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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:19 pm on 25th May 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 3:19 pm, 25th May 2006

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?