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Peter Bradley: As an economic growth point, Telford deserves and demands a through service to London, but so, too, does Wellington. Although my hon. Friend and I are enthusiastic supporters of the chamber's bid, I should like it slightly expanded to include investment in extending the platforms at Wellington to accommodate through services. Wellington is an important community, which has a strong economy that we want further to underpin, so I hope my hon. Friend shares my view that it should be included in the bid.

David Wright: I am more than happy to accept my hon. Friend's comments. I hope that we can come up with a scheme that will benefit all our communities in
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Telford. If it is not possible to reinstate a direct London service, we need to push hard for better, faster services to Birmingham International, which is a key regional transport node. We need to ensure that those services come online, even if the London service does not come back into use soon.

I look forward to the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister on my two key points and on some of the other points that we have discussed. I fully acknowledge that we have seen major strides forward in the rail service in recent years; the Government are making a tremendous investment in it. The new structures will allow us to prioritise the needs of passengers, as expressed to Members of Parliament and, more generally, to rail user groups in the community. Those structures enable us to listen more effectively, and I hope that the Government will listen tonight, especially to the points about local services.

We are certainly making progress and it would be put at risk if other parties were to get into power, as cuts in the transport budget seem to be one of the main objectives in the Opposition's cuts agenda. I look forward to the Minister's response.

6.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) on securing the debate and providing an excellent opportunity for the House to discuss rail services in Telford. As always, he demonstrates his reputation as a hard-working and focused constituency MP.

There are regular direct rail services from Telford to Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Shrewsbury, Crewe, Liverpool, Manchester, Chester, Cardiff, Swansea, Hereford and Cambrian coast destinations, including Aberystwyth, Tywyn and Harlech. In addition, both Telford and Shrewsbury act as interchange points for bus services to local non-rail destinations. All train services from Telford are currently diesel powered.

A through service to London existed until 1992, when it was withdrawn by British Rail, because of limited demand and the difficulties of changing from electric to diesel locomotives at Wolverhampton. Following rail privatisation, Virgin Trains introduced a limited through service but that, too, was withdrawn by 2000 because it was not commercially viable.

Telford is a large and growing economic centre, and usage of the railway has increased over the past 10 years. The Strategic Rail Authority's forthcoming consultation on the west midlands route utilisation strategy will re-examine service patterns on the Shrewsbury-Telford-Birmingham corridor and will include a consideration of the practicality and value of providing a direct Shrewsbury-Telford-Birmingham-London service. It is planned that the consultation document will be issued in the next few weeks.

Following the expiry of the current Central Trains franchise in 2006, its routes will be distributed between five existing franchises. Where appropriate, those franchises will be put out to tender as soon as possible. Bidders for the new franchises will be expected to demonstrate the reliability and operational viability of their proposals. Any specific improvements to such aspects as rolling stock must of course represent value
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for money for the taxpayer and be affordable within the context of the franchise as a whole. I certainly hope that there will be real scope to improve existing carriage capacity and reliability, and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) is right to say that more investment in stations is needed.

Electrification from Wolverhampton to Telford and on to Shrewsbury has been considered on various occasions. An independent report has recently been produced by Strategic Transport Solutions for the Shropshire chamber of commence and Business Link, as my hon. Friend the Member for Telford said. The report has been submitted to local stakeholders and the SRA, which is evaluating it.

I should explain that the case for electrification of railways on a strategic national basis appears to be weak compared with that in the last major study undertaken by British Rail in 1981. The priority is to provide additional capacity for both passenger and freight demand while at the same time improving the network to enable train operators to deliver significant improvements to the quality and reliability of their services, which customers rightly expect.

In the 1970s, electrification undoubtedly brought numerous advantages, such as reduced fuel and maintenance costs and rail vehicles with better acceleration, higher top speeds and quieter operation. In the current climate, however, that is no longer the case. Diesel fuel is now much cheaper, so the fuel cost differences have been largely eliminated. The performance characteristics of modern diesel trains are at least as good as equivalent electric units, and although the maintenance costs of electric trains are slightly lower than those of diesel trains, if the cost of maintaining overhead line equipment is added to that, the case for electric trains against diesels does not stack up.

The report is being considered in depth by the SRA at present and will be evaluated as part of the regional planning assessment for the west midlands. However, I shall be happy to meet my hon. Friends the Members for Telford and for The Wrekin about the matter if they wish.

Peter Bradley: I welcome the Minister's offer and I am sure that my hon. Friend and I will want to take her up on it. Does she concede that it is unreasonable to regard Telford and the Wrekin as growth points for housing and the economy without taking the necessary steps to provide the infrastructure required to underpin that vital growth?

Charlotte Atkins: I certainly accept what my hon. Friend says. It is clear that Telford and the Wrekin are growing apace, so we must take that on board when we consider options for transport links.

Capacity enhancements and possible infrastructure improvements that may be needed to accommodate both rail freight and passenger traffic, and to meet the long-term planning needs of the network, will be determined by a series of regional planning assessments that will form the basis for planning the development of the railway over the next five to 20 years. RPAs will consider the function of the railway within current and future land use and transport systems and its role in
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supporting the economic and wider development objectives of local, regional, devolved and central Government. One of the RPAs' key objectives will be to maximise value for money in pursuit of the Government's objectives for the environment, safety, economy, accessibility and integration.

Concern has been expressed that passengers and intending passengers do not find it easy to obtain information on train services and fares. We are anxious that all rail passengers and intended passengers should be able to obtain rail information easily. The published timetables and those displayed at Telford railway station give information about direct services from Telford to stations in East Anglia, Pembrokeshire and Cornwall. Services to Manchester airport, Birmingham airport and London Euston are non-direct services. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that, as non-direct services can involve a number of changes along the route, this information is better provided by the station ticket office staff. The national rail enquiry service is extensively used for the provision of rail information and has a good reputation for both speed and accuracy. Increasingly, rail inquiries are being handled via various websites, and this appears to be both fast and effective, too.

As the House will be aware, the Strategic Rail Authority published its community rail development strategy in November. The strategy aims to put local and rural railways on a sustainable basis for the long term, by increasing ridership, freight use and net revenue, managing costs down, and through the greater involvement of the local community. It is based on the premise that the closure of lines is neither desirable nor a solution to the problems that local lines face. I can assure hon. Members that this strategy is firmly aimed at increasing rail use and developing the railways, to the benefit of the communities that they serve.

The strategy has been developed over a period of some 18 months, involving an extensive consultation exercise in February last year, which drew responses from over 300 organisations and individuals, including local and regional authorities, regional assemblies, regional development agencies, the rail industry,
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tourism bodies, MPs, rail user groups and a host of other bodies and individuals. By and large, the objectives and approach advocated in the consultation document were supported by the respondents. There was an almost universal agreement that no single approach could be adopted network-wide. Rather, the appropriate local solutions would have to be encouraged within a broad framework.

The final strategy was published in the light of the responses received to the consultation. It lists 56 routes that the Strategic Rail Authority proposes to designate as community rail lines. These local and rural routes make up about 10.5 per cent. of the national rail network, including 390 stations. As hon. Members will know, personal mobility is increasing, traffic congestion is rising and growth is taking place in many areas served by community railways. There is evidence of latent demand for these lines. The argument for their retention and development is therefore compelling, and is fully supported by the Government. To achieve the objectives of the strategy there will have to be active support from a wide range of stakeholders, including train operators, Network Rail, local authorities and local users, working in partnership.

The Heart of Wales line from Shrewsbury to Swansea is an example, as is the Shrewsbury to Chester section of the Birmingham to Chester services that pass through Telford. The aims are to develop new markets, to fill empty seats on current services, to integrate the rail service with local bus and community transport services, to build up relationships with small businesses along the line, and to evaluate the potential for new stations and higher service frequencies.

Telford, as well being a major destination in itself, is an important interchange point between a number of train services and buses to non-rail destinations. The future of rail services from Telford is secure, and the SRA will be working to improve the performance and quality of services to and from the town. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford on initiating the debate, and I hope to work with him and my hon. Friend the Member for the Wrekin in future.

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