I am delighted to have the opportunity for an Adjournment debate at this particularly important time. I am even more delighted that so many colleagues have come to a half-hour debate, including the hon. Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda).
I wish that the debate were an hour and a half long so that we could all add to it, but my comments will be short because, to be honest, we all know what the issue is. I have spent more than 20 years of my life on it. To be clear, the line is not in my constituency, but the Stroud valley line, as I refer to it, has a huge impact on my part of the world. At the moment, we have only four trains a day on that line because Sapperton tunnel has fallen in yet again, which shows the need for investment.
However, that is not the point of this debate. The point of this debate is, I hope, finally to move forward on an issue that has dogged us all for a long time now: the 12.5 mile-long single line between Swindon and Kemble, which needs redoubling. It was a huge mistake to have singled it in the first place, but we are now trying to put that right. It is great to see my hon. Friend the Minister here to listen to our plaintive pleas. We think that we are almost there, but there are a couple of hurdles in the way and it is vital that we clear them. As I said, I will not make the argument, because it has been made so many times. We know it so well that I dream about it.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining time for this important debate. He realises that we in Plaid Cymru have no designs on Swindon, but the impact on south Wales would be severe if there were no redoubling. I remind him that an emergency such as a crash or a tunnel collapse would also have a severe impact. More to the point, redoubling would mean an hourly service for 17 hours a day between London and south Wales, which would be important economically. What he is saying has broad acceptance and goes much wider than the Swindon area.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I am sure that others will want to speak as well, so I shall be even shorter.
Why is this an acute time? There are two specific reasons. First, we know that we must make a decision by December, or the team working on the North Cotswold line in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cotswold will probably be reassigned, and we will lose the moment of opportunity. Secondly, the money must be secured. That is why time is important. There seems to be a move, which I support totally, towards viring the money that will not be spent on the Westbury bypass, for all sorts of reasons that I will not pursue, into the scheme to give us the money for which we have long argued.
I bear a grudge about the original Office of Rail Regulation decision to prioritise the North Cotswold line. I got wild about it, but that time in history is past and we need to concentrate on the argument now. When the hon. Member for Cotswold and I went to meet the noble Lord Adonis, we met for the first time a kindred spirit who saw what needed to happen; it was just a question of how. We are now at the “how” stage.
I am grateful to my neighbour for allowing me to intervene, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. When we went to see the noble Lord Adonis, who was then a Minister, he gave us a strong steer that he wanted the scheme to happen. Since becoming Secretary of State for Transport, he has given the regional development agency an even stronger steer that if it makes the scheme a priority and allocates the funding, it will happen. Is it not the case that what we really want from this debate is for the Minister to say that the regional assembly has accepted that advice and will allocate funding to the project?
I agree totally. In his letter to the chairman of the RDA, whom I saw last week, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the South West gave the clearest steer possible that the money should be allocated, if for no other reason than that it could be lost anyway. If we do not get the money, it is not as though someone else in the south-west will—it is likely that it will be lost. That is why this debate is crucial. I refer to that letter, which my hon. Friend the Minister knows about. As far as I can see, all the ducks are in a row, but the sad thing is that we have had them in a row before and lost out nevertheless.
That is the key issue. Where is the money, how do we secure it and who might not have reached the same stage as us? It is genuinely an all-party issue. All parties would gain by it, because it directly and indirectly involves a whole range of constituencies, including in south Wales.
By pure chance, I happened to chair the South West Regional Select Committee yesterday, which was not surprising as there were only three of us and I drew the short straw. In the papers that we received on the issue, it is clear that not all the environment directors across the different local authorities represented have necessarily given their go-ahead. However, the key body seems to be the South West Strategic Leaders’ Board. I hope that my hon. Friend will have some interesting things to say about how central Government are lobbying to redouble the line. It must be done for the reasons that I have said.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been campaigning on the issue for a considerable period. He knows that if we can get the money to deliver the scheme, it will make a massive difference to the journey from my constituency to London.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that the South West Strategic Leaders’ Board has a role to play. If the cross-party consensus is as strong as the Minister can see in this room, should any hurdles appear from the leaders’ board, will he take action to ensure that money is provided for the scheme, regardless of what the board ultimately says?
I will come to the funding, but I want to refer to information I received from Chris Irwin of TravelWatch SouthWest as a result of the meeting yesterday. He has been enormously helpful in making the arguments and going out to persuade people. According to Chris, the key thing is that this particular redoubling seems to tick all the necessary boxes. It is within the Great Western route utilisation strategy. Like other Members, I have a paper from Network Rail that says basically, “This can be done; we just want the green light.”
However, we need to be clear who is providing the money and what the real cost will be. The funding has risen from some £38 million to more than £60 million and now seems to have fallen to about £50 million. We need clarity about the funding, and we need to know where it fits in regard to regional funding advice 2. Everyone seems to be arguing for it, but nobody seems to know the total sum that we are dealing with or how it breaks down. It is clear that if the £30 million, if that is the sum available, could be vired over from the Westbury bypass, that should do it, but there are issues with the Welsh Assembly and whether it wishes to help paying for GRIP—guide to railway investment projects—stage 4, which involves research and studies proving that the work needs to be done. The Welsh Assembly may have been approached; the line is such an important reserve and freight route, coming not just from south Wales but from further south.
Who is paying, and what are central Government putting in? I know that in a sense the money is coming from central Government anyway and that it has been churned, but central Government must be clear what they expect to happen to the money and what money is available. I mentioned £50 million. I have heard estimates that the cost might be as low as between £40 million and £45 million. Considering the benefits of the intermodal journey shift, the freight opportunities and the reserve line to south Wales, it seems like an absolute shoo-in.
I ask my hon. Friend to be clear about how important the scheme is. To get five Members to a half-hour debate—many others have expressed support—says something about where it fits in our priorities. Will he make it clear who is making the decision? Will it be signed off by the Government? Will the South West Strategic Leaders’ Board or the Welsh Assembly be part of the decision on the funding stream?
Who is in support of the other side? I have had lobbying for the scheme from all manner of organisations.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Nearly all the engineering work between Kemble and Swindon is in my constituency, although there are no stations in it. We are keen that a number of improvements be incorporated when the work is done. In particular, the culvert at Minety should be widened to reduce flooding and a high-speed train station could be built at Purton. Those are both urgent issues that I hope the Minister will mention in his response.
There are all sorts of bids in this debate. The last one is that the Cheltenham to Swindon line was identified by the Association of Train Operating Companies as one of 10 schemes for electrification. I do not want to be greedy, but the line cannot be electrified until it has been redoubled and made fit for purpose. That means that there is an even greater reason to carry out the redoubling.
I was not going to intervene, but one important point should not be lost in this debate. I understand that when the south Wales line is electrified, the Severn tunnel will have to be closed for a considerable time. The Kemble to Swindon line will be an important diversionary route when that happens, which makes the redoubling even more important.
The term “diversionary line” is important given the current difficulties because the Sapperton tunnel is shut. Yesterday, I learned from the South West Committee how important it is that the rail system, like the road system, has diversionary routes. That must be thought about. That is why the Kemble to Swindon line is so important. It is a diversionary line for south Wales and potentially for the south coast, which is even more reason why we should get on with the redoubling.
I will not say more. I could have said very little. All I am here to say is, give us the money and give us the hope. Let us get the job done because everybody is calling for it. It is about time we did it. As somebody who uses the line all the time, I know it is a good line full of the potential I have spoken about. I hope that the Minister has heard our pleas and will come up with the money. I hope that he supports Lord Adonis, with whom I had one of the best meetings I have attended. It was a can-do meeting. Let us do the can-do stuff and turn this opportunity into reality.
I hope that the lurgy that has descended on me allows me to continue for the next 15 minutes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing this debate. He has been diligent and determined in promoting the case for redoubling the Swindon to Kemble route. I welcome the presence of other colleagues.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to explain how a redoubling scheme might be delivered with the help of the south-west region and Network Rail. The Secretary of State for Transport and the Minister for the South West have written to regional partners to outline their strong support for the scheme. We recognise the value of the extra capacity and improved train performance that redoubling would create.
Before I turn to the detail, I remind hon. Members how the region and passengers on the Great Western main line are benefiting from our ambitious rail plans. The performance of First Great Western has improved greatly over the last year. Network Rail reported that 92.3 per cent. of trains arrived on time in the four weeks to 22 August 2009. On 23 July, we announced a £1.1 billion electrification programme for the Great Western main line between London and Swansea and between Liverpool and Manchester. That is great news because it will boost jobs, cut journey times, make the service more reliable, increase capacity, contribute to greener transport and build on recent improvements in train performance.
From 2016, commuters travelling between London, Slough, Reading, Newbury, Didcot, Oxford, Swindon and other intermediate stations will benefit from the reliability and comfort of electric trains. By 2017, the route will be electrified to Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea. Electrification will mean that minimum journey times between London and Swansea will be reduced by 19 minutes and capacity will be increased on inter-city services during the morning peak hour by at least 15 per cent.
As we have heard, Network Rail identified the redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble line as one of several options that would improve the performance of the Great Western main line and the wider network. Network Rail believes that it would improve performance especially when it acts as a diversionary route for London to south Wales trains when there is engineering work on that line or in the Severn tunnel. The south-west region and local authorities believe that redoubling is essential for an improved Cheltenham and Gloucester to London service.
The Office of Rail Regulation concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to justify the inclusion of the Swindon to Kemble enhancement as a funded scheme to deliver the high-level outputs specified by the Government. That decision has been debated frequently in the House. We have responded positively to hon. Members’ representations.
My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), committed officials to working with the rail industry and regional partners to make the case for redoubling. More recently, the Secretary of State for Transport wrote to the regional partners outlining his strong support for the scheme. In response, the south-west region, the Department for Transport and the Welsh Assembly Government have funded a rail investment study by Network Rail, which should report on the main costs by December 2009. That is a good example of different bodies working in partnership and I commend them for their contributions. The region offered a contribution of £20 million from its regional funding allocation towards the cost of redoubling. That was very welcome. Pending the outcome of Network Rail’s study, there is still a shortfall of well over £20 million.
I recognise that redoubling the Swindon to Kemble line is a regional priority that could facilitate growth and support resilience and performance. In our recent response to the region on its regional funding advice, we asked that consideration be given to taking forward a fully-funded Swindon to Kemble major scheme. However, despite the benefits, there is still reluctance from some partners in the region to commit additional resources from the regional funding allocation to fund the scheme fully.
The Network Rail study is due to report in December and the main prices and design will be firmed up. We look to Network Rail to develop an efficient price for the enhancement works. The national rail budget remains fully committed up to 2014 and cannot bridge the funding gap. That means that the £20 million that the region has allocated to the scheme from the 2010-11 regional funding allocation could be lost to the region and not recycled back into the RFA.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud knows, a number of hon. Members spoke in favour of redoubling at the South West Regional Grand Committee on 3 September. The Minister for the South West was asked to help. Following the Grand Committee, the Secretary of State for Transport and the Minister for the South West agreed an offer to the south-west region that would see the redoubling scheme come forward without any other regional schemes being displaced. If the region submits to the Department for Transport by 16 November an agreed, realistic and deliverable five-year programme, the funds previously allocated to the Westbury bypass, which are due to be lost by the region, could be reallocated fully to fund the Swindon to Kemble scheme. By way of explanation, the Westbury bypass scheme was recently refused planning permission following a public inquiry.
In conclusion, the spotlight is on Network Rail to achieve an efficient price for the scheme. It is working hard to do so, but until it has worked through the detail and shows that an affordable price can be achieved, further work cannot go ahead.
So we have another date, which is 16 November. I ask the Minister in the nicest possible way whether, if no proposal comes forward, he will engage with the parties, including the hon. Members who are present, so that we can sit around a table and find a way to bring the scheme forward. It is so important that I do not want it to be lost because a date comes up and nobody puts forward a proposal. It would be helpful if he opened his door so that that process could take place.
I think that I have said to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members present that the Department is hugely supportive of the scheme. We are obviously currently working with the time frame and, if it is not met, we will have to look at the matter again. I am more than happy to talk to him and other colleagues about finding a way forward in that eventuality.
In the Minister’s considerations, will he kindly bear it in mind that all the engineering work for the Kemble to Swindon redoubling would be done in my North Wiltshire constituency? People in my constituency broadly welcome the move, and I very much support hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon, but will the Minister bear it in mind that the engineering work is in my patch and that there are two or three detailed things that we would like to be done during the engineering work? We must not lose sight of the fact that those things—the widening of the culvert at Minety, the possibility of intermediate stations and two or three other minor engineering matters in North Wiltshire—must be taken account of.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Network Rail always seeks to take the opportunity to do works where it is efficient to do so. However, I would not want to see elements being added to the scheme that undermine the basic affordability of the dualling of the line. We will have to look carefully at what he is proposing before committing to any additional works.
The region is reaching a key decision point. We have set out the way forward very clearly and the funding outcome is now in the hands of the region. I commit the Department’s officials to working with the region on the matter. The Strategic Leaders’ Board and the board of the regional development agency will need to consider the approach and the offer we have made. I hope that they will respond positively to the offer made by the Minister for the South West by 16 November, as we have requested.
If I understand what the Minister has said today correctly, the region has already committed £20 million and has, at least, a further £20 million to commit if the scheme is given priority because the Westbury bypass can no longer be funded. Would it not be churlish of the region not to make the submission by 16 November because, if it does not do so, it is likely that it will lose the entire amount of money back to central Government?
The hon. Gentleman has summed up the situation well. I can only say that we have the best chance now to take advantage of the window of opportunity to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred. I pledge to continue to keep an oversight on the matter, along with the Minister for the South West. We need to see that Network Rail is proposing something affordable. If the region accepts the Government’s offer, spending could be completed in the fiscal year 2011-12. Our aspiration for commissioning the doubled track would then be December 2012.