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Walsall-Rugeley Line (Electrification)

Volume 546: debated on Thursday 14 June 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Fabricant.)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing a debate on the electrification of the Chase line, which is the line from Walsall, just outside Birmingham, to Rugeley in my Staffordshire constituency.

The Chase line is actually a key section of a longer rail route running from Birmingham New Street up to Rugeley Trent Valley, but whereas the section from Birmingham New Street to Walsall is electrified—taking in Duddeston, Aston, Witton, Perry Bar, Hamstead, Tamebridge Parkway, Bescot Stadium and Walsall—the section from Walsall to Rugeley is diesel only. Hence the onward journey to Bloxwich, Bloxwich North, Landywood, Cannock, Hednesford, Rugeley Town and Rugeley Trent Valley is considerably slower, with poorer passenger service and fewer, older trains.

It goes without saying that this is the key rail route for my constituents. Thousands of them use the line daily to commute to and from work—usually in the city of Birmingham—and many commute to Walsall for work as well. At weekends, it is the main route into Birmingham for shopping, leisure and social life. Birmingham is the second city of this country, and fast, frequent and reliable services to and from that vital economic hub are essential to the economic growth of towns such as Cannock, Hednesford and Rugeley, just 15 miles away.

Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to Keith Fitch and the members of the Cannock Chase rail promotion group, who have campaigned tirelessly over many years for the reintroduction and, now, for the development of passenger services on the Chase line. I also thank John Morgan, the principal planning officer at Cannock Chase district council, who is responsible for the railways and is a long-time campaigner for the electrification of the Chase line. It is a cliché nowadays to say that people have worked tirelessly for a cause, but the work that John has done over the years with successive council administrations and Members of Parliament has been far above and beyond the call of duty. It can really only be described as a labour of love, stemming from his passion for the railways. John is watching in the Gallery tonight. After some 35 years of commitment to the railways and the electrification of the Chase line, it would be a fitting end to his career for him to see his goal finally realised.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that people have been campaigning for the electrification of the Chase line because they know that it will bring massive economic benefits to his constituency as well as mine and many others?

The short answer is absolutely, and I shall say more about that later. One of the startling facts that I discovered when researching for my speech was that the electrification of the line has been a project for various council administrations and Members of Parliament of all colours since the early 1960s—20 years before I was even born. It really is a project whose time has come.

I must declare an interest, as not only do a good many of my constituents use the line, but I myself use the section between Birmingham New Street and Bloxwich North. I therefore understand perfectly the position that the hon. Gentleman is describing.

This is, of course, an all-party effort, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not wish to make any party propaganda points. I certainly have no wish to do so, and nor does my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). For the reasons that have been given, the project has all-party support. However, is it not also the case that electrification could create well over 1,000 jobs? As the hon. Gentleman knows, jobs are urgently needed in our part of the world.

Indeed. I believe that the exact figure is 1,386, and that is part of the economic case that I hope to put to the Minister this evening.

Since the general election, the upgrading of the Chase line has been one of my key priorities. I have been working closely with all the key players, including the councils, Centro, Network Rail and London Midland, the operator of the trains on the line. I have already hosted two successful stakeholder meetings, bringing together all the key players to discuss how we can proceed with the development of the line.

It is fair to say that there has been massive historical frustration as to why this line has not been electrified at some point in the past 20 years, and why the scheme is still not included as a named scheme for control period 5—CP5—as part of the high-level output statement, or HLOS, due to be published by the Department in July this year. I am aware that reference was made to Rugeley-Walsall electrification in the initial industry plan in September 2011, but only as a “candidate scheme” rather than as a commitment. That was extremely disappointing as we had hoped that the strategic importance of the project would have been recognised and there would have been a firm commitment in the Government’s HLOS announcement for CP5.

I am pleased, however, that since the election we have managed to persuade Network Rail to fund the west midlands line speed improvement scheme for the Chase line. This speed upgrade from 45 mph to 75 mph, announced in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, will not only help support our efforts to bring business to the area, but it will reinforce the message that Cannock Chase is the place to come to in south Staffordshire. However, Network Rail has not set any time scale for the line speed upgrade, and it may not happen until after the current Walsall to Rugeley re-signalling programme is completed. Options are being drawn up over the next six months, but the funding does not have to be spent until March 2014. This means it could take a further two years before my constituents see any improvements.

The line speed improvement is, however, only a sticking plaster on the wound; the real fix that has long been needed is the electrification of the Chase line itself, and I would like to take this opportunity to explain to the Minister why that is the case. Over recent years, the Rugeley-Cannock-Walsall-Birmingham line—the Chase line—has continued to go from strength to strength. Increased passenger growth of 10% per annum or more has been achieved in recent years. Over half a million passenger journeys a year are now made just from the three stations in my constituency. The Chase line now has the second highest levels of passenger growth in the Centro area. Yet despite that, the route has seen a reduction in services and shorter trains, most recently last December through the service level commitment changes, as a direct result of a shortage of diesel trains. That is because the Chase line is the only Centro route operating out of Birmingham New Street where diesel trains have to operate. That has resulted in an inefficient mix of diesel and electric services between Birmingham and Walsall, in order for diesel trains to operate north of Walsall on the non-electrified section to Rugeley. Therefore, in spite of having one of the highest annual passenger growth figures in the west midlands, passenger services on the route had to be reduced from December 2011 as a direct result of it not being possible to operate the whole Birmingham-Walsall-Rugeley service with electric trains and the need to transfer scarce diesel rolling stock to provide capacity on other routes.

The situation is predicted to get even worse. From 2013, the Chase line will have the lowest service frequency of any suburban route radiating from Birmingham and yet still have one of the highest passenger growths. So I say to the Minister that we urgently need to address this contradiction of passenger growth and reduced services, and the only solution is the electrification of the Chase line. That must be included in CP5.

On the point about last December’s reduction in service, many of my constituents have pointed out to me that people took to the roads instead. There is already a lot of congestion on the roads from Birmingham to my constituency and that of the hon. Gentleman, and it would get even worse.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the railways have undergone a renaissance in recent times and it seems perverse that at a time when more and more people wish to use the railways we are in effect forcing them on to roads that are already heavily congested. I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman is a regular driver on the M6 and surrounding roads, so he will know that traffic congestion is a major problem on them. We need more people on the trains, not fewer. It is therefore perverse to force them on to the wrong mode of transport.


Given the history of this scheme, it is astonishing that this small 15-mile section of track has not already been electrified. The scheme originally had a high-profile inclusion in the former Railtrack network management statement in 1999, including a detailed pre-feasibility study showing it was deliverable. It was again identified in Network Rail’s electrification strategy 2009, and in its west midlands route utilisation strategy in 2011, as a scheme that should be fully considered in more detail as part of the west midlands and Chilterns route utilisation strategy.

Although Centro and other local stakeholders feel that the west midlands and Chilterns route utilisation strategy process did not consider the case for electrifying the route as effectively as it could have, recent work by Network Rail demonstrates that the electrification scheme has a positive business case and a benefit-cost ratio of 1:2, even without the inclusion of the wider strategic benefits that will arise from creating an alternative electrified rail connection between the west midlands and the west coast main line, which links the region to the north-west and Scotland.

The Minister may not be aware that recent work undertaken by KPMG for Centro has also identified significant further regional economic benefits from the electrification of this route, which, again, are not included in Network Rail’s business case. KPMG’s analysis indicated that electrification would generate an additional £113 million of gross value added benefit per annum and support the creation of 1,370 additional jobs, as has been mentioned. That is why Centro and others locally are so passionate about seeing the Government confirm the Walsall to Rugeley electrification as a high priority scheme for 2014 to 2019 in the Secretary of State’s forthcoming high-level output statement on rail investment. That is also why both Centro and the West Midlands Regional Rail Forum have now identified the scheme as the No.1 electrification priority for the whole of the west midlands region.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. It may seem to be a bit geeky and for train-spotters, but this subject is very important for our constituents. I am pleased that Walsall is not being ignored, because it usually is. Will he say whether any of this is part of the High Speed 2 bid? Will we be able to have a bit of slippage in that bid in order to see this scheme come to fruition?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I will come on to deal with HS2 and the way it connects up a little later in my speech, when I believe I will address her question. I also thank her for signing the letter to the Secretary of State, which I should also mention, from just about all the MPs along the line in support of the scheme; as has been said, this is a cross-party effort, as we all want to see this happen.

Although Centro and other regional stakeholders strongly support the electrification of the Walsall to Rugeley route, the train operator, London Midland, also believes that electrification would deliver ongoing operational cost savings, improved journey times and reduced crowding. Electrification work will make it easier to create a larger loading gauge, allowing the increasingly common W10 containers to be transported. In the longer term, electrification could allow services such as the Birmingham to Liverpool service to run via Walsall, significantly improving Walsall’s connectivity to Stafford and the north-west, and giving new commercial opportunities to serve a town that is now larger than Wolverhampton, as I learned yesterday.

The Minister will be aware that the electrification strategy as part of the network route utilisation strategy identified the following gaps as driving whether a route should be considered for electrification:

“Type A—Electrification to enable efficient operation of passenger services…Type B—Electrification to enable efficient operation of freight services…Type C— Electrification to increase the availability of diversionary routes…Type D—Electrification to enable new patterns of service to operate”.

The Minister can take comfort that the Walsall to Rugeley line electrification would cover all those gap types.

The Minister will also be aware that Network Rail has identified a number of criteria to be considered when looking at whether to develop a project for CP5. Again, we in the west midlands strongly believe that all these criteria, as set down by Network Rail, are met. Tonight, I just want to highlight three key criteria, the first of which is affordability. Railtrack commissioned Atkins in 1999 to undertake a pre-feasibility study into the electrification of the route, and, with the exception of clearance issues in the Walsall station area, the route appears to be straightforward to electrify. It must be remembered that the line was earmarked for electrification in the 1960s as part of the west coast electrification scheme, and that all the bridges and other structures were rebuilt with electrification clearances. Atkins assessed the cost of electrification as approximately £32.6 million, plus an extra £6 million to achieve W10 gauge clearance. However, it is worth noting that the recent work by Centro reduces that to just £30 million, or £1 million per mile of track—15 miles in each direction.

The second criterion I want to draw to the Minister’s attention is value for money. There should be a financially positive benefit-cost ratio of more than two. We believe that the multiple benefits that the route drives have already resulted in a positive BCR of 1:2. That will be further enhanced by the KPMG work, which will push it over two. Network Rail’s business case assessment is narrowly defined and has been superseded by the Centro-commissioned KPMG work that takes into account the wider benefits such as job creation and economic development. As has been mentioned, it would mean more than 1,300 new jobs and a gross value added of £113 million, which are not reflected in Network Rail’s more tightly defined business case, which still gives a positive BCR. We therefore urge the Minister to take that into account as part of her decision process for named schemes in CP5 as part of the HLOS next month. This is a capital scheme that will trigger economic development and job creation across the west midlands.

The third criterion for Network Rail that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention is the extent to which economic growth is driven. As I hope we are showing tonight, the service improvements arising from the scheme would drive significant economic growth in the Walsall and Cannock areas, which are badly affected by the economic downturn. The freed-up capacity elsewhere on the network would also support wider economic growth in the west midlands. There would also be the ability to redeploy diesel capacity on the busy Snow Hill network, which would help the economy of Birmingham city centre to develop further. Without the electrification the current service on the line could worsen, leading to economic growth constraint.

I believe the scheme meets all the key criteria for electrification set down by Network Rail and that is why all our local stakeholders believe that Walsall to Rugeley electrification strongly meets Network Rail’s criteria for CP5 named schemes for 2014 to 2019. As a result of all this, on 18 May I sent a letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport signed by 20 key stakeholders, including the chairs of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull, Black Country and Staffordshire, and Stoke local enterprise partnerships, the leaders of all the metropolitan, county and district local authorities on the route, private sector business leaders, the chamber of commerce and six MPs with constituencies along the route, some of whom are in their places tonight, all giving their unequivocal support for Walsall to Rugeley Chase line electrification. As can be seen from the number of MPs from both sides of the House who signed the letter to the Secretary of State and who are here tonight, this scheme has the support of the region.

The scheme has the strong support of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who has already written to the Minister about this matter but cannot take part in this debate because he is a Whip, even though he is sitting in front of me on the Treasury Bench tonight. It also has the strong support of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who has publicly given his firm support, saying:

“Electrification of this line is a vital, not simply for local and regional transport, but for the national network as it provides alternative routes for electric only trains.”

It also has the support my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), who was the former Member for Cannock and Burntwood and is now the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, He cannot speak in the debate as he is a Defence Minister, but he wanted me to inform the house that when he was the Member for Cannock and Burntwood in 1983 to 1992, he tried to get the line to be upgraded, saying then:

“It would provide an invaluable alternative for occasions when the West Coast mainline between Rugeley and Birmingham International is out of action for repairs.”

It is even supported by the Government Chief Whip, himself a user of the Chase line in his former life as a councillor on Cannock Chase district council and as a coal miner in my own constituency. It also has the cross-party support of all the MPs along the route, including the hon. Members for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) and my hon. Friends the Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd), for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), for Stafford and for Lichfield.

I know that the Minister, quite rightly, will not be persuaded simply by pleas from MPs. I am aware that such schemes require more than just special pleading; they require cold hard facts and benefit-cost ratios, and that is what I have tried to convey to the Minister tonight. As I have said, recent work by Network Rail this year has already established that this £30 million scheme has a positive business case with a BCR of 1:2 and the further research by KPMG commissioned by Centro shows that that can easily increase to more than two when the wider economic benefits are taken into account. An investment of £30 million will give the west midlands a regional gross value added benefit of £113 million and the regional employment impact will create nearly 1,400 jobs. That seems like a good return to me and one that meets the Network Rail investment criteria.

I am conscious that this bid would be in competition with other bids for electrification and must therefore be competitive. Before this debate, I listened to a recent Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) to ask for electrification of the midland main line at a capital cost of a rather whopping £530 million, with more than 50 bridges needing to be rebuilt. The Minister, who is also replying to this debate, said then that

“we will need to strike a balance”

between different types of project and that what gets funding depends on a

“fair assessment of competing priorities elsewhere on the rail network.”—[Official Report, 16 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 148-49.]

Given that this project would cost only £30 million and would need only two bridges to be slightly modified, I hope the Minister can recognise it as an easy win—a piece of low-hanging fruit that she can grasp. It is one of those different types of project that should be considered on its own merits next to the big boys.

In conclusion, if ever there were a time for this scheme to be delivered by the “greenest Government ever”, it is now. It has been in the planning stage since the early 1960s—20 years before I was born—and it has been pursued by former MPs for Cannock Chase of both political colours as well as by local councils and regional authorities. The local enterprise partnerships see it as essential to the commercial interests along the routes. They also think it essential to connecting the benefits of HS2 to the area and driving job creation and economic growth. KPMG’s analysis has demonstrated that this electrification and consequent passenger service improvements would dramatically improve accessibility to labour and goods markets, stimulating economic growth and job creation and increasing productivity for the west midlands as a whole.

The electrification of this 15-mile strategic missing link in the electrified rail network of the west midlands would create an alternative route to the north-west for passenger and freight services, relieving the existing congested Birmingham to Stafford main line, so this is not just a local rail scheme. It would offer regional and national benefits, but it is essential, if those benefits are to be realised, that these outputs form a key part of the Government’s July announcement on the high-level output specification. I therefore ask the Minister to reflect positively on the strong business case for this project. When she does, I hope she will reach the same conclusion as we have—that the electrification of the Walsall to Rugeley Chase line should be included as a named scheme for CP5 as part of the high-level output specification due to be published by her Department next month.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) on securing this debate on such an important issue. It is very timely because decisions on the Government’s high-level output specification are imminent. I have been impressed by the determination of the coalition of different organisations campaigning for full electrification of the Chase line, and I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend, who has this evening put the case for that improvement to the House with passion, clarity and detail. I also note the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who is in his place, and the work done by many others, such as the Cannock Chase rail promotion group. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, I think it is right to single out for praise John Morgan of Cannock Chase district council. As we have heard from my hon. Friend, Mr Morgan’s knowledge of the Chase line is unsurpassed. I am told that he has shown huge dedication over many years in seeking the upgrade he wants to see.

Subject to affordability, the Government support the progressive electrification of the rail network as a way of reducing the cost of running the railways, improving services for passengers and reducing carbon emissions from transport. Electric trains are more reliable, quieter and more comfortable than their diesel equivalents. They are also better for the environment and cheaper to operate. The Government believe it is essential that the cost of running the railways should come down. In March we published plans for achieving major efficiency savings in our Command Paper. We believe that further electrification can assist us in delivering our goal of a more efficient rail network. That is one reason why we are going ahead with significant electrification programmes in the north-west and on the Great Western line.

We accept that there is a positive business case for proposals to extend electrification on the Chase line. I also note the strong local support and the long-running nature of the campaign, as well as the regional support that has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. I agree with him that considerable benefits could be delivered if it were possible to fund electrification of the line. That would allow more energy-efficient electric services to operate and would remove the existing inefficient and resource-intensive mix of diesel and electric services between Walsall and Birmingham. That could reduce the cost of running the service, which is always an important factor. An added advantage would be the release of the diesel rolling stock used between Birmingham and Rugeley Trent Valley for use elsewhere on the network. Electrifying the Chase line could also provide wider economic benefits, as my hon. Friend rightly identified—for example, by broadening access to labour and goods markets, and by boosting productivity and job creation in the area.

A key factor in considering the case for the further electrification that my hon. Friend wants is the fact that the Chase line is an entry point for trains to the nation’s second city. In recent years the line has become an increasingly important commuter service in and out of Birmingham. The electrification between Walsall and Rugeley could therefore be a way to strengthen peak capacity into Birmingham. Currently, as we have heard, the only electrified route from the west coast main line to Birmingham from the north is the Wolverhampton line. Electrification of the Chase line could offer a second electric route via Walsall from those destinations in the north.

That provides an opportunity for the development of services through Birmingham, Walsall, Stoke-on-Trent, Crewe, Liverpool and elsewhere in the north. It would deliver an electric diversionary route from the west midlands to the north for passenger services from Birmingham New Street and for freight services, relieving the line through Wolverhampton. As well as improving local and regional services, electrification could have a strategic national value.

The benefits of electrification could be considerable and I am clear that this project is a serious contender for funding. The Government are considering how much funding will be available for rail investment in the five-year CP5 period up to 2019 and how it should be allocated between competing priorities. We will announce our decisions on the HLOS 2—high-level output specification 2—statement by the end of July. The case for electrification of the Chase line will be considered as part of that process. I shall ensure that the deliberations and points made in this debate are fed into that process.

The project has been chosen by Centro and the west midlands regional rail forum as their No. 1 electrification priority for the west midlands, and it is supported by the business community and the local enterprise partnership. That local support is something that we shall take into account in our forthcoming decisions on what can go into the next HLOS. As we have heard, reference is made to the project in Network Rail’s initial industry plan, which sets out the options for funding in CP5. I note my hon. Friend’s concerns about the approach to the scheme by Network Rail in the industry plan but, like him, I am pleased that additional work has been undertaken since the plan’s publication further to develop the business case and respond to comments from stakeholders in the west midlands and achieve a clearer understanding of the underlying evidence and facts on what electrification would mean and what it would cost.

The Minister mentioned stakeholders. I am sure she will bear in mind the point that I made earlier that this has the support of all the Members of Parliament, and there is absolutely no political controversy whatsoever.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s restatement and, yes, I am very much aware of that.

We recognise that there is a business case for a number of the schemes identified in the industry plan that are supported by Centro, including greater peak capacity into Birmingham and extra capacity between Birmingham and Tamworth and in the Worcester area. Whether we can give the go-ahead to Chase line electrification and Centro’s other aspirations depends on what is affordable within available budgets. We also have to weigh up competing priorities elsewhere on the rail network. Decisions on HLOS 2 have not yet been taken, but this debate will provide very useful input into the Government’s thinking on this important matter. It is worth remembering that Chase line passengers are in line to receive improved services with a £5.4 million package of improvements announced by Network Rail in 2011 to increase line speed on the Chase line from 45 mph to 75 mph, reducing journey times for passengers travelling from all stations on the line.

We fully understand that the aspiration is to go further, and we recognise the strength of support for electrification, which is something that we will consider with great seriousness in the weeks between this debate and the announcement that we shall make in the summer on which projects can receive funding in the CP5 control period between 2014 and 2019.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.