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20 Jun 2006 : Column 420WH—continued

The Met Office view is not that the rail line must close but that Network Rail must consider what it needs to do to keep the line open. The Met Office is fairly indignant
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that it has been quoted as saying that the line is not sustainable. It says that its job is not to tell other bodies whether something is sustainable, but to give advice about the effects of climate change, as the Hadley centre did in the case that I have just quoted.

Network Rail was also quoted, particularly in TheObserver, which implied that £200,000 was being spent on the line every year, and that it was not sustainable. Network Rail says that that is not the case; it has not concluded that the line cannot be sustained. Indeed, I have a memo here in which Network Rail says that it has

and that

It goes on to say:

I shall come on to some further quotes that touch on what is being done in that respect.

The regional development agency has also, although it has not supplied any quotes, contacted me to say that it is supportive of a proper debate on the issue. However, at the moment it sees no reason why we should presume that the line has to close. I was told this morning that it had carried out a consultation among local people, and that they do not want the route to change; indeed, they do not want the service to change. I hasten to add that we should interpret that to mean that they do not want the service to be cut. It goes without saying—if the rail companies are listening—that most of us in the south-west would like it to increase. Basically, local people find the existing route satisfactory. So they should: some 67 trains a day travel up-line and a further 67 travel down-line. It is a fairly busy stretch of line.

I hope that the Minister will continue to support that rail link with the south-west. If the campaigners were to have their way, what would happen? Currently, 69,175 people a year board the train in the little Exe estuary village of Starcross. Further down the line, at Dawlish Warren, where there is a wonderful bird sanctuary, 69,707 passengers use the train every year, as do 297,836 passengers from the town of Dawlish, further still down the line and famous for its black swans, and 319,075 passengers from my home town of Teignmouth. The immediate effect of closing the line would be to close those stations, and to prevent local people from having access to the railway. They would have to either use their cars or take buses into Exeter or Newton Abbot.

Closing the stations would not just inconvenience commuters; it would have a damaging effect on local businesses and on the hotel and holiday park trade in Dawlish and the hotel trade in Teignmouth. One hotel in particular relies heavily on the rail service. The Clifden hotel in Teignmouth is run by Action for the Blind for people who are partially sighted. I am told
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that 70 per cent. of its customers use the train. Those customers would have to stop at Exeter and then be collected and taken to the hotel. It would be a great inconvenience if the customers had to arrange that themselves, and it would be a great cost to the hotel if they had to start transporting people in from Exeter, some 14 miles away. If the closure itself were not damaging, the talk that the line is unsustainable is itself damaging to Dawlish, Teignmouth and that part of the south Devon economy. People believe what they read in the papers and think, “There’s no future here. There’s going to be no rail line. Why should we invest here? We might as well invest in those areas where we are certain there’s going to be a rail link, rather than one where there might not be.”

Finally, if the line were closed, would the sea wall that currently runs along there be maintained? Certainly, there would be no reason to maintain certain sections of it, and we would then see coastal erosion, denuding, and threats to properties high up on the cliff. The cost of keeping the line open is not just the cost of doing so, but Network Rail is keeping the properties above safe. A new line would cost in excess of £100 million. That is an awful lot of money. Are we saying to the campaigners who want to close the line and commit to a new line that we are going to commit £100 million plus, which might not be necessary? Network Rail is very aware of the issue. It has undertaken its own one-year study into the effects of climate change on the rail network, and is doing a particular model on the track at Dawlish. There are eight studies currently being carried out on the impact of climate change on the railway line along that section. Would it not be better to wait until those studies are completed before we rush to any decision? I believe that, in this case, waiting is beneficial. The sea change, as I said earlier, takes effect over a 50-year period, so there is no need to rush today. The line is one of the most beautiful stretches of railway in England, and to me, one of the finest in the world. The question that we should be asking is not when we close the line, but how we can keep it open.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) concentrated on the area around Dawlish and the sea wall there. However, I should like to say a few words about the Greater Western franchise, which covers the area. If I mispronounce any of the names, I apologise. There are some beautiful-sounding names, but coming from the north, I may not always get them right, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will correct me.

As we know, the Greater Western franchise has now started and it has not been without controversy. First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. We are seeing significant investment of around £200 million in trains, stations and improved performance. Network Rail will be spending in the region of £765 million on the investment programme on track and infrastructure. The first phase of the new integrated control centre has recently opened, so we are seeing closer working relationships between Network Rail and First Great Western to bring about the performance improvements that we want to see in the Greater Western franchise.

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This is obviously a very large and complex franchise serving a significant area of the west of the country. As I said, it has not been without controversy: I have attended a number of debates in Westminster Hall and elsewhere about the changes that came about, but I am pleased to say that the Department has been working with First Great Western, which has already announced a number of improvements and changes to services. The changes are significant responses to the consultation and a real improvement that should meet the aspirations of those who have raised concerns.

It is important to stress that significant investment is still to go into the Greater Western franchise, which will bring about improvements for all passengers who use its services. That fits in with the Government’s overall aim to continue significant investment in the railways—more than £87 million a week is being spent this year. There is also a record investment in rolling stock and there were more than 1 billion passenger journeys again last year. There is improved performance overall nationally, exceeding the public performance measure target of 85 per cent.—we reached more than 86 per cent. Reliability and performance are therefore improving. That is borne out by passenger surveys, which show that about 80 per cent. of passengers are pleased with their journeys and that an increasing number are satisfied with the punctuality of trains. Many improvements are happening, and working together with the industry we can further build on them. There are still many challenges to be addressed, not least capacity in some areas, but overall it is a good news story for the railway.

I am conscious that concern has been expressed in the south-west that the Exeter to Newton Abbot line is vulnerable to storm damage where it runs along the sea wall in Dawlish, and that in the longer term the route might cease to be viable because of the rising sea level due to climate change. I shall address those issues, which the hon. Gentleman raised from his own experience and knowledge of the area.

The section of track in question is on the main line to Torbay, south-west Devon and Cornwall and provides those areas with their only rail link with the rest of the country, as the hon. Gentleman made clear. It lies between the sea wall and an 85 m-high cliff face and is one of the most exposed stretches of line in England. Maintaining services can be challenging in extreme weather conditions. We have heard some descriptions of such conditions and we have recently seen dramatic pictures in one of the Sunday newspapers. In October 2004 the sea wall was damaged and the route had to be closed for several days. Less severe disruptions happen more regularly, such as the slow running of services during storms to ensure safety.

Network Rail is aware of the importance of the stretch of track and has undertaken substantial work to improve the reliability of services. Some £9 million has been invested over the past few years, including money to strengthen the foundations of the sea wall. About £500,000 per annum has been spent on maintaining the sea wall. Five Network Rail employees work on the relevant section of line throughout the year, and regular weather updates are provided by the Met Office to help anticipate likely problems.

Network Rail says that it is ever alert to the potential problems from global warming, and I have recently
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commissioned a research study on its likely longer term effects on the network. Dawlish Warren is a case study. Network Rail recognises the importance of the line and continues to devote considerable resources to maintaining it to an appropriate standard. It does not believe that the railway sea defences in Dawlish are likely to fail in the foreseeable future, thanks to the work carried out and the ongoing maintenance and monitoring.

There have been suggestions that an alternative rail route avoiding Dawlish sea wall should be constructed. There are two possible options, each with disadvantages in the places served. The first is to reopen the former Southern Railway main line along the northern edge of Dartmoor from Okehampton to Bere Alston, rejoining the existing main line in the western suburbs of Plymouth. The service would not serve Dawlish, Teignmouth, Torbay, Totnes or Ivybridge and would be about 50 miles in length. At the east end the line is used by the Dartmoor Railway between Crediton and Meldon Quarry, where passenger trains have been reintroduced, although there is no regular year-round service. The middle section between Meldon and Bere Alston is either completely disused or used as a cycle route, and we understand that the track bed has been built upon in at least one location. There are proposals to extend the cycle route, and ownership of the track bed is in a number of hands; much work would be needed to reopen the line. However, the line between Bere Alston and Plymouth is open and used by regular passenger trains; it is part of the Tamar Valley Line.

Secondly, reopening the former secondary line from Exeter to Newton Abbott that goes through Chudleigh—closed almost 50 years ago—which joins the existing main line, would not serve Teignmouth or Dawlish. The route would be only 15 miles long, but the track bed has been lost in many locations and it would be difficult to reinstate.

We are not aware of costings having been undertaken for those proposals. They were not considered as part of the Greater Western route utilisation study published in 2005. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman about the viability of that part of the line.

Specifying a new franchise as large and diverse as Greater Western and balancing the needs of the taxpayer and the user is a complex task. Overall, I reiterate that the new franchise is a good deal, with all passengers benefiting from the investment of £200 million for improving trains, stations and performance. We are now immersed in the process of replacing the south-western franchise, and we recently published our consultation on the cross-country franchise—as we did for the east midlands and west midlands franchises—and we will listen carefully to rail users before finalising them.

We are mindful of the vulnerability of the rail route west of Exeter, and the Department will continue to work closely with Network Rail to assess the level of risk and how it can most appropriately be mitigated, and, if necessary, to assess the viability of alternative routes. Given what Network Rail has said about its commitment to maintenance and the fact that it regularly has a number of employees working there, it does not see a significant problem in the immediate future. I hope that I have offered the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.

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Rural Transport

1.27 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): May I, through you, Mr. Illsley, thank the Speaker for granting me this debate? I have tried for a long time to secure one on this subject, and I am happy to have achieved it. I welcome the Minister to her new portfolio, and I am happy to see her here. She has escaped the Whips Office, and I hope that she has many happy years in her new post.

I shall highlight a number of crucial issues relating to the transport needs of the rural communities in my constituency. They have regularly been the subject of discussion at coffee mornings in villages throughout my constituency, as well as in my postbag. I wish to focus on the provision of public transport and the problems that can be caused to isolated communities when there is one public transport provider. I shall also suggest some solutions to the problems that surround the provision of rural bus services. I will argue that bus operators should not be completely free of regulation, but that they should be subjected to greater openness. I will suggest that bus franchising should follow the same model as rail services, which will ensure that bus companies provide a useful service to the public.

The rural communities in East Cleveland share a common historic and geographical pattern. They are small villages that date from the 19th century—a time when ironstone mining was booming. With industry now long gone, many people in those villages and small towns have to commute to and from employment elsewhere in urban Teesside. They also regularly have to travel to Teesside or nearby market towns such as Guisborough and Redcar for their shopping and social life and to meet friends and relations.

Many of my constituents in these areas do not own cars. In some of the smaller, more deprived communities, access to cars is very low. In some cases, up to 42 per cent. of households have no access to a car. Consequently, they are forced to rely solely on buses. Bus services are therefore absolutely crucial to their everyday lives.

Approximately 95 per cent. of all bus routes in the area are under the control of one bus company—Arriva North East. The 5 per cent or so that are not all belong to small niche operators who provide buses for school and hospital runs under contract to the local council and minibus services on some estates.

Arriva recently introduced a number of radical changes to its local service, with serious repercussions for my constituents in East Cleveland. As a commercial operator, Arriva is fully entitled to make changes to its services, but the manner in which it did so has been a cause of concern among my constituents. The changes are based on a consultant’s report that was commissioned for the Tees Valley joint strategy unit. The unit is a Teesside-wide organisation made up of all the local councils and its remit is to develop Teesside-wide planning and transport policies.

On the whole, the report was acceptable. It stated that transport patterns on Teesside had changed and needed addressing by the area’s bus companies. It then suggested core routes across all of urban and rural Teesside. Crucially, however, it also recognised that the
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changes needed to be implemented with care and that structural elements should be in place before any changes were made.

The changes were to be introduced over at least a year and based on setting up a quality partnership between all the local authorities, bus operators and other stakeholders. That was to allow local councils to develop a pattern and build up financial provision for their tendered services to supplement the core commercial network.

I have to say, however, that Arriva completely ignored many of the report’s recommendations by announcing that it would adopt the core service model within weeks. That meant that many communities found to their horror that there were to be large-scale cuts in their bus services. Those cuts would be partnered by reductions in frequencies, changes of route and, for some communities, a total loss of service.

A recent survey by Redcar and Cleveland borough council found that 10 per cent. of local residents use a local bus service every day and that another 14 per cent. use one once a week. It also found that the number of people using local bus services regularly was considerably higher in areas where the population was older than average and on a lower income. That is where the cuts have really hit home.

Letters from concerned constituents affected by the changes poured in to my office, the local council and Arriva itself. I was particularly distressed to learn that schools were faced with a problem because the new times did not meet the needs of their pupils. I have received correspondence to that effect from both Huntcliff secondary school in Saltburn-by-the-Sea and Laurence Jackson secondary school in Guisborough.

In addition, timetable information was available only days before the new routes were to operate. Local employers found that key staff were having to alter hours of work or to adopt new modes of transport simply to keep their jobs, but Arriva has not dealt with any of those issues, despite strong pleas from me, the local borough council and other organisations and groups in the East Cleveland area. It could be argued that if one bus operator—in this case, Arriva—behaves in that fashion, that will create a gap for a competitor to capitalise on what may be seen as a bad judgment by Arriva. However, that has not happened, for a number of reasons.

On Teesside as a whole, there are two major bus operators: Arriva and Stagecoach. Although I do not allege that there is a monopoly, I do find it fascinating that those major multinational transport companies, with all the resources available to them, do not seem to compete with each other in a meaningful way. For evidence of that, I examined a copy of the last local bus timetable guide issued before the latest changes. Although Arriva operated no fewer than 38 separate services in the borough, Stagecoach operated only one solitary bus route. That was a small late-evening-only tendered service covering a section of route operated by Arriva for the rest of the day.

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