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4 Jul 2000 : Column 26WH

Rail Services (Gloucestershire)

12 noon

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about the rail system in Gloucestershire. I want to consider some specific points to which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to reply. They include the recently released London to south-west and south Wales multi-modal study, the possibilities of redoubling the line between Kemble and Swindon where it is currently single track, and what I deem to be the threat to the reopening of stations. I would then like to talk about more general issues, including hardware, especially stations, and how we can extend rail operations for passengers and freight.

My hon. Friends the Members for Gloucester (Ms Kingham) and for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) would have been present, but they had other engagements. They will eagerly follow up some of my points, because I shall make general ones connected to the county, as well as drawing on the example of my constituency.

I have experience of using the train; I came here this morning by a train that was only slightly late. The underground seemed to have had a complete signal breakdown and there was a fire at London Bridge, but I gather that the system is running again properly. If it is not, I know that our Ken will chase after it and ensure that it is.

The issue is a big one for all people in Gloucestershire. From talking to the Confederation of British Industry in Gloucestershire and the Gloucestershire development agency, especially its chairman, Mr. John Hazelwood, I know that they prioritise the future of the county's rail network and see it as an important issue. I lost one of my close friends, Bob Cotton, in the tragedy at Paddington, and I hope that it soon results in our building the safest network possible.

I am grateful to Mike Obst, the senior transport planning officer of the county council, and his colleagues Barry King and Ken Kemp, who talked me through some of the issues from a strategic point of view. People I meet on trains regularly tell me what they think of services, and I thank them too.

Gloucestershire is imbued with rail history. It is part of Brunel's "God's Wonderful Railway". It still has the legacy of that; one of our historical problems is the breaking of the gauge, which means that all trains that come into Gloucester have to go out the same way. That obviously causes some limitations. I once wrote a thesis on the Gloucester carriage and wagon works, but I shall not bore hon. Members with the details of it. Gloucester was a rail centre and I hope that it can become one again. More interestingly, I shall mention the fact that, in socialist circles, we better know Richard Potter, a great rival of Daniel Gooch, as the father of Beatrice Potter. I do not mean the author, but the woman who later became Beatrice Webb. That is important to some of us.

I want to talk about the present state of Gloucestershire's rail system and also about what can be done with it in future. I have talked extensively to all the different interested parties, including Railtrack, the train operating companies, the local authorities and

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customers. I attended the rail users consultative committee summit at the end of last year and the county council rail summit, which considered the sort of issues that I shall raise.

I make no apology for starting by talking about the London to south-west and south Wales multi-modal study. That is rather a mouthful, but it is an important document. It was launched on 11 May and, although I welcome it, it is somewhat light in terms of what it offers Gloucestershire. It could have a major backwash in the sense that our rail system could be stymied by a lack of investment and strategic thinking. Will my hon. Friend the Minister look again via his civil servants at how we could at least enhance rail services in the county, because the study could have major implications for its economic development, its ability to link to other areas in the country and its scope to deal with the existing capacity problems?

Will my hon. Friend also consider how to deal with the dramatic increase in passenger transport--I am pleased that that has happened over the past couple of years--and, more particularly, how to enhance rail freight development, in which the county is lagging behind, and examine other opportunities, such as green tourism? Will he consider how better to evaluate the use of roads compared with the use of trains? A major study is being undertaken into the M4, A419 and A417 road network, which I hope will take that into account. Transport 2000 made some trenchant comments locally on how such an evaluation should be made.

The second issue that I wish to raise is most important. It concerns the bizarre situation, whereby our main line east and west from Cheltenham to Paddington has 10 miles of single track between Kemble and Swindon. That has major repercussions for the way in which the trains are organised. It was developed on the basis that a single track was probably better quality than the two tracks that it replaced, but it will cause many problems in the future. I have spoken to Railtrack several times and, initially, it was somewhat cool to the idea of redoubling the track.

However, having discussed matters with Andrew McNaughton, the Great Western zone manager, I am happy to say that there is now some movement. There will always be the matter of who will pay for the redoubling and how it will be managed, given the consequences that will have to be dealt with when, hopefully, the two tracks will be put back. Such an issue has implications not only for passenger travel but because it will reduce the possibilities for dramatically increasing freight use. My hon. Friend the Minister may have something to say about that in his response. It is a matter not only of laying another track but of improving signalling and the track overall and ensuring that the hardware along the line is improved to encourage people to use it.

My third point concerns the reopening of stations. There is a will to reopen stations in the county. We currently have nine stations and we obviously wish to increase that number. A site at Bristol road, Stonehouse--I declare an interest because I live in the town--which would probably be used for the station reopening was identified by Railtrack Property as a site for potential sale. Working with the county council, we

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extended the period during which arguments could be advanced against the sale, but we were faced with the prospect of having an open market auction, which we would have lost.

I am pleased to say that the shadow Strategic Rail Authority has now listened to our pleas and has removed the threat for two years. That is important because a working group is now looking at how to bring the station back into use. When such sites clearly have strategic value and feature in local transport plans, it seems daft that another authority--a public authority--should try to sell them. When I told my dear friend, Councillor Bob Eccles, the chairman of Stroud district council, about today's debate, he reminded me not to forget various halts. He is keen on reopening Ebley halt and I know that many people agree with him. There will always be conflict about the use of local and longer distance services.

I want to look at some more general issues that affect Gloucestershire but also relate to the operation of the rest of the network. I would identify three key themes: first, how to continue to increase passenger use; secondly, freight; and, thirdly, hardware, principally stations. I am aware that Gloucestershire county council has done a great deal of good work in drawing together some of the arguments. It has listed, in various documents, the ways in which various lines and services would be prioritised. A lot of room exists to improve the level of service, reliability, and the treatment of customers. Among the objectives is the development of fast, frequent, inter-city-quality through services from Cheltenham to Gloucester to London via Swindon, and the provision of local services, which I hope will at least be on an hourly basis. There are also objectives to develop fast, frequent services between Birmingham and Bristol, calling at Cheltenham and Gloucester, and to make sure that the system is as accessible as possible to people of all types, including those with mobility difficulties.

The strategy is clear: we want more, and we want it fairly quickly. However, there are problems as well as opportunities--as always, the question is: who will pay? In the case of the reopening of stations, most of the money, and sometimes all of it, seems to have to come from local authorities. Both private operators and those who oversee the wider public purse should consider more carefully what benefit they would derive from the reopening of those stations. Having talked to Railtrack at length, I am optimistic about the fact that it seems to want to exercise its responsibilities. However, it will argue that much depends on the current asset condition, its ability to cope with growth, the capacity of the network, franchise renegotiation--which I shall discuss shortly--and overall network development.

As much as I would not want to labour the point about the importance of improving services in Gloucestershire, a great deal depends on how the other end of the network functions. There are serious problems with regard to the capacity of trains serving Paddington and Reading, but I was pleased to receive, in the past couple of days, some notation on what might be planned for Paddington. I hope that that will release some of the pressure on the system.

Clearly, all those who have an interest in the railways should be encouraged to work together to make improvements. Whenever I use the train, which is

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regularly, I find that it is possibly the worst-kept secret of all--more and more people are using it, to their great benefit, but the system is beginning to creak in places.

On passenger operations, the franchise negotiations, which are in mid-cycle, are somewhat confusing. No one would want to pick up the mess left by the previous Government. Some services are up for review, and I am especially concerned about the decision of Wales and West to drop out of its obligations to Wessex from the middle of next year. Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider the ramifications of such action? Can it be done, and who might provide such services instead? If no one is keen to do so, what will happen? I have been contacted by an old friend, Clive Mowforth, of CoJAC--the Coaley Junction Action Committee--who regularly raises questions about problems on the north-south line passing through my constituency, in relation to the better integration of the service and rolling stock, among other factors. If the Wessex idea is genuinely to come into its own--a Wessex franchise has already been established, and we are building on that--when can we expect some answers about when it will lock into place, and what will be involved?

We need to improve dramatically services on the Cheltenham to Paddington line, although there will inevitably be conflict between longer-distance travellers and local services. Next year, for the first time, we face the possibility of trains not stopping at local stations. Is that the thin end of the wedge? My hon. Friend the Minister might consider how to get the balance right in future.

Although we welcome the fact that the Swindon-Gloucester-Cardiff line has been highlighted as offering potential for freight use, Gloucestershire does not have a freight terminal. Five areas are being considered--Ashchurch, at the Ministry of Defence site; the Gloucester triangle; Gloucester-Quedgeley-Hardwicke; Sharpness, in my constituency; and Lydney-Parkend, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean. I shall not speak in favour of any one of them; I merely hope that at least one becomes a centre for a freight terminal. The matter relates to the opportunities currently available there, and we must make a proper evaluation. I hope that public money will be available, whether from the regional development agency or another source, to help speed that along.

I mentioned the need to keep sites available for reopening stations, and we want to build on existing stations, too. In Stroud, the centre point of my constituency, the station is in the centre of the Cheapside redevelopment. Stations can do a great deal for the regeneration of their areas. Again, we have been fortunate to receive money through supplementary credit approval to enable us to examine how to improve our inter-modal transport. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make some nice noises, and will follow up those noises, about how stations are key to development and to the revival of market towns in particular.

I realise that I have raised an awful lot of issues for consideration, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will not be able to respond to all of them today, but I am sure that dialogue continues. Like my hon. Friends, I am a great believer in the rail system. We believe that the system that we inherited needs to be substantially

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improved. I am sure that the Government intend to do that, and I am more than willing to do anything that I can to help.

12.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill ): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing the debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss rail services in Gloucestershire. I thank him for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of several of the issues that he wanted to raise. I was fascinated by the Potter-ed history of the railways in Gloucestershire with which he began his speech.

Gloucestershire is served by several train operators, including Wales and West, First Great Western, Virgin CrossCountry and Central Trains, to which I shall refer throughout my response. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud asked why Gloucestershire was excluded from the south-west and south Wales multi-modal study. The transport corridors to be examined as part of the study do not include Gloucestershire's railway lines. However, in identifying problems on the transport corridors involved, we need to be aware of problems on the adjacent transport network, of which the Swindon-Cheltenham line is part.

It may be that problems on the transport corridors can be resolved only by taking action on the adjacent network. If that is so, subject to the approval of the steering group, it may be appropriate to select such lines for further analysis later in our study. As a minimum, we must be aware of the constraints on, and aspirations of, the adjacent networks, because they could influence the overall strategy for the study. I hope that my hon. Friend will find those remarks reassuring.

I turn now to the Cheltenham to Swindon line, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred, and in particular to the single-line section between Swindon and Kemble. The route is served daily by several freight trains; a Wales and West passenger service, at approximately hourly intervals between Swindon and Gloucester; and First Great Western through services in peak hours between Cheltenham and London. I understand that Wales and West proposes to withdraw its services on this route. Instead, Great Western and Virgin CrossCountry will jointly provide the same level of service, but using the latest high-powered, air-conditioned rolling stock. Overall journey times between Swindon and Gloucester will be unaffected, though the higher acceleration potential of those trains will provide improved performance. If present commercial and contractual negotiations are fulfilled, the route will enjoy through services to London Paddington eastwards and new journey opportunities northwards to Birmingham and beyond.

I understand that the draft regional transport strategy for the south-west includes the need for

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My hon. Friend raised the issue of the reopening of stations and gave Stonehouse, Bristol road as an example. I appreciate the importance of that plot of land. My hon. Friend will know from the answer to his parliamentary question on 13 March that the property at Stonehouse was included in the 60-day notice of intention to market the site that was issued on 10 November 1999. The British Railways Board and the shadow Strategic Rail Authority will take account of the representations made in response to that notice when deciding how to sell the site. I can, however, be a little more precise and, I hope, helpful on the matter of the land at Stonehouse. I understand that Gloucestershire county council has been informed that there will be no rush to sell and that it will be given reasonable time to get its act together and bring a train operator on board.

The county council is considering a rail passenger partnership scheme for several local stations on the route and thought that it would take five years to organise the business plan and planning permission. However, it has been advised that that is too long and that a period of 18 months to two years would be a more realistic basis on which to decide whether the station should be built or the land redeveloped. There is no immediate threat to the site and time will be allowed to enable the county council to make progress. I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured by those observations. I am gratified to see, from his sedentary expressions of approval, that he evidently is.

My hon. Friend mentioned the important issue of replacement franchise proposals. The existing franchise contracts were seen by many as a potential obstacle to improvement. In view of that, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister issued new instructions and guidance to the franchising director, asking him to bring about improvements through renegotiation of replacement franchise agreements. On 20 June, Sir Alastair Morton, chairman of the shadow Strategic Rail Authority, set out the future map of passenger rail services.

The franchise map, which follows extensive consultation, is based on the creation of three distinct service groupings: long distance, high speed--expanded from current inter-city services--and London commuter and regional services. Of course, the final detailed shape of the franchises created within the groups will be set only once bidders' plans have been considered, and following consultation with key stakeholders. However, the guiding principle behind the map is to improve services, not to introduce change for change's sake. It is intended that the map will revitalise the network, with franchise areas designed to relate better to each other and to provide improved accessibility for passengers. I am pleased to say that people are now using rail in the largest numbers for 50 years. The changes being proposed are intended to ensure sufficient capacity and investment to ensure that the trend continues to provide for 50 per cent. growth in travel in the coming decade.

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My hon. Friend mentioned the issues of Wessex Rail and the Prism deal and I hope to have time to deal with them all. The creation of a future Wessex Rail franchise to serve the west of England was announced by Sir Alastair Morton on 20 June. The franchise could include the area bounded by Worcestershire, Bristol and the south coast, or services to and from Gloucester. It could also include the line between Exeter and Waterloo, local services around Bristol and services transferred from Wales and West, South West Trains and the longer distance Thames Trains services. A study will be undertaken to define the Wessex franchise more precisely. A final decision will be made after consulting local and regional authorities and local rail passengers' committees.

Earlier this year, the SSRA also announced a feasibility study into a dedicated Wales rail franchise to serve the interests of Wales and the border counties more effectively. The study will decide which services should be included and consider the likely effects on passengers and value for money. Wales is served by seven franchises. There is little coherence and they have no ability to work effectively with the National Assembly or to address the emerging needs of Wales after devolution. The study will broadly consider the core of services within Wales and the border counties, excluding long-distance high-speed services that are operated by First Great Western and Virgin Rail, which provide the southern and northern inter-city links to London. The SSRA is consulting closely with the main stakeholders and an announcement is expected shortly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned the Prism deal. The franchising director reached an agreement on 15 June with Prism Rail plc on the restructuring of the group's portfolio of passenger rail franchises, which includes Wales and West, West Anglia Great Northern, Cardiff Railway and London, Tilbury and Southend Railway. As a result, the Wales and West and Cardiff Railway franchises will be surrendered on 31 March 2001 instead of early 2004, which will facilitate the SSRA's proposals to create a single franchise for Wales and the borders.

The new arrangements for the three shorter-term Prism franchises, which were originally let for seven years, will reflect the SSRA's goal in franchise negotiations to achieve the best possible outcome for passengers and the taxpayer while accelerating the national franchise replacement programme. The franchising director's objective is to replace the shorter franchises, which expire in 2004, within about two years. It is not known when the franchising director will be able to announce the outcome of any franchise replacement negotiations, but he is not committed to accepting any proposal and could allow existing franchises to run to their expiry date. If an application is to succeed, it will have to guarantee better performance, more investment and expansion of network capacity, improvements for passengers and value for money for the taxpayer.

My hon. Friend set out his concerns, which I share, about the performance and quality of service of train operators serving his constituency. Hon. Members will know that last year the rail industry made several commitments to improve rail services during the year. I am pleased that most of those have been met. However, more clearly needs to be done if passengers are to get the service they expect. We must continue to work with the

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industry to ensure that standards are raised. That means better safety, improved performance, new rolling stock and investment secured for the future.

Operators are being judged against a new public performance measure that gives a clearer and more meaningful idea of the actual performance of train operators. Initial data cover the second half of the last financial year, from mid-October to the end of March 2000. Compared with the same period in 1998-99, of the four operators that serve Gloucestershire, I am delighted to say that three have improved--Wales and West, Central Trains and Virgin CrossCountry. The new measure will also allow headline figures for each train operating company to be published every month, which is a clear improvement on the previous quarterly shadow Strategic Rail Authority reports. I am pleased to announce that the first monthly summary will be published this month.

Results from the second national passenger survey, which is a twice-yearly tracking study conducted by the Oxford Research Agency to measure levels of satisfaction across the entire franchised rail network, indicates that between 78 and 83 per cent. of passengers who use the four operators are satisfied with the overall service. However, there are still gaps between the best and worst performers. The worst performers must raise their game to match the best. The powers given to the shadow Strategic Rail Authority by the Transport Bill, which is now going through Parliament, will ensure that they do that or suffer the consequences.

I have described some of the measures that we are taking as part of the franchise replacement programme, as well as the other issues relevant to my hon. Friend's interests. I hope I have made it clear that, through such measures, we are determined to drive up the quality and performance of rail services and lever investment into the industry. I thank my hon. Friend for allowing us to discuss these important issues in this Adjournment debate.

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