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Network Rail

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 25 June 2015

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about Network Rail following today’s publication of its annual report.

In September 2014, Network Rail was reclassified as a public body as result of an accounting decision by the Office for National Statistics. Since then the Government have had greater direct oversight of the company. I want to report to the House on Network Rail’s performance and the actions that I am taking to hold it to account.

Some things are working well. Our railways are carrying more passengers than ever before, and journeys have more than doubled since privatisation—they went up on average by 4.2% in the last year alone. Safety has improved, and the reliability of assets on the railways is up. Network Rail reopened the line at Dawlish after the horrendous storms in the time expected. It has opened a new station at Reading ahead of schedule and under budget, and a modernised Birmingham New Street complex will be fully open later this year.

I do not pretend that everything is perfect, however, because it is not. Where performance has fallen below the standards I expect, I want it sorted out. What we saw at Kings Cross at Christmas and at London Bridge earlier this year was unacceptable, and I said so at the time. Since then, Network Rail has demonstrated that it has learned those lessons. I pay tribute to the significant programmes of work it delivered over Easter and the May day bank holidays, but to improve performance we need to invest and we need good management. The truth is that much of this work should have been done decades ago. Successive Governments failed to invest the sums necessary in our rail network, and that is why we find ourselves in the current situation.

When faced with a choice between building the infrastructure our country needs and our railway becoming a brake on growth and opportunity, the Government choose to invest for the future, in projects such as Crossrail in London and HS2. In 2012, the Government set out the most ambitious rail investment programme since the Victorians: a £38 billion programme on enhancing, operating and maintaining the current network. That means hard work and good design; and thousands of people working night after night, sometimes in very difficult conditions. On the 216 miles of the Great Western line alone, Network Rail needs to alter about 170 bridges, lower parts of the track bed, install 14,000 masts of overhead line equipment and electrify parts of the railway constructed by Brunel in the 1830s, so that new British-built fast trains can speed up services and provide more seats and services. Members and their constituents want these improvements, and I am determined that they will happen.

In parts of this programme, Network Rail’s performance has not been good enough. Already, the chief executive and the board are responding. Since joining Network Rail in 2014, the chief executive Mark Carne has reviewed the organisation’s structure, performance and accountability. He has strengthened his team and he has a structure for improvement. I want to see him drive that forward, but there are still challenges. Important aspects of Network Rail’s investment programme are costing more and taking longer: electrification is difficult; the UK supply chain for complex signalling works needs to be stronger; construction rates have been slow; and it has taken longer than expected to obtain planning consents from some local authorities. That is no excuse, however. All those problems could and should have been foreseen by Network Rail, so I want to inform the House of the action I am taking to reset the programme and get it back on track.

First, none of Network Rail’s executive directors will receive a bonus for the past year. The current Chairman, Mr Richard Parry-Jones, is stepping down. His replacement will be the current transport commissioner in London, Sir Peter Hendy, someone of huge experience who helped to keep London moving during the Olympics. I am asking him to develop proposals, by autumn, for how the rail upgrade programme will be carried out. Secondly, I am appointing Richard Brown as a special director of Network Rail with immediate effect. He will update me, and report directly to me, on progress. Thirdly, I intend to simplify Network Rail’s governance by ending the role of the public members. I thank them for their commitment, but the reclassification of Network Rail has changed the organisation’s accountability. Fourthly, it is important that we understand what can be done better in future investment programmes. I have therefore asked Dame Colette Bowe, an experienced economist and regulator, to look at lessons learned and to make recommendations for better investment planning in future. I will publish her report in the autumn.

I know that Members on both sides of the House value the improvements that are planned to the railway in their area. Network Rail’s spending should stay within its funding allowance. Electrification of the Great Western line is a top priority and I want Network Rail to concentrate its efforts on getting that right. On the midland main line, better services can be delivered through works such as speed improvement. Electrification will be paused: I want it to be done and done well; it will be part of our future plans for the route.

Meanwhile, the next franchise for the trans-Pennine route between Leeds and Manchester will bring modern trains and additional capacity. Current work on electrification will be paused, because we need to be much more ambitious for that route, building a powerhouse for the north with a fast, high capacity trans-Pennine electric route. We are working with businesses and cities in the north to make that happen. We have seen electric trains introduced this year between Liverpool and Manchester, and between Liverpool and Wigan, and the work that will see them spread to Bolton and Blackpool is under way.

In the south-east, Crossrail and Thameslink are well under way. In Anglia, we will bring about modern, faster trains to Ipswich and Norwich in the next franchise. For passengers in the south-west, the new contract with First Great Western will provide significant extra capacity. I hope to be able to announce news on further new trains for the region soon.

We will keep commuter rail fares capped in real terms for the whole of this Parliament. People’s earnings will rise more quickly than rail fares—the first time that this has happened since 2002. Passengers want a railway that is better, faster and more reliable than today. Powered by a huge increase in investment and ambition right across the country, that is what they will get. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

Let us be absolutely clear: the Government’s total failure to deliver a fit-for-purpose railway has today been completely and damningly exposed. First, the publication of the latest national rail passenger survey—I note the Secretary of State did not mention it—shows that passenger satisfaction has dropped once again. Now we have the Secretary of State announcing that vital investment projects, such as electrification of the midland main line, which he promised to deliver, are being shelved owing to his repeated failure to get a grip of Network Rail. The electrification of the trans-Pennine express railway line between Manchester, Leeds and York has also been shelved—so much for the northern powerhouse—and we remain concerned about the future of the electrification of the Great Western line.

The Secretary of State spent the election campaign repeating promises that he knew he would break after the election. That is what has been revealed today. The truth is that passengers have had to endure a catalogue of failure on our railways by Ministers since 2010. There was the Christmas rail chaos, which the Secretary of State referred to, although he neglected to mention that Ministers had been warned about that and failed to act. While delusional Ministers talk about “fair fares” and “comfortable commuting”—which is a world away from the misery for commuters at London Bridge—there have been inflation-busting fare rises of on average more than 20%. We have also seen the collapse of the west coast franchise competition, which cost the taxpayer £50 million. Ministers may try today to shift all the blame to Network Rail, but this happened on the Government’s watch and the responsibility for the mess lays squarely with the Government.

Let me turn to a number of specific questions. Will the Secretary of State confirm that when the Government placed the development of key Network Rail projects on hold for up to two years after the 2010 election, important preparation work was not undertaken, and therefore, as the rail regulator has said, they committed to the projects in 2012 based on “limited development work”? We know that Network Rail started to put together a list of projects that would be axed back in November. Why has it taken so long for the Government to reveal them to the House and to be honest with the travelling public? Crucially, can the Secretary of State confirm that he received a report on 1 September last year on the state of those programmes from Network Rail, his Department and the regulator? He has refused to publish it. Why did he sit on the report and pretend to the public that everything was fine until after the election?

Labour first raised the issue of delays to the Great Western project in the House more than a year ago. Why has it taken so long for the Government to admit that there were fundamental problems with the project? Why did the Secretary of State not listen to the Transport Select Committee six months ago when it warned that key rail enhancement projects had

“been announced by Ministers without Network Rail having a clear estimate of what the projects will cost, leading to uncertainty about whether the projects will be delivered on time, or at all”?

Why did he not raise the alarm when the estimated cost of electrifying the midland main line rose from £250 million to £540 million and then to £1.3 billion; or when the cost estimates for Great Western electrification rose from £548 million to £930 million and then to £1.7 billion?

Just two weeks ago, the Secretary of State refused to answer my questions about the need to tackle the failures at Network Rail and whether he was planning changes to Network Rail. Will he explain why he has dithered for so long when he has had the power to exert more ministerial responsibility over Network Rail, including by appointing a special director, since September last year?

The Opposition have warned time and again that fundamental change in how our railways are run is needed, that Ministers need to get a grip, that passengers should have a proper voice and that more public control is needed. We welcome the appointment of Sir Peter Hendy as chairman of Network Rail, and we will look carefully at some of the other announcements that the Government have made.

The news today exposes a catalogue of failure by Ministers, and it deals a fatal blow to the Government’s claim that they are delivering a better railway for passengers. Is it not clear that the Government’s real legacy is one of rail fare hikes, plummeting passenger satisfaction, ongoing disruptions and delays, major projects running years behind schedule, promises of vital investment betrayed, and a railway that is not fit for purpose, and all the while out-of-touch Ministers sat in Whitehall overseeing a complete and utter shambles?

It is true that I have been Transport Secretary for two and a half years. Despite the catalogue of terror that the hon. Gentleman has outlined, over those two and a half years there have been only two occasions on which the Opposition have chosen to debate transport on Opposition days. One was a day after I was appointed, and the other was on the day that the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor was sacked as shadow Transport Secretary. With regard to their warning us and wanting the subject lifted up the political agenda, we have heard nothing from the Opposition, because they are truly embarrassed by their record, whereas we have invested in the railways, lifted them and given encouragement to the railway industry.

Today I have made no cuts whatever to the rail investment strategy—the largest rail investment strategy that has ever taken place. The amount of money invested is exactly the same as it was last week—the budget within which the strategy has to be delivered. I will take no lessons from a Labour party that in 13 years electrified 10 miles of railway lines; we have electrified more this year than it did in all that time. Then there is the £895 million project to rebuild the railways around Reading and to remove major bottlenecks; the £750 million transformation and upgrade of Birmingham New Street station; the refurbishment of Nottingham station, with all the investment going into it. There has been more investment in Nottingham in the last five years than was seen in the 13 years of the last Labour Government. Then there is the new station built at Wakefield; the completed Ipswich Chord and the Doncaster Chord; phase 1 of the £6.5 billion Thameslink project; the completion of Crossrail tunnelling. I could go on a lot more, Mr Speaker. I will take no lectures. I am determined to get on top of, and see the delivery of, those programmes, which are so important for our constituents.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that my constituents are fed up to the back teeth with points and signalling failures that, through the failings of Network Rail, have too often disrupted their services, and that it is the same with the electrification and upgrading of the track? They will warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s initiative to seek improvements, and to pin Network Rail down to deliver and to maintain the £38.5 billion investment. Can he confirm that the new franchise for Anglia, which will be warmly welcomed in Chelmsford, includes the new rolling stock and will cover inter-city trains and, more importantly, the vast majority of trains that my constituents use—the commuter trains into Liverpool Street?

Let me first congratulate my right hon. Friend on his well-deserved inclusion in the recent honours list. I am looking forward to receiving the invitations to tender for the franchise and the results of the franchise competition for the Greater Anglia line. I think we need improvements on that line so that Ipswich and Norwich can be reached in 60 and 90 minutes. As my right hon. Friend well knows, the inclusion of new rolling stock will score very highly on the franchises that are currently being tendered.

I note the change in the structure of Network Rail announced by the right hon. Gentleman today. Given that Network Rail still plays a part in Scotland’s rail network, will he consult Scottish Ministers before implementing those changes? Most of the changes in railways refer only to England, and I have no real comment on them, but when HS2 was announced, it was said that it would not be extended to Scotland because of the increased journey times through the rest of the network. Will he assure us that none of the changes will jeopardise journey times to Scotland?

I spoke to Keith Brown last night to outline what I anticipated saying this morning, and I shall meet him again on Monday, when we will discuss a number of these issues. On HS2, as soon as it starts to operate, I believe Scotland will benefit. Anyone travelling on the Javelin train from St Pancras down to areas in Kent that are not served completely by the high-speed line will get the advantage of using that line. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s questions.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that perceptive travellers on the West Anglia and Great Eastern lines will recognise that his statement shows that he has listened to and responded to all the various pieces of advice he has had from all different quarters, and therefore this statement is particularly welcome? It will be enhanced if the more reliable journeys that we hope these changes will bring about will be on new trains as well.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has never lost an opportunity to impress on me the importance of train services for his constituency or indeed to press for extra investment in the railways. I come back to the point I made at the start of my statement: this Government are fully committed to huge investment on our railway network. When we announced the £38 billion, it was beyond the expectations of many people in the railway industry, and I want to ensure that it is delivered efficiently and effectively—for the part that is paid for by fare-paying passengers, as well as for the part that is funded directly by the taxpayer.

Network Rail certainly has many good achievements, but last January the Transport Select Committee warned that escalating costs and poor planning jeopardised the investment programme and, indeed, questioned whether that programme was ever realistic. Will the Secretary of State explain precisely what his statement means for the pause in electrification in the north and for the midland main line service?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on being elected unopposed as the Chair of the Transport Select Committee. The pause is exactly what I said—a pausing of that particular scheme until I receive the report from Sir Peter Hendy. I made it clear that the midland electrification would always follow the Great Western, which would always be the priority. When people see some of the challenges facing the Great Western electrification, they will certainly understand that.

My constituents will warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment on commuter rail fares, but will he reassure them that his getting to grips with Network Rail will help to resolve all the outstanding issues in the southern region?

I can give that reassurance. Let me add that the railways Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), has been particularly good at keeping all local Members in touch, especially those who have experienced problems. I must, however, say to my hon. Friend in all fairness that there will be occasions, during what will be a major refurbishment, when passengers will be caused discomfort and inconvenienced. I am afraid that that is part of our legacy of having to catch up with all the under-investment that was happening for so many years. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) mentions London Bridge. I am the first to admit that some of the conditions faced by people there have been unacceptable, but some of the conditions faced by me at St Pancras were unacceptable, and it is now a fantastic station that is almost a destination in its own right.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am the chair of the RMT parliamentary group.

I assume from his statement that the Secretary of State has resisted some of the calls from the wider elements of his party for the breaking up and privatisation of Network Rail. The fourth point that he made in his statement was,

“it is important that we understand what can be done better in future investment programmes.”

May I suggest to him that one of the key elements of that would be to start listening to some of the workers on the front line? May I also suggest that Dame Colette Bowe’s review should include a mechanism for ongoing consultation with the trade unions about how those programmes can be improved?

I am certainly willing to consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions. Some of those workers on the front line do an incredibly difficult job, sometimes in the most horrendous conditions and often in the middle of the night. That is one of the lessons on which we should draw when considering what happened at King’s Cross over Christmas.

My right hon. Friend and I are regular users of the midland main line from St Pancras through Market Harborough to Leicester and, in my right hon. Friend’s case, beyond. Our experience, I suggest, is fairly satisfactory. This morning, however, local government leaders in the east midlands, and in Leicester in particular, expressed a fear that the so-called pausing of the electrification might have an effect on development in the east midlands. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that it will have no effect whatsoever on the commercial and economic development of the area?

As my right hon. and learned Friend says, both he and I use that line regularly. The priority for the route is to improve capacity and speeds, so that there can be six rather than five trains an hour from St Pancras. We will press on with the rebuilding to speed up and straighten the track at Market Harborough, and with the rebuilding of the Derby track layout. That will mean faster services soon, and it will enable us to make the most of the electrification and new trains that will result from future franchises.

Eight months ago, when the Secretary of State appeared before the Transport Committee, I asked him whether he was satisfied with the governance arrangement for Network Rail whereby it was, in effect, marking its own homework. He said then that he was completely satisfied with the arrangement, but today he has come to the House and changed it. Does he not regret that decision? In his statement, he blamed Network Rail for not having foreseen these problems, but if he had taken action then, would he not have been able to foresee them and do something about them?

As I said, the reclassification took place in September. When I appeared before the Transport Committee, I was asked to give my opinions on matters as they were at the time. Since then, owing to the greater accessibility and more direct control from which we have benefited, I have had a chance to think a bit more about what ought to be done, which is why I have made my statement today.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to work positively with the new management of Network Rail, the Solent local enterprise partnership and local stakeholders in my constituency to accelerate the development of the Chicken Hall Lane link road?

I shall be more than happy to look into what my hon. Friend has suggested, and respond to her in due course.

I was a junior Transport Minister some 25 years ago, and in those days railways were not talked about. Today, however, it is clear that they are very important in providing connections for all our constituents, and that they are benefiting from investment as a result of what this Government and the last Government have done.

There will be a great deal of anger in Sheffield today about the decision on the midland main line, especially among businesses. There will also be some cynicism about the fact that the electrification which was on track before 7 May has been abandoned so soon after that date. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, contrary to what he has just said, Ministers gave clear commitments—both in the House and in writing—that it would be completed by 2020? He has reneged on those commitments today, and he really has no idea when, or if, electrification will actually take place.

It is wrong to say that I have reneged on those commitments. What I have said is that the Great Western railway line was always a priority for electrification, but that I want to see electrification on the other lines as well. A fair amount of the work that is required, such as bridge building and replacement, has already been done on the midland main line, and I hope very much that the line will be electrified, but at present it is right for us to ensure that we secure the best value for money on the railways.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that electrification is difficult. I know that he has spent a great deal of time in the past year ensuring that Network Rail bears down on its costs. I warmly welcome his statement, particularly what he said about governance measures. May I urge him, however, to take all necessary measures to ensure that Network Rail stays within its spending and funding allowances? That, and only that, will enable passengers to see the benefit of the Government’s long-term commitment to rail investment.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The level of our investment in the railways is unprecedented in comparison with that of recent Governments, but it is also important for us to secure best value for our investment. That is one of the tasks with which I have charged Sir Peter Hendy, and I look forward to receiving his report later this year.

I am glad that the Secretary of State has confirmed that the electrification of the Great Western line is a priority, but can he confirm that the pre-election promise made to the people of the west of my country that the line would be electrified as far as Swansea by 2018 will be honoured?

What I can tell the people of Swansea and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents is that they will experience the benefits of the new intercity express programme in—I think—2018. I will clarify the exact date in a letter to the hon. Gentleman. As for electrification all the way to Swansea, it is part of the programme that, as I have said, is a top priority.

My constituents will welcome, as I do, my right hon. Friend’s clear commitment and determination to improve our railways, and his strong track record on tackling issues that the Labour party left unaddressed for so long. They will, however, be a little disappointed by the pause in the electrification of the midland main line. I shall not labour the point, but can my right hon. Friend reassure me that it is just that—a pause, not a cancellation—and that he remains committed to the electrification? Will he, or the railways Minister, agree to meet me to discuss the rail services that are used by my constituents in Leicestershire?

Either the railways Minister or I will certainly meet my hon. Friend to discuss that issue in more detail. As I said earlier, the priority for the midland main line is still the provision of six trains an hour from St Pancras, which we can achieve by rebuilding and straightening the track at Market Harborough and remodelling the track at Derby station, but I still want to see the electrification of that line.

The Secretary of State was generous in describing Network Rail’s performance at London Bridge as “unacceptable”. I think it was an absolute shambles and a disgrace, and passengers suffered the consequences for months afterwards. I am pleased that he has cancelled any bonuses and hope that if, in the next financial year, Network Rail’s performance is just as diabolical, it will not get any then, either. Will he consider whether passengers should be compensated if trains are delayed by just 15 minutes, and encourage the train companies and Network Rail to publicise on every delayed train, and at every station at which delayed trains arrive, how passengers can claim compensation?

I accept that what passengers had to put up with earlier this year at London Bridge was unacceptable; I do not think anybody would argue with that for one second. I will certainly look at the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestions on how passenger services can be improved, but the refurbishment taking place at London Bridge means that passengers will see a hugely better-built station with more capacity. It will be a great enhancement to passenger services once it is finished, but I accept that some of the delays and the way in which information was given out was absolutely unacceptable, and both Network Rail and we have learned lessons from that incident.

A pause in the electrification project for the midland main line is not good news from my Kettering constituents, especially when the rate of return on the project is greater than that for the Great Western electrification, where all the delays and problems have occurred. What effect will that have, if any, on the timing of the franchise renewal for the midland main line? Given that my right hon. Friend has just told the House that better services can be achieved before electrification, will he do his best to reinstate either before or in the franchise renewal the half-hourly service north from Kettering, which was halved under the previous Labour Government?

I will certainly look at what my hon. Friend asks for and see if it is possible. The extended franchise that I have set out, and which we will look at, for East Midlands Trains is on target, but when we go out for re-franchising there will be an opportunity to look in greater detail at some of the improvements that my hon. Friend has just called for.

The Secretary of State knows that his deliberate decision to choose to de-prioritise electrification for the midland main line means that talk of a northern powerhouse will be seen as empty words in Sheffield, but he also said that the line improvements will continue. Will he confirm that that means all the line improvements, including Market Harborough, and will he say when the work will be completed?

I have just confirmed to many of my hon. Friends that the Market Harborough work will go on. I find it a little hard to take from Opposition Members that we have done nothing for the northern powerhouse. Labour did nothing in 2004 when it let the previous franchise to Northern Rail on a zero-growth plan. That was its ambition in 2004 for the north: zero. We have a great ambition for the north and there will be improvements, as we see the roll-out of the electric services that I referred to in my statement. Anybody who goes today to Sheffield’s Victoria station will see a station that has been rebuilt as a result of this Government’s investment.

We have at the Despatch Box one of the very best Ministers in the Government, but my constituents will be very disappointed about the midland main line news. That could be corrected, however, by the improvements he has described. The real problem with the line is capacity and train numbers. If we get that sorted, we will see that my constituents are quite happy.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; it is fair to say that I get more support from him in this job than I did in my previous one. The point he rightly makes about trains and their increasing frequency from St Pancras is very important, and I am glad to say that—although not a direct link as far as his constituents are concerned—I was able to attend the opening of a new station in Northampton, and also to see lots of road investment in Northamptonshire.

My constituents will be alarmed at the pause in the electrification of the route between Manchester and Leeds, and not just those who use it. What consequences will there be for improved train services on other lines that depend on electrification for the release of rolling stock?

I went some way to say what we have done as far as the northern area is concerned and the northern powerhouse. For the first time we are seeing electric trains from Manchester to Preston and from Preston to Blackpool, and huge investment in the Manchester Victoria line. I have talked about the release of rolling stock as far as the Great Western main line is concerned, and that is one reason why I chose that area to take priority.

I thank the Secretary of State for continuing the investment in the Great Western main line, but having visited my constituents recently he will be acutely aware that they take longer to get to and from the capital than they did in 1910. Can he reassure me that nothing in the statement will delay the pressure on First Great Western to deliver a two-hour service between Worcester and the capital, or the delivery of Worcestershire Parkway station?

I can confirm that nothing in the statement will impact on the improvements that my hon. Friend wishes to see.

I welcome the assurance that the Great Western main line will remain a priority, but as we have heard, the cost of the scheme has more than trebled to £1.7 billion, and the rumours are that it has already been delayed by more than a year. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give people travelling on that line from Bristol to London that there will not be any further pain and misery in the months and years to come?

When the hon. Lady says “further pain and misery”, I note there may be occasions when, because of ongoing work, trains will be altered and timetables changed. We cannot carry out this huge electrification programme, as I outlined earlier in my statement, over the length of track and through some of the tunnels we are talking about, without there being some big engineering challenges, but it is absolutely right that the Great Western main line takes priority, and that the new trains that will run on the line from 2017 to 2018 are there and used.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement on Network Rail. As someone who has worked with Sir Peter Hendy in London government, I know he is a world-class transport executive and will make a better job of delivering major projects like London Bridge than those that my constituents have had to put up with so far. Will my right hon. Friend to keep up the pressure started by his rail Minister on existing franchise holders such as South East Trains? I can top my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker): Napoleon III chose to live in exile in Chislehurst because it had a fast and reliable train service to London. My constituents are now selling their houses and moving out because it is so bad on a daily basis, as I know.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about Sir Peter Hendy. My hon. Friend the rail Minister needs no encouragement from my hon. Friend or anybody else to keep up the pressure on those services.

What does pausing trans-Pennine electrification mean for the privately funded initiative put forward to electrify the line from Selby to Hull—which was, of course, missed out in his Department’s original plans?

The hon. Lady is not being quite fair, because I made some extra money available to take that route to the next GRIP stage. To say that we missed it out is slightly unfair, but leaving that to one side, I hope that the plans being developed will be acted on.

The pause in electrification of the midland main line has a potential impact on the selection of the route to complete the east-west rail link—a crucial issue for my constituents in Bedford and Kempston. Will my right hon. Friend show his characteristically robust and decisive approach, write to the head of Network Rail and ask him to stop dawdling and decide which of the two routes from Bedford is the right one to complete the link? Will my right hon. Friend also ask my hon. Friend the rail Minister to visit Bedford and speak to me and the Mayor of Bedford about this very important issue?

I am sure the rail Minister will be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend in his constituency to discuss the problems being faced. I will certainly feed in what he has said to Sir Peter Hendy as he completes the review that I have asked him to undertake.

My constituents will also be disappointed by the pause in the electrification of the midland main line. They want to know whether it is a pause or a cancellation, so will the Secretary of State say when he might expect that electrification to happen? Is it by 2025 or might it be a bit earlier than that?

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will allow Sir Peter to make his report before I start saying what will be in it. I usually find that that is the best course of action on these occasions, rather than anticipating what will be in a report that I have just commissioned before I have received it. As I have said to other colleagues on the subject of the line that my hon. Friend and I both use regularly, getting to the position where we have six trains an hour from St Pancras will be an improvement.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and I am pleased that the largest investment in the Great Western main line through Bath since the Victorians is a top priority—I am sure that has nothing to do with the fact that Sir Peter Hendy comes from Bath. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is shameful that the Opposition are making political capital out of this statement, given their appalling record when they were in government?

My hon. Friend will soon find out, as he is here a bit longer, that the Labour party just taking political opportunity and making political capital out of something it failed in all its time in government to do anything about is nothing new. I walked with my hon. Friend through the park area in Bath where some of the electrification of the railway will take place. One problem we face is that going through huge heritage areas and great conservation areas such as his constituency is more problematic, but we are determined to meet the challenge.

Along with my constituents in Corby and east Northamptonshire, I am very frustrated about the content of today’s announcement in relation to the midland main line electrification. I know what they will ask me when I return to the constituency tonight. They will say, “How can you justify spending billions of pounds on HS2 yet delay the progress of this electrification?” What reassurance can the Minister give to my constituents?

The reassurance I give to my hon. Friend’s constituents is that HS2 is about improving and increasing the capacity on our railways because of the growth we are seeing. If we did not improve that capacity, we would have even greater problems down the line in providing the kind of extra services he wants for his constituents, not only on passenger services but on freight, which has grown hugely on our railways—by more than 100%. I would say that to his constituents, and that our Government are committed to the infrastructure investment that I know he is keen to see in the rest of his county, not least on some of the roads around his constituency.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. As a Cardiff Member, I particularly welcome the commitment to the Great Western line as his top priority—the biggest railway investment going on in Wales for some time. Have the under-investment problems been compounding Network Rail’s skills shortage? I am thinking in particular of the huge under-investment by the Labour party in 13 years.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. A huge amount of investment will be going into Wales, in terms not only of the track, but the new trains. They are on order and are being built at this moment.

Will my right hon. Friend please say a few words about what he is going to do in the southern area? A lot in this statement addresses the midlands and the north, but a lot of my constituents, whom I have the honour to represent, rely on Southeastern and Southern rail, which are not mentioned at all in the statement. Network Rail’s efforts would be greatly appreciated in improving the service there, too.

My hon. Friend’s area does get the advantage of the 115 new train sets—1,140 carriages—for the Thameslink programme, which will have a massive impact on his constituents. I accept that there is growing pressure for more services right across the country, but huge amounts of investment are already being made and what I am doing today is making sure that both the fare-paying passengers and the taxpayer are getting the best value for the money that they are investing in our railways.

I am most grateful to the Secretary of State and to colleagues. Before we embark on the next business—the general debate—I should mention in passing that by my calculation no fewer than half a dozen hon. Members who will be seeking to catch the eye of the Chair in the course of the debate are not yet present in the Chamber. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State rightly, as a parliamentary veteran, looks duly shocked by that, and I hope that at this very moment they are beetling along towards the Chamber. It is worth gently making the point that it is a very well-established expectation that a Member who wishes to speak in a debate should in almost all circumstances, and certainly unless he or she has given notice otherwise, be present at the start to hear the opening speeches.