Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Tami.)
At the outset, may I say that I appreciate the difficult circumstances of the debate? I will not be referring to this morning’s news about the east coast main line being taken into public ownership, principally because I understand that a statement will be made to the House later today. It is only right that the House itself is given the first word from Ministers on the issue, and I shall respect the rights of the Commons and the strong views of the new Speaker in that regard.
I echo the point made by my hon. Friend. A statement will be made in the other place at 3.30 pm today and repeated in this House by the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan). It will set out our response to this morning’s statement from National Express on its east coast franchise. I am sure that hon. Members will be able to ask questions at that time.
I thank the Minister for that intervention. It is only fair to put on the record some recognition of the levels of investment in rail during recent years. As Lord Adonis said in the transport manifesto that he presented to the Transport Times conference last week, more than £150 billion has been invested in transport infrastructure over the past decade. Network Rail has made it clear that during the next five years, we will embark on an investment programme that is bigger than any seen for a generation. In many ways, we are all aware that the time has come for railways. In recent years, we have seen substantial growth in passenger demand and it is anticipated that more is to come. There is increasing recognition of the role that rail can play in reducing our dependence on carbon, which is an important context for the debate. Last week, Lord Adonis again talked about
“making low carbon travel a better and steadily more viable and attractive choice within, and between, different modes of transport”.
Obviously, that will be extremely important in future years.
However, that record of investment in rail and recognition of the need to continue investing has to be set in the context of a deal for the north of England that is less than satisfactory—in other words, the north has not had its fair share of the cake. Statistical analyses of 2009 public expenditure show that spending per head on transport was £783 in London. However, in Yorkshire and Humber the figure was just £213, and in the north- east it was even less at £206, although the north-west was relatively lucky in receiving £278 per head. The figures show that spending in three of the regions I have mentioned was more than three and a half times less than it was in London. In the case of Manchester, it was three times less than London.
Northern Rail has had no new carriages for the past five years, whereas franchises providing commuter services in London and the south-east have had 580 new carriages over the same period. In 2007, approximately a third of the rolling stock serving demand for rail travel in the northern passenger transport areas was 20 years old or more. In 2009—this year—that proportion will have increased to around 40 per cent. of the fleet.
Overcrowding is becoming a real issue in the north of England. Some 60 per cent. of all peak-hour arrivals on Northern Rail services carry standing passengers, and in Manchester more than half of all trains in the peak period have standing passengers. In Merseyside that figure is more than a third and in Newcastle and Sheffield the numbers are substantial and increasing. The reason is the considerable growth in rail journeys between 1995-96 and 2007-08. Rail journeys increased by 70 per cent. in west Yorkshire, 57 per cent. in Greater Manchester, 43 per cent. in south Yorkshire, 37 per cent. in Merseyside, and 20 per cent. in Tyne and Wear.
Between 2006-07 and 2007-08, TransPennine Express saw numbers of passenger journeys increase by 11 per cent., which is second only to levels of growth experienced by First Capital Connect. The White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, which was published in summer 2007, conceded that in relation to conurbations outside London, there has been rail passenger demand growth of 60 per cent. over the past decade, and that had been the norm for those cities. By comparison, the figure is 32 per cent. in London. Network Rail estimates that by 2025, many lines across the network will have no further capacity, even after the currently planned investment has been implemented.
For hon. Members who represent the north, the weighting of rail investment in favour of London and the south-east is clearly unfair, especially given the evidence of upturns in demand in the north and the growing problems with capacity in our great northern cities. What needs to be done to redress the situation? Well, obviously, first of all we need a commitment from the Minister that forthcoming decisions on rail investment will be used to balance spending allocations by focusing on the needs of the north of England.
We need a commitment to the Manchester hub. Some £175 million was spent preparing the Crossrail project. We need a serious commitment soon to developing and funding Manchester hub proposals. Why? Because we are dealing with capacity constraints in Manchester that are absolutely key to extending capacity on the current network across the north and to building new capacity in the interests of the whole of the north. Perhaps it should be termed the northern hub. I suggested that to Radio Manchester this morning—although I do not think it entirely liked the idea. Doing so would ensure that all northern regions realise how important it is to support the Manchester hub, as it is now known, in representations to the Government.
We also need investment across the northern network in a whole range of ways, including work on the Leeds to Selby and York corridor. During peak hours, many trains are close to or, in a few cases, beyond nominal capacity on that corridor. Significant overcrowding is forecast if additional capacity is not provided. Network Rail is planning improvements in capacity on the line, but in the long term it envisages that the corridor east of Leeds will need significant enhancements to deal with potential growth—for example, increasing tracking to four tracks on part of the route or carrying out infill electrification.
As a Sheffield MP, I do not want to obsess too much about Leeds, but, in recent years, the Leeds to Manchester route has also experienced rapid growth in demand for fast services across the Pennines. Forecasts of future growth suggest significant overcrowding is likely and that demand management will be necessary unless additional capacity is introduced. Again, some minor capacity improvements are planned by Network Rail, but Network Rail itself thinks that more line speed improvements are required and that significant capacity enhancement is needed if we are to deal with the demand on that line.
I shall now turn to Sheffield—the greatest city of them all, in my view. In the medium to long term, we expect significant increase in demand on the route from Sheffield to Doncaster. In terms of both passenger and inter-modal freight traffic, we need to think seriously—this is Network Rail’s view—about four-tracking part of the route and having enhanced access to Rotherham Central and an improved track layout at Doncaster. In addition, it is the view of the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive that a small project costing in the region of £15 million for a pilot tram-train from Meadowhall to Rotherham would be an incredibly wise and useful investment on the part of the Department for Transport.
Turning to the midland main line, it is essential to shorten journey times for direct services from Sheffield to London St. Pancras. It is ludicrous that it should take more than two hours to travel the 165 miles from Sheffield to London. Of course, electrification of the line could increase the capacity for carriage of freight.
Finally, there are the big projects that the north needs, such as High Speed 2. We have made the case repeatedly in Westminster Hall debates, and Northern Way has clearly made the case for two high-speed lines north to south, and for a new trans-Pennine rail link between the east and west of the country. Members would expect me to mention the Woodhead route at this point, but it is likely that that would be the best means of building a trans-Pennine link.
I am sorry that I cannot be with my hon. Friend for the whole of this debate. I congratulate her on succeeding in securing it. As well as the reduction of congestion and the benefits to the economy, does she accept that there would also be major benefits to the environment from two of those projects? First, electrification of the midland main line would result in a cleaner railway and, secondly, high-speed rail lines serving both sides of the country would, we hope, attract people away from short-haul air transport. That would benefit the environment considerably.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the environmental impact of high-speed rail. It was made absolutely clear at the Transport Committee last week in evidence from witnesses that the likely impact of high-speed rail would be to reduce short-haul domestic flights. There is a rock-solid case for such investment.
The economic case for high-speed rail twin routes going up the east and west coasts is based on estimated agglomeration benefits of £10 billion, with the benefit of increases in gross domestic product focused primarily on the north. Nevertheless, that £10 billion represents a benefit to the whole economy, partly because the establishment of high-speed links between the north and the south, and the east and the west, would help to integrate the national economy, thereby benefiting London and the south-east as well as the north of England more generally. It would help in many ways to close the gap between productivity in the north and the national average, which at present is £30 billion.
Furthermore, there is an argument that establishing new, fast links between the east and the west of the country could help to reduce congestion more generally. One of the problems with the rail network is that it runs primarily from north to south. The more we develop links from east to west, the more we can encourage business traffic and growth in those directions, helping to reduce congestion more generally.
My final point about high-speed rail is that the agglomeration benefit of establishing high-speed lines to the north would be more than twice what the DFT estimates for the wider economic benefits of Crossrail and Thameslink put together.
Will the north get its fair share? That is a fair question, given the distribution of rail investment so far, the difficulties that many contemplate will emerge from the next round of public spending allocations and the spending commitments already made on Crossrail of at least £16 billion, if not more; to Thameslink of £5.5 billion for an upgrade; and to the Olympic Delivery Authority, which has a transport budget of £897 million. The key worry for those of us who represent the north is that our investment will be squeezed to protect those budgets.
We are worried because early indications of DFT thinking are not encouraging. If Members cast their minds back to January 2008, they will remember that the DFT set out proposals to implement high-level output specification. Increased rolling stock was to be provided to each train operator. Northern Rail was promised 182 new vehicles, including 24 electrics and 158 diesels. In an update in July 2008, those figures were confirmed, yet PTEs have been in detailed discussion with the DFT for some months about the plan for Northern Rail and, although the offer is still under development, it is clear that the offer from DFT is now, at best, for little more than half the 182 carriages previously offered.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just the quantity of rolling stock, but the quality? Some of the rolling stock that passes through Bolton Trinity street station should, frankly, be scrapped. We need replacement carriages as well as additional carriages to meet the extra demand.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, approximately one third of the rolling stock that serves demand for rail travel in the northern areas is more than 20 years old. That is something that really puts people off travelling on trains. If the stock is old, and if capacity on the network is restricted, people will not use the railways—they will stay in their cars.
The DFT cites lower demand forecasts as a result of the recession, yet PTEs have not observed any significant change in the number of local rail passengers travelling in peak periods. They believe that is probably because of suppressed demand caused by the lack of previous investment in capacity. That is the irony of the current position, and it absolutely underlines the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). On the basis of the reduced offer, PTEs estimate that many trains will be very crowded by 2014; for example, it is estimated that by then, 30 trains in Manchester will be running at more than 100 per cent. capacity.
The reduced offer is not acceptable, and it suggests key questions. Why the reduction? We need answers quickly to that question. Has the overall number of 1,300 additional carriages nationally been reduced as well, in line with the reduction for Northern Rail? How does the DFT plan to meet the high-level output specification for reducing crowding in major cities with such a reduction? What evidence can the DFT put on the table to demonstrate that the recession has reduced the number of people travelling in peak periods in the major cities outside London?
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. Given the news today about National Express and the possible loss of the franchise, would it not be helpful if the Minister could give us an update on the present situation when he winds up?
We need evidence from the DFT to demonstrate that the recession has reduced the number of people travelling in peak periods in the major cities outside London.
I look forward to the Minister’s answers to those questions, and to the biggest question of all: does the apparent pulling back from capacity investment by the DFT indicate that the north will continue to be disadvantaged in terms of rail investment, or will Ministers commit to redressing the balance?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on securing this timely debate, and on focusing so helpfully on the gap in railway investment between the north and the south, and on our needs. As she acknowledged, the Minister said he was somewhat inhibited as to what he could say this morning about National Express, but I have no such inhibition. I do not need to be prevented from expressing my frustration at the situation that has arisen, before I turn to the investment issues of other companies.
As far as National Express is concerned, we have been through all this before. We went through GNER’s walking away from the franchise. We cannot go on like this, because the east coast main line suffers a degree of instability as a consequence, and there is an accompanying effect on the morale of the dedicated staff, many of whom have now worked for both companies and have had such a frustrating time. It was a tragedy when we lost GNER, which was a standard-setter for customer service in the industry. It was a loss to the industry when GNER was unable to continue. It suffered from one of the features of the franchise system, which is winner’s curse: the pressure to put in a high bid to get a franchise regularly leads companies to offer or accept terms they cannot subsequently fulfil. Now that has happened to National Express as well, and the problem has been exacerbated by the effect of the recession on rail travel.
During National Express’s tenure there has been some reduction in customer service standards on trains. There has been some improvement in punctuality, which is welcome and which the company made a priority, but there have also been problems owing to the investment concerns that the hon. Lady mentioned. There are a lot of problems with National Express’s inherited rolling stock, particularly toilets and catering vehicles failing and coaching stock having to be taken off trains, leading to shorter, overcrowded or cancelled trains. This is old rolling stock, which appears to present some serious maintenance problems. That has worsened the customer experience for a lot of people over the past few years.
We will learn later today what is to happen. I assume that we will be into another management contract and then another round of bidding, and somebody else will get winner’s curse and we will have another episode such as the ones we have gone through twice before. However, I sincerely hope not, because we need some stability on this vital, heavily used rail service that is, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said earlier in relation to other rail services, extremely important environmentally, because it transfers significant numbers of people who would otherwise fly. Passengers in Newcastle and Edinburgh regularly choose whether to take the train or to fly. Nowadays, flying is often cheaper than taking the train. It is in all our interests that the rail service continues to draw custom that would otherwise go to air services. So we will wait to see what happens later today.
It was not quite clear from the Minister’s intervention how the timing will be managed. Do we assume that, because the primary statement will be made by the Secretary of State in the House of Lords, the statement in the House of Commons will not take place until afterwards? The Minister nods, so I will presume—unless he contradicts me—that business in the Commons will be interrupted at some point this afternoon by a statement.
Let me mention some other franchises that affect the north-east of England in particular. The hon. Lady referred extensively to Northern Rail, which is a major provider of services across the north-east of England. The part of the Northern Rail franchise that most affects my constituency is the one that gets the oldest trains—the Morpeth-Chathill service, which features a train that stops at a place where nobody is allowed to get on it. I will mention that train later. On Northern Rail’s investment in rolling stock, it is important that we eventually get rid of the old the Pacer-type trains, which are still used on some services. Northern Rail has significant investment needs.
The cross-country franchise is vital to the provision of services from Berwick and Alnmouth and Morpeth, and it helps to provide a link into the east coast main line services from those stations, where the mainline trains do not stop. It therefore increases the mainline service and provides valuable links right across country to the midlands, the south and west. Investment in and maintenance of that franchise are important.
TransPennine Express is used a great deal and provides a significantly improved service. I have used that service over many years, and it would be wrong not to acknowledge how much better it is now than in my early days as a Member of Parliament. However, people realise, having travelled in continental Europe, how much more could be achieved in terms of quality of service, timetable reliability and integration with other public transport services. We still seem to be struggling to get to the standards found in other countries, and it will take more investment to achieve that.
The mystery train that stops where no one can get on it is the one that goes twice daily to Belford, in my constituency, and turns around there. Nobody is allowed to get on it because the platform was taken away some years ago. We in the constituency are trying to get the platform rebuilt. A project is well under way and I think we are getting closer to its fruition. I mention that today because I want a new crop of Ministers to be aware that we really want to see this project through. It does not involve running extra trains or employing extra staff; it simply involves putting in place a platform, so that people can board a train that sits twice a day at Belford, thus enabling them to commute into Newcastle by train, and enabling visitors to use rail services in a popular tourist area.
Yes, and there are a number of good examples of that happening, but usually they are frustrated by tiresome issues such as the short platform problem that we have struggled with at Belford. We are told that there is a possibility that a train might arrive at the station with either the guard not warning passengers or too many doors being opened, perhaps allowing somebody to step out where there is no platform. Risk-aversion has been taken to an absurd length on some of these issues, making it more difficult to do simple things such as putting in a small platform to serve an area where the trains are relatively short in any event.
I encourage the Minister to remain interested in the Belford project and, of course, in other projects to develop rail services in Northumberland, such as reopening lines in the Bedlington and Ashington area, which could draw significant numbers of passengers into using rail, rather than private cars, for journeys to work into the Tyneside conurbation. There has been some progress on that front, and I want it to continue.
High-speed rail will be of crucial importance—either positive or negative—to the north-east of England. It will be positive if the north-east is involved, but projects discussed by both Government and Conservative Front Benchers do not involve the north-east, at least until some imagined later stage. I mention a positive or negative impact on the north-east because if high-speed rail becomes a means simply of linking Yorkshire and London, the north-east will suffer significantly owing to an increase in the imbalance of development and investment—including general commercial investment—away from the north-east and into those areas served by high-speed rail. High-speed rail could be seriously damaging to us if it does not come to the north-east, which, of course, can be part of its route to Scotland. High-speed rail could further increase the links, communication and economic activity between the north-east and Scotland.
Throughout the development of the “Northern Way” initiative, it has been a worry in the north-east that this was a Hull-to-Liverpool axis approach, with the north-east being left out. High-speed rail matters to the north-east, and many factors—including the impact on transfer from air to rail, and making the region more attractive to investors who want to be in an area well linked to the south of England—make it central to our economic regeneration. I place on the record today that the north-east wants to be part of high-speed rail.
Public expenditure will go over a cliff at some time in the next 12 months to two years, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on bringing to the attention of the House the disparities in investment in rail between the north and the south of England. When the inevitable happens and public expenditure falls, expenditure in the north of England could go over Beachy Head while that in other parts of the country could go over a cliff the size of the kerb, or even go slightly uphill. The reasons are obvious. There are huge commitments for capital expenditure in London on Crossrail, Thameslink, and the links to the Olympic games. We must not forget the public-private partnership and the underground. Earlier this week, or perhaps last week, the National Audit Office pointed out that £400 million had been wasted on that project alone, which is more than is spent on heavy or light rail in any part of the north. It is an extraordinary amount.
We are disadvantaged because of the money that goes to the south. My hon. Friend gave the figures showing the investment going into London and the south-east compared with that in the north. I shall make two points on that. First, per capita expenditure in London over the past 12 months increased from £667 per head to £783 per head, and that difference is half the per capita expenditure in the north-east. That one-year increase is extraordinary.
Secondly, although I am numerate, it is difficult to keep up with the number of Secretaries of State for Transport and rail Ministers over the past 12 years or so. However, I have asked all of them to justify not the difference in investment between the north of England and the south-east and London—I understand that it is crowded down here, things cost more, there may be more cost benefit and added value from investment, and that the investment reflects the structure of the country—but the increasing difference in investment, which is getting worse. Not one has been able to do so. Will my hon. Friend the Minister rise to that challenge and explain why the difference is so great?
There are two justifications for public money. One is that it will help the country’s economy, and the other is that it will alleviate social deprivation. The money going into the London system is usually based on added value, although there is obviously poverty in the south. One might expect the same criteria to apply to money that is spent in the north-west, but the Northwest regional development agency, which has some eccentric policies, does not follow either of those policies. It neglects rail transport to a large extent, unlike Yorkshire First and some of the other RDAs, but its spending per head of the population in Manchester, where there would be the greatest added value, is half what Merseyside receives, which is probably where there would be the next greatest added value, and a third of what goes to Cumbria. Expenditure is not based on poverty or added value.
I do accept that. It is a fact. I am talking about expenditure per head of population, which is a reasonable basis for comparison.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough set out the state of the rail system in the north of England. Yesterday, a passenger survey highlighted the poor state of the train service there and showed that over the past six or nine months passengers have become less satisfied as trains have become more crowded, people have found it more difficult to get on them and the state of platforms has deteriorated, and because of the lack of staff on platforms. I have said—it is worth repeating—that the speed of many trains in the north of England system would have embarrassed Gladstone. They are slower than in the 1880s, which is extraordinary.
I want the Government to assure us that when public expenditure cuts come there is positive recognition that the position cannot get much worse; we could get a fraction of the investment that we receive now. I also want them to respond to the disparities. The needs are obvious, and we need investment in the system. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough mentioned the Manchester hub. I do not mind whether it is called the northern hub or anything else, because we are talking about taking out the pinch points on the routes between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, between Manchester and Sheffield, between Bradford and Preston, and on routes that run parallel with the country’s major north-south routes. Removing those pinch points, whether Salford or Slade lane junction in Manchester, would benefit the whole of the northern system.
MPs, not just in Manchester or the north-west, but from the whole of the north of England, must say that we want that increased capacity in the system, because we would all benefit economically, socially and environmentally. I am not sure whether this is a party political point, but in the run-up to general elections, parties tend to say “yes” more easily than Governments say “no” after elections. It would be a valuable exercise for all of us to try to get into our party manifestos a commitment to investment in the northern rail system, and to rectify some of the imbalance in investment between north and south.
High-speed trains have been mentioned. I do not see a conflict between increasing capacity in the northern rail system—the Manchester hub idea—and the high-speed train. The high-speed train is a long-term project, which should benefit the whole country up to Glasgow and Edinburgh, including Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds, in whichever of a number of ways it is done. However, we should not lose our focus on the need for immediate investment in the northern rail system as well as major national infrastructure improvements in the High Speed 2 project. It would be easy for the Government to say that they will not do the former because they are looking at High Speed 2, which is a good thing. I welcome the vision of the new team at the Department for Transport and their support for the high-speed link, but it must not be used to divert attention from the immediate needs in the system.
My final point is about the figures, which are difficult to get, and this is a dramatic way of looking at them. In London over the next 10 years, around £80 billion of capital will be invested in transport, and the mayoral candidates last year claimed that they would invest £40 billion during their period of office, and the figure is about that. The figures are extraordinary, and I gave the per capita figures. The figures—they are very loose and difficult to get to—are 30 to 40 times greater than the investment that is going into the north-west of England. That simply cannot be justified on any basis that I can understand. I hope that all political parties take note: if we want this country to be as wealthy as it should be and the environment to be as good as it can be, we need to use the strength of our regional cities, which means supporting the transport infrastructure that goes to them, so that they can play their part in the economic growth of the country.
This may not be relevant, but I declare an interest, in that I hold five £10 shares in the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Company, which, I hasten to add, does not pay a dividend. I am also the president of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Preservation Society, which is the major shareholder in the company. The society is run on highly democratic lines—we do not have a Sir Topham Hatt, the fat controller. I am here simply to support my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) and I congratulate her on securing this timely debate. I shall be brief, as many hon. Members with an abiding interest in the subject are anxious to speak.
I look forward to hearing this afternoon’s statement about the future of the east coast main line’s major operating company. Many of us have had anxieties about that subject for some time, given the importance of the company to the future economic well-being not only of the Worth Valley railway—it transports our visitors and volunteers—but of the north of England generally, including my constituency.
I agree with the well-informed criticisms made by my hon. Friend and others; there is little point in repeating them. However, on a positive note, I should like to mention a few things that have happened since I was elected. When I was first elected in 1997, both the Aire and Wharfe Valley lines, which run through my constituency to Ilkley, had cascaded-down rolling stock that was antique, to say the least. The carriages had slam doors. Of course, the train could not move off until the doors had been closed, and someone as short as me took their life in their hands by leaning out of the compartment to get hold of the door to close it. I am very pleased that we have got away from that and we now have the excellent units that ply between Leeds and Skipton, through Keighley, and to Ilkley. That makes the lives of my constituents, and particularly those who commute to Leeds and Bradford each day, much better. The main problem with the units is that they do not have elastic sides. Therefore, at peak hours there is major overcrowding. As I frequently get on at Saltaire and the overcrowding is at a peak at that point, I often have to stand to Leeds.
The upgrading of Leeds City station took place a number of years ago. We now have 16 platforms there. It is a completely different station from the one that we inherited in 1997. I am pleased with the way in which it has progressed. Leeds is now a real railway hub and most of us in the north-east are proud of it.
I am very grateful for the improvements, but as an old-fashioned socialist, I still believe that privatisation of the rail network and operating companies was a mistake. Network Rail is a welcome improvement, but as today’s news shows, the operating companies and the method of awarding contracts are unsatisfactory, to say the least. I hope that later today we shall have some good news that will resolve some of those problems.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on gaining this important debate. I am able to participate only because my Select Committee sitting this morning was cancelled, so I am here at short notice.
The Bolton-Manchester rail corridor is one of the busiest in the country. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) will agree with that. Trains come through Trinity Street station in Bolton from all over the country—trans-Pennine trains as well as local commuter trains. There is a real problem on that line because there are only two tracks in and out of Manchester, so there is congestion, for a start, between the express trains, which obviously want to travel extremely fast through the Manchester terminals, and the local commuter trains. As a result, the small stations of Farnworth, Moses Gate and particularly Kearsley have lost rail services to make space for the express trains. That is one disadvantage of increased rail use.
Just before Christmas, the timetabling was altered completely, to the great disadvantage of my constituents. The reason for that was a much-improved west coast main line service between Manchester Piccadilly and London. To make way for increased capacity on Virgin trains, many of my constituents’ timetables were altered so that getting to work on time was a great problem. Many of the trains were diverted from Piccadilly station, where most of my constituents want to go, particularly the students going to Manchester Metropolitan university, Salford university and, of course, the great university of Manchester—it has an enormous number of students and is one of the largest campuses in Europe. Instead of going to Piccadilly, many trains have been diverted because of the increased capacity of Virgin trains at Piccadilly; they have been rerouted to Victoria station in Manchester. That means that people have to cross town, which adds time to their journey, and many of my constituents are arriving late.
There is a greater difficulty, in that many of my constituents get on at two of the small stations that I have mentioned—Farnworth and Moses Gate—and many of the commuter trains going through Manchester in the morning and coming back in the evening have only two carriages. Ironically, at least one of those carriages will have first-class capacity, which no one uses. People are crammed in like sardines in one and a half carriages and there is a completely empty first-class compartment. That is nonsensical. The trains fill up at Bolton Trinity Street. I use the trains myself. I never bother taking a car into Manchester. I always use the train, and every time I use those trains I am crammed in, squashed against a door. I am hardly able to get out at Manchester sometimes when the trains are going through, perhaps to the airport. It is very uncomfortable.
People have a similar experience in my constituency in Leeds, which has two stations that are the last on the line before Leeds City station. The best way of tackling that problem is to increase capacity—increasing the number of carriages. Surely that is the cheapest way of getting people out of their cars, making the modal shift and reducing the number of those short commuting journeys by road.
My hon. Friend is right: that is the crux of the debate. I have been the Member of Parliament for Bolton, South-East for 12 years and I have been writing to successive Ministers and Secretaries of State, pointing out the chaos that existed in 1997 when I was elected. With increased rail use, one can imagine that the situation has now become extremely demanding for my constituents, and they have been writing to me in increasing numbers complaining about not being able to get to work on time or even not being able to get to work at all. The trains fill up at Bolton Trinity Street and by the time they get to Farnworth and Moses Gate, people are left standing on the platform. They cannot physically get on the train. It is bad enough for an able-bodied person such as myself and many of my constituents, but let us imagine a disabled person or an older person trying to board trains that are no better than cattle trucks.
I agree with my hon. Friend’s points. Does he agree that it will be a shocking disgrace if the train units on the Oldham line which are removed when it is converted for tram use do not stay within the north-west area, and preferably on the Bolton line? The Department for Transport has not made it clear whether those trains will be left in the north-west system, as was originally envisaged.
Indeed. I was coming to that very point, and perhaps I will pick up on it before I conclude. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.
Many constituents who are left on the platforms then have to find an alternative route to work. They either have to take a gamble and stay on the platform for the next train, which will probably also be overcrowded, or they have to take a local bus into Manchester. A number of constituents have written to me saying that they regularly arrive at work in Manchester or Salford more than an hour late. If that happens frequently, as it does, it puts jobs at risk.
Hon. Members can imagine what happens in those circumstances: my constituents abandon the rail service and go back to the roads—all this nonsense about trying to persuade people to get out of their cars and on the trains certainly does not apply to my constituents. Although there is congestion on the roads into Manchester in the morning, my constituents at least know that they will get to work if they set off in time, whereas it is a gamble on the train, because they may not get on.
The solution is obvious—all my constituents can see it. Instead of having two carriages on the trains, with part of one carriage being first class, why on earth can we not have another carriage or, indeed, another two carriages? We need to go from two to four carriages on every train going into Manchester in the morning rush hour and returning from Manchester in the evening rush hour.
Rail should be the safest form of travel, but a disabled person or an older person standing in the middle of the crush on a train will not think so. Older people need to sit down, and disabled people certainly need to, but it is not possible to sit down on these trains. Nobody will give up their seat, although it probably would not be possible to get to the seat in any case. Hon. Members have to see these trains—they are like the London tube at the busiest periods in the morning and the evening, and that is constant.
I have travelled on these trains not just at rush hour, but at various hours of the day. I have travelled on airport trains from Bolton to Manchester in the afternoon, which have the added feature of luggage. Incidentally, the number of airport trains through Bolton has been reduced. We are trying to encourage people to use Manchester airport, and another platform is being built there to encourage people to use the trains, but getting on the train to the airport is a problem. In addition to the passengers, there is sometimes so much luggage that it is on the seats, which prevents people from sitting down. I wish that I could demonstrate that physically so that hon. Members could see the absolute chaos on the Bolton-Manchester rail corridor.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley mentioned the Oldham loop, and five trains plus the rolling stock will be coming off it shortly. Councillor Keith Whitmore, who is chairman of the Greater Manchester Integrated Transport Authority, and his vice-chairman, Councillor Ian Macdonald have written to the Secretary of State about the loss of the trains from the Oldham loop. Why can we not keep trains that are already operating in the north-west on the tracks at another location in the north-west to alleviate some of the problems that I hope that I have described on behalf of my many constituents who are suffering?
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough mentioned the reduction in Northern Rail carriages from 182 to 142, although the latest figure that I have heard is 106. As she said, that is a dramatic drop.
Then I am even more surprised. My hon. Friend did not mention the reduction in numbers on the TransPennine Express. My figures—she may have different ones—show a reduction from a promised 42 extra vehicles to 24.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that if this situation continues, the Government will face increasing criticism. Things are already so bad in my constituency that they cannot, frankly, get any worse.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on securing this important debate, which is set against the background of massive investment in our railways, improvements to existing railways and the floating of proposals for High Speed 2. The Government can be congratulated on the investment that has gone into the railway system.
Regrettably, little of that investment impacts directly on the north and particularly the north-east—an irony, it might be argued, given that the railway system was born in the north-east, which gave the country its first railway line. My colleagues and I are therefore putting the case for the north. Although we appreciate the need for investment in the south’s transport infrastructure, we want to draw attention to the imbalance in the allocation of resources to the north and the south. That has been admirably highlighted by my hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Hillsborough and for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), so I will not repeat the figures.
Transport infrastructure is crucial to the economic and social development of our regions. That is true of every region, but it is even truer of the north-east. Our inter-regional and intra-regional transport corridors leave much to be desired. Our road and rail infrastructure badly need investment and improvement, as well as an integrated approach that boosts investment and social mobility across the region and beyond.
The east coast main line is a major artery, linking the north-east to Scotland to the north, and linking it to London and stops in between to the south. It provides a good service and it is popular, but recent events are worrying. Ministers need to reassure us that the trains will keep running and that the staff will continue to be paid, and we look forward to this afternoon’s statement on the issue.
The north-east’s economy has traditionally lagged behind the national average, but it has held up well in recent years, even in the face of national and international economic difficulties. It is a credit to our businesses, our local authorities and the Government that that is the case. However, if we are to maintain and improve on the progress that has been made, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We need to continue to improve the conditions that are essential if business is to thrive and employment is to grow. That means that High Speed 2 must come to the north-east. It also means that we must ensure a high degree of mobility in the region.
Two rail projects in particular could make a major contribution to the economic and social future of the north-east and could, with a little encouragement from the Department for Transport, become a reality. The first, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), is the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne railway, which would be a fully operational system linking Ashington, Bedlington and Blyth to Newcastle. Reintroducing passenger services on the lines involved would encourage economic development, facilitate social mobility, relieve congestion on Northumberland’s busy roads and reduce the traffic that ends up in Newcastle city centre. It would also be better for the environment than the car movements that it would replace.
The second project is the Leamside line—another operational railway line that became redundant in the 1960s, but which, given today’s increased traffic and overcrowded trains, offers a real source of relief and an important connection between the Tyne and Tees valleys, linking Newcastle and Middlesbrough with useful stops along the way, including, not least, Washington New Town.
Those two projects would cost a tiny fraction of Crossrail, they would involve little disruption and they would contribute greatly to the prospects of the north-east and its people. I therefore look forward to signs of encouragement from the Minister and to a more optimistic prognosis for the north-east’s transport infrastructure.
It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on obtaining this timely debate. As I failed to catch Mr. Speaker’s eye at Transport questions last week, let me also take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to his post.
I want to start my remarks with today’s news. I appreciate that the Minister cannot respond, because of the statement to the House that will be made later, but the announcement about the east coast main line service and the news that National Express is to go into temporary public ownership is extremely significant. The Government are right to take that step, which will discourage other franchise holders from asking the Government for a discount on their existing contracts. However, I am concerned that the Government have allowed National Express to hand back its unprofitable franchise, but to continue to make a profit on the other two. I hope that the statement will make it clear whether the Government are willing to consider further action to remove those other franchises, so that the burden on the taxpayer will be kept as low as possible.
The Government should focus on showing the rest of the network that it is possible to put passengers first, rather than rushing into another poorly planned private franchise agreement. In the light of the new development the Government also need to take a good look at the way in which train franchises work. Franchises need to be longer, with stricter, passenger-focused targets and terms. I hope, again, that some of those matters may be covered in the statement.
Investing in rail infrastructure, as we have heard from many hon. Members, is vital to the economic growth of any region. Good rail links, whether for the transportation of goods or passengers, are imperative for businesses, trade and social mobility. Without good rail links communities become isolated and local economies grind to a halt. Speaking as a northerner, I know that “the north” is a broad term and that there are many specific issues that other hon. Members have touched on, and to which we cannot do full justice today. However, I hope to mention a few of the more significant issues in the next few minutes. All hon. Members here today will be well aware of the problems facing train services in the north of England, almost all of which are linked to spending. Overcrowding, reduced services, unreliability, cleanliness issues and poor accessibility are all widespread problems across the region, and with the number of rail users increasing dramatically every year, which of course is a good thing, all the issues need to be addressed urgently.
In my own constituency of Cheadle, I regularly receive letters containing complaints and concerns about local services. Cheadle Hulme station is completely inaccessible for people in wheelchairs or with prams, which is frankly a scandal in this day and age. Many commuters, as we have heard, are not able to board trains during peak times because they are so full. Timetable changes to accommodate more trains to London have had a disastrous impact on many people’s daily commutes in and out of Manchester city centre. The rolling stock is old—in many cases worn out—uncomfortable to travel in and frankly not up to scratch. It is a scandal that passengers are asked to pay top dollar, in comparison with most other EU countries, to travel in those conditions. The fundamental problem, as so often, is lack of investment.
The bulk of what I want to say today is about an issue that affects passengers across the north of England: capacity. The 2007 White Paper promised an extra 1,300 carriages to deal with the overcrowding that is rife on the network. Northern Rail was allocated 182 and TransPennine 42, but according to the passenger transport executive group information that has come to some of us, the Department for Transport has now indicated that Northern Rail is likely to get only 106, and possibly fewer, which barely covers what the Department has said is needed by the Leeds area alone. Civil servants have also confirmed that TransPennine’s allocation will be cut approximately in half, to 24. If that happens it will be a disaster not just for northern commuters but for our economy. Will the Minister confirm whether those figures are correct, and, if so, why the decision has apparently been made to halve the number of additional carriages? Certainly it cannot be because of falling demand.
I shall come to the hon. Gentleman’s point about older carriages in a moment.
The number of rail commuters on local services has increased at more than twice the London rate; 60 per cent. of all peak-time trains in Leeds, and more than 50 per cent. in Manchester, have space for standing only. Do the Government have any evidence to suggest that the carriages are no longer needed, and will the Minister say more about what impact he expects the cancellation of carriages to have on future capacity issues? Northern Rail has had no new carriages in the past five years, but franchises providing commuter services in London and the south-east have had 580 in that period, so I hope the Minister will not say that the carriages that we in the north of England should be getting have now been allocated to Greater London. According to PTEG, a third of rolling stock in the northern PTE areas was more than 20 years old in 2007, which raises the question of how many of the additional carriages that may come to the north will be second-hand. Will any be refurbished?
I want to move on briefly to the question of the Manchester hub, which seems to have disappeared from the Government’s radar. The hub would not only help those living in Greater Manchester but would improve connections across the north of England, both intra-regionally and with London, and therefore with the rest of the UK and Europe. The Government pledged to deal with pinch-points in the current rail system, but the feasibility study for the Manchester hub was commissioned some 18 months ago. Why have plans for the Manchester hub progressed at such a dismally slow pace and when does the Minister believe the real work might begin? High Speed 2 will, of course, be an incredibly important development for the north and the country as a whole. It will increase capacity, encourage people off roads and planes and speed up our connection with London.
We must proactively invest in our rail network to create capacity and improve efficiency, rather than reactively working to paper over the cracks. Electrification will be hugely important for the future, as it will improve real travel times between cities. I understand that the Government are expected to make an announcement on electrification soon, and I hope they will commit to electrifying the midland main line and to completing essential fill-in electrifications as a bare minimum. We would of course like many more lines to be electrified, including the trans-Pennine routes. In the mean time, perhaps the Minister could explain when the announcement will be made.
We Liberal Democrats also think we need to open old lines and stations to improve access and capacity. Longer franchises would help with that process, as would our future transport fund, which would more than double the Government’s planned investment for 2009 to 2014 to provide an estimated £12 billion to improve rail services. One such line, of great importance for the north, is the Woodhead tunnel, which was closed in 1981 when the Conservatives were in power. It would dramatically improve trans-Pennine connections between northern cities—primarily Manchester and Sheffield. Will the Minister confirm that the tunnel will not be put to any use that will preclude its being opened to rail traffic in the future?
However we look at it, it is clear that the north currently receives a poor deal on transport spending. We have heard the figures from the public expenditure statistical analyses, but they are worth repeating: £783 per head of population in London, £206 per head in the north-east, £213 in Yorkshire and the Humber and £278 in the north-west. One need not be a mathematical genius to work out that the allocation for the three northern regions together still comes to less than what was spent on public transport in London alone. The north of England is asking not for special treatment, but for a level playing field on spending. To fail to recognise the basic unfairness is to condemn half the country to a less than bright economic future.
May I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on securing the debate? I know that she takes a great interest in transport, particularly those matters that affect her constituency. She eloquently underlined the failings of the transport system that the Government have put in place, and she made a good case for high-speed rail and for the north.
This is the first time that I have met the Minister in a Westminster Hall debate, and I am pleased to welcome him to the Department for Transport. I look forward to a number of his responses. Like everyone else, however, I recognise that this is a particularly embarrassing day for the Government.
The subject of the debate is timely. Public spending is the key policy topic at the moment, and it will impact directly on resources for the Department—and for the north. Given the stratospheric levels of borrowing, controlling spending will be a necessity, not an option. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) pointed out, it will be a necessity for whoever is in power, and of whatever colour, after 2010.
I had the pleasure of visiting Sheffield earlier this year as a guest of the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough said that Sheffield was our fourth largest city but that it did not enjoy the equivalent quality of rail links. That was impressed on me strongly by the PTE, as were a number of other issues. I hope that she recognises that we in the Conservative party share the aspiration to improve transport links to the north of England.
The hon. Lady will know that in January my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) set up a transport commission for the north, to consider specifically northern matters. Network Rail has made a submission to that commission, for which I am grateful. One reason for us doing that is the plan over the next five years to implement improvements in line speed on the London to Sheffield line, and I understand that East Midlands train services from London to Sheffield are to become half-hourly. In addition, Network Rail has said that if funding is secured for further electrification, services from St. Pancras to Sheffield on Midland Mainline would be a priority.
I realise that this is a difficult day for the Minister, but I wish to ask him about electrification. On Monday, the Prime Minister said that there will at some stage be a full programme of rail electrification. Will the Minister confirm that, since 1997, only 46 route miles, or less than 0.5 per cent. of the national rail network, has been electrified? Will he clarify how that electrification is to happen? I agree that it is an important way of driving operational and carbon efficiencies on the railways, but it will cost millions of pounds, if not billions.
Rail budgets have been set until 2014, yet on Monday Lord Mandelson announced sweeping cuts to the transport budget. How can electrification become a reality? I look forward to the Minister’s response to that point. Network Rail has identified its priorities and has made some case for its spending. If the Government want to identify electrification as a priority, they should be clear about it and say how they intend to spend the money.
There is good news for the constituents of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough, given the policies that we have outlined in our rail review. They would deal directly with some of the elements raised. For instance, we will allow third parties to bid against Network Rail for small-scale capacity enhancement projects, which will be the key to some of the overcrowding problems mentioned.
Like the Liberal Democrats, we have seen the failure of the Government’s franchising system and we, too, will give longer franchises to train operators. As a result, there will be more investment, which will give us the improvements that we need in stations and trains. We will build a new high-speed link from Leeds to Birmingham and London, which will free capacity in other parts of the network. The rationale for that is not totemic: as a number of hon. Members said, the economic and cost benefits for the north of England will indeed be substantial.
All transport networks have to start somewhere, and we hope that it will be the first phase in the roll-out of the high-speed network. The Minister will of course want to confirm that the Government plan to take high-speed rail only to Rugby. Our policy is to take it further; we see it as part of a network strategy.
It appears that the Conservative party is committing itself to substantial spending on transport. Does that indicate that the transport budget under a Conservative Government would be protected, and that cuts would therefore be concentrated elsewhere?
The hon. Lady will know from our feasibility study—she has clearly read it—that the cost in 2008 prices of a high-speed rail line is about £20.5 billion. We have committed ourselves to control period 5, which will be the first part of an element of Government money; it will probably be about £16 billion, or £1.3 billion per annum for the build time of that project. The money is ring-fenced and it will be committed to that project.
I understand that a statement will be made in the House this afternoon on the collapse of the National Express rail franchise. I shall therefore not be asking a number of substantive questions that I would have wished to put to the Minister. I am sure that the Government will answer some of them today. Although they have taken the National Express franchise back into public ownership, many people will want to know whether it was the most effective decision for the taxpayer. The Minister may want to talk about the other options and the possible cost to the taxpayer. We would be interested, but I am sure that we shall hear about it this afternoon.
As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough reminded me, the debate is principally about how much money there will be for the railways, perhaps over the next 10 or 20 years, but certainly over the next five to 10 years.
No, I am sorry. I promised that I would speak for only another two minutes, and I have already given way several times.
Despite what the Prime Minister said, capital expenditure under the Red Book will decline after 2010, and it will not rise until the Olympics. Will the Minister confirm that? I look forward to a yes or no answer. On 29 June, Lord Mandelson said in an interview that Building Britain’s Future, the great new project, reflected a “switch in spending” from the Department for Transport to other Departments. Will the Minister confirm that Building Britain’s Future reflects such a switch?
The Budget put in position a squeeze on public spending between 2011 and 2014. Will the Minister confirm that he has read the Red Book, and that his Department understands its implications? Will he say whether and by how much the contraction in spending outlined in the Red Book will hit rail services in the north and across the United Kingdom? Will he also outline the effect of the announced £6 billion efficiency savings, which are estimated to represent 6 per cent. of current expenditure on top of what is outlined in the Red Book?
I should be grateful if the Minister were to outline exactly which services he expects not to be delivered, which carriages he expects not to be delivered and which part of the electrification project he expects not to be delivered as a direct result of what is stated in the Red Book, of what is stated in Building Britain’s Future, and what is expected from efficiency savings. Under those circumstances, the Government cannot contend that spending will continue to rise; indeed, the Red Book states that it will decline. Will the Minister tell us today how the announced spending reductions will hit the nation’s transport infrastructure?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), who is a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Transport, on securing this important debate. She has expressed concerns about a range of issues relating to rail investment in the north of England, as have other Members. I shall endeavour to respond to the issues raised, but if I cannot, I promise that they will all be considered elsewhere. If I am to cover all the ground, I fear I shall have to go at the speed of a bullet train.
I turn first to some recent successes. Railways in the north of England are a success story. We have seen great improvements in the things that matter most to passengers, including punctuality and reliability. I would rather be facing the challenges of rising train use than the consequences of numbers having fallen by the same amount as they have risen. In the last full year, reliability reached an all-time high for both Northern Rail and TransPennine Express, with more than 90 per cent. of trains arriving within five minutes of right time. I congratulate Northern Rail, TransPennine Express and Network Rail, which have to work together, on that excellent result.
Passenger satisfaction is also high with more than 80 per cent. of passengers saying they were happy with their journey. The outcome of that is a 34 per cent. growth in passengers travelling on Northern Rail services since 2004 and a 67 per cent. increase on TransPennine services.
Let us consider what else has been achieved in recent years, starting in the north-west, which has benefited considerably from the £8.9 billion investment in the west coast main line. There are now more frequent and faster journeys between Manchester and London, with a train every 20 minutes during the day and average journey times of about two hours eight minutes.
Does the Minister accept that one part of the north-west that has not been a success story over the past 11 years is the state of Crewe railway station and the lack of investment there? None of the £35 billion set aside by Network Rail over the next five years is going to that station. Will he look at the state of Crewe station and ensure that investment is made in that important part of our rail network? I asked the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), the same question just the other day.
The hon. Gentleman will have heard my colleague’s response during Transport questions last week. I have nothing to add today.
The journey from Liverpool and Preston to London takes just a few minutes more than two hours, and Warrington and Wigan are less than two hours away. Chester is one of the big winners having a regular hourly service for the first time, with a journey time of just two hours.
The increasing frequency of inter-city services is a double-sided coin. As hon. Members said, it has had a negative impact on local commuter services in and out of cities such as Manchester, because the same services criss-cross the same track. Three trains an hour between Manchester and London is great, but does the Minister recognise that has had a negative impact on our local commuter services in and out of Manchester?
That point is clearly acknowledged, and to an extent is an inevitable side effect of competing for line capacity.
Services between the north-west and Scotland have also been improved, as have those to the west midlands. Neither have we neglected local services. Northern Rail services on the Calder valley route between Manchester and west Yorkshire have been improved with a fast service between Bradford and Manchester. There are more trains between Preston and Manchester via Bolton. The Cumbrian coast line has seen the biggest improvements in 25 years. Thanks to the opening of a third platform at Manchester airport, we now have better services to the airport and greater reliability as a whole around Manchester.
I turn to the Yorkshire and Humber region. Back in 2007 the frequency of the service between Leeds and London was improved to every half hour. Last December we provided a new hourly direct service between Leeds, Sheffield and Nottingham, opening up new opportunities for business and leisure. In the north-east, the Newcastle to London journey time is one of the fastest in the country. There are five fast trains per hour between Newcastle and York, giving the area excellent connectivity with the rest of the country. Across the north of England, TransPennine Express introduced new trains in 2005 and 2006. Northern Rail has increased its fleet by 30 units, providing 8 million extra seats every year for passengers. CrossCountry has increased the number of carriages on key journeys by reintroducing and refurbishing many high-speed diesel train sets for use on the busiest services.
Community rail has been a big success, and there are about 20 routes with active community rail partnerships and many station partnership groups. These partnerships bring energy and focus to developing lines. For example, the Penistone line now carries more than 1 million passengers per year.
But we are not stopping with what I have mentioned so far. Over the next five years, we are determined to address the problems of crowding on many peak commuter services. That will be done mainly by lengthening trains and platforms.
The Oldham loop rolling stock has been mentioned. The Department is not planning to provide additional funding for the redeployment of the rolling stock displaced through the conversion of the Oldham loop from heavy rail to Manchester metro light rail. However, the Department is providing £244.3 million towards the expansion of Metrolink to Oldham, Rochdale and Chorlton. That decision does not preclude Greater Manchester passenger transport executive from funding the redeployment of the rolling stock, or Northern Rail from utilising the stock on a commercial basis. The Department is currently calculating the change in franchise subsidy payments to Northern Rail, but a figure has not yet been finalised. The change in subsidy profile to Northern Rail reflects the changes in the Department’s budget resulting from the conversion of the Oldham loop.
I want to address one of the key issues. If the integrated transport authority and the PTE decide not to invest extra money in the system, what do the Government intend to do with the trains? Will they go into the south-east system, or will they go into cold storage?
The Government’s intention is to increase capacity across the network, so we shall see in due course where the trains end up.
We are determined to tackle the worst excesses of crowding and to give passengers a more comfortable journey. In addition, we want to see even further improvements in reliability over the next five years. An urgent priority is to bring the west coast main line up to the standard of the rest of the network, and I share many Members’ concerns about recent performance on the route. I am pleased that Network Rail has responded to those concerns and pledged to spend £50 million to address them.
Nor shall we neglect safety. I respect the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). The safety record of the railway is excellent, but we must not be complacent, and there is a requirement further to reduce risks that have an impact on passenger and employee safety. Although over the next five years we are focusing on improving safety, performance and capacity, we are not neglecting journey times either. They are excellent on the west coast and east coast main lines, but I admit that those on the midland main line are less so. That is partly a result of the history and geography of the route, but despite that—I hope this answers the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough—we are determined to bring down journey times between Sheffield and London to as close to two hours as possible. East Midlands Trains is also planning to increase the frequency of services to Sheffield with pump-priming funding from South Yorkshire PTE. The trans-Pennine route has seen great improvements in rolling stock and frequency in recent years, although I accept that journey times are relatively slow.
Although I have focused so far on train services, we must not neglect other matters important to passengers. We are determined to improve the quality of stations and have allocated £150 million over five years to spend on improving many medium-sized stations. Many stations in the north of England will benefit. For example, improvements at Ormskirk will be completed later this month. This builds on funding allocated to improve facilities at stations through the “access for all” programme, which assists disabled passengers.
The north of England has seen important investment in freight schemes in recent years. For example, in the north-west, access to the Port of Liverpool has been improved by the reopening of the Olive Mount chord. Across the country, a priority is to enable key freight routes to accommodate 9 ft 6 in containers. The west coast main line can accommodate the large containers on standard wagons, but investment is being made on two routes into Liverpool to provide access to the port. On the east side, improvements have been made to the Hull docks branch line to enable more trains to reach the port, and south of the Humber. Some £10 million has been invested in the Brigg line to enable heavy-freight trains to use the route to reach Immingham.
Over the next five years, we shall work with Network Rail and the rail freight industry to develop a network of routes that can accommodate high containers. One priority is the route from the midlands to south Yorkshire via the east midlands, to complement funding already secured for the east coast main line. This will be followed by converting the whole of the east coast main line into Scotland.
The subject of this debate is spending on railways in the north of England. By and large, the railway network is a national one serving a wide range of different markets—long distance, regional passenger, local passenger and a wide variety of freight—all of which contribute individually and together to the benefits that our railways bring to our regions. In particular, capital expenditure in one region often benefits another. For example, the huge investment in widening the Trent Valley line in the west midlands primarily benefits passengers travelling to the north-west of Scotland.