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19 May 2009 : Column 382WH—continued

Mr. Caton: We must certainly do everything that we can. I usually travel on First Great Western and must admit that some of the journeys I have taken on Arriva
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trains have been better. Much needs to be done to ensure that the service is absolutely reliable. Some of the rolling stock is not up to scratch, which causes problems.

The train times appear to be dictated by the optimal use of the rolling stock, rather than by passenger needs. There are gaps of almost four hours between trains, which are mostly just 72-seat single railcars. The capacity is so low that when a local school recently wanted to send 30 pupils up the line for a study trip, the booking was refused for fear of overcrowding. Some services are little used because of timing. For example, the first northbound train leaves Swansea at 4.36 am and is therefore hardly used for the first half of its journey. The paucity of the service means that even when passengers find that they can get to their destination on time, there is often no suitable train for their return. Sometimes that works the other way around.

The inadequacy of the service results from the inadequacy of the franchise specification. The formula required just a reproduction of the level of service immediately before privatisation. On the Heart of Wales line, the service had just been reduced from five trains to four, so that was put in the franchise.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on promoting his early-day motion on the subject. He gave us a pictorial account of the beauty of this part of Wales. The Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury line is also very beautiful. Does he agree that the Heart of Wales line is particularly important to tourism? Many tourists who arrive in south Wales will attempt to make the journey that he has made on many occasions and will be bewildered at the timetabling and the problems that he has outlined. That is not the way in which Wales should be promoted in the tourism sector.

Mr. Caton: The hon. Gentleman is right. I pay tribute to the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury line because, as he knows, I used to live in Aberystwyth. I thoroughly enjoyed travelling on that line, unless I was in a great hurry, of course. The potential for green tourism on those lines and on the Cambrian coastal line is tremendous, but that is not being exploited well enough. The most underused line is the Heart of Wales line.

As I was saying, the inadequacy of the franchise specification is at the heart of the problem. The service on the Heart of Wales line had just been reduced from five to four trains, so that is what we had in the franchise. In contrast, that other beautiful Welsh line, the Cambrian Coast railway, which serves similar communities, had eight trains a day before privatisation, so its franchise requires that it still has that number—and good for that railway. The four-train timetable of the Heart of Wales line, with the last train leaving each end at about 6 pm, just cannot meet the needs of that, or, indeed, any other, 120-mile route. To confirm what the hon. Gentleman has just said, the director of the mid-Wales regional tourism partnership recently said:

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We need more services, and all the evidence demonstrates that that will require additional resources from the public purse.

Let me pay tribute to all the communities along the line that support and campaign for it, and who show real ownership of the line. I also pay tribute to the Heart of Wales Forum, an umbrella group of providers and users that has worked assiduously, imaginatively and successfully, despite the major obstacles that I have outlined, to promote use of the railway. Let me also recognise the work of the Heart of Wales Line Travellers Association, which has kindly provided me with much of the information that I have used in the debate. More importantly, it has done invaluable work to map out a way forward and campaign for its delivery.

Mark Williams: I know that the association has raised concerns about freight, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Notwithstanding what he has said about the tourism sector, does he see potential for freight on the line? Many of my constituents in the east of Ceredigion, in Tregaron and Llanddewi Brefi, are subjected to a huge number of Forestry Commission vehicles delivering timber from the Tywi forest. Does he see potential to use the line for freight again, as it has historically been used? That would certainly alleviate many of my constituents’ concerns about the problems being experienced on the roads.

Mr. Caton: I agree completely. That would be good for the environment and for supporting the line, and there are particular products—the hon. Gentleman mentions timber—for which that would be totally appropriate. I hope that we can move in that direction.

I draw to the Minister’s attention the main objectives of the strategy that the association produced at the end of last year. The first is to secure, as soon as possible, a fifth train in both directions between Shrewsbury and Swansea from Monday to Saturday. The second is to secure additional evening trains, and the third is to have a two-hourly service running on the line seven days a week by the end of 2011. The fourth objective is to improve facilities at stations, partly through the provision of a real-time information system, improved access and interchange, and, at some stops, personal security. The fifth is to improve infrastructure to allow trains to run faster, and the sixth is to improve the quality of rolling stock for comfort, access to on-train facilities, and—I would add—better visibility, so that views can be properly enjoyed. The seventh is to improve integration with other train and bus services, and the eighth is to ensure that resources are provided so that the management, organisation and development of the route is more appropriate and locally focused. I support those ambitious but realistic objectives.

Clearly, the Welsh Assembly Government have a lead role to play in bringing the line to the standard at which it will fulfil its potential for communities, local businesses and the delivery of beneficial green tourism. However, the line also serves part of England, and its enhancement could have enormous benefits for the border area to the east of Offa’s dyke. I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the problems and at the potential for this wonderful railway line, and to investigate whether the UK Government can work in partnership with the
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Welsh Assembly Government to begin delivering the improvements that are so badly needed, which have been clearly identified.

12.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to him for his work on promoting the Heart of Wales line and taking forward this campaign. I thank him for running through the journey that one can take on this undoubtedly beautiful railway line. I was listening very carefully to the pronunciation of some of the towns so that I could make sure that I will not completely fail in my delivery and insult our good friends in Wales. Whatever prevented the closure of the line and its stations, Harold Wilson was a fine, upstanding gentleman and, of course, a fine Prime Minister—if he prevented it, we thank him for it and put that on the record.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to highlight the attributes and potential of the line, which is undoubtedly one of Britain’s treasures. As my hon. Friend has admirably described, the line winds through the beautiful green, unspoiled landscapes of the 120-mile journey between Swansea and Shrewsbury, and one can stop and see gems such as the interesting towns and villages along the way. The opportunity to stop at wayside halts and stations is a great attraction for tourism, and I have noted the comments of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) about the power and importance of tourism.

Lembit Öpik: Will the Minister give way?

Paul Clark: Having not said a great deal, I shall certainly give way.

Lembit Öpik: I want to ask a general question before the Minister focuses on tourism. Is it in the Government’s strategic plan to consider opening stations to benefit tourist towns such as Carno in my constituency? What is his view about increasing the frequency of services on other lines generally? Is there a strategic objective? We want an hourly service, but what do the Government think about such ideas?

Paul Clark: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the general thrust of our work on railways is to reduce congestion on our main routes. The investment that there has been in infrastructure, including work on lines and electrification, is indicative of longer-term planning, as are the investment in rolling stock that we have announced through the high-level output specification programme, which has been brought forward as part of the fiscal stimulus, and specific rail infrastructure programmes such as high-speed lines. The focus is on dealing with the phenomenal increase in the patronage of railways, in the past 10 or 11 years, of almost 50 per cent., and on managing demand by making sure, first and foremost, that the capacity is there, and then by looking at new lines.

Let me take some time to discuss the Government’s approach to rural lines. We want to get the best value from local and rural railways—that is essential—so we need enterprising thinking about these lines and services.
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That is why we published the “Community Rail Development Strategy”, in 2004, which set out a number of ideas, including ways of reducing costs, increasing revenues and increasing community involvement in those routes. The 2007 White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, re-emphasised and confirmed ongoing support for community rail, and stated our continued commitment to the existing network, with no closures of regional or rural routes in England during the current railway planning period, which runs from this month for the next five years. That is the control period that we are discussing.

At the core of our strategy is the bringing together of a partnership between the railway and the wider community to promote and support their lines. I put on the record our recognition of the work undertaken by the Heart of Wales Line partnership and the Heart of Wales Line Forum. They have been involved in a number of initiatives to help drive patronage of the line and have established an interactive website, produced printed publicity materials and promoted rail access to local businesses. I want to put on the record that I know that active travellers’ associations can work well in that way. Indeed, groups of station friends operate to make stations attractive, approachable and encouraging. Dolau Station Friends—if I have pronounced it correctly—is renowned for its work and has, in fact, won awards. More community involvement is part and parcel of the strategy to which I referred earlier.

Let me turn to the substance of the matter. On frequency timetables and where we are at, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gower is aware, in the 1980s there were some five services a day. At that time, British Rail wanted to reduce costs and so it reduced the frequency to some four services a day, which is the current pattern. Indeed, when the franchise process went forward, the franchise agreement for Arriva Trains Wales was reached exactly on that basis. That agreement was, of course, let by the Strategic Rail Authority.

As my hon. Friend has indicated, responsibility for franchise services on the Heart of Wales line has now been devolved and is entirely a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government. In the discussions that our Department has had with the Deputy First Minister and the Minister for the Economy and Transport in the Welsh Assembly Government, I have been advised that they have included additional Heart of Wales line services in their rail forward programme and that such services have high-ranking potential for early approval, subject to feasibility and business case appraisal. That, of course, is the case across the network for any additional services, whether in Wales or England. I understand that a number of options are under discussion but, as my hon. Friend has rightly recognised, that is a devolved matter for the Assembly.

I have also been advised that the Welsh Assembly Government already fund a second winter Sunday train on the Heart of Wales line. The line has been included in the first two years of the Welsh Assembly Government’s concessionary fares rail pilot scheme, which provides free travel to certain cardholders. I recognise the commitment that has clearly been given by the Welsh Assembly Government, and my hon. Friend will recognise the need for a business case to be made for additional services.

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I shall turn to the issues surrounding infrastructure. For the infrastructure to allow an increase in the number of trains operating and to ensure that the existing line is robust, we need to ensure that some of the passing loops are operational. Most of the track that we are talking about is single line and therefore passing loops are essential in ensuring that the existing line is robust for existing services and, indeed, considering whether there should be an increase in the number of services on that line.

Currently, the Heart of Wales line has five passing loops, which are fitted with self-acting hydraulic points. Network Rail has informed me that it has had to cannibalise—if I may use that terminology—three operating units in order to keep others in use. However, Network Rail intends to restore—it will do this shortly—the operability of three of the loops, and it has funded a programme to renew the hydraulic switch equipment. I am delighted to report that Network Rail has advised the Department that it has undertaken work on the loop at Llandeilo, which will be reinstated in the next few weeks for operation. Network Rail’s commitment to carry out the work to reinstate the passing loops for operational use is welcome and having all five loops ultimately back in use will certainly increase reliability and operational steadfastness. Network Rail’s requirement is to be funded to maintain the steady state of the network in terms of capability and capacity, which obviously includes the lines in Wales.

The independent Office of Rail Regulation is aware of the issues associated with the temporary reduction in the number of passing loops on the single track Heart of Wales line. Indeed, the ORR has informed the Department that it had discussions with Network Rail about its recent approach to maintenance on the line and what Network Rail intends to do differently in the future. The ORR is considering Network Rail’s approach to the Heart of Wales line in the context of a wider assessment of Network Rail’s infrastructure capability programme.

My hon. Friend might be aware that Network Rail is seeking a short-term network change at each of the loops to formalise the current reduced capacity and capability of the infrastructure. Train and freight operators have been notified of that and have the opportunity to appeal to the ORR. I put on the record that both the Department and the Welsh Assembly Government have
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objected in strong terms to the proposed temporary loss of capacity on the line. I wish to make it clear that we believe there would be difficulties in terms of the vulnerability that would be placed on the existing line if anything were to happen at, for example, one of the other points or if there were a need for a redirection of services because of problems elsewhere in the vicinity. As I have indicated, it would be difficult to provide additional services considering the limited capacity in terms of passing loops. Indeed, I believe that special services are, for example, put on for the Royal Welsh flower show. Again, doing so would be difficult without proper provision.

Let me deal with one or two of the other points raised. I notice that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has had to leave but, on the matter he raised, the Cambrian line service from Aberystwyth to Birmingham New Street has recently been extended to Birmingham International. Improving reliability, dealing with the problems at New Street and the opening up of new journeys through to the airport and conference centres for travellers from mid-Wales has been part and parcel of those developments. Improvements have happened in that way. My response to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention reflects my general comments and our overall thrust, which is about improving capacity within existing lines where possible and developing the amount of rolling stock, carriages and units.

On freight, the Welsh Assembly Government have recently published a freight strategy, which includes financial assistance for freight facilities in Wales. Again, that is a devolved matter, but the steps that the Welsh Assembly Government have taken are welcome.

In conclusion, as I said at the beginning, this debate has clearly put on the record the fact that treasure exists in Britain’s railway network. That treasure is, of course, of importance for people going about their business, and, indeed, some of the steps being taken by the forum to promote the use of the line for business are part and parcel of recognising that. The line is also important for the vital issue of tourism. We will continue to maintain close relationships with our counterparts in the Welsh Assembly. Indeed, my noble Friend Lord Adonis met the Deputy First Minister just last week to discuss cross-border rail services. We will continue to work together to ensure that the needs of that railway and of constituents in Wales and the borders are met by a reliable service.

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Dental Services (Oxfordshire)

1 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): It is a pleasure to speak in a debate with you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. As usual for Westminster Hall debates, I have done my best to inform the Minister of the subject matter that I shall raise. I hope that she has received the information.

I want to draw to the Minister’s attention some case studies from my constituency of people who have had difficulty accessing appropriate national health service treatment; that is, treatment that has been recommended following dental diagnosis and which should, as far as I know, be available on the NHS. Not only that, these individuals have felt under pressure to go private, which raises an ethical question about how appropriate it is to restrict access to NHS treatment and then to follow that up with a tempting offer of potentially more successful or significantly more rapid access to private sector treatment.

I recognise that there is NHS and private provision of dentistry and that, sadly, the private provision is more widespread than the NHS provision. I have never understood why one part of the body should have a health service that is more privatised than that for another part of the body. In fact, it is not just teeth; foot care is increasingly privatised, so there is a foot and mouth issue around the increasing privatisation of services, although historically there has been significant private sector involvement in dentistry.

Today is not the day to go into the detail of what I believe even the Government accept has been a failure to provide as much access to NHS dentistry as they would have liked, as citizens and patients deserve, and as successive Prime Ministers have promised. The Government will recognise that they are behind on their targets and that there are still problems.

It is also not the day to go into the detail of the problems of dentistry from the dentists’ point of view. They feel that the way in which the dental contract is organised means that they are constrained in what they can offer on the NHS if they are to make a living, run their business effectively and provide the quality of care that they want to provide. Dentists often say that it is because they cannot provide an adequate quality of care on the NHS that they leave the NHS to go private. It is not simply to increase their income but because they feel uncomfortable about the amount of care that they can give. There may be something in that; if so, it is an indictment of the contractual arrangements that the Government have set up if people get the right payment for NHS work but feel that they are not giving appropriate treatment.

I wanted to flag up those matters at the beginning but, as I said, now is not the appropriate time to go into detail about them. I also flag up the fact that there are still enormous inequalities up and down the country in dental health, particularly in respect of fluoridation policy, which is uneven. And, of course, there are other health inequalities.

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