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29 Oct 2008 : Column 1006

Why has the direct link not yet been put in place? I never supported rail privatisation and still do not. Some of the private operators, such as the First group, have done nothing to improve the lot of the passenger, but the system is in place and we need to make the best use of it. One of the few benefits of privatisation is the open-access policy that allows private operators to tender for services. Places such as Hull and Wrexham have benefited, and I want the same rail boost for Halifax.

Quite simply, Halifax needs a direct train service to London if we are to encourage people out of their cars and on to the train. A direct rail link would also help to promote business growth in the town as Halifax is now a key rail centre, with more than 1 million passengers using rail services there every year.

A direct rail link to London would also attract inward investment across the wider west Yorkshire region. That has been recognised locally: Grand Union’s proposals are in line with the regeneration initiatives of Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency, and with many local and regional transport plans. If any town deserved to be put on the mainline rail map, it is Halifax.

Unfortunately, the process by which routes are given a green light is too slow and time consuming. The Government and the rail regulator should do much more to encourage and allow operators such as Grand Union to run services from Halifax, Bradford and other towns to London.

As I said earlier, it is over two years since the first application was put in by Grand Union to run services but, unfortunately, it was rejected. Since then, the company has worked hard to put forward new plans. The timetables are in place, the paths are available, the rolling stock is ordered and ready to go, so what is the delay? Well, the submission is at the rail regulator as we speak, and I hope that the Minister will indicate in his reply that the Government are generally supportive of the proposals.

Quite simply, the proposal needs the green light, and the timing for Halifax would be ideal. As the economy bites, it would be a welcome shot in the arm for the town. Feasibility studies have shown the economic and social benefits it would bring. The railway station is due for a facelift, with new investment plans in place. Local people want a direct service, as does the business community, and studies show the economic and social benefits that a direct link to London would bring to the town.

The second-largest employer in Halifax is HBOS, about which we have all heard lots recently. It faces an uncertain future, but I remain confident that jobs will be secured and that the core of its business will remain in Halifax. Yesterday, I received a letter from the bank’s general manager, outlining HBOS’s support for the direct rail link. He said:

The support of HBOS is welcome; the bank’s is not a lone voice among the business community in Halifax. I have spoken with business owners, such as Roger Harvey, of Harvey’s department store, and many others, who said they would use the service to commute to London. They have also told me about the attractions a direct rail link to London would offer their customers and
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investors. We need only look at the early success of the service from Wrexham and the profile it has given north Wales to see the benefits of direct rail services for medium-sized towns.

In a week when a report outlined that not enough has been done to promote rail growth and capacity increases over the past year, I would welcome an indication from my hon. Friend the Minister about what the Government will do to encourage and support applications such as the Grand Union bid. One of the biggest problems in driving forward the plans is the pressure from other operators to have applications turned down. Since the privatisation of the railways there has been a similar scenario to the one that occurred after bus privatisation: major operators win their tenders on the back of competition, but they frown on anyone competing with them.

There is an interesting paradox. When routes become available on the east coast main line, the major operators raise objections to the proposals. The message seems to be, “Get your hands off our territory.” If National Express is so worried about the possible success of a Bradford-Halifax-London link, it should have applied to run the service. The company’s position is somewhat contradictory. It will not run services from Halifax and Bradford, but is worried about the effect such services might have on its existing core route—an admission that there is market potential.

The rail regulator should look beyond narrow self-interest when the decision is made, and consider the facts, which are simple. There is enough identified capacity on the east coast main line to suit everyone. Everything is in place to give the Bradford to Halifax service the green light. About 40 years ago, Halifax had a direct rail link to London and today, more than ever, we need that link to be restored. Everything is in place to go and Grand Union’s visionary plans deserve to be accepted. As we move through the 21st century, rail will be the answer to many of the questions about how to tackle congestion. There are already plans to provide new direct rail links to London for thousands of people throughout west Yorkshire, so it will be baffling and bizarre if those excellent service proposals are turned down.

The return of the golden age of railways can be achieved if only the decision makers show some vision. I urge the Office of Rail Regulation to ignore false arguments from rival operators and to recognise the economic, social and investment benefits of Grand Union’s plans. Now is the time to get the proposals out of the sidings, give them the green light and get places such as Halifax back on the main line map for good.

7.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) on securing the debate and providing the House with an opportunity to discuss rail services on the east coast main line.

I recognise the fervour with which my hon. Friend put the case for Halifax. She is absolutely right to say that we want the best use of the infrastructure. We want to give people the choice of getting off the roads and on to rail, and the Government are giving them those opportunities through the investment of about £88 million
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every week that we are making in our rail system. Of course, my hon. Friend will recognise that there are many competing demands on slots, and we want to make sure that they are used in the most practical way; as she suggested, we want to make the best use of infrastructure.

The east coast main line is an exceptionally valuable asset in the national transport system. It provides the fastest surface transport between London, the Yorkshire and Humber region, north-east England and Edinburgh. It also provides a key route to London from the east midlands and the east of England—two of the fastest growing regions in England. It is of vital importance for freight, particularly as part of the link from major ports to distribution centres in large conurbations, and to coal-fired power stations.

The east coast main line also supports a long-distance passenger franchise, National Express East Coast, to which my hon. Friend referred. It pays a substantial— and growing—premium to the Government, thereby reducing the taxpayer support needed for the railway as a whole. The challenges faced by the railway industry on the east coast route are principally associated with the volume of traffic and the reliability of services. Growth in the next 10 years is expected to be substantial in almost all the markets served by that route.

My hon. Friend referred to a return to the golden era of the railways. In the past 10 years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of passenger miles travelled on the rail network; the number has reached exceptional levels. That is because of the investment made, and the work that we have done with operating companies and others who deliver the services. Passenger demand for rail has been growing strongly due to a combination of factors, including economic growth in particular. On many routes, including the east coast, that growth has been stimulated by additional services and ticketing initiatives developed by the train operators to encourage off-peak travel.

The most significant use of long-distance passenger trains is for business and leisure travel to and from London. The high number of passengers travelling between London and cities such as Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh is due to the size and significance of those major conurbations; the transport links between them are of national economic importance. Other cities that attract large numbers of visitors include York and Durham. The locations of stations on the east coast route—the stations are typically close to city centres—makes rail particularly competitive for journeys from one city centre to another, even from London to Edinburgh.

There is also demand for long-distance, high-speed services to London from many stations that serve towns and cities not directly on the east coast line, such as Halifax, Lincoln, Grimsby, Hull, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Harrogate, Skipton, Bradford and Huddersfield. All those towns and cities can potentially be served either by direct train services or by connecting services from stations on the main route. The question that the Office of Rail Regulation rightly has to answer, given the number of proposals from several train operators, is which towns should be served by direct trains, and which by connections.

My hon. Friend referred to the work done in February this year, when Network Rail published its route utilisation strategy for the east coast main line. The strategy,
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compiled with the assistance of industry parties and other key stakeholders, considered the current and future freight and passenger markets, and assessed the future growth of each. It then sought to show how that growth could be accommodated effectively and efficiently, and proposed measures ranging from the lengthening of trains to the provision of additional infrastructure. The route utilisation strategy recommended that additional long-distance, high-speed passenger services should run to and from King’s Cross, in both the peak and off-peak hours. That strategy is expected to cater adequately for forecast growth in passenger demand at least until the end of the route utilisation strategy study period in 2016.

In the longer term, increasing train capacity through the use of the new, high-capacity inter-city express trains, and increasing network capacity by the roll-out of 21st century signalling technology in the form of the European rail traffic management system, might create the potential to deliver a doubling of capacity. However, it will be several years before those enhancements can be delivered, and the Government therefore believe that it is necessary to develop and implement an improved timetable in the shorter term, using essentially the current infrastructure.

We recognise that any increase in service frequency in advance of infrastructure enhancements is likely to be limited to the off-peak periods when the performance impact of such an increase can be largely offset by improvements to the structure of the timetable, including the adoption of a regular repeating service pattern. Owing to the significance of the route, it is especially important that Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation should take particular care to ensure that the trains and train operators granted access to run on the route should be the ones that will make the best use of it, and make the greatest contribution to the economic health of the regions that the route serves—a point mentioned by my hon. Friend—and to the financial health of the railway system.

I shall take a few moments to outline the process by which those decisions are reached and will be shortly concluded. Simultaneously with the publication of Network Rail’s rail utilisation strategy in February, the Office of Rail Regulation sought from train operators—freight and passenger, franchised and non-franchised—forecasts of the number of additional train paths they would need to satisfy their business aspirations over the next few years. Sixteen train operators provided substantive responses, including Grand Northern, which applied for six return weekday paths between Bradford and King’s Cross and four at weekends; Grand Central, which applied for an additional daily path to Sunderland; Hull Trains, which applied for four daily services between Harrogate and King’s Cross via York; and National Express East Coast, which applied for a fifth path each hour, running in alternate hours to Lincoln and to York. In addition, several freight operators registered expectations of additional long-distance traffic flows, and a new passenger operator, Platinum Trains, has subsequently applied to run two trains per day to and from Aberdeen, running non-stop between Edinburgh and London.

The ORR has sensibly decided to consider all those aspirations for long-term capacity together and has put in hand the detailed analysis of the various plans necessary before it can be in a position to determine the best
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long-term allocation of capacity. It is recognised that many of the prospective operators will need to invest large sums of money, particularly in rolling stock, so they need time to plan ahead and assurances that they will be able to operate the services for a reasonable number of years.

Accordingly, the ORR asked Network Rail to produce a capacity and performance report analysing the various aspirations against available capacity. That report was published on 26 September this year and set out the extent to which the stated requirements of all operators, including freight, can be met; the level of flexing to existing rights, and changes to the existing timetable, that would be required to meet operators’ stated requirements; and the likely impact of such changes on reliability and punctuality. Network Rail’s report demonstrates conclusively that it is possible to produce a satisfactory timetable that can include six passenger services and one freight service every hour, and that such a timetable is not inconsistent with an acceptable level of future performance. The report recognises that there are many ways in which the detailed content of the timetable might be constructed, but it does not identify the optimum timetabling solution; nor does it assess the impact on services on the routes that adjoin the east coast main line.

Many of the uncertainties could be resolved if the ORR were to reach a preliminary decision on its preferred option for the allocation of capacity. Such a decision would be based on economic analysis and other high-level considerations such as the impact on future major investment in the east coast main line. Such a preliminary decision would be possible in a relatively short period without the production of a full timetabling solution, and it would enable the ORR to make its final decisions with a sound understanding of the practical considerations. However, the ORR has a substantial task in reaching even a preliminary decision, because that involves a careful balancing of its statutory duties. It has to promote the use of the railway network in Great Britain for the carriage of passengers and goods, and the development of that railway network, to the greatest extent that it considers economically practicable; to promote competition; to enable persons providing railway services to plan the future of their businesses; and to have regard to the funds that are available.

I recognise the issues that my hon. Friend has raised as regards Halifax. Of course, some of them can be accommodated in various ways, but opening access and providing the services that she is looking for would require a substantial amount of work and involves need to find opportunities in the context of limited capacity—even though there is increased capacity available—to meet the aspirations of all those who seek to run additional services.

In conclusion, those are just some of the matters that the ORR will need to take into account in the assessment that it is making, which is due shortly. It needs to make the decision on the basis of the various applications that it has before it. I have no doubt that of the 10 cities and towns that I listed, some will gain new direct London trains in the next two years, but I suspect that they cannot all be successful. I recognise the case that is being put forward for Halifax and the obvious hard work and commitment of my hon. Friend in seeking those direct services. Equally, I have no doubt that she is aware of the complexities that exist. As she recognised,
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this is not a simple matter, because of the complexities involved in getting the best out of the infrastructure that we have. She will also know, however, that we are putting substantial resources into increasing capacity now and in future, and that is part of the work that is being undertaken by Network Rail and the rail industry.

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I support increased capacity and increased rail opportunities throughout the length and breadth of the country. I recognise my hon. Friend’s commitment to Halifax and congratulate her on securing this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eight o’clock.

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