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Railways (Kettering)

Volume 546: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2012

I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me to hold this debate and welcome the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who has responsibility for rail, to listen to what I have to say on behalf of my constituents. First, though, I would like to thank a number of local people. Councillor Mike Tebbutt of Kettering borough council, Councillor Russell Roberts, the leader of the borough council, and County Councillor Chris Groome, the leader of the Kettering rail users group, have all encouraged me and helped me to prepare my remarks today.

The upgrading and electrification of the midland main line would be of immense benefit to Kettering and to the east midlands. The midland main line connects four of England’s largest cities and the Northamptonshire growth area, which is one of the fastest growth areas in the country, with our capital city. Passenger journey numbers have risen from 5.8 million in 1996-97 to 13.2 million now, an increase of 127%, compared with a national increase in rail passenger numbers of 69%. A further 28% rise is expected in the next 10 years, according to the route utilisation strategy.

Due to under-investment in the past 20 years, Midland Mainline trains cannot go at their top speed on any stretch of the track. Most other inter-city lines can go up to 125 mph, but despite the fact that InterCity 125s run on the line, their top speed is mostly limited to 100 mph. Despite having a very good punctuality record, the midland main line is the slowest of any of the inter-city lines. There are three pinch-points that restrict the service—Leicester, Derby and Kettering-Harborough-Wigston—all of which need upgrading before electrification takes place.

Upgrading and electrification will bring higher speeds, which will not only make the service more attractive and have a positive commercial benefit, but increase capacity to meet the increase in passenger numbers. That should generate £450 million of wider economic benefit to the region. For Kettering and neighbouring Corby, it will mean better connections north to Leicester—a route served by only one train an hour off-peak—and the travel time from Kettering to London should be cut by an average of five minutes, and potentially by more than 12 minutes. Travel times from London to Sheffield could be cut by 14 minutes. Upgrading and electrification should enable Midland Mainline to increase its train services from five to six per hour, so Kettering could get three trains per hour, rather than two, and that third train could have a journey time of48 minutes, rather than 62.

A 2011 Arup report shows that the benefits of the project would reduce the annual costs of running the line by £60 million, because electric trains are lighter and more efficient to run; they are also quieter. The project should pay for itself within just 10 years, which is an extremely quick pay-back period for an infrastructure project. In addition, it would cut carbon emissions by 13,000 tonnes per year, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 15,000 cars.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his excellent question at Prime Minister’s questions earlier today. He has already mentioned the £450 million of wider economic benefits, but another issue—he may intend to address this—is the impact of the expected increase in freight. I think we all agree on the importance to saving carbon emissions not only of using non-diesel trains, but of getting more freight off the roads and on to the railways. If that is to work, however, it cannot slow down the passenger trains. My hon. Friend has mentioned the three pinch-points. To get a sixth train on the line, there must be a way for freight trains to get by and for the passenger trains to avoid them.

I am most grateful for that very helpful contribution from my hon. Friend who, as always, is serving her constituents so well. I think I am right in saying that Network Rail estimates that freight traffic, particularly through the Leicester pinch-point, is likely to increase by some 50% by 2020. That is yet another reason why, in introducing proposals for electrification, the Department for Transport must concentrate on upgrading those key sections of the track. Electrification on its own will not work; we need to have the upgrading first. Let me put it very simply: if the line is electrified and upgraded later, it will cost extra money because all the new electrical equipment will have to be moved as well. That is why the upgrading is so important.

It is crucial to emphasise that quite an amount of money will have to be spent on the line anyway in the next few years. For example, track and signalling maintenance and renewals expenditure will be ongoing.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about investment. Does he share the concern that I and many people in Sheffield have about the contrast between investment in the midland main line and investment in, for example, the west coast main line? Some £200 million has been spent on a constraint at Milton Keynes, £190 million has been spent at Rugby, £180 million at Nuneaton, and £150 million at Stoke, and work costing £153 million is under way at Stafford.

We are talking about a relatively small cost in relation to the benefits that the hon. Gentleman has argued very strongly would be achieved not only for Kettering, but for Sheffield and many other cities on the line. A commitment to sorting out those three key pinch-points would go a significant way towards remedying the historical under-investment in the midland main line. Does he share my hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance on those points today?

The hon. Gentleman is, as always, correct. I believe I am right in saying that, in recent years, some £12 billion has been spent on the rail network, but only £200 million has been spent on the midland main line. Another figure that comes to mind is that the line has attracted only 2% of the financial investment that has gone into other rail networks. Ours is very much this country’s overlooked line, even though we connect so many places of importance, including the hon. Gentleman’s city, to our capital city. I think the midland main line’s time has now arrived. For what should be relatively little expenditure, major improvements could be made to the line. I think I am also right in saying that, over the next 20 years, some 800,000 extra people are expected to live in the towns and cities along the route, which is the equivalent of having a new city the size of Leeds. Effectively, that new city will generate lots of demand for the rail network, which is why investment needs to take place now, otherwise we will have very real problems in the not-too-distant future.

Moneys have already been committed to do two major jobs: the improvement to the layout of Nottingham station, and gauge improvements for freight between Felixstowe and Birmingham using existing midland main line track. However, the two big bottlenecks that need sorting out are Derby and Leicester. It would be a big mistake to electrify those without sorting out the pinch-points.

The high-speed trains, which do not travel at their top speed, that are used for the Nottingham service are due to be retired in 2019, unless they are upgraded with electric doors and toilet tanks. That gives us an option to upgrade and electrify to Corby and Nottingham as part of a staged programme in control period 5, including the Leicester improvements, while the Government, if they felt under financial pressure, could carry over the extension to Sheffield—the constituency of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield)—into control period 6. That might assist the Government to overcome any resource and cash constraints in control period 5.

Higher speeds will not only make the service more attractive and have a positive commercial benefit, but increase capacity. For Kettering and Corby, that will mean better connections north to Leicester—there is only one train an hour off-peak—without the conflict with northern cities, which want faster services in the absence of the investment to make it possible, and serve intermediate stations.

There are key benefits for Kettering in having the pinch-points dealt with and in having the extra train. I cannot go into all the details about all the pinch-points, but perhaps the biggest one is Derby. Derby is very congested, and many trains have to wait outside the station for a platform to become free. However, all the track and signals at Derby are life expired and must be renewed anyway by 2016. This is the perfect opportunity to replace them with a superior layout that has more platforms and greater capacity, and segregates different routes to minimise conflicts and constraints.

Network Rail has designed that improved layout, which would cost an additional £66 million, taking the total cost—renewal and enhancement—to £140 million. As the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said, that is less than the cost of similar schemes on other inter-city routes. The danger is very simple: it would be cheaper not to do the enhancement and simply to replace like-for-like the already inadequate 1960s layout. However, that vividly illustrates the consequences for Kettering of these constraints. One Midland Mainline train each hour that has insufficient time to call at Kettering, because it must pass through those pinch-points at set times, sits in Derby station for 8 minutes because of congestion there. If the constraints were to be eliminated, a future train operator could choose to call at Kettering and still reduce the overall Sheffield to London journey time.

As with the other pinch-points, removing the Derby pinch-point would open up the possibility of a sixth train every hour calling at Kettering. That is the crucial thing for Kettering—the extra sixth train. There are five Midland Mainline trains per standard hour: two to Sheffield, two to Nottingham and one to Corby. They have to cater for the big long-distance flows between the big cities, as well as the flows to intermediate towns such as Kettering, so the calling pattern is inevitably a compromise. A sixth train per hour would allow a different pattern of train services and station stops, and would give the train operator more scope to cater appropriately for both the big cities and the towns. It is not possible to say in advance how a sixth train per hour would be used, because the Government have rightly stated that they will be less prescriptive in the next franchise, after 2014, and will allow the new train operator to decide such things on a commercial basis. However, there is a very strong case for an additional sixth train per hour calling at Kettering, and without that additional sixth train, there is no real prospect of any additional service to and from Kettering.

The benefits to Kettering would be a third train per hour to and from London, with a fast journey time of around 48 minutes. That train service used to exist, but was taken away some years ago. The sixth train per hour would also allow a second train per hour to and from Leicester probably going on to Derby, which would give Kettering vastly improved connections and a half-hour reduction in journey time to Leeds, Yorkshire, the north-east and, Mr Weir, Scotland. Clearly the extra trains would also increase capacity for Kettering, thereby catering for future growth.

Is a sixth train per hour realistic and achievable? Yes. There are six midland main line paths every hour out of St Pancras, so it would be perfectly possible. However, the three pinch-points cause the real problems, which is why they need to be addressed. In fact, a sixth train is already run for a couple of hours per day, essentially at the peak periods, but that that happens only because other conflicting trains—mainly freight trains between the north and London, or east-west passenger trains—have been effectively pushed out of the way for those couple of hours. It is not possible to do that for the whole day. In fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) said, the prospect is that freight will increase over the next 10 to 20 years. That will cause particular problems with east-west traffic at Leicester, on which an additional 30 trains per day will be running by 2019.

It is standard practice to increase the number of trains on inter-city routes to cater for growth. The number of trains running on both the east coast main line and the west coast main line has been increased on many occasions since 2000—effectively, they have doubled in the past 10 years. In complete contrast, it has been 12 years since there has been any increase in the number of trains north of Kettering, although East Midlands Trains did introduce the new Corby-London service in 2008.

The reality is that to cater for the relentless growth of patronage on the midland main line, it will be necessary before long both to lengthen trains and to run a sixth train per hour, and it will be practical to run a sixth train per hour only if the constraints at the three midland main line pinch-points have been properly resolved. Fortunately, other works are already planned at each of the three pinch-points. That presents the perfect opportunity to solve the midland main line problems very cost-effectively.

The upgrading and electrification of the midland main line is a priority for colleagues in all parts of the Chamber. There is a very strong cross-party consensus in favour of the inclusion of the proposals in control period 5 and, if needs must, into control period 6. Political parties on all sides up and down the route, represented by local authorities, rail user groups, rail forums and freight groups, are all behind the scheme. Kettering sits in a very important place on the midland main line and there would be particular benefits to Kettering were the Government to give the go ahead for the proposals. On behalf of my constituents, I hope that the Minister will take on board these points. I am confident that she will do her best to ensure that the right decision is made.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate, and on his very detailed and well-informed analysis. It is also good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) in her place. Both my hon. Friends have played a leading role in the campaign for the electrification of the midland main line.

I understand the importance of the issue not only to my hon. Friends’ constituents, but to many communities in the east midlands and south Yorkshire that are served by the midland main line. I am also aware of the wide-ranging coalition of MPs, local authorities, businesses and other stakeholders, many of whom were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, who are all campaigning for improvements to the line and, in particular, electrification. The Government’s response to the campaign will depend on what is affordable within budgets that are constrained by the pressing need to deal with the deficit we inherited from Labour. Despite the deficit, we have already embarked on a major programme of rail improvement that is bigger in scale than anything attempted for 100 years. Improving our transport networks is a key part of our strategy for growth, and rail electrification is playing an important role in those efforts to improve our transport system and to boost our economy.

This is a timely opportunity to consider and debate electrification of the midland main line. Electrification can support our carbon reduction goals, as well as contribute to economic growth and the benefits outlined by my hon. Friend. In the longer term, some electrification schemes can also help us to achieve our goal of cutting the cost of running the railways; it is essential that the cost come down, because that is the only way to see an end to above-inflation fare increases. A more financially sustainable railway will also help us to deliver the sort of improvements called for by my hon. Friend today, and by other hon. Members day in, day out, in this Parliament.

Where the business case is strong and funding is available, the Government support progressive electrification of the rail network. As my hon. Friend said, electric trains are cheaper to run and maintain than their diesel equivalents. They emit less carbon and are quieter and lighter, which saves wear and tear on the track. Our committed programme of electrification includes the great western line to Oxford, Newbury, Bristol and Cardiff, and a significant programme in the north-west, including Liverpool to Manchester and Blackpool to Manchester. In his autumn statement, the Chancellor added the route from Manchester to Leeds and York to our electrification proposals, subject to confirmation of the business case.

The action taken by the coalition on electrification is in marked contrast to the approach of the previous Government. Their 30-year strategy for the railways, published in 2007, paid almost no regard to electrification and set out no sensible plans for it. In their 13 years in power, they managed to electrify less than 10 route miles of track on our network.

The midland main line has received some important investment in recent years. New stations have been built at Corby and East Midlands Parkway. Major station improvements have been delivered at Loughborough, Derby and Sheffield, and St Pancras has been transformed with the arrival of High Speed 1. Further improvements are in the pipeline.

Will the Minister acknowledge, contrary to her previous point, that they were actually achieved under a Labour Government?

I was not saying that the previous Government did not do anything; I am saying that they did almost nothing in relation to electrification.

By 2014, £69 million will have been invested by Network Rail to cut journey times for passengers between London and Sheffield by eight minutes. In the longer term, the second phase of High Speed 2 will slash journey time to the east midlands and Yorkshire. As I have said on a number of occasions, both in the House and outside it, the Government recognise that the business case for the electrification of the midland main line is strong—a point emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and a number of hon. Members. Useful supporting evidence has been provided by the report commissioned by East Midlands Councils and the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive, “The Case for Upgrading and Electrifying the Midland Main Line”.

The report highlights the significant potential economic, environmental and financial benefits that would come with electrification and other improvements, a number of which were outlined by my hon. Friend. He is right to focus on significant passenger growth on the line in recent years. It is important to take on board the points he made about projected population growth, the wider economic benefits that could be generated by improvements to the midland main line, and the potential for running- cost reductions—always an important concern—of electrification. I also note the points he made very strongly about the scope of electrification to provide capacity expansion. It is important for the Government to consider all those matters when making a decision on which schemes can receive funding.

The Government recognise that electrification of the midland main line could help to spread the benefits of high-speed rail, because it would enable through-running of services between the new high-speed network and the midland main line. That is something we will consider as we prepare our response to HS2 Ltd’s advice on phase 2 of the project to complete the Y network to Manchester and Leeds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough rightly highlighted the importance of considering the impact on freight of improvements to the midland main line, and we will do so carefully. We will also consider carefully the proposals for the range of improvements stakeholders are calling for in relation to the midland main line. I acknowledge that there is an aspiration to go beyond electrification and combine it with addressing some of the pinch points referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. I note his analysis of the potential that a sixth train per hour might be able to deliver in terms of reconfiguring services and benefiting his constituents.

The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) compared the prospects for the midland main line with the resources spent on the west coast main line. Yes, it is important to consider the relative levels of support for different parts of the country. Network Rail learnt many lessons from the west coast main line. Obviously, that project cost far in excess of what was originally envisaged. We hope that whatever schemes go ahead in future, whether midland main line improvements or others, Network Rail is able to avoid some of the mistakes made in relation to the west coast.

Electrification of the midland main line and a number of other upgrades are included in Network Rail’s initial industry plan, which sets out the rail industry’s view of options for inclusion in the next HLOS—high-level output specification—statement, for delivery in the period between 2014 and 2019. That plan is playing an important role in our deliberations on which projects can be funded in that five-year control period.

Although the case for electrification looks good, it is a major undertaking with a significant price tag. Just electrifying the line is expected to cost more than £530 million. The further upgrades that many campaigners are asking for could add more than £100 million to that figure. The Government already have commitments to improve the rail network in the period up to 2019, amounting to some £5 billion.

I have listened carefully to the Minister. Is she impressed that the annual £60 million saving in running costs means that the electrification would effectively pay back within 10 years, which is almost unheard of for an infrastructure project of that sort?

It is rare for an infrastructure project to pay for itself. Yes, that point will be important for us to consider when we take our decisions. My hon. Friend has made that point clearly and we are aware of it. However, even with the importance placed on transport by the coalition and with the positive business case for improving the midland main line, we will still need to make choices between competing priorities, because, of course, colleagues from throughout the country have priorities in their own areas.

We need to strike a balance between the aspirations of many communities for improved rail services and the need to ensure that the Government’s finances are not overstretched in these difficult times. The scale of what can be delivered to improve the midland main line depends on what is affordable and on a careful, fair assessment of competing priorities elsewhere on the rail network. The points that my hon. Friend made about the running-cost savings that could be delivered by electrification will be at the forefront of our minds when we take our decisions. However, we have not taken those decisions yet. I assure my hon. Friend that we are aware of the strength of the business case and of the support for going ahead with electrification.

Not all the projects that will take place in control period 5 will be expressly mentioned in the HLOS statement that we will publish. Some of the bigger ticket items may be expressly listed, but for projects that are not on such a big scale we are more likely to specify an outcome to be achieved on a route or into a certain city, such as increased capacity or faster journey times, and then it will be left to the industry, overseen by the regulator, to decide how best to deliver those improvements for passengers. Some improvements that campaigners have asked for over and above electrification would be more likely to fall into that category. If they were to go forward in CP5, they would therefore be subject to the industry HLOS process—an assessment by the rail industry and the Office of the Rail Regulator on how best to deliver them. I thought it might be useful to give that procedural clarification of what hon. Members can expect in terms of the type of scheme that would be headlined in the statement and those that might still be delivered during the CP5 period, but would be subject to further work by the rail industry.

Briefly, since the Minister is dealing with procedural aspects, will she give us an update on timing? I have been told that we should expect some announcement in July. Is that still the timetable?

Yes, the announcement will be made some time before the end of July, but we have not set a date.

The case for electrifying the midland main line continues to be made impressively by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and many others. Debates such as this provide important, timely input to the process of deciding which rail improvements can be funded in the five-year period up to 2019. I will ensure that all the points made today are carefully considered when the decisions on the HLOS statement are made.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).