Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(John Penrose.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I thank other hon. Members and hon. Friends from Wales for showing up, and I know that more hon. Members would be here if it were not for the fact that the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs is considering other business.
Transport debates, by their nature, can be extremely parochial, but I make no apology for introducing this debate on rail issues that affect my constituents, because those issues are a big concern for the commuters I represent. I will concentrate on overcrowding and problems with the franchise in my area, but other hon. Members might want to make more general remarks about the franchise, the electrification of the valleys lines and related funding issues.
Like many hon. Members, I receive a lot of complaints from constituents who are frustrated by the day-to-day problems they face when they commute or travel for leisure. My constituency is near the border, so many of my constituents travel to the south-west, Bristol and Bath and to London. The debate is born out of great frustration with train companies and train operators, which is felt by me, by the excellent Severn tunnel action group—I know I am biased, but I believe that it is the best rail users’ campaign group out there—and by their fellow rail campaigners in the next village, the Magor action group on rail. Our frustrations are overcrowding, lack of connecting services and lack of information on electrification. We need to ensure that those concerns are heard as we approach the renewal of the franchises. The debate is a chance to get some of that on record.
The Severn tunnel action group was set up after the last Greater Western franchise, because its members felt that cross-border services were poorly covered. They have campaigned tirelessly for the reinstatement and protection of services, and their aim is to develop Severn Tunnel Junction station, one of the stations in my constituency, to encourage more people on to rail from cars by providing better services. They are a constructive and positive lot who have a lot of rail expertise, but I sense real frustration with the lack of engagement by rail companies. I want to convey that to the Minister as we approach the new franchises.
The latest figures from the Office of Rail Regulation highlight the importance of cross-border journeys to all Welsh rail users, with around a third of the 27 million annual journeys crossing the Wales-England border. Many of those journeys are back and forth to and from the south-west and London. My constituents commute to cities such as Bristol, which offer big employment opportunities, so we need reliable and affordable public transport. However, all too often, people face an unenviable choice: pay the Severn bridge toll—which is too expensive and should be reduced, although that is a topic for another debate and I am sure we will return to it—or run the gauntlet of an often overcrowded and inconvenient train service. Unsurprisingly, given the cost of fuel and the fact that the Severn tolls are whacked up every year, people are increasingly opting for the train service.
Partly as a result of that, we have seen substantial growth in passenger numbers. The Welsh Affairs Committee report “Crossing the border: road and rail links between England and Wales”, which was completed a couple of years ago, picked up on that:
“Cross-border services have seen significant growth in passenger numbers in recent years, and it is expected that demand will further increase in the future. First Great Western said that its Cardiff to Bristol service had seen particularly high growth”.
According to the Office of Rail Regulation, the number of passengers going to and from Severn Tunnel Junction station has increased by 72% in the past seven years. That growth is partly caused by commuters, students and tourists connecting from places such as Chepstow and Lydney. Connections have increased by 192% over the same period. That is a huge growth in usage, and it increases every year.
At the Monmouthshire end of my constituency, there are several new housing developments and more are planned. The same is true of Chepstow and Gloucester. Many occupants of those new homes will commute to Bristol and other cities in England, and they will end up at Severn Tunnel Junction station to catch connecting trains, but the rail service has not kept up with demand. For many years, we have received complaints from commuters, but the service remains the same or even gets worse. The main reason I applied for the debate was frustration with the lack of response from First Great Western to the chronic overcrowding on our commuter routes to Bristol; demand for services to Bristol has greatly increased. In fairness to First Great Western, I should say that I have finally got a meeting with the company next Monday.
After having received many complaints, I recently went out with Severn tunnel action group members to survey users on those commuter trains, and I am in no doubt about how frustrated they are. One of my constituents calls the service “the sardine express”. Commuter trains are always overcrowded and, sadly, it is not uncommon for large numbers of passengers to be left on the station because there is no space in the carriages. The 07.55 First Great Western service has been recorded as leaving more than 30 passengers behind at Severn Tunnel Junction station. Some of those passengers have paid more than £1,500 for an annual season ticket, so it is easy to imagine their frustration and anger. I will share a few comments from commuters whom I surveyed:
“Members of my family catch the 07.55 train from this station as they commute to Bristol. For several months now, the train has been made up of only two coaches instead of what used to be five. We have experienced overcrowding, standing room only, people unable to board, etc, etc. I have written to First Great Western on more than one occasion to complain in the strongest terms, but no avail.”
“I sometimes catch a train on the opposite platform and have counted some 100 or so persons waiting on the 07.55 to Bristol! When there are only two carriages, the train is full before it arrives at Severn Tunnel. Completely unacceptable, particularly considering the exorbitant ticket costs in this country.”
Another person recently reported that a passenger had fainted:
“FGW must be in breach of health and safety standards at the very least. Something must be done about this.”
Another commuter directly linked the situation to the effect of the Severn bridges:
“It’s all inefficient. I can’t jump into my car because of the Bridge Tax of £120 per month on the most expensive toll in the country. If I could drive instead I would in an instant. I’ve suffered the pain of these trains for only 12 months. There is no innovation, no new trains, no new operators and prices are set high.”
I have many more examples, but will end on this e-mail from a constituent:
“They just need an extra coach on each train—it’s not rocket science!”
Why is that so hard to deliver?
There is an obvious lack of rolling stock, which has led to a lack of carriages on peak services. There should be five carriages, as constituents have said, on the 07.55 train, but frequently there are three or sometimes even two. I understand that the train company has looked into hiring additional rolling stock to address the shortfall while some of its stock could be away for months on heavy overhaul, but that has not happened. We can only surmise that, as a private business, its financial model means that to do so would not be financially viable, so it has decided not to go ahead. Will the Minister take the matter up with First Great Western following the debate? Does he agree that it is not acceptable for the company to ignore the problem and to ignore complaints from commuters who have legitimate concerns about services they have paid for?
My second complaint is the perennial problem of poor connections, which was covered in the Welsh Affairs Committee report on cross-border transport a couple of years ago, but which has still not improved. Poor connections are not only a problem for those of us who live on the border; they have knock-on implications for those further into Wales. Commuters from Caldicot, Chepstow or Lydney may face a lengthy wait for a connecting service, and poor connections at peak commuting times are common. For instance, there are no trains from Caldicot between 7.40 am and 9.40 am, which is bad for people who are trying to get to work. Stations such as Caldicot have huge potential, particularly among people who want to use them for work, but we need a service that is fit for purpose. Lots of people want to use that service. What can the Minister and his Welsh counterparts do to ensure that the First Great Western service connects better with the Wales and borders franchise, which is up for renewal in 2018? Better connections is a constant grumble, and the matter has been raised by the Welsh Affairs Committee. We need action on better connecting services.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the work on connectivity that she does on behalf of her constituents.
In the north, we now have better services; there has been huge investment on the west coast over many years, which has provided extra trains. Does my hon. Friend agree that the connectivity between the franchises must be looked at? In north Wales, both are coming up for renewal at a similar time. I am sure that the Minister is aware of that, and that forward planning is being done. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a need for a direct link from Liverpool to Holyhead, which would bring Dublin and Liverpool closer together? We need to look at the big picture, and we have time to plan to do so before the franchises are renewed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is exactly right: with the franchises coming up for renewal, we must think strategically. The Government and the Welsh Government must work together for the good of the transport system. They must be constructive so that we can iron out some of the problems. I also agree with his point about the link between Liverpool and Holyhead.
We all support electrification and hope that we will benefit from it soon. As the Welsh Affairs Committee pointed out, it has been an example of good collaborative working and has demonstrated what can be achieved when the two Governments work together on transport—apart from the row over funding the valleys lines. For constituencies such as mine, which will suffer much, it would helpful if the Minister let us know early on what the disruption will be, when the work is to be carried out and what form it will take. We hear talk of the closure of some stations so that work can be carried out on the bridges, but the lack of concrete information is causing confusion. When can we let communities know what will be going on as a consequence of electrification? Staff in my office have asked for information and timetables, but so far we have heard nothing. If would be helpful to know when local commuters will be informed fully.
An example of the uncertainty caused is that commuters at Severn Tunnel Junction raised the issue of the safety of the passenger footbridge, which many rail users feel is unsafe. In fact, an Arriva fire inspector expressed concerns a few weeks ago and Network Rail was forced to do remedial work. If it is unsafe, it must be sorted out, but the latest letter we received from Network Rail—it has been a lengthy correspondence—said that the delay in sorting it out was due to the electrification plans. We have been chasing information about the bridge for some time, but the situation is now critical. The new bridge is funded under the Department for Transport’s Access for All scheme, but is clearly unsuitable as it is now. Will the Minister please intervene with Network Rail, because his Department is funding the improvements? We need action quickly.
I want to discuss the renewal of the Great Western franchise. We have all recently been asked to respond to the consultation on the franchise, which I have done. Rail groups in my constituency want to reiterate to the Minister that whoever is awarded the contract needs to meet commuter demands. In my area that would include a half-hourly or better train service from south Wales to Bristol Temple Meads and Bath; an additional hourly service from Ebbw Vale via Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction to Bristol Parkway, which would provide new journey-to-work opportunities to take advantage of the development and employment sites planned for the area around Bristol Parkway; a minimum of five coaches on the peak services from south Wales to Bristol; a commitment to ensure that train capacity is sufficient for future demand; and greater emphasis in the franchise on working in partnership on interchanges, and on rail companies working together on timetables.
Getting rail services right in my constituency is an important part of the effort to increase economic and employment opportunities, but we should also give commuters the service they deserve, given how much they pay for it. The debate is focused on getting the cross-border services right, but I should also mention the great work that the Welsh Government are doing on the metro system, which could be of great benefit to communities in my area, such as the people of Magor who are campaigning for a new station through the Magor action group on rail.
It is so important for constituencies such as mine that the two Governments work together on rail as we depend on a properly co-ordinated approach and properly thought out train services. I know that other Members will make more general points about other cross-border rail issues, but I am grateful to the Minister for listening to my speech and hope that he will address some of my specific concerns about the franchise.
At the risk of sounding like Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen”, the first job I ever had, at the age of seven, was casing on Rhyl railway station with my older cousins. We would take a pram, and the trains would roll in, 10 to 14 carriages long, and disgorge their passengers. People did not have cars back in the 1960s—or not many working class people did—so they would place their cases on our prams and we would take them to the guesthouses, hotels and caravan parks in Rhyl and round about.
The train has been good to Rhyl and Prestatyn. The train arrived in Rhyl, my hometown, in 1849. I was recently talking to a 94-year-old local historian from Prestatyn, Fred Hobbs, who has researched the topic. He told me that when the train came to Prestatyn, it opened up the Welsh seaside towns to the industrialists and merchants of Manchester and Liverpool, who came and lived in Rhyl and Prestatyn and commuted to Liverpool and Manchester. They brought with them their wealth and investment, and our local towns prospered.
Rhyl was just a fishing village back in the 1840s, but it grew and grew: between 1849 and 1900, there were 900 hotels and guesthouses. The train brought great wealth to the town. The west ward of Rhyl was one of the richest wards in Wales because of the investment in hotels and guesthouses. Unfortunately, those ex-hotels and ex-guesthouses are responsible for the deprivation of seaside towns, as they have now been turned into houses of multiple occupation, but that is a discussion for another day.
The train has been good to the coastal towns of north Wales, and especially to Holyhead. The route planned in the 1840s went from London to Dublin, which was still part of the British empire in those days. It was a very important route. We want to ensure that the primacy of that route in the 19th century is re-established in the 21st century. The trains and transport links to north Wales brought wealth and investment right through the 20th century, up until the 1960s when I was casing to make a few bob on a Saturday morning. The downturn came to the north Wales coast in the 1970s, when people stopped coming to coastal towns for their traditional two-week bucket-and-spade holidays in a coastal town and chose to go elsewhere—to Spain and France. That left a big hole in the north Wales economy for a 40-year period, and we are only just beginning to put that right.
The challenge for the 21st century in north Wales is better connectivity between north Wales and the north-west of England. There are 650,000 people living in north Wales, and 6.5 million people live in the north-west—it is a huge population centre, and if a bit more of the area across the Pennines is included, it becomes even bigger. That was an opportunity in the past, it is an opportunity in the present and it is an opportunity for the future. We must improve train and transport connectivity.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must think about that now for the future? One problem is that rail has been something of an afterthought. Industry and a lot of other things have come, but the rail system is not up to the standard required to serve industry and the people of our area.
I agree with my hon. Friend to a certain degree, but he is no great user of the train, unlike me and my north Wales colleagues. I have witnessed a vast transformation from when I became an MP in 1997 and it took me four hours to arrive in London from Rhyl in my constituency. The trains then were grubby and had not been cleaned; there was chewing gum on the old and faded seats. Now, we have Pendolino and Voyager trains. There has been massive investment, for which I am grateful to Virgin and Arriva. There has been improvement, but I agree with my hon. Friend that we must not rest on our laurels.
Huge investment—something like £45 billion—is coming from HS2. I want to ensure that my area, the north Wales coast, gets its fair share of that investment—that we are electrified and our stations are improved. Big progress has been made: Chester, Flint and Prestatyn stations have been improved—a huge investment of £7 million was spent on Prestatyn. Last week Arriva, Network Rail and Denbighshire county council started a £2.5 million improvement programme for Rhyl railway station. Improvements have been made, but we must not rest on our laurels. We must push for further investment in our stations along the north Wales coast.
The big cities of Liverpool and Manchester were totally transformed under a Labour Government, and we did not make enough of that. Those cities were derelict and riot-strewn in the 1980s, and they are now vibrant communities. Manchester has one of the biggest student population bases in Europe, with 45,000 students. Liverpool is the same. Two principal airports serve north Wales, Liverpool and Manchester, and they have both grown exponentially over the past 10 years. They are the local airports for north Wales, and we need connectivity to them. It is difficult to get directly to those airports by train, so we need to consider a dedicated transport link from the north Wales coast to Liverpool and Manchester airports.
Liverpool and Manchester have huge population bases and huge research capacity at Manchester and Liverpool universities. We need to connect those universities with businesses in north Wales such as Airbus, the OpTIC incubation and research centre in St Asaph in my constituency and Bangor university. We need more co-operation, which would increase and improve if we had proper transport links. Connecting the science base of the north-west with the science base of north Wales would be helped tremendously by a proper transport system.
North Wales not only needs to be better connected with England; we need better connections inside Wales, including with the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) in north-east Wales. In 1998, the Labour Government made a £0.5 billion launch aid investment in Airbus, with the Welsh Government investing £25 million. That was a public-private partnership that produced one of the most expansive factories in western Europe. There are 6,000 engineering jobs at Airbus making the biggest wings in the whole world. We have to ensure that our population base in north Wales, especially in the bigger coastal towns that have large numbers of unemployed people, is better connected to the job opportunities at Airbus and the Deeside industrial estate in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Tens of thousands of jobs have been created and will be created, and they need to be made available to unemployed and underemployed people along the north Wales coast.
Ten years ago, the Department for Work and Pensions provided transport grants that helped people get to work. We should be drawing down grant money, European funding, DWP funding or Welsh Government funding to ensure that we have dedicated pull-in stations and dedicated trains early in the morning to take those workers to the huge factories in north-east Wales.
I will conclude on modal points, where trains connect with airports and hovercraft. I am probably one of only two MPs who can claim to have a constituency that has been, or will be, served by a hovercraft. The first passenger hovercraft service in the whole world was between Rhyl in my constituency and Wallasey. I mentioned that fact in a debate in this Chamber in December, and within three days, three hovercraft companies contacted me about restarting the service. The time taken to travel from Rhyl to Liverpool by train is one-and-a-half hours, possibly involving two changes. The time taken for a hovercraft connection to Liverpool would be 34 minutes. I would like to see people coming along the north Wales coast by rail, stopping at Rhyl railway station and getting on the hovercraft for a direct passage to Liverpool. The proposal is for a hover link that takes people from north Wales, through Rhyl, to Liverpool airport. That is a fantastic opportunity, but we need to ensure that we have the facilities to take people by rail, by car or by bus from Rhyl to Liverpool.
We are also blessed in Wales with a fine coastal path. We are the only country in the UK that has committed to, and delivered, a path along the whole coast. Walkers are coming to Wales, and in my constituency we are blessed with being at the northern end of the Offa’s Dyke footpath. We need to ensure that walkers can come to Rhyl or Prestatyn by train to do their rambling—I hope I am not rambling, but I intend to finish soon.
Yes, I am hovering about rambling. Thanks very much.
In Wales we are also blessed with fine cycleways, most of which are along the coast. The Sustrans bid for Big Lottery funding delivered a £4.5 million dedicated cycle bridge at Rhyl harbour. We need to make the most of the investments that have come to my town and north Wales by connecting them to rail users, which is a challenge for all of us. We have two well performing train companies. Virgin has massively improved the service over the past 14 or 15 years, and we north Wales Labour MPs campaigned to ensure that Virgin did not lose the franchise. We were highly concerned when it looked as if a second-rate company was going to take over the franchise, and I hope that Virgin continues to invest. Arriva Trains Wales is also investing heavily in north Wales, but we need to put pressure on the train companies to ensure that they deliver not for the past or for the present but for the future.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) tell us about Rhyl station. Big changes have happened in north Wales and in the rest of the country over the past 30 or 40 years. For the benefit of the Minister, it is important to appreciate that north-east Wales, and its economy, is among the most successful and progressive areas of the country. North-east Wales has world-beating companies in the aerospace, automotive and pharmaceutical sectors that compete internationally to secure jobs and high-quality investment for British industry. In a globalised economy, it is important that the world knows we have infrastructure that is competitive, enabling those businesses and people in north Wales to journey to north-west England and beyond.
There is good news for my constituency of Wrexham, because the Welsh Government are investing some £44 million in dualling the line between Wrexham and Chester. In the 1980s, the Conservative Government made the absurd decision to limit the infrastructure for rail services between the largest town in north Wales, Wrexham, and Chester, which therefore inhibited regular rail services. Ever since, we have been able to have only one train an hour between Wrexham and Chester. In fact, we re-established an hourly service only in 2007—the impact had been so negative that rail usage substantially diminished.
Since the reintroduction of hourly services in 2007, there has been a massive increase in the use of rail services, which I see every week when I travel to London. The economy of this important economic area has developed, Glyndwr university has been established and we have seen a large increase in rail usage.
It is important that we use this opportunity to introduce three trains an hour between Wrexham and Chester, which would provide a major boost to the local manufacturing and retail economies by increasing the connectivity between Wrexham and Chester. Businesses that operate on both sides of the border would benefit from access to new markets. Such investments are important, and there are massive further opportunities in the immediate area of north-east Wales.
Another cross-border line runs between Wrexham and Liverpool, and my hon. Friends from north Wales will forgive me for mentioning it again. It runs from Wrexham, the largest town in north Wales, by the Deeside industrial estate, which has businesses such as Toyota, and goes through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), up through the Wirral, very close to the GM factory at Ellesmere Port, then up through to Birkenhead, and links in to Liverpool. The service is interrupted by a necessary change at the Bidston interchange. Direct access along that line would be a massive boost for north-east Wales, the Wirral and north-west England as a whole, so it is important that we consider looking at that line again and designing an improved infrastructure.
In my role as a shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, I visit other countries, particularly in the middle east and Africa, and it is striking to see the investment and support for infrastructure that our competitors are introducing to their economies. Those people are keen to secure the jobs that our own constituents have at the moment and that our young people wish to have in future, so we must focus on delivering improvements to our infrastructure. Although we have had some improvements, particularly on the longer journeys from north Wales to London, which my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd mentioned, the connectivity between north-west England and north Wales is still limited and needs to be much better.
Focusing on the airports is massively important. The airports that serve north Wales are Manchester and Liverpool, but it is virtually impossible to travel to either by public transport. The region has an increasingly choked road system that was essentially designed in the 1970s and 1980s, and in substance has not changed since. It is absolutely imperative that we focus on delivering an improved public transport system to service the airports and to increase connectivity. If we do not do so, we will lose out in the longer term to our competitors.
For me the real frustration over the years has been the investment system, which is too centralised to be able to deliver local transport projects. I am pleased by the tone and content of the Adonis review, which was issued yesterday and talked about the importance of much more regional approaches to investment across England. The lesson also applies in Wales. We cannot have a top-down system only in Whitehall or Cardiff Bay—away from the localities that actually understand the need for local investment and how to facilitate it—determining investment in regional rail projects. That is one of the major reasons why our infrastructure system is so bad.
Contrast that with, for example, Frankfurt in Germany. On a recent visit, I saw the connectivity between the rail system and the airport system. The city is a major regional power player in Germany. There is a regionalised system of cities such as Hamburg, Munich and Berlin, which all contribute massively to their regional economies. The fact is that in the United Kingdom—this issue affects all our constituents—there is a massive focus on south-east England. The major transport infrastructure investments have gone to south-east England. That is unbalancing the economy throughout the country. It is a central issue not only for our constituents, but for the whole United Kingdom.
A tide is flowing in all political parties that recognises the importance of that issue. The practical impact of the policies we are pursuing is that we do not have the regional investment to facilitate projects that could create world class infrastructure. It is important that we have the capacity and the authority in north Wales to develop regional infrastructures. The development of lines such as Wrexham and Chester and Wrexham and Liverpool would facilitate investment in the rail system, which would support business and jobs in the local economy. Give us the responsibility, authority and power to make decisions, and we will continue to deliver a powerful economy in north-east Wales that will be able to compete in future.
Thank you, Mrs Riordan, for calling me to speak in an important debate on an important issue in mid-Wales. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate. She spoke about services in south Wales and there have been contributions on north Wales, but I specifically want to talk about the services that serve not only my constituency of Montgomeryshire, but mid-Wales.
The line from Aberystwyth, on the extreme west coast of Wales, to London runs in two parts: from Aberystwyth to Birmingham, and the direct service from Shrewsbury to London. They overlap to some extent, but the two lines are particularly important for that rail journey. As other Members have said, the line is very important for the economy of mid-Wales. Perhaps more so than in other parts of Wales, the railway tackles the perception of remoteness, which has always been a negative factor in attracting business.
My purpose today is not to make demands of the Minister. I am highlighting the importance of both parts of the line, and I want to make certain that the long overdue good news that we have had about the intention to invest in both parts comes to fruition and is beneficial.
First, on the Aberystwyth to Birmingham line, I have been involved in the campaign for an upgrade for about 30 years, so I have a reasonable right to call this a long overdue investment. The first issue was upgrading the line with passing places to enable an hourly train service. There has been only a two-hourly service, which is hopelessly inadequate. The campaign started 20 or 30 years ago, and money has been invested. It has taken a long time, but we now have a commitment from Arriva Trains and the Welsh Government that an hourly service will be introduced. I think the various people associated with running the trains are now being trained. The service is due to run from May 2015, just in time to bring the newly elected Members in the general election of 2015 from mid-Wales to London.
The second part of the line is the Shrewsbury to Euston connection, which is hugely important to mid-Wales. People will be able to drive to Shrewsbury, park, and then catch the direct service to London. Having to change is incredibly inconvenient and it discourages people from using the line. I would prefer to use the train and not drive to London, but that is simply inconvenient for me. However, the hourly train service will change that.
Such a service used to run, but it was stopped. We had a promise that it would run when there was an agreement with FirstGroup to provide a west coast main line service. The franchise was let, but it was cancelled. Now, of course, there is an agreement with Virgin Trains that the line will run from December. Perhaps the Minister will confirm how often that train will run and at what times. It is hugely important that it runs at convenient times that enable people who wish to work in and travel to London to use it. Otherwise, we would deliver on a promise but not deliver on the actual need.
So, there are two aspects. One is the line within Wales, which we anticipate will come into effect in May next year. I very much hope that that is the case. There is no reason why it should not happen, but we must always be vigilant to ensure that it does. Secondly, the Minister here today has responsibility for the direct line from Shrewsbury to Euston, and I very much hope that that line comes to fruition later this year, with times and frequency that are convenient for the people of mid-Wales.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate, which is extremely important to all of us in Wales.
First, I will speak about the main line that goes from London to Fishguard, connecting to ships going over to Rosslare in Ireland. The line goes right through my constituency, passing through the stations of Llanelli, Burry Port and Kidwelly. It is absolutely vital that we are part of the trans-European network and that we have good connections on the line.
Recently, the Welsh Government made significant investment in the Loughor bridge, which has enabled it to take two-way traffic, but what grieves me is how few through trains we have. I hope that, with the new franchise, the fact that we have this new bridge will enable us to have much greater connectivity and far more through trains. To have only one train from west Wales up to London and only one from London to west Wales per day is not good enough, and even those trains go only as far as Carmarthen; they do not go right up to the Pembrokeshire coast.
The problem that that poses for people is the lack of connectivity. There is the inconvenience of having to change trains and the fact that, often, the trains run by First Great Western are late, so people end up having to wait at stations for long periods—usually Cardiff, Port Talbot or Swansea—because there is simply no way to get from west Wales to London without changing, except for two trains, one each way, per day.
Let me give an example. If I got the 5.25 am train from Llanelli to come up to London morning, I would hope that I could make a 10 am meeting in London by getting to London at 9 am. However, only recently I had the experience of sitting on that 5.25 am train, which had been five minutes late, and being told that we were waiting outside Port Talbot station to let the First Great Western train go through, so the very train that I needed to catch to get to London was passing by my window. My only option, therefore, is to get the 3.25 am train if I want to get to an early morning meeting in London, which is quite inconvenient.
Rail is also vital for freight. We have refineries in Milford Haven and obviously the steel industry also uses the railway line. Last winter, storm damage closed this line for three or four days. Mercifully, that was all the time it was closed for. However, there is significant risk of closure because the railway line follows the coastline, which is exposed to the elements, and it will need continuing investment. I stress that that needs to be UK Government investment, because this line connects London with Ireland.
I look forward to electrification and remind those present that the Labour Government had a commitment to electrify as far as Swansea. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) will speak at greater length about what has happened since then and about the uncertainty over electrification.
I understand fully why we are not going for bimodal trains—trains that can be both diesel and electric. They are heavier than other trains and any investment in them would be a major investment, for what I hope would be only the short term. I want electrification to come not only to Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea, but right through west Wales. However, there will be an issue when part of the line is electrified: when that happens, where will we change trains and how will that change work?
To my mind, addressing that issue will be crucial to keeping passengers loyal to the service, because if the process of electrification is messed up and we end up with yet another, perhaps inconvenient change—bearing in mind that we already have one change for west Wales—that will make things very difficult.
I would like there to be only one change—a change off the train from where the line has been electrified up to and on to another train to take people all the way to west Wales. Whether that happens to be at Swindon or at Bristol, there should be only one change so that we do not end up with people having to make two changes to reach west Wales.
The line that goes from Pembrokeshire up to Manchester Piccadilly can be a useful service if I am going to conference, but I do not meet many passengers who go all the way from Pembrokeshire to Manchester. The argument that the train will not stop in some local stations such as Kidwelly because it is trying to get from Pembrokeshire to Manchester as quickly as possible seems to be completely fallacious. If someone is going to spend six or seven hours on a train anyway, an extra 10 minutes is neither here nor there. The fact that this train is going through stations at a very low speed but does not always stop at them is extremely annoying. If it stopped just on request, that would be a help. The argument about not stopping is fallacious, and I understand that some towns on the English side of the border are also concerned about the fact that some of those trains do not stop at their station.
I reiterate the comments on overcrowding made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East. I have constituents who commute to Filton Abbey Wood and to Bristol, and they have to change and catch very overcrowded trains. If they cannot get on those trains, they are disadvantaged as they are unable to get connecting trains back to west Wales, so they are very concerned about overcrowding.
We need a much greater number of Sunday services, particularly in winter, when it is impossible to get from my constituency to important places such as Twickenham, where rugby matches happen. People cannot get there on a Sunday, and I am sure the Minister understands the importance of such sporting events. Not to be able to get from west Wales to London on a Sunday in time to get to a match is obviously very much a disadvantage nowadays, when people do so much on a Sunday, from shopping to—of course—going away on holiday.
That brings me to the issue of the train that, last year, got stuck in remotest Wiltshire for six hours. It was a First Great Western train coming from the west country, but it could equally well have been a train from west Wales. I wrote to the Minister asking what lessons had been learned from that case, or perhaps I put down a parliamentary question, but it was too early to get a response because a report on the case had not been produced by that time. I hope that that report has now been produced; I could not understand how that case happened. We all allow for First Great Western trains being at least an hour late, if not two or three hours late, but when people are going away on holiday they do not allow time for a train to be six hours late. People were kept on that train without adequate water for all that time.
I understand that it was not necessarily possible to get a bus up to where the train had stopped, but it would have been possible to get other trains along the track, which would either have allowed passengers to be decanted and taken on or allowed water to be taken to the passengers. A six-hour delay is completely unacceptable, and I hope that steps have been taken so that my constituents do not have to face such a situation if they are going away and hoping to get to Heathrow airport or are going to London for any other reason this summer.
I will make one last point that may not seem terribly relevant to this cross-border debate, but is terribly relevant if people have to change trains: on Cardiff station and on Port Talbot station, it is impossible to get into a ladies toilet cubicle with a very large suitcase, probably because the cubicles are made to a specific design that came from one book. I would suggest that some quite large or portly women might find it difficult to get themselves into those cubicles. Of course, it becomes necessary for people to use the cubicles if they have to change trains, and for some passengers—in particular, some older passengers—using toilets on trains is quite difficult.
Will the Minister take note of the fact that, whenever stations are being redesigned, consideration should be given to that issue, so that we do not end up with the situation we used to have in Paddington, whereby people had not only to go down stairs, but get their suitcases over a turnstile before they could get to a cubicle. That has now been put right, and people can use the disabled toilet on the platform. Nevertheless, those issues need to be taken into consideration.
I noticed an advert in London the other day that mentioned a Virgin train from London to Manchester costing just £19 and taking two hours and nine minutes, a train from London to Birmingham taking one hour and 24 minutes and costing £7.50 and, of course, one from London to Swansea that takes three hours and costs £78.
The Government have decided to invest more than £40 billion in High Speed 2. There is an issue about geographical equity in economic development, and we need to think about that. Some £5,000 per head is spent in London, versus £500 elsewhere. It is important to people from Wales—certainly, those from south Wales—to link up to the city regions in south Wales, which are also networked into the city regions in the south-west. As it happens, my father was the head of economic development in the Welsh Office many years ago—Rhodri Morgan used to work for him, interestingly enough—when a study was done showing that, in respect of the invoice network, the economy of south Wales was linked more to the south-west than to north Wales. Clearly, infrastructure investment in rail and road connectivity should follow that.
There has been talk about HS2 connecting to north Wales, but KPMG has suggested that it will be different in south Wales and that we in Swansea, for example, will be losing some £16 million a year and Cardiff will lose £70 million a year. There is a case for a Barnett consequential of approaching £2 billion to help connectivity to south Wales.
I appreciate that the Minister will mention electrification, and I was pleased that the Prime Minister promised to electrify the railway from Paddington to Swansea, but I should like some clarification on that, because there is a bit of a spat going on with the Welsh Government. It now seems that the Government are saying that they will electrify as far as Cardiff and then from Bridgend to Swansea, but not from Cardiff to Bridgend. The issue is who pays for the electrification of the valleys lines. In my mind, the bit that runs from Cardiff to Bridgend, which is not the valleys, does not seem to be involved in this spat and should be paid for by the Prime Minister’s undertaking. Although we welcome electrification, we will be worse off downstream in inward investment, as I have already said.
My focus is on acknowledging that we should be making connections between the economic clusters in, for example, Neath-Port Talbot, Swansea and Lllanelli, and Cardiff and the valleys, so that we can stimulate economic growth. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned tolls. Today is not the time to talk about tolls, but, again, that is a cost for south Wales that is not faced elsewhere.
We have a second-class service. In that regard, hon. Members have mentioned the frequency of trains, which is arguably equivalent to train speeds. From Swansea, there are two trains an hour to London Paddington, one at 28 minutes past the hour and one at five minutes to the hour, and people have to change at Cardiff from one of those trains. However, on the way back, at various times, particularly in the afternoon, there is only one train an hour. An inward investor thinking of investing, and going back and forth between Swansea and London, might have to wait nearly an hour at Paddington before getting a train, and they will then spend three hours on the train—a total of four hours. I urge the Minister to work with the Welsh Government on train timetabling. For example, in the other direction—I do not mean to be too parochial—people get the Manchester Piccadilly train one way, get off at Cardiff and then pick up another train and go on. On the way back, why can they not get the Cardiff train, then pick up the Manchester Piccadilly train or even a Bath train?
Hon. Members mentioned connectivity with Manchester. Looking at traffic flows, the economic network is, as I mentioned earlier, with the south-west, not with Manchester. It would be better to have much better, regular connectivity between Swansea and Bath and the south-west than connectivity with Manchester. Traffic flow and volume make the economic case for frequency and connectivities. I appreciate that it would involve working with the Welsh Government to get the train timetabling right. That is a simple thing that could be done within the next weeks, and overnight we could end up with an assurance of having two trains an hour from Paddington to Swansea. That would make a big difference to me when talking to inward investors who might want to go to Swansea bay city region.
There has been talk about nationalising Arriva Trains and about public ownership of various franchises. The Minister knows that the east coast main line is in public control and we are saving something like £700 million a year. It is worth looking at such cases around Britain. I understand that in Wales, we are spending some £170 million a year of taxpayers’ money on Arriva Trains. Again, the Welsh Government should look at that, not for the sake of it, but to deliver best value for money for the taxpayer.
I appreciate that Deutsche Bahn, the biggest railway company in Europe, has command over our freight system and, with a turnover of £39 billion, has the economic muscle to make the investment. I am particularly interested in investment in the south Wales rail network to make it part of the transnational transport network acknowledged by Europe. As Members will know, South Wales is not on the map of strategic European rail routes that people are willing to invest in; the connectivity just goes up the spine of England, not to south Wales, and one reason is that the criteria for such investment include core ports and airports.
In respect of the Silk report, there is a case for nationalisation of ports in Wales, in particular—the Minister may think this is an ideological point—so that Swansea port and the port at Port Talbot would be regarded as one port. Then we could increase the amount of freight to that port, triggering a process to make it a core port and in turn triggering its becoming part of the transnational rail network. That in turn would trigger European funding to provide connectivity that would then extend, transnationally, over to Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) made those points.
The trouble is that, if the only way to get rail investment is on the basis of its being demand-led as opposed to supply-led, we will always have a problem in Wales. The reality of the economics of transport is that, when a rail or tube link, or whatever, is provided, more people use it and more people buy houses, so house prices increase and there is more economic activity. To a certain extent, we have to lead with greater frequency and greater investment, and I certainly want to see that.
I am asking the Minister about extra investment in Wales, so that we get our fair share; about the frequency of trains; about whether he has a balanced view of whether the public or the private sector should run particular train franchises; and about whether he is willing for the public sector to bid in, as with the east coast main line. That would, of course, be a question for the Welsh Government.
In passing, let me mention some other rail projects. We should look more imaginatively at opportunities for some trains to go directly to Swansea from Cardiff without stopping, or from Cardiff to Port Talbot Parkway, with a light rail route going all the way through to the Mumbles.
The Minister may or may not know about the conversations about the Swansea tidal lagoon. I saw a presentation recently about it—three new lagoons would be provided, stretching across Swansea bay city region, but not the whole way across. It would not go as far as Swansea bay itself, so as not to distort the view towards the Mumbles. There would be a reconfiguration of the road and rail networks and a visitor centre that would generate, in the view of the plan’s originator, some 3 million visitors a year.
Will the Minister explain whether the planning regime is merely some sort of incremental process of upgrading, extending or reducing existing networks, or whether it is part of a more creative vision of economic development, which perhaps embraces a vision of Swansea—the area I represent—as not only an economic and academic hub, with its universities and traditional industry, but a quality tourist destination, building on the city of culture bid, Dylan Thomas and so on? That vision is of a place in a global marketplace, in which increasing numbers of people from China, India, Russia and Brazil want to go to English-speaking non-sun cultural destinations. How should that infrastructure be planned? How should we provide multi-modal connectivity with road, rail and the development of Cardiff airport to ensure that that vision works in a holistic way, rather than keeping an incremental, slightly pedestrian approach to transport planning?
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this important debate. Indeed, I thank all my hon. Friends for their contributions. Clearly, the transport infrastructure linking Wales and England is of great importance. In many ways the debate represents a continuation of the ongoing parliamentary scrutiny of cross-border transport links. It follows the publication of the Welsh Affairs Committee’s 2012 report on cross-border road and rail connections, which was debated in Westminster Hall in February and the Westminster Hall debate in November on transport infrastructure in north Wales, which was ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami).
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East set out the real challenges for her constituents, including those who commute over the border. She spoke about the difficulties of aligning timetables so that connections can be made, and the overcrowding that some passengers still experience. I am familiar with some of those services, because the CrossCountry trains from Cardiff terminate in my constituency at Nottingham station. I have a sense of how overcrowded those trains can be. Clearly, however, there are significant issues with some First Great Western services in her constituency. It is clear from her contribution that more needs to be done, and it is important that the Department look closely at the rolling stock issues that she raised, which are giving rise to that overcrowding.
A similar message may well apply to all rail services in Wales and cross-border services. In the past 20 years, passenger numbers in Wales have more than doubled, and the increase in the number of people travelling between Wales and England has been almost as impressive. As my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said—in fact, I think everybody has said this—it is vital that people in Wales can connect to airports and the jobs and educational opportunities available in places such as Manchester and Liverpool. Similarly, good connections are needed in south Wales to Bristol, Bath and other places in the south-west. The Welsh Assembly Government have successfully opened the Ebbw Vale line, where passenger numbers have exceeded all expectations, and there was the welcome news in April that hourly peak services will be funded between Aberystwyth and Shrewsbury, starting next year. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who is no longer in his place, noted that that would be just in time to carry newly elected Labour MPs. The internal devolution within Network Rail is an important step towards achieving a more cost-efficient railway that is more responsive to local issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham described the welcome investment in the Wrexham-Chester line, and we have also seen funding committed for greatly improved cross-border inter-city services through investment in electrification and the new intercity express programme trains.
There are, however, real obstacles to overcome. The cuts of the Beeching era, a long time ago now, still cast a long shadow. The Heart of Wales line only narrowly evaded closure. It is well known that a rail journey from south Wales to the north is by necessity a cross-border trip, as passengers must travel into England first. As we have heard, there have been problems with timetabling onward connections. Given the number of services that cross the border at some point on their journey, there is a continuing need for close co-operation between Governments and transport authorities. One cross-border operator was lost in 2011, when Wrexham & Shropshire failed. Passengers as well as some of the excellent local rail user groups that have been mentioned hope that existing services can be improved across Wales. I know from colleagues that it can sometimes cause frustration if we talk about north and south Wales in isolation, but it is important that future service specifications take into account the needs of passengers in mid-Wales and west Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) described some of the frustrations facing her and her constituents and touched on issues to do with freight operations.
Welsh Ministers have spoken of their desire to play an active role in shaping service priorities after the Wales & Border franchise expires in 2018, and the National Assembly for Wales will be entitled to act as co-signatory under the Railways Act 2005. However, in their submission to the Silk commission of March last year the Government said that the Department for Transport
“is in discussion with the Welsh Government to assess the feasibility of devolving franchise responsibilities, the financial and legal requirements of doing so and how the UK Government’s interests in services affecting locations in England could be protected.”
Will the Minister update the House on any progress arising from those discussions? What form does he envisage that devolution taking, and would he compare the models under discussion to the control that the Scottish Government exercise over the ScotRail franchise? What proposals has he put forward for managing risk, and what protections would be in place for English customers whose services are provided by Arriva Trains Wales? His answers will be of keen interest to passengers and transport planners on both sides of the border.
Further discussions have so far yielded more heat than light from the Westminster Government, and I hope that the Minister will provide some illumination. In the official response to the Welsh Affairs Committee’s 2012 report, the Government said that they would
“work with the Welsh Government to explore how Wales can get the most out of the new national high speed rail network.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) spoke about maximising Wales’s benefits from investment. Will the Minister update us on that work? We have heard Members speak about how High Speed 2 will bring direct benefits to Wales and its cross-border services—in particular, I have in mind the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones)—but can we expect to see a strategy document from the Government? In the same official response, the Government stated:
“The UK Government will continue to work with the Welsh Government and train operators to identify cases where the frequency of cross-border rail services could be increased, without the need for additional public subsidy.”
Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made in that area? The Welsh Government have committed to funding hourly peak services from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury in 2015, but have any additional cross-border services been identified by the UK Government since that commitment was made last May?
On transport investment, it is certainly true that the Welsh Administration have looked at additional projects, but it must be recognised that they are doing so in an extremely challenging climate. The Tory-led Westminster Government have cut the Welsh capital budget by almost a third, which has constrained the ability of Welsh Ministers to deliver important investment projects, and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that those restraints are holding back growth. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham described the importance of improving transport infrastructure to support economic regeneration, and the strong desire for more local decision making, closer to those who understand the population’s needs, is well known.
Notwithstanding the improvements that have already been secured, we believe that the Government’s proposals for devolution, as set out in the Wales Bill, do not go far enough. In particular, Ministers have not explained why Wales must have a borrowing cap that is more constrained, on a like-for-like basis, than that of Scotland. The Silk commission concluded that the Welsh Government should have
“the capacity to borrow for capital investment on a prudent basis subject to limits agreed with HM Treasury.”
That investment could well be in public transport schemes, such as the rapid transit proposals for Cardiff mentioned today which have secured additional funding. Such projects could attract investment to deprived areas and deliver much needed skilled jobs, but the allocation of that funding should be decided by Welsh Ministers and the Welsh National Assembly. Long-term funding settlements could deliver the certainty needed to keep costs low and to ensure that projects are actually delivered, as would the political stability that would be established were the Welsh Government’s powers moved from a conferred to a reserved basis, as my colleagues in the shadow Wales team have set out.
That desire for stability contrasts with the reality under this Government. Electrification of the great western main line is a case in point. Despite the previous Labour Government committing to the project in 2009, it was paused after May 2010. We then faced a drawn-out process by which the plans were slowly reconfirmed. Electrification to Newbury was announced in November 2009, but the project’s extension to Cardiff was not announced until March 2011. Ministers said then that the line to Swansea would not be electrified, as originally planned. A year later and in the face of public pressure, however, they agreed that the route to Swansea would be electrified after all. In other words, thanks to the Government’s prevarication, a project initially announced in July 2009 was not confirmed until three years later. Following the delay in bringing forward that investment, will the Minister offer an assurance that the reported hold-ups in the initial works elsewhere on the line will not cause the timetable for electrification to Wales to slip? I hope that he will also assure my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea West and for Llanelli about future services and connections.
Similarly, the Government’s position on valley lines electrification has also changed somewhat. Ministers need to demonstrate that they are working in a spirit of constructive collaboration with their counterparts in Cardiff, and I hope that the Minister will provide an update on progress in the talks between the two Governments and answers to the questions posed by my hon. Friends.
Finally, I have a technical question for the Minister. Level 2 European rail traffic management system technology—ERTMS—has been trialled on the Cambrian line, but teething problems have been reported. What conclusions have been drawn from the trial? Is ERTMS fully operational again on the line following the extreme weather damage in January and the reopening of the line to Harlech in May?
In conclusion, the railways helped to forge the industrial strength of both England and Wales. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd described in interesting terms, the tourism industry in Welsh seaside towns depended on the development of the railways—and obviously provided employment for young boys in Rhyl. From the world’s first passenger rail services on the Swansea and Mumbles railway to Brunel’s Severn tunnel, Wales has a railway heritage to be proud of. Cross-border services make a vital contribution to the modern economy of Wales and those of its neighbouring English city regions. It is clear from today’s debate that hon. Members of all parties want to see those services improved.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. Today’s debate has shown the importance of transport and the rail industry to economic growth and the lives and livelihood of so many people across the country. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate.
Many of the questions that hon. Members have posed this morning reflect the challenges of success. Since the Conservative Government took the decision to privatise the railways back in 1993, the number of people using the railways has doubled. The hon. Lady raised issues of great importance to the economic development of both England and Wales. From her service as a member of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, she will know that cross-border links have been the subject of several inquiries, as have tolls on the Severn bridge, and I am grateful that she did not raise that matter today.
I will now address several of the points that hon. Members have raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Newport East asked some specific questions about her constituency, some of which I will answer in writing, if I may. On timetabling, however, franchise agreements require train operating companies to co-ordinate services, but that co-ordination clearly has not been as strong in certain areas as it might. There has been dialogue between the Severn tunnel action group, Arriva Trains Wales, Arriva and the Welsh Government, but I am disappointed that no sensible conclusion has been reached thus far. I urge the groups to continue to talk, because meeting the obligation is possible.
On connectivity, some of which is determined by constraints on the Cardiff to Cheltenham and Birmingham to Bristol routes, if there is a solution, which is possible, it will require some substantial work by Network Rail, the TOCs and the Welsh Government to investigate the options and then agree on one.
The hon. Lady also mentioned her constituents’ desire to be able to use the Bristol service to work there. Some substantial work has been done with local authorities in the west of England to fund additional services, including those to Portishead, which will introduce a metro service to the area. While that is of benefit to the Bristol area, as the hon. Lady is right to say, we are currently encouraging the Welsh Government and the West of England local enterprise partnership to talk to ensure greater connectivity between the two schemes, which would be of benefit to her constituents.
The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) spoke of his time as a casing boy, as I think he described it. Although probably not as glamorous as that of the hon. Gentleman, I too had a job on the railways and spent two rather hot summers as a carriage cleaner many years ago during my university career. He was right to mention the potential of connectivity to Airbus in Deeside to generate jobs, but that is unfortunately a matter for the Welsh Government, so I urge him to take the matter up with them to see whether it can be improved.
Most issues concerning rail services wholly inside Wales are now a matter for the Welsh Government, which is the key point here.
The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who is no longer in his place, suggested that rail is an afterthought. That may or may not have been the case previously, but it is certainly not the case under this Government. Rail is at the heart of both our economic and transport strategies.
The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) referred to the scale of investment that he had seen elsewhere. The scale of investment proposed in the current control period between now and 2019 dwarfs any of the investment that he has seen in any other country, because £38 billion is being invested in this country’s rail system. On top of that, £30 billion is going towards the road system. He mentioned regional input, and we will soon be announcing local growth funds, into which local authorities will bid. We have also encouraged local authorities to come up with local rail projects, and there is also the local pinch point fund, so there is much local activity.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Wrexham to Bidston line, and I recognise and understand his desire for its electrification. At the moment, however, the aspiration should be to get a more frequent diesel service so that plans can move forward. The hon. Gentleman is right to have such hopes and I promise to work with him, because increasing frequency on that line would be of substantial benefit to his constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) spoke of his campaign for an hourly service from mid-Wales so that newly elected Conservative MPs can actually get to London, and I am delighted that that service is in place. He also asked about the new Virgin direct award deal and direct services from Shrewsbury to Euston. I confirm that he is absolutely right: there would be little point in putting in place a service that did not allow for economic growth and for easy movement from London to Shrewsbury, and the other way around, to do a day’s work. The first train in the morning leaves before 6.30 am, but gets into London by 9.15 am; the last train back in the evening leaves around 6.30 pm—I think at 6.32 pm—which gets someone back into Shrewsbury for 9 o’clock, allowing a full day’s work in London if necessary.
The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) made a number of points, some of which I will cover later in my speech. He talked a little about his aspiration for renationalisation of certain parts of the line. I am not entirely sure where that fits with the shadow Chancellor ruling it out on the television on Sunday. I am happy to reaffirm to him, however, that the Government’s view is that franchising, and the creation of partnerships between the public and private sectors, is the best way to get value for money and better services for the fare payer and the customer, as well as the taxpayer. That is clear.
What I was getting at was that the east coast main line is now in public ownership, or publicly run, and we are saving £700 million, so does the Minister have an open mind on individual franchises? There was a basis for competitive tendering to include the public sector, so that we got the best value for money. I am not talking about total nationalisation for the sake of it; I want best value for the taxpayer. Does he agree with that, or does he want to give money away willy-nilly to the private sector because he is the one that is ideologically driven, not me?
I absolutely disagree. The east coast franchise, however, will be out of public hands and back into private hands as a result of the franchising. By the end of the year, we will have announced the winner of that competition.
The hon. Gentleman must have noted the Rail Delivery Group report that came out on Monday, which pointed out that, since privatisation, the level of private sector profits for the rail companies has fallen, while the premium going to the Government has risen by more than £400 million. The facts show not only that privatisation has seen a doubling of passenger numbers, but that franchising has benefited both passenger and taxpayer. He should agree that those facts bear out the point that the process is not ideologically based at all.
The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) talked about the Pembrokeshire to Manchester stopping service, but that is a matter for the Welsh Government, because the stops would be inside Wales. I am sure that the Welsh Government will read her comments, and I hope that they will take them on board. As hon. Members know, it is true that co-operation on and, where appropriate, co-ordination of transport matters between the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government is important to the success of cross-border links. Relationships have advanced significantly and co-operation under the joint parties agreement occurs regularly. The Welsh Government and the Department have a good working relationship. Officials can therefore provide Ministers with the best advice possible to deliver some of the aspirations that we are discussing.
Co-operation between the two Governments is clearly vital if we are to secure the best possible benefit from the record levels of investment now going into the rail network. The investment for 2014 to 2019 that I mentioned—the details were published in July 2012—is built around four priorities: further electrification; increased capacity and faster journey times between key cities; facilitating commuter travel between and into major urban areas; and improving the major railway links to ports and airports. More specifically in Wales, the strategy includes the £1.35 billion electrification of the Great Western main line between London and Cardiff, on which services are expected to be electric by late 2017, and the electrification of the valley lines, which is due to be completed by 2019. Furthermore, the UK Government are specifying and funding electrification of the line from Bridgend to Swansea, thereby completing the 47-mile main line electrification from Cardiff to Swansea.
Is there, therefore, an undertaking for the Government to finance it all the way from Paddington to Swansea? The Minister also seems to be suggesting the valley lines will be included, but is there now at least a commitment that the UK Government will pay from Paddington all the way through to Swansea? Is there clarification of who is paying for the valleys bit?
Will the Minister flag up in all franchise discussions the issue of people having to change trains as the line is gradually electrified, so that we do not end up with more changes than necessary? We want one simple change, if necessary, in Swindon, Bristol or Cardiff, according to how far the electrification has gone, and then to go right through to west Wales.
With regard to that and to First Great Western, we have undertaken a consultation this year about what the services might be and how they might be improved in the next direct award. I hear what the hon. Lady says, and I am keen not only to specify services that provide the best value and best opportunity for travellers, but to allow the privatised companies the best advantage to ensure that they can look at new services and new opportunities for new markets, using innovation within the franchise.
Other elements of our strategy will also be of benefit to Wales. The Heathrow western access scheme will reduce journey times between Cardiff and Heathrow airport by about 30 minutes from 2021. The UK Government have committed to the introduction of super-express trains on the Great Western main line by 2018, which will reduce the journey time between Cardiff and London from about 2 hours to 1 hour and 42 minutes. Crossrail will then speed up access between Paddington and central London from 2019, which will provide a fast, one-change journey from south Wales to the City of London, the docklands and beyond. Welsh stations will also share in the £100 million of station improvement funds and the £100 million of Access for All funds from 2014 to 2019. Overall, therefore, Wales stands to benefit directly and indirectly from almost £2 billion of investment in modernising the rail network.
Cross-border rail services between England and Wales are provided by four franchised train operators. The Department for Transport has a statutory obligation to consult Welsh Government Ministers before issuing any invitation to tender for a franchise agreement that includes cross-border services. As I said in response to a number of questions, where a service is provided wholly within Wales, the Welsh Government must be a signatory to the franchise.
The Arriva Trains Wales franchise is not due to expire until October 2018. The Welsh Government specify and fund services within Wales and across the border, and they carry out the day-to-day management of the franchise and have the powers to fund improvements. Train operators are of course free to run additional services if they consider that is the right thing to do. The Department is working with Arriva Trains Wales to provide additional cross-border services from December 2014.
On Silk and further devolution, which came up several times, the Government support the decision to devolve Welsh services in the Wales and Borders franchise to the Welsh Government. A joint agreement governs joint management of the existing franchise to 2018. In our evidence to part 2 of the Silk commission, the UK Government noted the strong case in favour of modifying the devolution boundary in respect of the Wales and Borders franchise. The Silk commission subsequently reported that further devolution of the rail network in Wales would be possible and desirable, although it would require close cross-border co-operation. Our response to Silk made it clear that recommendations that did not require primary legislation could be implemented early if we were satisfied that the case for change had been clearly made and there were support across Government for its implementation.
We recently held a consultation on the second direct award, and I recognise the concerns that have been expressed about the First Great Western franchise. That was why we carried out the public consultation, so that it could inform us of some of the concerns and issues so that they can be addressed when the award is made.
A number of Members raised the issue of the high-speed network. High Speed 2 will deliver significant benefits for Wales through the interchange at Old Oak Common and the improved journey times to London and the north via Birmingham and Crewe. It will also allow for greater commuter, freight and local services from the capacity released on the existing networks. Intercity express programme trains will also be coming to Wales from 2017—