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Those of us who use the west coast main line recognise that it is much better and that the project has transformed what was a pretty shaky part of our transport infrastructure into something that works well and appropriately. I congratulate the Government on their work on the project. It is one of two promises they made in their 10-year plan that they have kept—the
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other being the channel tunnel rail link. All the rest have gone by the board, such as Crossrail, the suburban improvements in London and Birmingham, Thameslink 2000, platform extensions on the South West Trains route and the upgrade to the east coast main line. It is good that at least some of the promises—commitments—of projects that would be finished by 2010 that were set out in the document of five years ago have come to fruition.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) is right that the project has made a significant difference to people in Milton Keynes, as well as in Stafford and Manchester, but that has come at a price. I would be pretty worried—as I am sure would the Government—if after having spent £10 billion there had not been a transformation of the service. Bearing in mind the estimates that Iain Coucher of Network Rail made a couple of weeks ago of the potential cost of a high-speed line to the north, the truth is that the upgrade has not cost an awful lot less than building an entirely new line from scratch. It has been a big, significant and complicated project, and the Minister is right that the route is probably the busiest and has the biggest mix of traffic in Europe, but I would be worried if it had not made a big difference, because it is of a scale almost comparable to building an entirely new route.

I wish to raise a number of issues with the Minister about the west coast route and related matters. The first is the length of the trains. One of the absurdities over the past few years—it was quickly discovered to be such—has been that the original Pendolinos had eight coaches. They now have nine, although traditionally express trains on the route would have had 10, 11 or 12. Therefore, we have had shorter trains over the past few years, which has inevitably meant less capacity.

There is talk—it is mentioned in the document—of adding an additional coach to the Pendolino trains. Is that the case? If it is, will that be funded by the Government or from the additional passenger revenues that Virgin Trains will secure from such an expansion? Is it true that Network Rail is considering procuring those trains? If it is, that would represent a significant change in the procurement practices of the industry. I would be grateful if the Minister answered those questions.

There are still some big unanswered questions to do with the route—major bottlenecks and major issues that have not been addressed. The most obvious of them concerns Birmingham New Street station. After the Birmingham, Hodge Hill by-election, the Prime Minister promised that the station would be dealt with quickly. That has not happened. There is no sign as yet of confirmed funding. I would be grateful if the Minister told us what is happening about New Street station.

Also, given that the Government are open about their consideration of high-speed rail, what consideration has been made in thinking about station provision in central Birmingham of the potential capacity needs of a high-speed line? In the discussions that the Minister and his Department are having about Birmingham New Street, has any thought been given to where high-speed trains to central Birmingham could
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be fitted in if bringing high-speed rail beyond London to the north of England is a part of the next stage of development on which this Government—or a future Government—decide?

Mr. Kidney: I wish to intervene because that is the second slightly negative comment about the Birmingham New Street project. It is true that we are waiting for decisions about the rail industry’s contribution to the scheme, but I would like to put the positive side of the matter. The whole region has come together, with money, to back the plan. There is strong support for it, including from Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency; Birmingham city council; the chambers of commerce; and the rest of us in the wider region, and a lot of money has already been identified.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman talks about slightly negative comments, but two weeks ago I met the West Midlands chamber of commerce to discuss the project, and I met the leader of Birmingham city council to discuss it yesterday, and the practical truth is that there is no money from central Government to make it a reality. There is no timetable, and there is no confirmed project; nothing is happening at present. Whatever good will for it there may be in the west midlands and whatever money that region may make available for it, this is a project in a siding. Given that Birmingham is Britain’s second city, it is beholden on the Minister to make it clear what the Government are going to do. We are discussing a central part of the west coast main line.

My point about high-speed trains is that the Government would not be doing their duty in considering high-speed rail for the future if they were not to demonstrate a bit of joined-up thinking by asking this question: if we are going to rebuild the major station in the centre of Birmingham and we might build a high-speed rail line a bit further down the track, where would the trains actually go? Is there a part of the plan that shows where they could be added in?

The second big flaw is Manchester Piccadilly station. The suburban rail improvements around Manchester Piccadilly promised in the 10-year plan have not come to fruition. It is a bottleneck in the network. I would like to understand the Government’s thinking on Manchester Piccadilly, and how they plan to take forward the various ideas for improving the situation there.

The issue of Stafford is explained in some detail in the document. It basically says, “Oh dear, big problem for the future, and not quite sure what to do about it.” What are the Government planning to do about it, and when?

There is another significant capacity issue in the west midlands: four-tracking the stretch from Birmingham to Coventry. The lack of four-tracking is a major constraint on the ability of the rail network to take additional passengers in that part of the country. What work have the Government done on assessing the
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options for turning that stretch into four tracks? What estimates have they made of the cost? Do they have any plans to do so?

The document mentions a third platform at Manchester airport. Manchester airport is growing; it has a second runway and aims to increase significantly the number of passengers who arrive there by public transport, but it has a very small railway station and increasing demand. The document seems to be slightly equivocal about whether the third platform will be built. I would be grateful if the Minister set out whether it has been approved, whether the funding is in place, and whether he is committed to ensuring that it is in place by the time of the 2009 timetable.

I have looked carefully at the sections on freight-loading gauges. It is desirable that higher-gauge freight vehicles can make it through to Trafford Park, and it now appears that that is the case. I also note with interest that reference is made to the Felixstowe route:

The improvement of the Felixstowe route to take high-gauge freight traffic is of course another commitment in the 10-year plan that has not happened.

The Minister and his Department have made quite a play over the past couple of months about double-decker trains. What steps has his Department taken as part of the project to provide for future introduction of double-decker trains on the west coast route? Is it practical to do so? Has that work been done, or was the west coast route shut off to the Government’s plans for double-decker trains—as are many other parts of the network?

Will the Minister address the question of the future franchising arrangements on the west coast route? He will be well aware of the GNER experience, which has become doubly complicated with the Grand Central debate, and which is in the courts. Owing to the nature of the franchise renewal process—because the Government have taken such close control over the day-to-day operation of the rail network—the railways are in effect run by the Government, not by independent companies. The rail companies are subcontractors to Government who work to very tight specifications set out by the Department. The Minister has a team of civil servants working for him, who write train timetables to which the would-be bidders must conform in their bids. To meet the Government’s aspirations to extract as much value from the franchise agreements as possible, the bidders then bid as high as they dare. It is a popular received view in the rail industry that GNER bid quite high for its franchise. We saw one of the consequences of that on 1 January, when unregulated fares on the east coast route went up by about 10 per cent. If one looks at GNER’s future financing structure—the premium it has to meet over its franchise—it is difficult to see how the process of big increases in unregulated fares will stop.

I have a question for the Minister about the west coast route, which has been hugely costly for the Government. The route has built up a substantial debt burden for Network Rail to service over the next few years. Today,
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Network Rail’s debts are about £18 billion, and it will take well over £1 billion a year of public money to service that debt. Certainly half that sum has gone into the west coast project. What is the Government’s policy on fares for the west coast route? When the franchise is renewed, do they expect to end up with an agreement comparable to the one for the east coast, under which it is clear that passengers who fall outside the scope of the regulated fares structure will pay ever higher fares to travel on the line? I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that.

Let us be clear: anyone who looks at the west coast route will say that there has been significant improvement, although it has cost a lot of money and taken a huge amount of engineering. We need a strong, good, effective rail network for the future, and we will need improvements in other parts of the country. We will need to work to address capacity problems; one of the big challenges that the Minister faces in the next few years is how on earth the Government will do that—and when they will do it, because it needs to happen now, not at some distant time.

The west coast story is a good-news story that has made a difference to the constituents of the Members here today and others on both sides of the House. Those who worked so hard on the project should take credit for transforming a decaying and declining route into one with a clear, strong and promising future.

3.31 pm

Derek Twigg: This has been an interesting debate, but I accept that a lot more people were present when the subject was debated three or four years ago—the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) referred to that occasion. I wondered for a minute whether that was just because I am speaking today, but that would be another issue.

The west coast route certainly is a good-news story.I might have understated the previous problems. I assure the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell(Chris Grayling) that I have stood at Crewe station at2 o’clock in the morning, having set out at half-past 6 from London Euston, so I am well aware of the tremendous difficulties that have occurred. I have travelled on the line for 26 or 27 years, and have seen the ups and the downs—there have been a lot of downs during that time—so it is pretty pleasing to see the significant improvements that have taken place in the past few years. I put on record my thanks to officials in the Department for Transport, who have been very much involved in taking the project forward, and who have worked tremendously hard on it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) has been an absolute champion for Stafford and has been in regular contact with me. Of course I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the details of the report, and particularly to discuss how we can take forward the issues for Stafford. He made a point about the importance of work on the Trent Valley double-tracking; that line is a major artery. He mentioned lifts and improving Stafford station; he has been pursuing that point clearly. There is work under way on car parking, and we are hoping for improvement in 2008. We will provide some 5,000 extra spaces at main stations along the west coast, so there will be improved capacity.

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Hon. Members mentioned freight. There has been significant growth, and more growth is taking place. By 2008, there will be 70 per cent. more capacity for freight. Improvements to the west coast route have meant improvements for freight, and we welcome opportunities and ideas for developing that further. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford also referred to ticket prices, which I shall come to shortly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) has done tremendous work in lobbying me—and previous rail Ministers—about Milton Keynes Central. It has become a particularly important station because of the growth taking place in the area. That is partly why we are investing the amount that we are in Milton Keynes. I went there on Tuesday to see for myself the improvements that have been made and that will be progressed there. As my hon. Friend says, she would still like further improvements, and I recognise that she is not one to rest on her laurels. She will continue to pursue the issues. I take account of the issue of passenger lifts; she will be aware of our announcement a few months ago of the “Access for All” fund for improving access for disabled and other people. That is part of a longer-term programme.

My hon. Friend mentioned the important issue of Bletchley station. In relation to both Bletchley and Milton Keynes, we have done work on how we can take forward the east-west link to which she referred. There is the Bletchley platform issue, too, which I am happy to speak to her about further. As I said, I concur very much with what the hon. Member for Rochdale said about the problems that we all encountered when travelling on the west coast line.

On the future of Birmingham New Street, which the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell mentioned, we have only recently received the business case. We are working on that and assessing it, but of course we will consider how it might, or might not, link into any high-speed line. The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that that is part of Eddington’s work, which is taking place. Clearly, there would be a substantial cost, and we need to make sure that we look into the matter in some detail. Birmingham is important, as the hon. Gentleman says, and we recognise the need to do something; the issue is how we go about doing it.

The hon. Members for Rochdale and for Epsom and Ewell mentioned Manchester Piccadilly. Network Rail is undertaking work on the route utilisation strategy for the north-west, and that will be taken into account. Similarly, discussions about Manchester airport are ongoing, and we are trying to facilitate them and bring about the improvements to which hon. Members have referred.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell made a number of important points about the longer-term strategy and where we are going. He made points about double-decker trains, Coventry, Manchester airport and Birmingham New Street. As I have always made clear, there have been significant improvements in the railway overall, in terms of increased reliability, record numbers of passengers and improved rolling stock. I agree with him that, given the money that we have spent, there should have been improvements, not least on the west coast line. However, clearly, the biggest
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challenge for the future is that of capacity, as we continue to want to grow the railways, and as there is further growth. Indeed, growth on the west coast line could double in 10 years.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the increased length of trains. We want nine-car trains, possibly going up to 10 or 11 cars. Owing to increased passenger numbers and increased usage of the line, there will be significant extra income that can help to pay for those increases. In particular, he mentioned our negotiations with Virgin about the franchise. Those discussions are ongoing, and I would not want to prejudice them by talking in detail about what is happening, but clearly they are important, and we have to get that right for the future of the service on the west coast.

To come back to capacity, the hon. Gentleman referred to the high-level output specification. The Secretary of State—sorry, the previous Secretary of State—made a point about the long-term look a few weeks ago. For the first time in decades, there is a real long-term look at what the railway will need, what the capacity issues will be and how we might afford the changes and improvements to the railway that are needed, and get best value for money. That is important in terms of longer-term planning and high-level output specification. We are consulting widely on that, and on improvements such as double-decker trains and longer platforms.

Chris Grayling: I have not got used to the change of Secretary of State yet, either; I keep referring to the Secretary of State’s predecessor.

Surely the point about double-decker trains is that if the west coast route cannot take them, the Minister can consult all he wants on them, but they will not work there. The previous Secretary of State made it absolutely clear that the Department sees double-decker trains as an important part of future strategy for the west coast route. Despite the most recent modernisation programme, that route is forecast to be one of the most congested on the network in the next few years. Have the Government ensured that the modernisation process has left gauge clearances of a scale sufficient to take double-decker trains in future?

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised if I make the point that double-decker trains represent one of several solutions that the Department is considering; it is important to take a generic view of solutions for the railway. There is no one solution for the whole railway, and as he makes clear there are certain options. As I have said, perhaps following some minor infrastructure or route improvements, we believe that the west coast line has capacity for trains of 10 to 12 cars. There is the ability to build up the length of the trains and, of course, have longer platforms. In the longer term, we have to decide which high-level output specification we can afford and which the Secretary of State wants to take forward. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be a little patient at this stage.

Chris Grayling: The Minister knows that virtually all our rail network cannot take double-decker trains
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because of gauge constraints. Network Rail is implementing a major modernisation programme on one of our routes, which the Government are funding. If double-decker trains are being considered, the construction work taking place as we speak should surely make provision for such trains—if they are what the Government want. Is that provision being made?

Derek Twigg: I can see where the hon. Gentleman is trying to go. The announcement about what we want to look at was made last year, but that is part of the overall process of considering future capacity constraints.

Chris Grayling: So that is a no, then.

Derek Twigg: No. Much route modernisation has already taken place, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. I am just explaining some ways of considering capacity on the west coast route. He will have to be patient and wait a little longer until we finally decide on the high-level output specification—our future planning for the railway.

The hon. Gentleman also dealt with fares, as did the hon. Member for Rochdale and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. The west coast line is an interesting case to study. Let me make it clear: I agree that the ticketing is too complex. It should be simplified and information given to passengers should be improved. That is in the gift of the train operating companies. I know that some of them are already working on that, and we can bring about improvements and remove a lot of the complexity. If someone turns up wanting to know what the cheapest ticket is, they should be able to get that information.

Having said that, the debate has gone astray quite a bit. On the west coast line, there is clear competition for trains from aircraft, buses and cars. Despite that, the majority of people travel on the west coast line on lower price tickets, rather than the top prices for rail travel often quoted by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and others. There are many excellent deals and good value tickets: I think the cheapest ticket from Manchester or Liverpool is £24. The competition is there, but since the issue of the 2004 timetable, there has been a 30 per cent. increase in usage of the route. I understand some of the concerns raised, but regulated fares are 3 per cent. cheaper in real terms than they were in the mid-1990s.

We need better transparency and we must improve ticketing information and access to the cheapest tickets, but there are already many good-value deals. We have a competitive service, and the west coast line is a good example of how rail travel can compete and provide a very good service.

In conclusion, there is still work to be done. I assure hon. Members that the Government will continue to focus strongly on the project to ensure that we achieve the improvements at the right cost and at the right time. There are still challenges, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned, such as how we can continue to bring about further improvements, not just for passengers but for freight.

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