hard on it.
My hon. Friend Mr. Kidney has been an absolute champion for Stafford and has been in regular contact with me. Of course I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the details of the report, and particularly to discuss how we can take forward the issues for Stafford. He made a point about the importance of work on the Trent Valley double-tracking; that line is a major artery. He mentioned lifts and improving Stafford station; he has been pursuing that point clearly. There is work under way on car parking, and we are hoping for improvement in 2008. We will provide some 5,000 extra spaces at main stations along the west coast, so there will be improved capacity.
Hon. Members mentioned freight. There has been significant growth, and more growth is taking place. By 2008, there will be 70 per cent. more capacity for freight. Improvements to the west coast route have meant improvements for freight, and we welcome opportunities and ideas for developing that further. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford also referred to ticket prices, which I shall come to shortly.
My hon. Friend Dr. Starkey has done tremendous work in lobbying me—and previous rail Ministers—about Milton Keynes Central. It has become a particularly important station because of the growth taking place in the area. That is partly why we are investing the amount that we are in Milton Keynes. I went there on Tuesday to see for myself the improvements that have been made and that will be progressed there. As my hon. Friend says, she would still like further improvements, and I recognise that she is not one to rest on her laurels. She will continue to pursue the issues. I take account of the issue of passenger lifts; she will be aware of our announcement a few months ago of the "Access for All" fund for improving access for disabled and other people. That is part of a longer-term programme.
My hon. Friend mentioned the important issue of Bletchley station. In relation to both Bletchley and Milton Keynes, we have done work on how we can take forward the east-west link to which she referred. There is the Bletchley platform issue, too, which I am happy to speak to her about further. As I said, I concur very much with what the hon. Member for Rochdale said about the problems that we all encountered when travelling on the west coast line.
On the future of Birmingham New Street, which the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell mentioned, we have only recently received the business case. We are working on that and assessing it, but of course we will consider how it might, or might not, link into any high-speed line. The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that that is part of Eddington's work, which is taking place. Clearly, there would be a substantial cost, and we need to make sure that we look into the matter in some detail. Birmingham is important, as the hon. Gentleman says, and we recognise the need to do something; the issue is how we go about doing it.
The hon. Members for Rochdale and for Epsom and Ewell mentioned Manchester Piccadilly. Network Rail is undertaking work on the route utilisation strategy for the north-west, and that will be taken into account. Similarly, discussions about Manchester airport are ongoing, and we are trying to facilitate them and bring about the improvements to which hon. Members have referred.
The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell made a number of important points about the longer-term strategy and where we are going. He made points about double-decker trains, Coventry, Manchester airport and Birmingham New Street. As I have always made clear, there have been significant improvements in the railway overall, in terms of increased reliability, record numbers of passengers and improved rolling stock. I agree with him that, given the money that we have spent, there should have been improvements, not least on the west coast line. However, clearly, the biggest challenge for the future is that of capacity, as we continue to want to grow the railways, and as there is further growth. Indeed, growth on the west coast line could double in 10 years.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the increased length of trains. We want nine-car trains, possibly going up to 10 or 11 cars. Owing to increased passenger numbers and increased usage of the line, there will be significant extra income that can help to pay for those increases. In particular, he mentioned our negotiations with Virgin about the franchise. Those discussions are ongoing, and I would not want to prejudice them by talking in detail about what is happening, but clearly they are important, and we have to get that right for the future of the service on the west coast.
To come back to capacity, the hon. Gentleman referred to the high-level output specification. The Secretary of State—sorry, the previous Secretary of State—made a point about the long-term look a few weeks ago. For the first time in decades, there is a real long-term look at what the railway will need, what the capacity issues will be and how we might afford the changes and improvements to the railway that are needed, and get best value for money. That is important in terms of longer-term planning and high-level output specification. We are consulting widely on that, and on improvements such as double-decker trains and longer platforms.
I have not got used to the change of Secretary of State yet, either; I keep referring to the Secretary of State's predecessor.
Surely the point about double-decker trains is that if the west coast route cannot take them, the Minister can consult all he wants on them, but they will not work there. The previous Secretary of State made it absolutely clear that the Department sees double-decker trains as an important part of future strategy for the west coast route. Despite the most recent modernisation programme, that route is forecast to be one of the most congested on the network in the next few years. Have the Government ensured that the modernisation process has left gauge clearances of a scale sufficient to take double-decker trains in future?
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised if I make the point that double-decker trains represent one of several solutions that the Department is considering; it is important to take a generic view of solutions for the railway. There is no one solution for the whole railway, and as he makes clear there are certain options. As I have said, perhaps following some minor infrastructure or route improvements, we believe that the west coast line has capacity for trains of 10 to 12 cars. There is the ability to build up the length of the trains and, of course, have longer platforms. In the longer term, we have to decide which high-level output specification we can afford and which the Secretary of State wants to take forward. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be a little patient at this stage.
The Minister knows that virtually all our rail network cannot take double-decker trains because of gauge constraints. Network Rail is implementing a major modernisation programme on one of our routes, which the Government are funding. If double-decker trains are being considered, the construction work taking place as we speak should surely make provision for such trains—if they are what the Government want. Is that provision being made?
I can see where the hon. Gentleman is trying to go. The announcement about what we want to look at was made last year, but that is part of the overall process of considering future capacity constraints.
No. Much route modernisation has already taken place, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. I am just explaining some ways of considering capacity on the west coast route. He will have to be patient and wait a little longer until we finally decide on the high-level output specification—our future planning for the railway.
The hon. Gentleman also dealt with fares, as did the hon. Member for Rochdale and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. The west coast line is an interesting case to study. Let me make it clear: I agree that the ticketing is too complex. It should be simplified and information given to passengers should be improved. That is in the gift of the train operating companies. I know that some of them are already working on that, and we can bring about improvements and remove a lot of the complexity. If someone turns up wanting to know what the cheapest ticket is, they should be able to get that information.
Having said that, the debate has gone astray quite a bit. On the west coast line, there is clear competition for trains from aircraft, buses and cars. Despite that, the majority of people travel on the west coast line on lower price tickets, rather than the top prices for rail travel often quoted by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and others. There are many excellent deals and good value tickets: I think the cheapest ticket from Manchester or Liverpool is £24. The competition is there, but since the issue of the 2004 timetable, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in usage of the route. I understand some of the concerns raised, but regulated fares are 3 per cent. cheaper in real terms than they were in the mid-1990s.
We need better transparency and we must improve ticketing information and access to the cheapest tickets, but there are already many good-value deals. We have a competitive service, and the west coast line is a good example of how rail travel can compete and provide a very good service.
In conclusion, there is still work to be done. I assure hon. Members that the Government will continue to focus strongly on the project to ensure that we achieve the improvements at the right cost and at the right time. There are still challenges, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned, such as how we can continue to bring about further improvements, not just for passengers but for freight.
It is clear that rail is becoming a much more attractive form of travel that continues to attract many more people. The Government want to continue investment in the railway to ensure that we improve capacity and grow the number of passengers, make further improvements in rolling stock and reliability, and focus strongly on improving performance. As I said earlier, the target for the reliability of trains was 88 per cent. and we are already running at about 90 per cent. However, the Government want to improve that figure further, and it is important that we keep focused on it to ensure further improvements.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Four o'clock.