Skip to main content

Transport Infrastructure (Northumberland)

Volume 585: debated on Wednesday 3 September 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

My constituents and I are grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to have a debate on the transport infrastructure in Northumberland. This coalition Government inherited a massive debt, a serious recession and a country that needed turning around. In Northumberland, it also inherited a transport infrastructure that has lacked investment for some time. We now have a long-term economic plan that is slowly bringing this country out of recession, and we are beginning to put in place a regional north-east infrastructure plan and a Northumberland infrastructure strategy that address the need to improve roads, bridges, buses and railways. We also have the proposed future northern rail franchise and the work of Rail North and the electrification task force to help progress developments in our rail services.

I am here to speak up for our efforts to get better transport infrastructure and help the economic recovery continue as the northern hub cities of Carlisle and Newcastle-Gateshead become ever more connected, prosperous and creative with the jobs and infrastructure that we need and as we improve connectivity to Scotland and Cumbria.

On the subject of connectivity to Scotland and Cumbria, does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to our focus on the A69, the A66 is crucial? The Scotch Corner connection to the under-used M6 has for years needed to be dualled; the plans are in place, and the Department for Transport should act on that immediately.

I endorse entirely what my hon. Friend says, but I will also make a very strong case for the A69.

I lend my hon. Friend my support in making his suggestions and representations. Like the A66, the A69 is key for Carlisle, and my constituents would be delighted to see it dualled. In the short term, we would like to see improvements to it. I suggest that he, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and I make representations to the Department about improving and ultimately dualling the A69.

I entirely endorse that and certainly have begun the process of meeting the Highways Agency and the Department for Transport, following the meeting that I had with the Secretary of State about the A69 earlier in the summer.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if we look at dualling the A69, we should also look at creative ideas such as a bypass and bridge at Warwick Bridge, to ensure that the misery of its inhabitants is alleviated?

I seem to be straying quite a way from Northumberland, and I have not made it past page 1 of my speech, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point. Having driven through that village, I recognise that it needs a bypass.

The dependence on public transport in the rural north is strong, and the importance of proper transport links cannot be overstated, whether it is for the children who are struggling to get to school, the patients who need to travel to urban-based hospitals or the many thousands of tourists who visit Northumberland national park, Hadrian’s wall and our county’s many attractions.

On heritage, transport infrastructure is going full circle. Northumberland is the birthplace of the father of the railways, George Stephenson. He was born in June 1781 next to the Tyne in my constituency, and built the first public steam railway between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830. The industrial revolution and advances in transport emanated from the north east, yet our transport legacy is showing its age. I am pleased to say that one of the finest examples of Victorian engineering, Ovingham bridge, which was opened in 1883, is being fully refurbished thanks to £3 million of pinch point funding from the Department. In addition, Wark bridge is being rebuilt thanks to the campaign that I started with Councillor Edward Heslop and many of the enterprising locals from Wark back in 2009.

I come now to the specifics and the issue of roads. All of us welcome the widening of the A1 western bypass, especially between Lobley Hill and the A184 junction, which will tackle congestion and speed up journey times. It is a key consequence of the Government’s Newcastle city deal. I for one will continue to push the Chancellor, as part of the long-term economic plan, to commit final funds for the Dual the A1 campaign, led by, among others, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), the local communities and the north-east chamber of commerce. This last stretch of dualling north of Morpeth will transform the north Northumberland economy and improve connectivity to Scotland, and, let us be blunt, save lives.

Would it not be a good idea, just weeks before the referendum, to make it clear that we care about the link between the north-east and Scotland? An announcement on dualling the A1 would be very helpful.

We could not make the case more clearly that we care that the Scots stay as part of the Union and that we hope they say “No thanks” on 18 September.

The A69 is the chief arterial route that connects east and west across the rural north. It is dualled between Newcastle and Hexham, but thereafter it is a notorious stretch of single-track road, with occasional dual passing points. It has seen too many accidents, and its limitations are holding back the growth of the economy in west Northumberland and Cumbria.

As I said, I met the Secretary of State for Transport in the summer, I continue to make representations to the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency, and I very much hope that the three key Members of Parliament who are concerned with this road will be taking forward their commitment to trying to improve in many shapes and forms the A69 west of Hexham, leading on into Carlisle. We accept—I will help the Minister on this point—that the present spending round is committed up to 2016, but I want to make the case today that the upgrading of this crucial road should be in the frame for the investment programme post-2016, leading up to 2020.

Finally, I come to the A696 as it heads to Otterburn, which only last month saw another fatality. Clearly, that is not part of the DFT strategic road network, but I welcome the recent increase in the DFT integrated transport block funding, paid by the Department to Northumberland county council for transport capital improvement schemes. The allocations to Northumberland during the last four years have increased, and last year’s £1.9 million has now risen to £2.7 million. I will be liaising with my Ponteland and other Northumberland county councillors to pitch for improvements for this road from capital funding.

No speech on roads and infrastructure in Northumberland and the rural north could go ahead without a mention of the chronic potholes that we suffer. However, I must thank the DFT for the £5.6 million to alleviate some of our many potholes, and also payments for elsewhere in the north, such that the situation has massively improved, although there are some in various parts of my constituency that, amazingly, have not been addressed.

The Minister has particular responsibility for railways, so I turn my attention to the Tyne Valley line between Newcastle and Carlisle. This is an essential link. It leaves Newcastle, which again has just had an £8.6 million upgrade, paid for by the DFT, and carries significant freight and more than 1 million passengers a year through urban, commuter and rural areas. It connects thousands to their jobs, hospitals and schools, and provides connections for the long-distance services that emanate from Newcastle and Carlisle. I am in regular contact with members of the excellent Tyne Valley rail users group, and I thank them and all the constituents who have written to me and made representations on my blog or in any other way for their help both in keeping me informed and in preparing for this speech.

Looking to the future, the potential for the line is vast. This northerly cross-country route needs greater attention. There are significant issues surrounding the timetable of the line, ticket retailing and the line’s integration with other modes of transport. The present service features very out-of-date rolling stock. The Sprinter and the infamous 1985 British Leyland Pacer trains desperately need improvement. The Pacers in particular are uncomfortable, expensive in terms of lease and repair costs, are hot in the summer and cold in the winter, lack wi-fi and offer limited luggage space, and my constituents and our tourist visitors deserve better.

Yet despite these limitations, our story locally is a positive one, because these last few years have seen improvements. Frequency on the line has increased, passenger usage at stations west of Hexham has increased markedly, and the service to smaller stations has also improved. In that context, we have the Northern rail franchise. We are all conscious that that is coming, and I want the Minister to allay concerns about the franchise. I hope she agrees that it is essential that the new franchise on the Tyne Valley line offers a timetable that gets passengers to where they want to be, at the times they want to travel, with improved carriages that run on time, and changes that make the railway competitive and more attractive to locals and tourists alike, with integrated ticketing with other transport providers. In short, we want an improvement, not a contraction, of the capacity and the services.

I am really enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech and he has a well-deserved reputation as a local champion. I chair the Government’s electrification taskforce. Will he meet me outside this place to go through his proposals, so that I know much more about what is necessary for the line and can take his proposals forward within the taskforce?

One of the best advances of the Secretary of State has been the creation of the electrification taskforce, and I am glad that a northern MP—in this case, the Member for Harrogate—is leading the way, such that we can make representations. The longer term must see electrification of the Tyne Valley line, as it sits between the east coast line and the west coast line, both of which are electrified. Frankly, without that forward movement we will struggle in the longer term, so I will meet my hon. Friend, as will other Members interested in this area, and I genuinely welcome his intervention.

The increased capacity, customer service and satisfaction, which I understand are the key points of a franchise, are what we seek going forward, and I can only add that the longer the franchise is awarded for, the greater the prospects are for improvements.

Given the time left to me, I will briefly make the point about the Tyne Valley line that along with electrification we need to review the signalling processes and address the maximum speed on the line. I could talk at length about the stations and the Network Rail issues that apply to the line, but I will simply say that I have a forthcoming meeting with Network Rail, at which I will raise the crossing points that concern so many people, as well as everything from the upgrades needed at Prudhoe station and to Bardon Mill station that are being proposed.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that funding is found for the Ashington-Blyth-Tyne line, to allow people from south-east Northumberland access to the Metro, and to Newcastle, Sunderland and other areas, which will benefit the local economy, jobs and the rest of it?

It is crucial—and I will make the point in relation to Gilsland station—that this is part of the local enterprise partnership’s strategic economic plan, and that the plan is tied into the work done by the LEP, the county council and the rural growth network, and to the support that is then given, so that we have the integration and development of the transport links that we all look forward to. The electrification that we seek in Northumberland should certainly include the parts of the line that my hon. Friend mentions.

I am completely behind the Campaign to Open Gilsland Station. The work of Julie Gibbon, local councillors and so many local people too numerous to name needs to be applauded and supported.

I am very fortunate to share Gilsland station with my hon. Friend; in fact, Gilsland stands on the boundary between our two constituencies. Does he agree that, along with the bottom-line analysis that Network Rail must undertake, some recognition needs to be given to the extraordinary energy, imagination and community spirit of the people in Gilsland, who have come up with such an extraordinary proposal?

I totally agree. I have invited the Minister to come to Northumberland, and I hope she will confirm in her response that she will do so. We would take the Tyne Valley line and get off at Haltwhistle—sadly—to get in a car to drive to Gilsland station, so that she could see this wonderful project and what we propose: that where Hadrian’s wall and the Pennine way cross we will alleviate pressure on the road and bus network, and create significant local jobs and address significant rural poverty. A 1967 closure by Dr Beeching is surely capable of being reversed at relatively low cost, with the wider economic benefits palpably clear to everybody. A feasibility study by the Tyne Valley line rail users group concluded that the revenue from passengers using the station would cover operating costs and that there would be a benefit to the community of over £500,000. This area has suffered from poor transport connections for some considerable time.

Time does not permit me to make the case that over the past year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) will know, we have made tremendous improvements to the bus services that were failing in the Gilsland, Greenhead and Low Row area, with a huge amount of work by all the persons involved. This is a highly rural area that needs the rebuild at Gilsland that we are proposing.

I accept that ultimately direct funding and support will need to come from the two county councils and the two LEPs, which need to push this project into their strategic economic plan for 2016-17. The LEPs need to look to their local growth funds, which are clearly a potential source of the funds we need. We will also be speaking to our individual rural growth networks to assess how they can help. I ask the Minister not only to come and visit but to give the Department’s support, expertise and guidance so that local people can see that this important and much needed campaign is supported and they can be helped through the laughably described GRIP— governance for railway investment projects—process that determines all major railway rebuild programmes.

I am conscious of the time, so many of the points that I would have made about buses and transport connectivity will have to wait for another day, Mr Speaker, when you grant me yet another debate on transport infrastructure in the north.

This really does matter. This is a genuinely rural and semi-rural area that requires the support of public transport, whether because of the difficulties with bus services, the problems that children are having getting to school, or the simple fact that there is a lack of infrastructure available. Moving forward, we are hoping to see an Oyster card system working in the urban areas so that the seven local authorities come together to create an integrated transport system.

I thank you for the time for this debate, Mr Speaker. We look forward to welcoming the Minister soon. We see ourselves at a pivotal point in terms of future planning, future funding, and so much more.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman)—and he is a friend—on securing this vital debate. He is an assiduous campaigner on many issues in his constituency, specifically on this transport agenda. The debate allows me to stand here and talk about something I am very proud of—the Government’s commitment to spreading the benefits of the investment in rail and roads across the country. It also gives many other colleagues equally committed to transport schemes in their constituencies an opportunity to discuss the importance of those. My only disappointment is that we have no Member here whose first name is William, which removes my opportunity for a Puffing Billy joke, although it is of course lovely to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson)—no relation to George Stephenson but a marker of the importance of that name.

I am proud to stand here as a representative of a Government who recognise the crucial role that transport infrastructure plays in facilitating growth right across the country. That is why we have been absolutely determined to reverse what could be described as an Administration’s period of neglect by securing significant levels of investment in the road and rail networks. As a marker, by the end of the current capital spending period we will be a Government who will have electrified 850 miles of railways. Sadly, only seven miles were electrified under the previous Administration, although of course other investments were made. At the end of this capital period we will be able to proudly say that spending on road and rail infrastructure outside London is higher than it was under the previous Government, despite the investments in Crossrail, Thameslink and other things that are so important for the London economy.

We are very committed to making sure that this investment is spread right across the country from north to south and in our major cities and market towns—and, crucially, in our rural seats such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham and I are proud to represent. I am delighted that his appetite has been whetted by some of the conversations that have taken place. I am looking forward to having many discussions with him and other hon. Members over the next few months. I confirm that I will, of course, visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to see some of those schemes for myself. It will form part of what will be a great rail journey—I hope it will take several days—in the new year.

Let me turn to the issue of rail services, which my hon. Friend raised eloquently. We are investing significantly in the national rail network—in terms of electrification, new rolling stock and signalling and upgrading station facilities—to meet ever-rising passenger demand. The number of passenger journeys now is double what it was at the point of privatisation. Up to 1.6 billion journeys are made every year and we have simply not invested enough to meet that demand and take the country forward.

In order to meet record and growing levels of demand in the north in particular, we are continuing to invest in the most significant rail modernisation programme for generations. The northern hub programme—on which £500,000 is being spent—and the electrification of routes in the north-west and across the north Pennines on the North TransPennine route will transform rail connectivity in the north of England by increasing capacity, reducing journey times and enabling the introduction of far better train services. I will refer specifically to the Pacers later.

Electrification of the trans-Pennine rail line between Manchester and Leeds will enable us for the first time to run an electrified service all the way from Liverpool to Newcastle via both Manchester and Leeds. That will really transform connectivity between crucial northern cities.

I will briefly mention HS2, of which colleagues will know I am a supporter and which is about not just speed and journey-time reductions, but freeing up capacity on the existing rail network. The north-east in particular will benefit, because HS2 will widen the opportunities for millions of people by providing faster links to London and inter-regional connectivity, which can provide real competition for businesses in London and the south-east. I am very proud of the specific investments in the north.

I will now turn from the general concerns about the north to the specific issues my hon. Friend raised relating to the existing service on the Tyne valley line. Hon. Members present will know that the Government, in conjunction with Rail North, are working on a new franchise to replace the existing northern franchise. We ran a very healthy consultation over the summer and it has just concluded. It received about 17,000 responses, including specific ones on the route. Genuine questions were asked about all sorts of issues, such as what the service and connectivity should look like and which trains will be needed on the routes. We are working through all of those responses as input to defining the invitation to tender that will be issued later this year.

We have announced the three companies that are pre-qualified to bid for the franchise and have asked the operators specifically to demonstrate how they will deal with issues such as capacity and future demand and improve customer service and passenger satisfaction across the network. We expect bidders to develop their own plans for rolling stock, but we will be very clear that we want bidders to submit options for replacing the Pacer trains, which, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, are a source of dissatisfaction for many rail users across the north. Everything is up for conversation in these franchises and we want to be extremely specific about that. We are also looking at options for extending the provision of wi-fi across the network. We take it for granted off the trains, but we think it should be extended to as many passengers as possible.

I pay tribute to the Rail North partnership, which is working well in taking the franchise negotiations forward. The more local participation in rail services across the north and other parts of the country, the better. A number of senior Rail North staff are now working with the Department for Transport franchise teams to help us evaluate the bids and root them firmly in what local passenger demand wants those services to be. That is crucial, because the franchises are key in transforming how rail contributes to communities and businesses right across the north, leveraging our investment in the train services.

Turning quickly to the issue of rail fares, which I know has come up several times in my hon. Friend’s constituency, we have, of course, seen an overall freeze on rail fares this year in real terms. The retail prices index plus 0% calculation is important, and this is the first time it has been done. Of course, Northern Rail in particular is introducing various reduced advance purchase fares on a number of routes, offering substantial discounts for passengers. The overall question of fares—what is the right balance of fares that provides value for money and allows us to invest in a crucial part of the network?— is explicitly part of the franchise negotiations and conversations.

I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased that the community rail designation for the Tyne Valley line is under review. I want to make them aware that the consultation ends on Friday, so if they have constituents or councillors who feel that their views should be heard, I encourage them to send in that information. Community rail can be very successful in breathing new life into local and rural railways—no more so than in the north of England. Among all that it enables us to do is to provide local freedom for fare structures, and to invest in local services and stations, as my hon. Friend realises.

I would love to take a train to Gilsland station and cycle the whole length of Hadrian’s wall, so if we could organise something like that—perhaps not in January—it would obviously be an even stronger draw for plans to reopen the station. As always, but specifically during the franchise period, we are looking for new ways to support community rail services and make them even more effective in providing what local communities want.

My hon. Friend mentioned electrification. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), as someone who leads assiduously for the Government on the proposal in looking at the north of England, has offered a meeting. As I have mentioned, we intend to electrify more than 850 miles of railway, including the key trans-Pennine route between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York. We are already seeing the benefits of the first electric service between Manchester and Scotland. We will continue to look at all options; indeed, the taskforce is free in its remit to consider all non-electrified routes in the north.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham spoke eloquently about various investments in his constituency, and they are clearly of interest to other hon. Members, including those north of the border, as was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). The Government have already announced increased levels of funding to deliver improvements to the strategic road network, again targeted specifically at supporting economic growth, and our commitment to deliver the step change was set out by the Chancellor in his spending review. The Treasury Command Paper “Investing in Britain’s Future” stated that the Government will invest more than £28 billion in enhancements and maintenance of both national and local roads, including £10 billion for major national road projects.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham will be aware that the Highways Agency is conducting its route strategy process. Among other things, it is looking at the question of dualling the A69. He raised that, and he has discussed it with the Secretary of State for Transport. The case for the sensible and vigorous campaign for dualling has been made by many hon. Members. Although the first evidence review completed by the agency suggested that network performance is consistent for peak period speeds, it does not feature in the top 10% of roads for delay. However, the strategic analysis is still ongoing. As my hon. Friend rightly said, with capital allocations for the 2016 period coming up, now is the time to make representations. I assure all hon. Members that the Department’s doors are always open.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of safety on the A69, of which there has been a detailed review. Tragically, more lives have been lost on the route recently. The road has been described as having a good safety record, but we have to be vigilant if we are to maintain that record. I welcome his and his constituents’ help in maintaining such vigilance for this important route.

In relation to local roads, my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we have already invested money on improving some local pinch points. One is in his constituency at Ovingham bridge, for which he has campaigned, and others nearby are in Rothbury. We must keep investing in these important local roads.

I want briefly to mention road safety on the A69. Although we are very proud of the Government’s overall road safety record, we again have to be vigilant. We must also recognise that rural roads have specific problems. I am pleased that I will launch a new Think! campaign focused on country roads later this year to address some of those issues.

I again thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I hope that what I have said demonstrates the Government’s very real commitment to expanding growth across the north of England. I look forward to visiting his constituency and I encourage him and his constituents to keep talking about transport infrastructure, as that is the way to deliver long-term economic growth for this great country.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.