GWR and Network Performance — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:58 am on 5th February 2019.

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Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 9:58 am, 5th February 2019

I am glad to be able to speak in this debate. Thank you for giving me the opportunity take part, Mr Betts. In this place, we often speak about things that we do not have personal experience of. However, as the MP for Penzance, the furthest south-west part of the country, I can claim that I have experience when it comes to railways, and Great Western Railway in particular, because I live so far away.

I want my tone to be positive, but it is true that I have seen delays. One time, about 12 Conservative MPs took about 12 hours to get just from Devon to London, missing several votes. That could have been dealt with better by Great Western Railway. However, that was some time ago, and we have not seen a repeat lately. It is also true that far too often the washbasins have no water, which is important for basic hygiene, let alone anything else. Furthermore, the refund experience for delays has not been good enough. From speaking to Great Western Railway, I understand that it gave that job to another company, but it did not go so well. I believe it has been improved.

It is very easy to complain; if we use trains a lot, we can always find reason to moan about something. Obviously, we want value for money, but the truth is that on our rail network, not just in the south-west but across the country, there has been enormous growth in passenger numbers. Since 2010, in Cornwall and the south-west, the number has grown far more than anyone ever expected. There are infrastructure problems right the way down the south-west, but the figures provided by the Library show that there are only 79 complaints for every 100,000 journeys. I represent about 100,000 people across my constituency. I would be quite glad to receive just 79 complaints. I imagine many other industries and sectors have a higher rate of complaints.

Many comments were made about price. It is a fair point that people who pay the maximum to go down to Cornwall spend huge amounts of money. However, when I came up on Monday, my advance single was just £19. That will please those who look closely at my expenses. I want to take a more positive tone, but that may change, because from 17 February, as Luke Pollard knows, there will be major disruption on the network because of Network Rail’s tunnel improvements. I am not yet sure how I will get here.

I want to talk briefly about my constituents right at the end of the line in Penzance, who have seen 36 brand-new inter-city express trains. That is over and above what the Government ordered. Many of them are specifically to service the route in Devon and Cornwall. I do not recognise many of the concerns raised today about those trains. I do not hear from constituents the complaints about the new trains that have been expressed in the debate. Far from selling all its old rolling stock, Great Western Railway has retained 11 trains purely to serve the Cornish economy and is beginning a half-hourly service. In the near future, passengers will be able to go a platform anywhere in Cornwall and get a train within half an hour. That is a significant connectivity improvement for those living in the very rural south-west part of the country.

Great Western Railway has worked with councils and others to invest more than £22 million in a train care centre in Penzance—a massive piece of infrastructure. Often, Cornwall is a poor cousin when it comes to big schemes such as that, so we are delighted to have new skilled jobs, apprenticeship opportunities and huge investment in the heart of Penzance. The sleeper carriages have been completely refurbished. Those who use the sleeper will see a dramatic improvement from the carriages that served for many decades to the plush new carriages. I am not sure whether they are four or five star, but they are certainly very comfortable. I recommend that the Minister and others come right down to Penzance; people are reluctant to do so, but the sleeper service is excellent.

Great Western Railway is expanding depots at Exeter and elsewhere to allow for the half-hourly service. There are positive things to be said about what is happening on our rail network right down to Penzance. If someone were to drive down to Penzance today, they would find a whole load of roadworks in St Erth, which is the last major junction before Penzance. I do not want to discourage anyone from going on holiday, but they should take the train. The roadworks are happening because of the huge investment in the station, which will boost our economy and tourism. People will be able to get to the train station, park their car and get on the railway to go to all corners of the network—Penzance, St Ives and elsewhere. That is a real boost for tourism and a real opportunity to provide much-needed improvements to infrastructure. There was more investment in infrastructure last year than in any year since Brunel built the railway. It is no surprise that there will be some disruption to our journeys. I am confident that there will be better performance, better trains, better capacity and a better timetable.

We are getting to the five-year anniversary of when the railway washed into the sea at Dawlish. Those images are permanently fixed in the minds of those of us who live down there and were cut off for several weeks. People around the world saw the intense damage to that section of the railway. There is no way that Great Western Railway can be held responsible for the delays in getting a solution. The solution has not yet been absolutely confirmed, and I take the opportunity to say to the Minister that we must make progress. We will not be forgiven if there is another catastrophe such as that, with no progress to improve that part of the infrastructure.

There has been major transformation and increased demand, and we should expect teething and growing pains. Mr Betts, I wonder whether you could give me some advice. When our children grow, they go through teething, which can be a very stressful process for them and their parents. They then develop into puberty, which again can be a stressful and difficult process. Is it your suggestion that we hand our children over to the state, or that we continue to work with them and enable them to grow, flourish and make the contribution to society that we want them to? As Great Western grows and develops and the network improves, and we go through growing and teething pains, I suggest that we stick with the commitment to improve infrastructure, to support our industry and to get the services we deserve in the far south-west.