Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:59 pm on 25th May 2006.
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.