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10.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on securing this debate so soon after I responded in his earlier Adjournment debate on the A417. This is an important issue for his constituents and for rail users, especially those travelling on the Great Western main line. I also extend a welcome to other colleagues, particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew).

Our railways are experiencing record numbers of passenger journeys and levels of freight. The Government’s unprecedented levels of investment in the network are paying off, and that investment is set to continue. I begin by reminding the hon. Member for Cotswold that far from ignoring the need for crucial strategic investment in the railways, we are meeting our obligation to make record real terms investment in the railways—more than any other previous Government in the history of the railways, either Labour or Conservative.

Last year’s rail White Paper, which set out the high level output specification—HLOS—contained the improvements the Government want to buy over the five years to March 2014, and the money that we will commit to this. Our plans are for the biggest increase in rail capacity in a generation, which will result in a system capable of carrying a 22.5 per cent. increase in
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passenger demand by 2014. That equates to 6 billion additional passenger kilometres each year, and it will also accommodate 34,000 extra high-peak-hour passengers travelling into London each day and 10,000 extra into our other major cities. Some 1,300 additional carriages are being procured to help provide that capacity. We require reliability to improve further, taking the public performance measure from last year’s high of 90 per cent. of passenger trains arriving on time to a new average high of 92.6 per cent across the network. Safety, too, will continue to improve, and we will introduce measures to reduce risks to passengers and workers by 3 per cent over five years.

The Government’s plans are affordable and deliverable, as the independent Office of Rail Regulation has just concluded. I emphasise the word “independent”, because the independence of the ORR is a crucial part of the effectiveness of the rail industry structure. Earlier this month, the ORR published its draft determination of the funds that Network Rail should be allowed for the five years to 2014. It drew on the work that Network Rail and the train operators have done to show how they would deliver HLOS—work that Network Rail published in its November 2007 strategic business plan and updated in April 2008.

The ORR has undertaken a detailed and thorough review and has challenged and tested each element of Network Rail’s industry plan to see whether it is efficient. It has assessed the nature and extent of Network Rail’s enhancement expenditure to determine whether it contributes towards the improved output that the Government want. In its draft determination, the ORR sets out the infrastructure schemes that it considers Network Rail should be funded to deliver. It explains the reasoning behind its conclusions and invites comments. It will take all comments into consideration before publishing its final determination at the end of October.

The Great Western main line, of which the Swindon-Kemble line is part, is expected to benefit from huge investment, as it has expanded to be ready to accommodate the extra 637 million passenger kilometres of journey that we want it to carry by 2014. Longer peak trains will provide for the extra 2,900 peak passengers arriving at London’s Paddington station every morning, and Maidenhead and Twyford station platforms will be extended to cope with them. As the hon. Gentleman said, Reading station and the surrounding rail junctions are to be rebuilt to deliver the increased network capacity required by 2014 and to meet the longer-term passenger and freight requirements at that busy crossroads.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the Minister for his patient explanation, but would he not accept that a more reliable and regular service from Kemble to Swindon would enhance the modifications that he is making from Swindon to Paddington? If an unreliable service feeds into a more reliable service, the latter will be hampered.

Mr. Harris: If the hon. Gentleman will just be patient, I have some positive things to say about the Swindon-Kemble line. I shall get round to them.

In Bristol, train lengthening plans are being developed to provide additional peak commuter capacity. The route between Bristol and Birmingham is to benefit from line speed improvements, to enable faster journey
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times between the cities. In Cardiff, there will be a wide range of track, signal and station improvements to increase the capacity of the local network, with the Welsh Assembly Government contributing to a shared investment in the network that will let more and longer peak trains run.

It is anticipated that our national stations improvement programme will fund improvements at Swindon, Gloucester and five other busy Great Western stations—Slough, Cheltenham, Chippenham, Newbury and Didcot. We plan that our access for all programme will, among other things, improve disabled access at Chippenham and Severn tunnel junction stations on the Great Western line. Station and track works will be undertaken to prepare the Great Western main line for the operation of a new generation of inter-city express trains, with services expected to start in 2016. At the London end of the route, we expect much of the work for Crossrail to be undertaken during the first HLOS period.

Those schemes are all driven by the need to create the capacity and quality needed for the forecast growth in passengers and freight. The Swindon-Kemble line redoubling scheme that the hon. Gentleman supports has been developed more for the performance benefits that it would bring than for the capacity that it would provide. The demand that is forecast on the route can continue to be met by the current train services. Performance on the Great Western line has been so poor that earlier this year, the Government took formal action against the operator, First Great Western, to insist on improvement. In parallel with that, the ORR has warned Network Rail that there must be an improvement in punctuality and reliability or it will consider enforcement action.

A joint performance improvement plan for the route has been developed by Network Rail and First Great Western, and the ORR is overseeing its implementation. Extra carriages are being obtained and additional drivers, guards and technicians recruited to improve reliability. There has been a steady overall improvement in route performance since April. I am cautious at this stage, and a lot remains to be done to ensure that better performance is embedded in the operation and becomes consistent, but the first signs are encouraging.

It is in that context that the ORR has had to consider the two track redoubling schemes for Great Western routes put forward by Network Rail as candidates for investment in the HLOS period. Network Rail offered both the Swindon-Kemble line and the Oxford-Worcester line—the so-called Cotswold line—as optional enhancements in its April strategic business plan update to the Office of Rail Regulation.

The Cotswold scheme involves partial redoubling between Oxford and Worcester to deliver performance benefits on the Cotswold line and consequential improvements along the Thames valley. It is calculated that the Cotswold redoubling would bring First Great Western performance to more than 90 per cent.—closer to the 92 per cent. performance requirement sought from long-distance routes in 2014 under high level outputs.

The ORR heard evidence from the rail industry on both redoubling schemes for the Great Western main line. The train operators and Network Rail identified the Cotswold line as the preferred scheme, and not enough evidence was submitted to make the case for both schemes going ahead. The ORR’s draft determination—I
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stress that it is only a draft determination—is that Network Rail should be funded to redouble the Cotswold line.

That is welcome news for the Cotswold line, and it should bring significant benefits for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and the wider group of users of the Great Western main line. Network Rail plans to undertake the work early in the HLOS period, commissioning the enhanced line. It is not a case of choosing the cheapest. Network Rail estimated the cost of the Cotswold line works to be £51 million, against £32 million for Swindon-Kemble. The ORR has chosen the most efficient option and has satisfied itself that, overall, Network Rail is on target to deliver the service performance sought by the Government for 2014.

I recognise the benefits in doubling the Swindon-Kemble route and we have heard several examples tonight from the hon. Member for Cotswold, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). The project would improve performance on the Swindon to Gloucester route and on the Great Western main line. It would reduce the impact on train services to and from south Wales when the Severn tunnel and the route to Bristol Patchway are disrupted. Local and diverted long-distance train services could operate during planned engineering works instead of local services being displaced by diverted long-distance trains.

Journey times would be fractionally improved as trains would not have to slow down for the turnouts into and out of the single track section. There is an aspiration for a new station in north-west Swindon that becomes more practicable if the line is a double track. The extra capacity would make it possible to operate additional local trains, should there be the demand for that.

I understand that the rail industry now intends to develop the case for doubling the Swindon-Kemble line as well as the Cotswold line, and to put that case to the ORR as part of the response to the consultation. Although the ORR has determined that it would not fund Network Rail for projects the primary benefit of which is to improve performance or capacity beyond levels explicitly specified in HLOS, the ORR will take account of the need for a sustainable network plan and the longer-term needs of the railway. There must also be evidence that projects offer value for money. The hon. Member for Cotswold covered that in his comments.

I encourage the hon. Gentleman and the rail industry to take account of those points in commenting to the ORR. At this stage, the case for redoubling the Swindon-Kemble line must be addressed to the ORR.

Mr. Drew: I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend is saying. Will he encourage the ORR to look at modal shift? We are not considering simply a route to London, but an opportunity to get people to work and live along it. Rather than using the car, they can use the train. It is vital to take that into account.

Mr. Harris: That is a valid point in the general debate about achieving modal shift. I caution my hon. Friend against using the modal shift argument to the ORR during the consultation period. My understanding is that ORR will consider the scheme based on the capacity and performance targets that can be achieved in 2014
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rather than on the modal shift. If I am wrong, I will write to my hon. Friend, but I understand that modal shift is not one of the metrics that the ORR would use to determine whether the scheme should receive funding.

I understand the arguments in favour of doubling the Swindon-Kemble line. I will not comment on whether I was disappointed about the decision that the ORR reached in the draft determination, but I will commit my officials to working with the industry to make the case strongly to the ORR that redoubling the line should go ahead.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: What the Minister has just said is very helpful and sounds like good news as far as it goes. I was careful in my speech not to link the Swindon to Kemble line with the fact that the Cotswold line is to be partly redoubled. The Minister seemed to indicate that the performance target of the overall First Great Western area could be achieved by redoubling the Cotswold line. However, let me say to him gently that that line is used by a completely different set of commuters in a completely different part of the country. It would not be fair to the people who use the Kemble to Swindon line if it was knocked out because the Cotswold line was dualled.

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Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman does not have to worry too much about speaking to me gently or otherwise. I am quite happy to be talked to in a less then gentle way by him. I did not want to give the impression that the ORR was faced with an either/or decision on those schemes. The ORR will assess the schemes on their individual merit and on their effect on the performance and capacity of the network as a whole.

As I said at the start, the Government have set out in the HLOS the improvements that we want to buy by 2014 and the money that we will commit to them. Having set the direction, and with the necessary funding, we now look to industry to deliver that. I understand the case that the hon. Gentleman and others have made for the redoubling of the Swindon-Kemble line, but we need to wait for the ORR determination process to finish. There is currently no case for the Swindon-Kemble project to be considered for exceptional funding outside HLOS. However, with the appropriate arguments made and the appropriate data provided to the ORR by the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends, I am confident that the case will be given a proper hearing. The ORR will be making its final determination in October. From my personal perspective, I wish the scheme a fair wind.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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