Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Simon Burns.)
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts, and to raise cross-border travel, which is critical for Wales. It was the subject of two inquiries by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs in the previous Parliament, and, as is so often the case with such inquiries, the issue is now being revisited by the present Committee. The Government will of course have the opportunity to respond when we have agreed our report.
I shall not pre-empt that, but would mention one way in which the reports are characterised: there has been a lot of discussion of north Wales and south Wales connectivity, quite rightly, but some colleagues may empathise with me when I say that mid-Wales is often lost in the debate. However, a few Select Committee veterans are here among my hon. Friends and colleagues, and others with border constituencies will no doubt want to talk about the important issues of Severn bridge tolls, First Great Western franchise arrangements and the quest for electrification in north Wales. Should I stray intermittently into devolved matters, I apologise from the outset, but responsibility for transport is fragmented, as our report of 2009 stated, and that requires robust co-ordination between the Governments at Cardiff Bay and Westminster.
The 2009 Select Committee report said that rail
“improvement schemes are too often only evaluated on their local benefits”,
that we require greater co-ordination of rail franchises and that we have seen
“a general failure to predict increases in passenger demand and...insufficient rolling stock is available on certain routes particularly at busy times.”
Those, certainly, are characteristics of the debate about the rail line that ends in my constituency in Aberystwyth and passes through that of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies).
Arriva Trains Wales operates the Cambrian coast line service between Birmingham International and Aberystwyth. The absence of an hourly service across mid-Wales is not merely a parochial matter, nor is the loss of a direct service between Aberystwyth and London some 20 years ago. The economic benefits of connectivity, for the movement of people and of goods and services, should not be understated. The town of Aberystwyth has strategic significance. We do not hear much about the mid-Wales corridor. We hear a lot about the A55 and the M4 corridor, but there is a mid-Wales corridor, and the Select Committee made that point in another of our many inquiries—we are a very busy Committee—into inward investment:
“We are concerned by evidence that the quality of transport links in Mid and North Wales and the connectivity between the rest of Wales and England deters overseas investment in parts of Wales.”
Part of that debate is about roads, and colleagues may want to talk about that, but I want to discuss rail and my belief that mid-Wales is being held back, which is why arrangements across the border are so critical. The local perception is that we have a second-rate service. That is not always a failure of the franchisee. Sometimes, it is a failure of political will and opportunity.
My enthusiasm on the matter led me to suggest to the Select Committee Chair that not only should we take evidence on transport matters in Aberystwyth, but we should travel there by train. Not all members of the Committee were brave enough to experience that, although some were. I salute the hon. Members for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) and for Swansea East (Mrs James), for their support in travelling by train. I could have written a soap opera script. We left Euston on time, to embark on our journey of four hours and 40 minutes. It was regrettable that that was compounded by a two-hour wait at Birmingham International station, as we missed the connection. There are limits on what one can do for two hours at Birmingham International station.
A word of advice: go to Paddington. It is much easier to get to Aberystwyth from there.
Sadly, in my constituency, people then have to contend with the roads—I live in the north of Ceredigion. I enjoy the friendship and camaraderie of the hon. Members for Swansea East and for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, but two hours sitting there waiting is a trial in many ways.
In evidence to the Select Committee, Passenger Focus
“identified inter-franchise connections as one of the main sources of dissatisfaction with cross-border services amongst passengers.”
The report was produced in 2009, under the previous Government, so perhaps the Minister can give some good news now, but we concluded:
“At present, there is no incentive for different train operating companies to provide connecting services or to ensure that connections are maintained when there are delays.”
When we finally got on our train, the journey continued to Machynlleth, in Powys. There we had the spectacle of the four carriages being reduced to two, and passengers scurrying from the back of the train to the front, to get into carriages to Aberystwyth; otherwise they would risk a prolonged although scenic journey—but it was getting late—up to Pwllheli. Those are the realities of the service that my constituents must use.
There has, overall, in the generality of Wales, been progress since the report was produced, not least because of the coalition Government’s commitment to rail electrification in south Wales. That is commendable and necessary, and progress is being made, for which I commend the Government. A debate is emerging on rail electrification in north Wales—the arrival in the Chamber of the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) is timely, as is this important debate. The Assembly Minister announced in January that he will draw up a business case for that, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the liaison and discussion between the Government and Assembly Ministers. However, the lack of an hourly service in mid-Wales and the two- hour wait between trains across mid-Wales is not simply a matter of mild inconvenience. It is an impediment to the area’s growth.
During its inquiry on inward investment, the Welsh Affairs Committee heard from Professor Stuart Cole, of the university of Glamorgan, that
“if Wales was to compete successfully with countries in Eastern Europe, its transport facilities had to be able to help overcome the cost differentials and distances from these markets by becoming ultra-efficient and influence competitiveness for inward investment”.
If that is a message for Wales as a whole, it is a very poignant one for mid-Wales. We heard from UK Trade and Investment officials, who said that the current transport infrastructure in Wales could act as a potential deterrent to investors. We need to make sure that existing businesses and manufacturers are not hamstrung by any impediment such as lack of development of the transport network. The pressures that that could put on the tourism sector and the all-important higher education sector in my constituency are something that I reflect on. The Wales Tourism Alliance has said:
“If we are to succeed, we must get visitors, the lifeblood of the economies of Wales, into each and every corner of our country. At present internally and cross border we simply do not have the transport infrastructure to deliver the economic potential of many of our leading destinations.”
I contend—surprise, surprise—that many of those destinations are on the west Wales coast.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the historic under-investment in transport in Wales. If High Speed 2 —essentially an England-only railway—goes ahead and given that, despite the fact that transport is not actually devolved, Crossrail resulted in a 100% Barnett consequential, does the hon. Gentleman agree that a Barnett consequential for HS2 investment is essential, so that the Welsh transport infrastructure can keep pace with developments in England?
I welcome that intervention. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall come on to that point because HS2 is of great interest to many of our constituents.
This is a historic debate. Seven years ago the National Assembly’s development committee heard evidence from the mid-Wales manufacturing group in Newtown. At the top of its list of key requirements for businesses to flourish were improved roads, rail and broadband. I would give five out of 10 for broadband but fewer marks out of 10 on rail.
What we need—there is a role for both Governments in this—is a stimulus that supports growth and creates a dynamic transport network in Wales. Much of the debate is internal and the exclusive responsibility of our National Assembly Government, but while that is appropriate, the fact that 16.4 million people live within 50 miles of the border makes cross-border services vital. Over the years of the rail franchise, we have seen strong development in that area, with Arriva Trains Wales reporting growth in its cross-border services of typically between 8% and 13%. On the Cambrian main line, which is a primary cross-border route connecting Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury and beyond, 900,000 journeys are made every year, and the average loading—I hesitate to use the word load to describe passengers, but it feels a bit like that sometimes—is about 125 passengers, which is slightly higher than the UK average. Although I appreciate that, in the current economic climate, there are great constraints on the Governments in Cardiff and Westminster, small, limited enhancements could bring genuine benefits to the community.
I will start with the modest aspirations. SARPA, the Shrewsbury-Aberystwyth Rail Passengers Association, has called for the improved utilisation of rolling stock resources, which could bring improvements to the service at minimal increased cost. Dealing with commuter trains in and out of Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth would be a good start. For example, at Shrewsbury, there is an early arrival from Aberystwyth at 7.11 am, but the next train arrives at 9.25 am, which does not make sense for the many people who need to get to work or college by 9 am. There is a lot of demand for travel to and from Shrewsbury for job opportunities, further education and medical services that are not readily available in mid-Wales, but the current timetable does not serve that demand effectively. Since privatisation, franchise holders have been instructed by the passenger service requirement to run trains with a two-hour frequency. Operators have happily taken the subsidy offered, but little thought seems to have been given by the franchisee to providing a service that reflects the demand for travel across the border.
I acknowledged at the start of my speech that transport policy is fragmented between the Assembly Government and the UK Department for Transport, but I know that there is a healthy dialogue between the Welsh and UK Departments because the Minister convinced me of that when I questioned him in the Welsh Affairs Committee. We also took evidence in Aberystwyth from the Welsh Minister Carl Sargeant, who spoke of an emerging much more positive relationship, so I know that to be the case.
Network Rail is, however, the responsibility of the Department for Transport. I salute the work of its Welsh division—the very fact that we have a Welsh division is an important message for those of us who believe in devolution. Network Rail has undertaken extensive infrastructure work, including the building of passing loops on our line, and we acted as guinea pigs for the development of the European rail traffic management system—the new signalling system that will be rolled out across Great Britain.
I am interested, however, in the Minister’s view on why we still do not have the hourly service. I do not want to damage his relationship with Mr Carl Sargeant, but does he regret, as I do, the apparent lack of will at Cardiff? There has been promise after promise after promise. Since 1999, we have been told that we will have our hourly service, and we have now been told that, as we do not figure sufficiently high in the priorities, we will have to wait until 2015. The service would plug an important gap in the timetable and make genuine commuting opportunities possible across mid-Wales.
At the same time, the Welsh Government have tried to kick-start a market between north and south Wales, with 10 services between Cardiff and north Wales and lower passenger numbers, and many argue that the route could effectively be served by three or four trains, rather than the 10 that it enjoys. An hourly service is a modest aspiration. We have been promised it before, and I hope we can push further for it following this debate.
There is a more ambitious proposal for train services in and out of mid-Wales and to London, which is the re-establishment of a direct service between Aberystwyth and London. Three years ago, we faced more disappointment when the Office of Rail Regulation threw out Arriva Trains Wales’s bid to develop the direct service. I declare an interest: I spend up to 10 hours a week on the train, somewhere between London and Aberystwyth. I have rarely driven here. My wife used to be an employee of Arriva Trains Wales—and a very good job she did, too. Arriva Trains Wales’s bid was an attempt to right a wrong that had emanated from privatisation legislation, which had meant the withdrawal by the successors to British Rail of a direct link to the capital.
In 2010, Arriva Trains Wales’s bid for a twice-daily service to London Marylebone was rejected. The company stated that the bid would unlock the potential of the mid-Wales rail market and bring it in line—that was music to my ears—with that of south and north Wales. It proposed to route a line for the direct service via Shrewsbury and Birmingham International, and the latter is important because many of my constituents and those who live in other parts of mid-Wales use the airport there; it is the airport for mid-Wales. The proposed service would have continued through Banbury, West Ruislip and Wembley to London Marylebone, and plans were drawn up for timetabling and rolling stock. The Office of Rail Regulation gave as its reason for rejecting the bid a concern about the “financial viability” of the new service. There were concerns about the abstraction of revenue from the sadly now former Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railway Company, and there were concerns from Chiltern Railways.
I well remember nearly 30 years ago InterCity 125s leaving Aberystwyth at 7 am. It was not exactly robust commuter traffic on a daily basis, but it sent an important signal of connectivity from a peripheral area to the rest of the country. I also remember freight being delivered on that service to Aberystwyth. I am flying the kite to the Minister, resurrecting the ghost of that service, in the expectation that he can help us, and that the Minister at Cardiff Bay is listening, too. We should at least explore the possibility of a direct service once again, and I hope that the Department for Transport and the Assembly Government will look favourably on that. The consequences of the rejection of the Arriva Trains Wales bid has been that, since 1991, Aberystwyth is one of the few towns in Britain left without a direct link to the capital.
I want just to touch on two other things; I know that colleagues want to talk about issues that affect their localities. In 2018, the Arriva Wales franchise will be up for renewal, so can the Minister clarify who has ultimate responsibility for arrival at the new franchise? Can he confirm that there are two signatures on the documentation for it? Or, is it the sole responsibility of our Assembly Government? Either way, the matters will, I am sure, be part of the Silk commission’s work when we look at the devolution of responsibility. Clarity about rail franchises will be considered as Paul Silk embarks on part 2 of his inquiry into further powers.
I also want to talk about the historical matter of the initial subsidy agreement, which was not signed under the Minister’s watch, between the then Strategic Rail Authority and Arriva Trains Wales. There was an agreement for a one-year subsidy of £120 million, which would reduce over the 15 years of the franchise to less than £100 million. The Welsh Assembly Government, rightly within their remit, have decided to pursue a positive policy, including increasing train lengths, acquiring new trains and extending platforms, but I just wish we could see a bit more of the money in mid-Wales.
The policy resulted in the subsidy increasing, in 2012, to £140 million, and it has been suggested by some, including our Select Committee, that some of the problems with congestion and overcrowding are the result of inadequate modelling of predictions for growth in the industry. The Select Committee concluded in its 2009 report that
“overcrowding is the result of poorly designed franchises which paid no heed to industry forecasts for passenger growth.”
Consequently, the Government in Wales are paying for investment. Some have suggested that Wales is being short-changed.
Many people I talk to have a wrong perception that HS2 will directly affect train travel in and out of Wales. HS2 will have an effect. Perhaps if we get the electrification that we all want in north Wales, it will have a positive effect on travel. I am dispelling a perception in my constituency that, somehow, we might step off a slow Arriva Trains Wales train somewhere in Birmingham and hop on to a fast train and head off down to London with 40 minutes taken off our journey. Of course, that is not the reality, which leads me to question the benefits that will accrue to large parts of Wales. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr made a point about the scheme’s possible Barnett consequences.
I could go on at great length. The debate is as broad as the border is long. I could talk about so many issues, but I am keen to flag up one persistent problem: the more we talk about north Wales and south Wales, the more our constituents in mid-Wales say that we are somehow being short-changed. We are not getting the service that we need, not just for those daily trips in and out of Shrewsbury to do some shopping at Marks and Spencer, but to access the services that we require to develop our area economically.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s comments on north Wales, south Wales and the exclusion of mid-Wales, but does he recognise, for example, the Conwy Valley railway line in my constituency? The line links to Meirionnydd, which I define as being in mid-Wales. One of the key issues for the Conwy Valley railway line is that timetabling means someone leaving Blaenau Ffestiniog on the 7 o’clock train to Llandudno junction will miss the trains to Chester and London by four minutes. Is timetabling not part of better servicing mid-Wales?
I commend the hon. Gentleman on his arrival. I am not sure whether he was here when I talked about timetabling. Franchise arrangements are slightly different in that instance, but there is a need for franchise agreements to ensure synergy between timetables, because one of my constituents’ persistent complaints is that we do not have the integrated approach that he and I both want.
I have used this at the end of many debates on Wales, and I say “chwarae teg” for trains in mid-Wales.
Well done to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for securing this debate. I am sorry that I was unable to be on his marathon six-hour train journey, but he has made a persuasive case for mid-Wales, and I am sure the Minister is listening. I also thank him for giving us an opportunity to lobby on other transport matters. As a south Wales MP, I will address the Severn bridge tolls and rail, which he has already mentioned.
The Severn bridge tolls are a thorny issue. A Wales Office Minister recently told me that reports commissioned on the impact of the tolls on Wales gave a mixed picture. He may well say that, but constituents and businesses tell me loud and clear how hard they find absorbing the increased tolls each year when their pay is frozen, their hours are reduced and the cost of living is rising. I am aware of their misery, because it is a major local issue about which I am contacted as an MP. Businesses, particularly those in the haulage industry, say the tolls mean they bear a cost that competitors across the bridge do not and that they have to add that cost to their bottom line, which hits their competitiveness. A Welsh Assembly study, about which the Minister may be aware, shows that scrapping the tolls altogether would improve the economic output of south Wales by some £107 million.
For many, the light at the end of the tunnel is the end of the concession in a few years’ time. I say a few years’ time, because every time someone ventures to say the concession will end on a certain date, the duration of the concession lengthens, which is worrying to say the least. That is mild: I think the concession is becoming a farce. In 2005, the concession would end in 2016; last year, it was 2017; and it now appears to be shifting to the end of 2018. Will the Minister confirm his current estimate?
The first reason given for extending the concession was reduced traffic due to the downturn; then it was the cost of installing the card-handling system, then industrial building allowances and then higher VAT. Now, because the concession may well extend beyond 2018 into 2020, we have the mystery debt from the construction of the bridges, about which another Minister wrote to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs and which might push the date further into the future. The announcement in December obtained by the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), was news to all of us on the Committee. The information was never mentioned in our recently completed inquiry. Will the Minister explain how the debt came about and why we were never told of it?
That highlights the problem with the concession. I note that Ministers have recently been using the Severn bridge concession as an example of why private companies’ investing to improve our roads, with motorists paying tolls, is a good idea. I have heard Ministers say on the radio and on television that there are tolls on the M6. Well, I think that the Severn bridge concession is a terrible example. The concession, fixed by law years ago, allows the company to whack up the tolls every year until it reaches its target. The toll is completely inflexible, as we saw when there were calls to accept debit and credit card payments. Help for regular users, off-peak travel for businesses and the ability for car sharers to share the tab are all too difficult for the concessionaires who just care about getting the revenue. Calls from customers for any sort of flexibility fall on deaf ears, and the motorist yet again gets stung, with no protection when times are hard, as they are now.
We need something to look forward to when the concession ends. There is a niggling fear that the Treasury sees the bridges as a useful revenue stream after 2017, 2018 or 2019, or whenever the concession ends, and is looking to bank in advance the anticipated revenue from the bridge tolls. Will the Minister please tell me that is not the case?
We need to know what discussions are taking place and whether the Department is engaging with the issue now, rather than waiting until the last minute. Crucially, we need to know that not only reduced tolls, but other creative ideas such as reductions for regular users and off-peak travel for businesses are being considered.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, on the announcement we heard in evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee that the UK Government intend to continue the tolls at their current level, following the return to public ownership because of a previously undisclosed debt, the general impression in Wales is that the UK Government are fleecing Welsh motorists?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Obviously, the Welsh Assembly has expressed an interest in running the bridges when the concession ends, and I would be happy with that, as I suspect would many of my constituents, if it pledges in advance to reduce the tolls. It would be helpful if the Minister told us what discussions are ongoing with the Welsh Assembly Government.
The Severn tolls are the highest in the UK. It is true that we have to pay the tolls because the bridges had to be built, but the situation is now out of control. The Government stepped in for the Humber bridge and the Dartford crossing, and they ought to do the same for the Severn bridges and give us some reassurance for the future.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the Severn bridge in south-east Wales is seen as an opportunity for the company to fleece motorists. Is the toll not also a real economic difficulty that places the Welsh lorry and logistics industries at a competitive disadvantage?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The logistics and haulage industries, many of which are based in our constituencies, are hit hard by the toll because they cannot pass on the extra costs that their competitors do not bear.
On train connectivity, many of my constituents travel to work in places such as Bristol. Constituents at the Monmouth end of Newport East have for years faced ill-thought-out connections, which the hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned, and a decline in the number of train services stopping from places such as Severn Tunnel Junction. A local campaign group, the Severn tunnel action group, have fought a tremendous and successful campaign to bring back many of the services that that station lost. The group has highlighted the local demand for commuter services. The station’s footfall has increased substantially recently—by about 14%—and it is ideally placed to be a major park-and-ride station, with investment.
Even after winning back services that were due to be axed, STAG pointed out that the station’s potential was not being fully realised. STAG highlighted the ill-thought-out timetable, which failed to recognise the importance of connecting commuter trains to services coming from places such as Lydney, Chepstow and Caldicot. For example, Arriva Trains Wales eliminated a service at Severn Tunnel Junction that connected to the First Great Western service and that STAG had negotiated and won back only six months earlier. The replacement Arriva cross-country service leaves Severn Tunnel Junction just minutes before the First Great Western service arrives, so passengers must wait hours for connecting trains, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned. That is not acceptable. Moreover, peak trains are often so full that passengers must stand for the whole journey or wait a few hours until the next one.
All those factors, particularly cross-border connectivity, put commuters off local train services. I ask the Minister to bear those points in mind when he talks to train operators, and perhaps to agree to meet the Severn tunnel action group—a fantastic example of a local group campaigning for rail services.
It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing this debate on a matter that is of huge interest to me and has been for most of my adult life. I want to address specifically how we deal with cross-border links in a devolved United Kingdom. It is not just because my constituency is Montgomeryshire; I worked for a long time to develop the economy in mid-Wales with my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), and one part of the strategy that we always knew was important was transport links. It was much more important for mid-Wales to have a link out than it is for England to have a link in, which lies at the root of the problem.
I was going to talk about road links, particularly two specific ones, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion mentioned rail links, I should say how important they are as well. When we discussed the Aberystwyth-Euston link, it was part of an initiative that we in mid-Wales developed. We got every organisation there to come together in a partnership and invest in the Cambrian line, because it was so important to us. Although we have lost the Aber link, we hope that the Shrewsbury-Euston link will be restored soon. I hope that the Minister will reconfirm the position on that; we have been left feeling optimistic about it.
The hourly service that we all desperately want is now in the lap of the National Assembly for Wales. The investment in the line has been made; it now just needs extra investment in the infrastructure—the trains and the cost of the line. I am hopeful that it will happen at some stage. It has been delayed, because there is cost pressure on all forms of Government, including the Welsh Government, but I am hopeful that it will happen before too long.
The Shrewsbury-Euston line is important. Clearly, we would like the line to go to Aberystwyth, but the Shrewsbury line is key because Shrewsbury is so accessible to us. If we were confident in that line, there would be investment in car parking. Particularly as the prison in Shrewsbury is closing, I can see opportunities for that station to become a key station for mid-Wales, but the link to Euston is important. The newly renegotiated Virgin contract may deliver that.
Road links are hugely important to us in mid-Wales, and there are two that I want to speak about. One is called the Middletown bypass; it is actually the connection between Welshpool and the improved road to Shrewsbury. I am talking about half the length of that road. The same principle applies to the Llanymynech-Pant bypass, but it is much further down the pecking order, so I will base my points on the Middletown bypass.
When I was involved in developing the economy in mid-Wales in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the bypass was a key part, and we thought we had secured it. Then an Act was introduced relating to protecting the badger population, and it was suddenly found that the agreed line, which would almost certainly have gone ahead, ran through a badger sett, which delayed things at a key time in the early 1990s. The Government then, like the current Government, needed to cut expenditure, and there was a bit of a fashion to be anti-roads. At that stage, the scheme slipped back and back, although it has been resurrected since then.
The Assembly Government are enthusiastic to proceed with their part of the scheme, and would make the commitment. I do not know the exact figures, but the road scheme would probably cost about £30 million. The Welsh Government would commit about £25 million, and the Highways Agency over the border would commit about £5 million. The Welsh Government want to do it, but the Highways Agency has no priority whatever to come into Wales. There is no economic benefit, and any cost-benefit analysis will give it no priority, so the scheme cannot go ahead.
As a consequence of devolution, cross-border schemes —not just in mid-Wales; I think that there are four or five—have simply been put on the back burner, and there is no prospect that they will ever proceed. That is a massive blow to mid-Wales, because we need that road out. Anybody who has travelled from Welshpool to Wollaston Cross knows that it is the most appalling road. Drivers settle in to travel at 30 or 40 mph, because that is the way it is; they get stuck behind lorries they cannot overtake. That is not acceptable. The whole economy depends on it.
We need the Government at Westminster to recognise that it is not just the cost-benefit analysis for the west midlands that counts; Westminster must consider the impact in Wales. That applies to every single devolved service. If we do not consider the impact on Wales, although we do not have a direct responsibility, the post-devolution United Kingdom cannot operate with anything like the fairness or efficiency that it should.
The same issue applies to the Llanymynech-Pant bypass. That scheme is further down the pecking order, but it has been seriously considered in the past. The bulk of that scheme is in England, so I can see why the issue will be much more difficult to resolve. Again, the west midlands body will consider that scheme, as it has done, and put it right down the list. There is a big local campaign—I have been to public meetings—because anyone who travels through Pant and Llanymynech can see that it is not a modern highway. It attaches to the road to Manchester and Liverpool and the north of England, which is crucial to the economy. It is not good enough.
We have cross-border links, but devolved Britain—nobody is more committed than I am to a devolved Britain that works—works negatively in terms of cross-border roads. We must address that, not just from the Welsh side but from the English side. We all want devolution to work. We want a country whose governance operates well and efficiently, so that we can feel comfortable with it, but in mid-Wales—certainly among those who depend on its economy or are trying to create jobs there—we are furious. It is one of the biggest negatives about devolution that could possibly be created, and I think it will get worse. I hope that the Minister has heard the points that I have made and will not only address them today but ensure that they become part of the Government’s thinking.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing this important debate. I know that the Welsh Affairs Committee reviewed this key issue recently, and doubtless will return to it.
Good transport links are a crucial part of the infrastructure needed to support economic regeneration in Blaenau Gwent, which is one of the most deprived county boroughs in the UK, with 24% worklessness and 17% youth unemployment, twice the Wales average. We are high in the league tables for deprivation. Having said that, in recent years, we have received investment in major transport projects that have made our valleys communities much more accessible. For example, considerable progress has been made in dualling the A465 to improve regional and national connectivity. The Tredegar to Merthyr section of the A465 is terrific, and the Cwm bypass is a big success as well. In recent years, the hourly train service from Ebbw Vale to Cardiff has been a stellar success. However, an hourly service is not good enough.
This progress has enabled access to the perhaps under-recognised advantages of Blaenau Gwent of an attractive environment—we have the Brecon Beacons national park on our doorstep—and proximity to the urban centres of Newport, Cardiff, and Swansea in Wales and, importantly, to our east, Birmingham and Bristol. We have goodish access to the M4 and, to help our economy, we retain significant capability in manufacturing.
These geographical advantages see us well placed to take the opportunities that improved cross-border transport could bring. It is helpful that the designation of Ebbw Vale as an enterprise zone specialising in manufacturing offers us new investment potential. Already, private sector developers want to site a world-class motor sport development in the area. That is exciting. Connectivity to markets in the midlands and south Wales, and on into London, is an important element of those developers’ investment plans. However, given our economic challenges, much more still needs to be done on transport connectivity.
Lille in France is often cited as a town with a similar history of reliance on heavy industry and of decline, comparable with areas in south-east Wales, such as Blaenau Gwent. A high-speed rail link has boosted the regeneration of Lille and I think that similar good transport links could help south-east Wales and our valleys, too.
Last Easter, the Secretary of State for Transport was considering proposals for the electrification of the valley lines. I spoke to commuters on the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line, to hear what they thought of existing services but also to find out their ambitions for future services. Over a two-week period during the Easter holidays, we surveyed 350 passengers and gained in-depth knowledge of their concerns and ideas for improvement. Unsurprisingly, almost 70% of passengers supported electrification. I welcome the Government’s confirmation last year that all the valley lines will be electrified—that is important to the eastern valleys. However, the job now is to ensure a completion date, rather than a start date, of 2019. I hope that the Minister will confirm that date later in the debate.
Although a majority of my local commuters value their current service, they want a more frequent service, which I hope electrification will deliver. This will really open up our valley towns. However, there is also support—important in this debate—for extending electrification to Newport and then on to Bristol. Many respondents thought this a good idea.
Recently, I spoke to constituents who have a car club and together travel every day to the Ministry of Defence facility at Abbey Wood, near Bristol. Bristol now has enterprise zone status, focusing on creative and technological industries. People from south-east Wales may want to take higher-paid job opportunities, which would be available if commuting was made feasible.
The nub of the matter is that we need through trains or improved links through to south-west England from south Wales; that is crucial for the economy of Blaenau Gwent and the eastern valleys.
I hope that the Welsh Government, the South-East Wales Transport Alliance, neighbouring English local authorities—it is a shame there are not more English Members from the other side of the Severn here—and the Department for Transport will all work together, to deliver the accessible, sustainable and integrated transport system that Blaenau Gwent and all our communities on the Welsh-English border deserve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on calling this important debate. It is a privilege to have a UK Minister with responsibility for transport, particularly in England, here to respond to points that we make about our connectivity across the border.
The issue is especially relevant to my constituents, as Brecon and Radnorshire covers almost a third of the Welsh border with England but is relatively poorly served by transport connections between the two countries. The A44 and A438 are key east-west routes connecting Leominster in the north of Herefordshire to Rhayader, and Hereford with Brecon. It is always a bit of a disadvantage for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), because he makes many of the points that I would like to make. However, I should like to reinforce those points.
These trunk roads are the busiest in my constituency and are managed by the Welsh Assembly Government through a partnership between Powys and Ceredigion county councils, but they still require an input and funding from the English Highways Agency, to maximise the benefits of any improvements that are to be made. That can be a problem, as I have highlighted before with my Assembly colleague, Kirsty Williams, because priorities in England are continually focused on the larger conurbations. Consequently, priorities do not match up and inputs and funding are inadequate to make changes that are essential for road safety and making general improvements to our economic development.
The A483 Pant to Llanymynech bypass scheme was considered by the West Midlands Regional Transport Board as part of the regional prioritisation in 2006, in which the region considered the relative priority of major schemes in the region. The board advised that this scheme was a low priority due to its low cost-benefit score and the modest contributions it was thought to make towards economic development and housing in the area. Following the decision of the West Midlands Regional Transport Board in 2006, the scheme was reviewed to assess whether its cost could be reduced while maintaining a substantial proportion of its benefits. However, due to the route’s not being deemed a priority, that study concluded that possible small-scale solutions along the route would still offer poor value for money. Consequently, the Highways Agency was instructed by the Minister to stop developing the scheme altogether and that it could be revisited in future only if the West Midlands Regional Transport Board decided that it was a priority. Finally, in May 2012, the Government announced a series of schemes that would be developed to enable potential construction in the next spending review. This scheme was not selected and no work is currently being undertaken by the Highways Agency.
The A40, which travels through my constituency and forms a section of the unsigned Euroroute E30, has been described by the Welsh Assembly Government as
“one of the lowest standard sections of the Trans European Road Network in the United Kingdom”,
because of prioritisation discrepancies between England and Wales.
We still require a reciprocal agreement between England and Wales on bus passes. At the moment, Welsh residents can travel only on buses that start or finish their journey in Wales—likewise, English passengers. For example, consider passengers on a bus journey from Hay-on-Wye to Hereford. Hay is intersected by the Herefordshire border, which is also the Wales-England border, but due to bus passes being issued by Powys county council in Wales, those passengers are not able to travel to Hereford without being charged a small fee for doing so.
For many the bus is a lifeline, not only in respect of health, but for those who need to travel for specialist treatment and for jobs, and suchlike, in Hereford and Shrewsbury. My colleague in the Welsh Assembly, Kirsty Williams, inquired into this matter in 2010, asking Ieuan Wyn Jones, then Minister with responsibility:
“Will the Minister make a statement on what discussions he has had recently with the UK Government and Scottish Government about the harmonisation of the concessionary bus pass schemes in England, Scotland and Wales across the United Kingdom?”
Ieuan Wyn Jones answered:
“I have had no recent discussions with UK and Scottish Government Ministers about the harmonisation of concessionary bus travel schemes across the UK.”
I ask the Minister, have there been any discussions on this important matter?
Turning briefly to rail matters, my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion stressed the need for better train services. I am delighted that Network Rail’s 10-year, £1 billion modernisation plan for Wales’s somewhat antiquated line is about to take place, and the £220 million electrification of the valleys line will bring a lot of benefit, but we need to make a start on the electrification of the London to Cardiff line, which will also reduce journey times to Swansea. I am pleased to see the inclusion of a scheme to re-signal the critical Marches route between Newport and Shrewsbury, which will provide train companies with the ability to run more frequent and faster trains between north and south Wales, serving a number of my constituents. I am by no means calling for a reversal of Dr Beeching’s axe of 1963, but the reshaping of the rail network in Wales will still leave large towns in my constituency, such as Brecon and Ystradgynlais, without any connection. People from those towns will have to travel 20 miles to reach a railway station.
I am sometimes told that the people living in Painscastle and Rhosgoch in my constituency take longer to get to New York than anyone living in any other part of the UK. Isolation and peripherality—if that is a word—are not only a perception for the people I represent, but a reality. Small changes, however, could make a real difference to their lives.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Betts, and I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for introducing the debate. He focused on some important issues for his constituency, and I intend to focus on important issues for mine, which need to be addressed by the Government.
North-east Wales is adjacent to England and we form part of the powerhouse economy of the United Kingdom. We have some big businesses in my part of the world—Airbus, steel, paper and tourism—and my constituents work in those areas and depend on such jobs, but they also work in England, in places such as Chester, Liverpool, Manchester and Ellesmere Port. The cross-border connectivity in my part of the world is not a north-south issue, but an east-west one. That east-west link is vital for the development of jobs and services and of the economy of our area. In the short time available, I want to focus the Minister on four particular matters.
First, rail electrification for north Wales is an important, long-standing issue, and, to give the Government some credit, the Secretary of State for Wales is looking at it. My colleague, Carl Sargeant, who represents Alyn and Deeside in the Assembly and who the Minister knows well from previous travel to the area, is now the Welsh Assembly Transport Minister. He is developing a business case for the electrification of the north Wales main railway line. It will be a robust case that emphasises the social, economic and public benefits. I want the Minister to place on record where the Government are on the business case for electrification. What is the time scale? What co-operation and discussions are there with the Welsh Assembly on the electrification business case? How can we start to put it on the table as part of the wider discussions of rail development in north Wales?
We have good rail links to my part of the world. Over the past 15 years, we have improved the rail service to north Wales, but we still need to develop electrification to bring tourists and business to north Wales, and to ensure that we have a better, more environmentally friendly rail service in the area. That is my first challenge to the Minister.
Secondly, how does rail electrification fit with High Speed 2? I want to place on the record my support for HS2, which will bring speedier links to the north as a whole—north-west and north-east. In particular, I want to hear the Minister’s view on how to ensure connectivity at Crewe. He is planning, as part of HS2, a development at Crewe, which will be a major hub for north-west England and will improve links to Manchester airport. I put it to him that there is also potential to improve links to north Wales, speeding the traffic there and providing north Wales with a speedier link to Manchester airport, our nearest major airport hub. That needs to be looked at as part of the long-term development of HS2. I would welcome some genuine engagement with the Minister on such issues.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. HS2 in its existing spine form up the centre of England will bring improvements to people in north and mid-Wales through connections from the various parts of Wales to Birmingham and to Crewe. HS2 is a spine at the moment, but there is nothing to stop spurs running off it—given a business case, a justification and a need—to north Wales, south Wales, the south-west of England or wherever the demand is.
I am grateful for the Minister’s contribution. In the spirit of a cross-party wish to improve transport links—HS2 was discussed under the previous Government —I want the benefits of that valuable north-south link to be extended, so we can look at how to achieve connectivity with the potentially electrified north Wales line and with a better spine from Crewe, including links to Manchester airport, so that my constituents get a speedier train route to the airport through the HS2 development, which many people in my area, businesses and others, would welcome.
I live in the town of Flint, where the main link station is on the north Wales line in my constituency, and the town council is very concerned to support rail electrification and to look at the benefits of HS2. I will report back to the council on the Minister’s encouragement. We will look at how to work on that in due course.
I also want the Minister to focus on the Barnett consequential for Wales as a result of HS2. Can he put a figure on that now? If so, what discussions will he have with the Welsh Assembly on how it might be spent?
I have a couple of quick, final points. As the Minister knows, my part of the world has a great need to link to Liverpool. I can open my bedroom window in the morning and see both Liverpool cathedrals, and I can easily drive to Liverpool on dual carriageway, but there is no connectivity by rail. The pressure put on previous Governments, and indeed on this Government, to improve the Wrexham to Bidston line, so that my part of Wales can have connectivity, is extremely significant. I hope he responds to that point in his winding-up speech, because connectivity is important to economics, jobs and our ability to attract business to help our economy to grow. It would also help the commuters of my constituency.
Finally, I support the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) in his concern about bus passes. I, too, am a border MP. We have a free bus pass in Wales and a free bus pass in England, but the two are not connected. Many of my constituents cannot understand why on one bus pass they can travel to one part of my constituency, which might be 20 miles away, but they cannot travel to Chester, which is 5 or 6 miles away. That connectivity would be useful.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing the debate, because we all know that getting connectivity right across the UK is economically important.
I welcome the Government U-turn on electrification to Swansea, restoring the original Labour plans. It is a pity that we had to spend time on that discussion when we could have spent it discussing going further west with the electrification, which is obviously a direction in which I would like to see it go.
In this country, we have a real difference between east-west and north-south connectivity. I remember, when I was at school, drawing a map of the UK according to how long it took someone to get from A to B, and the elongation from east to west was clear. That is exactly the same today. I take two hours to get from London to Cardiff, which is 150 miles, and a further two hours to travel the 50 miles from Cardiff to Llanelli. The main reason for that is the change at Swansea station, which is a lot pleasanter now because we have a nice new waiting room—very much improved—but much as I enjoy the company of tourists and the families going on the boat to Ireland in the summer, in winter it can be extremely lonely, dark and open to the Swansea high street.
The real reason that puts people off coming to and investing in west Wales is not enough through trains. We must look at that and perhaps in the new franchise insist on many more through trains all the way from London to west Wales.
The first problem we encounter when travelling from London to west Wales is Reading where, for ever and a day, there seem to be delays, problems and congestion. I hope that the Minister will look at that and prioritise the way through Reading so that we are not held up at the first point on our way westwards.
The recent wet weather saw access through Bristol Parkway limited because of flooding and the perennial problems with the Severn tunnel. I want the Minister to ensure that everything is being done to try to bring together the relevant agencies to improve flood prevention in the Bristol and Severn tunnel areas. The sort of floods we saw recently are unlikely to be an isolated event, and will be repeated.
I welcome the Welsh Government’s intention to purchase Cardiff airport. It is a tremendous opportunity to turn it around from a rather run-down business and to increase the opportunities so that people do not have to travel all the way from Wales to Heathrow with all the costs involved—often an overnight stay or high car parking charges. It will open up an opportunity for people in many areas around Wales, such as Worcester, Gloucester, Cheltenham and Bristol, to come to Cardiff airport for their flights abroad. That will depend on transport into Wales, and at the moment, apart from the M4, there is weakness in that midlands area, as the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) highlighted. There is a significant need for improvement.
When I went to the Corby by-election, it was quicker to go via London. South Wales has good links to London, and to Manchester and from there to the north and the north-east, but there is a weakness in anything that goes through the midlands. Trying to travel sensibly and as the map would suggest through the middle of England seems to be incredibly difficult, and we need a further emphasis on what can be done to make services better. The north has the trans-Pennine route, but we do not have an equivalent route from Birmingham to the east midlands, linking back into the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion. We must improve that.
The hon. Lady is making a valid point. Perhaps one of the great benefits of electrification —we all welcome it, and it is coming to Swansea—is that, as some transport experts have suggested, a case could be made for the possibility of a regional Eurostar service to Paris and Brussels. That would open up Wales to the wider European Union market.
Indeed, but for that to be successful we need many more through trains, and connectivity when we come into London so that we are not stopped half way because of difficulties in Reading, Bristol and the Severn tunnel area. I hope that the Minister will look at the matter in the round and try to improve our east-west connectivity in this country.
I will be very brief, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for securing this important debate, and I welcome the opportunity to contribute to it. As many hon. Members know, I have a personal interest in transport, and specifically rail. My constituency will benefit from the rail electrification all the way to Swansea and the advent of city region status, which is really important for my locality. A lot will be happening, and I thank the Government for that. However, I am a little concerned about the Landore maintenance depot, and perhaps the Minister will think about that. There is a possibility that we may not have that depot in its current shape and form for the maintenance of high-speed trains. I would appreciate an update, and any information.
The development of infrastructure in Wales has been vital to everything, and I have been involved in that since 1999 when I worked for the rail industry. Much has happened. I have looked back at previous reports of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, and many of the things we asked for have been achieved or are moving forward. That is heartening to hear and good to know. However, we keep returning to the basic problem of interconnectivity, and the joined-up writing and ideas for timetables and how to link successfully and efficiently places in Wales beyond Swansea and into the hinterland. People in west Wales and mid-Wales are equally deserving.
I am worried about the problem in Swansea because it is the gateway to west and mid-Wales. Many people have to come to Swansea, as previous speakers have said, and must change trains. One thing we know about passengers is that they do not like changing trains. It puts people off, and delays them. If we want to move forward economically in south-west and mid-Wales, we must have interconnectivity. I urge the Minister that, when speaking to his counterpart in Cardiff Bay, he puts that at the top of the agenda.
The local authorities have been working together, and the various rail groups and franchises are working together. We have seen huge improvements and big leaps forward. Working in isolation is no longer an option in the rail industry. We have seen the piecemeal break-up of the rail industry, and I am constantly amazed at how many people still refer to it as British Rail. I meet people on the train every day when I travel. I invariably travel by train because I am a great supporter of public transport, and in the eight years that I have been a Member of Parliament I have not once driven to London, but have relied on the trains. Through thick and thin, I have stuck with them.
The industry is growing exponentially and becoming more popular. We need a world-class service, which is why I was so adamant about fighting for rail electrification to Swansea. We must not be left behind. We do not want to be left behind. It is imperative to recognise the interdependency of local authorities, service providers, transport initiatives and so on, because the issue is all about the economic well-being of Wales; the economic well-being of south-west and mid-Wales. It is not reinventing the wheel. The economics and ideas are simple, but they are very important.
Tourism is a key and growing industry for us in south-west Wales. We have a wonderful product and many marvellous places that are accessed via the rail infrastructure in Wales. It is well worth coming to Wales to see them. They are world-status places, and many people visit them. I do not want them to be put off visiting Wales or—this is my horror—to have to depend on the car. If we want improved public transport, people must use it and have confidence in it. I urge the Minister to put that at the heart of his discussions.
When the Minister next meets Carl Sargeant at Cardiff Bay, will he discuss interconnectivity of the timetable? We have heard from the hon. Member for Ceredigion about our wonderful experience of travelling to Aberystwyth, missing a train by one minute and then having to wait two hours at Birmingham International station. It was good to be there, and I met some interesting people, but they had tales of woe about how that happens too often. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), I meet people at Swansea station who must get off the train, carrying their bags, because they are going on to a much longer journey.
I certainly agree. When I worked for the rail industry, we had more through trains. At the time, I described it as “the thin end of the wedge”, as we contracted that service, including the regular service down to the ferry ports in far-west Wales. It is not a joke when you are travelling there. It is very picturesque, lovely, and it is great to be on the train enjoying yourself, but it is a long haul, wearisome and sometimes very frustrating for people. I do not want them to be left with that impression of Wales. I want them to have the impression of Wales as a modern country with a modern infrastructure, so that they will want to come back.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing the debate, and I have listened with interest to the knowledgeable contributions by hon. Members from all across Wales.
This is an important debate, as has been said. Transport links and connectivity are not only a lifeline, but vital for business investment, thereby improving employment prospects and reducing poverty. Historically, Wales has suffered from under-investment, leading to congested road and rail links between England and Wales. It is suffering from very high tolls levied on the Severn bridge on passengers travelling into Wales only, and it continues to suffer from disputes over responsibility and fragmentation and more distant relationships between Welsh local authorities and Whitehall than with the Welsh Government.
Roads are still the main link between England and Wales, but there is heavy congestion. The M4, which is the main route, is still inadequate at key points, and it runs close to capacity, with traffic volumes expected to grow. For example, around Newport, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) knows, there are concerns about capacity, safety and resilience at peak periods. That is not the only area by any means, and I welcome the Welsh Assembly consultation on measures to tackle the shortcomings, and I await with interest the outcome of its appraisal of possible solutions.
As was mentioned by the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), there are also other issues. I highlight one: the A494 is an important link, but improvements to the road have only been made on the English side, so the good road stops at Wales. Co-ordination is needed on those important issues.
I turn to the Severn bridge, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East mentioned so ably. It is a vital link, but the toll has been increased above inflation to £6.20, and it only applies to traffic entering Wales. Business groups have long said that that is a barrier to much-needed investment in businesses in Wales. What are the Government’s proposals to remedy the situation and what options are they considering when ownership of the bridge returns to the UK Government? I support my hon. Friend in wanting certainty over when that will be. I believed that that would happen in 2018.
As the hon. Lady is aware, it is the policy of the Welsh Government, who are controlled by the Labour party, to seek ownership of the Severn bridges. Will she give a commitment today to the people of Wales that, if Labour form the next Government after the general election in 2015, those bridges will be passed on to the people of Wales?
I was going to come to that point. Early discussions with the Welsh Government are essential, and there should be acceptance of the underlying principle that they should play a central role in determining future arrangements, and in accessing and utilising any future revenue streams for the people of Wales.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire spoke about buses, which are a lifeline for many people, particularly pensioners, but the two national concessionary bus passes are not valid for pensioners who wish to cross the border from either side. They are left to rely on voluntary schemes provided by local authorities. There is also a lack of awareness about the convenience of bus routes into Wales from Bristol, despite the fact that they have a competitive price, due to exemption from tolls. Will the Minister say what is being done to address both those issues and how he will promote cross-border bus services?
I turn to rail, where there are significant challenges, as we have heard, around capacity and infrastructure. I am pleased that the Labour Administration in Wales is exploring not-for-profit models, including the co-operative mutual model, when the Wales and Border franchise, currently operated by Arriva Trains Wales, expires in 2018. I hope that that will prove a pathfinder for England. A major electrification project for the Great Western railway line to Swansea was introduced by the previous Labour Government, but put on hold by the coalition. Despite that delay on the Government line—perhaps it was caused by the weather, perhaps by leaves—that has now been reconfirmed, and the journey time from Paddington to Swansea could be reduced by 20 minutes. However, will the Minister say why the work is to start in London and not in Wales?
As we have heard many times, closer co-operation between train companies is vital if they are to be financially viable. What is the Minister doing to promote that? Inter-franchise connectivity is a key component, as has been mentioned, and it is certainly not helpful to have companies such as Wrexham and Shropshire, which ran the cross-border services between 2008 and 2011, withdraw, as they were not allowed to stop at Virgin-run stations. It is important that franchises co-operate with each other to ensure that journeys are made with the minimum disruption and that they do not have to go through convenient stations, simply because they are operated by another franchise holder.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion will be interested in the fact that the Welsh Government have committed to a long-awaited hourly service between Aberystwyth and Shrewsbury—I am sure that 2015 is too far away for him—but more emphasis needs to be put on improving services to north Wales, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, and electrification is a key component. Will the Minister update us on the progress of the business plan for that?
Does the hon. Lady accept that the 16 years that we have been waiting for this really is too long? We were promised in the previous Assembly Administration that the money was there, that the remedial engineering work had been done and that there was no impediment to getting that service. Here we are, years on, still waiting, only to be told by a Welsh Assembly Minister that we now have to wait another two and a half or three years to have that service. That wait really is unacceptable, is it not?
It certainly is an extremely long time, and the Administration have said that it will happen by 2015, so let us hope that they will advance it further and that they have listened to the pleas of hon. Members from all around.
On the HS2 connection at Crewe station and connectivity, the Government need to give proper consideration to ensuring that the benefits extend into Wales. I am pleased that the Minister intervened to give support and provide information about the electrification of the south Wales line, which needs to be progressed urgently.
I apologise for not being present for the earlier part of the debate; I was chairing another meeting. It is absolutely essential that we get fast trains stopping at Crewe. With the upgrade on the west coast main line, although many fast trains went to Manchester and Liverpool, they did not stop at Crewe, so people going to north Wales and west of that did not benefit. It is essential that we get that in HS2.
My hon. Friend makes the point well that Crewe is an essential stopping-off point for Wales. HS2 needs to stop there, and there should be connectivity, so that people are not waiting for a long time at Crewe to get to Wales. I hope that the Minister will explain more fully the impact on cross-border links and say exactly how much the project will benefit Wales. Equally, it is not only about people who travel, but about freight. The Wales Freight Group was disappointing, and I hope that the establishment of the new group will invigorate the discussion and look at providing sustainable solutions for freight. We have heard of the problems that hauliers have had, particularly with the Severn bridge.
In conclusion, I believe that there is a general agreement that cross-border links are vital, and I am sure that no one would disagree with Carl Sargeant, the Minister in the Welsh Assembly with responsibility for transport in Wales, that good transport is critical for economic growth, social inclusion and the reduction of poverty. It is clear that roads, rail and buses all have an important role to play. Addressing any barrier to integration between England and Wales is vital, as is linking with the communities in north Wales, south Wales, and mid-Wales that have high deprivation. We are committed, in England and Wales, to achieving that aim.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on what has been her first debate as a shadow Minister in this Chamber. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing what has been an interesting, useful and important debate on transport links across the England-Wales border. He raised a number of issues, as did many other hon. Members. Sadly, given the time available to me, I will not be able to respond to all their questions, but I can give an assurance that I will write to them to answer points that I cannot deal with in the debate.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion will know, as a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee—he raised this from time to time in his remarks—that cross-border links have been subject to inquiry by the Committee more than once. Its work has been extremely useful and has helped to give a greater understanding of the complexities and importance of the issue. As he will be aware—I, too, am aware, as I gave evidence to the Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), last October—it is currently considering the issue again. I look forward to the publication of its report.
The Government have made clear in the coalition agreement our commitment to a modern low-carbon transport infrastructure as an essential element of a dynamic and entrepreneurial economy. We have also reiterated the importance of investment in our infrastructure, including our rail and strategic road networks, to ensure that they can support the economic performance of the country, including, equally importantly, that of Wales. Transport and travel are rarely ends in themselves. It is as a driver of economic growth that the Government attach so much importance to, and place so much stress on, investing in transport infrastructure. We consider the cross-border movement of people and goods in the context of growing the economies of England and Wales.
A positive return on investment requires a background of good governance. The hon. Member for Ceredigion will know that co-operation on and, where appropriate, the co-ordination of transport matters between the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government are important to the successful development of cross-border links, as well as to improving transport infrastructure and connectivity within Wales. Relationships between the Welsh Government transport group and the Department for Transport have advanced significantly, and processes have been agreed to further that. The Welsh Government and the Department for Transport enjoy a constructive working relationship that enables officials to provide their Ministers with the best advice possible to deliver on the aspirations of the respective Governments. That includes recognition of the importance of engaging on devolved and reserved issues.
On a personal basis, I am extremely pleased about what I consider—I am fairly confident that I will not be contradicted—to be the relationship that I have established with Carl Sargeant in the past five months since I have been at the Department for Transport. We speak regularly on the telephone. He has met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and I look forward to having a meeting with Carl Sargeant in about a month’s time, when we will be able to discuss issues such as those raised by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) and, I am sure, a number of other issues that have emerged during the debate. I will, rather than going into some of the details of what I was going to say on the generality, seek now to answer some of the questions that hon. Members have asked.
A number of hon. Members talked about electrification. I welcome their support for what the Government are doing with regard to the electrification of the Great Western line from London through to Cardiff and on via Bridgend to Swansea and of the Welsh Valleys lines. A question was asked about the time scale. I hope that hon. Members will be pleased to know that the time scales for completing the electrification are, between London and Cardiff, 2017; between Cardiff and Swansea, 2018; and throughout the Welsh valleys, 2019.
The hon. Member for Swansea East talked about the importance of the depot near Swansea. I can fully appreciate her concerns about that. I would be grateful if she left that issue with me; I will look into it and get back to her.
Equally importantly, a number of hon. Members raised the electrification of the North Wales line. I can fully appreciate that for those hon. Members whose constituencies are along that line, that is an important thing. As they will be aware, a bid was not put in, through the Welsh Government, in the relevant control period for electrification of that line. We recognise, and I am sure that the Welsh Government also recognise, the importance of looking at that, to seek improvements in the quality of journeys and standards.
The Minister is right to talk about the importance of electrification for north Wales constituencies and north Wales as a whole, but it is also important for links to Ireland, to get fast movement of people and goods to the Republic of Ireland, which is our biggest trading partner.
I fully appreciate the valid point that the hon. Gentleman makes. My understanding is that, in recognition of the importance of this matter, the Welsh Government are currently looking into it. They are looking at the requirements, the business case, a cost analysis and so on, with a view that it could be included in the next control period, control period 6, which will run from 2019 to 2024. We will have to await the outcome of their producing a business case and working with Network Rail and others to see how that can be moved forward.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) referred to the Bidston-Wrexham line and asked whether there could be an update on the current situation. I hope that it will be helpful if I tell him that both Merseytravel and the Welsh Government are keen to see that line electrified. However, the quoted Network Rail cost of £207 million has been considered poor value for money and unaffordable for both bodies. Merseytravel is currently considering other options to improve services on the line, which could include partial electrification. The specification, funding and management of ATW services between Wrexham and Bidston is a matter for the Welsh Government, and we are encouraging them to continue to work with Merseytravel on that issue.
A number of hon. Members raised individual, specific issues with regard to train timetables and the number of trains travelling within their constituencies and beyond their constituency borders inside Wales. My advice to all those who raised those important issues is that, as they will appreciate, the operation of the railways within Wales is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. Where hon. Members believe that there should be improvements, I would urge them to lobby the Welsh Government and bring their concerns to their attention if they are not already aware of them.
With regard to a direct service between London and Shrewsbury, which would certainly help mid-Wales, as I think was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and possibly the hon. Member for Ceredigion, although I am not quite so confident on that point, I have some encouraging news. As the Secretary of State announced a few months ago, as a result of the extension of Virgin carrying on with the west coast main line, it will be providing from, I believe, December of this year a direct service from Shrewsbury through to Euston.
Mr Betts, I do not want to fall foul of you by running out of time and we are coming up—to use a phrase—against the buffers. I have not been able to answer all the points made by hon. Members, but I will certainly ensure that they all get letters giving responses to the issues that they raised that we have not had time to discuss today.