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Rail Services (Holyhead And London)

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2003

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11 am

I apologise for almost being late. I must now catch my breath after rushing to be here.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is entirely appropriate for him to be almost late for a debate on the services between London and Holyhead, because of the appalling punctuality that we often encounter as regular commuters between north Wales and London?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and for giving me time to catch my breath—I was out of puff like the trains.

I secured this debate on behalf of a the north Wales group of Labour MPs. We represent eight of the nine parliamentary seats in north Wales, and the group was established a year ago to campaign on three main priorities: rail services, crime and quality jobs.

This debate is part of a series of actions that we have undertaken to improve rail services in north Wales. I have questioned the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House, the group has met the Minister for Transport, and we have convened meetings with the Strategic Rail Authority, Network Rail, Virgin Trains, north Wales councils and members of the rail passenger committee for Wales. We have also asked for a meeting with the Secretary of State for Wales to alert him to our concerns.

The north Wales rail line is on the trans-European network system and is of strategic importance to not only the UK, but the whole of Europe, connecting Europe's westerly extremities—Wales and Ireland—to its centre. To that end, our group has contacted the Irish embassy and consulate in Cardiff to try to arrange a meeting with the Irish Transport Minister to alert him to our concerns and to ask whether the Irish Government could help to improve transport connections to Holyhead and through to London.

Our group's main aim is to secure fair funding for the north Wales rail line and to ensure that we have a 21st-century service to serve our economy and people. It is interesting to see that there are no Conservative or Liberal Democrat Members present, and most Members would agree that the previous Conservative Government have a lot to answer for given the current state of the rail service, not only in north Wales but throughout the United Kingdom. For 18 years, they starved our railway system of the necessary investment. They knew that Labour would win the 1997 general election and embarked on one of the biggest, botched privatisations in history.

Rail users and British taxpayers are paying the price for those mistakes, and credit should be given to the Labour Government for a massive £180 billion investment in UK transport in the next 10 years. Some £30 billion of that has, I believe, been earmarked for rail transport improvements. As a constituency MP and a member of the north Wales group of Labour MPs, I see it as my job to ensure that north Wales gets its fair slice of the cake.

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that, although a lot of money is available in the 10-year plan, none of it is for rail infrastructure? We have rolling stock capable of 120-plus mph, but on parts of the north Wales rail line it cannot exceed 75 mph. Investment in the infrastructure and line speeds should be the priority.

That was a pertinent intervention, and I shall deal with that question shortly. My hon. Friend is right that north Wales has not had its fair share thus far, if one considers the investments that have been made. The east coast main line is one of the best services in the UK. It has been upgraded, and there is even talk of establishing a second dedicated east coast main line from Edinburgh to London at a cost of £6 billion. I know of MPs who are pushing for that. The west coast main line investment is £9 billion. It is two years behind schedule, which is a disappointment.

With his customary eloquence and subtlety, the hon. Gentleman has ignored the six years since the end of the previous Conservative Government. Does he hold his Government at all responsible for the woeful state of the north Wales line, as well as others?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I hold my Government to account for their £180 billion investment in transport and their £30 billion investment in the rail network. I see my job as a north Wales constituency MP to ensure that my constituents get their fair share and to fight their corner. That is why I am here today, why I have questioned the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House, why we had the meeting with the Minister for Transport and why we campaign on the issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said, we need investment in the infrastructure. Chris Green, the chief executive of Virgin Trains, told me that the new trains that will be in place by 2004 would travel at 90 mph from Holyhead to Crewe and at 125 mph after Crewe. That is a second-rate service for Wales, and I am not prepared to tolerate it. I shall fight for better.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. My colleague and I also have meetings arranged with the Strategic Rail Authority, so this is not a party political matter. We are all working hard on behalf of the travelling public in Wales. The hon. Gentleman says that north Wales is at present hard done by financially, and that is quite possible—it is why we are all campaigning. On reflection, does he not think that he should have joined us in calling for a separate SRA for Wales?

No, I do not think that. We are fighting our corner well and pertinently in the House of Commons. It should be borne in mind that the vast majority of the London to Holyhead rail journey takes place in England. I am fighting for improvement not just across the north Wales stretch, but from Holyhead all the way to Euston. The co-operation of our colleagues in England will be required to achieve that. In fact, we have the support of English Members such as my hon. Friends the Members for City of Chester (Ms Russell) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

Bearing in mind the investment of £9 billion for the west coast main line and the £6 billion for a new east coast main line, I am informed—again, by Chris Green—that the cost of the upgrade of the north Wales section from Holyhead to Crewe will be some £10 million to £20 million. Compared with £6 billion or £9 billion, £20 million or even £30 million is a drop in the ocean. I shall repeat my points in my summary, but I ask the Minister to consider the request for a track upgrade on the north Wales rail line as a matter of priority.

I also wish to discuss investment in train stock. First North Western has made good progress in improving its stock. Six years ago, when I first became a Member of this House and a regular rail user along the north Wales coast, the rolling stock was absolutely filthy. There was no running water, the toilets did not flush and there was grease on the back of the seats. First North Western has allocated £100 million to new rolling stock such as the Coradia 175s. I welcome that investment.

There were massive teething problems at the beginning. The trains were very unreliable, but Vernon Baker, the managing director of First North Western, has told me that the problems have now been ironed out and that the company achieves 86 per cent. reliability compared with a national average of 80 per cent., although my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester questions the figures.

My hon. Friend has mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Ms Russell) several times in his remarks. Is he aware that, on one of her journeys on Virgin Trains, part of the seat on which she was sitting fell off? He may also be aware that some of us have asked the Secretary of State to travel with us on the London to Holyhead route, to sample the terrible rolling stock that we have to endure several times a week as we travel from our constituencies to Westminster. Will he pursue that request to the Secretary of State to join us on one of our journeys?

My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) makes an excellent suggestion. I shall take it up with the Secretary of State when I meet him.

There has been some improvement by First North Western, and I hope that it has put its teething troubles behind it. Virgin Trains has also promised to improve its stock. We have waited a long time for that—the original promise made by Virgin Trains was that seven more four-carriage trains would be introduced by 2004. However, when we met Virgin six months ago in a Committee Room in the House, we were told that that figure had been revised downward from seven trains per day to three or four per day. We were very disappointed at that. I spoke to Chris Green on Monday, and he assured me that five new trains—not three—will be introduced, including three nine-carriage Pendolinos, the state-of-the-art trains that are the best in the Virgin fleet. I am pleased about that, but I am still disappointed that we are two trains a day short. I hope that the Minister will put pressure on Virgin Trains and on the SRA to ensure that we get those seven trains—even if that is a long-term objective.

Is my hon. Friend aware that when a group of MPs visited Derby, where those trains are built, they discovered that Virgin Trains had not ordered enough trains to meet the demands that it had set out in its timetable? As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) said, "Don't hold your breath." We will believe it when we see it, because Virgin Trains has broken far too many of its promises to us. We should hold the company to account and ensure that it keeps the promises that it made this week, so that passengers in north Wales receive better services.

On the issue of improved services, I shall make two specific requests on behalf of two stations in north Wales. One request is from my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who is concerned that the promise made to him that the trains will stop once or twice a day at Flint will be fulfilled. Will the Minister ensure that Flint, which is probably the third or fourth biggest town in north Wales, becomes a regular stop on the trip down to Euston?

The second request relates to the town of Prestatyn, in my constituency. Its station is currently served once a day from the three trains that go down to London. I would like to see at least two or three stops made when the improved service is introduced in 2004. I would also like the Minister to ensure that there is no slippage in the time scale, and that the promised five trains are delivered on time or ahead of schedule, and that seven trains per day is maintained as a long-term goal.

I shall now focus on the current service that Virgin Trains offers from north Wales. That issue is of great concern to me, to my fellow MPs, and to my fellow passengers who use the service regularly. We have been left with the dross—the leftovers from the Virgin Trains stock. The chief executive admits that we have the worst trains on the Virgin network. Those cast-offs are not good enough for north Wales: there is no hot food available on the trains and, on some of them, the toilets, hot water, heating and air-conditioning systems do not work.

The timetabling of those trains, the delays and punctuality are also of great concern to me, my colleagues, my constituents, visitors to the area and especially to inward investors. I retell the tale of the trip made by the president of Tokai Rika Brothers, the first Japanese company inwardly to invest in my constituency, with that investment being its first inward investment in the whole of Europe. He flew over from Tokyo to London, came up to north Wales on the train and was stopped for two hours in a delay. A car had to go and fetch him and bring him to the ground-breaking turf-cutting ceremony in St. Asaph. That delay could have cost my constituency a multi-million pound investment. That is the effect of the current service that Virgin offers. I give credit to the chief executive Chris Green, who has been very responsive and co-operative in my dealings with him, but I make a plea to him and to the Minister to use their influence to ensure that we get the service to which we are entitled in north Wales.

I shall now focus on my third key issue—station improvements. The rail passenger users group made our group aware of a £400 million Government investment for station improvements in the UK. I believe that 10 applications have been made in Wales, nine of them outside north Wales. I have spoken to Chris Green on the matter, and he thinks that we have the worst stations in the whole network. They have not had the investment that they should have had.

Does not my hon. Friend find it extraordinary, as I do, that Wrexham, the premier town in north Wales, does not have a functioning passenger information service? Passengers using the station not only cannot see whether trains will be delayed, they cannot hear that from the station master. One is left in splendid isolation on the platform.

I have good news for my hon. Friend. Objections to the new customer information system to be installed by Wales and Borders Trains as part of Project Inform, which has been delayed because of the need to obtain listed building consent, have been resolved. Work should commence shortly. It pays to do a bit of research.

First North Western has made a £5 million fund allocation to improve stations in its area: the north of England, Cumbria and north Wales. Some £2.3 million has been spent so far, but only £250,000 has been spent on stations in north Wales over a six-year period. That concerns me. There is still £2.7 million in the pot, and I ask the Minister to ensure that that money is spent by the company—or by any company that takes over from First North Western—and that north Wales gets its fair share. As much as I like the Treasury and the Chancellor, I should not like to see that money go back to them when so much work needs to he done.

I could give some graphic accounts of the impact of lack of investment on stations in north Wales. I shall not name the towns concerned, for fear of embarrassment, but there are stations that, when one steps off the train and goes over the connecting bridges, smell of urine. There is one where urine drips down into offices below, and the staff have had to move out. There has been arson and vandalism, and there is a lack of CCTV and secure parking. Bearing in mind that the coastal towns concerned are some of the largest towns in north Wales —Flint, Colwyn Bay, Bangor, Rhyl and Prestatyn—they deserve better.

I pay tribute to the work of the British Transport police, based in Bangor in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy. They are doing sterling work in improving safety in north Wales. If we seriously want an integrated transport system, we must provide secure parking so that people in my valley, the Vale of Clwyd, can travel from as far as 25 miles away in Ruthin, down to Rhyl, and leave their car safely protected by CCTV and high fences, knowing that it will not be damaged or vandalised in the two or three days for which they are away. That is key. All stations should be equipped with CCTV. I know that several of the nine grants to which I referred earlier have been used for that, especially in towns in south-west Wales. We should demand the same.

Another concern is the lift facilities in my town, Rhyl. I can relate the story of a young paraplegic woman in a wheelchair who stopped in Rhyl at 11 o'clock at night. The lift was not working, so she had to go 20 miles down the track to Llandudno and get on the train there to come 20 miles back. That is disgraceful. The lifts should be working and staff should be there, especially to facilitate disabled people alighting at their stops.

In summary, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take up the issues that I have mentioned in the debate and perhaps get back in writing to me, the north Wales group of Labour MPs and the Opposition Members who have attended.

11.19 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing this debate. It is an important subject, which goes beyond passenger services to matters such as inward investment and the crucial link to the western extremity of the European Union—the Republic of Ireland. I congratulate my hon. Friend and the north Wales group of Labour Members on their work. I fear that 10 minutes is not enough time to respond to such an expansive contribution, but I am more than happy to meet that group to pursue each of those matters in much more detail than I can possibly do here. Moreover, many other members of the group could not be here today and I know that the issue is as important for them as for anyone else.

My hon. Friend will know that the Strategic Rail Authority published its final west coast main line strategy this week. It is an important document in terms of quality of service. The strategy includes an enhancement of services to Holyhead, reduced journey times and the use of Voyager and Pendolino trains on the route.

I appreciate that. When my hon. Friend talks about reducing journey times, will he take up the point that I made in an intervention that line speeds, particularly across Anglesey, remain at 75 mph? Journey times need to be reduced across the coast.

As I said, enhancement and improvement are at the core of the west coast main line strategy. There is a strong case for electrification or significant investment in the entire line north of Crewe, but that is a matter for another day and another strategy. I would be happy to discuss that when I meet the group.

Now that the strategy is out for consultation, the SRA has turned its attention to the allocation of capacity on the line. It has recognised that demand would outstrip availability and is keen to ensure a solution that meets the needs of all the different users of the route so far as possible. I obviously do not need to exhort the north Wales group to ensure that it contributes fully to the consultation.

In producing the draft strategy, the SRA sought input from the entire railway industry. It was important that everyone had their say. The draft strategy envisaged providing capacity for a two-hourly service between Holyhead and London from 2004, equivalent to seven services per day. That was always intended as an initial scenario to be developed, not as a commitment of what was to be delivered. It is also wrong to make the simple assumption that more trains equal a better service.

As the SRA worked on the strategy in greater detail, it became apparent that a service of seven trains a day would be problematic to deliver. The turnaround time of trains—that is, the length of time a train spends at the terminal before embarking on the return journey—would be extremely tight, leaving minimal time for cleaning and maintenance. Clearly, my hon. Friends do not want the totem of seven journeys, but in filthy trains that are badly maintained.

Furthermore, due to the availability of rolling stock, those trains would be made up of four carriages only. That may be sufficient in off-peak hours, but it would not provide adequate capacity in the peak periods. It would mean short trains using the network at peak periods, wasting overall capacity on the route to the detriment of other services.

The SRA took all those issues on board in determining the final strategy. As my hon. Friend the member for Vale of Clwyd pointed out, the strategy for Holyhead is to provide five services daily, compared with the three provided at present, with adequate capacity and timetabling to match demand, for example, by connecting with ferry services to Ireland and providing nine-car trains at the busiest periods. Some of those services will be provided by the Pendolino trains hauled by diesel locomotives from Crewe over track that is not electrified. Others will be worked by the Voyager trains, as was originally envisaged.

The new trains will provide a more comfortable and faster journey with more modern onboard facilities than the rolling stock currently in use. If they do not, I am sure that my hon. Friends will let me know as quickly as possible. All those changes are due to be made in the winter 2004 timetable. That is subject to, as I understand it, the timetabling planning process within the industry. I hope that those changes can be implemented as planned by the winter and I will be happy to discuss that in more detail with my hon. Friends when we meet.

I shall not give way because I have only five minutes.

Under the revised strategy, overall capacity to north Wales will be greater than would have been delivered through the original seven-train plan because the facility of longer trains will be used more effectively at times when it is needed: during peak hours. The length of journey for the service is also planned to be reduced, from around four-and-half hours at present—no tittering, please—to three hours, fifty minutes. The Strategic Rail Authority has stated that that mix of train type and service will offer the best balance between adequate capacity and frequency, and requires only two Voyager trains to be released from the busy cross-country network, instead of four as originally planned, compensated by the commitment to use Pendolino trains on the route.

Another key aim of the strategy, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd alluded, is to improve performance on the line. The target is that, from 2008, 90 per cent. of long-distance trains should arrive at their destination within 10 minutes of the scheduled time. The target applies from 2008 because prior to that there will still be renewal and enhancement work on the route. However, interim targets have also been set and 87 per cent. of services should arrive on time from 2004, 88 per cent. from 2006, and 89 per cent. from 2007. Improvements to the punctuality and reliability of local services will also be delivered.

The improved performance will be possible because of the increased capacity on the line, the more reliable infrastructure and trains, and the more resilient timetable pattern. Safety on the line will also be improved through the application of train protection and warning systems, which will reduce the possibility of trains passing signals at danger. New line-side fencing and the removal of level crossings will reduce accidents involving trespassers, pedestrians and road users.

I assure my hon. Friend that I shall pursue the points that he and others have made about stations such as Flint, Holyhead and, if there are outstanding matters, Wrexham, although I am sure that everyone welcomes the good news that he announced about information for local passengers. I accept his wider point about CCTV, proper car parking and other facilities to make the entire journey a fulfilling and comprehensive experience for users of the line.

I understand that Isle of Anglesey county council and Stena Line have set up a Holyhead transport interchange group to consider how better provision can be achieved. The SRA attended the first meeting in April and advised the group that, although its rail passenger partnership fund is suspended, it hopes to relaunch it and that it could provide funds if the suggested works were affordable and represented value for money. I trust that the SRA will maintain a close dialogue with the group and continue to offer advice. That is another matter that we can examine in detail when I meet my hon. Friends.

All in all, rail travel on the west coast main line will eventually be transformed. Now that the strategy has been determined, the focus is on implementation of the plan. Much of the engineering work is already in hand or due to start shortly and is on time and to schedule. Key benefits will be delivered from 2004, and by 2006 almost all the renewal and enhancement work will have been completed.

A dedicated communications steering group has been established, including the SRA, Network Rail, and the train and freight operating companies. They will work together as one body to ensure that passengers are aware of future engineering works and so that information is available about alternative services.

I thank my hon. Friend and his colleagues again for raising this important matter. Now that the improvements to the west coast main line are finally coming on stream, we must ensure that each and every aspect of the travel experience is what everyone in north Wales and those who travel between London and Holyhead deserve. I greatly appreciate the chance to discuss those matters today and look forward to meeting my hon. Friend and his colleagues. I hope that on that occasion my hon. Friend will arrive on time and not out of breath. I am sure that he is as grateful as I am to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) for allowing him to draw breath before starting his heroic contribution to this important debate.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.