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North Cotswold Line

Volume 586: debated on Friday 17 October 2014

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

I am very grateful for this opportunity to raise an issue of huge concern to my constituents and to speak before a Minister who I know is passionate about delivering investment and growth in our railways. Worcestershire has a world-class economy, and I was very pleased at the recent Conservative party conference to hear our Transport Secretary committing to world-class infrastructure for the UK. It is vital to the success of our country that this is delivered fast and that it reaches the great cities of England.

Given its romantic name, once could be forgiven for thinking that the North Cotswold line was one of those scenic routes that meander through the countryside serving beautiful villages and keeping alive the rural idyll with steam trains and fine views. In fact, it is the main line to an economy in Worcestershire alone of half a million people, and many more beyond in Herefordshire. Worcester is a county town with a population of nearly 100,000 and a work footprint of many more. The line is already a vital commuter link for Oxfordshire and should be a vital business link between the growing industrial, cyber-security and services sectors in our part of the west midlands and the capital.

I am grateful for the strong support and campaigning for this line from my neighbours, my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) and for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), and from my hon. Friends the Members for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), all of whom have spoken up for a better service for their constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire has been a tireless champion of redoubling for decades. I know that in asking for these improvements I have the full support of Worcestershire county council and Worcester city council, and our local enterprise partnership and chamber of commerce. Further down the line there is a great deal of interest, including from the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) who, as well as backing previous investments in the line, has recently written to the Chancellor in support of further redoubling. However, despite all that support, our line, particularly its western end, has been neglected compared with other areas. After it was saved from total destruction in the 1970s it was for a long time single track and too much of it remains so. Line speeds have decreased and journey times have lengthened, particularly under the last Labour Government. More stops and little new rolling stock compounded the problem, and so even since the welcome redoubling of much of the track, delivered in 2011, the journey time to and from Worcester has improved by only about 10 minutes.

I remember travelling as a schoolboy, when there were three high-speed two-hour services per day, and I could leave London after school on Friday evening and easily be home in Worcestershire in time for dinner. That was on a line that was single track all the way from Oxford to Worcester, yet even today, with much more double track available, that same level of service is unavailable. I have also been told that the steam-powered cathedrals express ran from Worcester to London in less than two hours even in 1910. It is profoundly shocking that in the 21st century it should now take about two and a quarter hours, and often longer.

Mike Ashton, the chief executive of Herefordshire & Worcestershire chamber of commerce has said

“Time and time again local businesses tell us that the rail connectivity from Worcester is simply not good enough. Journey times that are longer now than they were at the start of the 20th century is just not good enough to meet the demands of modern businesses, to whom quick and easy travel is essential.”

The service compares very poorly with those to equivalent county towns a similar distance from London; Worcester’s current 135 minutes compares to Warwick’s 78 minutes and Rugby’s less than an hour. Even Exeter, York, Norwich and Northampton, all of which are further away, get faster trains and shorter journeys. The train line to Norwich is a good example of a line that has seen significant improvement in recent years, and we all know of the journey time improvements on offer to Birmingham and the north from HS2.

For my constituents and those west of Worcester on the line, our poor service means that huge substitution is going on, either directly to the roads or through road journeys to other lines and other stations. First Great Western knows that it is losing passengers from Worcester to both the Chiltern and the west coast main lines, and has said:

“A factor influencing behaviours has been the greater frequency of services on the alternative routes and journey times. Passengers from Birmingham International typically have 3 trains per hour to London, taking 75 minutes to the capital. Passengers from Warwick Parkway typically have 2 trains per hour to London, taking 78 minutes to the capital. By contrast from Worcester journey times on the North Cotswolds route can take about 135 minutes, with a lesser service frequency.”

Anecdotally I have heard from hundreds of constituents that they travel to those stations to get the faster and more reliable trains. Most travellers from Herefordshire catch trains from south Wales to avoid the long journey via Worcester. Overcrowded trains and poor reliability compound the situation, and so long as this remains the case the North Cotswold line will never reach its full potential.

Jim McBride, the chief executive of Lesk Engineers and director of Henley Business Group, has recently said:

“I am forced to either travel to Warwick Parkway or into the centre of Birmingham to get a train that leaves at times that are convenient without being forced to stand for the entirety of a two and a half hour journey.”

I can tell the Minister that traffic is an enormous problem in and around Worcester, and that anything that encourages road users on to the trains would be welcomed by my constituents, even those who do not use the trains themselves. I have been alerted by those constituents who do use the trains to particular problems with wi-fi not being available on all services and, having welcomed First Great Western’s decision to include free wi-fi in its offer for the franchise, I think it needs to be made universal.

The Cotswold line promotion group, of which I am proud to be a vice-president along with many of my colleagues, has been a great campaigner for the line, but as it represents communities all along it it has always been keen to keep every stop and to have as many trains as possible stopping at each. I do not want anyone to miss out, but I do want to see more trains running so that we can have both fast and stopping services. Only by having an express service from Worcester to London via at least Charlbury and Oxford can we maximise the opportunity to our economy and such a service, which has been run in the past, would again be achievable if we could secure two trains an hour along the line. I believe that that should be a strategic objective for the Government and a requirement of future franchises.

I welcome the £70 million redoubling project that added so much capacity to the line, but I am deeply concerned that it has not yet delivered the improvement in line speed or regularity that we would expect. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire has asked a number of written questions on the subject and the answers he has received so far suggest it has reduced the journey time by only 10 minutes and has resulted in merely a slight improvement in their regularity. That does not suggest it is yet being used to the full.

I thank my hon. Friend for the kind things he says about me. I congratulate him on how he is speaking in this important debate and associate myself with everything he has said. On the question of regularity, does he understand my gratitude to the House of Commons for not having a Division at 2.30 pm, which means that I can catch the 15.52 home rather than waiting an hour and a half for the 17.22?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on how he has brought his great knowledge of the timetable into the debate and absolutely agree with him. I will be travelling up to Worcester straight after this to welcome Sir John Major on a visit to the county. That will be a wonderful occasion, but sadly neither he nor I will be able to take the train to ensure that we arrive in time for our dinner.

My hon. Friend’s written questions bring me to the question of how we can achieve a two-hour service and the opportunities for the Minister and the train companies to deliver. I know that First Great Western is working on timetable improvements and will be introducing some incremental change in 2015, including some faster services and slightly better regularity but also sacrifices, including fewer trains stopping at Pershore and Malvern. The current proposals offer Worcester a two hour seven minute journey time, but not at the most important times of day.

I welcome the small improvements on offer but they are not sufficient and I am very concerned that, according to the drafts I have seen, one of the most important services for business, the 8.30 am from Paddington, is being run on an old turbo. I want Network Rail to work more closely with First Great Western on the newly redoubled line and to ensure that every possible minute of line speed is being delivered. It needs to squeeze more minutes out of the timetable by reducing stopping times, maximising line speed and ensuring all the signalling is up to date. I also want First Great Western to look again at why so many trains have long stopovers at Shrub Hill station so that, while the 7.33 am departure spends only two minutes there the 6.30 am train before and the 8.41 am after it sit waiting at the station for more than 12. That is a major concern for anyone travelling from Foregate Street, Malvern or beyond.

The second opportunity is to consider what chance there is to use the passenger journey time improvement fund to deliver further incremental gains as soon as possible. Resignalling, further electrification from Oxford and further redoubling are all opportunities in that space. I note that no less a Member than my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney is a supporter of further investment in redoubling and I hope his support as well as mine and that of all my neighbours will be heard loud and clear by the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement. First Great Western must work with Network Rail to determine the costs and benefits of full redoubling and also what further partial redoubling could make the biggest difference.

The third opportunity is to do with rolling stock. I cannot claim to be anything like as expert on this as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire or the noble Lord Faulkner of Worcester, but I do know we have been poorly served on this front for far too long, and the fact that turbos are still being programmed into draft timetables is not a good sign. We should be looking at high speed trains as well as greater use of electric/diesel trains, and as passenger demand grows that will continue to be more and more pressing.

I know that there has been some investment in converting first class carriages to standard to add seating capacity, but there is also a constant need to look at carriage and seat numbers. In 2018 there is both a major risk and an opportunity to ensure that the line is fully served by modern trains when the existing fleet of 180s will be handed over to Grand Central for its cross-country services. The Department must ensure that there are sufficient high quality intercity express programme trains for an hourly service and to begin the much-needed expansion towards a twice hourly one.

The fourth and perhaps biggest opportunity is Worcestershire Parkway station. I do not have time today to rehearse all the arguments for it, but our local enterprise partnership has estimated that it could add £47 million to revenues over 20 years. It provides better connectivity, faster journey times for Worcester commuters and a vital link between road and rail. It is what the noble Lord Prescott might have described as an integrated transport system.

Wherever there are car parks along the line they have been filling up. The welcome expansion of Charlbury has already been filled to capacity and the Worcestershire LEP recently showed that the Worcestershire stations on the line currently offer a total of just 418 parking spaces versus more than 1,200 in the same sized stretch of the Chiltern line in Warwickshire. Worcestershire Parkway has the potential to transform this situation. It also creates the opportunity, in conjunction with very welcome road investments, such as the dualling of the A4440 southern link, for people from across south Worcestershire to drive to Parkway and catch the line. Better connectivity with the M5 widens this catchment still further and, as the lesson of Warwick Parkway's spectacular growth trajectory shows, a massive increase in the number of people using the train is possible when good parking facilities and fast reliable journeys are available. It is enormously to the credit of this Government that they have funded Worcestershire Parkway with £7.5 million through the local growth fund. Something that has been debated and campaigned for over decades is now just a few years away. Now we need to ensure that it can be used to the full to deliver for Worcestershire's economy with faster journey times.

The train companies are making supportive noises, but I have never been too sure that they have really woken up to the full scale of the opportunity. Only last week I was pleased to see First Great Western standing alongside Parkway campaigners at the Worcestershire LEP conference, but the effect was slightly spoiled when I was staggered to see that they had a poster of their Building a Greater West campaign, which showed line improvements across six counties but failed to mention Worcestershire. Their poster even managed to hide Worcester itself behind a label talking about line improvements in Gloucestershire. If they want to build a greater west, the main line to Worcester needs to be part of it. I have been more reassured by my meetings with them in recent days and I am very grateful to the Minister for arranging a productive conference call with the company and MPs along the line earlier this week. First Great Western tells me that it believes a journey time of less than two hours to the centre of Worcester is deliverable even with an added stop at Worcestershire Parkway. I want to see this happen as soon as possible. I want to see the Minister hold its feet to the fire in terms of the service my constituents receive. Awarding it a renewal of the franchise is acceptable only if it can deliver a real improvement to the service, both in reliability and speed. This Government have invested already in the North Cotswold line and substantial redoubling has taken place, but faster journey times and greater regularity are urgently needed.

There is a huge economic opportunity for our county in securing a connection of less than two hours to and from London, which is why I am pleased that it now features prominently in the strategic economic plan of our LEP. I recall taking evidence from Admiral Insurance when I served on the Welsh Affairs Committee as to why it had based its headquarters in Cardiff. The No. 1 factor was a two-hour journey time from the capital. Worcester wants to attract more corporate headquarters and more investment from overseas and securing better connectivity is vital. Some have suggested that this could come only at the cost of higher ticket prices. I disagree, as there is a huge loss of passengers and revenues as a result of substitution. I believe that ticket prices could be driven down by the enormous growth in usage that would be achieved from two trains per hour and a fast and stopping service.

In a few weeks I will be visiting southern China with a delegation of Worcestershire businesses in order to drum up investment in our world-class county. The cities we will be visiting have high-speed rail connections that have been built in just a few years, connecting them to the major centres of population hundreds of miles away. I want to be able to hold my head up high and show the world that Worcestershire, which already has a world-class economy and a world-class skills base has world-class rail connections too. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for listening so patiently to this request. I invite her to visit Worcester, preferably by train, and very much look forward to hearing her response.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) on securing this important debate on journey times between London and Worcester on the North Cotswold line, and for his superb, highly factual and very eloquent speech. He is part of an honourable and select tribe of Members served by the Great Western franchise area, including the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the recently knighted Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff), and indeed the Minister with responsibility for railways. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), who in her wonderful role as a Lords Commissioner cannot speak in public on this matter, although she speaks fully in private whenever she can. As we are all conscious of the importance of good rail connections for the businesses and communities that we represent, and the economic vibrancy that is at stake, this debate is of keen interest to many.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester has set out with great clarity the importance of the Great Western rail network to his constituency. Let me address his concerns head on. First Great Western, Network Rail and my Department completely recognise the case for a sub two-hour service between London and the points that he makes in relation to his constituency. Work is ongoing to look at additional track redoubling on these routes that, along with the planned introduction of new rolling stock, could deliver the additional speeds that he and many other hon. Members seek on behalf of their constituents. We need to assess possible route options and the money required to deliver this and balance that against competing priorities on the route. I am fully aware of the strong local feelings and the strong local case being made about the importance of this work, and I will be seeking to complete this work as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend will be aware that there have already been substantial improvements on the lines in that franchise area. In 2011, the long-awaited partial redoubling of the North Cotswold line was completed. The Great Western main line between London, Oxford, Newbury, Bristol and Swansea, together with the Thames valley branches, will be electrified by 2019, delivering faster and more reliable services. Those routes will be equipped with brand-new intercity express trains—I was pleased to visit the mock-up in Warwick only this week—and with other electric trains for the local and regional services. Combined diesel and electric bimodal intercity express trains will be introduced to serve routes such as the North Cotswold line, allowing electric operation as far as Oxford from London Paddington.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, a new Worcestershire Parkway station will be built. I could not have made the case better than he did for providing funding for that station. He explained the compelling economic benefits and what it will mean for commuters. He will be pleased to know that new car parking capacity has already been provided at Charlbury and Hanborough stations and will be provided at Kingham—that commitment has been made.

Further down the line, the £895 million project to deliver an entirely new station at Reading, including a substantial untangling of the lines there, which we all rely on, will deliver faster journey times to London for all our commuting passengers. I am pleased to say that that work is almost complete.

That is all part of the record £38 billion that will be invested in Britain’s railways over the next five years—the biggest programme of investment since Victorian times and, in our region’s case, the biggest set of changes since Brunel. It is a huge transformation of Britain’s railways.

However, as well as capacity we have to talk about passengers. We have seen a doubling of passenger numbers across the railway network since privatisation, and sadly investment has not kept up. Indeed, can hon. Members guess how many miles of track were electrified under the previous Government? The answer is nine. We will deliver 850 miles of electrified track by 2019, because this Government believe that we cannot grow without transport infrastructure. It is not surprising that the Opposition Benches are completely empty, given their pitiful record on investing in the nation’s infrastructure.

The growth in passenger numbers explains in part why journey times have slowed, as my hon. Friend pointed out. The networks are more crowded and we are running more trains, and that means things have to go a little slower, as counter-intuitive as that seems, unless we invest. It is no wonder that some of the top 10 most crowded lines in the country, which I am currently “mystery riding”, are on the North Cotswold line.

To try to alleviate some of that pressure in the short term, we are working hard with franchise operators to boost capacity. As my hon. Friend knows, my Department is funding the conversion of one and a half first-class carriages per First Great Western train to standard class, creating 3,000 more standard-class seats a day across the network—nearly 16% more standard-class seats on services into London. I have sat in the 2,000th seat to be delivered under that programme, and the full roll-out will happen by September 2015. First Great Western is also fitting free wi-fi to its high-speed trains by the end of this year, complementing the free wi-fi already fitted to the class 180 trains used on the North Cotswold line and the Cornish Riviera sleeper trains.

We are getting there, but there are concerns, which my hon. Friend eloquently raised. All that investment creates disruption on the line, and one of the reasons I announced an anticipated new direct award to First Great Western for the next three and a half years was to ensure the stability of operators in charge of our passenger journeys through a difficult and complicated time of engineering works on our lines. However, we all need to do better to minimise avoidable disruption.

Many hon. Members have expressed concern about problems with the punctuality of train services in that area, particularly given the problems we had between London and Reading last week, which were caused by issues with Network Rail works. It is not good enough. In a recent meeting with senior directors of Network Rail, I took the opportunity to give strong emphasis to that message, as I will continue to do on behalf of those we represent who use these vital networks.

I want to touch on two further matters. First, I acknowledge the huge amount of great work done by the Cotswold Line Promotion Group. The group was formed in 1987 to protect and promote this vital route at a time when these services were arguably at their most vulnerable following an incomprehensible programme of track part-singling by British Rail; there was even doubt about the continued operation of through services to London. It is impossible to imagine the rationale behind those decisions today, when all those in this Government and in this party, and across British businesses, see the vital role that our railways play in local and national economic growth. Thank goodness for the campaigning work of this group, whose vice-presidents include my hon. Friends the Members for Worcester and for Mid Worcestershire, and several other hon. Members. It is a tribute to the achievements of the group in pursuit of this aim that this debate on journey times between London and Worcester on the North Cotswold line is possible at all. Things are very different from how they were in 1978, not least because the lights are being kept on in Britain.

Secondly, I should like to focus on the train services currently operating on the route. Hon. Members and other stakeholders have made it very clear to First Great Western their concerns about the relatively slow overall journey times on the route and about gaps in the timetable. In response, FGW carried out a review of the timetable with the aim of identifying how far it might be able to address these issues before all the new investment starts to come on stream. I commend the company for its initiative in doing so. Key improvements will be introduced by next May, including a big acceleration of a very important commuting service—the 05:28 service from Hereford, which will now reach London at 08:30, a much better time to start one’s working day. Remaining gaps in the timetable are being filled. For example, there are new journey opportunities from Worcester to London at 11:23 and 15:20, and other journey time improvements across the network. Concerns about the loss of some off-peak station calls have also been partially alleviated.

While I know that satisfaction about these changes is not universal, I think that a sensible balance has been struck. Moreover, a further review of the timetable will become possible with the arrival of the bimodal intercity express trains following electrification to Oxford.

I thank the Minister for the encouraging tone of her remarks in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). Could the passenger journey time improvement fund be used for minor infrastructure works to further enhance journey times now, ahead of the major changes?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that. Indeed, I jotted a note to my team while I was listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester to ask what is happening with the journey time improvement fund. If I may, I will revert back to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire with more information. This is clearly another opportunity to make some improvements.

On the basis of the new timetable that has been presented, I have given my agreement to the interim changes that First Great Western has sought. I will ensure that the valid points that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester has made regarding other improvements are reflected on at the highest possible levels of First Great Western.

This is a really exciting time for the railways. I am very proud of the fact that my Government’s ambition for this investment in these vital services is unprecedented. I think that all of us in this House are passionate about our railways. The great news is that improvements are being delivered now—it is not a case of jam tomorrow—and there are more to come. My hon. Friend and his colleagues have made their ambitions for their constituents regarding improved journey times and better connectivity abundantly clear, and I look forward to working with him and others in future to develop those ambitions still further.

I thank all my hon. Friends for their passionate advocacy of the better train links for their constituents that are so important to the economies in their areas. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, who has made such a powerful case today. I wish him well on his visit to China to drum up business for Worcestershire, and hope that at least some of my words will help him to hold his head up high. I hold my head up high every day because I am so proud to be part of a Government delivering record levels of investment in the railways so that this great country can grow. Without this investment, we cannot grow and we cannot keep Britain moving.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.