[Ann Winterton in the Chair] — West Coast Route Modernisation

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 25th May 2006.

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Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 2:30 pm, 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.