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Swindon to Kemble Rail Line

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 6 April 2010

I am grateful to you, Mr. Weir, and to Mr. Speaker for allowing me the opportunity to hold this Adjournment debate. I am even more grateful to the Minister for being here on a day when I am sure that he would prefer to be doing other things elsewhere.

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. This is the second Adjournment debate that I have had on this subject; the first was on 30 June 2008. Given the work that has been involved in campaigning in support of the redoubling, it is perhaps fitting that it is one of the last subjects on which I will speak before the election. If the Minister will forgive the metaphor, I hope that my campaign for redoubling is arriving at the station and that he will have some good news today for my constituents.

In my experience as a rail Minister since last July, it is impossible to make a speech about rail without using a rail metaphor, so I forgive the hon. Gentleman.

The Minister is obviously reserving the good news for when he speaks.

Let me begin by detailing the reasons for the campaign, how it has progressed and the incredible amount of cross-party and cross-national support that it has received. We are talking about a single-track line that stretches a mere 12.5 miles between the Swindon locomotive yard and the western portal of the Kemble tunnel. The line was singled in the early 1970s. The necessity for redoubling stems from the self-evident limitations that are imposed on trains travelling in opposite directions on a single-track line. Doubling the track would provide a significant extra benefit. As passengers who use the line know only too well, delays and cancellations are frequent, the infrastructure cannot support an hourly timetable and delays are regularly exported from the line. Network Rail believes that significant demand from passengers and freight is being suppressed because of these limitations.

The second factor is the nature of the Swindon-Kemble line as a diversionary route. As the Minister will know, because I have spoken to him privately about this, the Welsh Affairs Committee’s 10th report of the 2009-10 Session, which is entitled “Cross-border provision of public service for Wales: follow-up”, noted:

“The main diversionary route for South-Wales London services when the Severn Tunnel is closed for maintenance runs from Swindon via Kemble and Gloucester.”

It adds that the Severn Tunnel

“would remain operational…into the medium term, but that regular closures for maintenance would nevertheless be necessary…although the Tunnel would be suitable for electrification, this will require a longer closure for the work to be completed.”

The relevant section of the report finishes by noting:

“The importance of this line as a diversionary route when the Severn Tunnel is closed will be heightened during electrification of the Great Western Main Line. We urge the Government to ensure that final costs are agreed as soon as possible so that work can begin.”

The Minister will also know, as I mentioned in my previous Adjournment debate, that the redoubling would

“provide a diversionary route for freight traffic travelling from Southampton to the west midlands and for trains from the south-west to the north of England, which is the preferred diversionary route.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 705.]

There are also additional benefits, such as building in rail capacity to support growth and regeneration in the south-west in the coming years, supporting freight movement and the cost saving to be achieved by closing the signal box at Minety. I will not elaborate on the scheme’s further benefits, because the case has been well and truly made, but it is worth mentioning that supporting rail travel ties in with the Government’s and, indeed, the Opposition’s policy on a modal shift to supporting green travel and the green economy, which would lead to CO2 reductions.

If the Minister will indulge me further, I would like to take him on a quick diversionary route—he will be glad to know that that is my second and last rail metaphor—to clarify exactly where we are now on the redoubling and how we have got to this point. I have campaigned for the redoubling of the line for many years. Unfortunately, as he knows, the Office of Rail Regulation announced its funding plans for 2009-14 on 5 June 2008. Although we had the good news that the Cotswold line would be redoubled, it was announced that the Swindon-Kemble line would not receive funding. In my view, and probably in the view of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), the Swindon-Kemble line was perhaps more deserving than the North Cotswolds line.

Following that news, I called an Adjournment debate on 30 June, in which the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), stated:

“I wish the scheme a fair wind.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2008; Vol. 478, c. 712.]

Subsequently, I was able to keep up pressure for reconsideration of the scheme. I did that through meetings, first, with the hon. Member for Glasgow, South and, subsequently, with the Secretary of State for Transport. On both occasions, I was accompanied by colleagues from Gloucestershire, including my neighbour the hon. Member for Stroud, who has been a long-time supporter of work on the line. Representatives of Network Rail and First Great Western were also present.

My neighbour and I make common cause on this issue, which is very pleasing. I declare an interest, in that I was on the line this morning. The key point, beside the fact that there is to be a general election, is that we need to know now that the team will come over from the Cotswold line. That has to be the absolute priority. If it does not happen now, it will not happen this side of a decade. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

My neighbour is clairvoyant. I will make exactly that case a little later.

The lobbying work proved effective. It was clear that despite the ORR’s decision, support for the scheme was forthcoming from the hon. Member for Glasgow, South, the Secretary of State for Transport, Gloucestershire county council, the South West of England Regional Development Agency, the regional assembly, the district and urban councils and most, if not all, Gloucestershire MPs. The only thing missing was the funding.

The first steps to overcome that problem took shape when the Department for Transport committed £900,000, and the Welsh Assembly offered £100,000 towards a feasibility study. Some £20 million was put aside from the regional funding allowance for the project itself, but that still left a gap—the scheme had been estimated as costing £37 million before the new feasibility study was conducted.

On 3 September 2009, I attended the South West Regional Grand Committee, where I found that the Minister for the South West was another supporter of the redoubling scheme. At the meeting, he clearly stated:

“It would provide diversionary seven-day railway capacity and route capacity that First Great Western has indicated it could take up on a commercial basis. It would also facilitate housing growth if the Government were to bring that forward. Good arguments can be made in favour of the redoubling of this line and I am happy to play my part in that process.”—[Official Report, South West Regional Grand Committee, 9 September 2009; c. 12.]

As the Committee progressed, I challenged the Minister to produce one positive outcome from its proceedings. I must give him credit for taking up that challenge and writing to the RDA on 6 October 2009, suggesting that if it could produce

“an agreed, realistic and deliverable five year programme”,

he hoped that that programme would be able to go ahead.

By 16 November 2009, the Minister for the South West had persuaded the RDA to agree to provide a further £25 million in funding. The money had previously been allocated to the Westbury bypass, which had been refused permission, so the money could be reallocated to fund fully the Swindon-Kemble line. With the feasibility study not expected to be completed until the end of the year, it was clear that that deadline could not be achieved, but we now had an absolute commitment for £45 million towards the project.

Subsequent to that news, the hon. Member for Stroud called an Adjournment debate on 27 October 2009, when he made a further eloquent case for the work. The debate further highlighted the cross-party support for the scheme. Unfortunately, when the results of the feasibility study were announced, the final figure—as the Minister knows only too well—was £52.4 million and it was clear that further work was needed to progress the scheme.

I then contacted 18 right hon. and hon. Members in the Welsh parliamentary area, for whom the redoubling work would have particular significance. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), and the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) for their support in contacting the relevant Ministers.

That brings us up to date, in terms of detailing why the scheme is so vital, the steps that have been taken by myself and others to raise its profile, and the success that we have achieved.

Before the Minister responds, I want to raise with him the ultimate purpose of today’s debate. We are now looking at either cutting £7.4 million from the estimated cost of the scheme according to the feasibility study, or finding £7.4 million of funding from non-governmental sources or from departmental end-of-year savings, or a combination of the two.

Many of my constituents fail to understand how a scheme that appeared to have ministerial support as long ago as 2008 has still not been able to progress. Although they and I understand that there are financial pressures, there are also time concerns. In that regard, I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Stroud said. As he pointed out, there is a clear window of opportunity if the go-ahead for the redoubling work is given soon. Skills and equipment that are currently being used for the redoubling of the North Cotswolds line could easily be transferred to the Swindon-Kemble line. If they are not transferred, the larger national schemes such as Crossrail and the refurbishment of Reading station will come into play and the Swindon-Kemble line might lose its place in the queue, perhaps for many years.

So can the Minister say exactly what discussions he has had with Network Rail since the figure of £52.4 million was announced in the feasibility study? Most importantly, can he tell us if he believes that £7.4 million in savings can be made? If so, why has it taken since January for that announcement to be made? If he cannot tell us that those savings can be made, or if he has doubts that they can be made, does he believe that any end-of-year departmental savings could be redirected towards this scheme? Furthermore, Network Rail has a huge maintenance budget and it will save on maintenance if this scheme goes ahead. So, could Network Rail be persuaded to find some money for the scheme?

In addition, has the Minister had any discussions with the train operator on the line, First Great Western? Any passenger travelling at peak times between Kemble and London, as the hon. Member for Stroud did this morning, would pay £58.50 for a single standard ticket or £91 for a first-class seat. This is a very lucrative line for First Great Western. With a growth in rail users and a growth in population in the south-west, does First Great Western not have a vested interest in seeing the redoubling scheme progress? If it does, could it possibly provide some money towards it? I also want to ask the Minister if there are any other funding avenues that he, I or anybody else should be investigating.

Ultimately, however, I hope that the Minister will use this 11th-hour opportunity, before Parliament is dissolved, to give all the users of this rail line some wonderful news, by announcing that he has found a solution and that the redoubling of the single track between Swindon and Kemble will now go ahead.

Dr. McCrea, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate about the redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble railway.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) on securing the debate. Along with a number of other Members of Parliament, he has been diligent and very determined in promoting the case for the redoubling of the route. At the same time, of course, I also welcome the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for the debate.

I am pleased to have another Westminster Hall debate on this issue, as it gives me the opportunity to give the latest position on the work of achieving an acceptable and affordable price for this redoubling scheme, so that it can be delivered with financial support from the south-west region. I want to reassure the House that much effort is being devoted to the issue. In particular, I want to thank Network Rail, the nation’s rail infrastructure owner and operator, for the hard work that it is doing in this regard.

The Secretary of State for Transport and the Minister for the South West have both expressed support for the scheme, as the hon. Member for Cotswold outlined. We all recognise the value of extra capacity and improved train performance that this particular redoubling scheme would create. Before I turn to the specific subject of the debate in more detail, let me remind the House about how the region and the wider area served by the Great Western main line, in particular the line’s passengers and freight customers, will benefit from our ambitious rail plans.

The performance of First Great Western continues to be of high quality, with Network Rail reporting in its latest figures that 93.4 per cent. of First Great Western’s trains arrived on time. On 23 July 2009, we announced the £1.1 billion electrification programme of the Great Western main line between London, Bristol, Oxford, Newbury and Swansea, along with the electrification of the line between Liverpool and Manchester. That was great news for those specific areas and for the public transport industry in general.

The electrification programme will boost jobs, reduce journey times, make trains more reliable, increase capacity, contribute to sustainable or “greener” transport and build on improvements in train performance. From 2016, passengers travelling between London, Slough, Reading, Newbury, Didcot, Oxford and Swindon, as well as to intermediate stations, will benefit from the reliability and comfort of electric trains. The aim is that, by 2017, electrification will be extended to inter-city services to Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea. Electrification will mean that minimum journey times between London and Swansea can be reduced by almost 20 minutes. It will also enable capacity on inter-city services during the morning peak hour to be increased by about 15 per cent. Electrification of the Great Western main line is being integrated with the significant upgrade of Reading station, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, and the £16 billion Crossrail project, which will reach out to Heathrow airport and Maidenhead.

Electrification of the Great Western routes between London and Bristol and between London and Swansea will potentially enable more trains to operate. It will also reduce the cost of the track and the damage to it. The environment will be improved as fewer diesel trains will run. Journeys for passengers will be improved, as electric trains will be able to accelerate faster and consequently journey times between London and the other major city centres will be reduced. Operators will also be able to run more frequent services as their business continues to grow.

I will now address the Swindon to Kemble line specifically. Network Rail initially identified the redoubling of the line as one of several options to improve the performance of the Great Western main line and the wider network. The line was originally singled in 1968, which is slightly earlier than the hon. Gentleman suggested, as an economy measure by the operator at the time, British Railways’ Western Region.

Network Rail believes that redoubling of the line would improve performance, especially when the line acts as a diversionary route for trains between London and south Wales or when there is engineering work on the line or in the Severn tunnel. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that use of the line will be especially important when electrification takes place.

The south-west region and the local authorities believe that redoubling is essential if an upgraded Cheltenham and Gloucester to London service is to be provided. The railway industry agrees with that view. I fully accept that we also need to provide for the improvement to such rail links. However, a little while back the Office of Rail Regulation concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to justify the inclusion of the Swindon-Kemble enhancement as a funded scheme to deliver the overall high level outputs specified by the Government. That decision by ORR has been debated frequently in the House and we have responded positively to Members’ representations.

More recently, the Secretary of State for Transport wrote to regional partners to outline his strong support for the redoubling scheme. In our response to the south-west region on its regional funding advice, we asked that consideration be given to taking forward a fully funded Swindon-Kemble major scheme. The south-west region has risen to the occasion and I must congratulate it on the action that it has taken, which I will return to in a moment.

In addition to that dialogue with the south-west region, the Secretary of State and I have committed Department officials to work with the railway industry to make the case for redoubling. As the hon. Member for Cotswold well knows, the south-west region, the Department for Transport and the Welsh Assembly Government have jointly funded a rail investment study by Network Rail. Their total contributions amounted to some £2.6 million. That is a good example of working in partnership and I commend the parties involved for their respective contributions.

It is also now well known that the south-west region has offered to contribute £45 million from its funding allocation budget towards the capital cost of redoubling. That is very welcome indeed and I commend the role of the Minister for the South West in making that happen. That £45 million is made up of an initial £20 million contribution, followed by a further £25 million allocation from funds that were originally earmarked for the Westbury bypass. Network Rail has already provided an interim report on its investigations. That has been examined by the Department, which has asked Network Rail to continue to explore a wide range of issues.

Network Rail is undertaking an evaluation of the earthworks and associated structures on the Swindon to Kemble line, in particular the disused sections where only minimal maintenance has been carried out since the line was singled. There is also a need to determine the most efficient means of bringing a number of level crossings up to modern standards. Much of the present single line is laid along the centre line of the old double track formation. That makes for a slightly more formidable challenge in redoubling compared to a situation where the single track takes up just one of the paths of the old lines. In December 2009, Network Rail concluded that, on the evidence available, redoubling the 13-mile section of route would cost £52.4 million, reduced from a previous and less sophisticated calculation of £62 million.

I recognise that redoubling the Swindon to Kemble line is a regional priority that could facilitate growth and support resilience and performance. As I said, it acts as a diversionary route to and from south Wales when work is taking place on that route, particularly in the Severn tunnel. The importance of the diversionary route will increase while the task of electrification is taking place.

However, the national rail budget remains fully committed until 2014, and we cannot bridge the funding gap. In the circumstances, the £45 million allocated in the regional funding allocation is, for all practical planning purposes, the maximum available at present. The current price of £52.4 million therefore represents, as the hon. Gentleman identified, a difference of £7.4 million with the budget. Deducting the £2.6 million spent on the study reduces the difference to £4.8 million.

Network Rail is exploring a number of opportunities to see whether the gap can be bridged, including the deployment of different and possibly innovative contracting methods to get the most competitive price. The study also considered the extent to which reconditioned materials could be used and how best to undertake the work. For example, should all the work be done over a limited time scale while the line is shut, or on weekends and at night? The emerging conclusion appears to involve a mixture of both, but I am equally conscious of the need to ensure that passengers using the line—no doubt they include many constituents of the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend—are not overly inconvenienced. It might also be possible, as the hon. Gentleman said, to offset some of the work against the cost of maintaining the route in future years if it remained a single line. The Office of Rail Regulation is considering the matter.

I am personally confident that the hard work being done by Network Rail’s engineers will reduce costs to an amount near, if not within, the funds available. They are a focused group and have risen to the challenge of doing the job within the £45 million limit.

That is relatively good news. I do not want to speak out of turn, but my only worry was that the people assigned the problem were not the first rank of engineers within Network Rail. It is important to know that the brightest and best are seeing it as an opportunity. I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that they can hold forth and that the scheme goes forward.

The officials within the Department to whom I speak advise me that the people working on the situation are absolutely committed to making it happen. I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about when the team will finish work on the Cotswolds line. As the issues are considered more closely, one factor to take into account is that carrying the team across might be a way to reduce costs from the estimate, which might have been based on assumptions that a team would be set up from scratch.

I agree with my neighbour the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew); it is relatively good news. If we are not to have an announcement today that the scheme will go ahead, we are at least moving towards the station. However, does the Minister not agree that the longer we take to find the funding, the more it will cost and the more funding we will have to find? It seems as though we will never catch up with ourselves enough for the scheme to be given the go-ahead. What timetabling assurances can he give us about when the funding might be found? Has he really re-examined all alternative funding sources, such as First Great Western?

The hon. Gentleman has asked me two specific questions about Network Rail, one of which I just answered; it concerned potential savings from future renewals and maintenance costs that could be offset by undertaking the work earlier. The other involves the franchise operator, First Great Western. He made the case that it might be interested in an investment that could enable it to grow its passenger numbers. I suspect that First Great Western’s assessment would prioritise investment in the front-loading of a new train service that would not run at sufficient capacity in the first instance to return a profit. Its priority would probably be to subsidise the first few years of the new services, which would take advantage of the capacity, rather than investing in infrastructure, which I think most train operators are fairly reluctant to do.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Welsh Assembly Government, and I know that he is interested in other potential funding sources such as the European Union. The line is not a trans-European network, so it would not necessarily qualify for European funds from that source. Nor does the nature of the area suggest that funds for addressing regeneration and disadvantage would be forthcoming. I am not aware whether the Welsh Assembly Government could access European Union funding, but the Welsh Assembly Government might be able to make the case that it is a strategic diversionary route for south Wales. However, I understand that they have already been making best use of European funds for investment in railways. Given what I have heard about their investment in railways in Wales, I suspect that they are unlikely to want to invest in railways outside Wales. They seem to be fully committed to the railways in their own territories at this time.

To address the hon. Gentleman’s question about timing, I understand why he is anxious. Network Rail is due to report to the Department’s officials early this summer, by which I mean no later than June. If a positive result is forthcoming, I hope that a deal can be struck. Although we are driving hard to get the job complete within what is on the table, I am nevertheless anxious to know whether the amount can be supplemented should a genuine need arise. I have discussed European and Welsh Assembly funding. In these challenging economic times, we must be realistic about how limited such opportunities are.

Network Rail’s 5,000 engineers have experience from earlier redoubling and are seeking to improve how it is done. Perhaps that will help the hon. Gentleman. He asked me for my assessment of the prospects of reducing the cost further. At one point, the outline figure was £62 million; it is now down to £52 million. There are challenges as redoubling work takes place and problems with embankments and cuttings are identified. The ground on which a one-track railway sits is not always robust enough to build a two-track railway. As such problems are identified, costs rise, but as I said, using our experience from earlier efforts can reduce them again.

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 provides something affordable, further developments cannot go forward. I am keen to ensure that this unique opportunity to implement the scheme is not lost. If Network Rail’s price is affordable and the region’s endorsement is maintained, spending could be allocated over the fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13. Our aspiration would then be to commission the doubled track by December 2012.