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11 Dec 2007 : Column 60WH—continued

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Train Services (Penrith)

1.30 pm

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I am grateful for an opportunity to debate the latest draft timetables for train services on the west coast main line. I apologise to the Minister that I was not able to get my notes to him far in advance. I was working on them, and putting together what I wished to say, only late last night.

What I wish to say today is, I believe, totally supported by Cumbria county council and the local committees that it has set up, the Cumbria transport forum executive, Cumbria Tourism, Cumbria Vision and the Cumbria strategic partnership. We all acknowledge the considerable investment in the west coast main line that is leading to more reliable services and reduced journey times to London. Our expectation had been that the new service pattern to be introduced in December 2008/January 2009 would lead to an overall improvement in the economic performance of Cumbria by reducing its relative isolation and improving accessibility to the county for residents and visitors. Our comments on the proposed timetable reflect the importance of meeting those crucial objectives. As the Minister may know, Cumbria is the poorest-performing economy in the whole of the United Kingdom and is among the five poorest in the whole of the EU. We are therefore disappointed that the current draft timetables do not give Cumbria the economic opportunities that it desperately needs.

Our general conclusions reiterate previous representations made to the Department for Transport in 2006 and at various DFT forums. The loss of through-journey opportunities from Cumbria and the north-west to the south coast and the south-west under the new cross-country franchise represents a significant reduction in the attractiveness of rail for longer-distance travel to and from the county. We do not agree with the approach that maximises reductions in journey times to London and that results in a significant reduction in local service delivery because there are inadequate train resources.

I plead with the Government: please do not be so obsessed with cutting the journey time to Glasgow. I can lop half an hour off the London to Glasgow time if the train stops nowhere else in between, and I appreciate that there is potentially a big market to capture from air travel. However, those of us in Cumbria, Lancashire and all the other counties between London and Glasgow want a train service that is relatively fast to London but that stops in our county and picks up passengers. Therefore, although the headline figures that show reduced overall journey times to London are welcomed, we look to the Department to ensure that other aspects of the strategy are delivered. For example, we will require additional car parking at Penrith and Carlisle; that will be essential to accommodate the extra demands.

The Department should consider the existing use of west coast rail services in Cumbria. In particular, it should address specific gaps in service provision and how those will be accommodated in the future. It should address how the comments on interchange in the stakeholders briefing document of October 2006 for the new cross-country franchise will be translated
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into practical action plans by the train and station operators, recognising the needs of passengers who will be obliged to change trains en route to destinations that currently have through services.

We also reiterate comments made over the years regarding the importance of west coast trains providing local services to Penrith and Oxenholme to the south, as well as to Lockerbie, Wigan and Warrington. The stopping pattern for services should reflect not only the need to move between those towns and other key destinations, but the role of services in meeting the needs of commuters, especially to the city of Carlisle and to Penrith. I am concerned today with Penrith, but my colleague John Stevenson, the Conservative candidate in Carlisle for the next general election, has contacted me to say that it is vital that the 16.30 service from Euston includes a stop at Carlisle. He points out that that train will have to creep slowly through the station; it will not whizz past it at 150 mph. He says that it will take only two more minutes to stop at the platform there and to provide an excellent service.

Today, I want the Minister to consider the timetabled stops at Penrith and Oxenholme to achieve a better distribution of London services, and particularly a rebalancing of the split between Glasgow and Edinburgh services throughout the day. It is apparent that there is no regular pattern to the skip-stops between those two stations, and Penrith, in the new pattern, will lose four train stops a day.

Penrith is not only an important town; the station is also a gateway to the Eden valley and the north lakes and it is a railhead for parts of west Cumbria. Penrith will suffer the greatest net loss of services in Cumbria in the 2008-09 timetable, losing four southbound services and six northbound services each day. In the morning peak, the London service is to be reduced from three trains to two, with a gap from 05.56 to 07.59, followed 22 minutes later by an 08.21 train. There is also only one service after 13.02 to London, at 18.05, so there is a five-hour gap between the 1 o’clock train and the 6 o’clock train, during which trains are whizzing through Penrith but do not stop there. That is unreasonable. It is a significant reduction in London services.

The northbound Penrith services also exhibit an imbalanced pattern, with no morning departures to Edinburgh at all and a gap in Glasgow departures between 12.29 and 17.48. That skewed departure pattern, similar to that for Oxenholme, which is not in my constituency although it is the next station south, will require additional interchanges at Carlisle to transfer between services. The commuter service to and from Carlisle has a reduction in choice in both directions for work in Carlisle, with arrivals only at 07.50 or 08.25. Although those are comparable to the current arrival times of 07.19 and 08.30, the next northbound arrival, at 09.01, does not pick up at Penrith and would arguably be an attractive option, particularly as the next stopping service does not arrive until 10 o’clock. The evening southbound service now has a 90-minute gap between 16.05 and 17.35, compared with only 46 minutes at present, between 16.35 and 17.21.

Eden district council, in my constituency, believes that those are negative steps for several reasons. The first relates to tourism. With the increase in responsible
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tourism, particularly among those involved in outdoor activities, there is a real opportunity to encourage visitors to arrive by rail via Penrith. The reduced options not only reduce that opportunity but are likely further to increase car journeys into the already overcrowded Lake District national park and increase pollution. Penrith station is called “the northern gateway to the lakes”; if the trains are not stopping there, it is not much of a gateway in that sense.

Secondly, the new university of Cumbria—part of its campus will be based in Newton Rigg, one and a half miles outside Penrith—needs to encourage increased student numbers and they need easy access to both Penrith and Carlisle to attract them to the area. We have waited years—decades; centuries, one could even say—for a university in Cumbria. To have part of the campus based near Penrith with the main headquarters in Carlisle is a significant boost to the Cumbrian economy. We desperately need it. We are grateful to the Government that the opportunity has now arisen, but unless those students—the staff as well but particularly the students—have access to some commuter rail travel, it will not work to its full potential. Similarly, reduced transport access to London will not support that vital new educational establishment, which could attract new young talent to our district.

The third reason relates to the environment. The reduction in trains stopping at Penrith and further north will only encourage people to continue to use their car for long journeys and increase pollution and traffic congestion. Increased investment in the railway network should support improved rural access not just in the south-east, but in the north of England.

Let me give the Minister a personal example. Often, personal examples are not apposite, but this one is. At weekends from October to April or May, I never use Penrith station, a few miles down the road, because I am not prepared to spend seven hours travelling via Cardiff or Bristol as the west coast main line is fixed. I cannot afford the pain of sitting for that long on a train, so I pop across to Darlington on the A66 and take the wonderful GNER service. It is ironic that by driving 100 miles across the Pennines, I can get from my house in Cumbria to my flat in London four hours faster on weekends than by using the Virgin service. That is not Virgin’s fault; it is due to the wonderful repairs being done on the west coast main line.

Hundreds of other people make that decision, as well. If we are prepared to drive along the A66 and catch a train at Darlington, more and more of us will make that decision when the connections we want do not stop at Penrith. If I have to get to Westminster at a reasonable time and I cannot pop out on a Monday morning and catch that connection, I am not going to get up two hours earlier. Many people more important than me—business men and women—who also must make that decision will simply drive over the Pennines to Darlington. It is wonderful for GNER or the new franchise holder and great for the east coast main line, but it is not good for the environment, for the A66 and for train services on the west coast main line.

What do we want? London Euston services are being reduced from nine in each direction to five southbound and six northbound in December 2008. That will
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encourage people to drive along the A66 to use the east coast main line. We want that decision to be reversed. The five-hour afternoon gap in direct services to Euston between 13.05 and 18.05—three trains stop at Oxenholme during that period, by the way—is not acceptable. We cannot have that huge gap, and we cannot have people driving 25 miles south from the Penrith area through Shap and Kendal to Oxenholme, which has no parking facilities, to catch trains there. That would be madness.

Many of the trains that do stop at Penrith do not stop at Oxenholme or Lancaster, which makes it extremely difficult for local travel between stations from Carlisle to Preston. One can catch a train at Carlisle, but not at Oxenholme or Penrith. One can catch a train at Penrith, but it does not stop at Oxenholme or Lancaster. It is nonsense. We need some trains to stop at those important stations in between to provide connections to Barrow-in-Furness and Windermere.

All seven trans-Pennine express services to Manchester airport stop, but only five from the airport do. As they are hardly inter-city trains, with a maximum of only 100 mph, surely those services should stop at all stations. I had assumed that when the little trans-Pennine express splinter trains came in, they would stop at all stations. I am surprised that they do not. The general reduction in trains stopping at Penrith from 24 southbound and 25 northbound in December 2007 to 19 in both directions in December 2008 is not good for Penrith, the county, the environment or train travellers.

I shall give the Minister the timetable that we would like. For southbound services, we would like the 17.40 from Glasgow to Euston, which will whizz through Penrith at approximately 19.03, to stop at Penrith. We would like the 13.40 from Glasgow to Euston to stop at about 15.03. That would plug the five-hour gap. If nothing else comes out of this debate—if we cannot get our four trains stopping—we must have the 13.40 from Glasgow stop at Penrith at about 3 o’clock for a couple of minutes. Even I can board in one minute; I am sure that my fitter constituents can get on even faster. We need the 16.00 from Glasgow to Birmingham to stop at Penrith at about 17.22 so Penrith commuters can return. We need the 18.52 from Edinburgh to Birmingham to stop at Penrith at approximately 20.20. That is the last train from Edinburgh to Birmingham, and it would plug a two-hour gap.

As for trains heading north from London or Birmingham, we would like the 06.20 from Birmingham to Edinburgh to stop at Penrith at approximately 08.50, please. It would provide an early service to Edinburgh and an additional commuter service to Carlisle. We would like the 08.00 from Manchester airport to Edinburgh to stop at Penrith at approximately 09.48. All other airport services stop, and it would be an excellent additional service. We would like the 17.30 from London Euston to Glasgow, a very important train, to stop at Penrith at approximately 20.33. It would be an important returning train for business people, who would be able to conclude business in London by half-past 4 and catch that train home. Otherwise, they will have to take diabolically late trains. We would like the 16.00 Manchester airport to Edinburgh train to stop at Penrith at approximately 17.50.

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Those are all our demands for the timetable. I am not asking for four additional services; I am asking that the services that we have should not be cut. We all support the improvements to the west coast main line, and we read in the headlines that one day a Eurostar from Glasgow will whizz through London—one will be able to board at Glasgow and not get off until it arrives in Paris, and enjoy the nightlife and the clubs. Some of us in Penrith would like to board that train occasionally, as well. We are not asking for ludicrous services or making unreasonable demands; we are saying that our county is in dire straits. It is one of the poorest performing areas. We need fast train services to London, but more importantly, we need reliable ones. We need train services that are not delayed unreasonably. We need trains that stop, giving our business people a good, reliable service. I appreciate that the Minister will not be able to give me those assurances today, but I hope that in the coming months, he and his officials will consider the proposed timetables carefully and conclude that they are not good for Cumbria, the environment, rail travellers or our future rail strategy.

David Taylor (in the Chair): I note the Minister’s early arrival, 30 minutes ahead of the published timetable.

1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Thank you for pointing that out, Mr. Taylor. I was just so keen to speak under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) on securing the debate. I am glad that he does not expect me to be able to say yes to all his demands. When he finally finished listing them, I felt like shouting out, “Is that all?”. However, he is doing what any conscientious Member of Parliament should do in the circumstances, which is to lobby for his constituents’ interest.

I can undertake to meet with the right hon. Gentleman, as I have met with many of our colleagues from all parties, to discuss any specific reservations or concerns that he has. What I cannot do—I am sure he would not expect me to—is give an undertaking at this point that we can accommodate all his requests. I have said on many occasions that the Government do not write timetables, and neither do civil servants in my Department, and I want to keep it that way. If we veered into that area, I expect that his party would criticise us, and rightly so.

I shall try to answer two or three specific points before moving on to my main comments. The right hon. Gentleman has pre-empted many of them, as he knows rail services extremely well, but he might be interested to know that at 4 o’clock today in Committee Room 8, the all-party group on the west coast main line will meet with Chris Gibb, managing director of Virgin Trains, and Tony Collins, its chief executive, to discuss Pendolino trains. The right hon. Gentleman might receive more in-depth answers to some of his questions from Virgin Trains itself. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has been closely involved not only in the all-party group, but in lobbying me and the Department for Transport about services in Carlisle.

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that the west coast main line upgrade is an extremely important venture. Some £8 billion of public money has been spent on securing Britain’s main rail artery, and I appreciate his comments welcoming that investment. Britain’s railways today are a success story, with performance improving significantly over recent years as Network Rail and train operators have sharpened their focus on punctuality and reliability. Investment is at record levels, and after years of managing decline, the industry is dealing with unprecedented growth in demand for rail travel. The Government are giving high priority to providing additional capacity through additional carriages and new infrastructure.

The west coast route modernisation project is about renewing and upgrading the key main rail line in the United Kingdom. It links some key populations of the country. It must accommodate not only many long-distance passenger trains, but, as the right hon. Gentleman correctly stated, numerous local and regional passenger services. It also handles 40 per cent. of the nation’s rail freight business. The work of rebuilding has to take place on a live railway. Nevertheless, I believe that it is a success story.

The work is being led by the Government to ensure not only that the route can deal with today’s traffic, but that future demands for rail travel are taken into account. The infrastructure work is being delivered by Network Rail, and the train plan operators deliver the services. This is about spending more than £8 billion of public money to provide a railway that is safe, allows trains to operate reliably and has headroom for growth in both passenger and freight traffic. Capacity is being provided for an 80 per cent. increase in long-distance passenger trains, and between 60 and 70 per cent. in freight traffic.

An important feature of the west coast route modernisation is to secure the best return for taxpayers on the investment. I suspect that that goes to the heart of the problem that we are discussing. Modernisation will also ensure that rail contributes the maximum to the overall transport network of the country. It is about getting passengers to use rail in preference to other modes of transport, and experience to date indicates that that is being achieved. However, some difficult choices have to be made.

One of those choices is about allocating such resources where they can deliver the best possible service. It should be noted that, as well as the new Pendolino fleet, the Government have initiated the drafting in of 19 additional tilting 125 mph diesel Voyager trains, the use of five new TransPennine diesel trains and the delivery of 30 additional 100 mph electric trains. Much of the new timetable being planned for December 2008 is focused on the optimal use of those resources, the efficient deployment of which is vital to deliver seats for the rapid traffic growth that we expect. The longer-distance services will be able to run much faster, and much effort is going into ensuring that the weekend services will, at long last, be similar to those for weekdays—but not any time soon.

Passenger traffic on the west coast main line has continued to grow since the introduction of the revised timetables in September 2004. Overall, there has been
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an increase well in excess of 50 per cent., and in some cases the growth has amounted to 80 per cent. Our prediction is that there will be a trebling of long-distance revenue between 2003 and 2012, with the route generating about £1 billion in annual revenue. Additional business has been generated at many stations along the west coast route, including at Penrith. However, Penrith itself is not a high-earning station, nor is its business likely to grow significantly compared to that of other locations on the line. Put simply, the opportunities for growth are much greater elsewhere.

It might help if I describe the situation at Penrith. There are 24 southbound and 25 northbound services throughout the day. They are provided by Virgin West Coast and First TransPennine Express. Of the southbound trains, nine head for London. Typical journey times outside peak hours are just over three hours and 30 minutes, although morning peak trains tend to take about four hours as some weekday engineering work prevents full speed from being achieved on the line near Penrith.

Eight trains a day operate to Birmingham, typically taking about two hours and 45 minutes. The remaining services are for Manchester airport, and they operate every two or three hours. There are more local journey opportunities, with trains calling at Penrith then calling at some of or all these stations—Oxenholme, Lancaster and Preston .

Northbound, 15 trains operate to Glasgow, with a typical journey time of one hour and 40 minutes or more. Eight trains operate to Edinburgh, with a travel time a few minutes longer than that to Glasgow. The remaining trains terminate at Carlisle. All trains that call at Penrith also call at Carlisle.

The new timetables are being planned for introduction in 12 month’s time to take advantage of the completion of the west coast route modernisation project. They are designed around the constraints of rolling stock availability and getting the most out of the new infrastructure. In particular, for the first time, the services will start to become competitive with air travel from London and Birmingham to Glasgow, and from Birmingham to Edinburgh. Compared with pre-upgrade times, there will be reductions of some 80 minutes on Anglo-Scottish journey times.

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about journey times, although we might have to disagree on their importance. One aspect of his speech was about the environment and persuading people to use trains rather than cars—in his case, travelling on the A66 to Darlington. It is my strongly held view that a key way to encourage people to use long-distance rail services is to make those services competitive and attractive as against air travel. A reduction of between 60 and 80 minutes in the time that it takes to travel from Glasgow to London on the west coast main route would pose a serious challenge to the airlines. I hope the right hon. Gentleman welcomes that.

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