It is a delight to have secured this debate under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea, right at the end of this Parliament. You will have noticed that this morning’s subjects have been crime, poverty and inequality, and public transport—three of the crucial issues that we shall, I think, be returning to repeatedly in the next few weeks.
I must declare an interest. First, I am a very small shareholder in the Severn Valley railway. I would not call myself a train buff, but I certainly remember going to school for many years on trains pulled by gorgeous steam locomotives in the ’40s and early ’50s, so I am nostalgic for steam railways. That is why I want to talk about Kidderminster station.
At the moment we have a very uninteresting square brick box: that is Kidderminster station. It is just next door to the gorgeous Severn Valley railway station. I think, Dr. McCrea, that you are probably old enough to remember Hornby trains and I wonder whether you ever had one of those tin-plate stations that they made, just after the war. The Severn Valley railway station is reminiscent of just that type of station.
This is not the first time that Kidderminster station has come up in Parliament. In 1852 Acts of Parliament were needed to extend the railways, and it was then that they were extended to Kidderminster, on the Worcester to Wolverhampton line. I am told that the first station, from 1852 to 1859, was just a wooden structure, and that there was another wooden structure from 1859 to 1863. Then, in 1863 the Great Western Railway took over. Anyone who knows about it will know that GWR really stands for God’s wonderful railway. It certainly had the most interesting and the best selection of steam engines. Even though I was brought up as a London, Midland and Scottish lad I must admit that GWR had the edge.
When GWR took over the station it was discovered that sitting in Swindon was a sort of kit for a station that had been designed for Stratford-upon-Avon. The kit was the most amazing wooden-covered structure and it produced for Kidderminster the most unlikely, impossible station building ever. It was a half-timbered extravaganza—my idea of a haunted country cottage; the sort of place where the witch in Hansel and Gretel would have lived. It was described by the historian H.C. Casserly as the
“ultimate in half timbering”.
At its peak it had a station master—one of the pre-eminent citizens of the town—and 25 to 30 staff. There were 11 porters. Can you imagine that, Dr. McCrea? One never sees a porter in a station these days. It had refreshment rooms and catering staff.
That amazing building lasted until 1968, when it was riddled with dry rot and it was uneconomic to repair it; so we lost that cottage in the country in the heart of Kidderminster. It was replaced in 1974 by the small, square brick box that I have mentioned. At the same time, the Severn Valley railway, which is the preserved steam railway from Kidderminster to Bridgnorth, was developing, and shortly afterwards it achieved its own station. The convention in the Great Western Railway was that if there were two stations in a town, the one nearest to the town centre was called the town station. The Severn Valley railway station has the distinction of being Kidderminster Town station, because it is about 75 yards nearer to the town centre than the main station.
For years, we have needed something more in keeping with the Severn Valley railway station. Now, thank goodness, we have the chance of that, and it is terribly important, with the growth in passenger traffic. In 2004-05 about 750,000 passengers used Kidderminster station and in 2008-09 there were more than 1.25 million; so it is going up. The station is situated on one of the main entrances to Kidderminster from the south-east and we want a prestigious entry to the town. Since I have been the MP I have been promoting it, strange to say, as a tourist attraction, because we have an almost unique collection of industrial heritage buildings and structures. To our great delight we are just about to achieve a carpet museum—because Kidderminster is known as the pre-eminent carpet town. We have the building and much of the money, and expect it to happen. That is at the bottom of Comberton hill, which is the road on which the station is situated. In addition there is of course the Severn Valley railway; the railway museum in Kidderminster, which has the largest archive of photographs apart from that of the National Railway museum; the Bewdley museum; and the refurbished Stourport docks, as well as one of the very few water-powered forges.
Those present a splendid tourist attraction and it is marvellous that the county and district councils, Network Rail, London Midland and the Severn Valley railway are all coming together to produce what we hope will be a dream station—not quite the chocolate box thing we had before, but something very suitable and attractive. I understand that £3.5 million has been put aside: £2.5 million from the county council—presumably from the Government—and £1 million from Network Rail.
In an idle moment I browsed as we all do on Google and Wikipedia, which I was delighted to find says:
“Plans are in hand to replace the small brick station building with something echoing that of the adjacent SVR building. As well as this, the plans envisage a large bus exchange, improved car parking and “drop off” areas.”
That is all very exciting. I am grateful to Louise Butcher of the business and transport research section of the Library for giving me some details about the station code, which was updated in 2006 and which emphasises safety and accessibility and the aim of integrating other forms of public transport.
To make an exciting, impressive and compatible entrance to the town and to Wyre Forest, design is crucial and the choice of architect is vital. I was delighted to learn that the tender list includes an architect who is not usually on Network Rail’s lists—a heritage architect who happens to be a railway enthusiast and who is the architect for the railway museum. I hope that he will put in a pretty competitive tender.
There are one or two concerns, first about the building. Not that long ago, a footbridge was built at Kidderminster, because until then it had been necessary to walk off one platform, cross by a road bridge, and descend to the station again. We now have a footbridge, which is a particularly hideous building of a sort of sickly yellow brick, with a weird plasticky-metal sort of structure, providing the bridge and a staircase. The worst thing about it was that from building to opening took about six months, because the people who designed and built it did not realise that the lights on it would dazzle the engine drivers coming from Worcester so that they could not see the signals. Therefore it could not be opened. It took about six months to put the right sort of glass in the bridge so that train drivers were not dazzled. We want the right architect—someone who understands railways—who will ensure that that type of problem does not arise.
My next concern is the timing. My understanding is that the money has to be spent by 31 March 2011. With the consultation finishing only on 18 June and the tendering process still to be gone through, time is getting very short, so I again appeal to the Minister to impress on everyone how fast they have to move.
With regard to the consultation, there is no mention of or question about the invaluable newspaper shop that is there at the moment; it provides biscuits and coffees as well. There is only one question about the structure, and it is a very odd question. It is in the improvements questionnaire. The question is:
“How important to you is it that the new building minimises its environmental impact?”
Does that refer to the building having to be very green or to the visual impact? If it is a brick box, we do not want any visual impact at all, but if it is a delightful semi-classical building that fits with the other one, much as, amazingly, Portcullis House fits with the rest of the parliamentary buildings, we would like a great impact.
We welcome the plans. People are very excited, but there are some major local concerns about traffic issues. The third key part of the project is
“The installation of traffic signals at the entrance junction to the station”.
As I said, that is off Comberton hill from the south-east—the main route into Kidderminster from the south-east. Concerns about the traffic lights, which I think are absolutely genuine, come from local shopkeepers and traders, from representatives of the Severn Valley railway and, most important, from the traffic management police officer. They all object to the fact that the traffic lights will cost £700,000, which is about one fifth of the total money available.
The traffic management officer makes six points. First, there are no particular traffic problems now. Secondly, lights will cause delays on what is already a congested road, with traffic lights at the top, a big roundabout at the bottom and a pedestrian crossing in the middle. Thirdly, that road—Comberton hill—is already ranked at or near the top in Worcestershire for pedestrian collisions. Delays and congestion could make such collisions even more likely. Fourthly, there is no rear access to businesses, so lorries that are making deliveries often have to be double-parked. If there are traffic lights and streaming of the traffic, that will cause chaos.
The fifth point relates to parking. The traffic lights themselves will mean the loss of only two parking spaces, but between the two sets of traffic lights that will be necessary, there is a single yellow line. I had to check The Highway Code, but people are allowed to park on the single yellow line out of hours—after hours. It will be a tremendous blow to lose the six or seven extra spaces. People could manage losing the two for the lights themselves, but not the six or seven that will be covered with a double yellow line, because in the road are a large number of fast-food outlets. Captain Cod, the fish and chip shop, which is very well used, is just by the single yellow line. The Railway Bell is also there. The road was badly harmed by the loss of the post office some time ago, so I do not want to see any more difficulties for the traders.
The last comment from the traffic management officer is that there will be only about 10 buses an hour, and those that go through to Bromsgrove, continuing towards the south-east, will go straight up the hill without turning in to the station in any case.
I come now to suggestions. First, we need urgently a full road safety audit and traffic flow studies. If they show that traffic lights are not absolutely necessary, I have two alternative suggestions. The first, which is very realistic and comes from the traffic management officer, is a cobbled junction platform, which will slow down the traffic and will be in keeping with the cobbles that will remain on the station forecourt. The second suggestion, which is really my dream and goes well with the heritage of the Severn Valley railway station, is to reinvent a policeman in a pulpit just for the hours of 5 to 7 pm—the peak hours. Until relatively recently in Kidderminster, we had a policeman in the pulpit, and the traffic management officer remembers that and remembers how hard it was for policemen to keep their arms in the right positions for all the time that they were on duty. A policeman for just two hours, five days a week, would not cost £700,000 a year and I would love to see that come back, but that is only a thought.
I hope that the Minister can reassure us that we are looking forward to an appropriate building to enhance this crucial entrance to Kidderminster and the Wyre forest. It could restore some of the romance and excitement of rail travel, because people are returning to the railways for environmental reasons and because of the cost of petrol. I look back to the day of E. M. Forster writing in “Howards End” about railway termini:
“They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return.”
We are looking for such a gate to the glories and the unknown features of Wyre Forest in the new station at Kidderminster.
It is good to be back again, Dr. McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing this debate on what is clearly an important issue for him and his constituents, as well as for others travelling to and from Kidderminster station. I listened carefully to his points, and the Government share his vision for stations to have that gateway role both to the railway and to the community that they serve.
Kidderminster is one of London Midland’s busiest stations, with 1.2 million passenger journeys recorded in 2008-09. London Midland operates most of the services to and from the station. Kidderminster station has quite a history, as the hon. Gentleman outlined. It opened in 1852 with the extension of the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton railway from Worcester to Stourbridge by the Great Western Railway. I listened to the hon. Gentleman’s description of the former building. I am told that a station building of mock-Tudor design survived until 1968, when it was demolished and replaced by the small brick building that stands today. The Severn Valley railway’s southern terminus shares the same station approach road and is known as Kidderminster Town to distinguish it from Kidderminster station, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman outlined.
Kidderminster was one of the original stations chosen in 2006 for the Access for All programme. Work commenced on a £2.5 million project in November 2007 and encompassed an entirely new footbridge and two lifts, which provide a fully accessible route to and between both platforms. The project was completed last July. I was sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the colour of the brickwork, but I understand that the project has generally been well received locally. Accessible stations make a huge difference to people’s journey experience. I am referring not only to those with reduced mobility but to those carrying heavy luggage or pushing unwieldy pushchairs.
I understand that there was some delay to completion of the works due to delays in obtaining listed building consent—I can understand that in the context of the area—but that those were resolved by cladding the new works with brick better to match the Victorian design of the station. A bid for funding from the Access for All small schemes fund in 2010-11 is under consideration.
More recently, as part of its franchise obligation, London Midland has secured 100 extra car parking spaces for passengers from the Severn Valley railway in return for enhancements to the car parking facilities. As part of a passenger benefits package, London Midland is investing an additional £4.4 million in new high-quality information equipment, which could include improvements at Kidderminster. In an attempt to persuade more people to use the railway, 50,000 day rover tickets were made available for travel over the Christmas period, and an additional 400,000 advance purchase tickets will be made available over the next two years on some of London Midland’s most popular routes. Again, passengers who use Kidderminster station may benefit from that initiative.
There are plans to rejuvenate Kidderminster station through a £3.5 million project that would provide a new layout of the station forecourt with improved facilities for bus services, and a new station building with improved passenger facilities. An improved walking connection from the new station building to the Severn Valley railway station building is also being proposed. I heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the traffic signals, but I can say little about that level of detail today, other than to encourage him to engage with the local authority and those with responsibilities for highways in Kidderminster to ensure that they are aware of his concerns and address them fully as the scheme develops.
There is also a proposal for £2.5 million from the west midlands regional funding allocation to be used to fund improvements outside the station, and for a £1 million contribution from the national stations improvement programme to be used to fund the new station building. Smaller contributions from partner local authorities are also anticipated.
I understand that a project board of key stakeholders has been formed to consider the best option for rejuvenating Kidderminster station. The board includes representatives from Worcestershire county council, Wyre Forest district council, Network Rail, London Midland, the Severn Valley railway and the Kidderminster railway museum. Public consultation on the detailed design of the station forecourt, including road and public transport access, was launched on 29 March, and the hon. Gentleman has put his comments on road access on the record. The plans envisage a large bus exchange, and improved car parking and drop-off areas. Worcestershire county council is writing to stakeholders, and I understand that it is happy to arrange a meeting to brief the hon. Gentleman on the project’s details.
We were happy to receive bids for small-scale rail schemes such as that at Kidderminster station in the refresh of the regional funding allocation advice that we requested from the regions last year. The west midlands region advised that the Kidderminster scheme was a priority for funding, and we responded positively to that advice in July last year.
The regional funding allocation programme, particularly local authority schemes, are benefiting from record levels of spend at present, but clearly we need to exercise due caution, as any responsible Government would do, when considering requests that would add to the current commitment. Although I appreciate the urgency of the project, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a guarantee that funding will be available for the scheme, but I can promise that the proposal is being carefully considered. Similarly, although the local delivery group responsible for the London Midland portfolio of stations has identified Kidderminster station as a candidate for the second tranche of funding from the national stations improvement programme, decisions on the second tranche schemes are not expected to be made until later in the year.
I understand that there has been quite a bit of debate about the design of the new station building, with a number of stakeholders keen to ensure that the design meets heritage objectives and provides a suitable gateway to Kidderminster. In particular, people have argued—the hon. Gentleman has done so eloquently today—that it should be more in keeping with the character and feel of the Severn Valley railway's Kidderminster Town station. I understand that Network Rail has been considering using its modular station design at Kidderminster. Although the system is still in its infancy, there are already a number of examples of modular stations on the network at Greenhithe, Mitcham Eastfields, Corby and, most recently, Uckfield. Modular stations may provide an economical way to build new stations or rebuild existing facilities, and by minimising energy use they offer an excellent example of sustainable design. That addresses one angle—environmental impact—that the hon. Gentleman asked about.
I was worried that the hon. Gentleman might draw that conclusion, although I assure him that designs that I recently saw for a sustainable station at Accrington were a little less angular and, although modern, it would fit into its setting. We realise that modular designs do not provide the appropriate solution for all stations—for example, where there are buildings of historic or architectural interest. I understand that a possible compromise at Kidderminster might be to provide a modular building in terms of functionality with a modular interior single-storey station building, with external aspects to complement the heritage themes associated with the Severn Valley railway and the local area. I hope that such a modular design would allow the newspaper shop about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned to be retained. I am sure that whenever possible Network Rail wants to retain a tenant that provides it with an income.
The year 2010 marks the 40th anniversary of the operation of the Severn Valley railway, which is one of the most popular heritage railways in the UK. The original Severn Valley railway linked Hartlebury near Droitwich with Shrewsbury, and was constructed around 1860. Ten years later, the line was absorbed into the Great Western Railway, and eight years after that a new spur was opened to Kidderminster. Trains to and from Kidderminster used the existing mock-Tudor station building on the existing line linking Birmingham, Stourbridge and Worcester. The Severn Valley railway carried both freight and passengers but, despite being popular with tourists from the west midlands, its fortunes declined after the second world war. Passenger services were withdrawn from most of the route in 1963, and freight was withdrawn in stages from the same year.
Thanks to the efforts of rail enthusiasts, much of the line has been reopened in stages and currently operates between Bridgnorth and Kidderminster. The Severn Valley Railway Preservation Society started in 1965, and operated its first trains five years later. The line was then extended towards Kidderminster, with the final stage opening in July 1984. Kidderminster Town station is a modern construction—there is a mock-Tudor theme here—in a traditional Great Western style and contains facilities suitable for a heritage railway, including catering and retail. The Severn Valley railway suffered a major setback in 2007 with severe flood damage leading to the closure of much of the preserved railway. Sterling efforts by many people and organisations have enabled reconstruction of the route, and last year those efforts paid off with almost 250,000 passengers, only marginally below the record level of patronage in 2005. The line now employs around 70 people, but much of the work that provides visitors with an excellent experience is done by the numerous volunteers who enable the railway to operate. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to everyone involved with the Severn Valley railway, including the hon. Gentleman, which is a wonderful example of successful local enterprise.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman has been reassured that, although it is not possible at this stage to give any guarantees on funding, work is progressing on plans to rejuvenate Kidderminster station so that passengers will be able to look forward to an improved end-to-end journey experience in future. We share that vision of the railway station as a gateway to both the community and the network.
Question put and agreed to.