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12 Dec 2007 : Column 96WH—continued

The Nuneaton Train Rail Users Group—I should probably call it “TRUG” to make it easier to say—has also supported the campaign against the reduction in services. I express my gratitude and respect for the group’s analysis of current operations, which the
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Minister has received. I entirely agree with the group that the loading figures that the Minister and the Department have been given are incorrect. I do not know what the local authorities will do about that but, frankly, if the new timetable goes ahead on those incorrect figures, it might well be challenged in the courts. The figures for the proposals are inaccurate.

I must declare an interest. As you know, Mr. Benton, we sometimes share a train when you go back to Liverpool. I sometimes wave you goodbye when the train moves on from Nuneaton, and I would like the opportunity to continue to make such journeys. Since 1992, when I was elected, I have used the train 98 per cent. of the time to come to and go from London to do my duties as a Member of Parliament. We all know of times when we have had to go to our constituencies at a moment’s notice—something urgent such as a murder, or a serious fire or flood could happen, and we must travel back. I will not be able to do that in future.

The alternative to the current services would be to use a very inferior slow train from London, which might take me first to Crewe and so on. Such a journey would take one hour and 45 minutes, as opposed to the hour it takes at the moment. I do not decry the new services—I welcome them because they will give us a better link to Northampton and other areas such as Crewe and Stafford—but Nuneaton also requires fast trains. I could travel by train from Euston up to Coventry, which takes an hour, but the journey would have to be finished by motor car, which would not be good for our green credentials. The changes will make the Government Whips very unhappy: I will need to spend longer outside the House, off-duty, than I would spend in it, because of the long journey times.

I should underline Nuneaton’s uniqueness. It is on the Trent valley route for the west coast main line and, as I said, serves a fast north-south route, not only for my constituents, but for those of the Minister for Pensions Reform, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), whose constituency neighbours mine. The station serves members of the wider community and locality as a quick north-south route. I must say that I did not realise how many people from around the area use Nuneaton as a hub to make journeys to London and elsewhere until this matter came up. In fact, some have moved from London and the south to come to my part of the midlands and commute quickly and safely to London.

To underline that point, I shall give some figures. Nuneaton is a community of 120,700 people, and we could add 30,000 people around the area who use Nuneaton’s good rail links. The latter are a major group of people who reside along and use the Trent valley section of the west coast main line. I would suggest that there are more in that group than passengers from Stafford. The neighbouring town of Rugby, which I love dearly—part of Rugby borough is in my constituency—has a population of only 90,000, yet it will have a fast hourly service to London from the Birmingham-Coventry loop.

Looking at the proposed timetables, I see that Rugby will also have an hourly service from the Trent valley route—amazing. We are talking about a catchment area whose population is considerably less than that of Nuneaton
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and the surrounding area, which does not get any trains going south to north at all until after the peak and gets only four trains a day coming back down, which is in the morning peak. However, the town of Rugby gets a service of two trains an hour down to London. There is something out of kilter there.

That said, I hope that I bring the Minister good news; it is certainly breaking news. The all-party west coast main line group had a presentation given to it yesterday called “Delivering West Coast Growth”. The presentation was by Chris Gibb, managing director of Virgin West Coast, and Tony Collins, chief executive of Virgin Trains. I do not quarrel with the principle of what they are trying to achieve in producing faster links from Manchester and Liverpool back down to London. I do not disagree with the view that it will be better for the environment if people travel that way sooner, rather than catch a plane. It has been proven how attractive those trains are already—they are pretty full and well used. I imagine that some flights from Manchester or Liverpool to London, if they still exist, have lost business to the train. That is to be welcomed.

I am quite happy about the proposed three-trains-an-hour service to Manchester and the two-trains-an-hour service to Liverpool. However, I have vented my anger to the Minister on many occasions about the proposed reductions and I have to say that Mr. Collins was not free of that anger either when I started questioning him closely. He said—do not take my word for it; I have asked the secretary of the group to send a letter to the Minister to verify what he said—that Virgin Trains would be quite happy to stop one of the two hourly trains to Liverpool at Nuneaton. I think that that is the breakthrough that we need, and I hope it is the breakthrough that the Minister and his officials need.

Virgin has said that it is quite prepared to do that. If it fits in with the timetable and the rest of the timetabling, I think that yesterday’s meeting—and, I hope, today’s debate—ensure that my constituents and all the user groups that I represent get nothing less than what they deserve, which is a fast hourly service north and south.

11.13 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) on securing the debate and on his tenacious lobbying over the past weeks and months. He referred to that in his closing remarks and it is true that there have been occasions in the Lobby and in the Tea Room on which, hoping for a quiet, relaxing cup of tea or hoping to go through the Lobby unhindered, I have met my hon. Friend, who never loses an opportunity to lobby me on an issue that I know he feels extremely strongly about. I understand that. If his lobbying me and Virgin Trains has resulted in the good news that he has just announced, that is of course very good news for him. I will certainly look into the matter to try to confirm what Virgin Trains has told him. If what he says is indeed the case, he should be congratulated because he is one of the most energetic campaigners on train services in the House.

The west coast route modernisation project is about renewing and upgrading the key main rail line of the
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United Kingdom. It links some of the key populations of the country. It must accommodate not only many long-distance passenger trains, but 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, but it is a success story. We are 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 80 per cent. more long-distance passenger trains and between 60 and 70 per cent. more freight traffic.

My hon. Friend will understand that an important feature of west coast route modernisation is to secure the best return for taxpayers on the investment being made in modernising the route. We also want to ensure that rail contributes the maximum possible to the overall transport network in the country. We aim to get passengers to use rail in preference to other modes of transport, and experience to date shows that that is being achieved. Forecasts indicate a trebling of customers on the route over the eight years from 2003 to 2012, but—this “but” will not make my hon. Friend particularly happy—some difficult choices have to be made. That includes allocating such resources where they can deliver the best possible service.

I was encouraged by my hon. Friend’s comment that he recognises the need to get the best value for the public out of the west coast route modernisation. He accepts that we must provide better journey times if we are to provide a rail service that will compete with domestic air travel. However, it is inevitable that, where cutting the time that a train journey takes leads to the removal of certain stops along the way, the local MP and local communities in those locations will object. I challenge my hon. Friend to name a single hon. Member who would welcome a cut in services at their local stations. Of course they would not.

Mr. Olner: The Minister is right about that, but I highlighted the vast difference in service, should the proposed changes go ahead, that the more heavily populated area of Nuneaton will receive compared with that for the much less populated area of Rugby, which will have a fast train to London every half an hour throughout the day. There is not a lot of fairness in that, and it is the fairness of the decisions that I think is important.

Mr. Harris: I understand my hon. Friend’s point; let me make two points in response. First, Rugby provides two and a half times the traffic that Nuneaton does. It is a vastly busier station, which has two and a half times the footfall of Nuneaton. Secondly, I simply do not accept my hon. Friend’s contention that the rail service that the people of Nuneaton will receive following the December 2008 timetable changeover will no longer be good. It will continue to be very good, with extra connectivity to other parts of the United Kingdom that is certainly not there at the moment. I will return to the situation in Nuneaton in more detail.

It should be noted that, despite the drafting in of 17 additional tilting 125-mph diesel Voyager trains and the delivery of 30 additional 100-mph electric trains, much of the new timetable being planned for
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December 2008 focuses on the optimal use of the resources. Passenger traffic on the west coast line has continued to grow since the introduction of the revised timetables in September 2004. Overall, there has been an increase of well over 50 per cent., and in some cases the growth has been 80 per cent. By 2012, revenue is expected to have trebled to £1 billion a year, compared with £330 million in 2003-04.

Additional business has been generated at many stations along the west coast route, including Nuneaton. However, Nuneaton is simply not a high-earning station or one where business is likely to grow significantly when compared to other locations on that line. Quite simply, the opportunities for growth are much greater elsewhere.

Currently, an hourly train service between Nuneaton and London is provided by Virgin Trains. Those journeys take one hour and 15 minutes. In December 2008, the London peak and business traffic, which is by far the key flow to London from Nuneaton, will be largely unaffected with a good train service being retained and accelerated to a standard journey time of 56 to 62 minutes for the 97 miles. That is a faster journey time, giving an average speed of more than 100 mph, and will be one of the fastest commuter services in Europe.

The services operated are therefore expected to provide for the vast proportion of the customers between Nuneaton and London. Those fast links will apply at approximately hourly intervals in the morning peak southbound and in the evening northbound. As return travel habits tend to be more diffuse, the fast trains to Nuneaton will continue at approximately hourly intervals throughout the evening from London.

New 100-mph Desiro electric trains will be serving Nuneaton hourly throughout the day as part of a new west coast semi-fast service—not a slow service—providing regular links from London via Nuneaton to a wide range of locations that have previously been inaccessible or severely restricted. Overall, there will be 16 southbound and 18 northbound through-trains to and from London. For example, Northampton, Rugby, Tamworth, Lichfield and Stoke-on-Trent will have new links from Nuneaton at regular hourly intervals. Those trains will operate hourly between Nuneaton and London, but there will also be fast connection opportunities to and from London, changing at Rugby, with a journey time of 73 minutes northbound and 70 minutes southbound.

During the modernisation work, Saturday and Sunday services have indeed been disrupted throughout the west coast main line, not just at Nuneaton. That will be rectified with the new timetables and the provision of weekend services similar to those on the Monday to Friday timetables and will not be interrupted with prolonged engineering activity. I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome that, as do I as a regular user of the Glasgow to Euston service.

There has been extensive consultation over the timetables. The plans were originally contained in the west coast main line progress report, published in May 2006, and more recently in a timetable consultation exercise co-ordinated by the Department for Transport. Although it is normally the task of operators to undertake any consultation exercise, the Department led with this work to present the complete picture of key services over the whole route. The information has
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been shared widely with numerous stakeholders, including Members of the House of Lords, Members of Parliament, passenger transport executives, regional bodies, local authorities, Passenger Focus, rail user groups and, most importantly, passengers.

The new timetables have been designed deliberately to maximise earnings and achieve the most from all available rolling stock. That is about serving stations that have the potential for passenger growth. The improvement in frequency and the range of stations, such as at Wilmslow, which will have fast trains between the north-west and London, is, among other objectives, aimed at finally reversing this trend.

Those representing the Merseyside region have expressed strong support for the accelerated and more frequent links with London. They gain an average of 25 minutes on their hourly London link as a result of the changes to stopping patterns, including the transfer of Nuneaton to the new Desiro service.

Mr. Olner: One of my claims is that the loading figures that the Minister and his Department have on Nuneaton are wrong. If he looks at the train user group’s figures, he will see that there is a vast difference. I contend that Nuneaton is still a growing area and still very much part of the enlargement of the west midlands. However, if the fast hourly trains are removed, that will slow down any growth that Nuneaton might want to get. He talks about Desiro services, but those will serve Rugby and go to London.

Mr. Harris: I think that this may be one point on which my hon. Friend and I will not agree during this short debate. I hope that he will not take this the wrong way, but he obviously has it in for Rugby.

Mr. Olner: No.

Mr. Harris: I mean that as a joke, of course. However, as far as my figures are concerned—my hon. Friend may dispute them—Rugby produces two and a half times more traffic than Nuneaton. Presented with a bald fact like that, it is difficult to sustain the argument that Nuneaton should have a better service than Rugby. He and I may have to agree to disagree about the validity and robustness of the passenger numbers that we have used to inform the exercise, but I am aware of the point that he has made to me personally in the past. I would be happy to take the rail user group’s figures to my officials and ask them to have another look, if he feels that that would be helpful.

The Government and Virgin Trains have no interest in deliberately ignoring a potential market for train usage. From Virgin’s point of view, from a commercial perspective, doing so would be self-destructive and pointless. From the Government’s point of view, we have no interest in fixing the figures so that a growing town receives fewer services. Surely my hon. Friend will accept that we all have a vested interest in ensuring that the new rail services—the best possible rail services—are engineered to address where the market is. I hope that he is not suggesting that we are deliberately ignoring Nuneaton in any way.

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Mr. Olner: I thank the Minister for giving way again. I am certainly not accusing him of that.

Just to set the record straight, I am not lobbying on behalf of Nuneaton at Rugby’s expense. I am certainly not doing that at all, because I have constituents who reside in the Rugby catchment area. I am saying that a town and area the size of Nuneaton deserves at least an hourly service. Perhaps I am doing the good old trade union thing of making comparisons. I have to say that the comparison between the number of trains that stop at Rugby and go to London and those that will now be stopping at Nuneaton to go to Rugby is vastly disproportionate. That is the only point that I am making.

Mr. Harris: I understand my hon. Friend’s point. Perhaps there is a Catch-22 situation here. If more services are provided to an area that has not grown so far, will that be a spur to growth and increase patronage, or do we provide services in areas where growth has already been proven to happen? We are adopting the second approach. Perhaps I should clarify what I said earlier about the business generated by Rugby. In terms of revenue, from Virgin’s own figures, Rugby produces two and a half times more income or revenue than Nuneaton.

The recently published Eddington study highlighted the importance of addressing inter-urban travel and the key role that rail would play. However, this is also a matter of allocating rail resources to areas where the best contribution can be achieved. It is worth reminding ourselves of the situation at Nuneaton. The London peak traffic is largely unaffected: there are different departure times, but with such a substantial change to all services along the route, that is unavoidable. However, I am not aware of any situation where such a long lead time has been provided so that passengers can plan accordingly.

In the off-peak periods, there is still a good train service. Some have dismissed it as unsuitable, but I strongly disagree. The service will be operated by quality trains with a high standard of reliability. Although it is slower than the Pendolino service, as my hon. Friend said correctly, many off-peak passengers are not so time-critical with their journeys, and a direct service to and from London, and many more destinations, will still be available. I accept that in some cases a change of train will be necessary, but such flows are small in number.

With the 690,000 passengers a year who use Nuneaton station, it is likely that there will still be an increase in the London traffic. Some 157,000 passengers used Virgin west coast services to or from London in 2006-07 and the overwhelming majority are expected to use the remaining Virgin Pendolino services, given their attractive timing for commuters and business users. About one third are expected to transfer to the new London Midland Desiro services. Weekend travel from Nuneaton to London is expected to grow substantially as the periods of prolonged engineering work terminate. Although Nuneaton would see a reduction in fast trains, it is far from isolated. A change in train service is not likely to impact adversely on the economy of the town or the catchment area of the station.

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I thank my hon. Friend again for the constructive, though very resilient, way that he has lobbied on this issue. If he has achieved some concession from Virgin Trains, I shall certainly welcome that and try to confirm it in writing to him in the next few days.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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