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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:40 pm on 25th May 2006.

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Photo of David Kidney David Kidney PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:40 pm, 25th May 2006

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."