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23 Oct 2002 : Column 91WH—continued

23 Oct 2002 : Column 92WH

West Coast Main Line

11 am

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I am pleased to bring to this debate the concerns of my constituents in Cheadle about travel on the west coast main line. I believe that those concerns are shared by the wider public, by business interests and by those involved in tourism, not only in the north-west but throughout a large part of the country.

The line is multi-purpose, carrying slower local trains, inter-city trains and freight. It should form part of the high-speed European network linking continental cities with major cities in Britain. Although I recognise that balancing the needs of each of those sectors is not easy, promises to upgrade the line have been made over the years—by this Government as much as any—and delivery is still not forthcoming.

I regularly use the line between London and Stockport, and my constituents have written to me with increasing distress in recent weeks. The trains—if they turn up at all—are so unreliable that travel in the Stockport area and from my village, Bramhall, to Stockport and Manchester has become a joke. There have been improvements to some stations in the Manchester area and work on the tracks has been going on in preparation for new signalling systems in the Cheadle Hulme area for some time. However, the news announced over the summer that work on the lines would continue for another four years has been greeted with dismay.

The west coast main line is a vital part of the rail infrastructure serving the midlands, the north-west and Scotland, including vital tourist areas such as the lake district, the Fylde coast and Scotland. It is the busiest line in the country, and, with the exception of the Heathrow Express, its fares are also the most expensive. Successive Governments have failed to invest in the line, and when they should have taken command of deteriorating situations, they failed to do so. Indeed, the escalating costs and bungled decision making associated with bringing the line up to the standard expected of a high-speed line is nothing short of a national scandal.

In 1998 Railtrack expected to cut journey times, double capacity and improve safety—all for £2.1 billion. By the summer of 2001, the cost had risen to £10 billion. When the Strategic Rail Authority consultation document was released this month, the estimate was £13 billion. Untried and untested technology, essential to the success of the project, was not delivered. When the Conservative Government broke up and sold off the rail system, the Liberal Democrats called the action "poll tax on wheels", so politically damaging did we expect it to be.

When Virgin won the contract, the negotiations to upgrade the line took place with all the hype associated with the Government when they need an exciting project to take people's minds off a situation. The Railtrack negotiating team was outclassed by the team from Virgin when it came to negotiating the upgrade. According to the Strategic Rail Authority consultation document, concern was expressed that Railtrack would have difficulty in delivering and Virgin ensured that it had built-in financial protection; nobody can blame Virgin for that.

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From 1999, it was clear that commitments made by Railtrack under PUG 2—passenger upgrade 2—which followed the earlier, undelivered, PUG 1 contract of 1996, were not achievable, but no solution was identified. Amazingly, the plethora of watchdogs associated with the industry seemed to stand by and watch matters go from bad to worse. Where was the Deputy Prime Minister? Where was the Transport Minister?

I have read the Strategic Rail Authority strategy document, which was published on 10 October, it now looks as if someone is trying to get a grip at last. However, the Government have got a long way to go before the travelling public—or, for that matter, the rail or any other industry—are convinced. The travelling public have heard it all before, and all that they know is that they have been disappointed time after time.

Such is the uncertainty associated with setting out on a local or national journey from the Stockport area that people are being forced to choose unsustainable forms of transport—cars and planes—which no Government should seek to encourage in preference to trains. The bus service is usually not a viable alternative. If we add to that the often lower costs and fares of such unsustainable forms of transport, it is easy to see the vicious downward spiral that is being generated. Industrial disputes, as we shall see, make bad matters worse.

I have a letter from a constituent, who writes:

a distance of less than eight miles—

Another letter that I received says:

A traveller to London writes:

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I also have a letter that was sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), because my constituency covers part of Hazel Grove. The letter says:

As a frequent user of the line, I have my own stories to tell about doors and windows that are stuck open when it is cold so the carriage is freezing, and air conditioning that does not work in the summer so everyone cooks. I recently travelled on a fully booked but almost empty train; I do not understand how that happens. Virgin has obviously given its staff good training, as it is clear that they are very experienced in conflict management and their good humour is always a joy to see.

The warning that I want to give the Government is that the public in the north-west know that the rail system is in a mess. They are not stupid. Promise after promise has not been delivered. That is not all the Government's fault; they inherited a largely unworkable system in which Railtrack simply did not have the management structures in place to achieve the necessary changes. This is a question not only of money, but of receiving value for money and achieving the Government's economic and environmental objectives.

After five years of this Government, the Strategic Rail Authority's strategy must deliver or the Government will pay the price at the ballot box. The north-west depends on that vital rail link. So far, failure to deliver has cost the economy more than BSE and foot and mouth disease together. The project has overrun by more than the channel tunnel.

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In many ways, the issue is a microcosm of the Government's major problem: they promise, spin, and minimise the difficulties, but it is the difficulties that people see. No one believes the Government any more. My advice to the Government, if I may offer some, is to come clean and tell the whole truth about the mess that we are in. When they have done that, they should tell us honestly what can and cannot be done, within proper timescales, and stop operators giving misleading information to the public.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Does the west coast strategy report not tell us what has gone wrong and how to put it right, so should the Government not be congratulated on commissioning it?

Mrs. Calton : That point is addressed in the rest of my speech.

As I said, the issue is a microcosm of the Government's major problem: they promise, spin, and minimise difficulties. They should prevent operators from giving misleading information to the public, and insist that Network Rail publish proper timely plans in advance so that the world of business, the rail operators and the travelling public can plan. What worries me is the mismatch between the impression that the Strategic Rail Authority and the Department are giving about what they intend to deliver and what the consultation document actually says.

In a letter to MPs on 10 October, the Secretary of State said:

I shall demonstrate, however, that things are not as clear as that. The Strategic Rail Authority chairman, Richard Bowker, acknowledges:

As he states in his foreword:

The document describes the strategy as "envisaging" something—an interesting word, suggesting a lack of commitment. How much more definite to start with something like, "The strategy will deliver". It is "envisaged" that the line will become a 125 mph tilt railway route with a London to Manchester journey time of two hours. I hear that the Labour party conference special managed the journey from Blackpool to London in three hours—without, I assume, putting anyone at risk. Why can Virgin do it for the Labour party, but not for the rest of us?

Alterations to existing freight services are mentioned, including capacity for two-thirds more freight volume. Does that mean more evening traffic up to 10 pm,

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passing within a few feet of people's homes? The document also refers to key commuter services being provided with sufficient capacity,

Does that mean that there will be trains, but not necessarily when people want them?

In paragraph 3.27, the document states:

That sounds more than a little worrying and I hope that the Minister will not tell us that the price of a better service to London is the continuation of a diabolical service at local level.

Paragraph 5.5 states that the Strategic Rail Authority and the Office of the Rail Regulator will review whether the proposed renewal specification is the most efficient way of sustaining the network to deliver the outputs, and also the efficiency of the proposed method of delivery of the renewal specification. In other words, there will be a review. Will the Minister tell us whether the document is truly a "strategy document" or a staging post towards a strategy? Is the Minister simply buying time? I note that the final strategy will not be published until early 2003, so things could conceivably take six-months. What is the Minister's deadline for the publication of the final strategy?

In paragraph 5.10, we read that the busiest sections of the route

Will the Minister clarify what that means for the travelling public? Is it the equivalent of putting up a red flag to announce that passengers' misery over the past few years will go on and on?

It is sensible to implement longer possession periods. Weekend and night-time working have undoubtedly led to a loss of efficiency and difficulty in monitoring progress. It appears that monitoring has been a failure, so I hope that the Minister will ensure that sufficient resources are devoted to it—and, indeed, to a proper communications strategy—in future.

I note that paragraphs 7.4 and 7.5 acknowledge that prior knowledge of engineering works is helpful. Several local authorities offered help with publicity, but Network Rail had to be pressed hard to give advance notice of anything to Stockport council, which does not bode well for the future.

Appendix 4 states that freight and commuter services will have to have their power to weight ratio altered to deliver train service outputs, necessitating increased power supply requirements and new rolling stock. No doubt the service providers will have something to say about that.

Given the concerns about new technology and the wish not to test it on this line, can the Minister give an assurance about the reliability of the new GSM-R—Global System for Mobile Communications for Railway—train radio system that is to be used as an additional communication link to support axle counters, which determine whether a train is clear, before allowing another train to use a section of the track? How reliable are axle counters? Are there circumstances in which both systems could fail?

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The irony of a Government who talk the environmental talk but fail to deliver the sustainable walk is not lost on the rail industry. It is in disarray, as my postbag shows, but the future prosperity of the north-west depends on a modern and reliable heavy rail system. Manchester airport, which is covered by the Secretary of State's consultation on the expansion of air travel, needs improved heavy rail east-west trans-Pennine links to reduce unsustainable car travel to the area of the airport. That is another matter that directly affects my constituents in Cheadle.

Where is the industry going? Where is the strategy to produce the railway industry that the north-west, the industry, the public and business want? Do the Government have a plan? Will they act to reduce the uncertainty crippling business? The north-west needs the upgrade, as do the midlands, Cumbria and Scotland, for local, national and, ultimately, international traffic. The country needs to hear from the Minister that the Government have at last got a grip on this out-of-control project.

11.21 am

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) on securing the debate, because the future of the west coast main line is extremely important, and it is abundantly clear that Railtrack failed that line and all the communities along it. There is now a new structure: Railtrack has gone and we have Network Rail, together with a strengthened and much more focused Strategic Rail Authority. Therefore we have important new opportunities, which must be grasped.

My comments this morning will centre on Liverpool. I make a plea that, as we consider the SRA's consultative document and those new opportunities, Liverpool not be left out in the cold. It is an extremely important city of the north-west, which is fast regenerating itself and increasingly successful. It is the north-west's candidate for European capital of culture in 2008. However, if Liverpool's regeneration is to continue effectively, it needs effective and reliable communications for passengers and freight. I have considered the consultative document submitted by the SRA and I have several observations about both the proposals in the document and those that are absent.

First, the document contains a number of statements about improving freight capacity, but I am increasingly concerned by the SRA's silence about the future of the central railway route proposal—the dedicated line for freight. I am concerned about the lack of reference to the importance of west-east communications—links from west to east through the Humber ports to Europe—to develop trade, which must work in collaboration with a west coast main line in which we have reinvested.

I shall concentrate on key issues directly relating to proposals for the west coast main line. I am sorry that it now appears that the promised 140 mph fast route on that line has been abandoned. I hope that it has not been abandoned for ever, because we must not abandon our position as an important part of Europe. According to the proposals in the document, the Manchester-London line is destined to reach 125 mph by 2004, and there is a promise of regular two-hourly trains between Manchester and London. I see with regret that there is

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no such commitment for Liverpool; indeed, there is no commitment at all. Through further questioning I have ascertained that the line from Liverpool to London will not reach similar standards until at least 2006, because works north of Crewe and works that do not involve Manchester are to be put back until then.

It appears from the correspondence that I have received from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport that Liverpool will get some new trains and some tilting trains, but we are to have the tilt without the speed. That simply is not good enough. I also note with concern the proposals in the consultative document about dealing with the inevitable disruption that will take place when the essential upgrading and modernisation go ahead. The document says how important the upgrading and modernisation is. Indeed, it cannot come too soon. We must all accept that such major works will cause some disruption.

The document states:

That is good. It continues:

What about Liverpool? What is good enough for Manchester is good enough for Liverpool. I call on the SRA to give Liverpool equal treatment and priority. If it is important that Manchester continue to have a fast direct line service to the capital while the works take place, then why not Liverpool? Are we not as important? It is important for the people of Liverpool and the whole of the north-west.

Then there are the stations. Lime Street station now has a good new roof, which is a considerable improvement. It no longer leaks, so we do not have to put up our umbrellas as we wait in the station. However, the improvements seem to have finished with that new roof. Lime Street, a major station in a major city, is a dismal station. Piccadilly station in Manchester is a fine example of what can be achieved. Why can we not have a station in Liverpool comparable with the best? Surely we deserve no less. If First Northwestern, the current owners cannot deliver, Network Rail should turn its attention to Lime Street station, as it is an important gateway to the major city of Liverpool.

In short, I welcome proposals to go ahead with modernisation of the west coast main line, which has been far too long delayed. It is essential that we move ahead, and that we do so quickly. Liverpool matters. It is not good enough to sideline Liverpool and give us a lower priority than our sister city, Manchester. We are a fast growing, increasingly successful city. We need a modern station and we require fast reliable trains. I call on my right hon. Friend the Minister to give his commitment to improvements in Liverpool, and his assurance that as part of the consultation, he will make representations to the SRA to give Liverpool, as part of the north-west, a fair deal.

11.29 am

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I too congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), my constituency neighbour, on securing this important debate. The four hours that I spent stuck on the west coast main line on Monday gave me plenty of time to

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reflect on the issues that I might raise in the debate. As I had my extremely vocal 16-month-old son with me, all the other passengers in the carriage had a lot of opportunity to reflect on the problems of that line. The west coast main line is a crucial link for my constituents, as it is for those of the hon. Member for Cheadle, and its Manchester branch runs through my constituency.

Looking around the Chamber today, it is interesting to observe the number of hon. Members whose constituencies are affected by that train line. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), who will speak for the Opposition, is directly affected, as are my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) and other Scottish Members, a Welsh Member who has left the Chamber, and the hon. Members for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). The line is a crucial link along the backbone of Britain.

In my own constituency, communities such as Wilmslow and Alderley Edge exist because of the train line. They are commuter towns that grew up in the nineteenth century. Every day since the lines were opened, people from those towns have been able to travel to work in Manchester. That is one of the reasons why people live in my constituency—it is in the Manchester commuter belt. Next year, however, all that will stop for four months. The train line through my constituency, used by thousands of people every day, will be closed for 17 weeks, because the line between Colwich in Staffordshire and central Manchester will be closed.

I take a reasonable view of that, because I can see that there is quite a strong argument, given the problems with the west coast main line, for closing the line rather than letting the delays increase. However, it is because of the soaring costs and delays that we are having to close the principal rail line in the United Kingdom. We might ask ourselves whether France, Japan or Germany would find themselves having to cut the main train line between their major cities.

As Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, who I believe is a good thing, and an improvement, said:

I agree with that absolutely. The costs have rocketed, as the hon. Member for Cheadle pointed out, making it the most expensive construction project in the country, and perhaps in the whole of Europe.

I ask the Minister for specific assurances on behalf of my constituents. Will the closures next year, and the closures planned for the following year between Crewe and Cheadle, mean that the west coast main line will be delivered in accordance with the new timetable? I would like a guarantee from the Minister, so that we can hold him to account in a couple of years' time. I want it confirmed that, by September 2004—[Interruption.] Yes, I want a promise of resignation, such as the Home Secretary once made, if those targets are not met—not that that promise did any good. I would like

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confirmation that, by September 2004, the London to Manchester journey time will be cut by 35 minutes, and the upgrade will be finished by May 2006.

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar) : No chance.

Mr. Osborne : It would be good to hear the Minister repeat that in his speech. Will he also assure us that the provision of faster trains will not be at the expense of a worse service for my constituents? At present, all trains to Manchester stop at Macclesfield and Stockport, and I want an assurance that even if a direct non-stop London to Manchester service is introduced, faster trains will not mean a worse service for my constituents. Extra trains must be provided, and the number of trains that stop at Wilmslow, in my constituency, should remain the same. My constituents, who are currently bearing the brunt of the problems with the upgrade, should at least have the assurance that the resulting service will not be worse for them.

Will the Minister also assure us that everything will be done to help my constituents while the commuter towns in my constituency are cut off? The letter that I received from his colleague the Under-Secretary said:

He also referred to the high-quality, dedicated coach service that would be laid on. We will wait to see what those high-quality coaches are like. Coaches, however, will add to the travelling time for people in my constituency, and to the congestion on local roads.

I will therefore ask a specific question. I accept that the Minister may not have the answer today, but he could write to me.Would it be possible to open an old branch line—I think that it is in occasional use—that runs from Wilmslow in my constituency through Styal near Manchester airport and straight into the centre of Manchester? First North Western Trains has proposed the idea, and says that in principle it is prepared to run trains along it. That would hugely ease the problems for my constituents, as it would minimise the disruption. Frankly, the idea strikes me as common sense. It would remove the need for all the coaches on our local roads. If that is not possible, why not?

The Government's decision to close the west coast main line was taken without local consultation. We heard of it when the Secretary of State went on Radio 4 and started to tell us about it. There does not appear to have been any consideration of the effects on local people. The closure has been brought about by incompetence and delay for many years. The least the Government could do is make an effort to minimise disruption for the people whom I represent.

11.36 am

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): I too congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton). Although she made a fairly partisan, party political speech, the issues will probably echo across all parties. I hope that the Opposition spokesman will profoundly apologise to the people along the west coast for the disaster that the Conservative Government—

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): Very cross-party.

Mr. Lloyd : Yes, the issue is cross-party, and there would be enormous sympathy for the hon. Gentleman if

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he were honest enough to mention that the problems that we now suffer are due to the massive under-investment under the Thatcher-Major Governments. Those who are fortunate enough to have access to the east coast main line, such as you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not believe how bad the west coast main line is in comparison unless they had travelled on it in recent years—unlike unfortunates such as myself who live on that line of misery and incompetence.

I am talking not only about speed—although the speeds on the west coast main line are ridiculous, given what is now technologically achievable—but about the quality of service. Hon. Members have referred to delays. The rolling stock is massively outdated and not well maintained.

Tony Cunningham (Workington): I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of it, but people drive from my constituency in west Cumbria to Penrith, and then to Scotch Corner, to go to Darlington so that they can travel on the east coast main line. They drive an additional 50 or 60 miles past the west coast main line railway station for a better service on the east coast.

Mr. Lloyd : My hon. Friend makes a good point, which is true at various points of east-west convergence. I have often wondered whether it was worth driving from Manchester to Doncaster. Journey times are so much better from Doncaster to London that it would nearly justify the extra cost. Environmentally, it is plain stupidity to ask people to use cars on part of a journey that they ought to be able to travel comfortably by rail.

All the way from Scotland, down to those who access the west coast main line in the west of England, it is enormously irritating to people that the promises made in the past will not be kept. There is a question as to whether the Strategic Rail Authority thinks strategically. Given the estimates of the money needed to upgrade the west coast main line, I ask the Minister whether there are better ways to do it. We are now talking about at least £10 billion and possibly £13 billion.

The upgrade to trains that run at 125 mph is not good enough. Five years ago, we were promised that the 125 mph service would be in operation and that we would be looking forward to 140 mph trains. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) made the point that we still want those faster trains. That is not a mere aspiration; to treat that aim as achievable in a reasonable time should be part and parcel of the strategy that we are considering.

If we are to spend the amount of money in question, but to receive only a modest upgrade, the question arises whether elsewhere there are better forms of investment that might bring about an improved rail service. The planned journey times of two hours and 10 minutes, if the 125 mph service is brought in, will not be a massive improvement on what already exists for Manchester. Things improve a little further north, and I appreciate the relative value of those gains; they are proportionately more important. However, I wonder whether the total strategic package stands up.

Among the consequences of the upgrade of the west coast main line will be a knock-on effect—and I say this as someone who of course wants the line to be improved,

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because I, and many of my constituents, use it. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) referred to commuter services to Manchester. One of the capacity constraints is the route into Manchester. An improvement to and greater frequency of main line services from London to Manchester must be coupled with investment to deal with that capacity limitation in the run in to the city. Without that, there will be marginal improvement in the long distance service to London and a deterioration in the commuter services into the city and in cross-country services.

Cross-country services are important; my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside mentioned the need to upgrade the east-west route. That is important for the economic development of the whole of the north. What is now seen as the M62 corridor should be thought of as the Liverpool-Hull rail corridor, where freight on rail would be important. That will suffer from the same capacity constraints if piecemeal strategies are adopted instead of a strategy that deals with the overall issues.

I want to press my right hon. Friend the Minister on one issue: last week in the House, when I asked about through trains from cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow using the channel tunnel, he said that the priority was upgrading the west coast main line. I understand that priorities and spending constraints are necessary. However, unequivocal promises that we would all have access to the channel tunnel were given by the then Mrs. Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, and by her various Transport Secretaries. That was part of the bargain through which the Bill permitting the development of the channel tunnel passed through the House. We are still waiting, and I do not think it unreasonable to keep that demand on the table. The Government's official stance should be to agree that that is part of our ambition for our rail system.

Mr. Osborne : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in continental Europe, destinations for channel tunnel trains are being expanded to include, for example, Amsterdam, while in Britain we still have only one destination—Waterloo?

Mr. Lloyd : The hon. Gentleman is right. That is great for those who can easily gain access to the channel tunnel from London, but not so great for the rest of us who have a different geographical perspective—and it is not acceptable. It is ironic that in the run in to Piccadilly station are sheds on which it says, "Ici habite le Eurostar". The Eurostar has never lived in them, so far as I am aware, and is not likely to for a long time—or if it did, it would have to travel a long way before it got to the channel tunnel.

I hope that the Minister can tell us that there will come a time, in the not too distant future, when the Eurostar will actually habite in the sheds outside Piccadilly station. I am not sure whether we are allowed to use such language, but I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it must be English, because it is written on a shed in Manchester—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): Order. May I help the hon. Gentleman? The rule is that the occupant of the Chair must be able to understand what is said—and I speak pretty good French.

Mr. Lloyd : I have the utmost admiration for your ability to comprehend what is said by hon. Members in

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many languages, often including that of your native Scotland, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are in that sense the best person to make the judgment.

Mrs. Ellman : Does my hon. Friend agree that the whole issue of a regional Eurostar is part of regional economic development? Should not the Strategic Rail Authority consult the regional development agencies and regional assemblies in drawing up proposals?

Mr. Lloyd : My hon. Friend is right. I was about to refer to that point. The Government have undoubtedly made enormous progress in getting rid of the totally discredited Railtrack and building a structure to tackle some of the system's long-standing problems. However, it is difficult to see in that an overall strategy that recognises the railway system as the lifeblood not only of passenger travel but of the link between regional economies, and with economies on the European land mass. The west coast main line should be upgraded along with other regional services, but extended access should also be given to European destinations as part of the overall strategy. I appeal to the Minister to give us some idea of the bigger picture for the future.

I want to raise one particular point, although it may not seem especially important in the grand scheme of things. I was surprised to learn that, in the agreement between Virgin and the new rail structure, Virgin has been offered compensation of more than £100 million. Virgin has delivered an extremely poor service to the people of the north-west since it took over, and the company should acknowledge to those people that it has ripped them off. For example, the company put fares up massively—the hon. Member for Cheadle referred to the very high fares. It is bizarre that Virgin is being compensated so handsomely, because it means that the taxpayer has agreed to underwrite the company's failure to run a business competently. We are underwriting the risk that the company, as the commercial operator, ought to have taken.

There should be an upgrade to the west coast main line because we want a high-quality service, especially to Manchester and Liverpool. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside that it is vital that the twin major city in the north-west should be provided with excellent rail links. However, it is also important that there should be a strategy that allows the people of the north-west, in the west of Scotland and further south to see that the rail system between our towns and cities is excellent. The service should not be devoted to getting us to London alone, but should link us into the wider rail pattern on the continent of Europe.

11.47 am

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I too congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) on securing this timely debate.

It has to be said that the whole sorry saga of the west coast main line puts the saga of the millennium dome to shame. There have been costs spiralling beyond control, delays beyond belief, bad decisions and a revolving door management that would shame many Premiership football clubs. Under plans announced this month, we

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find that there is to be a delay to the modernisation programme for the part of the west coast main line that lies within Scotland, which means that the purgatory and misery will go on for those poor souls in Scotland who continue to use that line in the next few years.

There is a north-south divide in railway policy in the United Kingdom, and Government policy clearly puts Scotland at the end of some branch route to absolutely nowhere. The delay in modernisation plans for the west coast main line is the latest and possibly the best example of this new transport divide. Many people in Scotland have long suspected that this Government have no interest in railways north of Preston, and the decision to single out for delay the modernisation programme for the line in Scotland will only confirm that view. England will benefit from the modernisation, and the new 125 mph pendolino trains will run from English stations within two years—from London to Birmingham, London to Manchester and London to Preston. They will not run from London to a station in Scotland until 2006.

Mr. Martlew : We in Carlisle have the same problem as people in Scotland, although we are south of the border. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that improvements on the southern part of the line will mean that trains get from London to Glasgow more quickly? If they get from London to Crewe more quickly, they will get to Glasgow sooner than they do at present.

Pete Wishart : I follow the hon. Gentleman's logic, and I understand his predicament—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. For the benefit of Hansard, I ask the hon. Gentleman to speak up. His words are not being reported by the lady who is here in the Chamber, but by someone who will hear them through the microphone somewhere else.

Pete Wishart : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall attempt to speak up.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's predicament, and I mentioned that Preston was the stopping point for the Government's interest in the railways. I follow his logic, and it is true that the modernisation programme south of the border will benefit people in Scotland. However, I am trying to determine why there has been a delay in the modernisation programme for services north of Preston to Glasgow. Such problems will mean that people in the west of Scotland still have to endure delays.

The proposal in the modernisation programme is to link Glasgow to the west coast main line by 2006. In the meantime, Scots will be deprived of a modern service and they are likely to use their cars, or the low-cost airlines that now fly between Scottish airports and London, in preference to unreliable rail services. Imagine the outcry if it were decided to delay a much required national modernisation programme south of Birmingham, rather than the programme for the west coast main line in Scotland. The squeals would be heard all the way from Solihull to Streatham. The Government and the SRA are prepared to treat Scotland as a distant stop on their modernisation journey. I do not know why the SRA continues to believe that Scotland can be conveniently discarded. The rail-using public there are growing increasingly disillusioned with the Government's contempt for them.

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I had the opportunity to travel on one of the new pendolino trains last week, although it was not in Scotland, because we do not have any. I was visiting my Plaid Cymru colleagues in Cardiff, and the journey was quite pleasant. The service was comfortable, if predictably delayed, and I enjoyed it. However, the earliest we will see a pendolino train in Scotland will be the middle of 2004.

Mr. Spellar : Is the hon. Gentleman sure that he was travelling on a pendolino, rather than a Virgin Crosscountry voyager, on the route that he described?

Pete Wishart : The train may have been a voyager, but I looked at it and at the map, and unless the trains are going in disguise—

Mr. Martlew : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the super voyager, because the pendolino does not run in Wales—or, indeed, anywhere else at present. The super voyager, however, passes my house on the way to Scotland.

Pete Wishart : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's correction. The train may indeed have been a super voyager, but it was very comfortable; it was certainly not like the decrepit rolling stock on the railways in Scotland at the beginning of the 21st century. Given the state of the rolling stock, it will take five hours and 20 minutes to travel from Glasgow to London, and that is a very optimistic estimate. That is how things will remain until the middle of next year, when much required modernisation work in northern England will mean that the journey will take an indeterminate time. Is it not ironic that we are having this debate at the end of 2002—almost 16 years to the month after the British Rail super service managed the journey in three hours and 52 minutes? That is still the record; it was set 16 years ago and it is likely to remain unbroken for the foreseeable future, given the chaos that we are about to experience on the west coast main line.

The new transport divide is developing not only on the west coast main line. The Strategic Rail Authority announced plans earlier this year, and of the 17 projects listed as geographically specific, 15 were south of the border, and 11 of those were for London and the south-east. There was no mention of priority projects for Scotland, such as the electrification of the east coast line north of Edinburgh. The last time I was in this Chamber with the Minister—for an Adjournment debate in the name of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Luke)—he gave a categorical no to the further electrification of the east coast line north of Edinburgh. The SRA plan also makes no mention of opening the Waverley loop, which would serve the region from the borders to Edinburgh. This week we have heard that Scotland is to get no TGVs, for the bizarre reason that we are too far away from central Europe and would not benefit from the service. That is the most ridiculous argument that I have heard.

There are still doubts about the development of the Waverley station in Edinburgh, which is absolutely necessary if we are to start to deal with congestion in Scotland. The SRA plan that we saw earlier this year was so obviously a plan to deal with issues south of the

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border that even the chair of the forum for UK passengers was forced to concede that it was, indeed, a plan for London and the south-east.

What will be the economic impact of the delay on the west coast main line? According to Labour-controlled Glasgow city council it will be a disaster. The council went as far as submitting an emergency motion, stating that the delay in the improvements to the main line will be damaging to the economy of the west of Scotland. The motion called on the UK Transport Minister to ensure that Scotland would not be hit unfairly by those delays, and demanded an urgent meeting with the Scottish Minister with responsibility for transport, Iain Gray. The new Labour convener said:

Good on him, and good luck to him. I hope that I can join him in that fight.

I have no doubt that the Government are trying to put things right after the disaster formerly known as Railtrack. After a disaster of such proportions, things could only get better, as they always like to tell us. With characteristic new Labour incompetence, however, they have conspired to make things worse. If I received a pound for every time a Labour Transport Minister said to us, "We're putting this right after decades of under-investment," I would be a rich man indeed.

Mrs. Ellman : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it took a Labour Government to see the demise of the failure that was Railtrack? The Opposition wished to keep it in being, and even minor opposition parties were reluctant to support the brave action of the then Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

Pete Wishart : I have no doubt that the major problem with the railways is historic under-investment and the disaster formerly known as Railtrack. After five years, however, there is still massive chaos on the railways. The Government have had five years to put that right, yet only now are they starting to get to grips with the problem. I am a long way from congratulating the Government on any success in putting the railways right.

I concede, though, that money is going into the railways—quite significant sums of money at that. I want to ensure equality of distribution of that extra investment across the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. That is what today's debate is about for me. It simply is not good enough to leave Scotland with a second-class service. The Scottish National party is trying to be helpful to the Minister. We have a neat and convenient solution: give the powers of the railway transport system to the Scottish Parliament. Surely even Labour Scottish Executive Ministers would have been able to run the Scottish railways better than the body that previously had responsibility for it, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Even the fat controller in "Thomas the Tank Engine" could have run the Scottish railways better than the previous incumbent.

We need a distinct Scottish approach and a Scottish solution to the significant problems we have in the Scottish railways. Transport is already a devolved

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matter. We run the roads in Scotland, but somehow we cannot be trusted to run the railways, even though 90 per cent. of all journeys that start in Scotland end in Scotland. Scotrail and Scottish Financial Enterprise now agree with that view. They see the compelling argument that Scotland is a small country with an uncomplicated rail system and few operators, and would dramatically benefit by being run from Holyrood.

Now, however, the responsibility for the main rail line out of Scotland rests in London. Scotland may be at the end of the line both geographically and in the Government's thinking when it comes to real investment—but passengers who pay high fares certainly do not deserve to be shunted aside as they have been in the past few years.

11.58 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) on securing the debate and on highlighting the environmental consequences of the failure to invest in railways, a point that other Members made.

I wish the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) success in securing his guarantee from the Minister. I remind him of the Deputy Prime Minister's pledge, made five years ago, to be held to account if he did not reduce road traffic within the following five years. He did not reduce road traffic and we have held him to account, but that has not made the slightest difference, because he is still with us.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) castigated the previous Conservative Government for their failure to invest in the railways. That is a legitimate point, but it surely cannot have escaped his notice that a Labour Government have been in power for the past five years.

As hon. Members have said, the west coast main line is the busiest in the country and one of the busiest in Europe. The upgrade has been one of the most expensive and mismanaged projects in recent memory. We know that the line has not been properly modernised since the 1960s, but we must question, as the Financial Times did in a recent article, how the upgrade of 400 miles of railway can run up a bill greater than the income of some developing countries and how the French can build entire TGV lines from scratch for less.

It is worth remembering that, at the outset, Railtrack said that the upgrade would cost £2.1 billion. It promised to slash journey times, double capacity, increase passenger numbers and dramatically improve safety. Regrettably, it adopted untested technology, an unrealistic time scale and an onerous contract, which meant that the project was doomed from the start, at least while Railtrack was in charge.

What will UK plc and passengers get from the upgrade? We have heard that Virgin will run tilting trains at 125 mph rather than at 140 mph and that some of the works will be completed in two years. What of the cost of the project? The Strategic Rail Authority estimates that it will be £12 billion, and we know that a substantial proportion of that will be spent on a renewal

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process rather than on enhancing the line, but it is highly questionable whether even the figure of £10 billion is correct, especially in the light of the European directives on fast-speed trains and the lack of an asset register.

I hope that the Minister says what he thinks the impact of the European directive will be. During a debate earlier this week, I asked him whether it will cover Eurostar trains. I now want to ask him whether it will apply to trains that travel at 125 mph, because I understand that the cut-off speed for it to apply is 200 kph.

We know that Richard Bowker, the SRA chairman, recently called for bonds to be considered as a means to raise private finance under the golden arrow project. A poisoned arrow from the Chancellor and his resounding "non"—I am sure that Mr. Deputy Speaker understands that French word—swiftly killed that idea. Will the Minister explain why the Chancellor has come down so hard against bonds, given that Richard Bowker, who presumably knows his stuff, proposed the idea? If bonds are not to be the means of raising private finance, what is? How much of the west coast main line's cost does the Minister expect to be covered by private finance, a point on which we still have not received clarification?

One of the key things that the project tells us is that the Government were right to put Railtrack into administration—a decision on which we supported them. The project has been appallingly mismanaged. Perhaps the costs were worked out by accountants, rather than by engineers, who did not really understand the full consequences of the works being planned. There is no full asset register that would have enabled them properly to calculate the costs, so can we be certain that the figure of £10 billion that is being quoted is correct? How do we know that the same mistakes will not be made in the new cost estimate and that the same contractor cost overruns will not be experienced again?

The Government must not use Railtrack's appalling mismanagement of the project as an excuse to scale down their plans for a railways renaissance. We need them to succeed, because the alternative is a Britain permanently gridlocked as a result of a modal switch in the wrong direction. As some hon. Members have noted, people are switching from trains to cars, because cars are a more reliable means of transport.

As well as questions of funding and finance, we need to consider the impact on freight, particularly north of Rugby. Under the original proposals, freight would have been pushed out in favour of passenger services, particularly Virgin's inter-city trains, which are familiar to Mr. Bowker, but there are still serious misgivings about the impact on freight. I hope that the Minister says whether guarantees can be given on freight access and whether the European directives will have an impact on freight on that line.

Mr. Spellar : Is the hon. Gentleman campaigning for an increase in freight on that line?

Tom Brake : The Liberal Democrats are certainly campaigning for an increase in freight on lines where it is appropriate.

Mr. Spellar : I think that means no.

Tom Brake : If a means can be found to run freight and passenger services together—I believe that there is a

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question mark over that—it may be appropriate to increase the amount of freight. However, it is important that the Minister responds to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) about the impact on central railways, because trying to run freight and passenger services on the same lines can be a problem. As a result, we suffer significant costs that are not experienced in countries with segregated lines.

The hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) highlighted the impact of delays in Scotland, which, equally, have an impact in Wales. Services there are being scaled back, so it is important that the Minister provides another guarantee—that speeds of 125 mph will be guaranteed on all parts of the west coast main line and that such speeds will be achieved everywhere on the line.

Mr. Martlew : On parts of the west coast main line, it is physically impossible for trains to achieve that speed, as the tunnels, which were built 150 years ago, prevent it. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that we should rebuild the tunnels so that trains can go at 125 mph everywhere?

Tom Brake : It is incumbent on the Minister to set out exactly where 125 mph is applicable. The achievements of the 125 mph trains should be trumpeted, but that speed can be reached only on limited stretches of track. The Government should set that out clearly, so that people understand what they are getting. The lesson to be learned is that Railtrack needed to be put out of its misery, and I am pleased that that was done. When it was in control, there was no single contractor to take charge of projects. Unfortunately, the Government kept pumping money into it, despite the huge losses caused by the fact that proper contracts were not in place, because costs were not controlled and because there were poorly specified outputs.

The emergence of the SRA as a specifier and a project sponsor, as well as that of Network Rail as the delivery agent, marks a vital shift. Railtrack was both client and deliverer, so that shift is important. I agree that the SRA and Network Rail should work in partnership with the rest of the rail industry, and with the co-operation of the passenger and freight operating companies. If so, things can only get better. I sincerely hope that that is true for the west coast main line—for the sake of passengers and of UK plc.

12.9 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I, too, begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) on securing the debate and on how she introduced it. She knows that it is not a personal comment when I say that she follows in distinguished footsteps: her predecessor, Stephen Day, was a friend to Members on all sides of the House and a dedicated, effective and persuasive advocate for the west coast main line throughout his time here. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) recognises, as I know many others do, that Stephen played a big role in the all-party group that campaigned on the issue for many years.

I should also point out that, in common with many others here, my constituency is directly affected by the west coast main line, as it is home to Oxenholme, the Lake district station. Fortunately for me, it is less than

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10 minutes from my home in Kendal. Therefore, in common with many other hon. Members, I have spent a lot of time on that line. I might exempt the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), given some of his comments, but generally speaking it is clear that in all political parties, throughout England and Scotland and for a range of business and employment reasons, the west coast main line has immense national strategic significance. It is enormously important to us all.

On that note, I take up the challenge issued by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), who said that we should approach the matter in a non-partisan way, but then slightly spoiled it by saying that all the fault lies with the Thatcher and Major Governments. He will forgive me if I prefer the slightly more gracious and accurate, but none the less telling, comments made by the Secretary of State earlier this month when he announced the change:

I accept that entirely. Indeed, he said on "Channel 4 News" on 9 October:

I accept that entirely as well.

To pick up on a comment from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who said that everything is Railtrack's fault, in that Channel 4 interview the Secretary of State said, and I agree, that it would be a mistake to blame

Once again, he put it extremely well.

It is worth observing that there have been a few comments suggesting that all we are talking about is upgrading the line and that it should not require a terribly complicated effort, querying why everything has not been done in five minutes flat. In September, The Guardian put it rather well:

Much of the equipment

It is a huge project. Some 75 per cent. or more of the cost is estimated by the Strategic Rail Authority to cover simply the cost of upgrading the track. Only the remaining quarter of the money will make the difference between trains being able to run at current speeds or at 125 mph along much of the line's length.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) rightly addressed services being suspended next summer, and the summer beyond, to enable faster progress with the upgrade. I share his balanced assessment of that. We all recognise that we would not like to be at such a stage, but it is probably better, as the Rail Passengers Council has put it, to take the pain all at once in a relatively short and concentrated period, rather than endlessly stretching it out year after year.

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However, my hon. Friend also rightly said that the SRA proposals are not a model of advance consultation. Concerns were expressed by a huge number of businesses, and he referred to commuters in his constituency. Many others commute along the line, between the midlands and London, and between the north-west, Scotland and London.

Of course, I have to be conscious, as the hon. Members for Carlisle and for Workington (Tony Cunningham) are, of the potential impact on tourism in Cumbria, which was hugely affected by foot and mouth and which relies on the ability to deliver fast, reliable and consistent transport facilities to the county. None the less, on balance, most of us would conclude that the SRA made an appropriate judgment. I have not sought to make political capital by attacking that decision, but there are important assurances to be given that the quality of the alternative service will be properly maintained.

I have a series of quick questions for the Minister. Will he address the question that has been raised by all parties on the quality of that alternative transport? Clearly there are issues relating to who will be responsible for providing it and what the standard will be.

The BBC website quotes a Railtrack spokesman—this was a few days before Network Rail took over, so I imagine that that person now works for the new company—who said that

That is extremely reassuring, but it is also slightly implausible. It would be helpful to know whether the Government will take a role in achieving that.

Several Members have made the point that there is widespread disappointment that the 140 mph full speed of the pendolinos is unlikely to be achieved in the near future. Will the Minister comment on the remarks made by the SRA in its original announcement? Point one of the SRA note to editors, at the end of its press release, states:

That is an interesting phrase, which may or may not mean something. The general expectation is that we will not have 140 mph capacity for at least a decade. Will the Minister comment on whether such capacity is a possibility, perhaps in the next decade, or should we accept that it will not exist for a very long time, if ever?

There are also financial implications. The Minister has had conversations with people in and around Network Rail and thus will be even more familiar than I am with some of the financial issues that are arising. I am told that Network Rail's expenditure on basic maintenance work across the whole national rail network runs about 37 per cent. ahead of budget and that its overall expenditure runs about 50 per cent. ahead. It will be interesting to hear whether he can confirm that.

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I am also told that there are serious concerns in the company. Although Network Rail believes that is has improved the management compared with Railtrack, there is, none the less, concern that a large proportion of the funds allocated by the Government in the 10-year transport plan may end up being used on basic maintenance work, before upgrades are even considered. The SRA has predicted that, although the cost of the west coast main line upgrade will be less than the worst-case scenario of £13 billion, it will still be more than the Government originally budgeted for. Will the Minister clarify whether additional Government funding will be available if that proves to be the case?

On the website of the European Commission—bless it—the west coast main line is referred to as an "EU priority transport project". The website claims that that is

The Minister will be reassured to learn that there is no reference to anybody else putting in money, although I suspect that the Government are putting in rather more than the European investment bank. Does the Minister know whether the EU might be prepared to provide more funding?

I want to leave time for the Minister to reply, so I will keep my remaining points brief. Will he address the implications of the fire dispute for the west coast main line and the national rail network as a whole? Yesterday in the House, the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out, entirely appropriately, that safety considerations should be taken into account by the Health and Safety Executive and that the HSE is an independent body that will reach its own conclusions. He also said that if the HSE rules that a service is safe to be provided, that service should go ahead. The Minister knows that those involved in providing our rail service are anxious about the implications of the fire brigades strike.

The Minister also knows that train operators are concerned about legal liability. We live in a much more litigious society than we did 20 or 30 years ago. If the HSE, as an independent part, yet still a part, of the Government, rules that it is safe for train operating companies to provide a service on a day when the Fire Brigades Union is on strike, will the Government work with insurance companies and others to ensure that the HSE's determination provides, in effect, a legal indemnity for train operating companies, in the event of action being taken against them as the result of an accident? We all hope that there will not be accidents, but the train operating companies need to know that they are acting with proper legal and insurance cover if they are to provide a service that is close to normal, which I hope they do, even on days when the fire brigade is on strike.

The west coast main line is an asset of immense national importance, and I hope that all of us, on a cross-party basis, pay tribute to, and urge success for, those who are working extremely hard to deliver a much better service on it. If they were to achieve that, it would benefit the constituents of many hon. Members who are present, and the entire nation. I hope that the Minister takes this message from the debate: anything and everything that he can do to deliver an improved west coast main line will earn a hearty three cheers from many people throughout the country.

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12.20 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) on securing the debate, although much of her contribution was like a "Focus" leaflet. She even referred to the Liberal Democrats being all in favour of freight, although concerned that freight trains might run at night—which is, of course, when freight normally runs on the rail network. She also raised questions about work on the line, many of which are addressed in the consultation document. At least that is now in the public domain. That is the opposite of the normal way of doing things, which is to find out when the pavements are going to be repaired and demand that it happens in the near future.

I also wish to stress that this is a consultation document. The Strategic Rail Authority is asking for early comments by November, if that is possible, and for final comments by 16 December. I urge those colleagues—and the local organisations on whose behalf they are speaking—who wish to make comments and suggestions to input them to the SRA. Indeed, some of them have already been taken on board. For example, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) made a point about the Wilmslow-Styal-Manchester line, and I understand that the local service can be confirmed. Since the publication of the draft strategy, Network Rail has confirmed that trains will still be able to get to Wilmslow. I will follow up that matter with a letter to the hon. Gentleman.

I now wish to rattle quickly through the overall picture with regard to the west coast main line. There are a lot of questions to deal with, and I hope to answer as many of them as possible during my contribution, and to write to several hon. Members on other matters.

The importance of the west coast main line has been clearly stated by hon. Members. It is the key artery from London to the midlands, and on to north-western Scotland, for both passengers and freight. There was substantial investment in the line when it was electrified in the 1960s and the early-1970s. Since then, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said—in an unusually consensual manner—Governments of both main parties have neglected their responsibilities on maintenance and renewal.

Mr. Martlew : I am optimistic that the upgrade of the west coast main line will be completed. Indeed, comments have been made today that the vast majority of it is renewable. However, I seek an assurance that once the upgrade is completed, sufficient money will be put into the line to keep it in a reasonable state, so that our successors will not have to debate this issue again in 20 or 30 years' time.

Mr. Spellar : My hon. Friend is right. One of the lessons that has been painfully learned from the condition of the rail network is that maintaining the system is as important as, and frequently more important than, considering extensions, although several of those will be significant. However, we must not return to the position in which we are saving money in the short term, but that results in considerable costs to the service, including a financial cost.

There was growing demand, and major renewals were becoming increasingly urgent and necessary. Therefore, there was a need and an opportunity to upgrade the line

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to increase capacity and improve performance. That was the logic behind the contract that Railtrack entered into in 1997-98. I am sure that I do not need to remind the House of the mess that Railtrack made of that crucial investment. "We will do it for £2.3 billion" it said, and it mentioned new signalling technology and speeds of 140 mph. However, it could not deliver those things, and it could not deliver them at that price. Costs spiralled, without any hint of their being controlled. It was not only that Railtrack could not control its costs; it did not understand them, either. There were indications that the estimated cost could have risen to some £13 billion. Certainly, with modernisation, the figure could have gone even beyond that amount.

Railtrack could not deliver the outputs. What worked on a blank piece of paper did not work in practice. There are some 16 train operators on the west coast main line running passenger and freight services, fast and slow services and transporting long-distance and local commuters. It eventually dawned on Railtrack that it would not be sensible to rely on signalling systems that were yet to be developed in order to cope with that complex mix of traffic. That led to more redesigning and cost increases. Even then, Railtrack did not know what assets needed to be renewed on the line, and it still had not begun to attempt to produce a workable timetable that would provide slots to allow the different services to operate.

It became clear, particularly last year after the company had gone into administration, that Railtrack had made commitments without knowing the extent of the necessary works and how it could deliver the ambitious outputs that were promised. With the necessary signalling technology still years away, there was no way of providing a 140 mph operation without eating massively into the capacity for other services. The resulting problems led to the severe cost overruns and slippage that I mentioned.

We all know that Railtrack struggled, and failed, to find a workable and affordable solution. Under its management the project was undeliverable. Thankfully, Railtrack is history. Network Rail has taken over. That is a significant advance. Prior to that, however, the new Railtrack management under John Armitt—a much more engineering-orientated organisation—was already making a difference.

Faced with the mess that was left by Railtrack, we acted decisively with the SRA. On 9 October, the SRA published a consultation document on the strategy for the west coast main line route modernisation project, which has already been mentioned. The SRA has worked with Network Rail and in partnership with the rest of the railway industry and thoroughly reviewed the upgrade project. It has worked up coherent measures that, for the first time, have been matched against a clear and deliverable set of outputs. That massive undertaking will deliver more than 780 miles of upgraded railway, the renewal of 585 miles of overhead wires and equipment and more than 1,000 switches and crossings.

Tony Cunningham : I will make a quick point on the replacement of track. I have always been concerned about the security of supply. My constituency contains

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the only plant in the entire United Kingdom that makes railway lines, and it has been under threat. Will the Minister continue to support that plant?

Mr. Spellar : My hon. Friend is aware that I am concerned about the viability of the manufacturing and supply side of the railway industry. That is precisely to ensure that the rail system in this country continues to receive the appropriate service in manufacturing and replacement. As he knows, we have had regular discussions with him, the trade union that represents the work force, the rail companies and the company that he mentioned.

The new strategy will include a provision for tilting trains operating at 125 mph along the full route. That will result in significant improvements to journey times. For example, the journey time from London to Manchester will be cut by half an hour. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) that Liverpool will benefit substantially. The 125 mph service will run most of the way to Liverpool in 2004. That will be some 34 minutes quicker than the present service and will be of considerable advantage. As I understand it, Liverpool will face only a short period of closure.

I can also tell Manchester Members that we are considering, in individual cases, whether to divert trains along one or another arm towards Manchester. That also applies to the Scottish route. The idea that the route to Scotland is cut off is incorrect. I put it to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) that if the trains go faster between London and the north-west, they will get to Glasgow earlier. I think that they are already getting to Glasgow about half an hour earlier, which is of considerable advantage.

There will be more frequent inter-city trains—an increase of 80 per cent. in the number of services—and four trains an hour from London to Birmingham. Hon. Members who were perhaps understandably critical of Virgin should consider the Virgin voyager system that was mentioned by the hon. Member for North Tayside. That is significantly enhancing this country's cross-country services.

We are looking for better performance and increased reliability. The SRA's target is for 90 per cent. of trains to arrive within 10 minutes by 2008 and an increase of freight capacity by 60 to 70 per cent., which is obviously significant—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. It is time for us to move on to our next topic for consideration, which is about the protection of the green belt in Morley and Rothwell.

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