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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:12 am on 5th February 2019.

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Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham 10:12 am, 5th February 2019

The train line between Cheltenham and London is critical—I have likened it in the past to an artery, because it is responsible for nourishing so much of Cheltenham’s prosperity. That has never been truer than it is today, because Cheltenham has exciting prospects with things such as the cyber-park, which will allow start-up businesses in that crucial sector to grow and develop, and will bring prosperity and opportunity to people from all walks of life. However, there is no doubt that the service provided by Great Western Railway is not at the level we need it to be.

Last summer we had a really concerning situation because, as I said to Stephen Doughty, there were insufficient train crews. When I raised the issue with GWR, it said, “Well, some people are training and so on”, and although that was terribly interesting, it was not a satisfactory explanation. To be fair, GWR recognises that it needs to improve, but even if it does I have a lingering concern about one crucial factor: the cost. Even for somewhere such as Cheltenham, which has a higher per capita income than the national average, the cost of a walk-up ticket is completely prohibitive. Again, it is not a complete answer to say that people must book in advance. If we want an agile economy in which people need to get on a train and go to London, it is not appropriate to say simply that that option is effectively not available to people because of the cost.

What is so invidious is that the cost per mile from Cheltenham to London is so much higher than in other parts of the country. The reasons for that seem opaque and are lost in the mists of time; they are linked to the structure that prevailed at the time of British Rail. That has got to change, particularly because although the cost per mile from Cheltenham is so much higher than it is elsewhere, the speed is slower. For example, a train journey from Exeter to London—200 miles—is quicker than one from Cheltenham to London, which is less than half the distance.

It is important to place this issue in a wider context, because it has not been all bad. GWR has been responsible for significant investment in Cheltenham Spa station, and we look forward to the opening of the car park in due course, with more than 80 additional spaces and an improved forecourt. The Swindon to Kemble line has been redoubled, and we look forward to sub-two-hour trains to London later this year. Those important service improvements cannot come soon enough, however, because the risk is of a modal shift away from trains as my constituents decide that instead of getting on a train at Cheltenham they will drive to Swindon, Kingham, Kemble or elsewhere—the point about pollution and so on has already been made.

Where does that lead us in terms of public policy? The drumbeat for renationalisation is growing louder—one can hear that from those on the Opposition Benches—but I respectfully counsel against it, because it is not the solution that a lot of people hope it might be. First, it would be extremely expensive to renationalise the railways, and that would mean taking precious resources away from other sectors. Secondly, my real concern is that were the railways to be nationalised, if it came to a bidding war between the NHS and railways, the NHS would win. If it came to a bidding war between schools and railways, schools would win. If it came to a bidding war with any other precious public service, railways would be likely to come off second best.

I am just about old enough to remember the state of British Rail. It was atrocious: old, dirty, clunky rolling stock, and unspeakably awful food. Although I have some sympathy with the idea of renationalisation—there can be limits to privatisation, particularly when dealing with public goods that have a natural monopoly—we should be careful what we wish for.