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Topical Questions

Volume 575: debated on Thursday 6 February 2014

I am sure the whole House will want to join me in expressing sympathy for those who have been affected by the extreme weather conditions. An urgent priority is the railway at Dawlish. Colleagues will have seen the images of the devastating impact the weather has had on the railway there. I met members of all parties of Devon and Cornwall yesterday evening alongside Network Rail. The immediate priority is to assess the damage and develop a plan for getting the line back into service as soon as possible, but I am acutely conscious of the need to develop a long-term solution for the resilience of the railway network in the south-west and I have asked for a report to me on the options for addressing this problem.

The Calder valley line was recently excluded from the list of northern lines to be electrified. Will the Secretary of State look again at this and back my and the Halifax Courier’s campaign to get this line electrified as soon as possible?

I met an all-party group on rail electrification a few weeks ago and discussed the matters that the hon. Lady has just relayed. I fully accept that there is a lot of pressure on us to extend electrification. I am proud that we have set a target for Network Rail of 850 miles in the next control period. I am certain that other cases will be made. Let me stress to her that our target of 850 miles is 841 miles more than the previous Government achieved in 13 years.

T2. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating c2c on transforming what used to be known as the misery line, from Fenchurch Street to Southend, to the cheerful line, thus meaning that it should have its franchise renewed? By contrast, Greater Anglia railways must have the most clapped-out, dirtiest rolling stock in the world. (902444)

Whenever I hear my hon. Friend’s voice behind me in the House, it always cheers me up. The transformation of the line into Fenchurch Street is largely the result of investment by Network Rail and the Department for Transport in both infrastructure and the rolling stock. The bids for Essex Thameside are currently being evaluated, and the Department will seek to announce a preferred bidder shortly.

Freak weather is rapidly becoming the new norm in our country, and I understand the difficulties that the Secretary of State has in giving a time scale for the Dawlish repairs, given that further bad weather is forecast for Saturday. None the less, every week the line is closed is costing the regional economy tens of millions of pounds. Will he keep the House updated and look urgently and strategically across the whole rail network, including at Wales, the north-east and Scotland, to see how we can make it more resilient against future storms?

In answer to the hon. Lady’s question, I simply say yes. That must be the first time that anyone has been able to do that.

T3. There is no doubt in my mind that the west country is the most important part of the country. At the moment, not only do we have problems with the main rail down through Dawlish and Exeter, but we need to upgrade the Exeter to Waterloo line. We also need that second arterial road route, the A30-A303, to ensure that we get access to the west country (902445)

I can tell my hon. Friend that the A30-A303 corridor is one of the six strategic routes into which we are trying to get some investment. It is a very important route, and, as we have seen from the vulnerability of the rail line, it is one on which we need to concentrate. I am aware that there are some environmental issues in the Stonehenge area and the Blackdown hills, so we need to be sensitive in the way that we deliver the improvements.

T4. I know that the Secretary of State gets on well with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is encouraging muscular localism and local referendums. Will he do the same in those communities, the big cities, where no one has been consulted about the value for money and the impact of High Speed 2? (902446)

There have been many opportunities to raise the issue of HS2. I am pleased that the paving Bill received the overwhelming support of the House of Commons, and I regard that as an important referendum in itself.

T5. While joining in the welcome for the Crossrail award to Bombardier this morning, may I invite the Secretary of State to my constituency to see the real harm caused by the level of noise from the A38 to people living far too close to that road? (902447)

As I drive through my hon. Friend’s constituency on a regular basis, I am more than delighted to come and talk to him and his constituents about some of the problems that noise creates for them as a result of the traffic on the A38.

T7. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the granting of planning permission for the expansion of Luton airport? It will help the Government with their capacity problem in the south-east and do so without the extension of any existing runway or the building of a new one. (902450)

Regional airports, or local international airports as I like to call them, have an important part to play in delivering the air connectivity that we need, so I am pleased to hear that news.

T6. The future of electrification in the north will be looked at by a joint committee of experts to recommend future routes for electrification in the north of England. Will the Secretary of State advise us when that joint committee will be set up so that those of us who are rooting for the Caldervale line to be electrified can participate?


The Government are transforming rail travel for passengers across the north and are investing heavily in the electrification of the network and in the £500 million northern hub capacity scheme. In parallel with that new commitment, we announced the establishment of a joint taskforce to explore where to go next with electrification in the north. The taskforce has been asked to ensure that eight named routes are considered, but it is free to consider the case for any route in the north, including the Caldervale line.

Although, obviously, I am disappointed that Hitachi was not successful in winning the Crossrail bid, I am pleased for the people of Derby and think that it is good news for British jobs. I am sure that the House is aware that although all the bidders are foreign-owned, two are based in the UK: Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe in my constituency and Bombardier in Derby. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what processes are in place to ensure that the winning bidder will fulfil its contractual obligations?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, because he was very much involved when Hitachi won the intercity express programme order, there is a standstill period of an extra 10 days. What I announced along with the Mayor of London this morning was the preferred bidder. That process has to be gone through and it is right that it should be gone through. It all goes to show that Hitachi is investing in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I was up there a few weeks ago, and Hitachi has a huge order and is determined to win more, not only in the United Kingdom but across Europe.

The only direct trains from Shipley to King's Cross are at 6.36 and 7.17 in the morning and the only direct train back is at 6.33 in the evening—all at peak times. When the east coast line is refranchised, may we have more direct trains to Shipley and at off-peak times so that my constituents can benefit from lower fares?

As my hon. Friend knows, the invitations to tender for services on the east coast line are being dealt with by the Department. I am sure that the people who monitor these sessions will take on board his recommendation.

A while ago, a lorry caught fire on a motorway in my constituency. It was carrying ammunition, including Sidewinder missiles. Will the Minister consider approaching those who transport very dangerous materials, including chemicals, to suggest transferring those journeys from motorways to rail, where the chances of a catastrophe are greatly reduced?

The Department takes the transportation of dangerous goods very seriously. As a former road tanker driver, I understand many of the hazards. As we build the high-speed rail network and electrify more services, there will be more capacity on the existing classic line for freight services such as those to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Guide Dogs, Whizz-Kidz and Living Streets, among others, have supported a campaign I have been running with Claire Connon, a prospective 2016 Paralympian, to fix our pavements. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that footways can be used by people in wheelchairs, people with mobility issues, people who are partially sighted, people with pushchairs and everyone else who wants to make use of them?

It is vital that we roll out as much accessibility in the countryside as possible. I know that organisations such as the Country Land and Business Association benevolent trust have given grant aid for such schemes. I think we should roll out as far as possible any schemes to allow more people access to footways and to ensure that disabled people have the same rights as everybody else to enjoy the countryside.

Of all the major northern towns, Hull is the only one with no proposal to electrify its main railway line. That means that First Hull Trains’ proposal to electrify the line from Selby to Hull is an essential upgrade, especially bearing in mind 2017. Will the Minister commit to working with Network Rail and First Hull Trains to ensure that we have that for 2017?

We are certainly very interested in the suggestions made by First Hull Trains. I occasionally use that line myself and we will certainly consider that bid for electrification alongside others.

Although I greatly welcome today’s commitment to get our line open as soon as possible, does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that we send out the message that Cornwall is still open for business? Will he therefore lay out plans for alternative bus services to replace the train services?

Yes, we will be considering a number of those issues and I hope shortly to be able to inform my hon. Friend and others from that area of the measures that we want to put in place. She is absolutely right that Devon and Cornwall are fantastic places to go. There have been some rough connection problems, and we have to sort them out, but Devon and Cornwall will still be a great destination for both Easter and half term.