In the past two months, Britain has been hit by truly exceptional weather. This has been the wettest January in more than 200 years, and the severe weather is set to continue. From extra pumps and sandbags to military support and emergency funds, the Government are committed to providing all the practical support and assistance that is needed.
Overnight a severe storm, with winds recorded at more than 100 miles per hour, added further to disruption on the transport network, with the railway network particularly badly affected and some motorways closed owing to wind speeds. Network Rail and the Highways Agency have been working through the night to address the damage caused, clearing scores of trees from blocked lines, removing debris from carriageways and tracks, and repairing overhead wires. Let me take this opportunity to thank all those people for their dedication and hard work in the most trying circumstances, and express my sympathy with all those affected by bad weather.
As a result of the repair work overnight, I can provide the following updates for those parts of the transport network affected by the storm. On the rail network, the west coast main line is open, apart from the spur from Runcorn to Liverpool, which is expected to be back in service later this morning. Most of the east coast line is open. Continued work on overhead line damage north of York is placing limits on the service, and trains are expected to run at 80 miles an hour between Newcastle and the Scottish borders until midday. The Welsh routes of Fishguard and Aberystwyth are currently closed as engineers work to clear scores of downed trees.
On the roads, with a few isolated exceptions, we have kept motorways and major A roads running through this unprecedented level of severe weather. Although the hard work of engineers has mitigated the worst effects of the storm, there is no doubt that the transport network has taken a battering over the past week. In Dawlish work continues apace to mend the route between London and the south-west. During my visit on Friday I met south-west MPs and council and business leaders to assess the impact of the severe weather on the region’s transport network and economy. That followed a briefing with local south-west MPs in the House last Wednesday. The collapsed wall has been shored up with material salvaged from the damaged section, and a temporary breakwater made of shipping containers and filled with rubble has been erected off the coast. Removal of the damaged platform continues, and work is estimated to be completed by 18 March.
At Maidenhead the water table is currently 20 metres higher than it would normally be at this time of the year. That has damaged the signalling and had a serious effect on the ability of Network Rail to run trains, with roughly one fifth of services currently running between Reading and Paddington. Network Rail is working urgently to assess the time scale and to repair the signalling. The M2 in Kent is now partially reopened in both directions, with repairs ongoing to the hole in the central reservation.
While we deal with the immediate fall-out from the weather conditions, my Department has announced measures that I believe will make a real impact on the ground. Those include £61 million funding for projects to help repair damaged roads and build greater resilience into our railway network. Yesterday the Government announced funding worth £31 million to pay for rail resilience projects, which includes money to continue the vital work at Cowley bridge in Exeter to improve resilience against flooding. In addition, a further £30 million has been found for road maintenance, including pothole repairs, for local authorities in England affected by the severe weather. That is on top of the £3.5 million from the £7 million flood recovery package announced by the Government on 17 January.
Because we recognise the importance of tourism to the south-west during half-term week, we have worked with the airline Flybe to enable it to double its daily flights between Newquay and London Gatwick. It will increase the number of flights from three to six per weekday, providing more than 4,500 additional seats each week. Flybe has also agreed to keep prices at the same level as before the weather disruption, ensuring that hard-working families are not penalised by the impact of the weather on their travel plans. On Monday this week the Prime Minister also announced a Government subsidy to allow Newquay airport to waive the £5 airport development fee usually charged to those departing from the airport. Together, that package is helping to keep the south-west open for business during these difficult times.
In addition, First Great Western, the rail operator, has put in place a special ticketing arrangement so that rail passengers affected by the flood disruption do not miss out on the cheaper advance fares while revised timetables are in place. That means that passengers will receive a 25% discount on walk-up fares for journeys that cross the Dawlish gap. First Great Western has also ordered hundreds of extra buses to provide alternative transport while the track is repaired.
Although the conditions are unprecedented, particularly because of their severity and sustained nature, it is important that we ensure that our network is resilient in the long term to such threats. The Department for Transport works very closely on resilience with other Government Departments, local authorities, other transport operators and the wider sector. Resilience to extreme weather and climate change also form part of our capital maintenance programme. The Government have asked the industry to build climate resilience into its plans for railway investment for the period between 2014 and 2019. The industry has responded by introducing more specialised equipment and trains that treat rails, and that clear ice and snow or compacted leaves.
We have embarked on one of the biggest programmes of rail modernisation ever. Over the next five years, more than £38 billion will be spent to improve and maintain our railways. Network Rail is developing strategies for securing the long-term resilience of the railways and has asked the Office of the Rail Regulator for nearly £500 million to invest in resilience projects.
On the roads, the Highways Agency has assessed the potential risks that climate change poses to the ongoing operation and improvements to the strategic road network. It has taken action to mitigate and is spending a huge amount a year on maintenance and renewal. Funding for local roads maintenance has increased by £650 million in this Parliament. That figure will increase by a further £500 million to £4.9 billion between 2015 and 2020.
As the Prime Minister said yesterday, we are in for a long haul. I will continue to keep the House updated, but I should at this stage pay tribute, as every Member of the House would like to do, to all those tens of thousands of people who are at the moment doing their upmost to provide services, sometimes in very dangerous conditions. They are trying to do their very best for the travelling public, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude.
I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. Our sympathy goes out to the families and friends of the three people who have tragically lost their lives in the flooding and storms. Our thoughts are with everyone who has been affected by the flooding.
I echo the Secretary of State’s tribute to the emergency and armed services, council workers, Network Rail, the Highways Agency, the Environment Agency and power company staff who have worked round the clock in very difficult conditions to keep people safe and to restore services.
The Secretary of State mentioned the severe weather in the past week that has caused huge disruption. Rail services on Southern trains, Southeastern trains, South West Trains, First Great Western and Virgin have all been seriously affected, and there is major disruption on the motorway, with the closure of the M2 and regional disruption overnight as trees were brought down by high winds.
The Secretary of State said that First Great Western has suspended its advance ticket scheme on the Dawlish route. Passengers must now pay for expensive walk-on tickets rather than take advantage of lower advance fares. Although the 25% reduction in those walk-on fares is welcome, some passengers must still pay more than £100 to travel from Paddington to Cornwall on rail replacement buses. Does he believe that is fair?
The Tunbridge Wells to Hastings line is shut as a result of landslips and will take several weeks to repair. One route to Exeter is closed with three quarters of a mile of track under water. The Windsor branch line is blocked at Datchet. In Wales, the Cambrian coast rail line has been damaged between Barmouth and Pwllheli—it was damaged in January but will not reopen until mid-May. Network Rail estimates that the cost of repairing that damage will be up to £30 million. What talks has the Secretary of State held with train companies to support passengers who have experienced substantial financial loss as a result of the travel disruption? The damage at Dawlish and Pwllheli alone will cost Network Rail £40 million to repair and Network Rail’s initial estimate of the repair and business interruption costs from flooding over the past two months is now £118 million. How much money has he asked the Treasury for to carry out those vital repairs?
In 2012, an 11-day closure of the Great Western railway line to Exeter caused by flooding was estimated by Cornwall council to have cost the regional economy £140 million. In January last year, the Prime Minister said that
“we will do everything we can to ensure that these important services are maintained, even when they are challenged by floods”.—[Official Report, 16 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 870.]
Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that £61 million was being made available by the Department for Transport to finance the repair and rebuilding of transport infrastructure, yet it transpires that £31 million of that money was what he promised to the south-west authorities and MPs last year for resilience repairs around Exeter. Network Rail has spent £5 million on small repair schemes, but the bulk of that £26 million from the Government, promised by the Prime Minister last January, has never been received. Why not? Why did that money failed to materialise in the autumn statement? Did he just forget?
Of the Prime Minister’s £61 million announcement yesterday, it transpires that the £30 million for council road repairs was actually announced on Monday by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday was a rehash of old announcements and included not one penny of new money for the urgent rail repairs that are needed across the network? Will any additional money be made available to Network Rail for repairs to damaged transport infrastructure? Will any additional money be provided to improve transport infrastructure flood resilience?
The Government need to speak with one voice and their response needs to be speedier than it has been in the recent past. The Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change has warned that flooding is the greatest risk our country faces from climate change. The Prime Minister has said that “money is no object” and the Secretary of State has said that there is no blank cheque. Who is right? Communities and commuters face long weeks, potentially months, of transport disruption. They need leadership and clarity on what help they can expect and when. When will they get it?
In my answer, I tried to be open with the House on all the problems being faced by passengers and our constituents across the country. I do not think it helps when the Opposition try to suggest that money is not available. When I was here last Thursday, I was the one speaking up for all the passengers who were being inconvenienced by strikes that the Opposition were deliberately incredibly quiet about. I need no lectures on speaking up for passengers and the people who use our public services.
As far as money and investment is concerned, the simple fact is this: as the Prime Minister has made absolutely clear, there is no limit to the amount of money that the Government are providing for immediate flood relief. We will do everything we can to help those people who are very badly affected and will be affected for months to come. That is a commitment from the whole of the Government: the Government certainly speak with one voice on this subject.
I also point out very clearly that, between 2014 and 2019 in the next round of investment in the railways cleared by this Government, we will see record sums invested in our railways. Indeed, as part of the investment programme, a tunnel that is very important for the south-west, has just been relined. A lot of the money we are talking about—the £850 million being spent on Reading station—is all about improving resilience in the long term. A lot of the money being spent by Network Rail over the next five years—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), like a parrot, keeps saying, “It’s not new money.” The simple point is that it is new money. It is the £38 billion that we are going to invest in Network Rail over the next five years. It is important, too, and represents a record level of investment—a level of investment never reached by the previous Government when there was plenty of money available. When the buckets were overflowing, they did not invest in our infrastructure; we are investing in it, rebuilding the British railways, and the roads as well.
I would like to associate myself with the remarks of both Front Benchers about the victims and those people working around the clock to help people in trouble. I also congratulate Ministers on getting a grip of this situation and offering support wherever they can.
Following the flooding in 2008, the UK received about £127 million from the EU solidarity fund, which, in exceptional circumstances, can be used for regional disasters to help with clear-up work and infrastructure restoration. Our Welsh Conservative MEP, Dr Kay Swinburne, has been calling on the Government to co-ordinate with the Welsh Government to unlock funds from the solidarity fund in particular. Will my right hon. Friend work with Dr Swinburne, the Welsh Government and other parts of the country to ensure we unlock the maximum amount of money from this European fund during these terrible times?
I can reassure my right hon. Friend that this matter was discussed last night in the Cobra meeting, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General is looking at all the avenues for collecting any money that might be available.
The hon. Lady, along with council leaders and leaders of the local enterprise partnership, met me last week when I was down in Plymouth. I told them, following my statement in the House last Thursday, that I would want to look at the long-term resilience of the south-west—that is very important—but when we get a storm of the nature of last night’s, it is not just the south-west we need to consider, so we need to investigate what she says further and more wholly. She has made her case for the south-west, and I will certainly work with her and other Members who attended the briefing—unfortunately I could not attend because I was preparing for the urgent question—held by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), just before this sitting.
The Great Western railway is effectively out of action and many of our roads are under water. This clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of the west country to weather conditions and our lack of resilience. Will the Secretary of State consider carefully the need to provide alternative main line railway routes into the west country and also look at the road situation, because at the moment we are dependent on the M5 and the totally inadequate A303?
I understand the points my hon. Friend is making. There are a few things we need to do. First and foremost, we need to reassure people that the south-west is open for business and that the road network overall is working well. This morning, I had a meeting with the country’s main coach operators about their laying on extra services, which they are doing, and as we approach next week’s half-term holiday, and the Easter break as well, people and businesses in the south-west want to get the message out clearly that they are open for business and that the south-west is not a closed area; and certainly the road network gives us that option.
On alternative routes, I want to see the Dawlish route reconnected as soon as possible—Network Rail estimates it will take six weeks, once it starts construction properly, to re-establish the line—but my hon. Friend is right that we should look at the lines that have been closed. It is not the fault of this Government, or even the last Government, that they are closed. Since 1965, successive Governments have seen development take place over some of these lines.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in praising the work of East Coast staff who dealt with customers stranded on the Yorkshire moors last night.
When the Secretary of State and his team give figures on the late running of East Coast trains, will they attempt to differentiate in respect of the weather problems over the past two years—they have not occurred only this month—and will they not blame East Coast for them?
There can be many reasons for train delays, and sometimes they are completely outside the control of Network Rail or the rail operators. I readily accept that point. Some of the problems faced by operators, even leaving aside exceptional storms, are completely outside their control.
Conservative Members welcome the decisive action of the Prime Minister and the Department for Transport in seeking to tackle the immediate problem and the extra money made available to repair the network. However, will my right hon. Friend accept that the important thing over the longer term will be greater resilience and improvement to the whole rail network? Will he confirm that the £38.5 billion for greater resilience to be made available over the next control period will exclude the additional money for High Speed 2?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who knows better than most the immense work going into improving resilience. Not long after I was appointed to this post, I went to Shugborough tunnel, which was closed over the Christmas period as it was being relaid; about £3 million was spent on getting the rails up and putting new drainage in. The works meant that trains could run through the tunnel at 125 mph rather than 50 mph. Nobody will have seen that £3 million being spent but it was one part of the very many things going on across the whole rail network that improve the facilities and services for our constituents.
As the Secretary of State will know, if there is genuinely new money, there will be discussions about the Barnett consequentials. Are such discussions going on? If he cannot reveal a figure, will he at least confirm that the announcements over the past couple of weeks have been about new money? If so, there will be Barnett consequentials.
I thank the Secretary of State for his support for and visit to Dawlish; they were very much appreciated by one and all. I join him in thanking Network Rail. I also thank my local council and volunteers who did a sterling job in extremely difficult circumstances.
As the Secretary of State has seen for himself, the line is crucial not only to my constituency but to others further south-west. The local economy depends on it. Can he assure me that he recognises that and that he is committed to ensuring that the line is sustainable for the long term and to researching what needs to be done to make it truly resilient?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend a promise about the commitment that she seeks; the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) also asked the question. I know how important the main line to Dawlish and my hon. Friend’s constituency is. The other thing that we need to consider is whether we can build in better resilience than went into the wall when it was first built more than 100 years ago.
One of the reasons why there might be regular hold-ups was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) a moment ago: the question of capacity on that line. The hon. Gentleman will remember that the west coast main line saw investment of more than £9 billion, all north of Rugby. That went some way towards improving certain bits of the line’s capacity, but it did not improve the capacity into London.
I thank the Department for the work it is doing. I understand that the East Coast trains were rescued by diesel trains following the catastrophic failure. Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that there will always be a fleet of diesel trains to use in scenarios such as these?
I might just want to think a bit more about promising that there will always be diesel trains. We are investing a huge amount of money in the new intercity express programme trains to serve on the east coast route. I cannot give my hon. Friend an absolute commitment at the Dispatch Box today, but I will certainly investigate the point that she has made.
As the effects of climate change multiply and increase, it is likely that events that now seem unusual will become more and more usual. Can the Secretary of State assure me that his current plans for transport infrastructure strengthening will be reviewed in the light of the fact that what is happening at the moment will not be a one-off event?
The last major review we carried out covered the way in which the Department responded to extreme cold weather, and to snow and ice in particular. A lot of resilience factors were built into the network as a result of that. We learn from any kind of event, and we try to ensure that those lessons are put to good use. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
At this stage, it is too early to give an exact figure. I have heard examples of some very stoical people going to exceptional lengths to get to work and keep their businesses operating, but at this stage it is too early to give the hon. Lady an exact answer.
I thank my right hon. Friend for coming down to Plymouth last Friday, about 36 hours after the great event at Dawlish. There is obviously considerable concern about what is going to happen there. Would he be willing to set out a timetable for the work that will ensure we have a resilient railway line in the long term? Will he also ask the Leader of the House whether we can have a proper debate on this matter? It is incredibly important that we get this right, and that people know what we are going to do.
I will not trespass on the responsibilities of others in relation to promising debates on the Floor of the House. I was once in a position to deal with such questions, but I no longer do so. I will therefore leave that matter to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who will be making a statement after I have spoken. My hon. Friend also asked about long-term resilience, and he is absolutely right. When I was in his constituency, he told me specifically how these events were affecting his constituents. He also told me how determined he was to get a service for people to travel from Plymouth to London in under three hours; it is a matter of urgency for him. He has made his point, and I will look at ways in which we can try to achieve what he wants.
I would like to be clear about the exact figure on the cheque. I think the Secretary of State announced spending of about £125 million in his statement. How much of that is actual new spending, and how much of it relates to devolved competences?
The hon. Gentleman is fixated on new spending, but I do not see anything wrong, when coming to the end of the financial year, with looking at any underspending in the Department and using it. If there is cause for new money, I will have discussions with the Treasury about it. Likewise, the natural consequences of any decisions taken by the Government will flow through to Wales under the agreed formulae.
During the night, Shropshire was hit by winds of up to 76 mph, and this morning more than 4,000 homes and businesses are without power. Will the Secretary of State join me in encouraging ScottishPower and other power companies to get the lights back on in Shropshire? Will he also join me in praising the hard work of West Mercia police, the Shropshire fire service, Telford & Wrekin council and Shropshire council staff?
I join my hon. Friend in saying that a number of people—and not only the ones he mentioned —have shown great stoicism in trying to make sure that services are provided, be they Network Rail staff, local authorities, the Environment Agency or the emergency services. A plethora of people have done fantastic work, and not just last night, which was when his constituency and his area of Shropshire were directly affected. Since Christmas a huge amount of work has been done by these emergency services, which have shown themselves to be right up to the task.
The incident at Dawlish highlights the problems that occur when no alternative rail route is available, and some of the disruption of the lines from England to Scotland in recent years has been exacerbated because of a lack of alternatives or because the available alternatives were not put into effect quickly. Clearly, one cannot build alternatives to cover every situation that might arise, but will the work on resilience—the word the Secretary of State is talking about—examine the possibility of making sure that it is much easier to use alternative routes when disruption occurs? Will there be an examination of the case for reopening currently closed lines to ensure that decent alternative routes are available?
Obviously, that is one thing we have got to look at in the long term. I am pleased to have been able to announce the reopening of several stations. There has been a huge change in the way people look at the rail service; they want a good reliable rail service, and that is important. We are seeing more people using the railways now than we have for a long time. In the past 20 years, the number of passengers has gone from 750 million to 1.5 billion, and there has also been a huge increase in freight on the railways, which we all welcome.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the A22 in my constituency has been closed for several days, causing substantial disruption to traffic in south London. The closure is caused not so much by the flooding, which is adjacent to the A22, but by the installation of machinery to limit further flooding. Will he confirm that the package of compensation for businesses that has been announced applies to businesses that may not necessarily have been flooded but which are affected by the consequences of flooding?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. I have asked the train operating companies to do a lot more on the social media network, which they are doing. One of the frustrating aspects of this situation for people is trying to get information. A lot of people who use the railways do not use social media, and there is a difficulty there, but we are trying to make as much information available as we possibly can.
These are unprecedented weather conditions, and I commend my right hon. Friend for the work he is doing. I also commend all the people across the country who are working so hard to get our rail and road network open again and back to normal. Many of my constituents depend daily on the west coast main line. What more is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that there is better resilience against this type of weather on that line?
As I said, north of Rugby, a huge amount of money has been invested on the west coast main line. There is still more work to be done; for example, there is more work to be done on signalling, which will be happening this year as far as Watford is concerned. That will have an impact, providing better resilience overall to the services to which my hon. Friend refers. As he rightly says, that line is one of the busiest railway lines anywhere in Europe.
Not only do rail users in Bristol have to contend with the usual overpriced, overcrowded trains, but they are now being hit by disruption in both directions; it is affecting train services from Bristol to the west country and the Reading to Paddington section of the Great Western line. What support is available for rail users in Bristol? What compensation will be available for them?
I understand what the hon. Lady says. As I said just before this statement, I have had a meeting with all the coach operators, and they have agreed to put on extra services. Those services are available and a lot more are being laid on. They are seeing a rise in patronage, and their prices are very competitive indeed.
I welcome the additional support the Government are giving for extra flights between London Gatwick and Newquay Cornwall airports. I also welcome the fact that, since 2010, £11.7 million has been spent on the Upper River Mole protection scheme, which has certainly helped my constituency over the past couple of months. Last night, there were some concerns that groundwater levels in this unprecedented weather were causing some disruption to the London to Brighton main rail line. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Department for Transport will work on the important interchange between Gatwick airport and the rail route coming into London?
I can assure my hon. Friend that we are keeping a close eye, both with Network Rail and all the other services involved, on water levels. As I said earlier in my statement, the levels are considerably higher than they have been for some time. The point that he makes about Brighton and the line from Gatwick to Brighton is an important one. We are monitoring that closely.
May I remind the Secretary of State that, in a crisis such as this where so many people are having a miserable time and we have had loss of life—thankfully, a small loss of life—it is nice to have all-party agreement? None the less, it is also the job of the official Opposition to hold the Government to account, whether it is over the 560 redundancies that the Prime Minister did not want to mention yesterday, or over the question of whether this is new money. On the substantive point of the resilience of our network, it is all very well having new rolling stock, but my constituents travel up and down from Yorkshire on the east coast line and every time, with much less weather disturbance than this, it is the overhead lines that go down. That is the resilience that we need to tackle. It is no good having new trains without changing the overhead lines.
I welcome the statement by the Secretary of State. I thank him, his Department, the Highways Agency and all the other agencies for what they are doing to get the M2 back to normal following the discovery of a 16 feet sinkhole in the inner reservation. What steps are being taken to address the concerns about sinkholes, as they pose a real risk to road safety?
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who is responsible for roads is looking at that particular incident this morning. Sinkholes are not common events, but obviously we need to learn any lessons that we can from them. We also need to do the proper work to ensure that no further damage has been done to the road network before we reopen it. However, that part of the road network is now partially reopened.
This month, we have seen the dramatic pictures of Dawlish, but last month the sea washed away part of the main line to south-west Wales in my constituency. We saw even more dramatic pictures in the north with the Cambrian coast line. Many of the railway lines along our coast are part of flood protection measures. Barnett consequentials for Wales are a matter for every single Department across Government. Will the Secretary of State work with his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to work out exactly what Wales is due and then let us know?
The Transport Secretary will know that the midland main line runs diesel services through Kettering to his constituency in Derbyshire. He will also know that all too often those services are disrupted because the overhead line south of Bedford, which is used by First Capital Connect and Thameslink services, has gone out of commission. I echo the point about the resilience of the overhead lines. Will the Transport Secretary assure us that Network Rail realises that point and will put more investment into ensuring those lines stay up?
I am very pleased to say that the Government will be electrifying the whole of the line to Sheffield, which has been called for for a very long time. The electrification of our railways—we are committed to electrifying more than 800 miles in the next control period between 2014 and 2019—is very important for the long-term future of the railways in this country.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention resilience and the importance of building that into any future lines. We have world-class tunnelling expertise from Crossrail, so can we ensure that far more of our rail lines are put in tunnels rather than deep cuttings? Earlier, he mentioned Shugborough tunnel in my constituency, which was put there to ensure that local residents—particularly, I believe, the Earl of Lichfield—were not disturbed by the line.