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Midland Main Line

Volume 481: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2008

6. What steps are being taken to raise line speeds and reduce train congestion on the midland main line. (228330)

Network Rail has proposed line speed enhancements on the midland main line as part of the plan to deliver the capacity improvements sought by the Government in the July 2007 rail White Paper. The independent Office of Rail Regulation has indicated that it is minded to agree to that project. A final determination is expected from the ORR at the end of the month.

When the next timetable change happens, half the trains north from Kettering will be lost, and all the fast trains between Kettering and the capital will disappear, because of capacity constraints on the midland main line, inadequate line speeds and the Department’s insistence that services between Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby and the capital be sped up. Can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents in Kettering that the line speed upgrades that he has just promised will ensure that those services are reinstated to Kettering as soon as possible?

I have admired the consistency with which the hon. Gentleman raises issues of behalf of Kettering and his constituents, but I thought that he was less than generous in his observations about improvements on the midland main line, not least those that affect Kettering. Not only will significant investment improve line speeds, but a new timetable that comes into force in December is likely to provide two trains an hour from Kettering to London, one of which will actually start in Kettering. As he will be aware, there are times when those of us who catch the train from further up the line at Derby, Nottingham and Leicester fill it before his constituents have the opportunity to get on. Starting a train at Kettering and having an hourly service direct from Kettering to London will mean that his constituents are well served. I hope that when he goes from this place and talks about the remarkable improvements in the service from Kettering, he will give them a bit more praise than he has so far.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s positive response to the question, and I know that he knows the line very well. Does he agree that the most significant improvements to it can be achieved only as a result of electrification? Does he share his predecessor’s commitment to a study of electrification, and does he recognise that, uniquely among main lines, this one has a very positive cost benefit attached to it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He will be aware that I take a close, indeed personal, interest in the midland main line, as a regular user of it. I certainly share my predecessor’s enthusiasm for electrification, and I assure my hon. Friend that the Department will examine it very closely.

I welcome the new ministerial team to their posts. Typical—you wait months for a new Transport Minister, then three come along at the same time.

The Secretary of State’s predecessors promised extra carriages. How many have been ordered for the midland main line?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. I remember her as an enthusiastic Member of the European Parliament, where she had a deserved reputation for a practical and pragmatic approach to issues. I am sorry that on her return from Brussels to Notting Hill she seems to have fallen in with a bad crowd. Nevertheless, I look forward to answering her questions, not least on the midland main line. I am delighted that she is so enthusiastic about it that she has chosen this matter to discuss with me. I use the line on a very regular basis and I can assure her, as I have assured Labour Members, that close attention will be paid to future investment in the midland main line.

I think that the answer that the Secretary of State is groping for is actually “zero”. The Government’s response to congestion on the midland main line and the rest of the network is wholly inadequate and painfully slow. He cannot even give a straight answer about the new carriages that they have promised time and again. Will he deliver all 1,300, and will they be in addition to the new Thameslink carriages? If he really wants to tackle congestion on the rail network, will he work with me on a cross-party basis to take forward plans for high-speed rail for this country?

Again, I am sorry to hear such a grudging view of the investment in the railways that the Government are planning. We have proposed to spend £15 billion on improving our rail network, of which £10 billion will be devoted to reducing congestion. That is an enormous commitment. I am sorry that the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer is not in his place, because he will know that no previous Conservative Transport Secretary could ever have made that commitment. I am proud that my predecessors were able to secure such support from the Treasury to allow that investment to go ahead.

May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that with the £15 billion of investment, to try to increase rail line speeds and reduce train congestion, we should nationalise the railways, just as we are nationalising the banks, by not renewing the franchises as they fall due? Many of those franchises, just like the banks, are bankrupt and would not be operating except for huge Government subsidy. Let us move the railways back into state ownership. What are his views on that?

I think that I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question—I may have to reflect upon it. I am sorry that he takes that view of the contributions that have been made by train operating companies, not least because there has been a remarkable change in the usage patterns on the line that we have just been debating, the midland main line. Whereas trains used to stop only at Derby, Nottingham and Leicester on their way south, passing all the stations in between, there is now an hourly service from stations such as Kettering right down the line, and that has made a huge change to the usage. A further change has been the way in which off-peak services have attracted rail users. When I travelled down from Derby to London on Saturday, the first class compartments were full. In the days of the nationalised railways, those compartments would, sadly, have been completely empty on Saturdays. I hope that he gives some credit to the innovation that the private sector has brought. The position of Network Rail has clearly changed in recent times, and we ensure that Network Rail provides a safe and reliable system for users of the rail network. Thus, on balance, I shall probably resist his invitation.

I formally welcome the Secretary of State to his post on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, merely observing that the average tenure of office of a Secretary of State for Transport since 1945 is considerably less than 18 months—that is, of course, some way short of the next general election.

On the midland main line, is not one of the causes of the capacity constraints and the failure to electrify the cuts that have been made to the Department for Transport’s budget? Rather than the investment that the Secretary of State mentions, the reality is that the rail budget has reduced by 17 per cent. this year and is now lower than in 2003-04, whereas the road budget has doubled. Given that, and given the Secretary of State’s unhelpful response to the Select Committee on Transport on the subject of fares and his support for aviation, is it not clear that the new Transport Secretary is no friend of either the railways or the environment?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his qualified welcome. He and I had many dealings in my time at the Ministry of Defence, and I always admired his ability to dig himself into a trench and launch a constant barrage at what he perceived to be the enemy; sadly, he sometimes did so after the war had finished. Nevertheless, I look forward to debating these issues with him. As a start, he might perhaps like to examine the remarkable increases in investment in the railways and the remarkable improvement in passenger journeys on our trains. I assure him that while I am Secretary of State for Transport—however long that might be—there will be no lack of investment in or commitment to our rail network.