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West Anglia Main Line

Volume 588: debated on Thursday 27 November 2014

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

Some people may think that this could be called groundhog day because I spoke in the House on this subject on 19 January 2011, and again on 11 December 2013. Apart from the passage of time not a lot has changed, except perhaps the Minister designated to reply to the debate. I could almost repeat those speeches word for word, but I might provoke an intervention from you, Mr Deputy Speaker, were I to attempt such a thing.

I acknowledge all that has been said in this Chamber and Westminster Hall by colleagues who represent the length of the West Anglia line, including the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), the hon. Members for Edmonton (Mr Love) and for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and for Harlow (Robert Halfon), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) who hopes to catch your eye in short while, Mr Deputy Speaker. Despite everything that has been argued, nothing fundamental has been done to improve the experience of passengers on the West Anglia line.

My concern has increased over time because the necessary remedies—which everyone acknowledges—seem to be receding into the future, and the talk is of an insufficient business case. It is no comfort to be told by Network Rail that reliability on the West Anglia line is better than on the Great Eastern line that forms part of the Abellio Greater Anglia franchise. I have constituents who rely on the Great Eastern line, and I am at one with my colleagues across East Anglia who demand action there as well, although I will not stray from the strict focus of this debate.

The 1985 decision to designate Stansted as London’s third airport should have been the trigger for investment in the West Anglia rail line. There could have been no clearer example of the meaning of the oft-used term, “integrated transport”, yet subsequent Governments have pursued policies that generate extra demand at virtually every point along the route. The airport—now under the stewardship of the Manchester Airports Group—claims that 10,000 extra jobs will be created over the next 15 years. Well, they will not be filled by people from my constituency where unemployment, I am happy to say, is below 1%. Where will all those new employees, whether at the airport or in many other burgeoning businesses in the constituency, come from, and how will they get there? I cannot imagine that we want more and more vehicles clogging the M11, and that is before one counts the rising number of airline passengers. Is no one paying attention to the projections of the Manchester Airports Group, which are more bullish than those of the Davies commission?

There is seldom any reference to freight. Stansted airport has quite a big freight centre. FedEx is perhaps the leading company, but there are also DHL, UPS, TNT and others. More and more vehicles will be coming from the centre of London along the M11. When talking of a business case, I would have thought it possible to introduce the concept of the movement of freight if more train paths can be found, but the limitation of the West Anglia line is that it has only two tracks for virtually all its length.

So far as the infrastructure is concerned, there is now the prospect of the construction of a third rail from Coppermill junction to as far as Angel Road, principally to facilitate traffic from Angel Road through to Stratford. Stratford will become a much more important terminal in the London area as the years go by, with its connection to Crossrail and continental rail traffic. I am afraid that the third rail will add very little network capacity for longer distance destination services north of Angel Road.

Another thing that could help, and which Network Rail is talking about, is the elimination of some crossings. The crossings that could help the most and that are affordable may still not add a great deal of extra leeway in terms of train acceleration to speed up journeys. That is the best that can be hoped for, but a year cannot be put on when it might be done. So that is it: the third rail and the elimination of some crossings—that is all we recognise that is on offer and on the table. For the rest, we are seemingly being told that we should be looking to control period 7, to use the jargon of Network Rail, and beyond. If fares were on hold over an equivalent indefinite period, the pain of travel might be somewhat eased. However, if my right hon. Friend were to announce that this afternoon, I think I would keel over in shock. The rolling stock, on which my constituents are obliged to travel, is of mixed vintage, so when I refer to the pain of travel there is an extra point to it.

It is clear that Network Rail is not on the cusp of recommending action in control period 6 for the four-tracking of the line as far as Broxbourne, which everyone, including Network Rail itself, knows is necessary. Network Rail says that with longer trains and longer platforms it can “cope” with extra demand. That’s comforting, isn’t it? Just like, for example, it is coping so well with the basic fragility of the infrastructure, and just like it coped so well with overcoming a signalling fault outside Liverpool Street station this morning, which held up many trains by 20 minutes.

I am really not expecting the case for four-tracking to be accepted through a cast-iron guarantee this afternoon, however good and generous we know my right hon. Friend to be, but we can ease the pain of travel if passengers have a better train experience. The complications over franchising, with the need to have another stop-gap franchise before a long franchise is let, have made it difficult for the train operator, Abellio Greater Anglia, to commit to new rolling stock. Only yesterday, it announced a whole series of measures to help the passenger experience across its whole network. The one item directed towards the West Anglia line is what it is pleased to call a “refresh” for 24 class 317 type 6 trains, which are known in the trade as 317/6s. What does the word “refresh” conjure up? I felt it was a bit like the ugly sisters glamming up for the ball: these are very old and very ugly trains. There is talk that about 24 trains may be refreshed, but what about the 317/5s, 317/7s and 317/8s, which add up to another 27 sets of trains that are part of the staple stock running on the West Anglia line? However, no action has been promised.

I would appreciate it if my right hon. Friend reaffirmed the promise given by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), on 11 December 2013, when he was Under-Secretary of State, that the 10 type 379 units—the only modern ones we have—would stay on Cambridge services. Passengers understand the difference between standard class and first class, but with the rich variety of trains on the West Anglia line, there are 10 classes, which is not reflected in the fare structure. Standard class on a type 379 is a very different experience from standard class on a 316/5—and probably a 317/6 even when it has been refreshed.

I do not include the inner-suburban stock, the type 315s, because they are going to be replaced. The Mayor and Transport for London have been granted the franchise to take suburban routes from Liverpool Street station into the Overground, and for that there will be 30 brand-new train sets. So inner-London services—I do not begrudge them—are getting decent trains, whereas the people who pay more and travel further and too often longer are not being offered new trains.

If Network Rail is to “cope”—its highest ambition—with the extra demand by adding coaches to trains, where will they come from? I beg my right hon. Friend not to mention cascading type 319 trains from Thameslink, which are also quite old. The new Thameslink franchise is being fitted out with new trains, but not before 2018, so if the only new trains are the type 319s, we will be getting 30-year-old trains, and they probably only offer one class—and it is not first class. Crossrail is also getting new trains, so the only people not guaranteed new trains are the passengers to Harlow, Bishop’s Stortford, Audley End, Whittlesford Parkway, Shelford, Cambridge and all the stations in my constituency; we will be the Cinderella line. For the reasons I have adduced, we absolutely deserve new trains and no longer hand-me-downs.

What needs to be done has been staring us in the face since 1985 when that airport decision was made. However, waiting for this to be nailed down by a business case has allowed nearly 30 years and eight Governments to pass without anything meaningful being done. The Government need to acknowledge this depressing situation—if Ministers are uncertain, they should travel on the line—and then give some direction, not more interminable studies that we are tired of responding to without getting anywhere.

Inevitably and understandably, there will be a wait before extra track capacity can be put in place, but while we wait, let us at least have the palliative of decent trains. The way to do that is by having a high-quality specification for the long franchise being let in 2016 for the Greater Anglia services demanding new trains, not something at the lowest end of the scale.

That is the situation. This is the third impassioned plea I have made in a speech for the benefit of my constituents and the many other people travelling to and from the airport. The airport deserves a good service—I do not begrudge that—but those who are paying most often at the highest prices need the best of services. That is what I am looking for—some promise and some indication that that is recognised and will happen in the relatively near future.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) not only on securing this debate, but on bringing his typically forensic expertise, about which close watchers of this House will know, to a subject that is dear to the heart of his constituents and mine. Indeed, we have worked together to champion this cause because it directly affects the daily lives of thousands of our constituents.

I recently surveyed my own constituents on this issue, looking for the specific bugbears they have. It was a long list and I will not bore you with it, Mr Deputy Speaker. The overwhelming view of people in East Hertfordshire and in north-west Essex, as we have heard, is very clear: they regard this service as being very expensive, hugely overcrowded and, I am sorry to say, all too often unreliable. Those are sentiments with which I strongly associate myself.

The Minister needs to know that we are not alone in this. Members representing areas along the line from Cambridge through Essex and Hertfordshire into London are now joining us to press for this investment—an investment, as we have heard, that is long overdue. It is a cause that is gaining momentum. In the last few months, we have seen an increasing number of major employers and now a majority of local authorities, together with local enterprise partnerships, saying, “We need this investment in the rolling stock and in the four-tracking.”

The occasion of this debate follows the publication of what I would regard as an incomplete and, frankly, inadequate draft route study recently published by Network Rail. I am sorry to say that the study fails to address the fundamental problems on the line. Indeed, it seems completely detached from the realities of the overcrowding already in evidence for most of our constituents. To be fair, the draft route study has a few suggestions about some helpful incremental improvements, but it does nothing to address the lack of capacity and, in particular, the tracking into Liverpool Street.

Just as importantly, and perhaps of equal concern to the Department, is the fact that this study by Network Rail ignores the recommendations of the Airports Commission for the four-tracking of the line to improve the links to Stansted airport. Given that Stansted is designated by the Department—and, indeed, by the Government—as London’s third airport, this oversight seems completely unacceptable. Just as bad for my constituents is the admission of the authors of the study that it

“does not fully reflect potential housing growth projections in the Upper Lea Valley and the wider impacts on economic growth”.

Some people estimate that the population along this corridor from London to Cambridge will rise by approximately 1 million people in the coming years. For Network Rail not to factor in that scale of development and population growth makes this draft study a joke, frankly. So what needs to be done?

I urge the Minister to commission a full feasibility study to push Network Rail into doing what it should have done so that we can see a whole range of investment options for the line, including four-tracking. Some 13 options were offered for the great eastern line, while we were offered a paltry three. As my right hon. Friend described, most were short term and none addressed the principal challenge. Only a full study setting out all the options would provide the evidence base essential to good ministerial decision-making.

Locally, of course, we believe that new rolling stock and four-tracking are essential. We know that they would ensure a service that is fit for purpose now and for the future, while enabling the sort of job creation and rates of economic growth that the Government rightly seek. Conversely, without a proper study, Ministers would become vulnerable, as any decision that they made on future investment would not be based on clear—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

As I was saying, I fear that Ministers would become vulnerable if their decisions were not based on clear and complete evidence. Were that the case, those decisions would be open to challenge—politically, of course, but, who knows, perhaps legally as well.

If sustainable development policies are to be meaningful and robust, more homes and businesses must surely come with the additional infrastructure. I suggest that it is in the interests of not just our constituents—who must, of course, come first—but of the Government to ensure that Ministers have the facts on which to make the right decision, whether it be in the franchise letting next year or in control period 6 for infrastructure investment. I know that the Minister likes to have sound evidence on which to act. His Secretary of State certainly does, and he has already made clear to my right hon. Friend in the House that the West Anglia route will not be forgotten.

I ask the Minister to acknowledge the inadequacies of the draft route study and to press for a full feasibility study, so that the evidence can be seen in the round and the right decisions can be made.

C.S. Lewis, the House will remember, was “Surprised by Joy”: surprised by the joy of the love of God, and surprised by the mortal love of the woman who subsequently became his wife. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) will be surprised by the joy of my response tonight—perhaps as surprised as I am to be rail Minister for the day.

Taking full advantage of this space and this opportunity, perhaps we can make more progress than my right hon. Friend has made so far—despite, I must add, his consistent advocacy of the interests of his constituents. He mentioned that he had raised this matter many times. That is well known to the House, but what he did not mention, because his humility prevented him from so doing, was that he has always raised it both with immense courtesy and with absolute determination. In my experience, that combination is what enables us to get things done here. Let us hope that I can demonstrate that to my right hon. Friend in my response.

I also welcomed the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), with whom I served as a Minister. I know that he too is a doughty champion of his constituents’ interests, as well as being an accomplished Member of the House.

Let me say at the outset that I have a script prepared by the civil servants, to which I will refer but by which I will not be constrained. It is not good enough not to reply to these debates properly, and replying to them properly means responding to the points made by the contributors.

My right hon. Friend spoke about a Cinderella service. Tonight, I want Cinderella to go to the ball. He also spoke about the pain of travel, which I found quite poignant. Is it not sad that we have to talk about the pain of travel? Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend is right. Travel is all too often seen in those terms—not by Members, but by the people who must endure congested roads, overcrowded trains, and an inadequate transport infrastructure. The Government are determined to do better precisely because of our understanding of that. The record levels of investment in our railway and road networks show that we understand how much travel means, to economic growth—that point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford—but also to our individual and collective well-being. People travel for a range of purposes: they travel to work and to school, but also recreationally. Travel should be a joy, not a pain.

Let me turn to some of the particular things that have been raised. To begin, it may be helpful to explain, for the benefit of the whole House, that the West Anglia main line is the route between London Liverpool Street, Stansted airport and Cambridge. At present, it is mainly a two-track railway serving commuters from Cambridgeshire, Essex and north-east London. The Stansted Express links central London with one of the UK’s major airports using the West Anglia main line structure.

That significant range of demands means that there is a high and constant demand for rail services on a line with, as has been said, limited capacity. There are no signs that that demand is likely to decrease. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford said, the economic growth that we seek as part of the Government’s long-term plan to deliver prosperity to the whole nation, and the immense range of economic, social and cultural activities in that part of our great nation, suggest that, if anything, demand is likely to increase. So, this debate is apposite.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden is aware, many of the services operating on the West Anglia main line use new, “class 379” rolling stock. As he said, they are more modern, comfortable units, offering air conditioning, on-board passenger information systems, ample space for luggage and provision for wheelchair users. Those trains are principally used on the Cambridge and Stansted Express services, meaning his constituents are particular beneficiaries. However, as he said, not all of them, all of the time, are able to take advantage of those better services. It is important, therefore, that we look at what we can do to improve the other trains on the line.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the “refresh” programme. Untypically for him, that was parodied rather. I thought there was a touch of irony in his use of the term, but I am determined that it should be a real refurbishment. I have made it clear in my Department this afternoon that I want our trains to look and feel good so that the quality of the journey improves and the pain that he described becomes the joy that I seek.

I do not see any reason why trains should not look good, why the livery of trains should not be right, or why the circumstances in which people travel should not be edifying and enjoyable. That programme, which includes the replacement of seat covers and the improvement of train interiors, needs to be meaningful and comprehensive. In my role as rail Minister for the day, I have done all I can to ensure that that occurs. It is not enough to have a cursory makeover; a proper refurbishment needs to take place.

The improvements that we make to rolling stock are tied to the acquisition of new stock. My right hon. Friend made it clear that he fears—I understand why he said this—that the new rolling stock may not necessarily be of the right order, so I make clear my view that it is important that it is. We cannot prejudge exactly where that stock will come from, but we certainly do not want what we have to be made worse. To put that another way, we cannot miss the opportunity to make what we have better. I certainly want the acquisition of the new rolling stock to be of the right order so that the quality of service that people enjoy is enhanced.

When I talk of new rolling stock, I expect it to come from the manufacturers, not from somewhere it has been operating for a number of years. I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend is saying, but I understand that retention tanks cannot be fitted under the on-board lavatories of the class 317 stock, and there are 51 units. Those trains may stay in service longer, with brighter paintwork and better seat covers, but there is that horrible disadvantage, which is manifested quite disgustingly at Liverpool Street station.

That is a powerful and vivid illustration of how railway journeys can be less than edifying and less than enjoyable. I shall certainly ask my officials to give that consideration and see what can be done, although I hear what my right hon. Friend says about some of the constraints on the ability to make the necessary improvements. I am generally of the view—I am well off-script here—that if we want to do things, we can do them, and I think we might have to go the extra mile in these terms. I am more than happy to tell my right hon. Friend that following this debate, I shall ask my officials to see what that extra mile would look like to satisfy his requirements

In addition to the established demand along the line that I have spoken of, additional demand is growing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford said, in the lower Lea valley of north-east London. For that reason, the Government’s rail investment strategy has provided approximately £80 million to deliver three and four-tracking at the southern end of the route. This investment will facilitate the introduction of new services, as well as improve operational reliability. It will support regeneration in the lower Lea valley, including the major development at Meridian Water near Angel Road. Led by Network Rail, this upgrade will be delivered by 2019 and will be compatible with any subsequent enhancements of the capacity of the route, an important matter to which I shall return shortly.

As my right hon. Friend is aware, demand is also growing on the northern end of the West Anglia main line. In particular, Cambridge is a regional economic powerhouse, making a significant and increasing contribution to the local and national economy. For this reason, Cambridge station itself is in the process of a significant redevelopment, including having a new ticket hall and additional cycle parking facilities.

My Department is also working with Network Rail and Cambridgeshire county council to develop plans for a new station to the north of Cambridge, at Chesterton. As well as providing direct access to the rapidly expanding science park, this station would relieve some of the rail congestion at Cambridge, with operational and performance benefits right along the West Anglia main line.

Within my right hon. Friend’s constituency, I am aware that passengers travelling to and from Audley End station also now benefit from full step-free access between platforms, following the installation of lifts. In addition, there is excellent rolling stock now operating on the route, which we will add to further, and I hope my right hon. Friend will agree that the Government and the rail industry are making good progress in improving the experience of his constituents at least in that regard, although I hear that he rightly argues on their behalf that we can do more.

I have already highlighted the key limitation of the West Anglia main line—that it is a very busy, principally two-track, railway. I very much hope that the Government’s commitment to three and four-tracking some southern sections demonstrates our determination to improve capacity on the route. However, I recognise the strong aspirations of my right hon. Friend and other Members for faster and more frequent services, and enhancements which would require further infrastructure interventions. I would now like to discuss that issue, because my right hon. Friend’s speech was in two parts, the first about the pain of travel and the condition of the rolling stock and other matters, and the second about the need to meet demand through improved capacity.

To begin with, I would like to explain that major investments in the railway are funded on the basis of five-year funding cycles known as control periods. We are currently in control period 5—my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford mentioned this—which began earlier this year and will run until 2019. During this control period, the Government are providing Network Rail and the rest of the rail industry with more than £16 billion of funding to upgrade and enhance the networks in England and Wales. It is from this funding pot, known as the Government’s rail investment strategy, that the lower Lea valley upgrades I have already referred to will be funded. The process for identifying possible investments and upgrades for the next control period—control period 6, which will run from 2019 to 2024—has recently begun. There are therefore opportunities for my right hon. Friend, other Members and the public in general to contribute to the process and influence the Government’s next rail investment strategy.

As Yeats said:

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.”

In regard to the West Anglia main line, the draft Anglia route study has recently been put out for consultation, and I want to emphasise that this is a draft for consultation. I note the remarks that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend have made about its imperfections and limits, and I emphasise again that it is not set in stone. It will evolve, and I want to receive representations that will contribute to its evolution. We will make adjustments to it as we listen and learn throughout the consultation period. Tonight’s debate represents an important contribution to that process.

The rail industry’s emerging view is that the future level of demand expected on the West Anglia main line can be met through the lengthening of certain peak Cambridge and Stansted airport services. However, there are other views on the ways to meet the demand, and I want to hear them. I am not satisfied that there is just one single take on this. We have heard from my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend, who speak on the matter with great expertise, and they take a rather different view of how the demand should be met. I want that view to be heard loud and clear in my Department and across the rail industry.

The emerging view on control period 6 has been articulated and published by Network Rail in good faith, based on the information available to it, but it is an emerging view, a draft and a consultation. I do not want anyone to assume that it is definitive, or that the Government take it as read that that is the only way forward. Responses to the consultation will feed into the final version of the Anglia route study, which is due to be published in the middle of next year. That will then help to inform the Government’s priorities for the next rail investment strategy, for the period 2019 to 2024—control period 6.

I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said; he has been very helpful. I am waiting, as I am sure you are, Mr Deputy Speaker, for him to introduce a John Betjeman quote into the debate—literary man that he is—but before that, I am keen to learn more about the problem of unreliable or incomplete evidence resulting in subsequent decisions being open to challenge. None of us wants or needs that. We want clarity, evidence, good decisions and investment. Does he accept that there could be a real problem for the Department if the evidence were incomplete as a result of a poor route study, leading to subsequent decisions proving unreliable?

My hon. Friend must wait until the very last few lines of my speech—which I hope will be as poetic as Betjeman; they will certainly be as joyful as Lewis—when I will respond directly to that point.

We will set out options for upgrades until 2043, including the option for four-tracking the West Anglia main line, Crossrail 2 and increased services to and from Stansted airport. It seems inevitable to me that, ultimately, we will need to greatly increase the capacity of the line to keep pace with growing demand. Again, all responses to Network Rail’s consultation, which ends on 3 February next year, and all views on the longer-term funding priorities are very much encouraged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford made the following point, on which I wish to conclude. He said that the Government should act on the basis of clear and robust evidence, and called for a full feasibility study. That is a perfectly reasonable request. It is not in the script prepared for me by my civil servants, but if he is to be “Surprised by Joy”, they should be surprised, too, when I say that I am more than happy to invite him, my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden and other interested parties, including local authorities and the local business representatives, to the Department to discuss what that kind of study might look like. That proposal is perfectly compatible with the consultation we have described. Indeed, it would frame a response to the consultation, which would combine many of the points made in this short debate, so my final surprise is not to quote Betjeman, but hon. Members will recall, thinking of Christmas, the line:

“A cold coming we had of it”.

I end rather more warmly, in welcoming the chance to make that new commitment to my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend, and to ensure that the pain is replaced by the joy of travel.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.