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Rail Electrification Programme

Volume 603: debated on Thursday 10 December 2015

Since 2010, 50 miles of track have been electrified, including the full route between Liverpool and Manchester. Last month, Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail, at my Department’s request published his proposals for delivering the multibillion-pound rail enhancement programmes, reconfirming this Government’s commitment to electrifying over 850 miles of track—the biggest modernisation of Britain’s railways since Victorian times.

In my opinion, the Government’s handling of their electrification programme has been nothing short of shambolic. The pausing, then the unpausing, of the TransPennine and midland main line electrification painted a picture of a Department in disarray. What is the added cost to the programme because of the Government’s U-turn, of which there was no mention in the Hendy review?

This Government are committed to electrification, unlike the previous Labour Government that electrified less than 10 miles of track in 13 years, when the economy was booming. I gently remind the hon. Lady that this is a Government of delivery. We want to make sure that the promises we set out can be delivered. That is why it was right to look at the programmes to make sure that they could be delivered, and they will be delivered. Yesterday I was very pleased to announce one of the biggest upgrades in the modernisation of rail travel for her constituents that this country has ever seen. We are scrapping the Pacers. We are introducing new trains. We are transforming the rail network in the north—something else that her Government completely neglected to do.

Will my hon. Friend say a bit more about how the electrification project, plus the award of the new franchise for Northern Rail and TransPennine, will address the acute need to find additional rolling stock in that part of the country?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I can confirm that the midland main line will be electrified to Bedford and to Kettering and Corby by 2019, and to Sheffield by 2023. We will electrify to Cardiff by 2019. We will complete, we think, Liverpool to Newcastle by 2022. That means that there can then be a cascade of rolling stock right across the country. However, it is not enough for the people of the north to wait for cascaded trains—they deserve brand-new trains to replace the Pacers that have been chugging round that network for 40 years. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) chirrups away. Her Government had a chance to replace the Pacers in 2003 and 2004, and they did not. The rail passengers of the north deserve better. We get it; Labour does not.

Sir Peter Hendy’s report followed the breakdown and cancellation of previous promises. Will the Minister guarantee that these new proposals will be implemented on time and with the cost as set out, with the right rolling stock in the correct place at the correct time?

I know that the hon. Lady shares the absolute aspiration that what is promised is delivered. It was right for Network Rail to take a long, hard look at itself, because it had been in the business of peddling promises that went out of control in terms of funding and over time in terms of delivery. [Interruption.] I might remind the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) that a few years ago his party wanted to make Network Rail the “guiding mind” of the whole railway. We do not hear much about that policy these days. It is absolutely right that we have changed the management structure at Network Rail. We have put in Sir Peter Hendy, who is an exceptionally experienced railwayman, and we have asked the organisation to think very hard about delivery. Crucially, only last week in the spending review, we were able to reconfirm the Government’s funding commitment, which means that the money is there for this transformational project.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the largest investment in the railway since the Victorians on the Great Western main line will have a huge impact on the Bath and west of England economy. What progress is she making on the four miles of track that will link the electrified Great Western main line with Heathrow?

Again, this is part of the overall proposals. As my hon. Friend knows, the western rail link is absolutely vital. It has been set out, and work is going on to make sure exactly how it is delivered. We understand how important it is. My hon. Friend represents a fine city. He and I went through Box tunnel together on a little people mover—[Interruption] That sounds worse than it is—with others to see at first hand the transformational effect that electrification work is having on his city.

The unpausing of the rail electrification programme is welcome, but the news that completion will be delayed and the costs much higher has understandably caused dismay. The cost of the electrification programme is now set to be at least £2.5 billion more than planned. As a result, Network Rail’s borrowing limit has had to be increased by £700 million, with the rest of the money being found from the sale of its assets. What assurances can the Government give that these asset sales will be sufficient; and given that the costs have already risen by 70%, what happens if they rise further still?

The hon. Gentleman raises the delivery risk inherent in all these things. This is the biggest transformation project for more than 100 years, and he is absolutely right that it has to be funded with both Government money and third party asset sales. A huge amount of due diligence has gone into that work, which is ongoing, but we now have a plan and are confident that £38 billion will be committed and that 850 miles of track will be electrified.

I welcome the news that the electrification of the Chase line is on track for completion in 2017, but, unfortunately, that is little comfort for commuters experiencing serious overcrowding at peak times. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on all relevant organisations, including London Midland and Amazon, to work together to find a prompt solution to this overcrowding?

I am happy to confirm my interest in reducing overcrowding nationally and in Cannock Chase, which my hon. Friend represents with such vigour.