I beg to move,
That this House
has considered upgrades to the Cotswold line.
It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Moon. I am pleased to lead this important debate, and thank all colleagues who have come to take part.
The debate is timely because the Department for Transport is consulting on the future of the Great Western Railway franchise along the Cotswold line. I have responded in full to express my priorities for the Cotswold line, for west Oxfordshire, and for the future of rail services along that line. I would like those priorities to be reflected in the re-franchising process as it progresses.
Rail services are crucial to the future of west Oxfordshire. There are eight train stations in that district, seven of which are on the north Cotswold line. The two largest are Hanborough and Charlbury, but a number of smaller rural stations are equally important to the people who use them: Ascott, Shipton, Kingham, Finstock and Combe. Tackley is also in my constituency, but it is on the Cherwell valley line.
The annual passenger entries and exits for 2016-17 give an idea of how popular and well used the services in my constituency are. I will not give all the figures at this stage, but suffice it to say that the total for 2016-17 was 737,552, whereas in 2006-2007, it was 486,771.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I thank Mrs Moon.
The use of railway services in my constituency has increased over the past 10 years by 52%—an increase of 250,781 passenger entries and exits. That shows two things: first, that there is a very real appetite for the services that are provided; and secondly that significant improvements to those services will be needed in the years ahead. We can do so much more to make the most of the existing line if we work together and look to the future. That is necessary because, given the expected housing growth over the next 10 years, we will need to make the most of the services along that line. It is important to look at Oxfordshire as a whole economic unit, and for west Oxfordshire not to be forgotten when looking at infrastructure.
I am pleased that there have been improvements, and that there will be further ones in due course, particularly at Hanborough and Charlbury. The installation of shelters, footbridges, coffee shops and additional parking is welcome, and very much improves the overall passenger experience. However, more can be done to improve the infrastructure around those stations. For example, working closely with local councillors and the parish council, I have been pushing for a pedestrian bridge at Hanborough over the railway along the line of the road. Simply put, a pedestrian bridge would reassure passengers making their way to the station that they can do so safely. It would make the station more accessible and encourage more people to use it. As the station grows in size and importance, safe access for pedestrians is essential. It is always important to remember not only what people do when they get to the station, but how they get there in the first place. I look forward to meeting councillors, representatives from the parish council, GWR and, if necessary, Network Rail in the coming weeks to try to find a way forward.
In the longer term, I would like longer platforms at Hanborough if necessary, a second platform, more parking, further cycle provision both on trains and at the railway station, and the station building that has been procured, which is soon to be installed. We want people to use public transport and rail transport, but the key lesson is that they will do so only if they have a service that is comfortable, affordable and reliable.
I will now lay out some of the things that I think will help in the years ahead. On upgrades to the Cotswold line, the route between London Paddington and Hereford, specifically past Oxford and serving the stations I mentioned—Hanborough, Charlbury and so on—would greatly benefit from increased train frequency. It is a valuable commuter line, with many residents travelling to London for work, as well as to Oxford, Didcot and Reading. The line is currently well served from Oxford onwards, but is not so well served through west Oxfordshire. That is a problem in the evenings, when there is only one train an hour from Paddington to Hanborough and Charlbury. Increased frequency and later return times from London would enable residents to enjoy more flexible and stress-free travel, and would improve the business and economics of our area and the areas along the route.
The current timetable is far from ideal. The last evening train from London departs at 9.50 pm on Saturdays, which is not good for people who have to work late or at weekends, or who have gone into London for events. My constituents need to be able to do those things, but they are restricted by the existing service. With a little work, the infrastructure could provide so much more. Early morning commuters are also affected by the current frequencies. The first train from Hanborough to London every morning is at 6.13 am, and runs only every 30 minutes. That is not regular enough now, let alone when the number of passengers grows, as we can expect in the years ahead, having seen such growth in recent years.
The solution is to redouble the north Cotswold line at least to Hanborough, but ideally all the way to where it is currently redoubled at Charlbury. Ideally, the solution would involve electrification, certainly to Oxford. Only then can we use the line’s full capacity, and use the existing track bed to provide the rail services that west Oxfordshire needs. I hope I will be forgiven for stressing that the track bed used to have two tracks. Parts of it now have only one, but a second track could easily be provided. That would have enormous advantages in terms of frequency and reliability. That simply must happen as soon as possible if we are to establish faster, more frequent journeys to and from London.
I commend the work of the north Cotswold line taskforce. I have attended meetings of the taskforce and will work closely with it to realise our shared aims. I also commend the close working of the county council, the district councils and the growth board along the entirety of the line through Oxford and beyond. The single track is a severe hindrance to progress and must be addressed if we are truly to improve services along the Cotswold line.
On public transport, we need to consider the whole journey of passengers, not just the part of the journey that is spent on the train. That is important in west Oxfordshire, where stations are often located in villages some distance from jobs and people’s final destinations. No matter how good the rail service—if all my recommendations are followed, we will have an outstanding rail service—people will not use the train if they are stranded when they get off it, miles from their place of work or their home, without a reliable transport link. They will not use those stations and the rail facilities if they cannot get there in the first place.
That is a problem at Hanborough, which is located about six miles outside Witney. There have been improvements in the area, but we need a fully integrated timetable that links rail and buses. People should be able to leave for the train to go to the bus stop, or get off the bus and within a few minutes be on a train heading for their destination, be that London or Oxford. Only through that system can we have a smooth link from Witney to Oxford or beyond. Hanborough could and should function as a Witney and wider west Oxfordshire rail service, without the need for a car. If we work together, that is easily achievable.
We need to think creatively and encourage transport providers to work together. We can co-ordinate timetables, promote integrated ticketing systems for trains and buses and develop smart card schemes, which offer savings to passengers who buy a joint train and bus ticket. That would remove the need for paper tickets—the system could work like the Oyster card, making the most of modern technology. It would give passengers more control over their journeys and enable greater flexibility and choice. Crucially, it would encourage greater use of public transport.
As a keen cyclist, I would like much more space for cyclists to bring their bikes aboard trains and more racks at railway stations if they wish to leave them there for later collection. If we want to take cars off the road—I suggest that we all do in our various areas, as I certainly do in west Oxfordshire—and promote public transport, we need to ensure that public transport is fully integrated, and that different modes of transport are effectively sewn together. All of those things together will increase passenger numbers and at the same time reduce congestion by taking cars off the roads.
One example is the Cowley branch line. I support the reopening of the line to passengers, a shuttle service running from Hanborough through Oxford and on to Cowley, more parking, and the creation of a concentrated public transport hub, including cycle and bus provision, and regular and reliable connections to Witney, Eynsham, Woodstock and beyond, and particularly to the nearby Oxfordshire garden village planned in close proximity to Hanborough railway station. Having a regular shuttle service from Hanborough to Cowley will enable many residents to avoid driving on the A40.
Any hon. Members who have heard me speak about transport in west Oxfordshire will know that I mention the A40 all the time. I make no apology for doing so. A reopened branch line will enable people to avoid driving on the A40 in the first place and would dramatically ease congestion by providing a direct route for commuters from west Oxfordshire to Oxford and the other side of Oxford and the employment located there. Simply put, the more people we can encourage to use this existing line, the fewer people there will be using the A40.
The full potential of this option will be realised only with an integrated public transport network around Hanborough as a hub. That would enable residents around west Oxfordshire to travel to those large employers in south Oxfordshire or around, without having to drive, which would reduce congestion on the A40 and other roads. The importance of that to west Oxfordshire is simply impossible to overstate. It simply must be addressed, and this is a relatively straightforward way of doing so. It is an affordable, deliverable option that would not alter the essential rural characteristics of our area.
Smaller rural stations are absolutely vital to people, businesses and communities, but some trains from rural stations to Oxford are as infrequent as one a day. Delayed and cancelled trains have a far greater impact in those communities than they do in other places. There is no later train for them to catch, or even a bus. They are stranded and have no way of getting to work or surgery appointments or wherever they may be going. A great many constituents who rely on such services have written to me recently to express their concerns over the number of cancelled trains they have experienced in recent months. I simply say that we must improve services at Hanborough and Charlbury, but we must not forget those who rely on services from the smaller stations in between.
There is a safety concern at the crossing at Tackley—Tackley is not on the north Cotswold line—and this debate comes at a poignant time: 10 years ago this week, 82-year-old Margaret Evans, a Tackley resident, was tragically struck and killed by a train when she was crossing the platform to catch a train to Oxford. A great many pedestrians and cyclists use that crossing every day. A passenger bridge is the solution we must work towards—that is what I am pushing for. We need to resolve this once and for all. I will continue to work with Network Rail, Tackley Parish Council and the local community to see that solution as soon as we can.
I do not wish to bring a cloud of negativity as the sun is finally coming out outside, but I have to mention the poor service in recent months, because it is of enormous significance to my constituents. In the first 34 working days of 2018, there were 16 cancelled trains between Charlbury, Hanborough and London, and a great many more delayed services. That figure will only have grown in recent days and weeks. There are particular problems on the 16.22 service from Paddington, which so many of my constituents rely on to get home in the evenings. I accept that some of these are unavoidable delays—we have all experienced extreme weather in the last weeks and months. The redoubling of the line, which I have spoken about, would go a great way to improving reliability. It is a major issue.
Many of the cancellations and delays are avoidable and are down to a lack of train crew. I know there have been challenges introducing the new intercity express trains, but when people are spending increasing sums of money for tickets, it is not unreasonable for them to expect a superior service than that which they currently experience. People should not be paying rising fares for a decreasing service.
I hosted my first “Ask the GWR” public meeting earlier this year in Charlbury, with GWR and Network Rail—I am grateful to them for coming along. More than 100 local people came to express their concerns. They are understandably angry at the service they have experienced recently. I have been working with GWR—I am grateful to GWR for that—and putting pressure on it to address the poor service many have experienced in recent months. I look forward to things improving in the weeks and months ahead. People need to feel that they are getting value for money and I will always endeavour to ensure my constituents receive the high standard of performance and service they deserve. Currently, the level of delays and cancellations is unacceptable.
I have four key points in conclusion. First, we urgently need to upgrade the north Cotswold line, including redoubling the line and increasing the frequency of trains to and from London. Secondly, we should look at opening the Cowley branch line for passengers with a shuttle service to Hanborough to significantly reduce congestion on the A40 and other roads. Thirdly, we need to upgrade existing stations and ensure they are safe and accessible. Fourthly, we need to think creatively and encourage greater timetable and ticketing co-ordination between rail and bus services. We need to build a truly integrated public transport system in west Oxfordshire that is fit to meet the demands of the future. We need a dynamic rail service for a dynamic area.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Robert Courts on securing this debate. I will not try hon. Members’ patience by repeating his comments, but my constituency also lies on the north Cotswold route, which is vital to the local economy, and I therefore echo his concerns and comments—in particular, his appeal to the Government for assistance with further upgrades. I want to express my appreciation for the tone he adopted, because it is important that we are partners with GWR. We want to support it and work with it, but by its own admission its recent service has been disappointing. I will talk about that shortly.
I am incredibly fortunate to represent Mid Worcestershire, which covers the main Wychavon areas—one of the most desirable places to live in the country. I am originally a Lincolnshire boy, Sir Edward, and I know you may disagree with me. Of course, Witney is quite a nice place to drive through on the way to Worcestershire.
Mid Worcestershire is a fantastic place to live, work and play. Employment is plentiful, we have a thriving creative sector, and tourists from all over the world the come to visit us, but we are relatively let down with transport and infrastructure. The M5 runs through the area, but we have a particular problem with trains. That is highlighted by the fact that it is possible to travel from London to Coventry or Leicester in 60 minutes—they are both a similar distance from London as Evesham, near where I live—and to Warwick Parkway in about 80 minutes, but it takes 2 hours to get to London by train from my constituency. The slow service is a source of frustration, particularly when it comes to encouraging more tourism.
Worcestershire and Oxfordshire are two of the fastest-growing shire counties, and therefore this focus on infrastructure is pivotal to the long-term economic growth of our regions. We are obviously keen to work with the Government to encourage economic vibrancy and activity. I talk about tourism quite a lot. I am pleased to say that in the southern part of my constituency, Broadway is about to have a new train service for the first time in 58 years. I thank the Gloucestershire and Warwickshire Steam Railway line for its efforts. It will open a new service between Broadway and Cheltenham this weekend, which is fantastic.
I join the calls for further upgrades to the Cotswold line and the redoubling of the line, for which my hon. Friend argued eloquently, but I do not wish to minimise the progress that has been made so far. In my constituency, we have seen significant increases in passenger numbers at all the train stations along the line, so there is clearly a desire to travel by train. I would like to express my appreciation for the efforts of various bodies and groups, including the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, the North Cotswold Line Task Force and the Vale Public Transport Group, as well as many Worcestershire MPs and the local council, for continuing to lobby and work with GWR on these improvements in services. We have already seen some significant improvements. There has been some redoubling of the line beyond Oxford, and some expansion of car park capacity.
I am also pleased that, in the not too distant future, the new Worcestershire Parkway station will open in my constituency. Once completed, it will significantly enhance Worcestershire’s connectivity to regional and national destinations, including London. As befitting a modern train station, it will be fully accessible, with disabled spaces, secure bicycle parking and charging points for electric vehicles. There will be about 500 parking spaces in total. That alone will do much to set Worcestershire Parkway apart from the other stations serving the region.
The Minister will be familiar with the asks my hon. Friend and I are putting to him today, as unfortunately we are merely reiterating some appeals that have been made many times over the years to the Government. Although I appreciate that redoubling the Cotswold line is a lengthy project that will require a considerable amount of taxpayers’ hard-earned money, it is difficult to overstate just how positive the impact could be on the region. Redoubling the line is one of the first issues I raised in this House shortly after being elected in 2015. My hon. Friend’s predecessor as MP for Witney, the then Prime Minister David Cameron, told the House, in response to my question at Prime Minister’s questions, that he agreed that further investment in the redoubling of the line was necessary to deliver the extra and more reliable services that our constituents deserve right along the line.
One of the most common sources of frustration for rail users along the Cotswold line is the lack of parking. For Honeybourne station in my constituency and Pershore station, just across the border in the constituency of my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin, parking is a particularly acute issue for an ever-growing population. Honeybourne station, which is in the very south of my constituency, right on the border with Gloucestershire, is just a bit too far away to get the immediate benefit of the expansion at the new Worcestershire Parkway station. Plans for an extra 200 spaces at Pershore station were first unveiled several years ago, but progress is being hindered by ongoing disputes between Network Rail and Great Western Railway about who should provide the funds necessary to construct a bridge that would connect the station to the desired new car park.
My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, has been working tirelessly to move the process along and has been trying to facilitate dialogue between Network Rail, GWR, the Department for Transport and Wychavon District Council, which owns the land the new car park will be built on. The responsibility for solving the issue does not fall on any one single organisation. I would welcome any suggestions from the Minister about how we can look to the Government for ideas for funding sources to move the issue along.
I would welcome the Minister’s view on what more the Government can do to hold franchisees to account when the services they provide to British taxpayers fall short. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney said, in the past few months there has been a significant deterioration in the GWR’s service along the north Cotswold line. I am sad to say that my mailbag has been full of complaints about GWR’s service from constituents including my predecessor, Sir Peter Luff—he does not bother me often, so we know this is a major issue.
GWR’s performance report identifies that there has been particularly poor performance on the London to Cotswold line during rail period 12. The 11.22 am and 2.21 pm trains from Paddington to Worcester Foregate Street feature on GWR’s list of the top 10 worst-performing trains. On Monday
The current GWR franchise has already been extended by a year and will run until April 2020. I believe that is not the first time that has happened. The Government are currently analysing the feedback to their consultation on the future of the Great Western franchise, and I look forward to reading those findings. The consultation sought views on, among other things, splitting the franchise. I think the Government should seriously consider creating a stand-alone franchise for the north Cotswold line. That is something that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire has been particularly vocal about.
I am not alone in hoping that any future refranchising agreement will include an explicit case for redoubling the whole of the north Cotswold line. I hope we can secure the Minister’s support for that goal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, for this excellent debate. I thank Robert Courts, who gave an excellent presentation. I have read his vision for the Cotswold line in his response to the GWR franchise consultation, in which he set out a coherent vision for his constituents. I also thank Nigel Huddleston, although I contest his claim that Mid Worcestershire is the best place to live—I would certainly put York on the map. I would welcome him to York, which has really good rail connectivity. The hon. Gentleman highlighted incredibly well the situation for his constituents, and it was good to hear about the reopening of the link between Cheltenham and Broadway, with the opportunities that that will bring.
On the future franchise model for GWR, I must first stress that we cannot afford to see greater fragmentation of the railways. The hon. Member for Witney talked about consistency across the south-west and Oxfordshire area, making a sound case for what Labour believes is the way forward, which is one railway. He has said:
“I would instinctively prefer to keep the franchise as one…Having one, integrated, coherent service in coherent regional groupings is preferable…to have greater vision for the system as a whole, have greater economies of scale and have resilience in challenging circumstances. Secondly, it is preferable for passengers, as they have one coordinated service with one simplified fare structure and the same standard of service.”
I could not have said it better myself—the same standards, one ticketing methodology and greater co-ordination. We want to see that in the public sector, which is perhaps where we differ on such matters, but we certainly agree with the sentiment that we want the railway system to come together after fragmentation and the pain that that has brought.
Indeed, the Government recognised some of those strengths on pages 23 and 24 of the consultation document on the future of the Great Western rail franchise. The document calls for the franchise to be extended by a further 12 months and then, following discussions, a further two years—another example of a direct award, an extension of a franchise, again demonstrating that the franchising system is simply not working.
We would also strongly make the case that transport cannot be seen in silos. First, on active travel, as a cyclist I concur with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Witney—it is crucial that we look at how people access our transport system through cycling and walking. Some of the developments in cycling, in particular in the Netherlands, have been inspirational. When the Dutch talk about multi-storey buildings at railway stations, they are talking about bike parks, not car parks. We have much to learn from other European countries about the progress they have made in achieving a modal shift.
We also need to ensure connectivity with the bus network and other forms of transport. For passengers, a journey does not take place in a silo; it starts at their front door and ends at their destination. We must see seamless transport moving through, ensuring that options are available to the passenger, so that we see the modal shift off the roads and on to more suitable public forms of transport.
Why? We believe that investment in a fully co-ordinated transport infrastructure is, first and foremost, essential for the environment—something that barely got a mention in the franchise document, only two small paragraphs. I want to see the Government put more emphasis on the environmental necessity of having a secure public transport system. Investment can also address issues such as congestion which, whether it is on the A40 or the A64 just outside my constituency, exists on our road network across the country. We need to see modal shift for those reasons, and we know that would be better for business and for the economy, and to enhance quality of life.
In fact, we would say that road building in future should be the last resort, not the first. For example, when looking at parking capacity, we need to look first at the public transport alternatives to bring about the modal shift, so we can ensure that public transport solutions are trialled first and foremost. That means having discussions with current bus franchise holders. We also believe that determining some bus routes to support the rail network is vital.
Talking about connectivity, I remember when I used to travel between Norwich, where I was living, and Cambridge for a while. I had 59 minutes to wait at Ely station, and that kind of connectivity is incredibly frustrating. We need to ensure good connectivity on our rail system. That is essential if we are to motivate people to use that form of transport. We believe that discussions about bringing track and train—wheel and steel—together is vital to ensure good co-ordination throughout the network.
We also need effective bus services, as I said, particularly in rural communities, which are not well served by buses across the board. We need to see a shift there. We also need to ensure that running times for public transport, as the hon. Gentleman said, whether train or bus, match what the commuter and the wider passenger require, as opposed to what is most convenient or profitable. We need to see that as a public service, extending late, weekend and early running to fit in with the patterns of the economy and people’s lives.
Connectivity on branch lines should also be at the forefront. With my medical background, I always use the analogy with the blood system—the arteries carry the main flow of blood, but it is through the capillaries where we see the gas exchange. That is, passengers coming on to the network and feeding into the main systems. If we are to realise the capacity of the railways, we need to ensure that we release that capacity by enhancing the branch lines and the feeder networks of different modes of transport.
When assessing future demand and opportunity, we believe that that should begin now. I call on the Minister to do just that, to see whether the Cotswold scheme and other schemes provide that compelling case that has been presented to us today. I therefore ask for clearer understanding of the Department for Transport’s methodology for making such assessments. Perhaps it would be good if all Members were written to, because I am sure that many across the House have compelling cases for improvements to their public transport networks. A copy might even be placed in the House of Commons Library so that people can make that assessment of how to improve transport and connectivity in their constituency and through further discussions with, obviously, Network Rail and other railway bodies.
I heard loud and clear the hon. Members for Witney and for Mid Worcestershire make the case for the redoubling of track. It seems to me that there is a real opportunity here—in particular in the light of the opening remarks by the hon. Member for Witney, when he talked about the increased demand on the railways—so we should have a close look at that. We want to see demand go up, but we want to match that with good transportation links to ensure it is possible.
Where possible, Labour also believes that we have a real opportunity to look at issues such as reversing Beeching closures or at new proposals, perhaps even seeing profitability coming out of that. There is a real future for investment in the railways, and we now need to work with Members across the House to ensure that we get the decisions right. We cannot talk only about high-speed rail; we must also talk about the branch lines, which are of equal if not more importance, so we can see a real shift in how we travel.
We need better connectivity, greater frequency, better timetabling and improved accessibility—we believe it is crucial to ensure that all disabled people have access to the network. It is unacceptable that disabled people often have to travel long distances by road in order to access the railway. I believe that more could be done by the Government to improve accessibility for all passengers, upgrading stations accordingly.
We also need to see electrification of the railway network. That is crucial as we move forward. It is greener, cleaner and what is being demanded. There are also new technologies, such batteries and hydrogen, so we need to see that investment. The Minister has put forward the ambition that by 2040 there will be no further investment in diesel; I would like to see more ambition from the Government in this area, perhaps to drive innovation by scientists, to see what advances they can make, and to put that innovation at the heart of our economy and growth.
We want to ensure that the passenger experience is enhanced. We are talking about modern facilities for passengers—dependable wi-fi and sockets on trains, which are basics that commuters expect today. We also want to ensure that there is good communication with passengers, and to look at how we can use apps more so that passengers can be kept up to date with intermodal transport forms. We need to have two forms of communication because not everybody uses a phone, but there is real opportunity in the power of technology to communicate far better with the great British travelling public.
We have all seen the real power of the Oyster card. From the regions, we look on with envy because we know the real success that that has brought across different modes of transport. But that should not be preserve of just London passengers—it should spread across the country. I call on the Minister to update us on the work that the Government are doing in that area, and to look at smart technology. It is crucial that we take that leap forward as we have those opportunities, not least because passengers demand that from the Government.
We must address the issue that the hon. Member for Witney made very clear from his meeting with his constituents, about passengers’ frustration of paying more and seeing a decrease in the levels of service on the railways. We need more transparency in ticketing. It is the No. 1 issue—everyone thinks they are being diddled out of a decent price on the railway. People go on the internet and they do not know if they have the best deal—perhaps if they had logged on half an hour ago or in half an hour’s time, they might get a better deal. We need transparency—people want to know where they are. Could the Minister tell us the work that the Government are doing on that? The public demands it.
The hon. Member for Witney rightly reminded us of the importance of safety on the rail network. It must be the No. 1 priority. He talked about his constituent Ms Evans who lost her life at a crossing. It is vital that we look not just at safety on the track but the wider infrastructure. No one should lose their lives on our rail network. At places such as level crossings, there is more access to the line, and that creates a risk. I would be interested in hearing an update from the Minister on exactly what is being done to reduce risk on the rail network.
In reading the hon. Gentleman’s submission, I picked up on some of his constituents’ frustration of being fined because they cannot get tickets out of the ticket machine. That is an injustice—people who in good faith have tried to travel on the network should not be penalised. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain how he would approach that issue, to ensure that there are not barriers to people having confidence when travelling on the rail network.
I will come on to the issue of stations, if I may. It is good to hear about the developments coming for two stations, but stations should be seen as a community asset. They are somewhere warm and dry, a place to wait where passengers can sit—often, it is difficult to find seating at stations these days—but also to read and work, have access to toilets, get a drink and meet basic needs. We need stations to provide that facility, but also be a community asset in welcoming people to a community. They are the gateway to a local economy. They are there for residents and visitors, as well as businesses. Although we have seen the hard commercial aspect of stations in recent times, we must think about the community value as we move forward, perhaps to marry up both those agendas and to enhance a facility for the local community at stations. A lot more work can be done on stations.
Finally, I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney on bringing forward this debate. It opened up a number of issues. The speeches from him and from the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire have been exemplary. I believe in their quest to move the railways forward in their constituencies. It is important that we look at how we move the rail service across the country. When a Labour Government are elected at the next general election, we will prioritise an integrated transport system that serves the passengers at its heart.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Robert Courts on securing the debate and providing us with an opportunity to discuss upgrades to the Cotswold line. As always, he and my hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston have demonstrated their hard-won reputations as extremely focused and dedicated constituency MPs.
All rail services in Witney are provided by Great Western Railway under the Great Western franchise. The debate is timely, as the hon. Gentlemen noted, because it is a little more than a month since the conclusion of the Department for Transport consultation on the future of the franchise. I am delighted that we received more than 800 responses, demonstrating the importance that passengers and stakeholders attach to rail services. The Department is analysing the considerable volume of responses and will respond later this year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire, with the support of our colleague my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin, raised the question of splitting the franchise. I should like to emphasise that, at this point, the Department has made no decisions. Any decision in favour of such a split would need to be made on the basis of real benefits, including to passengers.
It has been suggested that Cotswold line services could be split off to the operator as a separate franchise, with comparisons being drawn with the Chiltern Railways franchise. Such a comparison is not straightforward, and certainly not as straightforward as it would seem on paper—the Chiltern franchise operates close to 10 times as many train services as those on the Cotswold line. Having said that, the Department will look at all suggestions made in response to its consultation. I am grateful for the thoughtful way in which my hon. Friends made those suggestions.
Billions of pounds are being spent to upgrade services for passengers on the Great Western franchise. They aim to improve significantly the services experienced by a hundred million passengers a year, serving all the way from London to Penzance and from Portsmouth to Worcester. The improvements will include brand new electric and bi-mode trains that will provide many more seats and more comfortable journeys, while timetable changes will mean faster and more frequent trips on many routes by 2019. The new intercity express trains have started operating on the Cotswold line, replacing the older high-speed trains and other types of train. The same trains will operate all fast services between Oxford and London Paddington, complementing those operating on the Cotswold line, ensuring through services on 125 mph trains, even though it has been necessary to defer electrification of the line north of Didcot to Oxford.
The Government have decided to extend the franchise, as Rachael Maskell noted, for the current operator GWR until March 2020, to make sure passengers get the best possible service while these upgrades are carried out. The Department for Transport will seek to agree terms for GWR to continue operating until 2022, which will allow the improved services to bed in fully before running a competition for a new long-term franchise.
On the future of the Cotswold line, in his to the Department’s consultation, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney made many detailed comments about what he considers should be the priorities for the development of the route. Given how Hanborough has developed as a key access station for fast-growing communities in west Oxfordshire such as Witney, he focused on the developments and the train services he rightly would like at that station. Today, six services from Hanborough arrive at Oxford in the morning peak. He argues for an even more frequent service. He rightly recognises the importance of science to the economic development of the area by asking for some trains to run direct on a reopened route to Cowley, serving the important area around the Oxford science park. Those improvements and others highlighted in his response to the Department’s consultation would require substantial further development of the rail infrastructure in the area, as he noted.
I have seen with interest the formation of the north Cotswold line taskforce, which brings together a wide range of interested parties along the whole route. It would have seemed incredible 20 years ago to aim for a half-hourly service with far shorter journey times. That could be made possible only by a combination of the infrastructure upgrades we are putting in place, including further redoubling of the remaining sections of single track, and the division of the train service into a new regular express service supplemented by slower trains that stop at the smaller stations. I am particularly struck by how the taskforce thinks creatively about financing options and does not simply assume that the only feasible option is more Network Rail control period spending.
The taskforce’s work and my hon. Friend’s response to the Great Western consultation also highlight that rail is seen as a real and valuable alternative to the car. He put centre stage in his concerns the regular serious congestion on the A40 and other roads in his constituency, and rightly addressed modal shift.
Those who have attended recent rail debates will know that the Government are careful to ensure that they do not commit too early to specific projects in Network Rail’s control period 6, which starts in April 2019. I cannot commit at this stage to the project that my hon. Friend advocated so powerfully, because the control period 6 process remains under way, as does the rest of our analysis of responses to the Great Western consultation.
Elsewhere in my hon. Friend’s reply to that consultation, he raised the prospect of a new station at Yarnton in his constituency. I referred to the Department’s new rail strategy, “Connecting people”, which was published in November last year, which makes it clear that, as with the reopening of lines, a strong business case needs to be demonstrated where Government funding is sought for new facilities. The Government will consider proposals on a case-by-case basis, based on the economic benefits put forward by local partners.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the Tackley station crossing. The debate has focused mostly on train services, but that crossing is important. It is a passenger level crossing on a busy cross-country route with many passenger and freight trains, and it is used not just by users of the station, but by locals who want to cross the line and walkers who want to access the Oxford canal walk and the Oxfordshire way. As he mentioned, some years ago it was the site of the tragic death of a user. I recognise that it is not the easiest location at which to provide a safer alternative that is as accessible for all users, but we are encouraging Network Rail and local users to engage in a constructive dialogue so that we can find an acceptable outcome.
Hon. Members raised the issue of operational performance, which is obviously a critical question for passengers. When the Secretary of State announced the control period 6 funding for Network Rail last July, he put particular focus on better performance. The Government are determined that the railway should become more focused on issues that matter most to passengers, including punctuality and reliability. A more reliable railway would play a critical role in underpinning economic growth and bringing the country together, which is why the Government are committed to taking action to achieve those outcomes. My hon. Friend expressed forcefully the rising concern among his constituents about the level of cancellations on some GWR routes. It is critical that GWR does everything it can to minimise disruption to services and to address passenger concerns when services are cancelled.
On my hon. Friend’s points about integration and a more holistic approach to public transport, I draw hon. Members’ attention to the smart ticketing initiatives that are under way. Those projects have considerable potential to promote cross-modal use and intermodal shift more broadly. A GWR scheme is in place, and we are looking to develop that more broadly across the country.
I am happy to update the hon. Lady. Good progress continues to be made on the smart ticketing initiative, and we continue to hope that the smart ticketing system will be in place in full across the network by the end of the year. That is our objective, and it is crucial to ensuring that we get all the benefits that modern technology offers our rail system.
Overall, rail users in Witney and Mid-Worcestershire have much to be hopeful about. Brand new trains are already being introduced, building on the improvements to timetables and stations in recent years. The Cotswold line has come a long way in the past 25 years, but there is clearly considerable potential for it to be further upgraded and developed. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney and groups such as the Cotswold Line Promotion Group and the north Cotswold line taskforce are powerful advocates for change and improvement. Between them, they have an exceptional record of achievement on behalf of the travelling public. The Cotswold line deserves the best possible rail service, which is what the Department is determined to provide.
I am very grateful indeed to the Minister for that considered and detailed response to our points, and to Rachael Maskell for her response. I am also grateful for the mention of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, which reminds me to state on the record my interest as a member of it.
We have covered a great number of issues, which I will not go through again now, other than to stress that the tone of the debate and the points we have raised illustrate that this issue is of interest not just to the people of west Oxfordshire and Witney. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) and for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for their presence, which illustrates not only that the line runs through their patch but that it is of equal importance to many others. The strong business case does not just arise from west Oxfordshire; it is much wider than that.
The Minister kindly referred to the taskforce’s creative thinking. I agree with him and also praise that thinking. This has been a constructive and creative debate, which is exactly what we need as we look forward to the years ahead so that we can have the services we need along the Cotswold line.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered upgrades to the Cotswold line.