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

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

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

The hon. Gentleman talks about slightly negative comments, but two weeks ago I met the West Midlands chamber of commerce to discuss the project, and I met the leader of Birmingham city council to discuss it yesterday, and the practical truth is that there is no money from central Government to make it a reality. There is no timetable, and there is no confirmed project; nothing is happening at present. Whatever good will for it there may be in the west midlands and whatever money that region may make available for it, this is a project in a siding. Given that Birmingham is Britain's second city, it is beholden on the Minister to make it clear what the Government are going to do. We are discussing a central part of the west coast main line.

My point about high-speed trains is that the Government would not be doing their duty in considering high-speed rail for the future if they were not to demonstrate a bit of joined-up thinking by asking this question: if we are going to rebuild the major station in the centre of Birmingham and we might build a high-speed rail line a bit further down the track, where would the trains actually go? Is there a part of the plan that shows where they could be added in?

The second big flaw is Manchester Piccadilly station. The suburban rail improvements around Manchester Piccadilly promised in the 10-year plan have not come to fruition. It is a bottleneck in the network. I would like to understand the Government's thinking on Manchester Piccadilly, and how they plan to take forward the various ideas for improving the situation there.

The issue of Stafford is explained in some detail in the document. It basically says, "Oh dear, big problem for the future, and not quite sure what to do about it." What are the Government planning to do about it, and when?

There is another significant capacity issue in the west midlands: four-tracking the stretch from Birmingham to Coventry. The lack of four-tracking is a major constraint on the ability of the rail network to take additional passengers in that part of the country. What work have the Government done on assessing the options for turning that stretch into four tracks? What estimates have they made of the cost? Do they have any plans to do so?

The document mentions a third platform at Manchester airport. Manchester airport is growing; it has a second runway and aims to increase significantly the number of passengers who arrive there by public transport, but it has a very small railway station and increasing demand. The document seems to be slightly equivocal about whether the third platform will be built. I would be grateful if the Minister set out whether it has been approved, whether the funding is in place, and whether he is committed to ensuring that it is in place by the time of the 2009 timetable.

I have looked carefully at the sections on freight-loading gauges. It is desirable that higher-gauge freight vehicles can make it through to Trafford Park, and it now appears that that is the case. I also note with interest that reference is made to the Felixstowe route:

"Should the Felixstowe-Peterborough-Leicester-Nuneaton line be developed for high gauge traffic, this additional line would enable a conflict-free link with the West Coast route to be provided."

The improvement of the Felixstowe route to take high-gauge freight traffic is of course another commitment in the 10-year plan that has not happened.

The Minister and his Department have made quite a play over the past couple of months about double-decker trains. What steps has his Department taken as part of the project to provide for future introduction of double-decker trains on the west coast route? Is it practical to do so? Has that work been done, or was the west coast route shut off to the Government's plans for double-decker trains—as are many other parts of the network?

Will the Minister address the question of the future franchising arrangements on the west coast route? He will be well aware of the GNER experience, which has become doubly complicated with the Grand Central debate, and which is in the courts. Owing to the nature of the franchise renewal process—because the Government have taken such close control over the day-to-day operation of the rail network—the railways are in effect run by the Government, not by independent companies. The rail companies are subcontractors to Government who work to very tight specifications set out by the Department. The Minister has a team of civil servants working for him, who write train timetables to which the would-be bidders must conform in their bids. To meet the Government's aspirations to extract as much value from the franchise agreements as possible, the bidders then bid as high as they dare. It is a popular received view in the rail industry that GNER bid quite high for its franchise. We saw one of the consequences of that on 1 January, when unregulated fares on the east coast route went up by about 10 per cent. If one looks at GNER's future financing structure—the premium it has to meet over its franchise—it is difficult to see how the process of big increases in unregulated fares will stop.

I have a question for the Minister about the west coast route, which has been hugely costly for the Government. The route has built up a substantial debt burden for Network Rail to service over the next few years. Today, Network Rail's debts are about £18 billion, and it will take well over £1 billion a year of public money to service that debt. Certainly half that sum has gone into the west coast project. What is the Government's policy on fares for the west coast route? When the franchise is renewed, do they expect to end up with an agreement comparable to the one for the east coast, under which it is clear that passengers who fall outside the scope of the regulated fares structure will pay ever higher fares to travel on the line? I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that.

Let us be clear: anyone who looks at the west coast route will say that there has been significant improvement, although it has cost a lot of money and taken a huge amount of engineering. We need a strong, good, effective rail network for the future, and we will need improvements in other parts of the country. We will need to work to address capacity problems; one of the big challenges that the Minister faces in the next few years is how on earth the Government will do that—and when they will do it, because it needs to happen now, not at some distant time.

The west coast story is a good-news story that has made a difference to the constituents of the Members here today and others on both sides of the House. Those who worked so hard on the project should take credit for transforming a decaying and declining route into one with a clear, strong and promising future.