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West Coast Main Line

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2009

4. What recent estimate he has made of the cost to the economy of disruption on the west coast main line over the new year period; and if he will make a statement. (250989)

Network Rail has apologised to passengers and businesses for the disruption on the west coast main line over the new year period, which was the result of separate incidents. Disruption on the railway does have economic consequences, which is why we are committing record levels of investment to increase capacity and resilience. The economic impact of the improved west coast main line is a very positive one, cutting journey times and allowing 45 per cent. more long-distance trains out of Euston.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. In his latest newsletter, Tony Collins, chief executive of Virgin Trains, says of the delay in the implementation of the new timetable:

“we are disappointed with the current situation. We will continue to work with Network Rail”.

Of the disruption over the new year, he says:

“Setting aside the tragic plane crash in Staffordshire, the bad days have largely related to overhead line equipment failures.”

Does the Secretary of State understand that members of the Lichfield commuters club—and, indeed, other commuters up and down the west coast main line—feel that with increased fares they should be getting increased service? Where does the buck stop? When will the Secretary of State—

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his question. I am told that he chairs “a small but influential group of rail users”. I trust that that small group consists of more than one member, but—

Even better. It appears that the hon. Gentleman’s “small group” is a very small one indeed. Nevertheless, I would be delighted to meet him to discuss rail services in Lichfield, and I agree that it is important that reliable services are maintained from Lichfield, and also along other parts of the west coast main line. That is precisely why we committed so much funding to its improvement, and why we continue to monitor the developments. We hope—indeed, we expect—that his constituents will have a safe reliable journey along that line.

My right hon. Friend said earlier that it was not the quality of the upgrade that was the problem, but is it not a fact that the real problem, not just on the west coast main line but throughout the country, is the poor quality of maintenance on our railways? This is because there is a skills shortage, from project management to technicians. What are the Government going to do to improve the skills on the railways?

I made it clear earlier that we will not, in any way, allow compromises to be made on safety—and that applies specifically to maintaining our railway network. It is vital that passengers and staff on the railways should have complete confidence in the equipment that they use. My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of maintaining and improving skill levels, and that is why the Government are committed to an extensive programme of apprenticeships to ensure that we have the necessary skills for the future, not only on the west coast main line but across our rail network.

The refurbishment of the west coast main line should have been cause for great celebration, but in focusing almost solely on reducing long-distance journey times, it has been an unmitigated disaster for intermediate towns such as Milton Keynes and Rugby. I welcome the fact that we are trying to get people off aeroplanes, but will taking an extra five minutes simply to stop in Milton Keynes really stop people taking the train?

I do not accept that this was solely about long-distance journey times, because it was also about increasing the capacity on the line: some 45 per cent. more services can travel on the line as a result of the capacity improvements. That is fundamental to passengers up and down the line; it means that many more direct services from different destinations can be organised, alongside the stopping trains that travel up and down the west coast main line. It is about both improving journey times and increasing the capacity on the line.

My right hon. Friend is right to emphasise the fact that the Government have played their role in the upgrade of the west coast main line. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) points out, Network Rail has let the travelling public down badly through poor maintenance and the disruption to services. Will my right hon. Friend examine the quality of Network Rail’s senior management? Perhaps he does not wish to comment on that in the House today, but will he take a view as to whether the incentives that they regard as essential ought to be coupled with disincentives when they get things so badly wrong?

I have regular meetings with Network Rail’s senior management, and I assure my hon. Friend, as I assure the House, that safety, reliability and maintenance are matters that are pursued on a regular basis. We will not allow them to slide.

Is not the real reason why it takes so long for the west coast main line to recover from disruptive incidents the fact that when Labour created Network Rail, Ministers left it accountable to nobody—not to the regulator, not to the train operators and certainly not to the passenger? Is it not time to reform Network Rail so that its management have to be accountable to a more effective structure than the toothless membership that they themselves appoint?

I find the hon. Lady’s remarks curious, given the sad history of Railtrack, for which her party, in government, was solely responsible. My predecessor created Network Rail to deal with the complete failure of Railtrack, over which she and her Government presided.

Will the Secretary of State also agree that we can increase resilience on the west coast route and reduce the impact of disruptive incidents by building a new high-speed line from London to Manchester? Will he back our promise to do that? Why did his Department’s 30-year strategy for the railways contain no place for high-speed rail? Why does the high-speed rail proposal that he put forward when he made his Heathrow announcement consist of little more than warm words and a distant aspiration for a line that might get as far as Birmingham, but no further north?

As the hon. Lady might one day eventually find out, being in government and taking decisions involves rather more than scribbling on the back of an envelope—which was pretty much what the Conservative party’s proposals for a high-speed network consisted of. I have been writing on similar envelopes for a very long time—since I was a small child. The reality is that developing a high-speed rail network, which is what we set out, requires a great deal of detailed work, and that work is under way. We have formed a company, which has an influential non-executive chair. That is the kind of work that is necessary; it is not about scribbling on the back of envelopes.

My constituents depend significantly on the west coast main line, accessing what is generally a fast and reasonable service at Tamworth and Nuneaton. But when they arrive in Euston, they get off the train to find a tired and tatty shopping centre that masquerades as a rail hub. When are we going to do something about that? Surely a more impressive Euston might be able to help with the other problems occurring further up the line. [Interruption.]

There appear to be different opinions about the quality of Euston station, but I assure my hon. Friend that there are detailed plans in hand for refurbishing it. I hope that he will be pleased with the results.