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No one has talked specifically about the research that has been done to show the additional cost of food in rural areas, which was mentioned in the report. I am sure the Minister will remark on that matter when he comes to speak. The hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) talked about the power of rural communities to come together to help and protect each other. It reminds me of much of the co-operative movement or even, dare I say it, the old slogan used by Labour and the union movement, which says, “In unity is strength.”

The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) observed that the numbers in the Chamber were not as high as we would all like. Perhaps they will be in future debates. We may be in few in number, but we are among the best. He summed up well the false and dangerous metaphorical wall that we put up around “rural” issues and communities. In fact, the health and wealth of our cities, market towns, hamlets or crofts and all points in between are seamlessly interwoven, a point also made by the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen).

The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire mentioned in closing that 2% had been suggested as the proportion of the electorate represented by rural MPs. I would challenge that, as it depends on how we define rurality. As I said earlier, a wide range of rural issues also affect places with industrial parts. My area is 20 miles from the M4 corridor and the main south Wales rail network, yet it has issues with off-grid energy, rurality, isolation and so on.

The hon. Member for Salisbury talked about the roll-out of superfast broadband and said that it would be the measure of success as the election approached. At that point, I looked across and I am sure that I saw the Minister gulp. I know that he is not at all worried about it—[Interruption.] The Minister is indicating from a sedentary position that he was smiling.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) talked with passion about his constituency and mentioned the Wincle trout races. He also mentioned the Macclesfield sheep dog trials—not guilty, say I. The old ones are the best. He talked with some fluency about the economic impact of the Ramblers, and I declare an interest as president of the Glamorgan Ramblers and vice-president of Ramblers Cymru. We need to do more and to see a speedy and resourced roll-out of the England coastal path. That will be a huge benefit for rural coastal communities.

As I was preparing for today’s debate over my breakfast, I picked up my daily breakfast reading. I was surprised by the fact that who knows what glorious conjunction of the stars had brought about, on the same day as we were to debate rural communities, the front-page headline, “Coalition’s legacy could be harm to the countryside.” I spluttered over my Weetabix. One might expect such a headline ripping into the coalition’s record from the Morning Star, or from revolutionary pamphleteers such as The Guardian or The Independent, but from the Telegraph—The Daily Telegraph, the voice of the Tory shires? Incidentally, I must say that the Telegraph’s rugby coverage is very good.

One might expect such a headline to have been generated by a clarion voice of the left—a flag-waving, “Red flag” singing, barricade-storming sentinel of socialism, attacking

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the serried ranks of landed privilege and wealth—but I spluttered again over my breakfast, this time toast and jam, when I read that it was inspired by the criticisms of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), a Conservative Member of Parliament and, apparently, an adviser to No. 10, too. I have cancelled my subscription to

Socialist Worker

, so taken am I by the successful attacks on the Government by this new revolutionary cell in No. 10 and our fourth estate. Rumours are circulating that the hon. Gentleman is what we term a “sleeper”, who has spent years burrowing into Tory high command and is now under instruction to tear the house of cards down from within. Time will tell.

Ultimately, the debate is set against a rural backdrop of tough times, including for working families. We know that across the UK working families are struggling because of the impact of the policies being pursued. A typical family will be £1,600 worse off at the end of the Prime Minister’s tenure, but research shows that there is an added impact on rural communities across the country, where wages fell in real terms by £1,300 between 2010 and 2012. The nature of rurality means that rural families are spending £2,700 more on everyday goods than their urban counterparts.

We know that the bedroom tax hits rural households disproportionately severely, as working families, who are already struggling to find affordable homes where they were brought up, close to where they work and to their families, are displaced further and further afield, weakening community ties, driving up the cost of living and working and ultimately undermining the sustainability of those rural communities.

The viability of rural communities is intimately tied up with their ability to access markets, to sell goods, to trade, to access services and to engage with Government and agencies remotely and digitally. Whether we are talking about a farmer sorting out forms for single farm payments on his handheld device or at the kitchen table on a laptop, a bed and breakfast or a field of yurts selling accommodation, a surf school in Cornwall, a school-child accessing online educational materials for homework, or just Mr and Mrs Jones trying to take up the Prime Minister’s advice to switch energy providers and save money or looking to make a fleecy purchase after taking up the Energy Secretary’s advice to wear a jumper to cut down on heating costs, they all need access to the internet. However, the National Audit Office damned the Government early last spring for being two years behind schedule and £200 million over budget, a point that has also been picked up by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in its work.

Things might be changing, but as the days of autumn closed in last year, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), who was in the Chamber earlier, freed from the shackles of DEFRA ministerial office, said:

“A man with a stick would be quicker at delivering a message than my so-called broadband”

and as we approached Christmas, he further complained:

“The rural equivalent of waiting for Godot is waiting for high-speed broadband”.—[Official Report, 4 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 912.]

Those words came from a former Minister. At least with “Waiting for Godot” some deep philosophical point is being pondered—the wait is the very thing—and

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there is ultimately an end point as we all return home from the theatre. People in rural communities cannot see the end of the long-running broadband and mobile drama.

I realise I risk sounding a little negative about the Government’s record on rural communities, so let me be a little more positive by suggesting some ideas that would help the hard-stretched rural communities, businesses and households struggling under a prolonged cost of living crisis. We know that the Government have turned their back on one proposal that would help many rural households by refusing to accept a price freeze while the market is reset for the consumer—we will have to wait for the next election for that—but they could do something for off-grid energy users in two ways. First, they could bring off-grid under a regulatory structure to bring long-term thinking to the sector and give certainty to consumers and investors that their interests are being looked after. Secondly, they could bring forward payment of the winter fuel payment so that vulnerable elderly householders could purchase oil and gas outside autumn/winter when typical costs can increase by hundreds of pounds, as I know from experience. The Government could also look at the lamentable delivery to those same households of the energy company obligation and green deal installations on energy efficiency. Of 379,297 measures installed before the end of October 2013, how many have been delivered under the carbon saving community obligation rural sub-obligation? Only 51. That is not good enough.

Labour would, with no additional spending commitment and within existing resources, transfer £75 million from the super-connected cities programme into a digital inclusion fund of clear and direct benefit to the businesses, communities and households in rural areas that could make the internet work better for them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), the shadow Business, Innovation and Skills Minister, has made clear, Labour’s proposals on business rates would lead to an average reduction of £410 in year one for the 1.5 million businesses with turnover below £50,000, a disproportionate number of which are in rural areas. That initial saving would be followed by a business rates freeze the following year.

Affordable housing has been talked about by many Members from all parties. As we have heard, purchasing a home in a rural community requires six and half times the rural average wage. More must be done.

Sir Edward Leigh: So, a Labour Government are going to transfer resources and funding from marginal seats in the great cities to Conservative seats in rural areas, are they?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The point raised by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on funding allocations in rural and urban areas is interesting and merits consideration. There are pockets of deprivation.

The point I was making about affordable homes when the hon. Gentleman intervened is that we need to build more homes, but they need to be the right homes in the right place, well designed and with bottom-up input from communities. We need to get on with it. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire made exactly that point: the obstacles to

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planning and providing affordable houses to rent and purchase are stopping those communities growing and forcing young people to move away from the area.

I do not have time to touch on the cultural, social and economic importance of farming, on the food and drink sector or on transport, education and so on. Other Members did.

If I have been provocative in parts, let me be consensual in conclusion. I think we can all agree that this has been a good and strong debate and we thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton and the Select Committee for securing it. Perhaps we can all support her call to make it a regular fixture in the parliamentary calendar.

2.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), and indeed the other members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—I want to be inclusive—for the report. I thank the Committee, and all those who have an interest in these matters, for bringing forward evidence and engaging with the Government on a number of other areas.

I disagree with a number of the points that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) made, which I will come to later, but I agree that there is sometimes an artificial divide between urban and rural areas when it comes to service provision. The fact is that both rural and urban areas depend on each other for different services, whether outdoor activities, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), the natural capital that is cared for and provided, the food that is grown and all the opportunities provided in rural areas, or the economic and other activities provided in urban areas, such as industrial activities, which support rural areas. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right about that artificial divide, although I disagree with him on many other points and will come to them in due course.

Rural growth is a key priority for DEFRA, just as growth in general is for the Government. The Government have placed a strong emphasis on unlocking the potential of rural communities and businesses to allow them to grow and thrive sustainably. We have established five pilot rural growth networks aimed at tackling the barriers to economic growth in rural areas, such as the shortage of work premises, slow internet connectivity, fragmented business networks, competitiveness, skills and support for micro-enterprises.

Several hon. Members mentioned the resourcefulness and resilience of rural communities. For example, we heard about what is going on in High Peak to provide community facilities and safeguard resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) talked about rural life in general and the great contribution that people in rural areas make to the wider economy, something that I think we should all reflect on and celebrate in this debate.

The pilot rural growth networks expect to create up to 3,000 new jobs and support up to 700 new businesses through a local approach to local issues, but their legacy will go beyond that. We are evaluating the lessons they learn and will share them with local enterprise partnerships

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and local authorities. LEPs are working with local partners, including those with rural economic and social interests, to agree draft European structural investment fund strategies. DEFRA is discussing the development of those strategies to ensure that they give appropriate consideration to rural economies. It is absolutely right that some LEPs are very rural in focus while others have a balance between urban and rural. We must ensure that the rural interest is at the forefront as they introduce their strategies.

DEFRA’s rural development programme for England has invested more than £400 million in projects, created over 8,500 new jobs and safeguarded a further 9,700. An impressive area of delivery, and certainly one that has helped bring forward the local engagement that other Members have talked about, is the 64 LEADER local action groups in England. They were allocated £137.9 million from the total £3.7 billion of the current programme. They are on target to spend that in full by the end of the programme. Their key achievements include over 1,000 civil society representatives involved; over 4,200 projects approved; over 21,000 training days delivered; over 2,600 jobs created; 700 micro-enterprises supported; and nearly 200 new micro-enterprises created. There are other sources of funding from other routes, whether the public sector or charitable sources, that unlock the potential of the community schemes that hon. Members have talked about, which will make significant changes in their communities.

Under the new rural development programme, which will run from 2014 to 2019, we will transfer 12% from direct payments to go towards environmental, farming competitiveness and rural growth schemes in England. That is a significant change in the way we administer CAP money and it is important that we get the change right. In 2016 we will review the demand for agri-environment schemes and the competitiveness of English agriculture with the intention of moving to 15% for the final two years of this CAP period. The overall investment equates to £3.5 billion for environmental and rural development schemes over the next seven years. That means that, even with a smaller overall CAP budget, the Government will be spending a bigger proportion on the environment than before.

We want growing the economy to be an important part of that. There will be a meaningful role for LEPs to help deliver growth. Some 13% of the new rural development programme funds will be spent on growth-focused schemes. Some 5%—£177 million—will be allocated to LEPs through the growth programme, with LEADER and farming and forestry competitiveness being allocated around 4% each, or around £140 million.

Many hon. Members spoke about the delivery of rural broadband and mobile communications. Indeed, we must remember that the report was from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, not the Welsh Affairs Committee, because so many hon. Members from Wales spoke. There was a certain commonality in the contributions we heard from across the United Kingdom on connectivity and the need to ensure that we get the injection of investment absolutely right. It is important for unlocking the potential of rural economies and communities. We know, for instance, that online small businesses, whether rural or urban, grow between four and eight times faster than their

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offline counterparts, and broadband allows more services to be delivered directly into the home. We heard how important that is in many contributions from both sides of the House.

The Government are investing £530 million to 2015 through Broadband Delivery UK. BDUK’s rural broadband programme, which is being delivered by local bodies, will deliver superfast broadband of 24 megabits a second and above to 90% of premises in each local authority area. The remaining 10% hard-to-reach areas will receive standard speed broadband of at least 2 megabits a second.

A number of hon. Members asked how representatives can access more detailed aspects of those programmes. I urge those who have concerns about how the programme is running in general to write to me or to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). If there are specific issues, they should raise them with the local delivery bodies to ensure that their voices are heard. I think that BT, which has been mentioned, will welcome engagement with local representatives on how the programme will make a difference in those areas and what the expectations should be.

Under the rural broadband programme, the pace of progress is accelerating, as 42 out of 44 local projects are contracted, which accounts for 98% of the Government funding. We are currently connecting 10,000 rural properties a week. It is anticipated that the figure will rise to around 25,000 per week by the spring and 40,000 per week by the summer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton talked about the smaller rural community broadband fund and asked what progress DEFRA was making with delivering the scheme. We have approved five projects, starting with Rothbury in Northamptonshire, which got its first live cabinet in time for Christmas—the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), was there at the time. We continue to work hard with BDUK, local bodies and community groups to develop the remaining projects. Local authority-led projects have until 28 February to complete their applications. Of course, there are important things to consider to ensure that we get the best value for money in all those projects, so we need to consider each one carefully. Universal coverage of 2 megabit broadband is expected by 2016.

I will turn to local government finance settlements. The Committee, and indeed many hon. Members, highlighted their concerns about the system for calculating local government finance. Addressing the needs of rural and urban authorities is a difficult balancing act. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton pointed out, I have been very much engaged in that from the Back Benches and continue to be in government, talking with colleagues, communities and local government about how the funding formula works and the implications for rural communities.

The Efficiency Support for Services in Sparse Areas grant of £8.5 million during 2013-14 helped the top quartile of rural authorities by sparsity of population. The Government will be providing further support worth £9.5 million so that the most rural local authorities can drive forward efficiencies in their areas. That is an increase on the grant paid for this purpose in 2013-14,

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and it offers further protection. Let me be clear, however—I hope that my hon. Friend would not expect me to say anything else, given my past interest in this area prior to coming into Government—that we need to change the approach towards assessing the longer-term funding needs of rural local authorities, and we must bear that in mind as we move forward. We need to consider how we support rural local authorities in increasing their income from business rates retention, and we need to develop a longer-term solution to supporting the transition.

On rural-proofing, I want to leave the House under no illusion. The Government take rural-proofing incredibly seriously, and my ministerial colleagues and I champion it strongly across Government. We are supported in that role by DEFRA’s centre of rural expertise, the rural communities policy unit, which was mentioned extensively in the report. Lord Cameron’s review of rural-proofing will report separately from what we are doing in Government. In a new element, all Government Department annual reports and accounts will report on their rural-proofing activities. It is very important to DEFRA that we have that level of engagement in reporting back, and I welcome it. At our last count, we were actively assisting other Departments with over 60 different policy areas to ensure that rural dimensions are being appropriately and proportionately considered. Importantly, we do not do this in isolation from the rural communities and businesses we serve. I am grateful to the EFRA Committee for recognising DEFRA’s comprehensive engagement framework with key rural stakeholders and civil society groups and representatives.

I should like to highlight some particular examples of this. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned education funding. The Government recognise that in some areas, particularly where schools are small, it is unreasonable to require pupils to travel long distances to alternative schools. That is why, following a review of the funding arrangements conducted with DEFRA’s rural communities policy unit, the Department for Education announced in June that it would allow local authorities to use a new sparsity factor when allocating funding. The Government have made it clear that the sparsity factor will be kept under review to consider whether adjustments need to be made in 2014-15 and as we move towards a national funding formula in the longer term.

Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con): All the aspects that the Minister has mentioned so far will really help rural communities such as my constituency. On school transport, the Government have been generous in funding new places in rural schools, but the local authority has cut the transport budget allowing people to take advantage of those new places. Is there anything he can do to allow county councils to use that money to ensure that children get to school safely?

Dan Rogerson: Local authorities have a statutory role in the provision of school transport, but there are a number of other ways in which they can engage with the wider transport infrastructure in their areas to provide opportunities not just for school transport but for all the other vital forms of transport that we have been debating.

I agree that providing affordable homes is crucial in allowing rural economies to grow and welcome the fact that this Government are investing in affordable housing.

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When the hon. Member for Ogmore discussed this, he did not say that under the previous Government the number of affordable socially rented homes that were available fell, a trend that this coalition Government will reverse through the investment that we are making. It is important to recognise that that applies in rural areas as well as in urban areas. The Government support rural exception sites, which, as hon. Members will know, are small sites that can be used for affordable housing in perpetuity, making a crucial difference.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) was the first speaker to refer to post offices and postal services in general—a very important matter. On 27 November, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced a further £640 million for the post office network to complete its network transformation programme. That programme is not suitable for about 3,000 post offices. Those branches predominantly serve small, often remote communities, and they may be the last shop in the village. For the first time in post office history, the updated programme specifically allocates £20 million to this part of the network. As a Member of Parliament during the previous Government’s period in office, I saw what happened when their network review closed so many rural post offices and the effect that that had on those communities. We are now looking at opportunities to secure the network that now exists to make sure that we are not dropping back into that territory.

Returning to rural transport, which I mentioned briefly in reply to the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), who is no longer in his place, the Government have distributed £20 million to rural transport authorities in England to support the development of community transport schemes, which provide services that are vital in many rural areas. We are funding more than 20 Wheels to Work schemes through the local sustainable transport fund. Those schemes enable many young people to access employment and training opportunities. We have protected the statutory entitlement to concessionary bus travel, ensuring that older people can maintain greater freedom and independence. As we stated in the Government response to the EFRA report, the Department for Transport has committed to setting up a monitoring and evaluation framework to assess the changes to the bus service operators grant.

The issue of fuel was regularly raised, with regard to transport fuel and the fuel duty discount. I am pleased that hon. Members across the House acknowledged what the coalition Government have done in opening the door to the concept of recognising rurality and the challenges faced in relation to fuel prices. Many rural communities aspire to explore whether the scheme is a good fit for them, with processes that are appropriate for their areas. Several Members, particularly those from west Wales, suggested that it could operate slightly differently. I am sure that if they write to my colleagues in the Treasury about how they think it could be changed, their contributions can be borne in mind.

Several hon. Members talked about domestic fuel and the people in communities in rural areas who are off the gas grid. We are working with the Department of Energy and Climate Change to support the promotion of buying groups to bring down costs for gas and oil. On winter fuel payments, as part of the ministerial round table on heating oil and liquid petroleum gas, we

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are working with DECC and the Department for Work and Pensions to look into bringing payments forward. A number of hon. Members raised that issue.

Albert Owen: Will the Minister give way?

Dan Rogerson: I am afraid that I cannot. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and for extolling the virtues of his constituency; he set off a rash of such remarks around the Chamber, as was entirely justified.

I am afraid that, given the time available, I may have been unable to engage with all the issues in as much detail as I would have liked. I am happy, as always, to hear from the Select Committee, from all hon. Members who have been present, and from those who have not been able to join us, about how we can build on the work that the Government are doing to support rural communities, and how we can ensure that we are challenging, in a helpful, constructive and friendly way, all Government Departments to ensure that they are delivering for rural communities and having at the heart of their policy making the interests of those rural communities as well as urban ones. I hope that this debate demonstrates that the Government have strong rural credentials, that we are serious about advocating the needs of rural areas, and that we are driven towards unlocking the potential of rural communities and businesses.

2.47 pm

Miss McIntosh: I thank everybody who has participated for their positive and constructive contributions to this excellent debate, which has demonstrated that this matter

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is not just to do with DEFRA but relates to all the tentacles of Government—it is multi-agency and multi-departmental.

I very much enjoyed the beauty contest as to who has the best constituency, but no one has yet come close to Thirsk and Malton. I fell into a trap at one point, so to save any grief in any quarters, let me say that of course I meant to refer to the spare room subsidy in the context of the importance of affordable housing.

I welcomed the contributions on the sheer cost of living and the fact that rural communities are under-represented and underfunded. The examples given show that we look to rural communities to give the sort of help we need, but we expect the Government to remove some of the barriers. I referred briefly to the fact that off-grid energy households have to be able to access the same incentives and finance to improve their properties and reduce their heating bills as those on-grid.

No one can doubt after today’s debate the importance of rural growth, and in particular broadband, to farming and other rural businesses. We would have liked the Government to keep to 9% modulation—I will just throw that into the mix—but 12% is still less than 15%.

We now have a better understanding of what it is like for those of us who live in and represent rural communities and a better idea of how best to meet the challenges. I hope we can persuade the Government and the Backbench Business Committee to hold an annual debate to give the Department the say each year as to how we are bringing rural communities to the heart of Government, and that policy formation, whichever Department is responsible for a particular policy, will reflect the needs of rural communities.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered rural communities.

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Inter-City Rail Investment

2.50 pm

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): I beg to move,

That this House has considered inter-city rail investment.

As well as London, the eight largest English cities have city deal status and another 20 are being agreed at present. I want to talk about rail travel between these city regions, especially those journeys that do not involve London. My speech will not be about HS2, except in passing, partly because that subject has already been aired at length, but also because journeys between the 29 city regions involve 465 possible trips, only 13 of which are directly covered by HS2. Those figures do not include Welsh or Scottish cities, but I am sure other Members may wish to comment on them.

If we look at past priorities for inter-city rail investment, we see that there has often seemed to be an assumption that the only thing people want to do when they get on a train is travel to or from London. Research shows that prioritising transport heavily on connections to a capital tends to suck economic activity into that capital. As Chris Murray, director of Core Cities, observed recently, this over-concentration is bad for the national economy in the long term. In contrast with other developed countries, such as France and Germany, the UK remains one of the most economically centralised countries in the world. The vast majority of significant companies and other institutions are headquartered in and around London.

London itself has major capacity issues, whether they be housing, schools, airports, local transport, water, sewage treatment or even land and labour. Immigration pressures from abroad or from elsewhere in the UK are felt heavily in London as it deals with its overheated economy. A London MP recently exemplified affordable housing in her constituency, it being defined as a two-bedroom flat costing £750,000. There is constant pressure for billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to be spent addressing those capacity problems in the capital. Meanwhile, other areas, such as the one I represent, have all those assets freely available, including houses, none of which cost £750,000, surplus school places and capable people ready to take jobs.

The Government have a stated aim to rebalance the economy and I believe that inter-city rail investment can play a pivotal role in that endeavour. Others share my concerns. The former Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, said recently:

“There are literally dozens of rail and public transport projects urgently needed across the country that would make a significant economic and social impact.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 October 2013; Vol. 748, c. 1228.]

He also commented on the cuts to other inter-city services that accompany the HS2 proposals, including loss of service from Stoke, Stockport, Coventry and Wilmslow, and long journey times to Carlisle. The Institute of Directors reports that 80% of its members support increased investment in the existing inter-city network.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I commend the hon. Gentleman on what he has said so far. Does he not also agree that a spinal, dedicated rail freight route

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capable of carrying lorry trailers on trains and serving the north-east would have an enormously beneficial effect on the economies of the regions?

Ian Swales: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I certainly agree with him and will mention rail freight later in my speech. He makes a powerful point which I know he has raised in the House before.

With excellent assistance from the House of Commons Library, I have conducted research on all the journeys between the English city regions, comparing fastest rail journey times against road miles as the best indicator of the actual distance between them. Many interesting facts emerge. The fastest journey times from nearly every single city region are on the lines to London. Average speeds range from 63 mph from the south coast to well over 100 mph from many other parts of the country.

For journeys between cities outside London, however, the overall fastest miles per hour speeds are in the 20s, and many are in the 30s and 40s. Fastest journeys can involve absurd dog-legging through London—for example, Cambridge to Sheffield, Ipswich to Newcastle and Swindon to Leicester—and journeys between the 29 key city regions can involve as many as four changes. Those figures are the consequence of past investment focused on hub-and-spoke systems based on London, and of under-investment on other routes, which has helped to concentrate economic and administrative power in the capital.

The record of the previous Government was poor, with too much micro-management but only nine miles of electrification investment. Fares went up by 66%, but subsidies went up £1.7 billion as well. Journey times are slower than they were 15 years ago, and 61% of UK businesses are concerned that the UK’s transport infrastructure lags behind international competitors.

I welcome the steps that this Government are taking. A good example of the work needed is the Milton Keynes to Oxford route. At 22 mph, it is one of the slowest possible journeys, so the Government’s decision to revive the east-west route to join those two city regions is very welcome and will provide the connectivity to help release potential. However, the Milton Keynes to Cambridge route, at 24 mph, will remain one of the slowest in the country. Other examples of very slow connectivity are the routes from Leicester to Coventry, Bournemouth to Bristol, Southend to Ipswich, Sunderland to Darlington—I could go on.

It is certainly welcome that the east coast main line is at last due to get modern rolling stock. Despite being one of the most profitable lines in the country, botched franchising deals have led to a sense that it is somehow a basket case, with consequent high fares and old trains. Passengers richly deserve the investment in new rolling stock and, as a regular user, I suppose that I should declare an interest.

It is worrying that a briefing I received for today’s debate from the Rail Delivery Group, a consortium of Network Rail and the train operators, states that the east coast line

“essentially serves two main destinations…Leeds and Edinburgh”.

It makes no mention of services that terminate in Newcastle or Aberdeen, of the 750,000 people in the Tees valley served by Darlington, or of numerous other

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towns and cities served directly or through connections. Sadly, the geography of many of the decision makers seems to get sketchy outside the M25.

One area that I want to highlight is the wide corridor of national importance through south Yorkshire and south Lancashire. It contains four of the six biggest cities in England, as well as many significant towns and other cities, and it is home to more than a quarter of the UK’s small and medium-sized businesses. Although it is already an economic powerhouse, it could be so much better with proper inter-city rail investment. Our forefathers recognised its importance by building one of the first cross-country motorways, the M62, to link Hull and Liverpool. How is the rail service through the region? The answer is, very poor. The 120-mile journey from Hull to Liverpool takes 30 minutes longer than the 214-mile journey from Hull to London, which means that it is at exactly half the speed. The vital commercial centres of Leeds and Manchester are joined by a service that runs at only 46 mph, whereas they both already have services to London at more than 100 mph.

Slow train times lead to far more people travelling by road, which in turn has an impact on train passenger numbers. They also give the appearance of low demand: no doubt that affects perceived investment, but this is surely a classic case of “Build it and they will come”. Getting people, and of course freight, off the roads also has major environmental benefits.

I welcome the many improvement projects contained in the northern hub initiative and the associated forecast of growth in passenger numbers, but they fall short of providing the kind of radical improvements that could transform the economy of the region. We need speedy train services to link our northern cities to each other, not just linking them separately to London and the south.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a very strong point, but does he agree that the issue relates not only to the north, but to the south-west and the west country? Frankly, we have not had the kind of investment in our railways that we would like.

Ian Swales: I absolutely agree. I look forward to the speeches of other hon. Members who have stayed late on this Thursday to hear more about other regions. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) is likely to talk about the south-west.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. With hon. Members piling in to put their own inter-city and other rail services on the table, may I make a plea for the Brighton main line? We need more capacity, with a second line from Brighton to London so commuters do not get stuck in Brighton, as they do on the many occasions when that line is not operating.

Ian Swales: I thank the hon. Lady. I am sure the Minister is logging the various bids that are being made.

My area of the north-east has good journey times to London, but very poor journey times to other places. Is it right that it takes longer to get from Darlington to Manchester on a single train than it takes to get to

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London? The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was stunned recently when he discovered how long he had to spend on the train when travelling from Liverpool to Darlington. Ironically, he was making the trip to be present at the inauguration of the new inter-city train factory at Newton Aycliffe, which is hugely welcome in my part of the world.

Rail investment is not just about passengers, but about freight, as the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) mentioned. It was good to see the recent but long-overdue investment by the Government to enable modern-sized containers landing at Teesport to join the east coast main line. However, a large modern port needs good connections to a wide hinterland and, again, the cross-country links are very poor. If such a container was destined for Preston, which is less than 100 miles away, it would have to go via Birmingham, so poor are the trans-Pennine links.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is talking about freight, even though this debate is essentially about passengers. Some 80% of freight in Britain and across the channel goes by lorry, not by container. Containers are splendid things and lorries are the problem. Do we not need to be able to get lorry trailers on to trains? To do that, we need a dedicated route with the height and gauge capacity to deal with it.

Ian Swales: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I am certain that the current trans-Pennine links would also be inadequate for that solution. I agree with what he says. This matter needs to be considered seriously. What is the point of investing heavily in rail freight handling in the Trafford area of Manchester, which is going to happen, if there is no easy route to the major ports on the Tyne, the Tees and the Humber? The ability of east coast ports to collect goods from northern businesses for export and to deliver imported goods and materials to them by rail should be a key economic driver.

As part of rebalancing the economy, the Department for Transport should be accelerating inter-city investment in the regions for three reasons. First, the economic benefits of constructing that infrastructure would be felt most strongly in the regions concerned. Secondly, the manufacture of infrastructure materials tends to be concentrated away from the south-east. An example is Tata Steel’s construction beam mill in my constituency. Finally, the provision of good infrastructure tends to lead to more economic development in the local region.

Rail investment should be used proactively to drive our regional economies, not just reactively to address overcrowding. Quicker travel would make existing businesses more efficient. Better city links would allow regionally based businesses to set up and expand more easily, and to take on London-based competitors.

As Jim O’Neill, the chair of the City Growth Commission, observed in a recent article in The House magazine entitled “Going for growth”,

“We already know that around the world, mid-tier cities generate higher economic growth relative to their populations.”

In the same magazine, Alexandra Jones, the chief executive of the Centre for Cities, noted that

“most of the UK’s largest cities…punch below their economic potential.”

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The underperformance in the UK is due partly to our transport infrastructure. The excessive focus on London recently led the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to say that London

“is becoming a giant suction machine draining the life out of the rest of the country”.

In closing, I want to emphasise the following points. A business person’s time is just as valuable when they are travelling from Newcastle to Bristol or from Norwich to Liverpool as it is when they are travelling to or from London. It should be possible to run an effective, competitive national or international business from any of our city regions, not just from London. The Government have a key aim of rebalancing the economy. I commend the work that is being done on city deals and through the regional growth fund. The Department for Transport needs to take up the challenge and play its full part in that rebalancing. After decades of under-investment, I welcome the renewed focus on rail investment that the Government are driving. I hope the Minister will explain how the Department’s inter-city rail investment policy will meet the ambition of making the whole economy more successful, and not just that of London and the south-east. I look forward to his response.

3.4 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales). I was pleased to hear him say that we should talk about something other than High Speed 2. The money being spent on it is an issue in the far south-west, but we also have a lot of common concerns with his constituency. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate, which is important to my constituents and those of other Members who are in the Chamber.

I have lost count of the number of times that I and other Members with seats in the south-west have raised concerns about the need for investment in our inter-city services and improved resilience. Yet again, extreme weather is causing pressure, so we need that investment, but we keep getting batted away by London and Whitehall.

My constituents, local authorities and businesses all rely on rail connections, which have to be reliable and affordable. They also have to work around the need for freight, the importance of which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) will speak about again today. He is right—if we want to grow our economy in the south-west, we need freight services that work and that fit around essential inter-city services.

We need to manage and plan growth to ensure that people are not priced off trains because of massive rises in ticket prices. Plymouth is more than three hours away from London—it can be three hours-plus-plus, depending on how fortunate people are on the day, and in the not-too-distant future it will take even longer because of the continuing works at Reading. Those works, which were started under the last Government, will make a difference, and there is no doubt that they are valuable, but they will extend the travelling public’s journeys for the moment. Of course, there is also the work on the Whiteball tunnel, which I suspect will mean a journey of closer to five hours.

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We also have no air link to the city of Plymouth, and people often ask whether that is sensible for a city of such a size. Frankly, it is unlikely that there will be an airport, despite the hard work of a lot of local groups, without some guarantee of slots in London when the airport there is extended.

We have only two strategic road links into Plymouth. When I chaired the South West Regional Committee in 2010 and we reviewed transport across the south-west, the evidence that we received made it clear that the infrastructure, whether road, rail or air, was inadequate and could not support the level of growth that many local authorities and businesses feel we are capable of producing and adding to the wider UK economy.

Over the years, we have had less investment than any other part of the United Kingdom, with the possible exception of the north-east. Journeys to major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool all take much longer than a journey to London and are convoluted. Part of the problem that we have on our stretch of line—the main line between Penzance and Paddington—is that to get to those cities we have to go on the slow, shared section of line between Taunton and Plymouth, which goes along Dawlish sea front and is frequently disrupted.

Inter-city train services that connect with community rail services and buses, with reasonably priced car parks at hubs, come at a price, a large part of which has to be borne by the passenger. I was gobsmacked to read the lobbying document that we received prior to the debate from the Rail Delivery Group, which made me ask whether its members ever travel on trains. The main thrust of the document was to act as an apologist for the privatisation process and laud the fact that it has

“significantly increased revenue whilst controlling operating costs.”

Really? Apparently, that has led to a financial surplus, but who benefits from that? Passengers on my wi-fi-less inter-city trains to Plymouth, who sometimes have to stand as far as Exeter, are certainly not feeling the benefit.

Kelvin Hopkins: I wish to reinforce my hon. Friend’s point about privatisation. Sir Roy McNulty concluded that our railways cost 40% more to operate than continental railways that are integrated and publicly owned, and that before privatisation, British Rail had—believe it or not—the highest level of productivity of any railway system in Europe.

Alison Seabeck: My hon. Friend makes a strong point about the different ways of managing a rail network. When we compound that with the botched franchising process, which exacerbated problems, particularly in the south-west, I think the travelling public are beginning to lose faith. Of course those companies have invested in their services, and there is no doubt that their staff are working hard to ensure that the passenger experience improves—indeed, it has improved and they deserve credit for that. I am still not sure, however, how much that increased revenue has reached down to the far south-west where we still have slam-door rolling stock.

On our line, the new fare for an anytime standard open return from London to Plymouth with First Great Western is £271, and to Penzance—where at least some consideration has been given to the needs of the area—it is £284. If families who are struggling with the cost of

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living decide to holiday in the lovely south-west—who would not want to come to the south-west?—that starts to look like a very expensive option, unless they can get one of the cheaper deals which, as we know, disappear very fast indeed. I genuinely feel that passengers do not think they are getting value for money.

Plymouth’s inter-city connections are vital to the city’s growth plans, yet spending per person in the south-west is now in negative real-term figures—the hon. Member for Redcar spoke about how his region is suffering in a similar way in terms of investment. How does that square with the supposed policy of regional growth? The total identifiable expenditure on rail in my region has slumped from £286 million in 2008-09 to just £218 million in 2012-13. So much for a Government who believe that growth and investment in infrastructure are linked. Actions speak louder than words.

We in Plymouth are also concerned that we are not on the strategic national corridor, which for some bizarre reason stops at Exeter and does not go on to the 15th largest city in England. As long as that continues and we are not part of the strategic national corridor, we will continue to see poor levels of investment in our routes in inter-city services. Indeed, I would go further and suggest a real lack of interest in Whitehall in any area outside that corridor.

There is no doubt that distance and accessibility impact directly on the way business costs are assessed and on the logistics of companies. It has been estimated that for every 100 minutes of travel time from London, productivity drops by 6%. Tackling that underperformance by supporting our rail links, inter-city services and connections to the main line could be hugely beneficial to the wider UK economy. We are, however, talking a little bit about jam tomorrow. I am sure the Minister will mention the benefits of electrification, but those will not percolate down as far as Plymouth—certainly in the immediate future—partly because of the unresolved issue of the line between Exeter and Plymouth via Dawlish. Any benefits of electrification are decades away, and whoever is in power after the next general election must stop pushing the issue away. That is why we must ensure—as those on the Labour Front Benches have insisted—that High Speed 2 is not some open-ended cheque, and that we keep a lock on how much money goes into it.

I have not even mentioned resilience and the importance of keeping the rail line open to rail companies as well as our local economies. Some £178 million was lost when the line was closed last year because of flooding at Exeter and further down the line, and we had no inter-city service for some considerable time. I cannot understand why it has been so difficult to get the heads of the Environment Agency and Network Rail to agree on a plan. We were told that £31 million had been earmarked for work to ensure the trains could get through, but we now hear that that has gone down to single figures. What is going on? Perhaps the Minister will answer that when he responds to the debate. Is the CEO of the Environment Agency correct when he says that cuts will impact on that type of maintenance? In questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for South West Devon

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(Mr Streeter) asked a question on that issue. Significant remedial investment is needed if the far south-west is to have more than a fair-weather inter-city service.

My key asks for Plymouth and its inter-city connections are: that the Secretary of State continue to guarantee the money for the resilience work at Exeter and beyond, and that it is clearly aimed at keeping the network open and not just blocking it off; that we get an early morning arrival in Plymouth from London, which was promised by the franchisee but appears to have drifted off the agenda, like so much else; and that we benefit from newer rolling stock, rather than the ancient units that currently serve our railway and undoubtedly slow the service down. Demand is expected to outstrip capacity on both branch and inter-city services, so we need confirmation from the Minister today that the displaced diesel stock following the electrification of the main line in south Wales will be cascaded on to the main line between London and Penzance. On that, I will finish and allow other Members to express their concerns.

3.15 pm

Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak and to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), who made some interesting points.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this debate on an issue that is very important to people in my constituency. He will not be surprised if I mention London and that other great city, Brighton and Hove.

I am one of the many people from Brighton who frequently commute to London for work, and over the years I have come to know the Brighton main line very well—better than I ever wanted to know it, if the truth be known. I know how important the train service is to people in my constituency and to the whole economy of the south-east. I also know, unfortunately, how frustrated regular rail users in Brighton are with the service they receive.

When I tweeted about this debate on my way up to London this morning, I was inundated with responses from fellow passengers who have simply had enough. One person told me that he has been late to work every day this year because of the trains. Another pointed out that 44% of Southern trains operating on the Brighton main line last year were late. Another tweet described the daily commute as “grim” and rightly protested that people in Brighton deserve better.

Concerns about rail services are raised with me by constituents every week, perhaps more frequently than any other issue since I was elected in 2010. Concerns over cancellations, delays, overcrowding, cold and dirty trains and a lack of information feature most prominently. Last year’s Which? survey confirmed that rail passengers in the south-east have the lowest customer satisfaction in the whole of the UK. First Capital Connect, which operates on the Brighton main line, finished bottom of the pile with a 40% satisfaction rating. The understandable anger among commuters is exacerbated by increases in rail fares, which went up again last week. As one constituent put it to me, people simply do not feel that they are getting value for their money. That is backed up by the 2013 national passenger survey, which revealed that

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only 32% of First Capital Connect customers and 36% of Southern customers feel that they get value for money for the cost of their ticket. That is hardly surprising when only about 40% of customers feel that they are likely to get a seat.

Clearly, there are serious problems that need to be addressed. At their root is the problem of capacity. The huge demands on the line present challenges for Network Rail and the train companies, and their current failure to meet them is having a terrible effect on passengers. Projected employment growth along the main line between Brighton, Crawley, Gatwick and London means that demands on the line are only going to increase. A report from WSP group last year revealed how serious the situation could become. It concluded that the capacity problem on the Brighton main line would reach critical levels within the next 20 years and prevent rail services from operating efficiently, but none of the people who use the service today would say it will take 20 years to reach critical levels; they would say it is operating inefficiently as we speak.

A number of solutions have been proposed, all of which would require significant investment as a matter of urgency. The WSP report proposed an upgrade of the current line to allow more trains to more destinations and reduce journey times. Another option, which I have thrown my weight behind, is the Brighton main line 2 proposal. I am happy to work with my Brighton colleague, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), if it means that we can make it a reality. It would provide a new line between Brighton and the capital and obviously reduce pressure on the current line while avoiding the bottleneck that is Croydon, which currently causes many of the problems. Network Rail is assessing plans to link Lewes and Uckfield as part of its long-term planning process and acknowledged the attraction of a new route that does not involve the congested east Croydon corridor.

Last year, in the House, I received assurances from the previous rail Minister that the Government were considering Brighton main line 2 as a potential solution to the capacity problems affecting the south coast and would be looking to take the issue forward in due course. My constituents would welcome an update from the new Minister. If he can reassure me this afternoon that Brighton main line 2 is still being considered, I, like many of my constituents, will be very grateful. I would also like to take this opportunity to invite him to Brighton to experience the daily commute and see at first hand some of the issues that my constituents face every day.

In closing, I welcome the work being done to improve the Brighton main line in the short term and the £18 million of improvements carried out over the Christmas period—not without their own inconveniences—which will deliver benefits, but clearly they are not the long-term major investment solution required to expand the rail network in the south-east and to give my constituents in Brighton, Kempton and Peacehaven the service they deserve.

3.22 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate on a subject about which I feel very strongly and in which I have a great interest. I congratulate the hon. Member for Redcar

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(Ian Swales) on securing the debate and on what he said during his speech, which contained a good deal of common sense. In fact, it reflected the conclusions of the Eddington report of some years ago, the focus of which was on improving the network as it was, rather than on more adventurous schemes.

Railways are clearly the major mode of land travel for the long-term future. Anyone who tries to drive by car to and from London these days has a problem, despite some improvements in motorway traffic. It is the railways that will provide the transport of the future. Passenger numbers are increasing massively in spite of privatisation and higher fares because rail travel is the only practicable way to get to and from work. I speak as a 45-year rail commuter on Thameslink and its predecessors from Luton. I see every day the problems on the other side of London—on the same line that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) mentioned. Fortunately, I live far enough out to get a seat most days, but by the time we get to St Albans passengers have to stand. Indeed, yesterday, there simply was not enough space on the train and many passengers were left on the platform, having to wait for later trains—it was that crowded.

There are severe difficulties on those commuter routes, but we are talking today about inter-city rail. Forty years ago, I was responsible for transport policy at the TUC. In those days, railways were seen to be in decline and people lauded the car as the future. Even then, I passionately believed that railways were the future and that we had to preserve what we had. Fortunately, we hung on to just enough to make it credible, and we still have the great Victorian-built lines providing city centre to city centre travel, which is so valuable. The convenience of being able to get on a train in a city centre and be taken directly to another city centre is an enormous advantage.

I urge the Minister to support specific investments, some of which are already moving forward—rather too slowly and very late, but they will, I hope, get there eventually. It is vital to continue the electrification of all major routes, so that we have electrified major routes across the country.

Oliver Colvile: The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point about electrification. Tim Smit runs the Eden project. In the last five or six years he was asked what one thing would make a great difference to the south-west. He told the then deputy leader of the Conservative party that electrification down to Plymouth would do an enormous amount of good for the west country.

Kelvin Hopkins: I entirely agree, and I was intending to mention the point later in my speech.

We need to extend direct electrified services not merely to cities on the major routes. I support electrification to Hull, so that direct electrified services can run from King’s Cross to Hull without the need to change trains. I see in his place the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who represents an area on the other side of the Humber. Electrified services to Grimsby and Cleethorpes would be a good thing, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) mentioned the south-west, and it is clear that that area needs improvements.

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Ian Swales: As we are all bidding for electrification, let me point out that the Grand Central service from Sunderland to London runs on a non-electrified line north of Northallerton through Eaglescliffe and Hartlepool.

Kelvin Hopkins: I think we are well behind the rest of the world in electrifying our rail routes and we need to do a lot more. It is happening, but it is going to take some time yet. We should have done this years ago.

Hon. Members have mentioned some of the corridor routes I intended to speak about, such as that from Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds to York. A modern, electrified fast service linking those great cities would be a tremendous boon to the north. I am obviously not speaking on behalf of Luton here; I am speaking about my interest in railways and in the country in general.

A second electrified route should link York, Sheffield, Derby, Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance, which would provide a real chance for growth, particularly in the south-west, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View said. Those are two important corridors, and I could provide more detail on others. Fast electrified services would greatly benefit the relevant regions.

In a rail debate on 31 October I set out a scheme for upgrading and improving the east coast main line from London to Edinburgh. I shall not go over the detail again now, as I want to reserve my time to deal with other schemes, other than to say that this is another important investment that should go ahead to improve capacity and speed on the east coast.

I want to focus today on a particular scheme. I have mentioned it before, but I want to re-emphasise its importance. I believe it would be a major advance to upgrade the Birmingham, Snow Hill to London line, which passes through Solihull, Leamington Spa, Banbury and other towns, on which only a handful of trains currently run each day to and from Marylebone. The line also runs directly to Paddington—a much more useful London terminus that links directly with Crossrail and thus to the City. Snow Hill is in the centre of Birmingham and easily accessible to the business district.

There is, however, a much more compelling and exciting possibility for this route. If it were to be electrified, a simple link to Crossrail at Old Oak Common would provide direct passenger services between the centre of Birmingham and the City of London and, indeed, Canary Wharf. Business travellers would have available direct travel from city centre to city centre with no changes required, thus saving time and inconvenience. But there is more: the electrified Snow Hill to London line could also branch off at Greenford to join Crossrail going west, thus providing a direct service from Birmingham city centre to Heathrow. The electrification of that line and those two links with Crossrail would together cost no more than £500 million.

There is still more. The Snow Hill line has a branch at Leamington linked to Birmingham airport, which opens up the possibility of direct, non-stop electrified 125 mph services between Birmingham and Heathrow airports, as well as a direct link between Birmingham airport and the City of London via Crossrail. A journey time of one hour between the airports would be a boon to both of them, making Birmingham effectively a satellite of

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Heathrow and possibly removing some of the pressure from the growth of passenger traffic there, as well as being advantageous to workers in Birmingham.

I believe that the scheme would be enormously beneficial economically at both ends of the route. It would breathe extra life into the economy of the west midlands, and it would take a bit of pressure off London. It would also be helpful to services going further north. It would be possible to travel to the airport from Birmingham New Street and on to that route directly as well. There are numerous exciting possibilities, provided that the whole line is electrified and upgraded. Even now, it would be capable of 125 mph services, which I think would be sufficient for the journeys to which I have referred.

I urge the Minister, Opposition Front Benchers and Network Rail to give serious thought to my proposal. It is not just my own idea; it is based on detailed advice from experienced railway engineers. It would work, it would be easy to construct, and it would bring great benefits at modest costs. I commend it to fellow Members, and especially to those on both Front Benches.

3.31 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who always speaks so knowledgeably about railway matters.

I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) on securing the debate. It has given us an opportunity to praise the Government for a remarkable and very welcome increase in funding for our rail network—a network which, since privatisation, has seen a staggering increase in passenger numbers and in the amount of freight carried. It has also given Members an opportunity to argue in favour of yet more investment in their constituencies, or, at the very least, the transfer of some of the existing resources to their own areas. I shall say more about that shortly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar spoke of the importance of connections to London and, indeed, to other areas. My constituency suffers badly as a result of its lack of such connections. There was a time, in living memory, when it was possible to get on to a train in Cleethorpes and travel to other major cities such as Leeds, Birmingham and Leicester. I know that Ministers are fully aware of the importance of good transport links to the economic development of all parts of the country, but I must emphasise their importance to more peripheral areas such as northern Lincolnshire.

The Government have recognised the importance of northern Lincolnshire and the wider Humber region as a major centre for the renewable sector, and have demonstrated their commitment to the area by creating the largest enterprise zone in the country and providing support through the recently signed Humber city deal. More recently, the Department for Transport gave Able UK permission to go ahead with its South Humber energy park and associated developments, which should provide thousands of new jobs. That is all good news, but if we are to maximise the benefits to the area, we shall need improved rail connections.

The main passenger services to northern Lincolnshire are provided by First TransPennine Express. There is a good hourly service between Cleethorpes and Manchester airport in each direction, which, with stops at Doncaster

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and Sheffield, connects with the wider network, but changes are inconvenient and add to journey times. Let me give a couple of examples. Last autumn, I attended the annual dinner of the Grimsby and Immingham Chamber of Commerce and Shipping. One of the guests was the Finnish Ambassador, who expressed his surprise at how long it had taken him to travel to Grimsby from London. Another example can be found in an article in

The Sunday Times

on 29 December. The journalist A. A. Gill travelled to Cleethorpes last October and in his article he says that he could have flown from London to Moscow quicker than it took him to get from London to Cleethorpes.

The Grimsby-Cleethorpes area needs more direct train services, particularly to London, in order to achieve the full economic potential I mentioned. To give an historical perspective, until 1970 there were two direct trains between the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area and London via the then east Lincolnshire line through Louth, Boston and Spalding through to Peterborough and on to the main line. I remember travelling on the last service train on 4 October 1970. The service fell at long last after a seven-year fight; it was sacrificed to the Beeching plan.

For the following 22 years we retained direct services to London. They ran via Market Rasen and Lincoln. That remains one of the options for a new franchise-holder. Certainly improvements are needed on that line, which is the Cleethorpes to Lincoln line. Most of the services are provided by a single car unit.

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman mentioned Beeching, and there are still a large number of corridors that are unused. Does he agree that it is vital to protect those corridors for possible future use, when, hopefully, we invest in even more railways than we have now?

Martin Vickers: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman and I think that even people who were connected with producing the Beeching plan have since acknowledged that the closure of the east Lincolnshire line was a marginal decision at the time and certainly in today’s climate it would not have been closed. Unfortunately, however, at various points that line has now been blocked off and it would take billions of pounds to reinstate it.

I was mentioning the services on the Lincoln-Cleethorpes line provided by a single unit. When passengers get on the conductor says. “When we reach Market Rasen, passengers will have to stand. Please make sure that all seats are clear.” East Midlands Trains acknowledges that the service it provides with that single unit is inadequate, but apparently there is such a shortage of units that it is unable to improve on it.

The Government have an excellent record on electrification. Electrification of the route from Manchester to Sheffield is edging nearer and the possible extension through to Doncaster is being considered. If that becomes a reality, which it must, then completion of the final 50 miles into Immingham, Grimsby and Cleethorpes must surely be worthy of inclusion.

Immingham is a major centre for railways; indeed, it was the railways that built it. It was a creation of the Great Central Railway just over 100 years ago in 1912. Today, measured by tonnage, around 25% of the freight moved by rail starts or ends its journey in Immingham, much of it of strategic importance—oil, coal and the like. That, together with the growing potential for passenger

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traffic, must make a case for, at the very least, a feasibility study into the viability of electrification of the final section of the south Trent-TransPennine line, the Doncaster to Immingham and Cleethorpes section.

Despite considerable capital investment over recent years the main route from Cleethorpes to Doncaster, which covers just 50 miles, takes 70 minutes. We must do better than that, particularly since we describe the trains on that route as TransPennine Expresses.

In this afternoon’s earlier debate on rural communities I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) refer to the Saturdays-only service from Sheffield through Gainsborough and Brigg to Cleethorpes. This line was the Great Central main line and yet it has come to this—a once-a-week service. It provides a shocking service not only for my hon. Friend’s rural community, as he said, but for the industrial centres around Immingham and Grimsby and for the east coast premier seaside resort of Cleethorpes.

Ian Swales: I am sure that it will be no consolation to my hon. Friend that I have just done the maths in my head and discovered that the rest of the trans-Pennine service is no quicker than the service he has just described.

Martin Vickers: I have experienced that full journey on a number of occasions, and I have to agree with my hon. Friend on that.

I was describing the Saturdays-only service on the Gainsborough to Cleethorpes line. It begins its journey in Sheffield. I believe that that service illustrates the need for more flexibility in the franchise system. Northern Rail operates the service and, because of the type of services it operates, it is highly dependent on public subsidy. I would have thought, however, that if it had any sort of commercial drive behind it, it would see the possibilities in that route. It is already running a train to Cleethorpes on a Saturday, and it would surely be even more viable to run the service on a sunny summer Sunday as well. There should be some incentive to try to expand the market in that way.

My constituency contains 10 railway stations, the largest port complex in the country and an international airport, yet it has no trains to London. It does not even need investment to provide such a service; it just needs the Minister’s say-so. It just needs him to insist on it being part of the new east coast franchise, or to give the go-ahead to one of open access providers such as Alliance Rail, which is currently exploring the possibility of providing such a service.

The debate pack states:

“Inter-city rail investment covers a wide-range of projects, including electrification, line enhancements, service improvements and new rolling stock.”

My constituents would be happy with just a little progress under each of those headings. I should like to draw the Minister’s attention to one urgent enhancement that is needed on the east coast main line, which is plagued by the wires being brought down in high winds. I know that the Department has committed £1.2 billion to transform the line, but I am not aware that the upgrading of the electric wires is included in that. My understanding is that a relatively modest investment in certain sections of the line could deal with the problem to some extent.

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There are electrification plans for the Great Western line, which provides services into Wales, and the northern hub will greatly enhance services in the north-west. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar has described the needs of the north-east. My plea is, of course, for northern Lincolnshire and the Humber region in general. As I have said, the area has great economic potential, but if we are to maximise that, we need better rail and other transport connections. We need to close down the arguments about nationalisation, even if only in the context of the east coast main line. Privatisation has revitalised what was a dying industry. Let us also get on with HS2. The Cleethorpes to Manchester services run via Meadowhall, which would provide our link into HS2. However, that 70-mile journey to Meadowhall currently takes about 90 minutes. My plea is for direct services to London—an absolute necessity—and for a feasibility study into the electrification of the final section of the south TransPennine line between Doncaster and Immingham, Grimsby and Cleethorpes.

3.43 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) on securing the debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to take place. I cannot help but reflect that, should our predecessors of 40 years ago walk in here today, they would be surprised to see the extent of the interest across the House in rail investment. We might disagree on some of the mechanisms for achieving it, but there is now a high level of agreement that this is the way forward. This follows a period in which, sadly, we were diverted towards the wrong future, and I hope that we are now heading towards the right one.

Regrettably, some decisions are still going the wrong way. For example, the Scottish Government have chosen to build a new road bridge across the Forth, connecting Fife and Edinburgh, without any new rail connection. That is a missed opportunity. We had an opportunity to put in some sort of double-decker bridge; there are ways to build both road and rail together, if we did indeed want more road capacity. We are going to regret this decision in the not-so-distant future. The building has started, so the bridge is, unfortunately, going to go ahead, but I think that within months of it opening the call will be, “What on earth did you do that for when the congestion in the area and the car drive into the city are going to get worse and the rail link would have been a fantastic advantage?” Of course, we do have a rail bridge, of considerable antiquity. It is an iconic piece of rail architecture for the whole UK, but it does act as a bottleneck on a journey that more and more people want to make, in a way that they did not before. Even in a general atmosphere where railways have come back into their own, we are at times in danger of making the wrong decision.

I wish to discuss the mechanisms and the Government’s decision to re-privatise inter-city services on the east coast main line, because that is having an impact on investment on other inter-city routes. I have raised this matter previously and I do not apologise for doing so again, because it is important; I have not yet been given any clear answers from Ministers, so I am going to ask some of the same questions.

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I wish to make some brief remarks on High Speed 2 and public investment in inter-city rail generally. There are different views across the House on HS2, but those of us who support it must deal with the danger of a perception that it will not have any benefits for the rest of the network. HS2 will enhance capacity on other key routes: trains will continue on the classic network to serve other destinations; space will be freed up for services to smaller towns and cities; and, providing high-speed platforms are properly integrated into existing stations, people across the country will have access to high-speed trains. We need that form of travel, in both directions. I understand the fear about the pull to the south-east, but that pull is happening in any case, for all sorts of other reasons, not least the lack of employment in the north. We need to address that, but not grasping the nettle is the wrong way to go.

Futurologists from 40 or 50 years ago might well have thought that people would not need to travel now because they would be able to talk to each other by all sorts of new mechanisms, and indeed they can. I used to tease my husband, who works in IT, in the academic community, which has always been quite far ahead on things such as networking, by asking him why he needed to travel to conferences and to London because he could do everything by video conferencing. I asked why on earth he was going yet again. Of course, as I pointed out to him when I thought about it, people cannot have conference dinners by video conferencing. That is not an entirely facetious point to make, because, as we all know from our party conferences, when people meet at events what goes on outwith the main setting in terms of networking, catching up with people and having those debates and conversations is hugely important. Human communication has not been supplanted by all the technology at our fingertips.

Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend is making a sensible point. Does she agree that trains also provide opportunities for human interaction, business talk, discussion and work to be done? Trains are wonderful things in that respect.

Sheila Gilmore: They certainly do provide those opportunities, but occasionally I hear more about other people’s business on the train than I want to know. For that reason, I am glad to see more quiet coaches. When my father used to complain about people talking on mobile phones on the train, I used to think that he was being an old fusspot. However, I have to say that although it is good to have some sort of business interaction on the train, it would be nice not to have it right in my ear when I am trying to work. Interestingly, on the east coast main line, the quiet coaches are now the most popular and most booked up of all the coaches. That suggests that I am not in a minority on the matter. It is true to say that we can do a lot of work on trains that we cannot do flying.

Alison Seabeck: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is perhaps a case for a business class on some of these long-distance trains, rather than a first class?

Sheila Gilmore: I suspect that the quiet coach operates to a large extent as a business class. Perhaps operators should consider expanding the number of those coaches. Many people want to use that time on the train—whether

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it is two hours, three hours or more—productively, even if they are only recharging their batteries and reading a book or whatever. If we are serious about the environmental advantages of rail over air, we need to make that journey as productive and as comfortable as we can, and also to speed it up. The big advantage of HS2 in Scotland would be a cut in journey times, even without the high speed rails reaching us. The city centre to city centre advantage of HS2 is huge, and it works both ways. For example, 11% of employment in Edinburgh, even after the recession, is in the financial service sector. The links from Edinburgh to other financial centres are important. If we are to continue to be the headquarters of some very important financial institutions, rather than a sub-office of somewhere else, it is just as important that people can come to us as it is that we can go to them.

Ian Swales: The hon. Lady mentions HS2, so I ask this question in a spirit of genuine inquiry, because I only know the figures for Newcastle. How much will HS2 enable trains from Edinburgh to save time? Does she think a similar time could be saved by investing in the straight and relatively flat current east coast main line, as referred to by the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins)?

Sheila Gilmore: My understanding is that when phase 2 is in place, we could save a full hour—perhaps slightly more—of the journey time. As we are talking about a long time scale, I am not averse in any way to looking at ways of improving the speed on existing rails. One thing East Coast has done, which is helpful, is introduce a train that leaves Edinburgh early in the morning and arrives in London at a time that allows people to attend meetings. It does that by having fewer stops, so there is always a trade off. By only stopping at Newcastle and then coming straight through, it has shaved off time. The only downside is that the train departs very early in the morning. We are privileged here in the House of Commons. As we go through until 10 pm on a Monday night, we do not start work at 10 am, which would be difficult.

Leaving aside the whole HS2 debate, we welcome the fact that intercity lines in other parts of the country are receiving significant public investment for electrification, new rolling stock and so forth. Of course, it is important to emphasise that all that investment is public and coming from the taxpayer. That fact was reinforced last month when the Office for National Statistics announced that it would reclassify Network Rail as a central Government body from September. That is an acknowledgement that it is not outwith the Government.

Part of the promise of privatisation was that it would generate investment, but it has not done so. We must be realistic about that. What about the level of private investment in other inter-city routes following the Government’s decision to prioritise the franchise competition for the east coast? I am sure that Members will remember that under the Government’s initial franchising timetable, a new contract for the west coast main line was due to start in October 2012, with Great Western starting in April 2013 and east coast in December 2013.

After the debacle of the west coast bidding process, a new timetable was announced last March. The east coast main line, which was previously last in the queue of those big franchises, was brought forward so that it

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would be let before April 2015. As the Government accepted the recommendations of the reports produced after what happened with west coast that only one major franchise should be dealt with at a time, that was only made possible by giving the current operator of the west coast main line—Virgin—a four-and-a-half-year franchise extension to April 2017. The operator of the Great Western line, First, was given a two-and-a-half year extension to September 2015. That is 77 months of extensions between the two operators.

Ministers who prioritised the east coast franchise and justified it by referring to the Brown review are presumably reiterating their belief that competition in the bidding process should drive private investment. Although franchise competition might achieve that, franchise extensions clearly do not. The Government have lost any bargaining chip they had in the process. Having made that set of decisions, they had no option but to negotiate with the existing operators. The only bargaining chip Ministers could use would be to threaten to call in East Coast’s parent company, Directly Operated Railways. The operators know the Government’s reluctance to do that and the very fact that they want to extract the east coast franchise from DOR shows that, quid pro quo, they would not want to put the other routes into DOR’s hands. That means that competition is effectively absent.

The companies have no incentive to invest during the remaining time for which they are operating the routes and have every incentive to demand significant subsidies. The extensions are likely to cost us, the taxpayers, dearly. In 2011-12, Virgin paid the Department a premium of £165 million and First Great Western paid £110 million. Will the Minister confirm that following the agreement of the extensions, payments of such an order are unlikely to be made? Perhaps he could confirm what sort of payments he anticipates. Will the Minister also confirm that apart from the roll-out of wi-fi on First Great Western, which we would have expected from any operator, the two extensions offer no improvement for passengers?

My key contention is that if the east coast franchise had not been prioritised, those extensions would not have been necessary and the competitions for the west coast and Great Western franchises could have been held much sooner had the Government wanted to pursue them.

Kelvin Hopkins: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Does that not illustrate that the determination to re-privatise the east coast main line is driven by dogma, not reality?

Sheila Gilmore: I think that it is. I do not propose to reiterate all that has been said by so many of my Opposition colleagues in several of the debates we have had on this subject about how East Coast has performed. Given the history, it is particularly frustrating. As I have campaigned on the issue and talked to people about it, I have found that the levels of support we get are extremely high.

People who are not politicians and who are not involved in the debate at that level are baffled as to why, when the east coast main line has already been through two difficult franchising periods, this should be happening in that way. Given what we have learnt, they ask, “Why are we doing this if it is working well? If it is working well, why not leave it in place and see what happens?”

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As I have said, that would not necessarily have prevented the Government proceeding with other franchises, if that is what they were determined to do—some people would certainly have preferred it if they had not been. It seems particularly perverse to pick this one. That is what many members of the public feel, and not just those who travel on the line regularly.

There is a lot of concern about how this will work out. If East Coast had been performing badly in the public sector, it would have made sense. An imperative to turn it around might have trumped the disadvantages of negotiating extensions on the west coast main line and the Great Western main line. But East Coast was and is performing well, and that defence is simply not available to Ministers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady, who says that there is no excuse. She will of course want to point out that, in terms of punctuality, the east coast main line is the worst performing long-distance franchise and that it has been so for at least the last year.

Sheila Gilmore: It is quite clear from the figures on punctuality that the problems East Coast has faced have been substantially about track and weather. A previous speaker referred to the problems with the lines, particularly in the Peterborough area, over the past couple of years. Those problems need to be addressed well in advance of any other changes. If we discount those problems, I do not think that anybody in the rail industry is suggesting that that has been due to the operator.

My contention is that we have reduced our ability to get improvements on other important lines and that that is regrettable at a time when there is real support and appetite for rail investment, and for good reasons. That has given us an opportunity to move ahead with this and perhaps make up for past mistakes. It seems to me to have been an opportunity missed.

4.2 pm

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): May I start by wishing you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the staff in the Speaker’s office, a rather belated happy new year? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) on securing the debate and the Backbench Business Committee on having the common sense to try to ensure that we have a debate on rail, because we have not had one for some time. I have been pressing for such a debate for the past three years, particularly in relation to the south-west, but have failed miserably—my hon. Friend is obviously much more charming that I am.

Transport in general in my neck of the woods is an incredibly emotive issue. I hope over the next few moments to speak with one voice with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), because we have been working very closely over the past three years to try to improve the transport infrastructure. Frankly, without her help we would not have got as far we have.

Plymouth is the 27th largest urban conurbation in the country and the 12th largest city. That its transport infrastructure is so bad is a bit of a disgrace. I recognise

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that that issue has affected not only the coalition Government, because they inherited many problems, but we need to work as hard as we can to improve the transport infrastructure into the south-west, especially down to my constituency.

Plymouth has a global reputation for marine science engineering research. That includes not only one of the most famous naval dockyards in the country, but the seventh largest university, which has a brilliant reputation for marine engineering research.

I have known my hon. Friend the Minister for more than 30 years, so he and I know each other very well, and no doubt if I say something very wrong he will take me to one side afterwards and put my cap on straight. However, I am going to use this opportunity to remind him, as I always remind other Ministers, that Plymouth is not Portsmouth. We are not 20 minutes away from Bristol, and we need to make sure that a large amount of attention is paid to our part of the world. Plymouth is an economic motor for what happens in west Devon, and also down into Cornwall. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) will want to express a view on that.

Some 38% of people who work in our city work in the public sector, so there is a strong wish to get primary investment into the place in order to build on that. We need to make sure that the city deal that I hope is about to come to fruition is a success, because that will mean that in return for some money being paid to clear up and decontaminate the dockyard, 10,000 new jobs could be created at the marine energy park, for which I have been campaigning.

Plymouth’s is a low-skills and low-wage economy. In that sense, it is very similar to Portsmouth and places such as Gravesend and Chatham, where unfortunately there has been too much dependency on the public sector, which has always wanted to make sure that it gets all the bright boys and girls to go and work for it, especially in places such as the dockyard. If we are to rebalance our economy, we need to make sure that we not only have a better skills base but try to increase private sector wages.

We desperately need better transport links. The really big issue for Plymouth and the west country is that every time it rains, everybody holds their breath, because we do not know whether there will be enough resilience to allow us to continue to travel from Plymouth up to London following any damage caused by the storms that take place. I urge my hon. Friend to consider an alternative line going north through Tavistock, because that would be very helpful should, at any stage, the Dawlish route fall to pieces. Last year, landslips caused very big problems on the line. Unfortunately, we have also lost our airport. I am afraid that there is therefore a sense in Plymouth that we are somewhat isolated from the rest of the country. Others have been campaigning to try to get Newquay involved. There is great concern about this, and 37,000 people in Plymouth signed a petition to keep the airport open.

Other than the trains, we are dependent on our roads as the only way to get in and out of the peninsula and into Plymouth. I thank my hon. Friend for his work in ensuring that there will be a case study on the dualling of the A303, which will be incredibly important. During the past two or three weeks when I have been going to and from Plymouth, I have somewhat aquaplaned my

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way down the M4, M5 and bits of the A38, and I have found that incredibly worrying. Dualling the A303 will be just one activity whereby we end up with good transport links, and I am therefore grateful that my hon. Friend has been able to press for it. We also need real political leadership. I am delighted that Labour Members, as well as the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, have been campaigning hard to make sure that we have the necessary level of investment and continuing to press the Government to take note of that.

There are several little things that I would like to ask for. I have already called for electrification of our line, and I thank the Government for sorting out the junctions at Reading, because that will certainly help, but there are several other things as well. First, we need more three-hour train journeys between Plymouth and London, as well as better links to Manchester and other parts of the country, including the north, the north-east and the north-west. Secondly, we need to get trains into Plymouth from London before 11.17 am, as is currently the case. If I were a business man seeking to do some work, I would want to make sure that I arrived in Plymouth at 9 am, rather than 11.15. That is incredibly important.

Thirdly, I am delighted that progress is being made on getting free wi-fi on our railway line. We also need to make sure that people who catch a train can be certain that not only will they sit on it for three rather than seven hours—which is what I am campaigning for—but that it will actually go through. It is incredibly important for there to be resilience in the network.

Another small point is that the Environment Agency proposed at one stage that, if there was going to be bad flooding, it would cut off the line at Exeter, which would have created real problems for those of us further west. I hope the Government will address that important issue.

We also need to make sure that the travelling public in Plymouth are given certainty. Given that 90% of the Devon and Cornwall MPs are members of the coalition parties, this is a real opportunity for the Government to demonstrate that we are serious about delivering better infrastructure in the south-west.

I want to set my hon. Friend the Minister a very small challenge. In 2020, Plymouth will commemorate the Mayflower. The founding fathers left Plymouth to find America; I think it was called the American colonies in those days. This is important because we will potentially get a flood of tourists from America. I and others have been pressing for the G8 to be held in Plymouth. It would be brilliant if we could get the President of America to visit the homeland of civilised activity in America. I am fully aware that President Obama will not be in office then, but his successor will be very important.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give me a commitment. First, would he be willing to meet me and the other Plymouth Members of Parliament to discuss how we can deliver a more resilient and better train service? Secondly, if we deliver a proper transport infrastructure by 2020—I wish to carry on being here for much longer than that—there will be real hope and my hon. Friend will have demonstrated true political leadership.

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4.12 pm

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) on securing this important debate. I apologise, as others have, for the fact that I shall discuss a line that connects to London. I accept his broader point that we should not be so southern-centric, but I hope he will forgive me, given that my constituency depends a lot on the line between Brighton and London.

I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), who is not in his place—I hope this is an area on which we can have cross-party agreement—that the current rail system is failing our constituents in Brighton and Hove. The Brighton-to-London commuters I meet almost every day are, without exception, frustrated and angry about the poor quality of the service that they pay through the nose to use. It is a huge amount of money and, as has been said, the cost just went up again earlier this month. An annual season ticket between Brighton and London Victoria is nearly £4,000; to be fair, there would be £28 change, but that is still a huge amount. What do people get for their £4,000? The main line from Brighton is in dire trouble. It struggles and creaks through inadequate capacity.

Last month I attended a Network Rail event on the future of the Brighton main line to make the case for more capacity between the capital and Brighton. The connection between the two cities is critical to my constituents and we do not want to wait for the crumbs from the table. Many Members have said that this is not a debate about HS2 and it certainly is not, but I think we should remind ourselves of the amount of money that can be found when the political will is there to invest in our rail infrastructure. I would far rather that that money was invested in the general rail systems on which so many of our constituents depend, rather than what I see as pretty much a massively expensive vanity project that will not deliver the gains that we need.

Brighton is a dynamic, internationally successful city and a major tourist destination, but it needs more investment in its rail lines: far too often the city is cut off because of problems at East Croydon or elsewhere on the line. We need some real vision and commitment to invest to get Brighton the second London line that we so desperately need. It is essential to have not only increased capacity, but a fast alternative route for passengers at times of disruption.

In October, Baroness Kramer, the Transport Minister in the other place, said:

“It is anticipated that Network Rail will provide a copy of its Brighton Main Line Pre-Report…to this Department before the end of the year. It will include…the potential role of new line schemes, including Lewes to Uckfield.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 October 2013; Vol. 748, c. WA166.]

Have Ministers received that report, and if so when will it be made public so that we can see it? In the autumn statement, the Chancellor said that he will accelerate the Network Rail study into improvements in the Brighton main line. Is that the same pre-report that was supposed to have been done by December, or is it an additional study? Weary commuters would welcome some clarification. Either way, we need to know the exact official terms of reference of the report and when we will get to see it. It is critical that the study should be a thorough review of

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capacity between the Sussex coast and London, covering all the options to end the chaos that we so regularly experience on this critical rail artery into London.

As well as talking about the specific needs of Brighton, including for a Brighton main line 2, I will say a few words about this country’s broader rail system. I believe that it is failing us, which is unforgivable in the sense that there is an alternative to the overcrowded, unreliable, overpriced and fragmented private services that we have to put up with. We could have an integrated, publicly owned and run railway that does not waste money on profit, and there is a model for doing that gradually and affordably.

Despite the standard mantra that privatisation saves money, the cost to the public purse of running the railways has risen by a factor of between two and three since they were sold off. The report “Rebuilding Rail” from the Transport for Quality of Life group makes clear the key reasons for that increase, which include high interest payments to keep Network Rail’s debts off the Government balance sheet—the Government have recently been made to put those debts on the books—as well as debt write-offs, costs arising from the fragmentation of the rail system into many organisations, profit margins of complex tiers of contractors and subcontractors, and dividend payments to private investors.

The only way to sort out that mess and waste, as well as the rising fares, overcrowding and the rest is for the state to take back control of the railways. That is why I am actively campaigning for them to be brought back into public ownership through my private Member’s Bill, the Railways Bill. I hope that the official Opposition will make it clear in their response whether they might back that Bill. If we want to improve our inter-city services, we have to nail the myth that buying back assets that have been sold off would be too expensive. The step-by-step approach in my Bill would allow the assets of the railways to be reacquired for the public at minimal cost, with substantial ongoing savings over time as franchises expire or companies break the terms of their franchise agreements. There is strong current evidence that it is better for passengers, railways and taxpayers when franchises are in public hands.

The Minister has been chuntering—if I may use that word—during my speech. I have not picked up what he has said, but I suspect that he is not entirely in agreement with me. I challenge him about the east coast main line. He put some facts and figures to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), but, frankly, they are misleading. The east coast main line was brought back into public hands because of market failure, but it is the UK’s most successful rail franchise. Its passenger satisfaction levels are the highest on record, and it pays millions back to the taxpayer, as opposed to most other train companies, which deliver millions to shareholders.

The Minister mentioned punctuality, so let us look at that. The facts show that the punctuality of the east coast main line is 0.1% different from that of the west coast main line: on the east coast main line, with very little Government investment, it is 82.8%, but on the west coast main line, with massive Government investment, it is 82.9%. That seems to suggest that on overall efficiency, the east coast main line is doing very well.

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The Office of Rail Regulation agrees with me. It says clearly that the east coast main line is the most cost-efficient line. Even the Financial Times says that it is

“the most efficiently run rail franchise in terms of its reliance on taxpayer funding”.

It receives the lowest level of Government funding.

However much the Minister chunters, there is plenty of evidence—this Government like to say that they are an evidence-led Government—from the east coast main line that bringing rail back into public hands works. It is precisely the threat of a good example that makes the Government want to sell it off as quickly as possible, so that it is not there as a standing embarrassment to the rest of their rail policy. It really does beggar belief that the Government want to re-privatise the line.

Stephen Hammond: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Caroline Lucas: With pleasure.

Stephen Hammond: Let us look at the evidence if that is what the hon. Lady wants to do. She should know that the rolling stock costs for the east coast main line came in at £85 million in 2012, whereas the bill for Virgin was £302 million. That is a substantial difference. The access charge costs are substantially lower and are likely to rise. Those are two pieces of evidence that place question marks over her line that it is the most efficient railway line.

Caroline Lucas: It is not just my line. As I have said, it is the line of the Office of Rail Regulation. I would suggest that there is cherry-picking going on in the figures that are being presented. There are questions over what the start time is and over how much of the responsibility for the costs can be laid at the door of Directly Operated Railways and how much at the door of the previous private franchises, given the lack of investment that went in earlier. My position stands strongly and I am backed up by independent regulators and others.

If the Government really want to make savings and to improve our transport network for everyone, they should recognise that privatisation has failed and bring railways back into public ownership as the franchises expire. According to calculations in the “Rebuilding Rail” report, reuniting the railways under public ownership could save more than £1 billion a year of taxpayers’ money. To put that figure in context, if all unnecessary costs were eliminated and the resulting savings were used entirely to reduce fares—I am not saying that that would necessarily be the best thing, but it gives one a sense of what we are talking about—it would equate to across the board cuts of 18%. Fares that are price regulated because of their social importance could be cut substantially more.

Under public ownership, all the public money that is invested in the railways could be used to deliver a better service for passengers, while also achieving wider social and environmental goals, rather than to line the pockets of private shareholders. Train travel could once again be a pleasure and something to be proud of. That is the kind of bright future that I want for our railways. I urge Ministers to wake up to the potential of public investment in our inter-city infrastructure and to look at the evidence clearly and objectively, rather than cherry-picking the figures, as I fear the Minister has done this afternoon.

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4.22 pm

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): It feels appropriate to be the last speaker in this debate, given that the journey time from my constituency to London to talk about inter-city rail travel is probably the longest of anyone here. I think that it is longer than that of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) at four and a half hours from St Austell on the main line. I join other Members in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) for securing this debate.

I congratulate the vast majority of Members on avoiding long and drawn-out references to High Speed 2. As I have often remarked, in the south-west of England, we would just like average-speed rail, please. I am very supportive of the plans for high-speed rail. It is a necessary part of our economic diversification and of the future-proofing of our rail infrastructure and network. However, the journey time of almost five and a half hours from Penzance to Paddington means that one can fly from London to New York in about the same amount of time as one can get from Cornwall to the Commons. We would therefore very much like to see investment in average-speed rail.

As hon. Members will know, rail connectivity is vital for the peripheral parts of our country, whether to deliver the visitors to Cornwall who spend so lavishly and support a good quarter of the local economy or to enable businesses in Cornwall to take their goods and services to markets in London, the south-east and further afield. That rail connectivity is a vital part of the overall transport network, which also includes Newquay airport, to which colleagues have referred, and the A30 and the A38. That network enables businesses and others to travel around our country, with all the benefits that that brings.

I wish to place on the record my support, along with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), for the Government to make a priority of resolving the issue at Cowley bridge in Exeter, which threatens to cut off the south-west every time there is significant rainfall—or, as we say in Cornwall, if there is rain in Exeter, England is cut off. That is part of the future-proofing and resilience that we need to ensure happens promptly in the rail network if we are to continue to experience weather events such as those at the moment, which I am sure we will. Such events have become all too common.

I welcome some of the developments on the network, such as the wi-fi that First Great Western is rolling out. I have long campaigned for that, because it has been absurd that inter-city travellers from Penzance to Paddington have not been able to access it. A business man or any other worker has had to sit on a train for about five hours without being able to access reliable internet services, meaning that they could not use that time as productively as they might have done. I am delighted that my campaign, along with others, to secure wi-fi on the network has been successful.

Simon Kirby: Would my hon. Friend be surprised to learn that in the south-east many First Capital Connect trains not only have no wi-fi but no sockets, and that some Southern trains have no toilets? It is a long way to go without them.

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Stephen Gilbert: I am surprised and shocked, as I am sure my hon. Friend is, and I can only assume that the Minister has heard his pleas and that that will be part of the ongoing discussions with the train operating companies. We need trains that are fit for the 21st century so that people can use them as part of their daily routine. Where businesses use them, we need to ensure that they have wi-fi, food, sockets and, of course, toilets.

I also welcome the project to refurbish the Night Riviera, which is the sleeper service between Paddington and Penzance. It is a vital service for the business community, allowing people to come to London for early-morning meetings, spend the day here and leave again. It is welcome that we are to have additional coaches, that they are to be upgraded and that there is to be a new lounge.

One of my frustrations when I have used the Night Riviera service, much like the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) mentioned, has been that there are no sockets inside the cabins. Someone can sit down on the train hoping that they might be able to do some work or watch a movie on their iPad, only to lose power and have no ability to charge up their device. That is a point of detail, but I hope that the Department might be able to raise it with the people who are designing the new sleeper carriages.

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman will also have noticed that, as those sleeper trains are currently designed, if someone wants to stretch out on the seats because they have not managed to get a berth, of which there are too few, they find that the arms of the seats are fixed. They have to spend their time sleeping either wrapped around a fixed metal arm or on the floor.

Stephen Gilbert: The hon. Lady will know that, often, what happens on the sleeper train must stay on the sleeper train, but she makes a good point about the comfort of the seated part of the service. If we are to invest significant money in that important service, we need to ensure that we get it right for the future. That includes moveable arms, as she says, and sockets to charge mobile and other devices.

The introduction of wi-fi, the revamped sleeper service and the intercity express programme, which will see more rolling stock delivered to the south-west, are all welcome. For too long now, customers on the Penzance to Paddington line have had to put up with a patchy service, often with no food aboard and with frequent delays and cancellations, out-of-date rolling stock, no wi-fi, as I have mentioned, and expensive ticket prices.

The Liberal Democrat party is clear that long-term investment in our rail network can secure an 8% dividend boost to the local economy in Cornwall. One key project that I hope the Minister will address is improving signalling in the south-west. Up to £15 million needs to be spent before 2017, which Cornwall council and the local transport board are keen to co-fund. That will improve capacity on the line by creating the prospect of a half-hourly main line service, improving journey times, and helping the route absorb the predicted increase in passenger numbers. I also put on record my support for the proposed Traincare centre in Penzance, which is a £14 million investment to house the new First Great

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Western rolling stock and the new sleeper. It will create up to 60 new jobs and move the maintenance of the bulk of the First Great Western fleet to Cornwall.

I will conclude with a couple of parochial points that I hope the Minister and I can correspond on in the future. There is a real need for improvements to St Austell station as there is currently no waiting room on the up platform, and no disabled access between the up and down platforms. The Minister’s predecessor and I were in correspondence about additional Government funding to make those renovations. The funding has been forthcoming but the project has not yet been delivered, so I hope the Minister will be able to return to his Department tomorrow and kick the necessary people into ensuring that the project stays on time and—excuse the pun—on track. People in Newquay value the fact that over the summer months a direct Newquay to other cities service comes through the branch line into Newquay, providing much relief for local traffic, particularly on the A30. That service needs to be maintained.

In summary, in recent years the south-west has fallen behind other parts of the country in terms of rail infrastructure. The Government have taken action through the extension of the franchise to encourage investment. I welcome much of that, but we continue to need a concerted long-term approach to ensure that the entire region—Cornwall, Devon and indeed the rest of south-west England—benefits from what our rail services could, and should, be.

4.32 pm

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) on securing this debate, which has addressed some national issues. Important constituency concerns have been raised by hon. Members, including those who represent Plymouth, Brighton, Cleethorpes, Luton, Edinburgh, and St Austell and Newquay.

There has been shared agreement across the House that strengthening rail links between our cities is an important step to achieving balanced economic growth for individual cities, city regions, and the nation as a whole. I am sure that all Members who have spoken today will work to ensure that although individual disagreements may arise, the commitment to an ongoing programme of investment endures.

There has been much positive talk today about future developments, and I know that for many hon. Members, those projects cannot be delivered fast enough. I entered Parliament with a pledge to campaign for the electrification of the midland main line, and although some issues still need to be addressed, the improvements look on course to reach the east midlands by 2019, and Sheffield by 2020.

Electrification will ensure faster, more reliable services, as well as delivering environmental and efficiency gains. We have heard other examples of how planned projects will benefit communities, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), and other south-west MPs who are very much looking forward not only to electrification, but to modern Intercity Express Programme trains, investment in improved resilience, and even wi-fi and power sockets.

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As we begin to plan for control period six spending in the next Parliament, we must consider how other links can be strengthened, new links made, and Beeching-era lines reopened where there is a clear business case to do so.

It is worth remembering just how far the rail industry has developed in the past 15 years. The 1997 Labour Government inherited a fragmented rail network. Years of underinvestment had left a dated fleet, much of it still using slam-door carriages, which was to prove inadequate against a backdrop of rising passenger numbers. The popular and successful inter-city brand had been broken up. There had been 1,000 days without orders, which had caused permanent damage to the supply chain. Disastrously, the recently privatised infrastructure body had little understanding of its assets, and Railtrack’s over-reliance on subcontractors put passengers’ safety in danger.

Kelvin Hopkins: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her speech. Would she say that it is a tragedy that Britain, which gave railways to the world and built them all over the world, is now importing railway equipment because in some cases we cannot build it ourselves?

Lilian Greenwood: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that we support and develop our railway engineering industry, which has such a proud history and continues to provide important sources of employment, particularly in my area in the east midlands.

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Redcar said—I have to disagree with him on this—I think we should be proud of Labour’s achievements. After ending the failed Railtrack experiment and establishing a tough new regulator, our railways became the safest major European network by 2010. There was a major programme of investment in rolling stock. More than 5,000 new vehicles were ordered between 1997 and 2006 alone, both to replace older trains and to allow for an expansion of services. The number of long distance passengers, and the services run to accommodate them, doubled since the mid-1990s, and with that growth came new pressures on our existing lines. We are now accommodating the same number of passengers as we did in the 1920s, but on a network that is less than half the size. That is why the previous Government committed to a number of important projects to improve capacity and overall performance of the network, including the electrification of the Great Western main line to Swansea and key lines in the north-west, and a new generation of inter-city express trains to replace the ageing rolling stock on the Great Western and east coast main lines.

It was the Labour Government who committed to Crossrail and introduced a £6 billion upgrade of the Thameslink route that will massively increase capacity on one of the busiest stretches of track in Europe. After the completion of HS1 in 2007, Lord Adonis set out plans for a new network to relieve capacity constraints on our north-south main lines, and to provide better connections between cities in the midlands and the north. They will address some of the very slow journeys highlighted by the hon. Member for Redcar, and provide improved capacity and connectivity to our national network.

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Caroline Lucas: The hon. Lady is talking about Labour’s successes. I welcome the fact that Labour has agreed to keep the east coast main line in public hands. Will she confirm whether it will follow the logic of that position and support my Railways Bill, which would bring all the franchises back into public hands as they expire?

Lilian Greenwood: As the hon. Lady says, we think the east coast main line is providing an important public sector comparator that will help us to evaluate the future of the rail industry. What is clear is that the current structure is not delivering enough for passengers. That is why, unlike the Government parties, we are prepared to review it and to look at alternatives that will deliver the best deal for passengers and taxpayers.

Unfortunately, all of the essential projects that I set out a moment ago were subject to delays after the general election. That caused uncertainty and, in some cases, pushed back completion dates.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I have been at the Westminster Hall debate this afternoon, otherwise I would have been here earlier. My hon. Friend mentioned the east coast main line. May I endorse the comments, which I know were made earlier by hon. Members on both sides of the House, on the need for the excellent services on the east coast to be improved by ensuring that the electrification system works and that the overhead lines do not come down too often and disrupt traffic in a way that, unfortunately, they have done all too often in the recent past?

Lilian Greenwood: I will return to the east coast main line in a few moments.

Electrification of the Great Western main line, which has come up several times today, is a case in point. After pausing the project in May 2010, electrification to Newbury was announced in November that year, but the project’s extension to Cardiff was not announced until March 2011. Ministers said then that the line to Swansea would not be electrified, and it was not until they faced further pressure that, over a year later, they agreed that the route to Swansea would be electrified after all. In other words, thanks to the Government’s prevarication, a project initially announced in July 2009 was not confirmed until three years later. Given the importance of bringing forward infrastructure projects to deliver sustainable economic growth, even a Tory-led Government can surely do better than that.

There has been a similarly sorry tale in rolling stock procurement. In March 2011, the Prime Minister met the chairman of Bombardier and said that he was

“bringing the Cabinet to Derby today with one purpose – to do everything we can to help businesses in the region create the jobs and growth on which the future of our economy depends”,

but just four months later, Bombardier announced 1,400 job losses as a result of his Government’s decisions. Even after this debacle, there was an unacceptable two-year delay before financial close was reached on the contract. The Public Accounts Committee said recently that it was

“sceptical about whether the Department has the capacity to deliver the remainder of the programme by 2018.”

After the Government’s failure to keep HS2’s cost under control and the collapse of rail franchising on their watch, it is difficult to have faith in the political

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leadership of the Department. The failure of the franchising system has cost the taxpayer at least £55 million, and the Government’s refusal to consider Directly Operated Railways has left civil servants in an exceptionally weak bargaining position when agreeing direct awards. Under the terms of the Great Western contract extension, FirstGroup will pay only £17 million in premium payments next year, compared with £126 million in 2012-13. Investment has been delayed and orders have been put on hold, hurting the supply chain and threatening jobs and skills.

At a time when Ministers have been overtaken by problems of their own making and the Department is struggling to get essential projects out of the sidings, it is remarkable that the Government’s top priority is selling off the east coast main line franchise before the next election. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for their persistence in raising this question with Ministers. Since 2009, East Coast has gone from strength to strength. It has delivered a new timetable, achieved better punctuality and passenger satisfaction scores than the previous failed private operators, won multiple industry awards and developed a five-year plan for improving inter-city services on the line.

The casual reader will be forgiven for not getting this impression from the Government’s franchise perspective, but thanks to a leaked draft of that document, we know that positive references to the company’s performance were removed at the last minute, as Ministers desperately tried to rewrite history. But East Coast’s commercial performance speaks for itself. By February 2015, it will have returned almost £1 billion to the taxpayer in premiums, and it has invested every penny of its profits—some £48 million—back into the service, but under the Government’s plans, that money would be split between private shareholders instead.

Before Christmas, East Coast announced that half its fares to London would be frozen and that most of its fares would be cut in real terms in 2014. Will the Minister tell us how many private operators have announced a cut in the average cost of their fares? The truth is that the Government have allowed train operating companies to raise prices by up to 5%—more than double the rate of inflation—and the average season ticket is now 20% more expensive than it was in 2010. So at a time when passengers are facing a cost-of-living crisis, why are the Government seeking to abolish the publicly owned operator that is cutting the cost of fares?

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that East Coast has risen to the top of the Secretary of State’s to-do list because it has proven itself as a successful alternative to franchising, and that is why Ministers are so determined to push it out the door before the election.

We know from written answers that the public cost of refranchising could reach £6 million, along with other wasted millions lost due to the west coast shambles. All this money could have been spent instead on alleviating the cost-of-living crisis or investing in the railways. As it stands, the refranchising of East Coast represents the triumph of ideology and short-term political calculation over passengers’ best interests and a wilful disregard for public resources.

I urge Government Members, particularly Liberal Democrat Members who before the election were opposed to selling off East Coast, to think again and halt this

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un-needed, unwanted and wasteful privatisation. The priority must be delivering a fair deal for passengers and ensuring that the essential projects that so many Members wish to see are completed.

Ian Swales: The hon. Lady makes an interesting point about East Coast. During the 13 years of the Labour Government, how many times was the franchise renewed and did the Government consider taking it into state ownership?

Lilian Greenwood: I would accept that we were perhaps too accepting of the overall franchising model. There were many problems on the railways that the Labour Government had to sort out, but we are at least prepared to look at alternatives, which is more than can be said at the moment for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. With all the inter-city franchises expiring in the next Parliament, we are right to look again at the best way to structure the railways to deliver real value for passengers and taxpayers.

My message to the Government is clear: “Call off the privatisation, get the Department in order, and make sure that essential investments in our inter-city lines are kept on track.”

4.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): It is an honour to address the debate this afternoon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) on securing the debate and on the way he conducted it. His speech was interesting and thoughtful, and he proved by his journey time calculations and recalculations that he can do mathematics.

We heard some fascinating contributions from a number of other Members. The three Members from the south-west were united across the political divide in wanting to see improvements to train services in the south-west, particularly the three-hour train to Plymouth. I remember campaigning in the city, along with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), back in 2007. The failure of investment about which she complained has not happened only under this Government. I can, of course, bring her good news. She quoted a fare of £271. Should she choose to travel tomorrow morning, there is a return fare of £92, so one needs to be careful about saying that only one fare is available.

I heard the pleas of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) about Mayflower 2020 in Plymouth. I do not know whether he will see President Christie turning up there. He invited me to come to a meeting, and I would be delighted to do so. I follow his lark in saying that I hope he is here for rather longer than just for 2015, and I am sure he will be.

I say to the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) that I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to go back to the constituency in the middle of the night to find that the film has been lost. The prospect of corresponding with him fills me with unbounded joy. I look forward to receiving and acting on his suggestions none the less.