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Road and Rail Infrastructure (North Wales)

Volume 600: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2015

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that I believe is critical to the future economic development of north Wales and the wider region.

Better road and rail infrastructure can offer better access to training and employment opportunities further afield and better access to markets for businesses. It has the ability to attract development to the area and improve the success of companies located in the vicinity. In addition to general increased economic productivity and competitiveness, there are specific advantages that it might bring to the region: more tourism; better access for the public to local and regional services; reduced congestion and therefore safer roads and quicker response times for emergency vehicles; improved recruitment where there are current job shortages; better access to international gateways; increased access to future planned nuclear and green energy developments in the region which could help the area to gain national or even international recognition and expertise in these fields; and social benefits and a better quality of life.

The key railway line in north Wales is the Crewe to Holyhead branch of the west coast main line. We still have Victorian signalling systems, the line caters only for diesel trains, and there are speed restrictions. Parts of the line are the slowest in the UK. It offers relatively limited direct services to airports and major cities. One can travel from my constituency to London in two and a half hours, and I am aware of businesses that are located in the constituency partly because of the existing services. Rail is managed by Network Rail and as such is not devolved.

On road infrastructure, the A55 or north Wales expressway, which is less well known as the Euroroute E22, is our main trunk road. This runs east to west from the M53 at Chester through to Holyhead. Much of the A55 is on what is thought to have been the route of a Roman road, but the road we know today was developed from the 1930s onwards, the majority of it during the 1980s. The Bodelwyddan bypass completed its course across my constituency in 1986. From my constituency there is a half-hour journey along the A55 to the motorway network, and roughly a one-hour journey to the airports of Liverpool and Manchester, but congestion and accidents on the road have increased, as the Daily Post, the region’s newspaper, highlighted on Monday.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He mentioned the A55, which is part of a Euroroute. Is he aware that the only two roundabouts on any Euroroute are to be found in my constituency? Only the other day I received an email from a constituent who had taken an hour to get from Llandudno to Llanfairfechan, a journey of only 14 miles. It is not so much an expressway as a barrier to growth in my constituency and the rest of north-west Wales.

My hon. Friend makes a good point.

There are also poor links from the A55 to the north of my constituency, parts of which have some unemployment hotspots. The existing infrastructure supports numerous businesses, including those at St Asaph business park, but they are often under pressure to move east, closer to the UK’s motorway network. Road infrastructure is devolved in Wales, so joint working is critical when seeking to enhance key east-west routes.

There is a fundamental interdependence between north Wales and the north-west of England. In fact, the economies are inextricably linked, and I suggest that the north Wales economy complements that of the north-west, rather than competing against it. There are 50,000 cross-border commutes every day, which equates to around l million per month. One million people of working age live on either side of the border, and 8 million live across the wider area. To illustrate the size of this combined economy, there is a £31 billion economy along the M56 and A55 corridor, expanding to £77 billion if we include Liverpool, Cheshire and Warrington, and £140 billion with the Manchester city region. In fact, the overall region contributes 17% of UK manufacturing output and provides 30% of jobs locally.

North Wales clearly has a key opportunity to be part of the northern powerhouse and to link to HS2. Doing so would be an important way to address deprivation and unemployment in my part of the world. Parts of north Wales have an untapped workforce availability, and therefore an associated cost to the taxpayer of out-of-work benefits. I believe that better transport links would help the strategic and united growth of the north Wales and north-west region, despite political barriers that have developed post-devolution, and help regenerate the whole area. I reiterate that the transport routes in north Wales also form key trans-European links to Ireland, which is an important factor for economic growth.

I commend my hon. Friend for leading on this important north Wales issue. The trans-European route E22, which has been in place since 2002, has enabled the Welsh Government to apply for European moneys to put into infrastructure. Does he agree that they have not grasped the opportunity that that provides to invest in north Wales?

It certainly seems so, based on what we all know in north Wales.

Some 85% of cross-border commutes are currently by road, probably because rail is under-utilised, but despite that there has been a 46% increase in rail passenger numbers over the past decade, and evidence suggested that there could be a 21% transfer to rail if services were improved further. The roads in north Wales, which are already congested, are predicted to be subject to increased traffic. It is clear that the current transport infrastructure, whether road or rail, is inhibiting further growth in the area.

There is a strong perception in north Wales that the region’s needs are not fully recognised by a Cardiff-based governmental culture. Major infrastructure has been earmarked for south Wales in recent times—I need only mention the £1 billion “black route” for the M4 in south Wales and news that at least £12 million has potentially been wasted in buying up land that might not be used—but sadly we are yet to see the same commitment for north Wales.

Let me focus on rail. Improvements in speed, frequency and reliability are needed. Electrification brings the prospect of faster, greener and quieter trains, with more capacity and greater reliability. Purchase costs, track wear and tear and running costs are lower than for diesel. Unbelievably, only 10 miles of track were electrified in the whole of the UK during the previous Labour Government, and under 50% of lines are currently electrified, so we compare quite poorly with other developed nations. The aim must be that from my constituency one could, for example, reach London in two hours and key employment sites in the north-west in 45 minutes. Electrification of the north Wales line would allow the whole west coast franchise to operate on electrified lines for increased efficiency and flexibility.

I too commend my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does he agree that a very effective piece of electrification would be the line between Bidston and Shotton, which would link two industrial zones, one on Wirral Waters and the other on Deeside?

I do. I will mention that briefly, although it does not impact on my constituency as directly as on others.

There are opportunities for freight and for construction jobs. We need fast, direct connections to other key market destinations such as the Manchester and Liverpool enterprise zones and our airports and ports. Improvements would reduce pressure on an increasingly congested and polluted A55.

Greengauge 21, a not-for-profit company that exists to promote the benefits of a high-speed rail network, has already estimated that a relatively modest investment in electrification and track upgrade from Crewe and Warrington through to Holyhead in the next five-year funding settlement—control period 6, running from 2019 to 2024—would result in upwards of £500 million of benefits over the standard appraisal period of 60 years. I believe that an increasingly favourable benefit-cost ratio could be achieved as more benefits are quantified or if additional financial contributions can be secured. Savings could be delivered through upgrading the line alongside planned signalling improvements or electrification of other routes in the north-west.

The benefits of a railway line upgrade would be gained not only by north Wales and west Cheshire but further afield in the UK. In fact, £100 million of these benefits would be obtained by regional businesses being better able to work and trade with one another. Such benefits are key in an area with poor gross value added statistics. In terms of the northern powerhouse, the upgrade of the north Wales rail line could bring an additional £14 million benefit to Manchester, as well as enhancing the value of HS2. Of course, we hope that the Crewe hub will be in place there by 2027. Looking further into the future, an upgraded north Wales line could link with HS3, providing a fast link between the ports of Holyhead and Hull. In fact, should services to the European continent be operated on the new high-speed lines, we may even one day see services from Prestatyn to Paris or Rhyl to Rome.

When making the case for investment in the north Wales main line, we need to consider that the economic benefits might exceed what has already been outlined. That could partly be explained by current figures showing that passenger demand is being suppressed. There will be construction jobs that have not been taken into account. I am not convinced that the increased attractiveness of the region for investment that would be brought about has been fully quantified. We must also take into account reduced welfare bills and increased tax revenues through tackling the situation of those out of work and assisting areas of deep-seated deprivation. It is important to note that Greengauge 21 demonstrates that there would be a £1 billion disbenefit to the UK economy as a whole were electrification to take place only between Crewe and Chester. The reasoning is the cost to the economy that would arise from the need for a change of rolling stock at Chester for trains running to and from north Wales unless expensive dual electric-diesel trains are purchased.

Decisions for control period 6 are likely to be made over the next year. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), for their meetings with me. I know that they are keen for cross-party support to make the case for the kind of investment that I have outlined. I also know that all will have been pleased by the interest shown by the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Wales in the potential for upgrading the north Wales railway.

Last month, the North Wales Business Council held a rail modernisation business round table event and confirmed that direct access for businesses and the tourism sector to and from Manchester airport is the second priority behind electrification. This could happen at short notice through the use of existing lines. It would be a significant boost for north Wales and Chester, but it needs allocation of platform capacity at Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester airport.

There are also calls for direct services from north Wales to Liverpool and its airports as a result of the reopening of the Halton curve, to which the Chancellor pledged his support last year thanks to the lobbying efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans). It is due for delivery in 2018.

Further ambitions for rail include a new station at Deeside industrial park; better services to Manchester and Birmingham, which will be helped by electrification; more rolling stock for the west coast main line, to allow Euston services to continue on to north Wales at certain times of the day and not to terminate at Chester; further dualling for the Chester to Wrexham line; more frequent and faster services on the Wrexham to Bidston line; extension of the platforms at Flint; rolling stock that is clean and comfortable, with adequate seats and luggage space, good catering, wi-fi and power sockets; good car parking and park-and-ride facilities at stations; and easy access to stations by other modes of transport.

In 2010, the then Secretary of State for Transport said:

“good transport connectivity is essential for cities and regions to build and maintain their economic competitiveness, and regions served by rapid rail services prosper at the expense of those with inferior connections.”

As for roads, I have already said that the A55 is congested and that congestion is expected to grow by 33% by 2040. There is an increasing number of accidents, with 1,500 vehicles having been involved in crashes over the past year, which represents an increase of 44% since 2012-13. Over recent decades, communities located near the A55 have experienced benefits, but some areas are cut off, such as the populated coastal strip of my constituency, which has relatively poor links. This is an issue for business and commuters, but it also means that tourists bypass the area to reach towns and communities further west.

The Welsh Government’s draft national transport plan for 2015 identifies the need to improve connectivity and congestion; tackle substandard networks and pinch points; and introduce overtaking opportunities to improve road safety. It identifies constrictions along some sections of the A55 and A483 dual carriageways, which result in lower average speeds. Key sections experiencing lower speeds include the A55 Britannia bridge, roundabouts at junctions 15 and 16 of the A55, the 50 mph section of the A55 at Colwyn Bay, and the A494 at Deeside.

I referred earlier to 1 million cross-border commutes per month. Poor rail services result, in part, in congestion at the A494, which links the M56 to the A55, at Ewloe. The A494 is cut in half by the border. On the English side, major improvements have been made to the M56 and A494, taking motorway conditions through to the border with north Wales. That has improved travel times to north Wales, but only up to the border. Ironically, it has also improved employment links for workers from the north-west wishing to access jobs in Deeside in Wales, yet similar opportunities for Welsh workers do not yet exist, because of the lack of improvements to the A55 and the Welsh section of the A494.

The Assembly is currently considering two options, with a decision expected in a year’s time, but construction is four to five years away. It is important that we proceed with one of the options to upgrade the links to the A55 from the M56, but we really need improvements above and beyond that. We seriously need to consider hard-shouldering or a staged upgrade to the motorway, starting at the most congested eastern section; crawler lanes; redesigning and improving slip roads; and the possibility of a smart or managed motorway through the use of active traffic management. The Highways Agency has had some success with the reduction and variability of journey times, as well as with a reduction in accidents, fuel consumption and pollution.

I make a plea on behalf of north Denbighshire and Flintshire for an upgrade of the A548 from the border to Denbighshire. The A548 currently has a plethora of speed limits and bottlenecks. It could provide a fast link to the Deeside enterprise zone, Chester, the M56 and beyond for populated areas, including deprived areas in my constituency and Delyn, and it would also relieve pressure on the A55.

I pay tribute to the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, which brings together the six north Wales unitary authorities to help transform our economy, partly by championing infrastructure improvements. Councillor Dilwyn Roberts is its chairman and leader of Conwy County Borough Council, and he is keen to ensure cross-party support. The board’s lead for the work stream on connectivity and infrastructure, Rebecca Maxwell, is particularly engaged in making the case for rail modernisation, and she recently warned that road and rail links have to improve to stop the transport system “grinding to a halt” as the regional economy tries to grow. It is holding a north Wales rail summit for business and community leaders in Llandudno next month, supported by the Mersey Dee Alliance and the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership, to push for better rail services across the wider region.

In conclusion, north Wales needs and deserves investment in transport infrastructure to realise its potential for economic growth. As the Chancellor has said, north Wales should very much be considered part of the northern powerhouse. An integrated approach to planning capacity and improvements for both road and rail is needed across the border with aligned plans, not plans developed in isolation from one other. In view of the devolution of trunk roads in particular, this is a challenge for both Westminster and the Welsh Assembly Government. That challenge has proven difficult to overcome in recent years, but it is in the interests of the region as a whole that we all unite on a cross-party basis to deliver the improvements the region desperately needs.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) for securing the debate. I pay tribute to him not only for the way in which he presented his case, but for wasting absolutely no time in lobbying the Department for Transport and the Wales Office on arriving in this place. Within two days of arriving, he wanted a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), and me to make his case. I pay tribute to him for the effort that he has put into that case in the short time that he has been in the House.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss how 21st-century transport infrastructure can help north Wales to achieve its potential and place the region at the heart of the northern powerhouse. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) and for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) for their interventions. I will try to reflect on their points a little later if time allows.

Since 2010, we have delivered the largest rail investment strategy this country has seen since Victorian times. Both north and south Wales are benefiting significantly from the strategy. Understandably, much attention has focused on our commitments in south Wales, such as the electrification of the great western main line, while the additional funding made available to the Welsh Government for the valley and the Vale of Glamorgan lines has been debated at large. However, north Wales rail infrastructure has also seen its share of investment during the past five years, with the upgrading of the signalling, which my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd mentioned, the improvement of the Halton curve—I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West who worked directly on securing that investment—and the plans and studies currently being undertaken by the Welsh Government for the Wrexham to Bidston line. I will return to some of those subjects a bit later.

North Wales is one of the most dynamic parts of the UK. Its economy has grown by 13.2% since 2010. It is right to highlight that Wales is the fastest growing part of the United Kingdom, but it is also worth underlining that north Wales is growing much faster than the average for Wales. There are currently few better places to invest than north Wales. The north-east Wales integrated transport taskforce has estimated that the north Wales economy is worth approximately £10.4 billion a year, and it is growing. The latest figures show that the north Wales’s economy grew by 3.1%, against an average of 2.5% for the UK.

I am proud of this Government’s record in helping to support the economy right across Wales, and north Wales is no exception, but we need to build on that momentum, which is why the Government have put in place our productivity plan “Fixing the foundations”. In that context, we are determined to ensure that the need for transport infrastructure in north Wales is recognised and that such infrastructure is fit for such a growing economy. There is a need for collaborative investment in developing infrastructure capable of sustaining the long-term economic growth that we are now seeing.

North Wales has for some time been calling for better transport links. I have already paid tribute to some of my hon. Friends who have contributed, but I want to underline the support given by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd in working with the Wales Office to seek a plan for making an effective bid for control period 6. My hon. Friend mentioned that point and I will return to it later. Such lobbying has been heard loud and clear, as it was when I met businesses in Aberconwy and elsewhere in north Wales in August. When I spoke at the CBI north Wales dinner last month, businesses underlined the need for such investment.

Having first-class, modern transport infrastructure will not only support business growth; it will open opportunity, encourage new investment and help people to access the job opportunities, apprenticeships and training that can transform the lives of families and the fortunes of communities. We are already working to deliver that across north Wales.

We have taken steps to improve cross-border links between north Wales and northern parts of the UK. Last year, £10 million was committed to the Halton curve. I have mentioned the role of my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West in that. That project is reinstating a direct rail link between north Wales and Liverpool. That has been welcomed widely by businesses and the passenger community alike. It is part of our plan to deliver a stronger, more prosperous northern powerhouse, in which north Wales is a key part.

This opportunity must be seized. I want to see joint working between north Wales, the Welsh Government, local enterprise partnerships and local authorities on both sides of the border. The Mersey Dee Alliance also has a role to play, as do the train operators. We need to use the investment in the Halton curve to deliver the optimal service pattern to transform the opportunities that I have mentioned.

We are committed to line speed improvements through the north Wales re-signalling programme. That is a significant scheme that should not be underestimated. It is expected to deliver journey time savings of up to eight minutes. That improvement will lay the foundations for further modernisation and electrification of the north Wales main line.

Likewise, the Wrexham to Bidston line is a key line for supporting enterprise and employment on Deeside. I am pleased that the Welsh Government are considering the economic benefits of investing in the line and a number of other options in north Wales. I look forward to working with them and the Department for Transport on bringing about satisfactory and positive outcomes.

It is worth recognising that HS2 will bring significant benefits to north Wales. It will reduce journey times to Crewe and create opportunities for other links because of the extra capacity that it will provide. HS2 is vital in providing extra capacity on the national rail network, which is straining under the weight of the huge growth in passenger numbers over the past 10 years.

Clearly, modernisation of the north Wales main line would be a significant boost to the region’s transport links and maximise the benefits to be gained from the planned high-speed line between London and Crewe. We must ensure that everyone is aware of the opportunities that that creates for north Wales and the importance of the cross-border infrastructure that links in to other activity on the rail network.

It is vital that we prepare the most robust business case possible that identifies the strongest possible cost-benefit ratio of upgrading the line. I will return to the cost-benefit ratio. We have to think in terms of outcomes and identify the key building blocks that will pave the way to electrification. Now is the time to influence control period 6, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd referred. This is a window of opportunity to identify the means by which tangible benefits to the network will be brought about to improve the passenger experience.

We must find answers to questions such as how we can provide more frequent services, how we can cut journey times across the network, and how we can improve the signalling and modernise the line. I am keen that we learn from other bids to the Department for Transport and the Treasury that have been successful. One such example, “Norwich in 90”, focused on the outcome of cutting journey times between London and Norwich, rather than on any particular technology. The bidders identified what they wanted to achieve, then found the best way of achieving it. We must focus our attention on the cost-benefit ratio, which is currently low compared with other projects. That is an objective, mathematical formula, and we need to strengthen the case around it.

The north of England electrification taskforce’s report “Northern Sparks” was an interesting addition to the debate because it examined for the first time the economic benefits of modernising rail infrastructure. The Welsh Government and north Wales authorities were involved throughout the preparation of the report, alongside interested parties from across the north and across political divides. That collaborative approach ensured a clear understanding about the interaction of services from north England and into Wales. We need an effective collaboration on modernising rail infrastructure in north Wales.

Politicians from Westminster and Cardiff Bay should continue to work together with business leaders and councils to make the case for transport infrastructure investment. We need a clear set of priorities, a clear plan of action, and clear funding commitments that focus on that cost-benefit ratio while also highlighting the economic opportunities that will be released.

Does the Minister agree that the upgrading of the north Wales main line is crucial to the development of the proposed nuclear power station in Anglesey? We need to move skilled workers from all parts of north Wales to the opportunities that will exist at that development.

My hon. Friend makes an important point and highlights the private sector’s role in strengthening the case—particularly the economic case—for such upgrades. That is an excellent example.

Together with my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd, I am grateful to the North Wales Economic Ambition Board for organising the summit next month—yet another example of the board’s commitment to promoting a collaborative, cross-party approach to achieving economic success in north Wales. I pay tribute to the tireless work of Councillor Dilwyn Roberts on behalf of the people of north Wales. I am also grateful to Edwina Hart, a Minister in the Welsh Government, for the approach that she has taken, which is another example of what can be achieved on a joint basis. The North Wales Economic Ambition Board will be key in making that case, along with other organisations such as the Mersey Dee Alliance, and the summit next month will help us to identify what case to make to the Department for Transport and the Treasury.

The northern powerhouse is a key priority for this Government. The Chancellor has said how important north Wales is to that dynamic, and a key rail and road infrastructure plan is vital to that northern powerhouse and to north Wales.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.