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House of Commons Hansard

Rail Links: South-west England

24 October 2017
Volume 630

    [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered improving rail links in south-west England.

    It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am proud to secure my first debate as an MP, on the urgent need to improve the train line in the south-west of England. I am grateful for the cross-party support I have received ahead of the debate, and I will try to make my remarks as cross party as I can because I know the sentiments are shared not only on the Labour Benches but on the Conservative Benches.

    I am proud to be a Janner—someone from Plymouth. Having been born there and as we live there, we all know that there is one thing in which we can instinctively believe: our train line is not good enough, and other regions get more money. As a region we have been given, and have accepted, a poor deal from Government for too long. Across nearly all areas of Government spending, the south-west, particularly the far south-west, receives below-average spend. In education, health, housing, road and rail the south-west lags at the bottom of the spending league tables. We need to change that, and we need to do it together. I am pleased that so many hon. Members from all parts of the House are here to debate the topic, and I hope the Minister will recognise that these are not just my concerns, nor those of my constituents or my party, but those of our region as a whole, presented on a cross-party basis.

    I have three simple objectives that I encourage the Minister to take on board to help us in the south-west. We must realise the vision contained in the excellent recommendations of the peninsula rail taskforce, so we can have a railway to be proud of—an economic asset and not a liability. I encourage the Minister to help us to cut journey times from Plymouth to London from an average of three hours and 30 minutes to two hours and 15 minutes. Journey times are quicker to those regions lucky enough to have snazzy monikers such as northern powerhouse and midlands engine; I am afraid that the far south-west gets no such snazzy moniker, nor the spending that normally accompanies it. I encourage the Minister to help us to achieve our third objective: a railway that is resilient, with connectivity that will survive storms, and wi-fi and mobile connectivity enabling business to be done on the train.

    With those objectives in mind, I have three simple asks of the Minister, his colleagues in the Department for Transport and those in the Treasury. First, will they look at how we can invest in quicker journeys and shorter journey times? The Minister will know that there is an opportunity to look at speeds on the Devon banks, the parts of the track between Plymouth and Exeter that are being repaired next year. While that work is going on, for a bargain price of £30 million, the track can be straightened, rails replaced and the speed limit lifted from 60 to 75 miles per hour. That would cut the journey from Plymouth to Exeter by three minutes; Great Western Railway trains would do it in just under an hour, and CrossCountry trains would do it in around 55 minutes. That would be a huge improvement on where we are now, and considering the billions being spent on High Speed 2 to cut journey times to the midlands for those in London, it is a bargain.

    Secondly, I ask the Minister’s support for a pilot project in Devon and Cornwall, using Network Rail’s global system for mobile communications-railway, or GSM-R, masts for public mobile signal to power calls on trains and proper, full-distance wi-fi. I hope that my neighbour, the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), will pick up on that later. Finally, I ask the Minister to recognise the enormous amount of work put in by the peninsula rail taskforce, the councils, Network Rail, businesses and hon. Members, and to look again at his Department’s decision not to respond formally to the report. It is a first-class piece of work and deserves the benefit of a considered response from the Department.

    Mr Evans, you will be aware that the far south-west is a beautiful part of the world, full of ingenious businesses, a superb tourism economy and the potential to deliver much more, but we need greater investment in transport. Plymouth has neither an airport nor a motorway—that ends in Exeter—and despite being the largest city on the south coast, larger than either Portsmouth or Southampton, our journey times to the capital are slower and our transport spend smaller. Post-Brexit Britain must not ignore the talent and potential of the regions. The far south-west is a region eager to deliver, but it requires strategic investment, especially in transport, to really motor.

    The funding gap for transport in the south-west is real. The Treasury’s country and regional analysis publication shows that, in 2015-16, the total identified Government expenditure on transport in the south-west was £277 per head. In London, the figure was £973 per head. Spending in London is three and a half times that in the south-west, relative to population size. Spending in the south-west is the second lowest of all English regions, with only the east midlands being lower at £260 per head. These figures are greater when spending on transport infrastructure is factored in.

    The Treasury’s figures on public expenditure on rail by year and region from 2015-16 state that the figure for London is £5.16 billion, while the south-west gets £357 million. That implies that, per head, people in the south-west are worth less than those in London. Let me be clear: people in the south-west are not worth less than those in the capital. As a member of the Select Committee on Transport, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport about these figures during our session last week. He encouraged me not to look at the figures. I am afraid that the figures are what I look at, because they tell a story about investment and political priority.

    In 2014, as many hon. Members will remember, our poorly equipped train line suffered immensely during the UK storms, which literally washed away and left hanging parts of the track at Dawlish. A short distance down the track, the cliffs failed and fell on to the tracks, as has been happening for decades. The train line through Dawlish was closed for a number of months, costing the economy more than £1 billion. In the wake of the storms, the then Prime Minister David Cameron came to the south-west to visit Dawlish and see the damage for himself. In a press conference afterward, he said that

    “money is no object...Whatever money is needed…will be spent. We will take whatever steps are necessary.”

    Those are fine words, but the reality has often been quite different.

    The problems were not just in 2014, when the precarious train line at Dawlish gave out. Each time there are storms, CrossCountry, which runs Voyager trains, must cancel the last leg of the journey from Scotland to Penzance at Exeter, because its trains short-circuit at Dawlish if they are hit by waves, blocking the track and requiring removal, effectively closing our rail line. It is not a historical injustice, but a regular occurrence. The recent Storm Brian meant that CrossCountry trains through Dawlish were cancelled yet again in the last week, raising the question of whether anything has been learned in the three years since the floods. It is lucky that Great Western, which for the time being is still driving its so-called high-speed trains, can still go through Dawlish when the tracks are open. In no other part of the country would such a precarious train line or such a broken franchise commitment be tolerated by Ministers, so why are they tolerated in the south-west?

    In the aftermath of those storms, the largely Conservative councils in the south-west, together with largely Conservative Members of Parliament, created the peninsula rail taskforce. It produced a series of excellent pieces of work, which my party supports, setting out a long-term programme of work to invest in our railways. I pay tribute to all those who contributed to and funded the PRTF reports and studies, and who continue to serve and contribute to that regional undertaking today.

  • I fully understand that the hon. Gentleman is concentrating mainly on Dawlish and the Plymouth to London line. Will he also take the opportunity to support the existence of, and continuing investment in, branch lines such as the Avocet line, which plays a vital role between Exeter and Exmouth in my constituency?

  • I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that branch lines are important in the region. The PRTF report talks about not only investment in our main line, but creating wider Devon metro services and the importance of connecting not only Devon’s great cities, but its smaller towns as well.

  • While we are broadening the discussion a bit, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should also look at new railway stations to help develop the whole network across the south-west? For example, in my constituency we are working on a railway station for Wellington. I am also working with my hon. Friend from across the border, the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), on a station at Cullompton. I know the Government have committed money for the new stations fund, and I welcome that, but I wonder whether the Minister might let us know for how long the fund will be accessible, and whether he might work with us to push the project forward when the time is right.

  • More new stations in our region can only be a good thing. Continued investment in repairing and renewing existing stations, such as the efforts being undertaken at Plymouth, is also much appreciated. The peninsula rail taskforce produced a fine set of reports. One year since hon. Members who are here today presented it to Ministers, there has still been no formal response. In answer to a written question that I tabled on 20 July, the Minister confirmed that the DFT would not formally respond to the PRTF’s report at all. That is disappointing, and I encourage the Minister to look at it again. It is a fine piece of work, setting out what signals, track, curves and junctions need upgrading to achieve quicker and more resilient journeys. It is a costed plan of some £9 billion in total, with £2.5 billion of immediate asks.

  • I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that much more could be done to the track to get the trains faster. I want to get faster trains to Plymouth, but I also want to make sure they stop at Tiverton Parkway on the way. I very much back what my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) said about a station in Cullompton as well as Wellington, and we must not forget the southern line from Waterloo to Exeter, which a great deal more could be done with.

  • The hon. Gentleman makes the point well.

    In the general election, I was pleased that my party leader was so persuaded by the case for rail investment in the south-west that he backed spending £2.5 billion on the following immediate asks in the PRTF report: track straightening, signal upgrades, speed improvements and resilience at Dawlish in preparation for the Dawlish avoiding line. I fear I am getting a similar reputation to the Leader of the Opposition for liking trains. If Labour can do that, will the Minister look at spending that is as yet unallocated in control period 6 for funding the PRTF projects?

    The Secretary of State recently announced £48 billion of maintenance and repair funding, with investment in infrastructure to follow in the so-called SoFA—statement of funds available—documents. My ask, which I am sure is that of other Members, is for the far south-west to gain its fair share of that funding. I do not believe voters or Members would accept or support yet more money going to other regions without the far south-west getting our fair share. I am sure that the irony is not lost on the Minister or members of his party present today that a plan put together largely by Tory councils and backed by Tory MPs is not yet being backed by a Conservative Government but is backed by the Labour Opposition. I am sure the Minister and all those with an eye on the region’s many marginal seats would like to address that.

    We need a railway we can be proud of, and the autumn Budget is the Government’s chance to give us exactly that. Our rail travel should take two hours 15 minutes to London, not three and a half. We need to ensure we are investing in reducing the journey times at every opportunity. The PRTF’s “Speed to the West” study has identified an opportunity in the autumn Budget to allocate £30 million of new money and shave three minutes off the journey between Plymouth and Exeter. To complete the work, £600,000 is required for Network Rail to finalise the technical details and re-model the track plans. The work itself would cost £25 million to £30 million. That is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because according to the chair of the PRTF, those tracks will not be repaired again for another 60 to 70 years. I encourage the Minister to support us in making the case to the Treasury and his own Department to spend that money.

    I would like to take a moment to look at what transport infrastructure means for the wider south-west region as a whole. Last Friday at the Exeter Chiefs ground I joined Members and businesses from across the region for the south-west growth summit, where I made a pledge to back the south-west, as a number of Members did. The biggest single boost that could be delivered to our region’s economic performance is investment in our train line. The Minister and I are both big fans of modal shift—moving people from their cars on to trains. At present it is faster to drive between Plymouth and Exeter than it is to take a car. Will he help us to make modal shift possible, so that we can reverse those statistics?

    Politics has changed, and new approaches are needed. Other regions of our country have seen the way that Opposition and Government MPs can join together to champion transport schemes in their region. I hope that that can be done in the far south-west. As a region, we need to be stronger, bolder and more relentless in delivering transport schemes and more passionate with Government to make sure we get the funding we deserve. If we continue to suffer from poor transport links, we risk losing jobs and missing the chance to protect and grow the economy in the south-west.

    I would be grateful if the Minister could address in his concluding remarks the request for a pilot of using Network Rail’s mobile masts in Devon and Cornwall for train mobile signal, £30 million for a speed upgrade on the Devon banks and a proper response to the PRTF report. All three asks are in his hands. Our region awaits his decision, and I hope it is a good one.

  • As hon. Members can see, there is considerable interest in contributing to the debate, so please be considerate of other Members when making speeches.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate. As he will know, we have two things in common. I not only share his interest in trains in the south-west but I was born in Plymouth, at the now gone Freedom Fields Hospital in his constituency.

    It is a pleasure to speak about this issue. There has been a lot of attention given to railways in the south-west over the last three years, following the disaster at Dawlish. That attention has been welcome, because for too long our railways have been a Cinderella service. For me, this is about not just being negative but looking at how many people are using these services, the growth we are seeing in passenger numbers and the vital part our rail network is playing in many people’s lives. All that is being achieved with older stock, with a railway that is the remnants of what was left after the Beeching era and with the famous issues at Dawlish.

    I have commented a couple of times that it is bizarre to have to look at the wind forecast, weather forecast and shipping forecast to see whether certain trains will be running west of Exeter. To be clear, that is not due to the track; it is due to the design of the trains and the rolling stock. Sometimes that gets confused, and people think the reason CrossCountry cannot run is an inherent issue with the Dawlish coastal railway, but it is not. When we see a 40-year-old train ploughing through a big wave, that is because of an issue with the design a few years back, which I hope is being carefully noted by Great Western in its trials for introducing new rolling stock on to the line within the next couple of years. That will be one of the most welcome investments we have seen in some time.

    Dawlish is the iconic issue. It is vital that there is a commitment to completing resilience works there, so that the railway will stand for another century. It is perfectly possible to do that. While I hear talk of a new line, which might be something to pursue as an additional route in years to come, for now, in the short term, we have to make sure that that railway line does not close. There is little point having a great plan for a decade’s time if a piece of cliff moves and we end up with no railway line for a year or two. Our region could not possibly accept that outcome. I hope the Minister will give us an update on the work that Network Rail has been doing and that his Department has been funding.

    One big thing to come out of the Dawlish incident was that the region finally came up with the peninsula rail taskforce plan. One of the things that most surprised me when I got involved in campaigning three or four years back in Devon and Cornwall was that we did not have an agreed ask. In many other regions, particularly in the north, we would find a united package of asks in order of priority, whereas traditionally in the south-west, in the past, we have had too much arguing between areas, with the outcome being that it was easy for national decision makers to send investment elsewhere.

    A bonus of the PRTF plan is that it gives a clear set of priorities for the whole region that each area benefits from, and each area recognises that competing with other parts of Devon and Cornwall is not a productive way of going about it. It would be very hard to argue that Dawlish and Teignmouth should be bypassed while arguing that Torquay and Paignton definitely need rail stations. We need to keep a united front.

    With the upcoming Devon banks work, it makes eminent sense to see if some journey savings can be achieved. While those services do not directly benefit Torbay, some members of my constituency’s travelling public will travel to Plymouth, and generally making services speedier across the whole line benefits each one of us.

    It is also vital that we keep attention on local rail schemes that may make a difference, and in particular the prospect of new stations or reconnecting parts of the network that have not had a station since the middle to late 1960s. That means particularly looking at a new station in Edginswell. I was very pleased to hear the Minister’s positive views on that project last week, and I look forward to the meeting where we can discuss that in more detail. It is as vital to have local stations that allow people to connect to the network as it is to have a nice new train heading off from Newton Abbot at speed to London. Ultimately, the key time that matters for people is the time it takes from where they are to where they want to be, and that is where the transport network has to come together. It cannot just be fast between two points if those two points do not connect to other places.

    I am mindful of the guidance you gave, Mr Evans, so I will conclude. Railways in the south-west provide a great opportunity and have a great unreleased potential that, with investment, could make a real difference to not just our region but the nation’s economy as a whole. I hope the Minister will give us some real encouragement and strong views on how we can take our region and our railways forward.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this important debate. I know at first hand what a champion he has been over many years for investing in and improving rail in the south-west. In fact, when we were both nipping at the heels of the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) and the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) at the 2010 general election—sadly, we lost at that time—rail investment was a key issue, and it has been over the years since.

    Now, as the Member for Bristol North West, my home constituency, I have two main concerns. First, I am disappointed that electrification of the track from London to Bristol has been cancelled. We now have the absurd position that new-generation Great Western Railway trains, which can be powered by electricity, get only as far as Maidenhead before they have to turn on the diesel engines. That cannot be right, and given that the Government are starting to fall behind on their climate change commitments, I hope to see that project completed soon.

    My second, and to me and my constituents most important concern, is inner-city rail, which is vital to the future success of Bristol North West. Already there are congested road networks in the north of my constituency. I am talking about the very part that runs parallel to what will eventually be tens of thousands of new homes on the Filton airfield and adjoining land, and a tripling in size of our regional shopping centre—the Mall Cribbs Causeway. Those developments are right next to some of the largest employers in the city and region: Airbus, Rolls-Royce, GKN, the Ministry of Defence and the University of the West of England. Bristol North West is already congested, and continues to fail to meet its air pollution targets. With such significant development, failure to invest in proper rail infrastructure now will bring my constituency to a standstill, especially at peak commuting times and seasonal retail times, and will not help us to meet our air pollution targets.

    I welcome the commitment from Network Rail and Great Western Railway to the opening by 2020-21 of the Henbury spur, with 18-minute services from Henbury through North Filton into Bristol Temple Meads, but we need that spur to develop at the next stage into the Henbury loop, connecting the track through Avonmouth to the existing Severn Beach line, which runs along the south of my constituency, and ideally, if we are in the business of funding the projects that I am asking for, with a new station at Horfield and Lockleaze, too. That is important for residents and workers.

    In the Avonmouth and Severnside enterprise area in my constituency, there are already more than 14,000 jobs, and the local enterprise partnership expects a further 6,000 to 12,000 by 2026, yet anyone who has visited the enterprise area knows full well that it is not accessible without a car. I commend the work undertaken by organisations such as SevernNet, Ambition Lawrence Weston and the Shirehampton Community Action Forum in supporting new bus routes and company-backed shuttle buses, but the services run infrequently, often hourly, and not in line with shift patterns, and funding has been cut. The future of those bus services is now in question, and the answer, as consistently raised by the excellent Friends of Suburban Bristol Railways, must be rail.

    However, this is not just about workplaces but about residents. Without the Henbury loop, most of the constituents in the middle and north-west of my constituency suffer from very poor transport connectivity to the rest of Bristol. That affects families trying to do the school run and get to work on time, young people trying to get to further and higher education facilities and older people who need to get out and about around our fabulous city.

    I should take this opportunity, after a long period of intense lobbying from my grandmother, Irene Jones, to make it clear that the cuts resulting in the closure of the number 18 bus route through Westbury-on-Trym and Southmead are entirely unsatisfactory and that the bus route should be restored urgently.

    The Henbury loop will happen only with appropriate investment to allow the connecting track to run past the entrance to the Bristol port without disrupting lorries and freight, and for associated signalling upgrades. That requires Government backing and investment, as the Secretary of State knows only too well from the persistent and admirable lobbying of my Conservative predecessor, Charlotte Leslie. As a starter for 10, I hope that the Department can assist the West of England Combined Authority in funding an independent study of the Henbury Loop business case, as recommended by the Department to my predecessor before the election.

    As a recent European green capital, with strong city-wide environmental credentials, Bristol wants people to use public transport instead of their cars, but we can get people out of their cars only when the public transport network exists where it needs to and when services run frequently and efficiently and do not cost the earth to use. As the voice of 100,000 people, young and old, from Bristol North West, I call on the Government to help us to secure support and investment for inner-city rail in Bristol before it is too late. I offer to assist the Government in any way I can to ensure that that is the case and, in a comradely spirit with other hon. Members from the south-west, I call for support for better rail networks across the region, too.

  • It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. This is a cross-party issue, and I am pleased to see many hon. Members here to support this cause. We may not be the midlands engine or the northern powerhouse, but we are the great south-west. That phrase is increasingly being used, and I sincerely hope that we can all support it, because we need that branding and that name.

    In the great south-west, as many speakers have said, there is significant potential, but that can be realised only with proper investment in infrastructure. My hon. Friends and others have made it clear that that is not just about the railways, but about the roads and buses. I certainly support everything that has been said about that, but I would make the case that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) said, we need to ensure that at least the existing railway line is resilient.

    To the Government’s credit, they did ensure that the Dawlish railway line was reinforced, but there is still more work to be done. As has been alluded to, one of the biggest pieces of work that still needs to be done is on the Teignmouth cliffs which, hon. Members will be well aware, are one of the greatest causes of stoppages on the route. When I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on that issue, he has assured me that the work will take place—it is not if, but when. The challenge we face is that currently, as far as I am aware, although perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister has good news for me, the money—overall, the work will cost us £200 million—is not included in the next rail control period. As I understood it, the Secretary of State undertook to me that he would go and talk to our friend in the Treasury to see whether that project, or at least the start of it, could be accommodated. I hope that the Minister will let me know that at least a conversation with the Treasury has been had. Clearly, I am not going to ask him about what will be in the Budget, because I will not get a response to that question. However, it is mission-critical that we sort out the Teignmouth cliffs.

    There are other aspects to this, because the railway line has to be resilient as a whole. The weir works at Cowley Bridge are also unfunded, but need to be put in place; the railway has also been down because of flooding. In addition, I certainly support the request for the Totnes and Hemerdon upgrade. That is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It will currently cost us £600,000 for the first report, then probably £30 million to get it done, but it seems to me to be a very sensible use of money.

    One of the biggest concerns that many of our consumers, if you like, and those in our surgeries bring to us is the lack of proper wi-fi, so I absolutely endorse the call for the great south-west to be the pilot for the GSM-R project. That would mean aligning the masts of the telephone companies with those of the rail company, and I gather that Vodafone might well be up for that project.

    In the longer term—it is right, in this House, to talk about the longer term—we must look at the future, and the 20-year PRTF plan does need a response, an acknowledgement. I ask the Minister to go back to his colleagues who answered the question that was put regarding whether there would be a response. It seems to me that at least an acknowledgement of the importance of this and a willingness to look forward would be appropriate.

    I said to the Secretary of State that we really needed a long-term strategy for the whole peninsula. Forgive me for looking specifically at the peninsula, but as an MP in the peninsula, it is clearly where my main interest lies. That is not to downgrade in any way the importance of other parts of the line, because together we are strong and we help our tourism industry and our region as a whole, but we do need a proper strategy. At the moment, we have a railway line along the south coast. We talk about an additional line, but the reality is that we need to look at what we can do along the northern coast of the peninsula, because that has never really been looked at. To reopen lines that simply join what we currently have in the south to bits of infrastructure in the north seems to me rather short-sighted.

    I am not asking for an immediate response or an immediate pot of money. That will not happen, but I do think it is incumbent on the Government to respond to requests from the House to give the south-west its fair share of attention and funding and to commit to looking at what we need in the great south-west, and at least to be prepared to put in place a proper strategy that we can all have input into and that will give us the productivity that the south-west can deliver and that this country desperately needs.

  • I have noted your request to keep speeches short, Mr Evans, so I will keep my remarks entirely local.

    I met Great Western and Network Rail a couple of weeks ago. I made my usual request—as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) will know—to get half-hourly trains onto the Stroud valleys line, which goes to Cheltenham. They were interested, but non-committal. We need more trains on that line. It is an outrage that Gloucester and Cheltenham—two of our great communities —let alone the Stroud valleys, are badly served by the rail network. We need to have those trains sooner or later.

    I was pleased to hear that we are getting the new sets in place—our gain and, dare I say, Scotland’s loss, because they are the 125s, but that is for them to worry about. We need some assurance that that is in the strategy, because I fear we will still be talking about this in 10 years’ time, which is completely unacceptable. We have redoubling on that line now, so there is no reason why we should not have shuttle trains going up and down.

    Why does this matter? Well, Monday was a classic case in point: the first train out of Paddington was cancelled, which meant that the 9 o’clock train did not run. There were probably hundreds of families going to London—the first Monday of half-term—and they did not travel. That is completely unacceptable and it is a result of the fact that that was an hourly train. People cannot afford to wait an hour. Many of them did wait, but they then got on the shuttle train. If I had my way, there would be a half-hourly shuttle train, so that they would get to Swindon and they could then catch the inter-city train.

    The Bristol and Birmingham line is also of concern. I appeal directly to the Minister. We have had countless reviews of the capacity of that line. It is about time we got some clarity from the different rail authorities. How many more trains can they run on that line? If they cannot run more lines, they should be honest and open. We had the greater Bristol network review. We are currently reviewing central railways, to look at the wider strategic influence of those particular lines. Some of us have argued for a long time for a second station at Stonehouse Bristol Road. We need to know if we are campaigning for something that will never happen. If it does not happen there, will it happen somewhere else, or is it not going to happen at all? We need clarity. The problem with the discussions with the different rail authorities is that we end up with promises that are never fulfilled. That is really disappointing for constituents who moan about the existing service, but expect something better, as we are moving towards the era of the train.

    This is not just about getting to London, but about intermodal shift. We want that up and down our line to Cheltenham and also to Birmingham and Bristol. I hope the Minister will give me some assurance that he will talk to the rail authorities. Clearly some of us have an issue with the structure of those organisations, but let us leave that to one side. We want clear thinking about the way in which they will put more trains on and improve their service. That will enable people to use the train and become more satisfied with the service. At the moment, too many people are put off because they do not know if trains will run or, more particularly, they fear that they are being priced out because of the huge disparity between peak and off-peak prices. I hope that the Minister has heard all of those things. If they can get the service right in my part of the world, I am sure they can in all parts of the world.

  • It is a great pleasure to serve under your very experienced chairmanship, Mr Evans. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for securing this debate and for the measured way in which he introduced it. I welcome the new energy he brings to this debate.

    To my surprise and to the astonishment of my constituents, I have been here for 25 years: 13 under a Labour Government and 12 under a Conservative Government—I suppose in a year’s time it will be even steven. The reality is that in those 25 years we have not received the investment in the south-west rail link that we deserve. It is time that we put that right and our patience is wearing thin.

    Although it is good news that the Government have announced another £400 million for the northern powerhouse—I am sure you have a smile on your face, Mr Evans, as it is just down the road from you—for those of us in other parts of the country, particularly when we feel undervalued and under-loved over the years, it is another slap in the face. They are getting so many millions of pounds in the midlands and the north and so on, but what about us? We are looking forward to hearing better news in the months and years ahead.

    As the hon. Gentleman said, this did not begin in 2014 when the Dawlish line went down, but when we saw those images of the railway line swinging in mid-air, and when we were cut off from the rest of the country for six weeks—it seemed a lot longer—it released an outpouring of angst and anger from us in Devon and Cornwall. It was an icon of how we had been under-invested in for all those years. That was partly negative anger, but it did galvanise a lot of support in the west country, in the far south-west, in the great south-west. I agree that that is, as he said, a “snazzy moniker”: the great south-west—I like it; we should use it. That galvanised many things. We took the PRTF to see the then Prime Minister and the idea of a 20-year plan was born. He said, “I know it’s expensive, but we can do it bit by bit over 20 years. Put it all in one document, and we will deliver on it.” Now we have to deliver.

    I think the rail Minister is doing a fantastic job and I would like to pay tribute to him for the interest he has shown in our region. Whenever we have had meetings with him he is on the case, he knows his stuff and he has done his homework. However, I think it is disappointing that the Government are not going to respond formally. We thought they would respond to this 20-year report and I am sorry that they are not.

    Things have not stood still since we submitted the report last November it. More money has been spent on Dawlish. There has been extensive work east of Exeter—not as much as we want to see, but there has been work there. There are incremental upgrading works throughout the region. We are getting new trains, something we all look forward to, but that is not yet enough, far from it, to redress the imbalance of decades of under-investment, especially before privatisation, but perhaps that is something for another debate.

    I want to row in behind those calling for specific responses from the Government. There are three things I want to say, but before I do, something we have not discussed but which is in the 20-year plan, is the Government’s thinking about local services, for example, from Exeter to Okehampton, and from Plymouth towards north Cornwall. It would be good to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that. It is not directly related to the inter-city movement from Penzance to Paddington, but it is very important for local services. It does the transmodal thing, and it will help move people around in the region. I strongly support the PRTF request for £600,000 for the study. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Many of us have written to the Minister about that and I hope he can give us some good news—if not today, soon.

    I have long believed that spot, or discrete, electrification is a significant way forward. If we can model that on the Devon banks, we can put it into operation throughout the journey, and it will help to speed up journey times without the need to electrify rail all the way down—I understand that, but we have to start somewhere and I would love to start in the Devon banks over the next few months.

    I will conclude, with some passion: on-board connectivity is absolutely critical. The local enterprise partnership did a survey of businesses last year: “What do you want? What’s your highest priority?” They did not say journey times, they did not talk about resilience, although all those things are important. They said, “When we are on the train, we want to be able to use our mobile phones and computers. We want to be able to plug into our offices and the world out there, as other people in other regions can.” We need to see investment and energy from the Government on that. I thought the answer would be to make the train operating companies do it in franchise renewal, but a new idea has emerged recently. I do not know where it has been hiding, but it is a great idea. If Network Rail is happy to allow the mobile phone companies to attach their transmitters— I do not know how the technology works—to send signals from existing Network Rail infrastructure alongside the track, which I gather rejoices under the name of GSM-R, and which they are piloting in Scotland, that could solve our problems. We do not want it in CP6; we want it now, in 2018, and we want to see progress on that. It would transform the way in which the rail service is valued by men and women in the west country. The plan is clear, the ask is clear, and the need is obvious. We want no more excuses from Government. It is time to deliver.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this debate on an issue that is hugely important not only to his constituency, but to all our constituencies in the region.

    I have some sympathy for the Minister. As a Transport Minister I am sure he would love to have extra money from the Treasury to invest in all our schemes and in the railway network more generally. However, I am afraid that he, like successive Transport Ministers, is a victim of what I call Treasury orthodoxy. I want to encourage a debate, perhaps within the governing party as we move towards the Budget, on the arguments we have made about productivity. We have had an absolutely appalling productivity record in this country in recent years. It is one of the worst in Europe and has got worse since the 2008 global financial crisis and since the European referendum.

    I think there is general consensus in this debating Chamber that we should improve productivity in a number of ways, including investing in education and skills and in infrastructure. We have had an incredible opportunity in the past few years since the global financial crash of record low long-term interest rates. There is an absolute opportunity to invest big-time in infrastructure for the future of our economy and our productivity. With the storm clouds of Brexit gathering and with the uncertainty that that is causing in our economy, it is even more critical now, before interest rates go up, that the people having discussions, particularly in the governing party, win that debate with the Treasury, because we are running out of time to secure meaningful investment in our infrastructure.

    I completely support what my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport said about the discrepancy between comparative spends up and down the country. I saw an even more graphic map than the one he referred to in which the south-west was not even featured because the amount of spend per head was so low. The map was produced by an organisation called Statista and was published in the Financial Times earlier this year. It showed us at the bottom of the regional list for infrastructure spend. I do not think there is any debate in this Chamber as to whether we have come off badly in terms of spend in our railway and infrastructure in general.

    I must express my concern to the Minister that some of the money that has been allocated has not been spent well by Network Rail. It has a terrible record of cost overruns, and we are all paying the price with the fiasco of the cost overrun to the electrification of the mainline from Paddington to south Wales, which is having a knock-on effect on all of our schemes. Network Rail told us in a session earlier today that work on the Cowley Bridge flood defences—let us not forget that Cowley Bridge goes back even longer than Dawlish; we lost the line at Cowley Bridge twice in the three years running up to Dawlish, which cut our region off as well—is going to start, but only on the culverts, which are to protect Cowley Bridge next spring. As the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said, there is no funding allocated at the moment for the much more important work on the weir or for the upstream work on the Hele and Bradninch section of the lines, which are the important bits of the flood defence. As we enter into our winter of storms and heavy rains, we face another risk that the line will flood there and in other places.

    We were also told that Network Rail has increased its assessment of the risk of a failure at the Dawlish line owing to heavy rain and/or storms to one in every three years. This matter is absolutely urgent. Our region cannot afford to suffer the disruptions that we have had in recent years, which have done so much damage to our economy. I hope the Minister will go away and have gentle words with the Treasury and with Network Rail about its performance on cost control so that we get the schemes delivered on budget and on time.

    New stations are vital. Exeter is a bit like a mini-Bristol. The urban rail services in my city are incredibly important for moving people around, particularly at commuting times. We need more regular services; we need trains to stop at more stations; and we need new stations. Again, station builds are running behind time.

  • The right hon. Gentleman is making a passionate case. The Government committed to £4.6 million to transform our railway station in Taunton. We are still waiting for one spade to go into the ground. I understand exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is saying: we need the promised services to be delivered. Will the Minister report on how that is going, because GWR and Network Rail still have not got on with it?

  • There is hardly a station that has been built and opened that has not overrun on cost. I was about to refer to the station in Marsh Barton, a very important industrial estate in my constituency. It was supposed to happen this year and we now understand no date at all has been fixed for it, which indicates that no money has been allocated for it, which is really disappointing not only for those who live and work in Exeter, but for those who commute in from outside.

    On rolling stock, it was terribly unfortunate to hear about the initial trip of the new high-speed train serving our region. We understand from Great Western that it was unlucky. All the other trains that travelled that day were fine, but will the Minister assure us that when we get these long-awaited trains they will not pour water over people, they will work, will not break down and will be reliable? I also have a concern about the design for our luggage demands. Our trains were built in an age when suitcases were not the size of wheelie bins—people did not used to be able to carry those huge great cases—but I am worried that, having lost the guards van, and as a regular cyclist who puts my bike on the train, we will see conflicts between the people who regularly put their bikes on trains and people who need luggage space. If that becomes a problem, that is not only a problem for passengers, but for the staff who have to resolve the disputes.

    Let us not neglect the Waterloo line, an important substitute line. It is a replacement line and an additional line for our region. It could be so much better if we had a few more passing places. That would allow swifter journeys and would service more stops, including places such as Pinhoe in my constituency. My basic plea to the Minister and to Opposition Members is to keep fighting the battle against Treasury orthodoxy and keep fighting for a fair deal for our region.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this debate.

    I think there is a consensus in the House that a strong train service in the south-west is vital for our thriving economy. It helps to create jobs and drives social mobility, but it would be wrong to assume that, notwithstanding all the excellent points that have been made about improving services to the south-west, the experience of the south-west is uniform, because it is not. My constituency of Cheltenham, which I unapologetically focus on, is even worse served. I will take a few moments to explain why.

    Cheltenham is 93 miles away from London, yet it takes on average two hours and 16 minutes to travel from one to the other by train. How does that compare with my colleagues in the south-west? Bath, which is 116 miles from London—another 23 miles or so—takes one hour and 31 minutes. Bristol, 119 miles away, takes one hour and 43 minutes. Exeter, 202 miles away, takes two hours and two minutes. There is a dramatic difference. The historic context makes it even more galling, because there was a time when Cheltenham had the fastest train anywhere—not just in the south-west, not just in Britain, but in the entire world. The Cheltenham Flyer was the fastest train in the world. Why does that matter?

    Cheltenham is home to companies such as GE Aviation, Spirax-Sarco, Zurich and Douglas Equipment, but it is also home to GCHQ. We have a faintly farcical situation. When the excellent men and women from GCHQ want to go to London—for example, to the National Cyber Security Centre—do they go on the train? No, they go on the so-called spy bus. I kid you not. Is that not a damning indictment? Cheltenham’s connectivity to London is manifestly inadequate, and has been for 50 years.

    Another reason why the issue is important is that the Government are putting welcome investment into Cheltenham. For example, we have a cyber-innovation centre, which involves taking the finest minds from GCHQ and using them to nurture small businesses; and something like £22 million has been allocated for the building of a cyber-park to the west of GCHQ. That is fantastic, but getting the maximum benefit from it requires us to unlock the artery of jobs and investment from the south-east, which remains such an important economic hub.

    It is worth making the point that my constituency has just had its literature festival, where Hillary Clinton spoke; we have 2.5 million visitors per annum for the jazz, food and science festivals. Yet we have a rail service that belongs in the dark ages. It is not enough to blame Beeching—although I do. He, of course, pulled up many lines in 1962. There are two things that we must do: the first is investment and the second is timetabling. I am pleased to say that the Government have shown great application on investment. The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) has mentioned the Swindon-Kemble redoubling—some £60 million has been invested in that, and it has been transformational. Next year we shall get the IEP trains, which will shave some minutes from the journey. However, the fact remains that it will still be far too long.

    The second limb of what is needed, therefore, is timetabling. Instead of a service in which trains from Cheltenham to London must go via Gloucester, where the driver gets out, walks down the platform, gets in at the other end of the train and reverses it out on the way to Stroud and Swindon, we need a service that cuts out Gloucester. I want to be crystal clear: I do not propose anything that would adversely affect Gloucester. We should not have a beggar-thy-neighbour approach. I am talking about additional services. If they were introduced the journey time would drop to about one hour and 40 minutes. What strikes me as slightly odd is the fact that, while we are spending billions of pounds on High Speed 2, which may or may not be a good thing, one stroke of a pen with respect to timetabling could achieve a dramatic difference for the 115,000 people who live in my constituency. An additional service with a more direct route could be dramatic, and it would not cost a penny. A vital point to note is Great Western Railway’s wish to extend the franchise, which will come up in 2019: it is a golden opportunity for many people in the south-west—certainly my constituents—to get a far greater, much improved service, for minimum taxpayer outlay. We must not miss that opportunity.

    The point that was made about 4G connectivity is right. At the moment trains effectively take their signal from the masts that they pass. In and around Stroud and Stonehouse it is hopeless; that logjam must be sorted out. If we unclog the link between the south-west and London, we unclog an artery of jobs and investment. Improving rail connectivity is at the heart of that, and there is important work to do.

  • There are about 15 or 16 minutes left, so please do the maths and help one another with that.

  • I shall be as brief as I can, Mr Evans. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for securing the debate about how improving rail links will improve life for commuters in the south-west.

    I fully concur with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) about electrification of rail lines; for the sake of efficiency and the environment, I believe electrification needs to be accelerated rather than delayed as is currently happening from Maidenhead to the west, and between Slough and Windsor, where it has been deferred.

    Many hon. Members will wonder what the MP for Slough is doing in a debate about the south-west, but I am taking part because I think there is a common cause that should unite us in the Chamber. Something that I have highlighted, and on which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) agree—I also brought it up with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport during our Facebook Live conversation with constituents—is the western rail link to Heathrow. That is a direct rail link, coming in from the west through Reading and Slough, and on to Heathrow.

    At present, anyone travelling from the south-west or the west has to go into Paddington, get another train, and then come back to Heathrow. I am a co-chair of the western rail link to Heathrow stakeholder steering group, which aims to promote the scheme and support the delivery of the rail link; we hope that the Minister will try to deliver that before 2024. That short, five-and-a-half-mile rail link will mean myriad benefits for passengers, the economy and the environment. It will reduce the journey time between my constituency and Heathrow to seven minutes, and offer four trains an hour in each direction. It will improve access to Heathrow from the south coast, the south-west, south Wales and the west midlands.

    It is important to get that improved access. It will provide greater travel options for leisure and business travellers, as well as for Heathrow employees going to London Heathrow. It will also reduce congestion at London Paddington, which is already one of the busiest stations in the country. If we rely on Network Rail statistics, it will offer more than £800 million of economic activity, including additional economic benefits for various regions, and create a potential 42,000 new jobs—not to mention the carbon dioxide savings, which will equate to approximately 30 million road miles a year. I hope that with 20% of the UK population having access to Heathrow via one interchange, and the reduction in road congestion, the Minister may be able to give us some reassurance.

    I seek the support of south-west MPs for the link, and would be obliged if the Minister would provide an assurance that the western rail link to Heathrow will be given the priority it deserves.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate. Although we do not always agree, I absolutely concur with his passion and enthusiasm today about improving rail links to the south-west.

    Cornwall has a long, historic and in some ways romantic connection to the railways, going back 200 years to Richard Trevithick and the steam engine that he invented. That great Cornishman started the rail revolution in this country, which continued through the Victorian age with great railway journeys across viaducts and bridges through Cornwall, some of which were built by Brunel. Perhaps there is a danger that the romantic image of railways in Cornwall may lead us to miss the point that rail is a crucial driver of the economy, in Cornwall and the rest of the south-west. It is difficult to over-emphasise its importance. That was brought into sharp focus in 2014, as many other hon. Members have set out, when the line was broken and Cornwall and parts of Devon were cut off. We took a slightly different view in Cornwall, with the headline in the local paper actually saying “England cut off”, but there was an incredibly negative impact on the economy. The few short weeks when the line was broken cost the Cornish economy several million pounds. It is to the credit of Network Rail and the Government of the time that there was quick intervention to get the rail link restored as soon as possible, but it is crucial that that should never be allowed to happen again.

    We can never again be in a position where the rail connection is severed in that way. It is therefore absolutely crucial to get the investment we need, particularly in that stretch of that track, so that we build in the long-term resilience to ensure that the connection stays true.

    I greatly welcome the peninsula rail taskforce report and add my voice to those calling on the Department for Transport to respond to it. That excellent piece of work draws on bodies from right across the south-west which have come forward with a positive, constructive vision of our railways for the next 20 years. It is important that the Government respond and recognise the work that has gone on.

    I add my voice to those asking for the Department’s support for proposals to upgrade the speed on some of the track through Devon. However, I add a note of caution: the £600,000 that is being called for for the report sounds like an awful lot of money for what is essentially a desk-top exercise. I ask the Minister not only to support it but to ensure that we get value for money for every penny that we spend, so that we do not just throw money at things.

    There is no doubt that in the south-west we need to catch up on investment in our railways and close the gap. As hon. Members have highlighted, we have been neglected for many years under successive Governments and have not had the investment that we need in our railways. However, we should acknowledge some of the investment that is going on. We are getting new trains from Great Western Railway to replace the 40-year-old trains that we have on those lines, providing new capacity and creating a better environment for passengers. That will be hugely welcome when it reaches the south-west later next year. We should welcome and acknowledge both that investment and some of the work going on through Cornwall to upgrade the signalling, which will increase capacity and reduce journey times there.

    Investment is going on, but we still have a long way to go. I therefore add my voice to those calling on the Minister to ensure that we continue to invest in the south-west, to back the plans to upgrade our railways, and to ensure that the railway into the south-west is the economic driver that we all believe it can be so that we close the economic gap and make sure that we have a robust and resilient rail link for the future.

  • I thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak this afternoon, Mr Evans, and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for securing the debate. I shall address my remarks to my constituency in Reading, which, as many people know, is served by rail services that start both in the far west of Cornwall and in west Wales. They meet at Reading and go on to London.

    The state of the line at Dawlish is understandably of great interest to residents of the south-west, as we have heard. However, it also has real significance for Thames valley passengers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) mentioned. Delays on the line have a direct and immediate impact both on long-distance travel and commuter services. I shall address the economic benefits for Reading of a more reliable and robust long-distance service to the far south-west, and then pick up on some benefits to commuters in the Thames valley area.

    On the first issue of long-distance rail services, rail travel from Reading to Exeter takes less than two hours—a significant advantage that we share as nearby large towns and small cities within a growing and advanced economy—and I encourage the Minister to see that advantage and invest so that our residents and businesses can make better use of that. Exeter and Reading both possess similar local economies, and the interconnection of businesses could be taken further. The Met Office, for example, was based in Berkshire and has been moved to Exeter. We have a considerable IT industry in Reading that forms a supply chain for the Met Office and other public sector IT procurement in the south-west. A far better rail service between Reading and the Thames valley and other towns and cities further to the west can only support business and growth in both regions

    Moving on to the advantages for local commuters, when the Dawlish floods occurred there was significant and sustained disruption in the Thames valley as railway services were affected. A large number of commuters had to decamp on to other services, such as those coming from west Wales or Oxford through Reading. That had a knock-on effect both on commuters who would have taken services from the west country up to London that stopped at Reading, and on commuters on other services. I very much hope that we can avoid any repeat of that type of disruption to our local economy and society in the Thames valley.

    I will also highlight two other brief, related points. One is the benefit of further investment in local stations, which some hon. Members from the south-west have mentioned. We need a new local station on a line near Reading at Green Park. I concur with Members’ views on the benefits of local stations in growing the local economy. In our case, the station in the area near Reading would help to attract further IT investment to the town and put a greater emphasis on local transport being through public transport rather than road services. It would also generate further benefits by reducing air pollution in our area.

    Let me finish by concurring with other colleagues who have pointed out the need for a shared and collaborative approach between towns and cities across southern and south-western England. I fully concur with the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who made eloquent points about his city needing a better rail service into London. We appreciate that—we are better served—but together we all stand to gain from further investment in the region if the Minister hears our concerns, so I hope that he can respond by reassuring residents across the region.

  • It is good to have you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Evans. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to this excellent debate—not least my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who has led this debate and asked some serious questions. The universal call from across the Chamber is for the Government not to prevaricate over bringing these much needed rail improvements to the south-west, and, for the first time, to put investment into the region at the scale that has been experienced in so many other places in the country—not least in London, where we see continuing significant investment compared with in the other regions.

    In our party we believe that rail is not just a transport system in and of itself, but the gateway to economic regeneration, jobs and opportunities. That is why as a party, Labour—this is in its name—has demonstrated that it is about work and investment in work, and about making sure that infrastructure builds in to that to enable people to have the best opportunities. We believe that the Government should also prioritise that over their transport strategy. That is why the Leader of the Opposition committed £2.5 billion in funding to address the recommendations of the peninsula rail taskforce and—this is really important— to unlock £7.2 billion of gross value added and £1.2 billion of transport benefit. This is about investing to grow. We are starting to hear the Government moving along that line—we have been calling for it for some time—but I would also like to see that from the Department for Transport.

    When research is undertaken and economic opportunity is identified, we want to see investment not only in local economies, but in productivity, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said. I know that the Government are in real need of help to understand how they can drive productivity. I suggest that productivity in the south-west would improve if rail connectivity was far improved, and I ask the Minister to address that issue today.

    When we see a lack of investment in rail, we see the effect on the finances of individuals in the region, so we need to look at wages and the impact on them. We know that in the south-west, the average wage is about £2,300 less for individuals, but in some areas, that can be as much as £9,000 less because people do not have the connectivity to open up the opportunities.

    Some 75% of the south-west’s 98,000 businesses rightly demand the vital upgrades that are needed, and that are needed now. They say that cutting journey times and ensuring that trains are more frequent, accessible to all and reliable would sustain the economy and help it grow. The bitter experience of Dawlish in February 2014 cost the economy £1.6 billion, and then there was the sustained under-investment. As we have heard, that brought a focus to people’s anger and angst at the lack of urgently needed investment. That should sharpen the Government’s mind and bring into focus the need for more sustainable investment across the rail infrastructure through a strategic rather than a piece-by-piece approach, to ensure that long-distance trains arrive on time, are reliable and provide opportunities to people across the country.

    The south-west is home to many growing areas of the economy. Members have talked eloquently about those areas, and particularly about digital infrastructure and tourism. Aerospace also has a major footprint in the region. Although such parts of the economy might be in their infancy, we need connectivity for them to grow. When we hear heard that train times to Exeter could be cut by 25 minutes, to Plymouth by 49 minutes and to Penzance by more than an hour, we must ask why the Government are delaying in moving things forward. We heard today about Devon banks project, which could improve train speeds, improving that part of the economy.

    We want new rail technology. Signalling upgrades, electrification—switched on and not then switched off again—straightened tracks and new trains all help. The Government could also confirm today that they will revisit the peninsula rail taskforce report, ensure that it is scrutinised, go through it with rigour rather than setting it aside and ensure that it is put at the forefront of investment for the economic strategy for the south-west, not just for a separate rail strategy.

    Greater connectivity in the south-west—for instance, to the airports, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi)—will make a difference and bring the region into parallel with other conurbations, rather than setting it back. It will boost the economy locally. We also need investment in infrastructure; we have heard a call across the House for investment in wi-fi. Trains are workplaces for many making long journeys, and the infrastructure is already there; we have an opportunity through the GSM-R system to ensure that we can upgrade the network quickly, without waiting for the next control period, so passengers get the high-quality service that they deserve. Freight—moving our goods—has not come up in the debate, but it also needs investment. The Government’s lack of focus on smart logistics is damaging the economy and clogging up our roads. We need to move more goods, not just people, on to our rail network.

    We have heard clear demands from across the House on the environment. Yesterday we heard that 50,000 people in our country die prematurely each year due to poor air quality; people in bottlenecks in the south-west know those risks all too well. We need a serious modal shift in our transport system. Climate change in particular is increasing some of the risks. We have heard about Dawlish and the Somerset levels, where changing weather systems are impacting on how people travel. We must ensure that we address climate change in resolving our transport issues.

    This is not just about climate; it is also about congestion. We must ensure that people can get on efficient forms of transport, and that rail is built to be resilient for the future. Essential upgrades have been made Cowley Bridge, Teignmouth and Dawlish, as well as an avoidance route for Dawlish, to ensure that disruption is not repeated as the climate changes. That is why it is important to draw the Environment Agency report identifying the risks into the rail strategy as we move forward.

    We need the Government to understand that the Department for Transport’s modernisation of Great Western Railway is seen as a disaster at every level, not least the fiasco involving the franchises, which I understand the Secretary of State is thinking of fragmenting even further, the new rolling stock procurement in which trains cost twice as much as on the west coast main line, and the incompetence and profligacy apparent in the intercity express programme. That is not my assessment, but that of the National Audit Office, which highlighted a lack of strategic oversight causing project costs to rise by more than £2 billion.

    In November 2016, the Minister put the final nail in the coffin by announcing that he would defer four “costly and disruptive” electrification projects in the region, but cancellation rather than deferral seems to be his action, meaning that dirty diesel on our lines, which pollutes the region, is preferred to electrification, which would improve connectivity. We have heard from all Members who have spoken in this debate the importance of getting on with putting the right infrastructure and the right investment into our rail system.

    That is why the public support Labour’s national rail service. It is simple; there is straight accountability, no wastage on endless contracts and straight investment into the railways. It is long term, whereas contracts in the south-west lurch from year to year without strategic oversight for the long term or the long-term investment that follows it.

    Now that the Government are starting to focus on borrowing, perhaps they will consider borrowing across the transport network to ensure that vital upgrades get under way now to bring economic advantage into the future. Labour has identified a transformation fund to address the issue by putting in the infrastructure needed and bringing the electrification and digitalisation services that we need. We will move forward. We will consider consulting on reopening branch lines, opening stations and improving the service to make sure that it ties in with economic development across the region. Station improvements will be part of moving forward. Plymouth is a particular station that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention; the funding gap of £15 million there must be addressed.

    From this debate, I believe it is plain that Labour has a detailed national plan for the railway, strongly tied into economic growth and job opportunities and a vastly improved passenger service. We want rail to be the transport mode of choice moving forward, over long distances as well as for short journeys. We long to see regions such as the south-west reach their full potential and not be left behind. I trust that the Minister’s response will address that issue.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) not just on securing this debate but on his first debate in Westminster Hall—the first of many, I am sure.

    I thank hon. Members who have come along and participated on the generally good-natured, good-spirited and constructive tone that they have all adopted. It has been a helpful debate. I will do my utmost to cover all the points raised, but as hon. Members can see, I have a carpet of notes before me that have been passed my way. If I do not cover everything, a simple email to my office might suffice to get more of an answer. However, I will do my best to cover everything in the time available before the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport responds.

    We are clearly seeing a great deal of change at the moment on rail in the south-west: brand-new trains, upgraded infrastructure, more capacity, faster journeys, greater resilience and greater reliability. That, after all, is what I believe passengers want. It is part of our record investment of more than £40 billion in the railways between 2014 and 2019, which will continue beyond that date to 2024, as set out in the statement of funds available that we announced just last week. We now expect to spend £48 billion on the railways between 2019 and 2024. It has allowed us to continue our extensive programme of renewals and deliver the enhancements deferred from the current period, to which the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred. More than £5 billion is being invested in the wider modernisation of the Great Western route.

    Amid all the numbers that we have released in recent weeks, I entirely understand that the frequent response is, “But what about project X in my particular local area?” We have not issued a great wodge of documentation that details the status of every single project, for the specific reason to which the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) alluded: we need to ensure that we do not disappoint people. When we announce a project, we need to understand its cost, scope and delivery, and have confidence that we can deliver it in the agreed timescale. That was a key finding that underpinned the reprogramming of control period 5, and led to the report by Dame Colette Bowe that was welcomed by the Labour Front Bench and the Government.

    The Bowe report sets out another way to approach investment in the railway, by ensuring that we understand what we are putting our money into and make commitments only when we are confident that we understand them. That is a really important step forward. Over the remainder of the year, as part of our rail upgrade plan, we will make further announcements about how the insights from Dame Colette Bowe will inform the projects we take forward, and about where they sit among our priorities. We aim to take forward as many projects as possible, but we must ensure that we are confident in what we promise.

    We have heard a lot about the peninsula rail taskforce, which remains a personal priority of mine; I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) in particular for his kind comments. I stand by what I said at the launch: it is a most impressive piece of work, which I constantly cite to people around the country as a model for this sort of project. I do not want to be churlish, because I understand his desire for an official Government response, but I do not believe in gesture politics. A mere box-ticking exercise in which I issued a rigid ministerial statement entitled “Response to peninsula rail taskforce” would be less valuable than actual progress on the taskforce’s many recommendations. Some of that progress will occur as part of the rail upgrade plan, which will identify where different projects sit in the development process, but some of it will be delivered through franchise change, which operates to a slightly different timetable. I note that Great Western Railway is consulting locally on a scale never seen before in any franchise in the country. CrossCountry’s franchise is also coming up for renewal; it, too, is braving the south-west—even Torbay, I believe—and undertaking a consultation to understand what is most needed there.

    I hear the frustrations of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon about trains not functioning at Dawlish in bad weather. My focus is on ensuring that we deliver the taskforce’s very worthwhile recommendations. When he sees the rail upgrade plan, I hope he will see the philosophy behind my seeming reticence today, but I am more than happy to continue discussions with all south-west Members in the all-party group about how to keep up momentum.

    There may be an impression that we have done nothing since the launch of the taskforce. Far from it, we have done an awful lot, and I want to keep up that momentum. We are re-signalling the main line from Totnes to Penzance, providing faster journeys and potentially paving the way for the introduction of a half-hourly service on the Cornish main line. We are investing in 29 brand-new bi-mode AT300 trains for the route from Paddington to Plymouth and Penzance. We are completely overhauling the popular Night Riviera sleeper trains in Cornwall and expanding the Long Rock train maintenance site to help to maintain them.

    We are continually investing to provide more solutions to deliver a more resilient railway in the south-west, and the taskforce’s blueprint remains a very important part of our work. It continues to work with Network Rail on its “Speed to the West” plans. Many hon. Members have mentioned the potential for selective electrification in the Devon banks. All that worthwhile work is ongoing; we need to do all we can to support it and get it to the next stage of development, which I look forward to.

    There are several things that Network Rail can do to reduce journey times to Plymouth and the south-west more widely, which is the ambition of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. It can try to understand how the benefits of the new trains can be maximised; it can look at the causes of dips in speed across the route; it can ascertain what quick wins can be delivered to achieve incremental marginal gains to demonstrate journey time improvement; and it can consider the discrete electrification proposals with its research and development department.

    We can make significant improvements to journey times on this line, partly through new timetabling, which will be consulted on and introduced in the coming months. At the moment, there is a wide spectrum of journey times to Plymouth—between three hours and three and a half hours—but we may be able to begin to reduce that through better timetabling, so there is more good news to come.

    Many hon. Members have mentioned the new IEP trains. There were initial hiccups—the train that has the politicians in it is always the one that breaks down on day one—but such is life. That investment will see much-improved reliability, increased capacity, reduced journey times and improved emission rates. The hon. Member for York Central might be forgiven for not noticing the statistics released today that show a 5.5% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions per passenger kilometre since last year. I welcome that and its continuation in years to come.

    The AT300 bi-mode trains will not only improve connectivity with London, but significantly enhance it within the region. Many hon. Members mentioned local rail services that they would like to be improved. The hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) referred to the Henbury spur and loop. Exeter is booming and has many ambitious plans for local transport. The network is growing. Hon. Members also mentioned the two separate competitions for the new stations fund, in which Portway Parkway and Reading Green Park were successful but, sadly, Edginswell and Marsh Barton were not. I am keen to work with all the local promoters of unsuccessful station proposals to help them to do better in the next competition and maximise their chances of winning. I am always happy to work with anyone who wishes to work with me.

    I stress the importance that the Government attach to ensuring reliability. The situation at Dawlish is important and we are addressing it—we have already put money in. The rail upgrade plan will help us to understand how to ensure that Network Rail’s current work leads to meaningful work in the next two control periods. I thank hon. Members for participating in the debate. No region should ever feel that it is left out of the transport picture. The taskforce report is a fine piece of work, and I look forward to working with hon. Members on all sides to make it a reality.

  • I thank the Minister for his reply. I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for expressing their passionate and sincere belief that we need a better deal for rail in the far south-west. It is clear from all the schemes that they mentioned that there is a good case for investment. Although I understand why the Minister was not able to give assurances, I imagine that we will all look carefully at the autumn Budget for the £600,000 and the £30 million. Will the Minister write to hon. Members about the global system for mobile trial?

  • That is great. All members of the all-party group have a strong sense that the south-west deserves its fair share of funding. I anticipate that hon. Members on both sides of the House are gearing up to an intensified, relentless campaign. I am sure the Minister will be back to discuss this further in the future.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Resolved,

    That this House has considered improving rail links in south-west England.