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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:31 pm on 25th May 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 3:31 pm, 25th May 2006

This has been an interesting debate, but I accept that a lot more people were present when the subject was debated three or four years ago—Paul Rowen referred to that occasion. I wondered for a minute whether that was just because I am speaking today, but that would be another issue.

The west coast route certainly is a good-news story.I might have understated the previous problems. I assure Chris Grayling that I have stood at Crewe station at2 o'clock in the morning, having set out at half-past 6 from London Euston, so I am well aware of the tremendous difficulties that have occurred. I have travelled on the line for 26 or 27 years, and have seen the ups and the downs—there have been a lot of downs during that time—so it is pretty pleasing to see the significant improvements that have taken place in the past few years. I put on record my thanks to officials in the Department for Transport, who have been very much involved in taking the project forward, and who have worked tremendously hard on it.

My hon. Friend Mr. Kidney has been an absolute champion for Stafford and has been in regular contact with me. Of course I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the details of the report, and particularly to discuss how we can take forward the issues for Stafford. He made a point about the importance of work on the Trent Valley double-tracking; that line is a major artery. He mentioned lifts and improving Stafford station; he has been pursuing that point clearly. There is work under way on car parking, and we are hoping for improvement in 2008. We will provide some 5,000 extra spaces at main stations along the west coast, so there will be improved capacity.

Hon. Members mentioned freight. There has been significant growth, and more growth is taking place. By 2008, there will be 70 per cent. more capacity for freight. Improvements to the west coast route have meant improvements for freight, and we welcome opportunities and ideas for developing that further. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford also referred to ticket prices, which I shall come to shortly.

My hon. Friend Dr. Starkey has done tremendous work in lobbying me—and previous rail Ministers—about Milton Keynes Central. It has become a particularly important station because of the growth taking place in the area. That is partly why we are investing the amount that we are in Milton Keynes. I went there on Tuesday to see for myself the improvements that have been made and that will be progressed there. As my hon. Friend says, she would still like further improvements, and I recognise that she is not one to rest on her laurels. She will continue to pursue the issues. I take account of the issue of passenger lifts; she will be aware of our announcement a few months ago of the "Access for All" fund for improving access for disabled and other people. That is part of a longer-term programme.

My hon. Friend mentioned the important issue of Bletchley station. In relation to both Bletchley and Milton Keynes, we have done work on how we can take forward the east-west link to which she referred. There is the Bletchley platform issue, too, which I am happy to speak to her about further. As I said, I concur very much with what the hon. Member for Rochdale said about the problems that we all encountered when travelling on the west coast line.

On the future of Birmingham New Street, which the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell mentioned, we have only recently received the business case. We are working on that and assessing it, but of course we will consider how it might, or might not, link into any high-speed line. The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that that is part of Eddington's work, which is taking place. Clearly, there would be a substantial cost, and we need to make sure that we look into the matter in some detail. Birmingham is important, as the hon. Gentleman says, and we recognise the need to do something; the issue is how we go about doing it.

The hon. Members for Rochdale and for Epsom and Ewell mentioned Manchester Piccadilly. Network Rail is undertaking work on the route utilisation strategy for the north-west, and that will be taken into account. Similarly, discussions about Manchester airport are ongoing, and we are trying to facilitate them and bring about the improvements to which hon. Members have referred.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell made a number of important points about the longer-term strategy and where we are going. He made points about double-decker trains, Coventry, Manchester airport and Birmingham New Street. As I have always made clear, there have been significant improvements in the railway overall, in terms of increased reliability, record numbers of passengers and improved rolling stock. I agree with him that, given the money that we have spent, there should have been improvements, not least on the west coast line. However, clearly, the biggest challenge for the future is that of capacity, as we continue to want to grow the railways, and as there is further growth. Indeed, growth on the west coast line could double in 10 years.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the increased length of trains. We want nine-car trains, possibly going up to 10 or 11 cars. Owing to increased passenger numbers and increased usage of the line, there will be significant extra income that can help to pay for those increases. In particular, he mentioned our negotiations with Virgin about the franchise. Those discussions are ongoing, and I would not want to prejudice them by talking in detail about what is happening, but clearly they are important, and we have to get that right for the future of the service on the west coast.

To come back to capacity, the hon. Gentleman referred to the high-level output specification. The Secretary of State—sorry, the previous Secretary of State—made a point about the long-term look a few weeks ago. For the first time in decades, there is a real long-term look at what the railway will need, what the capacity issues will be and how we might afford the changes and improvements to the railway that are needed, and get best value for money. That is important in terms of longer-term planning and high-level output specification. We are consulting widely on that, and on improvements such as double-decker trains and longer platforms.