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House of Commons

Tuesday 28 June 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Member Sworn

The following Member took and subscribed the Oath:

Sir Patrick Cormack, for South Staffordshire

Oral Answers to Questions

TRANSPORT

The Secretary of State was asked—

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Andrew Turner. [Hon. Members: "Not here."] I hope that it was not transport that delayed him. I call Dr. Phyllis Starkey.

East-west Rail Links

2. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): If he will make a statement on progress on east-west rail links between Oxford and Bletchley. [7335]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): The Strategic Rail Authority is taking part in the ODPM-funded east-west transport links study, which is looking into the business case for the east-west rail scheme, alongside other transport initiatives aimed at improving links in that corridor. The study is being carried out by Buckinghamshire county council, and I understand that it will report this summer.

Dr. Starkey: While I welcome the study that is being undertaken, may I remind the Minister that by 2008 there will be an additional platform at Central Milton Keynes station, which will allow the service to turn the corner from Bletchley and come up to Central Milton Keynes, vastly increasing the number of passengers likely to use the Oxford to Bletchley and Central Milton Keynes route? The additional housing growth in Milton Keynes will also increase custom. Will the Minister take those two factors into account?

Derek Twigg: The report produced by Buckinghamshire county council has been overseen by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is driving the growth areas agenda. The study linking housing development and transport infrastructure is obviously important to the area, and this project is important for the consortium and the
 
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regional stakeholders. As yet, we have not seen the report or the draft conclusions, but any decision will have to take into account value for money, cost and priority.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): This is all complete pie in the sky, because the Strategic Rail Authority is killing off such railways as still exist between Oxford and Bicester. It is reducing the service from seven trains a day each way to just two, with no service after 4 o'clock in the afternoon. This discussion is totally pointless because the SRA is closing down the line. Talking about the east-west rail link when there is not even a link between Oxford and Bicester Town is completely meaningless. The SRA just does not care, because it will pass on its responsibilities to Ministers in the near future. Will Ministers therefore please get a grip on this issue? For the sake of my constituents and many others in Oxford who rely on these services to get into work or for the purpose of recreation or study, will the Minister get to grips with the SRA and at least try to ensure that the line between Oxford and Bicester survives, even if we do not get the east-west rail link for some years to come?

Derek Twigg: Obviously, we have to take into account capacity and demand, including the number of passengers using that service. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) has been campaigning for the improvement that she mentioned earlier, and we must also take into account the community infrastructure fund bid in regard to improving capacity at Milton Keynes station. We are listening to the representations that are being made, but an awful lot of investment is taking place. That is why we are seeing increased and improved performance on the railways.

Cornwall Sleeper Service

3. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): If he will take steps when assessing franchise applications to ensure the future of the Cornwall sleeper service. [7336]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): The Strategic Rail Authority issued invitations to tender to bidders for the new Greater Western franchise on 2 June. The invitation to tender's base case includes provision of the sleeper service, which will be considered as part of the evaluation of the franchise. At the same time, the SRA initiated a consultation exercise on the service provision for the franchise. The formal consultation runs for eight weeks.

Matthew Taylor: Does the Minister agree that, at a time when hundreds of millions of pounds are being invested through the objective 1 process to help business in Cornwall, it would make no sense to cut the vital sleeper service as a result of the process that is isolating that service from the rest of the franchise? The sleeper service provides the only way for businessmen to avoid wasting half a day travelling in one direction or another. Will the Minister look into the economic impact on the wider business community in Cornwall of removing the sleeper service?
 
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Derek Twigg: Obviously, I understand the concerns that have been raised, and we had an Adjournment debate on the matter recently in Westminster Hall. The issue is part of the base case for the tender. Bidders are being asked to propose an alternative way of serving the market for overnight travel between London and the south-west. I understand the economic concerns and the concerns of the business community, but we are in a consultation process in which business, local people, Members of Parliament and other organisations can make representations. As I said last week, no decision has yet been taken.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. About 18 months ago, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, now my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, said:

Does he agree that getting the transport system right includes ensuring that the overnight service to Plymouth and Cornwall is retained?

Derek Twigg: I understand that my hon. Friend has made representations and has been actively campaigning on this issue. Affordability and cost-effectiveness are also issues, however, and we must consider that in relation to the overall bid, as the service is not as well used as some people try to make out. We need to take account of those considerations when making a decision.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I invite the Minister to spend some of the summer recess down on the south-west peninsula, where he will be able to see for himself the appalling congestion on the roads going through Devon into Cornwall. The question of the sleeper service is more than anything else a symbol of the Government's commitment to the rural transport infrastructure of the south-west peninsula. We have just witnessed the downgrading of many arterial roads into the south-west, and it is critical that the Government commit time and money to maintaining a sleeper service and to examining how motorail could get more traffic off the only existing roads and on to rail.

Derek Twigg: As I have said, record investment is going into our railways, and we have seen a massive improvement in performance and reliability, as well as investment in the region. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman's Government did about that when they were in power, but they do not seem to have invested in the way that we are doing. I do not know whether he is offering to put me up during a visit to the south-west, but we shall wait and see.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The sleeper service terminates at Penzance in my constituency, and we know that the Secretary of State will ultimately decide whether we will keep the sleeper service. Can the Minister assure me that instead of salami-slicing out the so-called non-profit-making elements of the service, which will ultimately result in the salami-slicing of other parts of the service, there will be a service after the
 
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6 o'clock service from Paddington on which people from west Cornwall can depend to get them home late at night?

Derek Twigg: As I said when I started responding to the questions, we are in a consultation period in which hon. Members can put forward their views on what is proposed, which does not mean that things will not be altered. At this stage, there has not been a decision to stop the sleeper service. It is an expensive service, however, costing around £5 million a year, which takes up a lot of engines and resources. We need to consider that, it is sensible to do so, and that is why we have asked the bidders to outline the costs separately as well.


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