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Westminster Hall

Thursday 25 May 2006

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

West Coast Route Modernisation

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. The debate is timely given that this week we published the west coast main line progress report, which I commend to all hon. Members as good holiday reading. I am sure that most will find it fascinating. I am grateful for the opportunity to give details of the latest progress to be made on the west coast route modernisation project, and plans for action in the next few years.

I remind hon. Members that Britain has the fastest growing railway in Europe, and that over 1 billion passengers were carried last year—the highest number for more than 40 years. More than 40 per cent. of the trains and carriages have been replaced in the past10 years, and Britain now has one of the youngest train fleets in Europe. The west coast main line, running between London Euston, the west midlands, the north-west, north Wales and Scotland is probably the busiest mixed-traffic railway in Europe. It carries 40 per cent. of the country’s rail freight and handles both long distance and regional passenger services, as well as shorter distance commuter movements. It is certainly one of the oldest railways, with origins going back168 years to June 1838, when passenger services commenced.

Since then, it has had mixed fortunes. It was once known as the premier line, partly because of the high volumes of traffic that it conveyed, but it was only partly modernised and electrified over core sections in the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1980s the then British Railways recognised that further renewal work was needed, and contemplated such action, but nothing was done at that time. The present west coast strategy on which the modernisation work is based was published in June 2003 after a period of extensive consultation and involvement with stakeholders, together with a considerable team effort within the railway industry. I congratulate Network Rail in particular on its role in turning round the project delivery and cost control.

The strategy emerged out of an urgent need to complete work that had started some years earlier, under a joint plan between the Virgin Rail Group and the defunct Railtrack company. That was developed during the period immediately after railway privatisation, when there was perhaps a great deal of naivety about how to achieve success in such an environment. The proposals at that time recognised the need to address the backlog in maintenance and renewals, as well as to increase capacity, but they were very reliant on new and unproven technology, such as
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moving block or in-cab signalling, which was found to be undeliverable. The plans were based on providing lots of express trains, but took little account of freight and local passenger train requirements. Costs were increasing at an alarming rate and delivery was slipping. Estimates of £13 billion or more were being quoted at that time.

An urgent review was necessary, as it was clear that the project was going nowhere. Railtrack entered into railway administration and shortly afterwards the Strategic Rail Authority was asked by the Government to review the whole project and to secure a clear way forward. That task is now led by the Department for Transport. The Government have been clear about exactly what is required—in particular, value for money. Through the strategy, the Government have defined the outputs, particularly in terms of train services, while Network Rail has the task of efficient delivery of the agreed specification and network operations. The passenger and freight train operators are responsible for service delivery and customer service.

The cornerstones of the 2003 strategy were quite simple and straightforward: first, to make up the backlog in maintenance and renewals while achieving value for money and addressing the decades of under-investment; secondly, to establish a sustainable maintenance regime that minimises disruption to passengers and freight traffic—once that work is over I expect the railway to be open seven days a week; and, thirdly, to provide extra capacity for anticipated growth in passenger and freight business. We are planning for 80 per cent. more passenger trains and capacity for up to 70 per cent. more freight business. Of course, all that is to be done on a busy working railway. Much has been done and there is more to come. I will speak about that in a moment.

A turnaround compared with the previous attempts to upgrade the line has been a reliance on proven technology, including, in one case, old block signalling. However, the new trains in particular have required new skills on the part of those looking after them day and night. At this stage I want to put on the record my thanks to all those involved in the rail industry for the way in which they have delivered and worked together.

What has been delivered? There have been line speed improvements throughout the route, including the ability to operate at 125 mph in tilt mode. Track renewals, overhead line overhaul and power supply upgrades have been carried out to handle the new business and resignalling schemes have included a new signalling centre at Rugby. There are also new platforms at Birmingham New Street, Wolverhampton and Stockport, with improved turn-back facilities at Tring, Birmingham International and Wigan, as well as platform extensions for the new Pendolino trains and the commuter services into London, and a flyover at Nuneaton and a new island platform.

Those developments have enabled new timetables to be introduced in accordance with the requirements of the strategy. To deliver the timetables two new fleets of trains have been successfully commissioned and are now in service. The core of operations is based on53 nine-car Pendolino trains, operated by Virgin West Coast, but in close partnership with Alstom Trains. They are capable of working at 125 mph and of course
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have the tilt mechanism to negotiate at high speeds the many curves on the line—I think that we have to thank our forefathers for designing the railway with so many curves. They are now working with considerable reliability and I am pleased that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has managed to get back in time from his previous engagement using the west coast line. Forty-six of the trains are required for service each day and that is what is provided. There has been a step change in technical demands on both depot and train staff; it can be said that they have moved successfully from the hammer to the lap top. There are also 30 100-mph Desiro trains for the regional and more local services. However, they are equally capable of providing some longer distance services. A new maintenance depot is shortly to open for such trains at Northampton.

To return to the subject of timetables and services, all main line west coast services are operated by the Pendolino fleet. On the Manchester-London route, prior to September 2004, there was only an hourly service, with a journey time of almost two and three quarter hours. It now gets a half hourly service with a journey time of two hours and 15 minutes, and there are some fast services with a journey time of two hours and five minutes. By early 2009 there will be three trains an hour—effectively a turn up and go service—with average journey times of about two hours. Similar improvements apply on the London-Birmingham route, where journey times have decreased from one hour and 43 minutes to one hour and 30 minutes; that improvement will continue during 2008 to achieve journey times of just over one hour and 20 minutes in 2009. Importantly, at that time, service levels will also increase so that there will be a train every 20 minutes.

Turning to the north and Scotland, 125-mph running has also reached Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) who chairs the all-party west coast main line group would have liked to be here today. He has been particularly active in bringing about better journey times to Carlisle and Scotland. Journey times on Anglo-Scottish services have already been reduced from more than five and a half hours to five hours, and on fast journeys four hours and 24 minutes; and in 2008 that will be reduced to four hours and 15 minutes.

The railway is regaining lost markets. Air travel previously dominated the London-Manchester corridor, but it no longer does. Before the 2004 timetable change, air had 60 per cent. of the total rail-air business between those points. Today, that position has been reversed and rail has 60 per cent. of the business and air the minority share. Rail travel is growing on the west coast route in terms of revenue as well as passenger numbers. In 2005-06 the figures were some 30 per cent. higher than in the year prior to the timetable change in September 2004. Performance is also much better. The strategy required 88 per cent. of trains to arrive within 10 minutes of their scheduled time. That has been more than achieved, with about90 per cent. meeting the target. On the Silverlink County services, which provide commuter services from Northampton, Milton Keynes and London, the figure is over 95 per cent.

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What is there to be completed? The bottleneck at Rugby is being removed and a much enlarged station is to be provided, which will also avoid the present conflicting movements at that busy junction. Maximum speeds will be raised from the present range of 60 to 75 mph to, in places, 125 mph. The station itself will get some improved services—for example, there will be increased frequencies to the west midlands and a new semi-fast Desiro service, giving new links along the Trent valley.

Four-tracking 14 miles of the Trent Valley line will remove another bottleneck and Milton Keynes station is to be enlarged. At this point, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), who has been assiduous and redoubtable in her campaign for additional services, improvements and funding at Milton Keynes. I was pleased to visit her constituency the other day. Work at Weaver Junction and Wigan North Western will provide extra capacity. More car parking and passenger facilities are to be provided at the key west coast stations.

Costs are being kept firmly under control and well within the 2003 estimate of £9.9 billion. Once we get the work that I have outlined done, there will be more to be considered, such as removing the other bottleneck at Stafford and providing more train capacity. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford(Mr. Kidney) takes a significant interest in what happens on the rail network as a whole, but particularly in Stafford, and he is committed to getting improvements there.

The project is about investing in the country as a whole, but the north in particular. It is helping to rejuvenate many town and city centres, such as Liverpool and Manchester. There are opportunities elsewhere—the Potteries is now linked by a half-hourly service to London and Birmingham, and there are four trains an hour to Manchester. At around two hours’ travelling time from London, Liverpool and Runcorn, which is in my constituency, are now closer to the capital as a result of the work. The project is firmly on course to be completed on time and within spending limits, and I commend it to the House.

2.40 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Allow me to liken this debate to a journey by train, Lady Winterton. Let us imagine the journey from Euston to Stafford on a new Virgin Pendolino. Just like this debate, it will start on time, it is a comfortable ride and it has an unplanned stop at Milton Keynes. I am hoping that, like the Pendolino train to Stafford, this debate will end early.

That is today’s railway on the west coast main line, after the upgrade that we are debating, but like my hon. Friend the Minister, I want to take a few minutes to go back to the situation that existed before. Let me start in 1997, when I was a new Member of Parliament who travelled to Parliament by train. One day, after one of the terrible disasters that we had in the south, I could not get to London by train until 9 o’clock in the evening, having set off for the station at 7 o’clock in the morning. On other occasions, trains were cancelled at short notice and journeys took an hour longer than timetabled to arrive into London. That was the kind of railway system that was inherited in 1997.

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Before I was a Member of Parliament, I took an interest as a local councillor in our railway service from Stafford to London. At the beginning of the 1990s, British Rail told the world that the west coast main line was worn out and that a major upgrade was urgently needed. Major investment was called for, but we did not get it. Instead, we got a rail privatisation that delayed any decisions about investment for most of the 1990s. We then had Railtrack making the decisions, but its strategic and financial failings were arguably uncovered as a result of the west coast main line project. It was beyond Railtrack’s ability to come up with a scheme that it could cost and deliver before it went the way that it did.

Then came Network Rail, and I am pleased to say that it was like a breath of fresh air. I welcomed the early commitment to bring maintenance work back in-house, which was a sign of things to come. Indeed, sure enough, the report before us today tells us that Network Rail got to grips with the need to upgrade the west coast main line and came up with a proper planned project. So far, it has delivered on all the targets that it was set and it has done so within budget. That is a commendable achievement, for which I, like many of my constituents, thank Network Rail. It is fair to say that Network Rail is not simply throwing money at the problem because it is urgent and that it is planning expenditure and getting good value for money.

The west coast main line is a constituency interest of mine, and I should like to concentrate on three points from the report that affect my constituency. The first, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is the Trent Valley four-tracking. It is amazing to think how long we have waited for Trent Valley to have four lines instead of two, given that it is the major artery for the entire west coast as far north as Scotland. Until now, we have had a blockage at Trent Valley every year that I have been an MP, because four lines reduce to two, which clearly affects train speeds and line capacity.

If we are to meet our ambitious plan of seeing present growth continue into the future, as my hon. Friend said, the Trent Valley line cannot stay at two lines. It is therefore a delight to read in the report—the relevant section starts at page 31—of the progress that is being made in delivering four tracks through Trent Valley. It is also interesting to read in the report of the innovations that have been necessary to deliver the project, and I see some of them from the carriage window as I pass by. One is the haul road, which gives all-weather access along the entire length of the track. It is a temporary road that has been put in especially so that earthmoving and engineering equipment can get to the site, whatever the weather, at any time, night or day. That is an impressive development.

I also read with interest about the soil nailing of the embankment. That is an important part of the development, which is intended to satisfy neighbouring landowners. Some people do not appreciate that the entire Trent Valley four-tracking development is contained in the width of the existing train corridor, and soil nailing is part of the process of enabling an embankment to be built between the rail land and neighbouring land, without the need to take more land from the neighbours.

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Although I have not seen this, because my constituency is slightly north of the location, I was also impressed to read about the so-called 4D modelling that has been used to simulate the work that will need to be done, and which has helped the project team to plan it. I read from the report that the technique has also helped communities along the route where the work is being done. At consultation meetings, they have been able to see what will happen in all three dimensions, as they would want to. All that work has been very innovative, and it explains to me how the whole upgrade, which is such a magnificent and major project, has been kept within budget.

One last innovation that I notice from the report involves significant investment by the rail industry and relates to the use of a parallel widening form to widen bridges. An extra railway bridge is put in, the railway is moved across on to it and the first bridge is then taken away. That is an impressive way of proceeding.

The place where the four-tracking project joins the existing four tracks is Colwich in my constituency. Unfortunately for those of my constituents who live in that beautiful village, which is on the edge of Cannock Chase and Shugborough lands, just outside the town of Stafford, the line divides between the route to Stafford and the route to Stoke-on-Trent, which makes Colwich a very busy place. Being a very busy place, it had a little railway station once upon a time, but that station was closed many decades ago. Ever since, residents who remember the station have said that it would be helpful to have one again. Unfortunately, given the speed of modern trains and the demands on the track, there is no way of having another station. I mention that, however, because there is still a great love of the idea of having a station in Colwich and because I would like the people who plan these things to read the report of this debate and say, “We did reject Colwich, but do we have to reject it for ever? Is there anything we can do about it in the future?” I would be glad if they went away and thought about that.

The second of the three points that I want to raise relates to Stafford railway station. This is perhaps where the Minister will think of me as persistent or assiduous—or whichever adjective he cares to use—because we have had a long-running correspondence on this issue. For a long time, I have been asking for work to be done at Stafford station to make it modern, efficient and consumer friendly. I have campaigned for lifts to be installed there and I have been helped in that by a public consultation. I am pleased to say that we finally got new passenger lifts last year, and it was a pleasure to see them installed. They now work perfectly.

There are two things that we do not have, however, and I have been arguing for them for a long time in public meetings in my constituency, correspondence with the Minister and meetings with Network Rail and Virgin Trains. The first is a modern foyer, with all the modern services, in the station. I simply have no news about when the issue will be dealt with, but it has been on the cards for a long time. The other development is a car park.

For a very long time, it has been part of Virgin’s business plan that with the new Pendolino train should come a doubling of passenger traffic at Stafford railway station, but there has not been a single extra car
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parking space to accommodate all the customers who will be drawn from a wide area around Stafford, not just the town. The plans have been drawn up—as far as I know, they have even been submitted to the local council that decides planning permissions—but there is still no news of the investment to make a car park possible at Stafford station. The Department’s progress report has a section on stations and car parks at page 39. There is a list of the next stations that will have some attention, and Stafford is not in that list. I would like the Minister to examine why. Will he remind himself of our correspondence over the past 18 months on this subject, and tell me when Stafford station will get those improvements?

Before I leave the subject of stations, I want to comment on another related aspect of the report. I am a strong supporter of the huge regeneration project at Birmingham New Street station. England’s second city has a station that is well known to be inadequate in its design, in relation to its access at either end of the station for railway traffic, and inadequate for the passengers and other consumers who use the station premises. There are magnificent and ambitious plans to make it the kind of station that the second city of England deserves, and I support those plans wholeheartedly.

My third and last point regarding my constituency interest is that the report tells us of problems in and around the Stafford area on the network. Clearly, the biggest problem is just south of the railway station, where the lines from London and from Birmingham and Wolverhampton cross each other, causing congestion. They cross on a bit of a bend, which means that trains have to slow down twice as much—for the bend and the crossing of the lines. They have to slow down even if they are not stopping at Stafford station. I well understand the problem that that causes to the entire network, and I had meetings with the now defunct Strategic Rail Authority about a plan that was devised to solve that problem, which is discussed in the report at page 59. I read in the report that the plan for a “dive-under”, which obviously means a bit of a tunnel on the approach to Stafford station to enable one side of the track to get under another without them crossing each other, has been dismissed.

The report discusses alternative works that are under consideration and being planned, but there is no detail in it; everything is vague. I ask the Minister—from the conversation that we had before the debate, I think that the answer will be yes—whether I can have meetings with those who are considering what should be done so that I can be involved in the discussions and learn what is planned for the area around Stafford station.

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