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Inter-city Express Programme

Volume 515: debated on Wednesday 15 September 2010

I asked for the debate today to give voice to the north-east’s campaign to ensure that the inter-city express programme is allowed to go ahead, due to the economic impact it would have on the region. It would have profound implications for the north-east because the investment would be the biggest in the north-east since Nissan in the 1980s. That is how important it is, not only for the north-east, but for the rail infrastructure and the UK economy at large. Hitachi has already said to me in writing that the preferred site for the factory to manufacture the trains would be in Newton Aycliffe in my constituency.

My area’s involvement in the railways goes back to their beginning. Locomotion No. 1 travelled along the railway line a few hundred yards from the potential factory site on its way to Darlington in September 1825 to start the Stockton and Darlington Railway. That is how long my area has had its historic relationship with the railway. For something like 160 years, train building was a massive industry in south Durham, just a few miles away from Newton Aycliffe at Shildon wagon works, which closed in 1984 with the loss of more than 2,000 jobs. The inter-city express programme provides us with the opportunity to bring train building home.

In 2007, the Department for Transport issued an invitation to tender to transform the UK’s inter-city train services and replace the outdated diesel high-speed trains that have provided the service since the 1970s. Agility Trains, a joint venture between Hitachi and John Laing, won that contract. Agility Trains will deliver state-of-the-art super-express trains based on the highly successful 395 Javelin trains in Kent, which have recently won a Passenger Focus independent survey for being the best trains. Hitachi also manufactures the bullet train in Japan.

If the programme goes ahead, Hitachi will build a purpose-built factory in my constituency alongside the second largest industrial estate in the north-east. The best way of describing the inter-city express programme is as a service and supply contract to provide new trains and a dramatic improvement to the inter-city services on the east coast main line between London, south Wales and the south-west. The contract was privately financed and managed on a pay-as-you-go basis, which means that payments are not due until the trains are delivered in 2015, after the next election. The cost of the service is spread over 27 years of operation, with payments made on a per train, per day basis. Payments depend upon delivery of a clean, reliable and fully serviceable train, thereby ensuring that the interests of the supplier—Hitachi—and the passengers are aligned.

The programme will deliver a significant increase in seating capacity, a reduction in journey times and a huge increase in reliability and comfort without need for hugely expensive track upgrades. It will also mean that passengers will be able to travel on trains that do not dump toilet waste on the track. We need to move on from the Austin Allegro era of technology.

On 26 February 2010, a written ministerial statement said that Sir Andrew Foster would subject the inter-city express scheme to a value-for-money assessment. On 6 July, the Secretary of State for Transport published the results of that assessment:

“Sir Andrew suggests that the inter-city express proposition is ‘positive and attractive’ in a number of ways. He suggests that the PFI-style funding arrangement is novel and well aligned in terms of financial incentives. The faster acceleration and longer carriages would have a positive impact on network and passenger capacity, and the specification has also taken network sustainability and environmental imperatives seriously.”

Sir Andrew raised some technical questions about the trains, but the Secretary of State said:

“I see this as a lesser issue”.—[Official Report, 6 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 10WS.]

Hitachi has been working closely with the Department since July regarding the issues raised by Sir Andrew, and I am sure that they can be resolved. It wants to simplify the bi-modal technology for example, to bring down costs. Bearing that in mind, the economic case for the inter-city express programme to go ahead is significant.

Not only will the programme bring improved rolling stock to the railway infrastructure, which is required in the 21st century if the economy is to grow, it will also mean so much to the economic growth of the north-east. The programme helps fulfil the Government’s stated aim of rebalancing the north-east economy in favour of private sector growth. Public financial input will not be needed until after the next election, and will be recouped through the innovative financial formula Hitachi has drawn up.

Some argue that it should be left to the train operators to acquire the trains they need, but, surely, economy of scale means that this proposal is the cheaper option, and it offers sufficient volume to attract a major manufacturer to the UK. Therefore, it goes some way towards meeting the Government’s stated aim of growing the private sector—something we all want to see—and Hitachi will put in the investment up front. If the inter-city express programme goes ahead, and I know that the Minister cannot give an answer today, Hitachi has said that its preferred site is Newton Aycliffe. In a letter to me, it stated that, on a range of criteria, including required land size, test track availability, road access, proximity to deep sea ports, local labour availability and flexibility, and ease of business with local and regional agencies and authorities, County Durham and Newton Aycliffe scored highly. That is a tribute to the people of Newton Aycliffe, to local decision makers, and to the north-east’s ability to attract foreign investors, of which there are 500, about 100 of which are in County Durham.

However, what benefits will Hitachi bring to the region? Some 800 direct jobs; up to 9,000 jobs in the supply chain, seven out of 10 of which will be in manufacturing, mainly in the region but also nationally; and for every £1 of investment there will be £48 return over 20 years. Hitachi will start building a £90 million purpose-built factory next year. Some 200 construction jobs will be generated, and private sector investment precedes any public sector investment, which will be over a 20-year-plus period. Over two decades, the region will benefit in net gross value added terms by £660 million, and Teesport will also benefit because some components will be imported from Japan.

The inter-city express programme will replace the rolling stock on the east coast main line. As someone who uses the east coast main line weekly, I know that the rolling stock needs replacing. At present, demand outstrips supply on the line. With rail travel from the north-east to London costing three times as much as flying, and as there are no longer flights from Durham Tees Valley airport to Heathrow, but only from Newcastle, there is an acute problem that needs to be remedied. The new carriages with extra passenger capacity will help to resolve the problem.

The 800 jobs will help to pump much needed expenditure into the local economy through wages. Newton Aycliffe town centre is going through a period of regeneration, and the boost to the local economy that Hitachi offers will help see the local shops boom and breathe new life into the town. Newton Aycliffe has the skills that Hitachi requires. The recent global economic downturn has seen many people with those skills put out of work. The initiative will help to put those idle hands back to work.

I have said that the initiative will match some of the Government’s stated objectives—rebalancing the north-east economy in favour of the private sector and providing work to those who have skills, as well as offering apprenticeships to our young people who do not have those skills. The Government want to create 2 million private sector jobs in the next five years, and this initiative will help to do that. The programme is private-sector led. Hitachi has also committed to using local suppliers first and foremost. If it goes ahead, the investment and the presence of Hitachi will provide the north-east with the largest private sector investment since Nissan 25 years ago.

The issue has united the north-east in a campaign to ensure that the inter-city express, and Hitachi’s presence in Newton Aycliffe, goes ahead, and to put the case for the region. The groups that have got together to do that include: North East chamber of commerce; Durham county council, with the support of the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal groups, as well as the controlling Labour group; the Federation of Small Businesses; the northern TUC and Unite. They have come together to promote the importance of this project to the north-east. The Northern Echo is running a “back on track” campaign because this is so important to local people. A petition launched by the partners is attracting thousands of signatures.

The Secretary of State for Transport has kindly agreed to meet a delegation of business people from the north-east next Tuesday so that we can again make the case for the opportunities that the proposal will provide for the north-east. The partnership has produced a report stating the north-east’s case for the inter-city programme to go ahead, and I sent a copy to the Minister earlier today. I hope that she found it useful. The north-east has learned over the years to stand up for itself, and is saying “We’re here and we can do the job.” Hitachi, one of the biggest companies in the world, has faith in the region, and I hope that the Government also have faith in it.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) said:

“I welcome Hitachi’s interest in building rolling stock in the North-East, and I very much hope the project will go ahead—it would bring enormous benefit to our region.”

In a letter to me, the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) said:

“I am pleased that Hitachi has announced publicly that it intends to establish a new train assembly plant in the UK, should the Intercity Express Programme go ahead. We recognise that this would represent a significant boost to the economy in your constituency. This is to be welcome.”

The Foreign Secretary said in a speech in Tokyo on 12 August:

“I am…here to announce the significant new emphasis that the British Foreign Office will give to providing direct support to the UK economy, helping British business secure new opportunities in the emerging economies and putting our diplomatic weight behind British enterprise as well as helping to bring Japanese and other investors to Britain.”

He went on to say:

“We will work alongside British businesses and the rest of Government and other Governments around the world to use our political influence to help to unblock obstacles to commercial success”.

The Secretary of State for Transport met the president of Hitachi, and the Japanese ambassador, and talks have taken place between our Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Japan because the issue is so important for bilateral relations.

I understand that a decision on the programme will be made as part of the comprehensive spending review. Will the Minister tell me whether the announcement will be part of the statement, or ancillary to it? How are the talks with Hitachi going since the Secretary of State made his written statement in July? How does the Department’s position marry up with the Foreign Secretary’s position that everything must be done to attract Japanese companies to Britain, and to remove any obstacles to that? What prospect does the Minister see for the north-east’s economy if the proposal does not go ahead?

I am not a deficit denier, but one way of solving the problems of the deficit is to increase the economy by increasing the private sector. The inter-city express programme and the Hitachi plan for locating in the north-east would do just that. When the decision on the inter-city express programme is eventually made, I hope that those who make it know the difference between slimming and starving, because starving the north-east’s economy is not the answer.

I am here today to promote the interests of my constituents and those of the north-east. There is great support in the region throughout businesses and parties. I hope that the Minister will consider these representations when her colleagues make the final decision on the inter-city express programme, and that they make the right decision. I believe she knows that that is to let the project go ahead.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Before the interval for voting, I was congratulating the hon. Member for Sedgefield on his passionate support for the IEP. I thank him for the correspondence that he has sent to the Department, setting out a number of the points that he has raised, and for the report that I received today on the case that he has prepared for the IEP project. I am grateful for all of those. My colleagues at the Department and I will be giving serious consideration to all the points raised in the report and in today’s debate.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman, alongside a delegation from his constituency and around the north-east, is due to meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to put these points to him directly. The coalition Government have made it clear that rail has a key part to play in our transport strategy. Although our priority has to be tackling the deficit that we inherited, the Government fully recognise the significant economic benefits generated by investment in transport infrastructure—a point that has been explicitly acknowledged by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Nevertheless, we must apply a rigorous cost-benefit analysis to all our planned infrastructure projects, targeting investment where it makes the most difference and where it will generate the greatest economic benefit.

That is the background against which we need to assess the future of the IEP. There can be no doubt that the project has encountered a degree of controversy since the previous Government embarked on it over half a decade ago. The objective was, as we have heard, to replace Britain’s fleet of InterCity 125 trains, and to invest in capacity and passenger journey improvements on the east coast and Great Western lines. The procurement process began early in 2007, and two years later, Agility Trains was announced as the preferred bidder. An important component of Agility is Hitachi, the manufacturers of the Japanese bullet train.

As we heard from the hon. Member for Sedgefield, Hitachi simultaneously announced its plans to build the new train order in the UK. This summer, the company announced that its preferred site for a new manufacturing facility is Newton Aycliffe in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As he has explained, that town has historic ties with the railways. As we heard today, Hitachi has said that it proposes to use the site in County Durham to bid for orders abroad, and has aspirations to export British-built trains to Europe. The parallel with the successful model used by many Japanese car manufacturers is obvious; it is a very positive example of what can be achieved. As the hon. Gentleman explained, the facility has the potential to create hundreds of new jobs, and potentially many more in supplier industries. He has put the case articulately and strongly for the economic benefit that will accrue to his constituents and the wider north-east.

Of course, such inward investment would be very welcome and entirely consistent with the Government’s stated goal of rebalancing the economy and promoting manufacturing industry. I take on board the strong points that the hon. Gentleman made about the skills base in the north-east, and how appropriate it would be to support a facility of the kind that Hitachi has announced the intention to build.

However, the hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, appreciate that the decision on the IEP needs to focus on objective and established procurement principles—namely, on whether the project provides the right solution for passengers and the railways; whether it delivers value for money, compared to the alternatives; and whether it is affordable for the taxpayer.

In its original form, the order would have been the single largest procurement of rolling stock ever, and one of the biggest private finance initiative transactions in British history. During the later part of 2008 and 2009, the capacity of the debt market contracted and the previous Government decided that it would be better to split the transaction into smaller parts.

The deteriorating state of the debt market was just one of the challenges that faced the project. A further issue arose when the previous Administration changed their mind on electrification. Having published in 2007 a long-term plan for the railways that had a limited role for electrification, the Government put out the tender for a fleet, with a significant proportion of diesel trains as part of the IEP proposal. Two years later, at the height of the contractual negotiations, the Government announced they had changed their views and proposed to electrify. That meant that the order had to be changed to an electric and bi-mode mix, which led to an increase in costs. By the time Labour left office in May, £26 million had been spent on consultancy and preparation costs, without the contractual close stage even having been reached. That has caused a degree of concern.

The project was in some difficulty when the previous Secretary of State, the noble Lord Adonis, decided to commission an independent review by Sir Andrew Foster. When it was published in July, the Foster report presented a measured and thoughtful analysis of the relevant issues. As the hon. Gentleman has correctly pointed out, Sir Andrew had some very positive things to say about the IEP. He described the proposition as “positive and attractive” in a number of ways. He described the PFI-style funding arrangements as

“novel and well-aligned in terms of financial incentives”.

He concluded that faster acceleration and longer carriages would have a positive impact on network and passenger capacity. He acknowledged that the specification had also taken network sustainability and environmental imperatives seriously. Unfortunately, he also had some concerns about the project. He concluded that the previous Administration had made a number of mistakes on the programme. In particular, they did not engage the railway industry well enough and had sought to micro-manage the process. Importantly, the Foster report also highlighted that although the project has always exceeded the Department for Transport’s economic thresholds, its value for money has seen a decline over time, while its costs have increased.

Although I acknowledge and am extremely sympathetic to the case made by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on behalf of his constituents and the north-east, is the Minister considering carefully Sir Andrew Foster’s conclusion that he is not convinced that all credible alternatives to IEP have been identified? He sets out the case in his report for a short-term IC125 refurbishment, which would be both cost-effective and technically feasible. The skills, buildings and infrastructure enabling that work to be done already exist in places such as my constituency of Crewe, where Bombardier can already carry out that work.

My hon. Friend’s intervention is timely, as I am just about to come to that point. As he rightly says, Sir Andrew did make some points about the possible alternatives to the current IEP proposition.

In response to Sir Andrew Foster’s report, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced that the Government would use the period up to the spending review to give further consideration to the future of the IEP. In accordance with Sir Andrew’s recommendations, the Government are reviewing all the credible options in light of value for money, affordability and their compatibility with the plans for further rail electrification. That means careful consideration of how the IEP proposal could be reduced in cost, and evaluating alternative ways of addressing the problem that the IEP was designed initially to solve—that is, how to address the problems surrounding the ageing high-speed train fleet. As my hon. Friend points out, the alternatives include the possibility of refurbishing and extending the life of the existing InterCity 125 rolling stock. In that regard, compliance with disability deadlines will be an important factor to bear in mind in the assessment.

Is the right hon. Lady suggesting that the north-east should once again get second best, while the constituency of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) is, I think, served by a line with brand new trains?

I am saying that we have to carry out a very careful assessment of what the right outcome is for this programme, and what the right way is to address the problem of the ageing InterCity 125 fleet. That is what the Government are doing at the moment.

One thing was omitted from the original planned routes for the implementation of IEP, and that is the inclusion of the London-Norwich line, to the great disappointment of the people who live along it. The problem is that the rolling stock is not only ageing, as is that of the high-speed train fleet, but actually the cast-offs from the main lines to the north-east and north-west. If the routes are to be renegotiated, I hope that the line will be included, but I have to say that this is a lunatic way to procure trains. We heard about the Austin Allegro, famously specified by civil servants. I would not like this to be a similar instance of specification by civil servants that is not suitable for industry.

Many parts of the network would like to have extra capacity, and I shall take my hon. Friend’s concerns on board as a representation. Regarding additional projects of that sort, it clearly all depends on what proves to be affordable, but we intend to learn lessons for the procurement process from the experience of the IEP.

As regards reappraisal of the original IEP concept, the Department has listened with great care to the ideas put forward by Agility on how to improve the value for money of its proposition, and I would like to put on record our sincere thanks to Agility for the diligent and constructive work that it has done, in contributing to both the Foster review and the re-evaluation process that followed. I am very aware that the issue is taken seriously in Japan.

Does the right hon. Lady agree with me that the answer is not to give the existing rolling stock a lick of paint, but to invest in the infrastructure? The rolling stock has been around since the 1970s, and the technology that we have brought on board through Hitachi is cutting-edge. The trains that it uses are comparable with the Javelin ones used in Kent, which are some of the best in the country. The kind of technology that Hitachi wants to bring on board is suitable for people in the north-east of England and elsewhere who would benefit from it.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the respective merits of the different options will be carefully and rigorously considered before a decision is made. This entire debate will be a helpful contribution to the decision-making process.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Secretary of State for Transport has met the president of Hitachi, as has the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. I have discussed the project with the former Japanese Minister for Transport, and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), discussed the matter on a visit to Japan. We are taking the concerns of the Japanese Government on board in discussions on the process. Agility’s proposals are due shortly, and they are likely to include plans to standardise the design of the new trains, as was recently reported in the railway press. I am also advised that Agility expects to offer a significant cost-saving, while still meeting the specification that it was originally asked to meet. We will then be able to complete our assessment of both the IEP and the credible alternatives on an equal footing.

In conclusion, I would like to assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will take into account the representations that we have received from him today, and the representations in the report that he has submitted to us, along with those that he and colleagues have made in the past. The decision on the future of the IEP will be made on the basis of the fullest possible evaluation of all the relevant matters. I am, of course, well aware that the recent period of uncertainty has been a cause for concern to those with an interest in the project, such as the hon. Gentleman and his constituents, and the Government really appreciate the patience shown by all concerned, not least Agility Trains. However, there is a complex interaction between the IEP and other key programmes under review as part of the comprehensive spending review. In light of that inescapable fact, it seemed impossible to make a sensible and objective decision on the IEP in isolation from the conclusions that we have to reach on those other interdependent projects, and from the overall decisions on the resources available for transport infrastructure.

Although the stage that we have reached means that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman all the answers on the programme, as he has kindly acknowledged, the Government are anxious to resolve the matter, and we will convey the decision to the House as soon as we can, as part of the spending review process in October. I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his contribution, and I look forward to continuing discussions with him on the subject. As I say, we will report to the House as soon as is practical regarding this decision, which is crucial not just for the north-east but for the future of the railway network in this country.