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Railway Services (North Cornwall)

Volume 564: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2013

It is a pleasure, Mr Streeter, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise rail issues in my constituency.

If you cast your mind back, Mr Streeter, you may remember a joke in a 1980s Eddie Murphy film, “Coming to America”. A waiter brings soup to a table and the customer asks him to try the soup. The waiter says, “What’s wrong? Is it the wrong soup?” The customer says, “Could you try the soup?” The waiter says, “Is it too hot?” The customer says, “Could you try the soup?” The waiter says, “Is it too cold?” The customer says, “Please try the soup.” The waiter says, “Okay. I’ll try the soup. Where’s the spoon?” I have told that joke several times in the last few days when people have said to me, “Rail services in north Cornwall? There aren’t any rail services in north Cornwall.” When I requested the debate, I think that I filled in the form with the words “Rail services for north Cornwall”, but it makes the point that, although many people in north Cornwall regularly use rail services to get in and out of the duchy or to travel to points further west, none of those services runs within the current boundaries of the North Cornwall constituency, which covers the same area as the old North Cornwall district.

Before the last general election, I had the honour of representing the town of Newquay, which has the Atlantic branch line from Par. At the time, there was a debate about the success of Cornwall’s other branch lines in driving up usage. The Par to Newquay line had not had such success at that time, although looking at the figures for the services to Newquay again, it seems that the numbers on that line have risen, too, which is a welcome development.

In the North Cornwall constituency as currently constituted, the railways were victims of the cuts in the 1960s. The famous north Cornwall line, which Sir John Betjeman wrote about and enjoyed travelling on, left from Waterloo, not far from here, and went via Exeter and ultimately through north Cornwall. It had connections to Bude, and ran through Launceston and other places where many people would love to go to if the railway line still existed. It also went through Camelford and Port Isaac, where the “Doc Martin” series attracts thousands of tourists every year, and then on to Wadebridge and Padstow. The services on that line were victims of the Beeching cuts. In 1990, a small section of the former railway around Bodmin was reopened by the Bodmin and Wenford heritage railway. It is a popular tourist attraction and does a great deal to conserve the rolling stock and to bring people to that part of the world.

I want to focus today on how we might use existing railways better to meet the needs of my constituents and what the prospects are in the longer term of developing rail services again throughout the north Cornwall area. The operators of the Bodmin and Wenford railway have plans—they are not without controversy in the area—to extend their services to Wadebridge along the Camel trail by the River Camel on the former track bed. However, in doing that, they would seek to protect the Camel trail, which has become a well loved part of our landscape for cycling, walking and riding, and brings many tourists to Wadebridge, Padstow and the surrounding area. Any development would have to protect that.

I am also struck by the operators’ commitment to work to bring tourists to Bodmin town, too, which perhaps has not benefited from the Camel trail in the same way. I am told that Bodmin has the second largest inward commute of any town in Cornwall after the city of Truro. Of course, most of that is by car, although there are some bus services. The railway comes to Bodmin Parkway—it was called Bodmin Road when I was growing up in the area—and continues on the main line further south and west. If we were able to offer services along the Bodmin and Wenford stretch back to Bodmin general station, where the group’s headquarters are located, it would bring tourists and commuters into Bodmin and back out again at the key points of the commuting day. That would be a real benefit.

Cornwall council supports the exploration of that option. The current portfolio holder, Councillor Bert Biscoe, was also the portfolio holder at the tail end of the previous Administration. He is keen to provide a solution and council officers believe that that option could make a contribution to dealing with transport issues in Bodmin. I would welcome any support that the Government could give to taking forward such a proposal.

My constituents further north in Launceston and Bude are still some distance from the rail network. My office is in Launceston and when people visit from Government agencies or companies to talk about constituency matters or casework and ask what the nearest station is, they are often surprised to find that it is Plymouth or Exeter, or that they must overshoot Launceston into Bodmin Parkway and come back.

Most people in that part of the world would travel to Exeter St Davids and pick up the service there or perhaps to Tiverton Parkway and use the service there. Some people in Devon—your county, Mr Streeter—have been talking about what contribution a parkway station at Okehampton might make for people in west and north-west Devon, as well as the north and east of my constituency. Devon county council has considered that as part of the regeneration of Devon and believes that it could make a contribution. If more services were offered at Okehampton, it would bring rail services that much closer to Bude, Launceston and the surrounding area, so people would not have to drive into Exeter, which is busy at peak times, or continue around it for some distance to pick up services at Tiverton Parkway. It makes a great deal of sense to look at that proposal, although there may be arguments about resilience. If there were problems with the line further south in Devon, there would be an opportunity for people to connect with rail services to Exeter and to pick up the main line there. Much could be said for development there.

In my submission, with other colleagues, to the previous round of franchise discussions, I raised both those matters. I hope that the Government will consider them and that there is support for those changes and their potential for people in Cornwall and in Devon. In the longer term, it would be great to have the north Cornwall line back. That would be wonderful for tourism, but we must be realistic. There has been development along the track bed. We did not protect it in the same way as some other European countries protected lines when they mothballed them. We must deal with the situation that we have, but Councillor Biscoe particularly is supportive of looking at how to bring other forms of public transport back to north Cornwall to complement the buses that we still have.

Existing services to London are incredibly valuable. For people who have travelled from parts of the north coast—for example, to Bodmin Parkway to pick up mainline services there—the suggestion that they might catch a connecting service to Plymouth and pick up mainline services there would be unpopular because it would mean another change. I hope the Government will resist that. If we follow some of the plans set out by Cornwall council, we can protect the through services all the way to Penzance, which are incredibly valuable, and ensure that we tie in east-west commuter services through Cornwall to provide more regular services. People in my constituency who work in Truro, which is the retail centre for Cornwall and has big public service and public sector employers, often find that trains do not tie up with their shift pattern or their work pattern, so there is a big disincentive to using them, or a delay for those who must rely on them at the end or the beginning of the day. A lot more could be done if we can create more opportunities.

Cornwall council has had discussions with the Secretary of State, who kindly visited Falmouth recently and spent time with some of my parliamentary colleagues. Sadly, I could not join him on that occasion, but I have seen the case that was set out for him. Cornwall council is rightly proud of the contributions that it and the preceding Cornwall county council made in using European convergence and objective 1 money to improve rail facilities and ensure that we can up the capacity of the network in Cornwall, mainly in points further west, such as the Truro to Falmouth branch line.

There have been very impressive increases in numbers. Across the whole country, we have seen the rail network coming under increasing pressure as ever more people seek to use it—a welcome development—but branch lines in Cornwall have exceeded even that. They might be seen as backwater services, but the numbers have been upped significantly, and not just in terms of the tourist trade in Truro and Falmouth. We now have the university in Falmouth, which is increasingly bringing people into the area, so there are great opportunities to build on that work.

Cornwall has invested a great deal of money, alongside Government and European money, in securing those improvements. It wants to take that to the next level, so that growth, over and above the level of growth that we are seeing across the country, continues, and so that we get more people off the roads and on to rail services across Cornwall. The aim is not only to protect the nine through-trains a day, but to see a further 8% growth over the projected period. We aspire to having 23 mainline services a day along the length of the rail in the duchy, which would make the service much more attractive to use, as well as much more flexible for people’s work patterns and for tourists.

There are two issues about tourism and rail. The first is how attractive we can make it for people to come to Cornwall and to leave it, sadly, at the end of their stay. The second is about getting around Cornwall when they are there. If they want to explore all that Cornwall has to offer, they need frequent and reliable services to all the places that are along and at the end of the branch lines. If we can add to that with developments around Bodmin, or perhaps by bringing services closer to Launceston and Bude, we will make the area more attractive to tourists, as well as to local residents.

I welcome the fact that the coalition Government have invested a great deal in rail across the country, and that they are emphasising the importance of that for future economic development and in ensuring that we have a more sustainable way of getting around in general. However, Cornwall will not be at the forefront of electrification, so there are other ways in which we can seek to use Government investment creatively to encourage more people to use the railway. That has been done in previous years. The numbers are very impressive, but I hope that we can move forward again.

I hope that the Minister can support our two objectives. By bringing trains back into the town of Bodmin, using the heritage railway and working in partnership with it, we could bring more regular services to Okehampton, which would help us, and protect those through-trains, while offering more regular commuter services across Cornwall. With the delay in the franchise process, we have the opportunity to get it right, and I hope that the Government will be responsive to what Cornwall council and I are setting out.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) on securing this debate on rail services in Cornwall and the lack of rail services in his constituency. He touched on a number of important issues, including his plea for Bodmin. He raised, both directly and indirectly, the issue of the First Great Western franchise, which obviously has a significant impact on the supply of services to Cornwall. I would also like to develop comments about community rail, which I think may benefit him. However, if he will forgive me, I will deal with those points in reverse order to the order that he took them in. I will begin with the First Great Western franchise, because it is important and has significant relevance to his constituents and others, not only in Cornwall, but along the whole route to London, including your own constituents, Mr Streeter.

The First Great Western rail franchise is a matter of keen interest, as is shown by the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. It is right that there should be so much interest in this franchise. It serves a huge number of communities and businesses, and the Great Western rail network has an important role in the economy of the many parts of England and Wales that it serves, not least Cornwall. Railway connectivity provides crucial support for jobs and growth. Delivering high-quality rail services is, of course, also a means of addressing road congestion and pollution by encouraging modal shift.

The hon. Gentleman set out with clarity the importance of the Great Western rail network to the county of Cornwall and, by implication, to his constituents who use the rail services. To respond to passenger concerns about crowding and to support jobs and growth, the Government have prioritised investment in our rail network, as he said.

The programme of capacity expansion to which we are committed is bigger than anything since the Victorian era. A number of the most ambitious and important changes will be taking place in the Great Western franchise area. Ultimately, those projects will generate major benefits for passengers and for the economy of all the areas served by the franchise. A major challenge for the operator of the franchise will therefore be to facilitate the efficient delivery of those programmes, and to maximise the benefits that they can offer for passengers once completed.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early on in his remarks. He is rightly pointing out the Government’s commitment to investing in local services to increase capacity and so on. One aspect of that is works that are planned for control period 6, which is, as I understand it, from 2019 to 2024. Cornwall council is asking for that work to be brought forward to control period 5—from 2014 to 2019—to help allow those capacity improvements to be released. He may not be able to comment on that now, but I hope that he is aware of that desire on the part of Cornwall council.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I will return to that later in my comments.

One of the success stories of Britain’s railways is the large number of additional passengers now using them. However, that can bring crowding. As Department for Transport statistics show, train services on the franchise have experienced some of the highest levels of crowding. I am therefore pleased that additional carriages funded by the Government have been introduced to First Great Western train services. Those include additional carriages for services in Cornwall and in Devon. I should like to highlight the role that the additional moneys provided by Cornwall and Devon and the Devon and Cornwall rail partnership played in securing that additional funding.

At the end of last year, flooding at Exeter and other weather-related incidents across the Great Western network resulted in disruption to train services, as both the hon. Gentleman and you in particular, Mr Streeter, will be aware, because of the proximity of your constituency. I understand fully the sense of isolation in Devon and Cornwall when transport links are seriously disrupted, and I recognise the economic and other impacts on people and businesses in the region. As the flooding experienced on the Liskeard to Looe line showed, the disruption affected parts of the network not highlighted by the national media.

The Government published the investment in rail programme last July, setting out aims for the industry over the next five-year planning period that included longer-term resilience. In response, Network Rail published its strategic business plan, which, among other things, outlined high-level measures to increase its expenditure on flood mitigation. Those plans are being reviewed by the Office of Rail Regulation, which will determine the level of funding and delivery obligations over the next five years.

To ensure that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Network Rail are aligned, and to ensure that a multi-agency approach is adopted when resolving flood resilience issues, DFT and DEFRA Ministers have corresponded on the issue, and officials from the two Departments will be working together with Network Rail, with the aim of driving the issue to a satisfactory conclusion. Network Rail continues to look at possible measures to improve protection of the sea wall at Dawlish. It is still not clear that reopening the former route would be an affordable or value-for-money solution.

All these factors show why the Great Western franchise is a key part of the new rail franchising programme announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in March. On 31 January, he announced the termination of the Great Western franchise competition on the grounds that the proposition was not the right one and to allow for a more fundamental review of the franchise proposition. That was in line with the recommendation made by Richard Brown in his independent review. Having considered the options for the Great Western franchise very carefully, the Government decided to extend the current franchise agreement with First Great Western for a further period of 28 weeks to October this year. At the same time, the Secretary of State announced that he intended to negotiate an interim agreement with First Great Western to ensure continuity of train services. On 26 March, he announced that the plan was to develop the franchise proposition further during an interim agreement period lasting to July 2016.

The franchising programme that we announced in March is the right one. We want to secure the best possible rail services for both passengers and taxpayers, and this programme confirms our belief that franchising is the way to do it. By publishing the programme, we have provided the whole rail industry with a long-term plan, covering every rail franchise for the next eight years. That gives certainty to the market and supports the major investments in the country’s vital rail network that this Government are making.

The Government are intent that the interim agreement period for the Great Western franchise should not be a time of uncertainty or stagnation. The Secretary of State confirmed, in his 31 January statement, that the Government would continue with their multi-billion-pound programme of investment in the rail network, regardless of the delay to the franchising programme. He also confirmed that the Department for Transport would seek to ensure, wherever possible, that the benefits for passengers previously sought in new substantive franchise agreements were not delayed.

Concerns have been expressed by a number of people, including hon. Members, about the potential effects of the approach taken to the specification of train services adopted for the now terminated Great Western franchise competition. Those concerns focused in particular on the potential loss of through services to London. I should like to confirm that the train service specification adopted for the now terminated competition will not be used during the interim agreement period to July 2016. As I explained, that period provides the opportunity for a more fundamental review of the franchise proposition. During the period to July 2016, therefore, train services on the Great Western franchise will continue to be based on the train service specification in the current First Great Western franchise. That means, among other things—I hope that the hon. Member for North Cornwall will be reassured by this—that through train services between London and Cornwall and the popular London to Penzance sleeper train will continue to be required.

Hon. Members, local authorities and other stakeholders have shown a keen interest in improvements to local train services in the west of England, and this is where I should like to pick up on some of the points made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall about Bodmin. Local authorities in the west of England have established an impressive record of contributing to improvements to rail services in their areas, as he mentioned. They continue to develop schemes, and the invitation to tender for the now terminated Great Western franchise competition included a number of priced options that would enable local authorities to take those schemes forward. In Cornwall, they included enhanced Plymouth to Penzance local services; the extension of St Ives trains to Penzance; additional Looe line services; additional Exeter to Okehampton services, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned; and the Tavistock to Bere Alston line reopening, which will have an impact on his constituents and other people living in Cornwall, even though that line is in Devon.

I should like to confirm that First Great Western has been asked to provide prices for the priced options callable by local authorities during the interim agreement period to July 2016. First Great Western will be required to co-operate with local authorities in the continuing development of those priced options with a later call date.

The Minister was setting out the Secretary of State’s admirable plan to ensure that any investment—any progress on improving services—should not be delayed by three years. If First Great Western wanted to invest in rolling stock, for example, could a mechanism be found whereby that could be transferred either to another provider or to First Great Western for the substantive franchise, rather than any investment being delayed until three years hence?

I hesitate to give the hon. Gentleman a definitive answer, simply because I do not want to mislead him, but my immediate reaction to the question that he raises is that there is the possibility that that could be looked at, although obviously I can give no guarantees as to the ultimate outcome of any proposals or investigations.

The hon. Gentleman was extremely keen to explore the possibility of regular train services being reinstated between Bodmin General station and Bodmin Parkway, along the heritage railway that has preserved that rail route, and I listened very carefully to him. First Great Western will be required, during the interim agreement period to July 2016, to co-operate with local authorities in the development of new schemes. We believe that it is important for local authorities, rather than central Government, to make decisions on local priorities, so local authorities should identify what local funding sources are most appropriate for a rail scheme and decide themselves whether to fund a rail scheme such as the proposed reinstatement of regular trains to Bodmin General. I assume that, in the light of that, the hon. Gentleman will be in swift and concentrated discussions with Cornwall council to see whether that proposal could be moved forward at local level.

I should like to take this opportunity to highlight the great work done by the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership, which is one of several designated community rail partnerships operating on the Great Western network. Those partnerships of First Great Western, local authorities and local communities have been highly successful at promoting local lines and improving facilities at stations. Those routes are seeing unprecedented levels of growth in usage. I congratulate all those parties on the success that they have achieved through those efforts. I hope that they will continue to work to move forward and to improve, where that is feasible and possible, rail services in the peninsula of the south-west of England.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether it was possible to bring forward works from control period 6 into control period 5. I would be grateful if he could leave that with me, because I think that there are some complications in being able to do that, but I will certainly give him a commitment that I will look at it and I will write to him once I have had an opportunity to investigate fully the implications and the reality of what he asks.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that a considerable amount of work is being carried out by the Department, Network Rail and the rail operators themselves to ensure that they continue the forward movement of improving and enhancing the provision of rail services throughout Devon and, particularly, Cornwall. I cannot guarantee that the hon. Gentleman will find, in the next five or 10 years, his constituency awash with railway lines and services, but I can wish him well in his discussions with Cornwall council regarding his proposals for Bodmin. I wish him every success in those discussions.

Thank you, Mr Burns. All the participants for the next debate are present, so we can move swiftly on to an important debate about funding for NHS patients in York and North Yorkshire, and it is a great pleasure to call Mr Hugh Bayley.