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Rail Electrification

Volume 598: debated on Thursday 16 July 2015

3. What recent assessment he has made of Network Rail’s progress in delivering the rail electrification programme. (901044)

4. What recent assessment he has made of Network Rail’s progress in delivering the rail electrification programme. (901045)

As I said in my statement, important aspects of Network Rail’s investment programme are costing more and taking longer. That is why I have asked Sir Peter Hendy, the new chair of Network Rail, to develop proposals for how the rail upgrade programme will be carried out.

Many of my constituents will now have to put up with slower services because of the Government’s decision to halt the electrification of the midland main line. It was revealed this week that in March, Network Rail agreed that joint decisions with the Department for Transport to defer upgrades would be required. Does that not show that Ministers must have known that the upgrades would be shelved, even though they were promising the public that they would be delivered?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman asking what I think is his first Transport question in the more than two and half years since I became Secretary of State. I am glad that he is taking an interest in the railway that he has not taken before.

The train services in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are operated by Northern, and we will increase overall capacity between Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield by 36% by the end of 2019, providing an extra 200 services each weekday. We will also increase Northern’s fleet size by 10% in 2015, delivering an additional 87 carriages—all good news for his constituents, and I am sorry that he looks on the negative side.

The delay in the electrification of the trans-Pennine line means delay in the release of rolling stock to replace the clapped-out Pacers endured by commuters in my constituency. How long will the pause last, and how long do they have to wait for an improvement in the quality of their journeys?

We have electrified the track between Liverpool and Manchester, replacing the two-car diesel trains with four-car electric trains from April 2015. I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome that and, if not, that she would at least welcome the increase in the fleet size of Northern trains by 10% in 2015, delivering an extra 87 carriages. We will double the services between Manchester Victoria and Liverpool, Macclesfield, Chester, Bolton and Stockport by the end of 2017—more has been done to upgrade those sections of rail in the past five years than was achieved in the 13 years her party was in government.

As a former resident of Cannock, my right hon. Friend will be well aware of the importance of the Chase line electrification to residents and businesses in my constituency. Will he work with me to minimise any potential delays to the completion of the project?

My hon. Friend is quite right: I know that line incredibly well. It goes from Rugeley to Hednesford, then to Cannock and on to Walsall and Birmingham. As a member of Cannock Chase District Council, I campaigned for the line to be reopened and I am pleased that that happened in 1989. I am also pleased to confirm that as part of the electrification of that line, the new bridges at Hednesford, Stafford Lane and Cannock are already in place. The investment is £78.2 million and it is on target to be finished in December 2017.

The Secretary of State will know of the great disappointment across the east midlands at the pause in the electrification of the midland main line. While we are waiting for a final decision on that, can he update the House on when we might see the implementation of the other improvements on the line that are still in the plan?

Those improvements are still going on and, as I said at the time of the statement, the most important thing is to achieve some of the line-speed improvements to allow us to operate six trains an hour from St Pancras, as opposed to the five trains per hour at present. That work is going on as we speak.

On 25 June, just seven weeks after the election, the Secretary of State announced that the Government were shelving vital electrification upgrades in the midlands and north— projects that Ministers repeatedly promised to deliver before and during the general election. Will the Secretary of State say categorically when he first became aware that Network Rail thought a decision would have to be made on the future of those upgrades? Was it before or after the election?

It is worth noting that when I made the statement the shadow Secretary of State said that it had been well known that the electrification programme was in some trouble. If so, it is interesting that he never asked a question on it at any Transport Question Time. The first time I was told that a pause was needed was a week before I made the statement to the House.

That is not an answer to my question. The Secretary of State says that he was in the dark, but we know that the Government were warned by the rail regulator in November last year, and by the Transport Committee in January, that costs were escalating and big rail projects such as those were in trouble. The chief executive of Network Rail, Mark Carne said:

“People knew perfectly well there were high levels of uncertainty about this, it was widely flagged at the time, and it would not be fair for people to forget that.”

I wonder who he was referring to. Ministers knew all along that they were going to shelve those projects, but they continued to con the public. It is completely shabby. Should not the Government now live up to their election promises, reinstate the electrification work and not pull the plug on those vital upgrades for the north and midlands?

The last time a major upgrade was done by the Labour party, it set out as a £2 billion scheme and ended as a £12 billion scheme—and then was, I think, scaled back to a £9 billion scheme. It would be wrong of me, therefore, to say exactly what the future course of action will be until I have Sir Peter Hendy’s report—he starts work today. However, I am committed to seeing the electrification as laid out, and to the 850 miles that we will be putting in place over this period of electrification, as opposed to the 10 miles of electrification that the last Labour Government put in place in their full 13 years.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that the pre-electrification line-speed improvements on the midland main line, which will be hugely welcomed and increase the number of trains out of St Pancras from five to six an hour, will have the knock-on effect of reinstating the half-hourly service northwards from Kettering which was taken away by the last Labour Government?

My hon. Friend has been forceful in that campaign, and I will certainly look at whether those opportunities will arise as a result of what I hope will be the increase in frequency of services between St Pancras and the midlands.

The major question mark over the delivery of rail electrification as promised has rung alarm bells for the northern powerhouse, but what does it mean for One North, the plan worked out by local authorities right across the region to integrate road and rail transport across the Pennines?

I am appearing before the hon. Lady and her Select Committee on Monday afternoon, where I am sure we will go into a much deeper dive on those points.

I did not manage to finish my answer to the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher). It is worth pointing out that I did say in March and in January, when I was before the Transport Committee, that there were some problems with some aspects of the electrification of the northern Pennine line, and that is why, when the new franchise was issued, it mentioned diesel trains—[Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Speaker, these are very big questions and I am trying to be as open as possible with the House. I realise it is frustrating that these responses are so long.