In a Westminster Hall debate yesterday, I spoke about the importance of not ignoring the South West in plans to improve the Exeter - Waterloo line.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) on securing the debate, which is very timely in the light of the document that was published earlier this week, or perhaps last week, if I have got the timing right. However, the principal reason why I wanted to speak in the debate is that when I received my copy of the document, it took me some time to find any reference in it to anything west of Salisbury.
As you will be aware, Mr Streeter, historically this was the main line, as far as Exeter, to the south-west. It was certainly the fastest and most direct one. It is only in relatively modern railway times, since the Great Western line took over as the principal route, that it has fallen into decline. However, with the renaissance of the rail industry that the right hon. Lady mentioned, it faces similar pressures to railways all over the country. It faces similar and very welcome increases in passenger numbers, and that is not just about people travelling between Exeter and Waterloo. This line is a favourite of retired people and students, because it has rather competitive pricing compared with the First Great Western line. That is an element of competition that I am sure everyone here agrees can only be a good thing. Although the journey times are a little longer as a rule, people can get cheaper prices, so it is a very popular line, not just with people for whom it is convenient—those living in the constituency of the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who may be speaking in a few minutes—but with people from Exeter and people visiting Exeter from London and the south-east.
The line is a vital lifeline on the sadly increasing number of occasions when our main line, the Great Western line, is incapacitated, usually through some act of nature at the moment. In the past two or three winters, we have lost our connectivity on the main line for considerable periods and, as you will know, Mr Streeter, that has had a very damaging impact on the economy of the south-west. The alternative rail access provided by the Wessex line from Exeter to Waterloo has been incredibly valuable, although there was a week or so last winter when we had no connectivity at all because the line between Yeovil and Exeter was also blocked. I cannot remember whether that was because of flooding, landslides or trees, but the route suffers from resilience and vulnerability problems, which I shall discuss in a moment. I remember one famous weekend when I was coming back from my constituency and I was literally stranded. I always take my bicycle on the train between Exeter and London, and I had to put it in a taxi from Exeter all the way to Yeovil to get to the nearest train station. That, admittedly, was a rare event, but it helps to explain the sense of vulnerability and isolation that we have in the south-west, with these two fantastic but ageing and in-need-of-investment rail connections.
We can find one or two mentions of the line west of Salisbury in the document, which are welcome, but I hope that the Minister, when he sums up, will be able to reassure me that justified as all the investment is in the south-eastern portion of the line, east of Salisbury, this line will also receive investment. It performs a vital function, not just for long-distance travellers but increasingly for commuters in the Exeter area. We have growing and thriving communities. We have a new town, Cranbrook, just outside Exeter, which is getting a new station. We have growing villages and market towns—Feniton, Honiton and others—in east Devon and they have irregular services at the moment. In some cases, that makes it incredibly difficult for people who would like to use the train to commute to and from Exeter for work to do so.
Devon county council, along with the other local and regional partners, has come up with a visionary transport vision for the area, including something called the Devon metro, which would involve significant improvements and upgrading of the access routes in and out of Exeter by rail. This route is one of the most important. I do not have the figures with me, but I would not be at all surprised if a large number of people commuted every day to Exeter from the growing and thriving settlements in east Devon, but they have, as I said, very irregular services, which tend to finish early in the evening and do not always start early enough in the morning.
I shall explain what we desperately need on the this bit of railway west of Salisbury, which over time has been reduced largely to single track. That is the main problem. With a single-track railway, we cannot run services as frequently as we can on a double-track railway; we need passing places. There are a few passing places, but not enough; we need more. Just a few more passing places at strategic points would enable this railway to run trains more quickly and regularly. At the moment, it is difficult to combine a regular service from Exeter to Waterloo with local stopping services servicing the villages and towns that I have referred to, but we need both. With the huge growth in passenger numbers that we have seen in recent years, and which are projected to grow even more in future, and with all the public transport policy from all political parties urging and encouraging people to use public transport where possible, not just for climate change and pollution reasons but for reasons of chronic congestion in cities such as mine, we need those rail routes to function properly as commuter routes, as well as the leisure and long-distance routes that operate at the moment as an alternative to the Great Western line.
I say to the Minister, “Please, when you respond, don’t ignore the south-west.” I say that as chairman of the all-party group for rail in the south-west. The document unfortunately does not mention anything west of Salisbury in its opening pages or headlines. We have to look rather hard in the 180-plus pages to find anything at all about the line west of Salisbury. It is a very important line that has a great future.
I would like some reassurance that the proposals in the document will help Devon and enable Devon county council to deliver its vision for a Devon metro public transport system around Exeter. It is a fantastic, sustainable vision for transport around Exeter, and it is exactly the sort of thing that a forward-looking, visionary Minister, such as the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), should support. I look forward to his addressing it in his response.
The debate can be read in full here, and the Minister's response to myself and other contributing MPs is below:
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr John Hayes): What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to be Rail Minister for a day! It is not the first time, as I have already performed once in that capacity, but I am delighted to do so again, particularly in response to the Adjournment debate of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller). I congratulate her on securing it.
My right hon. Friend has once again shown that she is a great champion of the interests of the people of Basingstoke. She has also brought to the Chamber’s attention some wider issues, which I shall attempt to address in the limited time available. Should I not be able to get to all the matters raised by hon. Members—and there were many—I shall certainly write to them with details afterwards.
I think it was G.K. Chesterton who said:
“The centre of every man’s existence is a dream.”
It was that spirit that led to the creation of this country’s railways; without the vision and the dream, the reality would not have happened. That spirit, vision and passion for railways is needed at the core of future policy. Of course utility matters, but we must not be constrained by facts. We must have a big view of what railways can be, and what we can achieve. I shall attempt to imbue all that I say today with that passion for what railways can be.
My right hon. Friend made it clear that we are going through a railways renaissance. She was right to highlight the doubling in passenger numbers and to say that the prophecies of the prophets of doom at the time of privatisation have been frustrated by the response of the railway industry and passengers to the opportunities provided by rail travel. I was grateful that she brought that to the attention of the Chamber.
Across Great Britain, railways are playing an increasingly important role in economic development, are they not? When we speak of travel and transport, we need to speak of well-being as well as the economic effect, although the economic effect is not inconsiderable. Rail links people to their homes, jobs and recreational pursuits. That is particularly true across the south-east commuter network, including the Wessex route. As my right hon. Friend said, passenger numbers have doubled across the country in the past 15 years, and the Wessex route is no exception.
It might be helpful to begin with if I were to explain that Network Rail’s Wessex route encompasses the long-distance routes of London Waterloo to Portsmouth, Southampton, Weymouth, Salisbury and Exeter. It also serves the north downs line, linking Reading and Guildford to Redhill and Gatwick airport. It is therefore a vital component of the railway network, transporting millions of commuters into London and providing essential links to Gatwick and Southampton airports. I promise the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) that I will deal with the south-west part of the network, as I attempt to address the range of matters raised in this important debate.
South West Trains operates about 1,700 services a day, and about 222 million passenger journeys were made on its trains last year. In Basingstoke station alone, there are more than 5 million entries and exits a year. In debates such as these, I like to offer Members rather more than a litany of what we have already done and to give them the prospect of what we intend to do. I am delighted to tell my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke today that South West Trains is currently developing plans for improvements to the forecourt of Basingstoke station. Those works are yet to be guaranteed, but, if approved, they will start next year, with an estimated value of £30,000. We want to make the station as attractive as it can be and that work on the forecourt will do just that.
Crowding on services to Basingstoke and other destinations along the south west main line to London Waterloo, the UK’s busiest railway station, is, as my right hon. Friend said, a continuing challenge. One might say that it is a well known issue. Ensuring that there is enough capacity on trains is one of the highest priorities for passengers and it is one of the key issues that we are tackling head on. The matter has been raised by a range of speakers in the debate, including my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). I am pleased and extremely proud that the Government have pledged more than £38 billion in support for the rail industry in England and Wales over the period 2014 to 2019. That massive investment will significantly contribute to improving the capacity and quality of the network, which is seeing such a big growth in demand.
I will return in a moment to another aspect of what my right hon. Friend raised. She is right to say that, in anticipating capacity demand, we need to look across government at the effects of other policies: the consequences of our plan for growth and the relationship of that with transport and travel—rail travel, in particular. In that spirit, she will be happy to hear that the investment I described includes a significant commitment to the South West Trains network.
It may be helpful if I explain to my right hon. Friend and other Members the process for delivering capacity improvements, because that was raised by both my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. Essentially, it is a two-stage process. In the first instance, it is necessary to tackle the issues that constrain the suburban network in order to create the extra platform capacity at London Waterloo station. That will allow the industry to address the mainline capacity issues, which will benefit my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, her constituents and other constituencies. As I pledged earlier, in providing that extra capacity at Waterloo, we will also look at the style and character of that station. In a sense, we raised the bar at St Pancras and King’s Cross and people now expect the look and feel of London stations to match the best. We can do more in those terms at Waterloo.
In September, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), announced the latest capacity enhancement to be contracted with South West Trains. As part of plans to provide capacity for an extra 24,000 peak-time passengers each day, 150 new vehicles are being manufactured by Siemens to be put into passenger use by the start of 2018. However, the hon. Member for Nottingham South—as she said, I know her constituency well—made a good point in saying that we need to ensure that our policy is coherent. We need to be certain that the changes we make to rolling stock are integrated with the other necessary engineering considerations. I will ask officials to look afresh at that to ensure that we are pulling together all the necessary decisions in the way she proposed.
On the introduction of the new fleet, I should say that existing trains will be cascaded, which will provide some additional mainline capacity, including one additional peak service from each of Basingstoke and Woking. That is in addition to the extra 108 carriages that are already starting to arrive and are being put into passenger service, to increase capacity each day by 23,000 at peak times. A similar cascade is also adding capacity to a number of peak mainline services that are not already operating at maximum capacity. That issue was raised during the debate and it is very much part of our thinking.
During the same period, Network Rail will carry out major enhancement and renewal works in and around the Waterloo area at a cost of several hundred million pounds. The signalling system that covers much of the suburban network needs to be renewed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire said. As part of that project, a new turn-back facility will be created so that an additional four services can operate at peak times from Hounslow to Waterloo.
By 2017, Network Rail will have carried out works to bring the remaining four platforms at the former Waterloo International terminal back into full operational use for scheduled domestic services, restoring a vital piece of the south western route infrastructure to domestic use. The availability of those extra platforms is essential to the plans to extend platforms 1 to 4 at Waterloo. Those platforms serve the main suburban routes and, once extended, they will be able to accommodate 10-car-length trains. That will remove the last constraint that has for many years hampered plans to increase mainline suburban capacity beyond trains with a maximum of eight cars.
All that takes time, and considerable effort in planning, to minimise impact on passengers. That point has been made and I recognise that people will have concerns—these are major engineering schemes and, as they are implemented, we need to ensure that disruption is minimised. There will be some disruption, however, so we have made it clear to the south-western railway that it will have to deliver high quality communication to its passengers about what that will mean to their daily journey as it makes its plans.
However, I have every confidence that the long-term capacity uplift will be warmly welcomed by passengers and the prospect of better services will make short term disruption more acceptable. My experience is that, when people know where they stand, they can adjust their arrangements accordingly, but it is important that we get the information out. I will endeavour to ensure that Members in affected areas are informed of the changes at the earliest opportunity so that they can act as one of the conduits for the dispersal of that important information. We will look at other mechanisms as well.
I understand that, even with this investment, some of the capacity issues on the main line remain and that that is a source of some frustration for my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and other Members. I therefore turn to the process for securing further investment in the railway.
To begin with, it may be useful to explain that major investments in the railway are funded on the basis of five-year funding cycles known as control periods, as hon. Members have mentioned. We are currently in control period 5, which began earlier this year and will run until 2019. During this control period, the Government are providing Network Rail and the rest of the rail industry with more than £16 billion to upgrade and enhance the networks in England and Wales. It is from that funding pot, known as the Government’s rail investment strategy, that many of the capacity enhancements I have already referred to will be financed.
The right hon. Member for Exeter asked specifically about services to his area. As he knows, although the rest of the Chamber may not—you will know this, Mr Streeter, given your local expertise—Exeter has two routes to London. The great western line is being upgraded during control period 5. That will include a number of resilience improvements, but I will ask that they are considered closely again to take account of some of the points that he made. The second route, via Salisbury, enjoys less demand and has less capacity. I think, however, that the route study needs to consider longer-term options to increase capacity, with more passing places and options for electrification of that route. As a direct result of this debate and the right hon. Gentleman’s overtures, I will ensure that we look at that closely and communicate those thoughts to him.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire, speaking with all the expertise from his own involvement in this Department as a distinguished Minister many years ago, before I entered the House—I was going to say “when I was a child”, but that would be something of an exaggeration—raised any number of fascinating matters. I will make all kinds of commitments to him, because if one is the Rail Minister for the day, one can do just that. The civil service will be shaking in its boots as I make this speech.
Sir George Young: Go for it.
Mr Hayes: Ongoing developments for cycle space provision should be part of all franchises, in my judgment, and from today they will be.
The business decisions of train operators on the issue of first and standard class balance has been raised by a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. We need to ensure that we make best use of space on trains. That use will vary from time to time and I do not want to make any prescriptive judgment, but discussion of that issue needs to take place regularly, based on a proper analysis of use. If, as has been described, some carriages are empty and others are full to the point of bursting, we need to respond to that situation.
The argument about Heathrow southern access was a really good one. We need to have a new study on that issue, which should begin this autumn and which should be published as soon as possible, ideally—indeed, at the latest—by early next year, and we need to consider what more can be done.
On the issue of car-parking capacity, it is important that we identify demand and sites for car parks, and I am more than happy to commit to working with local councils to do that. Perhaps we just need to drop a line to those local authorities to remind them of our willingness to have that kind of dialogue, particularly where we know, from Members across the House, that there are pressing problems. There is a history at certain stations of parking issues, so perhaps we can initiate some new thinking on that.
When they think of railways, everyone thinks of Stephenson; some, with a more curious turn of mind, think also of Hodgkinson; and all romantics—such as you and me, Mr Streeter—think of Jenny Agutter and John Betjeman, do we not? We think of “The Railway Children” and Betjeman’s advocacy of the romance of rail. To that end, I would be very happy to facilitate contact with Network Rail to allow the steam train that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, who has ministerial responsibility for rail, has pressed for. Indeed, the case for that train was amplified today by my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire. Let us allow this to happen, and in that spirit let us look again at the historic estate. We have many old railway stations, some of which could be brought back into use. We also have many glorious signal boxes; more of them should be listed. Let us once again be bold and ambitious to have our dream of the romance of rail, and turn that dream into a reality.
My right hon. Friend talked about the capacity issue. Of course, his area will benefit from the commitment to increase capacity at Waterloo during the period between 2014 and 2019, and from proposals to “grade separate” working junctions in control period 6. I will come on to that in a moment, because it is important to say first that the process for identifying possible investments and upgrades for the next control period—between 2019 and 2024—began recently. As such, there are opportunities for my right hon. Friend, other Members and the public in general to contribute to this process and to influence the Government’s next rail investment strategy.
When these drafts are issued, it is important that right hon. and hon. Members understand that they can play a part in shaping the final outcomes. When I last spoke on railway matters, I emphasised that these things are not set in stone. The whole process is by its nature consultative, and drafts should not be deemed to be the final word on these matters, but instead a catalyst for fresh thinking, with right hon. and hon. Members playing a vital role in the process.
I return to the specific part of the railway under discussion today. Network Rail recently published its draft Wessex route study for just that kind of consultation. It highlights the network constraints in the area of Basingstoke, which include a mix of speed limits and the confluence of several lines. Due to its location on the south-west main line, Basingstoke suffers from the convergence of several routes further up the line at Woking, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke suggested.
For those reasons, two of Network Rail’s emerging priorities for the next control period are, as I said earlier when dealing with my right hon. Friend’s questions, to “grade separate” the junctions at Woking and Basingstoke. For the benefit of those Members who do not speak in railway terms, as I myself did not until very recently, that term refers to the lifting, via a bridge, or dropping, via a tunnel, of a track over or under another, which means that trains moving in one direction do not get in the way of trains going in the other direction, preventing some of the frustrating stopping and starting with which many rail travellers are familiar.
In addition, the draft route study sets out options for the possible introduction of double-decker trains between Basingstoke and London; such trains were mentioned earlier in the debate. Although they are a common sight in other European countries, they have not really appeared on the British rail network, partly due to the height of some of our Victorian tunnels and bridges. As I have said, because I value the historic estate I would not want to see those tunnels and bridges being disregarded. Nevertheless, while the introduction of double-decker trains would necessitate the adaptation of the network, Network Rail is of the view that they may be a viable option on certain lines, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend and her constituents would relish the chance to lead the roll-out of such exciting technology on their line, becoming early beneficiaries of the additional capacity that it would bring.
Let me reiterate that these ideas are some of the emerging views for control period 6. The draft route study has been articulated and published by Network Rail, based on the information available to it at the time the route study was published. Indeed, the document acknowledges that the dominant issue is the need to provide sufficient capacity in peak periods, and consequently it has focused on developing choices to address that issue where needed, such as options to increase peak main-line capacity through use of new technology and “grade separated” junctions.
To that end, Network Rail is working with Transport for London, local authorities along the route and other stakeholders better to understand their views on these matters. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke eloquently and clearly outlined the other pressures that are likely to affect capacity. I know that she is concerned that the housing growth that is planned in and around her constituency will have a dramatic impact on that demand-supply balance.
I want my right hon. Friend to know today that I understand that concern, and that the Government appreciate the point she made about the importance of ensuring that wider policies are fully taken into account when capacity on this line is being planned. The case she has made has been heard by the Government and will be built into our further considerations.
Maria Miller: I thank the Minister for giving way; he is generous with his time. It is incredibly reassuring to hear what he is saying, because at this point in time it appears that house-building levels are not taken into account when future capacity is determined, and indeed that capacity is more likely to be determined by the number of new jobs generated in London than by the number of houses being built in my constituency, or indeed in the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young). We need to make sure that this issue is taken into account, so that we can ensure that the proper increase in capacity on the line is put in place now.
Mr Hayes: My right hon. Friend needs to know that Basingstoke, North West Hampshire and Winchester are never far from my mind, and that they have been brought to the forefront of my mind today. As a result of this debate, I will ask my officials to take into account the views she has articulated and to make it perfectly clear that—in a proper, joined-up and coherent way—we consider some of the effects of growing population and the likelihood of that growth increasing demand for rail use. It would certainly be a fitting tribute to her and to the debate she has stimulated today for me to deliver that fresh thinking for her, which is precisely what I will try to do.
I think that the issue of ticketing was raised by my right hon. Friend—my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester mentioned it as well—and I am open to further consideration of the options, in terms of technological changes, that would speed up the ticketing process. I am also mindful of what my right hon. Friend said about fares. My commitment on fares is very clear.
Steve Brine: On ticketing, I specifically mentioned part-time season tickets, which constituents constantly raise with me. It is a smart-ticketing issue, but is that solely down to the train operating companies or is there a regulatory issue that the Government need to intervene on before part-time season tickets can be made available? Perhaps he will write to me on the subject.
Mr Hayes: I will write to my hon. Friend about the detail, but my view about all these things is that there should be a dialogue between the Government operating companies, because there we need lines of accountability for all public services to Government and, through the Government, to this House. When hon. Members raise such issues, it is important that there are means by which they can be communicated to the people who make the decisions. It is right that we have that dialogue, and I assure my hon. Friend that that will take place.
We understand the issues about housing and why my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke introduced this debate, and we understand the implications of her argument. Responses to the consultation will, as I said, feed into the final version of the Wessex route study, which is due to be published next year. That will then help to inform the Government’s priorities for the next rail investment strategy for the period 2019-24.
Finally, as I reach my exciting peroration, may I explain that as well as looking at potential funding priorities for control period 6, the Wessex route study is looking at much longer-term funding priorities for this route? I spoke about vision and dreams. We should be ambitious for this route and, in looking ahead to 2043, we need to think about long-term changes to supply and demand and about rail travellers’ changing expectations, including considering increasing capacity—extra tracks—on key sections closer to London or, indeed, Crossrail 2. Again, on those matters of longer-term funding, all hon. Members and all interested parties are encouraged to respond to Network Rail’s consultation before 17 February next year.
My right hon. Friend has done the House a great service in bringing these matters before it. The Government are wholly committed to the railways and to rail investment. We published our investment strategy for roads yesterday. That, and our approach to rail, is indicative of breadth of thinking and a long-term approach in respect of a transport strategy that is, I think it is fair to say, unprecedented in its ambition. It is right that we should think in those terms, because infrastructure and investment only serve economic purpose—they feed the common good—by adding to individual and communal well-being. To that end, my right hon. Friend made an important contribution—
Lilian Greenwood: Will the Minister give way?
Mr Hayes: As I am on well-being, I am delighted to give way.
Lilian Greenwood: I am interested in the Minister’s comments about the need for long-term vision and certainty. There has been a remarkable lack of long-term vision on the issue of fares. When his Government were elected, they were talking about raising fares by the RPI plus 3%, and we had announcements taking it down to RPI plus 1%, then to RPI. I am sure that is incredibly welcome for the hard-pressed commuter, but it does not give any certainty either to operators or to passengers. His scrapping “flex” for 2015 is welcome, but why is not there a long-term commitment to scrap “flex” altogether, to take the pressure off people who have had 20% fare rises in just four years?
Mr Hayes: Again, Chesterton said that how you behave when you lose determines how long it will be before you win. The hon. Lady’s thinking about fares may herald her party’s eventually winning: it will not be for many decades, but it will happen. It is absolutely right that she presses me on this issue and, because I am the Rail Minister for today, I make this commitment: fares will not go up by more than inflation. I will also commit to something else, which will cause some excitement in her constituency, which I know well, and feel that I owe it this obligation. We are committed to electrifying the midland main line between London and Sheffield via Nottingham. She knows the difference that will make, as someone who, like me, travels regularly on that line.
What a great debate this has been. It has provided an opportunity for hon. and right hon. Members to advance the interests of their constituents in the context of that bigger vision of the significance of rail. This debate has shown that the party divides in this place are small compared with our shared commitment to do our best by the people we represent.