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Cross-border Rail Links

Volume 464: debated on Wednesday 10 October 2007

2. What steps he has taken to assist in the improvement of cross-border rail links in north Wales. (156151)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), take a keen interest in Welsh rail services. This includes regular discussions with ministerial colleagues both in Whitehall and the Assembly Government, as well as with train operating companies and other stakeholders.

In Wrexham we are celebrating the introduction of the first direct rail service to London since 1957, which was announced last month, but we are ever ambitious and we now want the electrification of the Wrexham-Liverpool line. We note with some concern that the rail assessment plan that was issued over the summer somehow made the mistake—I am sure it was a mistake—of putting back the work on that till 2014. Will my hon. Friend have discussions as soon as possible with the First Minister to make sure that the error is rectified?

My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner on behalf of his constituents and north Wales rail. We welcome the new direct service between Wrexham and Marylebone. In respect of the Wrexham to Bidston electrification, the co-operation between Merseytravel and the Welsh Assembly Government to examine the feasibility of improving the line is welcome because it could indeed deliver improved rail links, leading to economic and employment opportunities. I understand that the Welsh Assembly Government are considering the options resulting from the feasibility study. Decisions on the way forward will be for them, but as my hon. Friend has been such a strong advocate of rail issues in his constituency and across the region, I am more than happy to meet him and discuss the matter further.

The Minister will be aware of the recent announcement by the Welsh Assembly Government that it is a priority to improve rail journey times between north and south Wales and to introduce electrification. Will the Minister do what he can to assist Ministers in Cardiff to implement that approach, bearing in mind the huge economic, social and other benefits?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. On 2 October, the Welsh Assembly Government announced new transport priorities, which include a commitment to examine further improvements to north-south rail travel, including a new fast service with business-class facilities operating southbound in the morning and northbound in the evening. On 3 October, the Welsh Assembly Government launched their freight strategy consultation, which aims to deliver a robust, modern and efficient freight transport system. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s views on board. The plans are exciting and ambitious, and we all hope that they can be delivered.

While welcoming the news about the improvement of railway services in north Wales, may I ask my hon. Friend what impact the recently published rail White Paper will have on railways not only in north Wales but across Wales?

The recent rail White Paper will deliver real benefits for Wales. It discusses improved reliability on long-distance services—Virgin, First Great Western and Arriva cross country—increases in safety and an enhanced network capacity at Reading, which, as my hon. Friend will know from campaigning conducted by her and other MPs, is a pinchpoint on the First Great Western route. Most importantly, the White Paper mentions a 20 per cent. increase in capacity into Cardiff at peak times by 2014. We should applaud the rail White Paper and recognise that it is in no small way due to effective campaigning by Government Members.

I want to return to the question raised by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas)—the electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line, which is extremely important to the economy of north-east Wales. We know that the Welsh Assembly Government were committed to that proposal before the Assembly elections, but now they appear to have shelved the scheme for up to 12 years. Does the Minister know the reason for that change of plan? Was it perhaps a concession extracted from the First Minister by his Plaid Cymru coalition partners to enable them to pursue policies that are likely to find favour in the areas where they are strongest?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the decision is ultimately for the Welsh Assembly Government. However, I have heard what he has said, and we are keen to see the scheme proceed, too. The hon. Gentleman is challenging us on plans for the rail network, but in the past 10 years we have had to deal with the failures caused by the botched rail privatisation by the Tory Administration. Now, rather than offering robust policy alternatives, they are offering us a return to privatisation with threats to break up Network Rail—far from learning from past mistakes, they are condemned to repeat them.

I welcome the additional services proposed by Virgin Trains on cross-border and mainline services. My hon. Friend will know that one of the problems in north-west Wales is the lack of synergy between mainline services, regional services and the ferry port of Holyhead in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend bring together train operators and ferry operators to ensure that we have joined-up thinking and a truly integrated service? And will he agree to meet me to discuss that case in more detail?

Yes, I am open to meeting my hon. Friend and other north Wales Members who are concerned about the matter. I will take up that offer to work constructively with my hon. Friend.