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11 Feb 2003 : Column 835—continued


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Northern Ireland

Question agreed to.

11 Feb 2003 : Column 836

Direct Rail Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Derek Twigg.]

4.55 pm

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise in Parliament an issue of urgent concern to the people whom I represent in Wilmslow and the surrounding area. Owing to the way our business has panned out today, I could speak for—

Bob Russell (Colchester): Two and a half hours.

Mr. Osborne: Indeed. In fact, that is about the time it takes to travel from Wilmslow to London by train. However, despite a request from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), that we make this debate lengthy and that as many people should take part as possible, I intend to keep my remarks relatively brief.

As I am sure that many Members know, Wilmslow used to be a major station on the west coast main line. Trains between London and Manchester used to stop there regularly during the day. Sadly, over time, the service has shrunk and shrunk, until currently only three trains a day from Manchester call at Wilmslow on their way to London, and only four call there on their way back in the afternoon. The services remain hugely popular with passengers, however, and are very important to the town that I represent.

I asked for the debate because it has emerged that the Strategic Rail Authority is on the brink of scrapping these important services. As far as I can tell, it will do so with no consultation with local people or local businesses and without—apparently—paying any attention to the views of Virgin Trains, the operator which actually runs the service. Indeed, one has to be something of a Sherlock Holmes even to work out that the SRA is about to end the Wilmslow to London service. No press release has ever been issued. No statement has been made. There is nothing on the SRA website.

On Friday, I visited Wilmslow station to see if there were any clues there, but even Sherlock would have found nothing. There is nothing on the notice board to warn passengers that the service to London could be axed. There is nothing in the train timetables. When I asked staff behind the ticket counter, they knew nothing about the plans either.

As the local MP, I first knew of the proposal only last month when I read the "Mid Cheshire Rail Report", which I am sure is a popular journal. It is produced by a dedicated voluntary group of rail users who had spotted a clue in the SRA's west coast strategy consultation document, published last year on 9 October. I have a copy before me.

The document sets out the Government's plans for completing the modernisation of the west coast main line and explains how services will run when that modernisation is complete. The document begins with admirable honesty by admitting:

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The chairman of the SRA, Richard Bowker, states that the draft strategy

I understand that the SRA will produce a final strategy once it has received and analysed the responses to the consultation document.

The west coast strategy document is obviously familiar to the Government, as a debate was held about it in Westminster Hall on 23 October. At that time I asked the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), for an assurance that the west coast upgrade would not lead to a worse service for my constituents and that the same number of direct trains would continue to stop at Wilmslow. It was a reasonable question. After all, during the modernisation of the west coast service my constituents have borne a heavy burden. They have already suffered many delays due to the updating of the line. Indeed, for the first part of next year, the entire line through Wilmslow will be closed, as part of that modernisation. So I did not think it unreasonable to ask the Minister of State for an assurance that, having paid a heavy price for modernisation, the people whom I represent would receive the same service at the end of the process, but he did not respond to my specific request. I do not particularly blame him for that, and I did not think much about it at the time because I assumed that, if there had been threat to the Wilmslow service, it would have been flagged up in the strategic document.

What I had not appreciated was that the SRA is planning that no trains should stop at Wilmslow. I had not appreciated that fact because those plans are not mentioned in the strategy document. In fact, Wilmslow is not mentioned in the entire document. Only when we look very carefully and do a bit of detective work, as the mid-Cheshire rail users group has done, do we see what is really planned.

The table on page 12 is entitled, "Typical journey times in minutes, number of stops and daytime service levels (Monday to Friday) for long distance passenger services from London", and it tells us that from September next—from winter 2004, as it puts it—there will be 29 trains a day between Manchester and London and that those trains will go via Stoke-on-Trent, which is on a different line from Wilmslow. That is fine, because that service is very similar to the one that currently operates. It stops at Stoke and Macclesfield, and it will be familiar to hon. Members who use it—indeed, I do so every week.

A further service is mentioned, called the Manchester peak fast service, which is the new crown jewel in the west coast main line modernisation strategy, and the document says that there will be three fast trains a day on that service. I understand that those trains will use the Crewe line, which goes through Wilmslow. That would be fine as well, because, as I say, a couple of services use that line and stop at Wilmslow every day. However, the detail of the table shows that only one stop is planned for that service. That stop could be Wilmslow, Stockport or elsewhere, but everyone now assumes that it will not be Wilmslow and that it will

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probably be Stockport. So if we look hard at that rather innocuous table—for example, at the asterisk at the bottom, which indicates that three trains currently routed via Crewe will instead go via Stoke—and we add it all together, we reach the conclusion that the current service from Wilmslow to London will be scrapped, but that is not spelled out in the document at all.

What the document does not say, of course, is that this is being done because the journey time from Manchester to London would be two hours and four minutes if those trains stopped at Wilmslow when the new fast service starts. If the trains do not stop at Wilmslow, the journey time will be one hour and 59 minutes—miraculously, one minute less than two hours. Of course that is a huge selling point. At the end of the west coast main line modernisation, the SRA will be able to say that journey times from Manchester to London are under two hours, even if only by a couple of minutes.

Those who will have to pay the price and who will suffer because those minutes will be shaved off the journey time are the people whom I represent in Wilmslow who use that service. Of course, that is not stated anywhere in the consultation document. Indeed, it could be argued that the document deliberately sets out to obscure that truth from people, and it has not been noticed by any business, local community leader or any stakeholder in Wilmslow, until recently.

All my attempts to get the truth out of the SRA or just to get a straight answer about what it is planning to do with that service, which is important to my constituents, had failed until about two hours ago. On 24 January, I wrote to Richard Bowker, the chairman of the SRA, asking him what was planned for the Wilmslow to London service. I thought that, as the Member of Parliament who represents Wilmslow, it would be only reasonable for me to know. For three weeks, I have not had an answer. For the past week, I have been calling his office every day to try to get one, but by some miracle, a reply was faxed to me two hours ago. It is amazing what an Adjournment debate will do to concentrate the minds of those in Departments, non-governmental agencies and bodies such as the SRA. Unfortunately, the response was not worth waiting for, because Mr. Bowker still does not come clean about what exactly he plans to do with the Wilmslow service. His letter contains the Orwellian line:

What on earth does that mean? He says that most trains between London and Manchester will not use the line that goes through Wilmslow so it will not be possible to insert additional stops at Wilmslow. But most trains currently do not use the line that goes through Wilmslow. A few trains every day do, and will continue to do so after the new strategy.

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