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Train Services (Plymouth)

6. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on the speed and reliability of train services to Plymouth. [16815]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): In the year to 30 June 2005, the public performance measures for First Great Western and Wessex trains, the main train operators to Plymouth, were 77.8 per cent. and 84.9 per cent., respectively. The timetable was improved last December to include a fast service from Plymouth that reaches London by 9 am. That service, and the other fastest trains, cover the distance from London to Plymouth in three hours or less.

Linda Gilroy: I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that reply, and I hope that he recognises the importance for the region's investment prospects that people in Plymouth and in the far south-west peninsula as a whole attach to the re-establishment of the fast three-hour service, as the region suffers from the largest disparities in the country. However, another matter arouses considerable concern in my area—the potential impact of the construction and operation of Crossrail. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of that?

Derek Twigg: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, as I know that she and her colleague in Plymouth, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), have made many representations to me about the importance of the train service to the south-west. She will probably know that there have been 358 petitions against the Crossrail Bill, and that one of them has been lodged by the South West regional assembly in respect of the service interfaces from Plymouth. When construction is complete, we do not envisage any negative effect in terms of longer journey times on the Plymouth service. However, as with any major infrastructure contraction project, there will obviously be maintenance work that needs to be carried out.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Why, in the specification for the renewal of the Great Western franchise, are the Government prepared to countenance a downgrading of the rail service to the west country? There will be fewer trains to Plymouth, there is no guarantee in respect of the three-hour service to London, and it is possible that the sleeper service to
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Cornwall will be cut. Is not that merely another example of a cut in public services by the back door, which the west country can ill afford?

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman will know that the specification also includes a number of improvements in the service, such as a new service to Penzance. There is also a guarantee that at least one service will go to Plymouth. The organisation that wins the franchise will have to look at that and determine what can be provided, given the available resources and facilities. No decision has been reached on the sleeper service to Cornwall, although the hon. Gentleman will be aware that bidders have been asked to include that service in their base case. We have also asked bidders to cost it separately, and to consider alternatives. However, as I said, no decision has yet been taken.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend please confirm that there will be a full economic impact study, taking full account of the planned growth of Plymouth, on the implications for Plymouth and the south-west of the capacity reduction necessary during Crossrail's construction phase, given that there clearly does not appear to have been one on the recent closure of the A38?

Derek Twigg: As I have already said to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), we do not believe that under normal running there will be any negative impact on the services to Plymouth and the south-west, but during the building there may obviously be issues of maintenance and possessions, as there are for any major project. I believe that Plymouth—and the south-west—has a great deal going for it, I believe that it is doing well economically. I know that, having champions like my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) to press its case, it will continue to do well.

Waterloo International

7. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): If he will make a statement on the future of the Waterloo International terminal. [16816]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): I have placed in the Library the first stage report on the future of Waterloo International. It concludes, and I have agreed, that the platforms should be retained for domestic passenger use. Further work is now under way to decide which services should use them.

Dr. Cable: I very much welcome what the Secretary of State has just said. I suggest to him that an early decision on the final detail is now essential, because he has just put out to public consultation the new franchise arrangements for South West Trains, and that cannot be meaningful unless the prospective bidders and the user groups have a full knowledge of the capacity that would be available to them for improved services.
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Mr. Darling: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. I am told that the further detail should be worked up by the spring of 2006, which will be ample time to allow the tender documents to be framed for the south west franchise. There are many things that need to be considered. In the longer term, no doubt South West Trains will use Waterloo, but in the meantime it may be necessary to use those platforms for work that might be carried out on the Thameslink franchise, for example. But the important thing is that these platforms will now be available for domestic trains, whereas I think there had been a fear in the past that that part of the station would be taken out of service, which will not be the case.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has just said that when the international services move from Waterloo to St. Pancras there will be an issue of dealing with the surplus capacity of platforms at Waterloo. My understanding is that the domestic platforms at St. Pancras will be reduced in number. While that clearly was not a problem and was probably appropriate when the service was planned in the early 1990s, my understanding now is that due to the success in generating an increased number of passengers on Midland Mainline, future developments and improvements to that service will be constrained by the number of platforms available at St. Pancras under the new configuration. Could this be looked at, because it could be a major problem for the future?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point—that 10 years ago most people thought that the railways were in terminal decline and were managing them accordingly. It is now clear that that is not the case; thanks to investment and thanks to the strong and growing economy, we expect more people to use the trains. My hon. Friend is also right to say that when the international section of St. Pancras opens, the domestic services will move to different platforms. I am not sure whether it will constrain the number of services coming into St. Pancras as much as he believes, but I can tell him that Network Rail, which owns that station, will see what else can be done to ensure that we can get as many services in there as possible. In addition, I hope that long before that time we shall be able to do something about the Thameslink box, which would also take some of the strain off St. Pancras station.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): The outcome of this process will be watched with considerable interest by my constituents, who live on the South West Trains line west of Salisbury. It suffers from severe capacity problems because it is sealed track for much of its length, which means that we cannot run any more trains despite the demand. When I raised the matter with Network Rail earlier this year, it said that it could not consider dualling this track because if it put extra trains on my section of the track, there would be no room for them when they reached Waterloo. If these platforms are released for domestic trains, will the Minister then consider dualling the South West Trains line west of Salisbury?

Mr. Darling: There is no doubt that additional capacity can be made available at Waterloo. There are five extra platforms—quite long platforms, at that—
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which will help the network generally, although I cannot promise that it therefore follows that we will be able to dual the length of track to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The issues of capacity are of growing importance, and we will need to address them. Both public and private money will have to be put into the railways for many years to come. I hope that, unlike in previous times, the Conservatives will come round to that necessity.

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