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Weymouth to Waterloo Rail Line

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2015

[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Weymouth to Waterloo rail line.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and a great pleasure to see the Minister here, whom I regaled, for half an hour of her precious time, only about two hours ago, so I thank her for that. It is very nice to see her in her place.

Welcome to a number of colleagues, and to a right hon. colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin); it is a particular pleasure to see him here. I will talk for about 10 minutes, then another colleague would like to say something, and I think others want to intervene. After that, the Minister will obviously respond.

I start by saying that Dorset is one of the most beautiful and unspoiled counties in the country, with a Jurassic and world heritage coastline that is the envy of the world. That combination of sea, coast and countryside attracts millions of visitors and tourists. At the height of the summer, the road system struggles to cope and frequently does not. That is not to say that we are all crying out for a motorway—indeed, the lack of one is part of the attraction. However, we simply cannot sit back and depend on seasonal jobs, which do not provide a secure enough career and future prospects for many of our constituents. We need to attract investment into the area, and rail connectivity is key. The lack of it already makes things very hard for those who live and work in Dorset, thwarting many ambitious plans.

Take Portland port, which is a growing port: commercial road traffic there is expected to treble in the years ahead, and the number of visiting cruise ships continues to rise, dropping off countless thousands of customers, who then go into all our constituencies. In the centre of my constituency, a newly announced enterprise zone on the outskirts of Wool is expected to generate thousands of jobs—so too, hopefully, are our expanding marine and engineering industries, new museums and tourist attractions.

For all those to work, we need to improve our infrastructure, and with little scope for more roads, for reasons I have explained, rail is the only option. There has been a railway line to Weymouth for 148 years. The terminus, originally designed by one of Brunel’s assistants, sits only yards from the resort’s golden beaches. The line was decisive in opening up the town, which was first made fashionable by George III and his followers in 1789, hence the façade. It is not hard to imagine the scene as the early tourists enjoyed the waters from their wheeled bathing huts. The same train continued to the Channel Islands ferry terminal at the mouth of Weymouth harbour, winding its way through the town, led by a man waving a red flag to clear the way. Times have changed, but the significance of rail travel has not, and if we are to ensure that both Weymouth and Portland can thrive today as they did back in the 19th century, some imaginative thinking is required.

Two trains an hour serve Weymouth from Waterloo. Typically, they take three hours to travel only 130 miles, so the time is considerable. There is an infrequent and sporadic service to Yeovil and Bristol. With the aim of speeding up trains to Weymouth, I began to investigate the various possibilities with South West Trains. We came up with three options. The first was to run a faster, third train in each direction on the current route via Bournemouth and Southampton, but that would require substantially more power, platforms and rolling stock, making it expensive and, due to the bottleneck in the New Forest, essentially unworkable. Even if multimillions of pounds were spent on new electricity substations, the increasing number of passengers from projected new housing developments would give any franchisee little flexibility to drop a station in order to generate faster journey times on a line that is already run to capacity.

The second option is to make one of the two hourly London trains “fast” and the other “slow.” However, the negative impact on intermediate stations effectively rules that out. The third option is via Yeovil, and I and many others—not least the colleagues sitting around these tables—believe that that is a goer. With much of the infrastructure in place, it is more affordable and has major advantages. It would: reduce the journey time from Weymouth to London to two hours and 25 minutes; provide more room for passengers on the existing line through Bournemouth and Southampton; expand capacity and business opportunities across a number of south-western constituencies; connect Dorset to Heathrow—I sorely hope that the planned expansion there eventually gets the go-ahead—and take up some of the ample capacity on the Weymouth-to-Bristol line.

The proposal would mean an additional service to Waterloo via Yeovil and Salisbury, with reduced stops, calling at Weymouth, Dorchester West, Yeovil Junction, Salisbury and London.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this important debate. Does he agree that if the new route via Yeovil goes ahead, it still has the potential to benefit my constituents, who neighbour his, by increasing capacity on the trains, hopefully thereby increasing rail use and relieving a great deal of pressure on our roads, particularly in and around Wareham?

I entirely agree. As my hon. Friend well knows, the charity railway, which will be linked from Swanage to the main line through Wareham, will also play its part, which is very good news. And yes, that will relieve pressure greatly on the line through his constituency. I have also heard today that he and others are looking at a new metro service running between Christchurch and Wareham, or something of that nature. In itself, that will take up more capacity on the line, which makes my plan less workable, although his constituents will be able to travel backwards and forwards more efficiently and more ably, which is very good for him and others.

The work needed for the third proposal would be relatively minimal—certainly less than would be required on the Bournemouth-to-Southampton line. That work includes some short stretches of new track, enhancements to platforms at Weymouth, Yeovil and Salisbury, an increase in the speed limit on parts of the line, and the extension of a footbridge. I—or we, I should say—believe that none of those is impossible.

Does my hon. Friend not recognise the absolute imperative, however, of having clarity about the infrastructure costs required, and particularly the cost of dualling the track between Yeovil and Salisbury, which would be key to unlocking a secure future for his plans?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In fact, it is key, as the Minister well knows, because this is a point that we raised with her only an hour or two ago. I say to her gently and humbly that if Network Rail could possibly do the study and come back with some sort of affordability plan, that would help us. We went away from the meeting that the Minister kindly held feeling very positive. At the moment, the local enterprise partnerships all down that line—this is the plan—would be very keen to draw up some sort of business plan and come back to her. What we do not want—my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) mentioned this—is to do all the work, and for Network Rail to come back and say, “That’s not how we did it,” or “They have missed out this or that,” or “They haven’t put this into the equation.” That would be unfortunate, particularly if a great deal of money was spent on the report that the LEPs are considering drawing up. Some clarity from the Minister at the end of the debate would be most helpful.

It is estimated that the plan for a service via Yeovil would take between three and five years to complete; as with all these things, it would not happen immediately, but it chimes with the Dorset local master plan to reconnect the south and north of the county by train for the first time in almost 30 years, and to link Dorchester and Weymouth to Exeter in the west. As the Minister knows, the Members to my west, east and immediate north are all involved in this potential project and would benefit equally. We are all in this together.

I and many others believe that the proposal would have a dramatically beneficial effect on Weymouth and Portland and, as discussed earlier with the Minister, the whole region. Weymouth and Portland would be connected to a vital east-west arterial route, and that would promise better access for businesses, visitors and tourists, and hopefully generate more investment in the resort.

It is lovely to see my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset here. Dorchester would play a key role because it is in a key location. With the housing on the Prince of Wales’s land—this was discussed with the Minister earlier—and other developments across that part of the world in the years ahead, we must have an updated, modern railway system; otherwise, we will simply not cope.

It is absolutely true that my constituents in Dorchester and Sherborne, and indeed those between them, would hugely welcome the plan that my hon. Friend is describing. Does he agree that if we could get the LEPs to co-ordinate with Network Rail on the specifications of the report, we should be able to establish a very strong business case?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It would be useful to have some clarity from the Minister. We are very willing to help out and to do our part, but some guidance from Network Rail would be hugely helpful, so that it does not say that all the work that we have done does not come up to scratch. Some negotiation between the two parties would be hugely beneficial.

The knock-on effect—all good—would be dramatic for train times. Pending a study, it is estimated that Weymouth to Waterloo would take two hours, 25 minutes; the typical time now is three hours. If there was a direct service from Salisbury to London, that time could be reduced by a further 10 to 15 minutes. That would have a knock-on effect for the rest of the region. Yeovil to Waterloo would take two hours; Honiton to Waterloo would take two hours, 30 minutes; Exeter to Waterloo would take two hours, 50 minutes; and north Devon—a crucial area that is growing and has very little rail network—to Waterloo would take three hours, 55 minutes. If the non-stop Salisbury to London service introduced a third service in the hour, it would greatly reduce the time—by another 10 to 15 minutes. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury is very keen on that.

I have done the train journey to Weymouth in my constituency; three hours is a long time for visitors and businesses, and is beyond daily commuting. What we need, as I am sure the Minister knows, because she has been to my part of the world many times, is to break away from the seasonal hole. It is important to my constituents; they can have longer-term careers and prospects only if we attract investment. I have said, and will say again, that because of the inability to improve our roads dramatically—we can tinker at the edges—rail connectivity really is the key, just as it was for George III and his team. If it was good enough for him, it is good enough for my constituents.

As the Minister knows, the Yeovil option has the support of the local chamber of commerce and the local enterprise partnerships up and down the line. I know of two that are behind it, and further work has been done. I cannot see them not being involved. Weymouth and Portland Borough Council, North Dorset District Council, bordering LEPs and councils, my right hon. and hon. Friends who are sitting around me, and many others who are not here would benefit. I am sure that those who are not here would have been here, if they could.

Bringing these huge benefits to so many for a relatively modest investment in railway terms—the Minister said how amazing it was that even a little work costs a lot of money, but in railway terms, this would be a fairly modest investment—would be an achievement that we could all be proud of. Dare I say that as Conservatives—I am proud that we have a Conservative Government—we always go on about jobs, prosperity, wealth and the northern powerhouse, which I totally accept and am totally behind, as I am sure are my colleagues, but how about the south and south-west powerhouse? It depends so much on rural activities, and we need all the help we can get.

I have requests for the Minister. First, will she consider commissioning Network Rail, with the LEPs, if indeed that is the way we go, to undertake a study to look at this idea? Secondly, will she instruct the Department to include the scheme in the south-western refranchising specification, if indeed that is possible? I believe this project is innovative, affordable and doable, and has far-reaching benefits for my constituents and those represented by MPs who are here, and those who are not here. Let us not forget that one of them—the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw)—is a Labour MP; I am sure that if he knew this debate was taking place, or could attend, he would be just as keen on the project. I hope that the Government will play their part in making it happen.

Before calling Mr Fysh, I alert him to the fact that he has an allowance of four minutes before the Minister needs to sum up.

Thank you, Mrs Moon. It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax). Delivering jobs and opportunities to the south-west is at the centre of my mission as an MP and a major focus of our Government. Somerset is a key gateway to the south-west and presents substantial economic opportunities, including in Dorset, as we have heard.

The Government are spending a massive amount on dualling the A303 and A358 corridor, and this scheme would be a perfect complement to that. It would enhance the prospects for jobs as well as networking our centres of economic growth to allow them to grow more rapidly together than would otherwise be the case. Double tracking the line between Templecombe and Salisbury is essential for that and could unlock substantial further growth. Importantly, it would help a great deal while the A303 work is being carried out because that will probably cause serious congestion that might otherwise present a substantial challenge to the area.

It is important that the analysis of the potential upgrade is carried out in a joined-up way with, and at the same time as, the current analysis on double tracking west of Yeovil. Network Rail is undertaking that analysis as part of its investigation into increasing the resilience of the south-west peninsula. It is hard to think about how trains will be scheduled and what enhancements are necessary without looking at capacity over the whole route at the same time.

South Somerset, of which Yeovil is the key town, has ambitious plans for growth in housing and industry, and would be greatly enhanced by the plan for better rail connectivity, which could bring Yeovil closer to London by up to 40 minutes. That would represent a real step change with knock-on benefits for the whole of the south-west, including Devon and the rest of the south-west peninsula. I cannot emphasise the idea of networking enough. Whenever I have looked professionally at economic projects around the world, the element of new public infrastructure to connect places and reduce journey times, thus raising economic potential, has been a major feature. This is a major plan for jobs and opportunities in the south-west, so we must grab it with both hands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this debate on the important issue of rail services between Weymouth to Waterloo. As he mentioned, we had a very fulfilling and useful working session earlier this afternoon, which was attended by some of our other hon. Friends in the Chamber. It is telling that so many right hon. and hon. Members are here today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord), who represents an important constituency on this line. In all such debates, we hear a lot of joined-up support from MPs representing people living in towns, villages and cities right the way along the relevant routes, and I shall go on to address why that is so important.

I join my hon. Friend the Minister in congratulating our hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on securing this debate and everything that he said, but will the Minister indulge me and reiterate that she supports the large improvements that will be required over the years to come at my station in Woking, which is on the line?

Indeed; I would be happy to support that. I was going to come on to say that the Weymouth and Waterloo termini are at either end of the south west main line. That line has the third-rail system, which is rather old electrified technology, and we know that that is one reason why its trains run more slowly than on lines with overhead technology. My hon. Friend raises an important point. Ultimately, the aspiration is to bring all electrified track up to the state-of-the-art level, which would include the investments that he references.

As we heard, journey times on the line are anywhere from two hours 40 minutes to three hours. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset came to see me well before the general election to discuss the idea of upgrading the electrical supply along the line to provide a power boost. Some work has been done and, as he rightly said, it is difficult to see the cost-effectiveness—the business case—of those specific investments. As he is a person who does not give up easily, he therefore turned to option 2, which is the idea of connecting that line with the one running through Yeovil, thereby allowing a diversionary route that, of course, would benefit stations in Yeovil and Salisbury, which are represented by hon. Friends in the Chamber. That proposal is interesting, and we had an excellent session this afternoon to run through what would actually need to be done to deliver the journey time improvements that we want. We want to deliver the increased frequency and decreased journey times that would deliver the economic benefits about which we have heard a great deal.

As we know, this is a vital franchise area for the country. Waterloo is the busiest station in the UK. This franchise carries millions of people every year, which was why we announced this year that we would have a franchise competition with a view to getting a new operator in place for 2017. This is a fortuitous time to be discussing infrastructure, because the franchising opportunity gives us a chance to look at what we really want to achieve for the whole of the south-west network. There are proposals to introduce faster trains, and perhaps diesel or bimodal trains, which might be something that bidders come back with to deliver improvements to journey times overall.

There is also the question of how to get investment for infrastructure. My hon. Friend spoke about this, and I am always amazed by how expensive it is to do things on the railway. However, we are talking about a small set of projects—this is not something of the scale of the Great Western electrification. We have clearly signalled our desire not to route all railway investment through Network Rail, but to use the train operating companies as the commissioners, as well as the operators running on the network. We have an example of that, because FirstGroup is already taking the lead role in the Selby to Hull electrification project.

While we are going through the franchise process, there is an opportunity to engage with the bidders and determine their appetite is to deliver improvements. Of course, the question is: what is the cost to them? My hon. Friend is right that one cannot set out the business case without knowing the cost. In all honesty, I do not want to burden Network Rail with any more projects at the moment, given its enormous challenge of delivering the projects that we have already set out, but I will discuss with my officials a way of trying to get a better analysis of at least what the range of costs might be for these improvements. We can then start to build a case that takes account of those costs and examines the benefits that improvements to journey times and greater connectivity could deliver.

What was so refreshing in today’s meeting—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, as well as others who attended—was that we had the local enterprise partnerships and local councils present, as well as MPs assiduously representing their constituents. All were thinking about how this network might look for the region, and that is the way to crack the investment conundrum. I have become aware that it is often surprisingly difficult to generate a business case for transport investment. The Jubilee Line extension, High Speed 1 and the M25 were all things whose benefits people in my position many years ago had to struggle to get recognised.

If we start to bring in the broader benefits, such as the housing that these transport improvements could underpin, the businesses that would move to the area and the local growth that could be unlocked, we could really start to capture the value that transport investment can bring. The right way to do that is to engage from the bottom up with the local enterprise partnerships and the council, which can then pull through investment for the benefit of their towns, cities and region.

I therefore urge my hon. Friends, working with their LEP and local council colleagues, to get this issue into the consultation for the franchise, which will run until 9 February. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset is not going to come up with a wish list. Any proposal will be targeted, but we could look at that as something that could be put into the franchise competition for the bidders. Then, by the way, we would be starting to get some competition around the bidding process, which could only be to the good.

In the longer term, as I said, there is an aspiration to improve the electrification right along the line, but we need to be in the business of the delivery of infrastructure. For too long, many Governments have been in a “jam tomorrow” place. Now, we have a fully funded list of improvements and projects that Network Rail will deliver over the next four years, after which we can start to bring together the investment horizon for the future.

What is so refreshing about this debate and the amount of work that went into preparing all the documents that my hon. Friend brought to our meeting is that we are not only spending a record amount on the railways—it is the biggest investment programme since Victorian times—but spending it in the way that most benefits local communities. The investment is being not pushed out by the Department for Transport, but pulled out by those in the regions, because without good transport investment, it is not possible to grow a local, regional or national economy.

I commend hon. Members for attending the debate and speaking so passionately for their railways, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset for all his work. I undertake to consider whether we can come up with a way of getting the numerical range to which I referred so that we can at least start to have a more detailed conversation as the franchise period progresses.

Question put and agreed to.