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12 May 2004 : Column 129WH—continued

Rail Services (Milton Keynes)

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): My purpose in securing the debate is to highlight the importance of frequent and reliable rail services to my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White). I want to speak on behalf of not only current users of such services to and from Milton Keynes but the extra users that will be generated over the next decade as a result of housing growth. I want to press the Minister to ensure that rail users from Milton Keynes benefit not only from the current west coast main line upgrade but from sustained investment in the railways to ensure that rail infrastructure matches the growth of the city.

It is also not my intention to criticise Virgin Trains, Silverlink or the Strategic Rail Authority. The problems that face my constituents and those of my hon. Friend and others along the west coast main line are a direct result of a deal that was done between Railtrack and Virgin Trains in the desperate privatisation that took place in the dying days of the previous Conservative Government. At that point, Virgin was given the exclusive use of the fast line, which forced all other passenger services and freight on to the slow line. That has severely constrained the options that are now open to the Strategic Rail Authority in allocating track space among the different operators.

The west coast main line modernisation was expected to benefit rail travellers from Milton Keynes. It will improve the reliability of all services, but I would contend that the other benefits of modernisation are not being shared equally between the different parts of the line. Off peak, my constituents will benefit from faster and more reliable Pendolino services northwards and to London. However, commuters from Milton Keynes are seriously concerned by their loss of access to the Virgin services at peak times and the consequent almost total reliance on Silverlink services during those times. They fear that the extra capacity that is being created by Silverlink will not fully compensate for the loss of access to seats on Virgin trains.

The success of Milton Keynes as a new city depends on its situation and on good transport links, and in particular those from north to south. There are three stations in Milton Keynes that are served by the west coast main line: Wolverton, Milton Keynes Central and Bletchley. The business community, and the continued growth of the local economy, depend on fast, frequent links from London, and from Birmingham and the north. The SRA estimates that 3,000 people commute daily to jobs in London, and an increasing number of people are commuting in to Milton Keynes from London, and from Birmingham and Northampton.

At present, travellers to London from Milton Keynes Central can choose between the inter-city Virgin services and the county services that are run by Silverlink. Journey times are shorter on the Virgin services and the Silverlink services are fast, semi-fast or slow, depending on the number of additional stops between Milton Keynes and Euston.

During the modernisation works on the west coast main line my constituents have been experiencing considerable disruption and delay. There has been a
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series of weekend blockades and longer blockades over the Easter break. Further reductions in services have been announced from 24 May until 20 June, not to mention a month-long blockade in the summer. For the most part travellers have accepted that inconvenience as a necessary part of the modernisation. However, they were expecting that, having borne the pain, they would benefit from the improvements once the work was complete. For some time, I have been lobbying the SRA for a fair deal for Milton Keynes commuters. The SRA is in the process of finalising the new timetable for September 2004 onwards, and the published version is causing considerable concern locally.

As I said, the introduction of the Virgin Pendolino services will reduce journey times, but at peak times many fewer will stop at Milton Keynes than the inter-city trains that they will replace, so that is of little direct benefit to Milton Keynes commuters. The reduction in Virgin trains stopping at Milton Keynes reduces the options for those travelling to London. It also affects those commuting into Milton Keynes from the north, as some of the trains from Birmingham will not now stop at Milton Keynes. However, I am pleased that the SRA has now responded to lobbying by adding one early-morning service that will go directly from Birmingham to Milton Keynes.

The Pendolinos will displace all the Silverlink services from the fast line to the slow line, and commuters fear that journey times will increase. The SRA says that, from December 2005, the slow line should be improved to allow speeds of up to 100 mph. It claims that Silverlink fast services will be two minutes faster than they are at present, although that will be 10 minutes slower than Pendolinos. To make more room for commuter services, all freight services have been removed from the slow line at peak times, which is welcome.

Of more concern to commuters than journey times are the fears that capacity will be inadequate to cope with commuter numbers. In the morning peak, there will be Virgin services at 6.40 and 7.06, but in the two-hour gap until the next stopping Virgin train, which is a time of very heavy usage, commuters will be reliant on Silverlink alone. Commuter trains are already extremely full, with some passengers forced to stand in both first and second class.

Regular commuters are concerned about the likely situation after September. The SRA argues that capacity will be maintained, as some Silverlink trains will be increased from eight carriages to 12, and all stations between Northampton and Euston except Bletchley—I shall return to that later—will be modified so that they can take 12-carriage units, or rather so that passengers can get on and off all 12-carriage units. According to the SRA, in the morning peak there will be an extra 600 seats on Silverlink trains and an extra 2,700 from London in the evening peak, when even fewer Virgin trains are available.

Despite that extra capacity, commuters remain concerned. There are added worries because of the reduction in train numbers from the other Milton Keynes stations—from Wolverton, where there is one fewer service in the morning though two extra in the evening, and from Bletchley. It is therefore possible that commuters may transfer from those two stations to Milton Keynes Central, adding to the pressure.
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The situation has arisen because of the priority given to the fast Pendolino services, which are monopolising the fast track. However, I argue that the very fast acceleration and deceleration of Pendolinos means that a stop at Milton Keynes would not add significantly to journey times, and observation already shows that Pendolinos speeding through Milton Keynes are rarely full.

The SRA should be able to insist that more Pendolino services stop at Milton Keynes. In particular, both the extra Pendolinos that go through Northampton in the morning should also stop at Milton Keynes, as I was led to expect by letters from the SRA. It now seems to be proposed that only one should. It is unacceptable that travellers from Milton Keynes may be forced on to more crowded and usually slower trains when there is spare capacity on Pendolinos.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): One fear that Milton Keynes companies have is that their work force, which comes in from the west midlands and London, will be forced on to the roads—the M1 and M6. That will have a detrimental effect, but simply adding the services that my hon. Friend is talking about would alleviate it.

Dr. Starkey : Indeed, and another concern is that although the SRA has done a passenger count from Milton Keynes Central in the morning peak, which is how it arrived at the estimate of 3,000 commuters daily, it has not done counts of people getting off trains in Milton Keynes. Until a number of commuters and I alerted the SRA, it seemed not to be aware of the growing numbers of people who are commuting into Milton Keynes. That is of huge concern to businesses and to my hon. Friend and me.

Is the Minister satisfied with the judgment made by the Strategic Rail Authority on the balance to be struck between the needs of long-distance travellers and commuters from Milton Keynes? The authority seems to be operating only with data based on estimates, and I am not certain how accurate they are. If the additional capacity proves inadequate and the fears of Milton Keynes commuters turn out to be justified in September 2004, will the Minister insist on action immediately, or will my and my hon. Friend's constituents simply be expected to put up with it?

So far, I have dealt with current commuter needs; I now turn to the likely future growth in rail passengers, and the action that needs to be taken to meet that need. The Minister will be aware that Milton Keynes has been designated by the Government for future housing and employment growth. The demand for rail services is bound to increase, so even more capacity will be required.

Knowledge of that future growth makes current commuters concerned about capacity. Even if the capacity is adequate now, they worry about how long it will be before demand exceeds supply again. The Deputy Prime Minister has assured both Milton Keynes Members and the council that all necessary infrastructure will be provided in parallel with housing growth, not after housing growth. If the rail capacity
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from Milton Keynes is not increased, either economic growth will falter or the extra traffic will be transferred to the road, cancelling out the effects of the improvements planned for the M1.

I urge the Minister to work with the SRA and the train operators; he should start now to plan the rail infrastructure required to sustain that planned future growth. I draw his attention to four items. First, an extra platform with a loop on the fast line is needed at Milton Keynes Central; that would allow the interval between trains on the fast line to be reduced from eight minutes to four, permitting more Virgin trains to stop at Milton Keynes at peak times. Secondly, the additional turnback siding at Wolverton would allow more services to Wolverton, to the north of central Milton Keynes, as well as to Milton Keynes Central, and would encourage more people from the north of the city to choose rail rather than road.

Thirdly, improvements to signalling at Bletchley and works to the junction have been postponed by Network Rail until at least 2009. Those works would enable Bletchley to run the 12-car trains, and would allow greater speeds for trains going through Bletchley. It would also pave the way for the opening of the east-west route from Bletchley to Bicester, with the possibility of services from Oxford to Milton Keynes Central. Fourthly, the Hanslope flyover would allow services from Northampton to cross the fast line without delay.

Negotiations with the SRA are taking place for a two-year extension of the Silverlink franchise, and the long-term franchise is still up for consideration. As more commuters will be using the Silverlink services, the quality of trains and rolling stock will become more important. I ask the Minister to guarantee that the SRA will ensure that the new franchise will include quality standards, and that the authority will commit the franchise holder to significant quality improvements on the Milton Keynes to Euston commuter service. That would include the introduction of better-quality rolling stock, equivalent to that being introduced next year across the whole network, complete with air conditioning and InterCity-style tables.

In conclusion, I accept that the needs of different groups of rail passengers need to be balanced and that the SRA feels constrained by past commitments to British Rail and Virgin. However, it is not acceptable for Milton Keynes commuters to receive a worse service just to save passengers from the north a few minutes. It is not acceptable for Milton Keynes to be expected to grow and accommodate a high proportion of extra housing need in the south-east without improvements to the rail transport capacity. I urge Ministers to intervene to ensure that the interests of Milton Keynes commuters are protected, and to guarantee that the future needs of Milton Keynes are met.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on securing the debate and on the cogent and detailed manner in which she presented her case. I also take the opportunity to commend her and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) on the way in which they, the council and
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much of the community in the area have greeted and embraced the notion of growth area status and of operating within the sustainable communities plan. If every community responded in the same fashion, we would be in a happier situation than we are.

From what my hon. Friend said, she will understand that the entire area, including its infrastructure, is in a state of flux. There is the west coast main line situation, which I will discuss later, and the two-year extension to Silverlink services. As a Minister in the Department for Transport, and as a former Minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, lovingly attached to the sustainable communities plan, I would agree with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister that infrastructure in the UK should complement growth as it occurs rather than chasing it, as has happened in the past.

My hon. Friend's remarks about the balance between local traffic, local commuters and high-speed inter-urban rail travel were also well made, and will become increasingly relevant as we begin to rationalise and bed in the entire national rail network. We are trying to strike that balance.

As my hon. Friend said, the vast majority of passengers in the area use Milton Keynes Central, which is served by trains running to Watford Junction and London Euston and to Northampton, Rugby, Coventry, Birmingham, the north-west and Glasgow. Happily for all the commuters from Milton Keynes, although they may not know it, they sail through God's own country—Harrow, East—en route to London. Occasionally, trains stop there—at Harrow and Wealdstone station. I have used the service in both directions, and therefore understand much of what she says.

My hon. Friend made fair points about the west coast main line modernisation. I know that many communities up and down the line have been extraordinarily patient through the blockades in the various bits of work that are taking place. There is, has been, and will continue to be significant progress in that area, but she will know that there are still some hurdles to be overcome by September 2004, in relation both to the new Pendolino trains and to infrastructure delivery. Overall, however, we are encouraged by the progress being made.

Further effort is, however, required and is being made, to ensure that the arrangements for engineering possessions along the route are resolved more effectively and quickly, with customers being kept better informed. I would love to say that every single loving minute and hour spent on the west coast main line has been thought through in its entirety and that there has never been any unnecessary delay or imposition on local communities, but that is not the case. In such a major modernisation project, there are often more difficulties than originally expected, so that a weekend blockade may extend to a series of weekends. I congratulate the people of Milton Keynes on their forbearance.

I am also aware that commuters and other travellers from Milton Keynes Central have expressed concern that Virgin Trains services will not be calling there at peak periods from the commencement of the new timetable in September 2004. That is because Virgin Trains considers that, with that new timetable, there will
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be more long-distance passengers already on the trains who will not choose or seek to stop at Milton Keynes. Virgin Trains services will continue to call off peak at Milton Keynes Central. Northbound services will continue to call there during the morning peak and southbound services during the evening peak, so that commuter journeys to Rugby, Coventry and Birmingham will continue to be possible. That will start to address some of the issues raised by both my hon. Friends about the travel-to-work area in that whole sub-region. I am keenly aware that much of what we are trying to do on the M1 and the M6, and in improving elements of the surrounding road infrastructure, is not a question of getting people off rail and on to roads. I fully accept that case.

As my hon. Friend has said, the Silverlink franchise has been extended for a further two years and the SRA is discussing the detailed terms of the extension with the company. It hopes to make an announcement soon, when the details have been finalised, but it will include some other elements that are not germane to this debate that she has referred to in the past, such as taxi provision and car parking arrangements at Milton Keynes Central station.

I am sure that by the end of the two-year extension period, and in the intervening period between the granting of that extension and the bedding in of the new timetable from September, we will start to get an idea of whether the balance between community and inter-city services is right. We will also be able to see the state of rolling stock, and other issues rightly alluded to by my hon. Friend, a year or so into the extension, and the improvements to that commuter service, if it is to be run by Silverlink. By that stage—when we will be well within the first phase of targets for growth in Milton Keynes—we will be far better placed to understand whether the balance she referred to is right, or whether it needs considering again.

I am more than happy to undertake to keep a keen eye on developments from September onwards, as the new timetable begins and the extension of the Silverlink franchise unfolds—in relation to what the SRA decides. As a Transport Minister, I shall keep a keen eye on the balance of infrastructure and transport modes—to use the jargon—to ensure that the growth that is so welcome in the area, and the economic activity and prosperity that are equally welcome, are in no way encumbered by getting the mix between train and road infrastructure wrong. Those are elements that I shall certainly keep under review.

My hon. Friend might like it if I were to pull the rug from under all developments now, drag Mr. Branson and everyone else in and say, "You will stop at Milton Keynes," and instantly wish into existence new air-conditioned rolling stock for Silverlink so that everything is tickety-boo in the land of milk and honey that is Milton Keynes. I cannot do that, but during the transitional period I shall undertake to keep a strong, watchful eye on the new contract as it beds in, and the new timetable. An area that craves—or perhaps does not quite crave, but certainly welcomes—the sort of growth that fits in entirely with the sustainable communities plan must get the infrastructure commensurate with such growth.
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I would love to give instant answers to my hon. Friend about the extra platform and loop on the fast line from Milton Keynes Central. I shall certainly include that in the watching brief for the SRA and others during the transitional period, as well as the additional turnback line, the Bletchley signals and junctions and the flyover for services to and from Southampton. I will happily plug those factors in, and we shall see what prevails. I understand how those adjustments—which look minor on paper but I am sure come with a billion-pound bill attached—would change things enormously.

Since I have discovered the fact, I would suggest that if the burghers of Northampton had accepted the offer of being on the west coast main line 100 years ago, rather than snottily batting it off, much to the annoyance of subsequent generations in Northampton, we would not be in this position. Let us see where we are. We are undergoing a period of real transition for the whole area, in terms of growth and infrastructure. I take very seriously what both my hon. Friends have said, but we must consider how the new timetable and extended franchise bed in and operate.

All that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West says about new rolling stock, additional carriages and greater capacity is right. We will have to wait until September 2004 and the new timetable to see whether the greater capacity is appropriate.

Dr. Starkey : I am encouraged by the Minister's extremely positive response, but can I press him to ensure that infrastructure issues are discussed at the next meeting of the Milton Keynes and south midlands inter-regional board, which is chaired by Lord Rooker and includes a representative of the SRA? That would ensure that the issue is fed into that programme as well and therefore can be taken up by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, as well as the Minister's Department.

Mr. McNulty : I should have made it clear that there is now a broader brief across the Government—certainly within the DFT and the ODPM—and that we are addressing all these issues in unison. I shall bring those infrastructure matters to the attention not only of the SRA but of my noble Friend Lord Rooker, who can discuss them at his leisure with colleagues who are responsible for the whole of the Milton Keynes and south midlands corridor.
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My hon. Friend will know that although the bulk of any infrastructure changes—she made a point about the M1—are quite rightly the responsibility of the DFT, the ODPM, through the growth area funding for the three growth areas and the Thames gateway, is considering particular infrastructure projects in which it could intervene. Perhaps it could intervene more rapidly and in a more focused way than the DFT, which has nationwide programmes. The ODPM is considering where it can make swift and positive interventions that will assist and complement what the DFT is doing in the normal routine of things. Of course, I shall pass on the points that have been made to Lord Rooker, who will pass them on through the forum that my hon. Friend mentioned.

The points about infrastructure and growth were well made. For this community, along with many communities up and down the west coast main line, after so much grief, a little bit of the glory and the glow that is the new all-singing, all-dancing west coast main line is important. My hon. Friend will appreciate that we are talking about the two peak periods. There is not an issue in relation to the off-peak period. We are not about to expunge any trains stopping at Milton Keynes Central, apart from Silverlink commuter trains.

I will take all those elements back with me. I appreciate that my hon. Friend understands that we are in a state of transition, given the contract and the new timetable, but I hope that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East will understand the assurances that I have given and will note that as a DFT Minister, not simply as an ex-ODPM Minister, I am keenly aware that transport infrastructure, along with all other forms of infrastructure, social and otherwise, are vital if communities are to grow.

The infrastructure must be put in at the right time for our growth areas to operate and function in a sustainable fashion. The Government are acutely aware of the mistakes of the past, when, a long way down the line, if people were lucky, the infrastructure would follow after the communities had been built. We are trying to reverse that process and at least match infrastructure investment with growth. With those assurances, I hope that my hon. Friend can go away, happy and skipping, back to Milton Keynes. Please can she give a wave when she gets to Harrow and Wealdstone station? It is mine.

Question put and agreed to.

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