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Nottingham to Lincoln Railway Line

Volume 574: debated on Monday 27 January 2014

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

May I thank your office, Madam Deputy Speaker, for making it possible for me to have this debate today? I should also like to thank the right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have supported the project. I will certainly allow them time to speak later, if they so wish. I thank East Midlands Trains for being helpful and supportive. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who has already given a lot of his valuable time to listening to what I and others have said about this matter. Most notably, I have received support from the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), who came with me to see the Minister. I also thank the Minister for being present tonight, when I am sure he has other things that he would like to be doing—

As the Minister said, his dinner is in 10 minutes, so I will be as brief as possible.

Newark has many, many assets, probably the best of which, as has been known since at least Roman times, is the ability to communicate quickly and effectively, particularly north to south, and south to north. During my time as a Member of Parliament, one of the things that I have noticed is that it is easy for me to get to London and back, but extraordinarily difficult to get to Nottingham in the west, and less difficult to get to Lincoln in the east. My rail communications inside the area are very good in one direction, but poor in the other.

It is interesting to note that on this 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war, I notice that soldiers from my old regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, were able to move by train more quickly in 1914, from Nottingham to Lincoln, than they are today. That cannot make sense. I would love to see the Minister in Newark; I do not know whether he is familiar with the area. I would like him to see the huge potential in the region, which was recognised by the decision to dual the A46 from Newark to Lincoln. However, we continue to be let down by rail services going from east to west and from west to east.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on the campaign to improve links between Nottingham, Newark and Lincoln. Does he recognise that throughout Nottinghamshire rail links are not particularly good, and that villages such as Edwinstowe and Ollerton could benefit a great deal should rail links be introduced?

I am grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend has stood firmly by me throughout this campaign and indeed with Newark business club, which I really should have mentioned earlier on. I am grateful to him for his support. I hope that I have made it clear that I am not just talking about Newark constituents. My hon. Friend mentioned Ollerton and Edwinstowe, and they are crucial. They are inside his patch, but I completely recognise the point that he makes. The key outcome that we are seeking from this debate is a commitment to funding the enhanced train service, which we call stage 1 of the development of the Nottingham to Newark and the Lincoln railway. I would be awfully grateful if we could make some headway on that with the Minister tonight.

The services between Lincoln and Newark to Nottingham are far from the normal standard of service. Given that we are talking about an area of considerable economic development, it is interesting that the frequency of the trains has reduced since 2000, despite the fact that we have relentlessly growing passenger numbers and that the population of the area is due to increase considerably, not least with the Newark growth point bid, which is coming through in the next couple of years.

I have already mentioned the economic importance of the area. That has been recognised by the east midlands councils, the Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire local enterprise partnership and the all-party parliamentary group. They have all identified the need for the railway line to be upgraded. As the Minister knows, a strategy has been developed between stakeholders and East Midlands Trains progressively to upgrade the line at a modest cost. A train service has been identified that gives increased frequency and faster journey times by extending the hourly Matlock to Nottingham trains to Newark Castle, with the hourly Leicester to Lincoln trains running non-stop between Nottingham and Newark. I will return to that point in a moment.

The first stage of the upgrade, which I have discussed extensively with the hon. Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), would produce immediate benefits right across the line. For instance, for Lincoln, there would be a reduction in journey times. For Hykeham and Newark, there would be a doubling in frequency and a reduction in journey times. For Carlton, Burton Joyce and Fiskerton, there would be a doubling of frequency, and for Bleasby, Thurgarton and Rolleston an increase in frequency. I have no doubt that the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) will also be reflected in that.

Subsequent stages would see additional significant benefits—notably, an express service from Lincoln and Newark every hour throughout the day; a doubling of frequency for Lincoln with a train every half hour, as is standard elsewhere; a direct service from both Lincoln and Newark to Birmingham; improved frequency of connections from Lincoln to London via Newark North Gate; and a reduced journey time from Lincoln to London. That would all strengthen the business case for a direct Lincoln to London service.

The cost of stage 1 is extremely modest, at £700,000 per annum for an initial three years.

The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case for this important project to which I hope the Minister is listening. He has come to the important point, which is that we are talking about an extremely small amount of money that would benefit enormously economic growth in places such as North Hykeham in my constituency. Given that fact, it would be a false economy, as I am sure he would agree, for the project not to go ahead.

I am grateful to the gallant, hon. and learned Member, who makes an extremely good point. I hope that he appreciates that I am trying to address the area—that is, not just Newark but the financial penumbra thrown by the railways throughout the area, regardless of party political divide. We all want the scheme to succeed outside our constituencies and into the area as far west as Nottingham and as far east as Lincoln.

We think that the initial three years, which would eventually cost £2.1 million in total, could easily be paid for through the franchise extension and/or the forthcoming round of local sustainable transport funding. The cost is just half the cost of a brand-new service to Westbury, for instance, which is far smaller than Lincoln and for which the Department for Transport is paying £4.2 million from the local sustainable transport fund. Using DFT standard assessment rules, the business case for the stage 1 improvements is strong, with a benefit-to-cost ratio of 2.16. Planned development of housing and employment strengthens the argument for the need for improvement and the business case.

The benefits of stage 1, and the extra passengers and revenue it would generate, would greatly strengthen the case for funding the subsequent three stages from moneys that have already been made available to Network Rail. During a visit to Derby, a city that many of us hold dear to our hearts, on 2 November 2012, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated:

“I am really willing to work with the East Midlands to improve the quality of bids, make sure that they get the money and funding that they deserve”.

This scheme provides the perfect opportunity to do just that, at, I underline for the Minister, a terribly modest cost.

In addition, the statement by the Transport Secretary on 26 March last year made it clear that the Department for Transport

“will look to negotiate further passenger benefits”

during discussions to extend the East Midlands Trains franchise to April 2017. Funding the extra trains on the Lincoln line would deliver real benefits for passengers at a reasonable cost to taxpayers, especially if combined with a successful local sustainable transport fund contribution.

The earliest that the improved service can be introduced is May 2015. That would, happily, coincide with the opening of both the civil war museum in Newark and the exhibition at Lincoln castle to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, which is terribly important and on which the hon. Member for Lincoln might want me to give way. He does not, but I know that he feels strongly about these points.

The last date that East Midlands Trains can apply for the required train paths is 8 August 2014. However, before then the company needs to reach agreement with other operators over the additional access rights it needs and to hold public consultation on the service changes. Realistically, that process must start by 30 April.

I promised the Minister I would be brief and I am extremely grateful to those who have supported me.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being generous with his time. He makes a strong economic case, but does he also recognise the social and well-being benefits that extra travel and ability to travel will bring to many constituencies and constituents?

My hon. Friend recognises a fact that I was about to point out. Of course we are talking money, and unfortunately, matters of government almost always revert to money, but there are real social benefits. I know, for instance, that the hon. Member for Nottingham South, who is present, uses the train extensively to travel between my constituency, where she is happy enough to live, and hers. The social benefits of being able to move more easily from west to east, and from east to west, across our various patches, are desperately important.

The key outcome that we seek from the Minister is a commitment to funding the enhanced train service that we identify as stage 1 of the upgrade of the Nottingham to Newark and the Lincoln railway. Madam Deputy Speaker, I am most grateful to you and the House for indulging me.

I thank my colleague, the hon. and gallant Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), for letting me speak in this debate. I will not take up too much time, because I am conscious that we would like to hear from the Minister and give him as much time to reply as possible.

I want to add a few details from a Lincoln perspective, as we are discussing the Lincoln-Nottingham corridor. The economic importance of that corridor was recognised when, pre-1997, under a Conservative Government, a dual carriageway was built between Newark and Lincoln, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That has been extended all the way to Nottingham in more recent years. It is of crucial economic importance. We have road transport infrastructure but we would like the rail infrastructure, all the way from Nottingham to Lincoln, to match it.

When I was lucky enough to have the honour and privilege of being elected Member of Parliament for Lincoln, I inherited the only city in the country that was unfortunate enough not to have a quick, fast, direct route to London. That has been improved, but we have only one service to London a day, and none at weekends. Unfortunately, we also had one of the least frequent and slowest cross-country services, and that is what we are tonight seeking to ensure that the Department for Transport addresses.

The Lincoln-Newark-Nottingham service is well below the normal standard of all comparable routes in all key respects—frequency, speed, capacity and onward connections. Lincoln has only one train per hour to its core city, Nottingham, whereas most similar places have two, three or even four to theirs; I cite core cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds as examples. Moreover, the Lincoln-Nottingham service ran every half-hour until 2002, when half the trains were withdrawn because of operational difficulties elsewhere on the rail network, following the Hatfield crash. Those difficulties have long since been overcome, but Lincoln-Nottingham is the only service reduced in 2002 not to have been restored to former standards.

The trains that were withdrawn ran every hour directly between Lincoln and Birmingham. When they were withdrawn in 2002, Lincoln and Newark not only suffered a reduction in frequency, but lost their direct service to Derby and Birmingham—a double whammy. The line is characterised by out-of-date service levels on Sundays, when there are no services from Nottingham to Lincoln before 4.30 pm, despite the significant increase in leisure and commercial activity on Sundays in recent years—a point alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer). That highlights just how far services on the line have fallen below people’s expectations today.

In 1912, fast Lincoln-Nottingham trains took 45 minutes; now they take around 50 minutes because of speed limits, and many trains take more than an hour because of extra stops. For the avoidance of any doubt, it should be noted that the things that make the service substandard are not the responsibility or fault of East Midlands Trains. The service frequency is specified by the Department for Transport, as is the stopping pattern that results in so few non-stop trains. The speed limits are imposed by Network Rail because of the characteristics of the infrastructure, and East Midlands Trains is obliged to obey those speed limits. In fact, it is consistently one of the most punctual train operators in England, with around 94% of trains complying with required standards, but even an excellent operator such as EMT cannot run a fast service on a line with very low speed limits, especially if it is instructed by DFT that most trains must stop at stations every few miles.

There are issues such as the at-grade crossing at Newark between the east coast line and the cross-country line, and railway electrification, which Lincoln, Newark and Nottingham would benefit from, if that was forthcoming in future years. Lincoln and Nottingham are designated housing growth points––an additional 60,000 houses are planned over the next 20 years, 18,800 of them in Lincoln. Lincoln university is one of the UK’s fastest-growing universities, with a 40% increase in students planned for the next 10 years. A science park of around 1 million square feet is being developed for spin-off and related industries. Those are all reasons why we would like an increased, better train service from Lincoln, Newark and Nottingham.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on securing this debate, which provides a further chance for him and other hon. Members to put the case on their constituents’ behalf, as they did in a long meeting with me last week.

The issues that my hon. Friend raised have to be seen in the context of the wider challenges for British railways and the way in which the Government are tackling them. It is undoubtedly true that we face the challenges of success. To support a growing economy and more jobs, we need to meet increasing demand. Since privatisation, passenger numbers have doubled and freight traffic has risen by 60%. In the next five years alone, we expect a further 14% rise in passenger numbers and at least 4%, possibly more, in freight. There is understandable frustration among rail travellers, and we need to tackle the issues of congestion and crowding.

At the same time, we need to tackle the wider challenge of deficit reduction, and the rail industry, along with everyone else, has to play its part. We need to deliver better value for money for the taxpayer and the fare payer, and underlying costs must fall across the industry. To address these and other challenges we are seeing the most significant rail modernisation package for generations. Between 2014 and 2019, Network Rail will invest over £16 billion in improving our railways, having spent over £8 billion in the previous control period.

That includes a number of projects that will directly benefit Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. The £150 million Nottingham hub resignalling and station redevelopment programme, which is nearing completion, will improve reliability, reduce delays and create the capacity to cope with increasing numbers of passengers. Electrification of the midland main line, only guaranteed and delivered by this Government, is currently limited to the route between London St Pancras and Bedford, through to Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield, but it will transform the rail route between London, the east midlands and Yorkshire, offering reduced journey times, improved reliability and new trains.

The region will also benefit from the new “electric spine”—a high-capacity electric rail freight route connecting the east midlands with Southampton, making it much more attractive for firms to locate in the east midlands and getting more freight off the road. There have been renewals on the Doncaster-Lincoln-Peterborough line to improve safety, capacity, journey times and performance, and there is a £240 million fund for increases in capacity on the east coast main line, which will bring benefits. That is all before the introduction of new intercity express programme trains on that line, which will transform the journey experience. In addition, from 2018, completion of the Thameslink and Crossrail projects will significantly improve connections from this region to Heathrow. The Government’s rail investment strategy from 2014 to 2019 rightly focuses on strategic priorities for the network, but it will benefit the east midlands as well.

The Minister is making a powerful case for the amount of money that the Government are spending in the east midlands, but I hope he accepts that most of the projects that he mentioned are on north-south routes—it is on east-west routes that we face the challenge.

East-west is often a challenge across the country, and I am about to address that point.

I said that the Government’s rail investment strategy rightly focuses on the strategic priorities for the network but, in line with our localism agenda, it is right that local and sub-regional bodies, which are best placed to prioritise and fund investment for the needs of their areas and to support local economies, should come forward with their priorities. The rail industry did not identify the Lincoln-Nottingham route as one on which investment is a strategic priority for 2014 to 2019, so it was not included as requiring enhancements in the strategy. The strategy does however include funding for line speed improvements across the network and for improvements to level crossings. There is £300 million for journey time and performance improvements and £65 million to reduce the risk of accidents at level crossings. Network Rail will spend that in locations where best value for money can be attained. Decisions on the allocation of those funds could be influenced by a local capital contribution and a local assessment of need, which is usually headed up by local authorities and local enterprise partnerships. That is my point: localism and local authorities being able to influence and enhance the value of Network Rail’s investment programme.

Therefore, it is for Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire county councils and the LEPs—D2N2 and Greater Lincolnshire—to determine whether investment and enhancement to services on this route to improve connectivity and support local economies is a priority for their strategic economic plans and should be included in a bid for funding to the local growth fund. The Government have committed to putting £2 billion per annum into the local growth fund from 2015-16 to 2020. Moreover, any subsidy requirement for the proposed additional service on the line would also need to be funded by the promoter, usually the local authorities, which would have to be in place for three years, after which the Department would consider taking on funding responsibility.

As I said last week in the meeting with my hon. Friends the Members for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) and for Newark, the Government have set out this position very clearly, both to campaigners and to the local authorities concerned on a number of occasions. I reiterate, as I did to both of them last week, that so far the Department has received no comment from either Nottinghamshire county council or Lincolnshire county council. We have not seen a business case for the proposed investments and improvements. However, we have made it clear to both Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire and the LEPs that we are willing to provide guidance and strategic advice. Neither of the two strategic enterprise partnerships has indicated that the scheme is a priority, and without support from those bodies, I regret to say that it is unlikely that much progress can be made in achieving the objective of improved services that Members have talked about this evening.

It seems to follow from that that if this is merely an oversight on the part of the two county councils and the relevant LEPs and that is rectified, this is a project that the DFT will treat as a priority and that this funding will be forthcoming. Is that right?

My hon. and learned Friend, in true legal style, poses an argument that has a number of assumptions within it that we might unpick. He will obviously want to go to the very first part, which is that he has heard me say several times in my remarks that we have encouraged the county councils, the LEPs and the strategic economic partnerships on a number of occasions to make the case. The Department has offered advice and guidance on how they might formulate that case, but it has not been forthcoming. Therefore, to say that this is an oversight might be quite a big presumption. However, were it to be an oversight, or even at this late stage, if those authorities chose to decide that this is now a strategic priority for them—my hon. Friend the Member for Newark nods; I made exactly this point to him last week—even at this late stage, the Department will consider their applications.

I thank the Minister and I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) for his intervention. This is clear and proper guidance. This is exactly the point of this style of debate. Not only was his meeting very helpful, but now it is on the record and all our constituents will be hearing exactly what we the elected Members have to do to try to force this through and to get a fair hearing. I am grateful.

My hon. Friend knows that it would have been easy for me to say some soft words. What I am saying now is probably not terribly good news for him. But he and all the elected Members here have often made the case, and I urge them all again to go to their local bodies, as I have previously tried to indicate. It is incredibly important that the county councils and the economic bodies in the region declare this a strategic priority. That will underline the importance of reconsidering whether the improvements to the line are a high priority for those bodies and, therefore, for the allocation of local funding, which is available. That could then be reflected in the local growth fund.

I say to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) that there is still a chance for that to happen, because the bids for the local growth fund are due by 31 March this year. It is still perfectly possible for local bodies to engage with Network Rail and its partners in developing a business case for the proposed enhancements and to put it forward for the local growth fund. Equally, it is still possible for those local bodies to develop a business case and put it forward as a priority for investment for the 2019 to 2024 control period. I recognise my hon. Friend’s ambition to have it earlier, but none the less that would still be possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln reviewed his hopes, and I suspect those of Lincoln, for an increased through service between London and Lincoln. I certainly recognise the appetite for more frequent direct services between that city and London. I welcome the work on a business case undertaken by Lincolnshire county council in 2012. As he will know, I cannot commit at this stage to any additional services, mainly because the Department is currently evaluating the business case and the network impacts of running services to the locations not currently served by the east coast main line. However, I can confirm that a number of regions—Yorkshire, the north-east, the midlands and the east of England, including Lincolnshire—are in that evaluation and assessment process. Depending on the outcome of the work, the invitation to tender for the east coast main line franchise might include a requirement or an option for bidders to run services to a specific number of locations.

It is obviously of the utmost importance that any invitation to tender includes a specification for the eventual winner of the franchise, which is what we in Lincoln want to see. On that point, with regard to cross-country services, might not a franchise extension that brings an improvement that we are seeking between the line from Lincoln and Newark to Nottingham see an improvement in the specification of services?

I hear what my hon. Friend says about specification. The Department is keen to give options to bidders for initiative and innovation in the franchise. He may wish to pursue that, because he might find that it is the way to secure what he desires, rather than the Department directly specifying things.

The train service requirement will be set out in the invitation to tender, which will be published by the end of February, so it would be imprudent of me to comment on that any further. However, as I have said to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark and other hon. Members, I will be happy to brief any hon. Members on the proposals for the ITT at that stage.

I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on how enhancements to that line could still be progressed, even at this late stage, were the local authorities to get themselves in line. I welcome the opportunity to see that the line could build on the massive programme of investment that we are already seeing across the rail network. The Government remain committed to working with local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to see improvements to the line and others, should that be a priority for them. But I say to hon. Members again—I know that they will have heard me say this—that the ball is in the court for them to hit heavily at their local authorities. I hope that the local authorities will then decide to demonstrate that commitment to the investment that they are asking me to provide this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.