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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:10 pm on 25th May 2006.

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Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport 3:10 pm, 25th May 2006

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 23 October 2002 before the strategy that we are discussing was agreed. As Dr. Starkey said, the Chamber then was full of Members wanting to talk about the problems being experienced by their constituents. The debate was initiated by my former colleague, Patsy Calton, who said:

"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.