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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.

13 Jan 2005 : Column 525

Rail Services (Telford)

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

6.13 pm

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I appreciate the opportunity to discuss rail services in Telford. The quality of those services is an issue that local constituents and the business community regularly raise with me and with my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley). It will be useful if I begin by describing the services currently enjoyed by Telford people; I will then outline a set of priorities for future action, which I hope the Government will take up. They fall under two main headings: improving local services, and through services to London.

It is worth pointing out that rail travel is popular, and that people in Telford and throughout the country are keen to use a good service. Indeed, "Transport Trends: 2004", published by the Department for Transport, shows that

It is a positive trend in terms of passenger usage.

Thus, contrary to popular belief, more people are using the railways. One only needs to reflect on the number of vehicles parked by commuters at Telford Central railway station today or on any other day, in comparison with 10 years ago, to know that the trend is mirrored by my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin. That does not mean that the service is problem-free. The railways are suffering from historic under-investment, stretching back for decades, and from the flawed structure that was put in place during the privatisation. The process of reform has already begun and there is now record investment in the industry.

It may be helpful if I speak a little about the services that run to and from Telford. Telford sits on a line running from Wolverhampton through Shrewsbury and on to north Wales. The line has not been electrified, which has caused a number of problems that I shall return to later. There are two stations in my constituency: Telford Central and Oakengates. Oakengates is a small halt-style station of which I am very fond. It is important to the local community and I am fond of it because I commuted from it into the conurbation for many years. The main passenger usage is at Telford Central and at Wellington, which is in Telford, but falls within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin.

Three operators use the route: Central Trains, Arriva Trains Wales and English, Welsh and Scottish, which runs freight services. Central Trains operates two services an hour—an all-stations DMU two-car class 156 that runs from Wellington to Walsall and a faster DMU class 158/170 service that stops at Wellington and
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central Telford only and runs from Shrewsbury to Birmingham New Street. Additional services run during peak hours.

Arriva Trains Wales operates one train an hour—a class 158/175 service that alternates from Aberystwyth in one hour and Chester to north Wales in the other hour, stopping at Wellington and Telford Central. English, Welsh and Scottish Trains run coal MGRs—automatic bulk-coal vehicles—into Ironbridge power station along the line, and these run approximately two-hourly on weekdays. A steel train from south Wales to Wolverhampton steel terminal also runs on most days. Telford used to have a direct service to London, Euston, with a changeover from diesel to electric at Wolverhampton and vice-versa on the return journey. The service was finally discontinued in 2001, after being scaled back to one service per day previously.

Now that I have set the scene, I shall move on to my first point about improving local services for Telford residents. The Secretary of State announced last year that the number of passenger rail franchises is to be reduced from 25 to 19 and the industry has made it clear that it is committed to ensuring that those new arrangements drive more effective working between Network Rail and the train companies, in the interests of passengers. When the Central Trains franchise expires, its services will be absorbed, as appropriate, by Virgin Cross Country, Midland Mainline, Northern, Silverlink Trains and Chiltern Railways franchises. That will obviously impact on Telford and will provide us with an opportunity to look at the scope and style of the services that my constituents—and, indeed, those of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin—enjoy.

In the light of that debate, will the Minister insist that the service is positively reviewed at the time of the transfer to the new franchise companies? The review will focus on four key areas. First, it will focus on more punctual services and fewer cancellations; and secondly, on greater capacity in local services so that passengers do not have to endure the current problem of overcrowding—an issue that also needs to be addressed on the Arriva service. Thirdly, it will focus on providing more regular services from Telford to Birmingham International, which is where the major regional airport is located. Fourthly, it will need to examine the potential for a service from Telford that stops at local stations—such as Tipton and Smethwick, to cite just two examples—in the west midlands conurbation through to Birmingham New Street.

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin) (Lab): It goes without saying that I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. May I add a fifth category to his list? We should require operating companies to make a concerted investment in the stations, most of which have been unstaffed for many years and offer a hostile environment late at night, especially to women. If train operating companies want to make a profit on the railways, they need to be able to encourage people back to the stations before they get on the trains. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees with that point.

David Wright: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. That is the situation at Telford Central, Oakengates and Wellington. One can arrive late at night, on a local service, and the station is deserted. In
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the case of Telford Central, people have to walk a long way to reach areas where there are other people, because it is right in the centre of the town and surrounded by offices and hotels. However, I shall return shortly to some of the improvements that have taken place at Telford Central that have made the situation much better than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

Those issues—including the fifth one raised by my hon. Friend—are important because Telford is a housing growth point with thousands of new homes to be built in the next 10 years. Many people will probably move to the town from the black country and other urban areas, retaining their jobs in the short term. Easier rail connections will obviously help encourage more people to move into the area.

We are a growing town which promotes itself for new business start-ups. We also have a large number of long-standing companies. Both of those groups want better rail services. Business and leisure tourism are fast growing and important sectors in Telford, supporting thousands of jobs and generating income in terms of visitor spend. The town is fortunate in having one of the UK's top 10 conference and exhibition venues in the International Centre, as well as several large hotels.

Improvements in services would be relatively easy to achieve. People want to be able to plan their time effectively and turn up at the rail stations at a time that they understand in the timetable, whether it be 10 to or 20 past the hour. They want to know that the train will arrive on time, it will be clean and a seat will be available. That is not too much to ask—indeed, much of the time it already happens—but there are problems, especially at peak times. Those criteria must be met every time a train stops at Wellington, Oakengates or Telford Central.

There have of course been some very positive improvements in recent years. The quality of the trains provided by Virgin to London from Wolverhampton, which are used by Telford residents, has improved significantly. The new platform at Wolverhampton has also improved capacity at that station, which is the main connection point for Telford rail users. I also used to commute on the line some 20 years ago when I was a student—I do not like to think that it was so long ago—and the reliability of the service then was awful. So we have clearly come a long way. The service has improved, but we could do so much better.

There is also now much better integration of transport services at Telford Central station. It was only in the last couple of years that the station was linked to local bus services and this has proved very popular. We have recently had the car park resurfaced, new spaces have been provided—we now have more than 300—and there is a new taxi rank. That all costs money and is often overlooked. Local residents also often overlook the fact that we are investing in the station. However, we could do a lot more, as my hon. Friend points out. We also have a major proposal for a rail freight terminal in the town and I hope that that will move towards completion in the near future.

My second point relates to the resumption of direct services from Telford to London. Direct services from Shrewsbury to London, and from Telford to London,
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have been tried before but they proved to be uneconomic. The Shropshire chamber of commerce and Business Link have developed a business case for the resumption of services and I know that it was submitted to the Department for Transport last month. Through services were first introduced when the west coast main line was electrified in the 1970s, but the need to change from electric to diesel locomotive at Wolverhampton, in order to connect to Telford and Shrewsbury, was time-consuming, disruptive and expensive. The need to change traction at Wolverhampton not only caused congestion at that busy mainline bottleneck but often allowed the following Central Trains service to overtake, which was illogical.

The chamber of commerce proposes a scheme to place the large conurbations of Shrewsbury and Telford on the west coast main line by electrifying the 28 miles from Oxley to Shrewsbury and revitalising the rail services on offer to London and to Birmingham and its international airport. That would be of direct benefit to Telford residents. The detail of the submission draws on the social and economic factors used in the Strategic Rail Authority's appraisal criteria, and a new timetable for services has been proposed.

A large number of people travel to Stafford from Telford by car to use the more rapid rail service to London. People using the London link from Wolverhampton often experience long waits on the platform, either going down to London or returning, especially in the evening. I know all about that—as does my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin. I have often stood in the cold on Thursday nights waiting for the connection to Telford.

Electrification of the line from Wolverhampton is a major financial commitment, but the Shropshire chamber of commerce has made the case that it will ultimately prove value for money. We must consider that option and we must also look into the possibility of improving diesel services to give through running to London. The chamber has considered that option and we may have to return to it if electrification costs prove prohibitive.

I am not a rail finance expert so I cannot comment on the detailed costings in the submission, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will look at them in great detail and that she will meet members of the chamber and Business Link, my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and me to talk through the scope of the service. A growth point such as Telford deserves a connection to London.

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