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Midland Main Line Electrification

Volume 616: debated on Monday 7 November 2016

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

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker, for granting this Adjournment debate. I thank colleagues from the midlands who are here this evening to support the debate; we have representation here from Leicester, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire and even as far north as Sheffield.

In politics there is often a sense of déjà vu. Back in April 2012 I led a similar Adjournment debate on proposals to upgrade and electrify the midland main line between Bedford and Sheffield. The line serves the cities of Derby, Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, my own constituency of Loughborough, and a number of other growing towns across the east midlands, including Chesterfield, Market Harborough, Corby, Kettering and Wellingborough. Together, those places are home to more than 5 million people and 2.1 million jobs; we believe that they comprise the economic backbone of England.

The east midlands in particular has helped to lead the United Kingdom out of recession, with strong private sector job growth over the past five years. We have huge potential for export-led growth, already accounting for 20% of gross value added. Latest projections from the Office for National Statistics suggest the population of the east midlands will rise by half a million people by 2030 to 5.1 million, which will be the fastest growth outside London and the wider south-east.

The midland main line itself has been a huge success story. As those of us who are frequent travellers on the line know all too well, passenger numbers have increased by 130% in the past 15 years—I can probably say on behalf of colleagues that there are times when it feels like all 130% are on the particular train I have caught from London St Pancras—and a further 30% rise is expected in the next 10 years. Rail freight is also booming, showing a 70% increase since the mid-1990s, but the line has suffered from years of under-investment. It is the only north-south rail route yet to be electrified. It has some of the slowest mainline speeds in the country, meaning that trains are rarely able to go at their top speed.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for securing this vital debate. She points out, correctly, that inter-city connectivity between these crucial areas of growth is so poor that without electrification we cannot legitimately look for a midlands engine, which is, after all, the Government’s supposed priority for the next Budget.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We know from our constituency experiences just how much the east midlands is driving economic recovery in this country. He is right to highlight the importance of transport connectivity to the success of the midlands engine, which we believe can rival the northern powerhouse.

Some of the rolling stock is more than 40 years old, so I was delighted when in July 2012, the then Secretary of State for Transport announced that the upgrade and electrification scheme, which had been promoted by councils, local enterprise partnerships and business groups in the east midlands and south Yorkshire, was to be delivered in full by 2020. Since then, there has been progress on implementation, but not everything has gone according to plan. The pausing of the electrification elements in 2015 resulted in the demobilisation of a high-skilled technical team within Network Rail, which has taken time to reassemble. The pause also had a considerable financial impact on local companies in the supply chain.

The right hon. Lady makes a compelling case. Does she share my concern that any further delay to electrification would not only break the promises that Ministers made to our region, but further damage our vital east midlands rail industry, which is important to her constituents? Businesses have told me that that will mean less investment, fewer jobs and fewer apprenticeships, and that it could harm their prospects of export growth.

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. As I understand it, the east midlands has the largest cluster of companies that rely on the railways and rolling stock, and other businesses that form part of the supply chain, anywhere in the world. The point is that the debate is not just about one railway line. As she says, it is about economic growth, and the impact on local companies and local jobs.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing the debate to the House. Does she agree with the east midlands chamber of commerce that electrification is vital to the long-term economic needs of constituencies such as Loughborough and South Leicestershire, and those throughout the east midlands? Does she also agree that any further delay will only increase the costs of electrification and reduce the confidence that businesses in Loughborough, South Leicestershire and elsewhere have in Government projects?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that this is about driving economic growth and reflecting the fact that the midlands is an engine for that growth. He is right that the costs of the project go up the longer it takes, which is why Members are so keen for the Government to give the project the full green light so that we can get on with it.

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way to a voice from as far north as Sheffield. She makes a powerful case about the midlands economy, but does she recognise the importance of the electrification of the midland main line to the northern economy? Does she also recognise that, should there be a further delay in that investment, it will be taken as a very bad signal of the Government’s commitment to investment in northern infrastructure and to regenerating the northern economy?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. He is right that we are talking not only about the midlands, as they might be known, but the impact on the train line to Sheffield and further north. I will talk about HS2 in a moment, but he is right, as we all know from those who journey north from our constituencies, that the electrification project is important for connectivity further north.

I thank the right hon. Lady for bringing this vital debate to the House. Does she share my concern—my constituents and lots of people along the midland main line share it—that the line is the poor relation of the rail network? If the Government have to find savings for investment in other lines, the midland main line will once again be delayed and have its investment cut. The people in our constituencies will be the losers. The Government need to listen to her and other hon. Members, and get on with doing something about the midland main line.

As I said, the midland main line is the only north-south rail route yet to be electrified. In fact, I think it is the only inter-city line that remains to be electrified. It is fair to say that the midlands should not be paying the price for cost overruns on other infrastructure projects around the country.

I do not want to tempt the right hon. Lady too much, but does she agree that the electrification of the midland main line is more important than HS2? Go on, have a punt!

I have resisted the hon. Gentleman’s blandishments for many years. The point I will come on to in a moment is that the schemes go together. There are strong feelings about HS2, in the midlands and elsewhere, but both projects need to be delivered.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say electrification of the midland main line offers better value, but both are needed for capacity.

I feel I have to say something on behalf of myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), because Leicester has not been mentioned so far—[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady did refer to Leicester, but it has not been mentioned during the debate. On behalf of Leicester, may I say that the electrification will provide not just growth but additional jobs? We should also pay tribute to the staff on the railway who work very long hours, sometimes for very low pay. Does the right hon. Lady agree that electrification would increase the number of jobs?

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He is right to pay tribute to the staff of East Midlands Trains. We are fortunate to have such a good train operator. I enjoy reading its tweets and how it responds to customers, both the good and the bad. He is right that jobs would be created along the line. It would also enable people who live in the midlands to commute elsewhere to work on a safe and reliable service.

May I draw attention to the point that the right hon. Lady made about some trains being 40 years old? The HST trains will have to be replaced in 2020 because they are no longer compliant with disability legislation. If electrification does not get the go-ahead as per the current programme, there will not be a case in 2020 for replacing the old rolling stock with electric-compatible rolling stock. The whole programme could be delayed, effectively for ever.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is important that the Government make a commitment now because of the need to procure new rolling stock.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way—I would have hated to miss out. Perhaps I can take her back to HS2, which I support. Given its strong benefit-cost ratio, does she agree that if the Department or Network Rail are short of money, the electrification scheme has the best return? It should be prioritised, not put to the back of the queue.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He is right to say that the scheme represents very good value. The Minister might want to address the benefit-cost ratio. It is why we midlands MPs, as well as those from further north, feel so strongly that it should not be our area that pays yet again for cost overruns elsewhere in the country.

I mentioned the pausing and how it led to the technical team that Network Rail put together being demobilised. The extended completion date of 2023 is not ideal, but the decision of the previous Secretary of State to press ahead gave certainty to passengers, local communities, businesses and investors. I am reassured that the main upgrade measures remain on track to be delivered by 2019, and by recent public statements from Network Rail that work on electrification is also progressing. The reason for holding this debate is that colleagues in the industry tell me that there is no such thing as a committed transport scheme until it is actually built. A number of local interests have contacted me and other Members to say that another pause, or worse, could be in the offing.

The debate gives the Government the opportunity to set the record straight and confirm support for the whole scheme. The economic, environmental and practical arguments for electrification remain as strong as ever. In addition, I draw the Minister’s attention to the impact that any further delay or uncertainty over the electrification of the midland main line would have.

Rolling stock has already been mentioned. As we have heard, the current fleet of high-speed trains is approaching 40 years old and will have to be replaced by 2020. Currently, there is no clear plan for that. While I understand that the Government’s stated preference is to procure new rolling stock through the forthcoming franchise competition, as the new franchise is not planned to commence until July 2018, it is unclear whether that can be achieved. Without certainty over the electrification process, it will be difficult for the private sector to make that investment, unless the Government specify electric-diesel bi-mode rolling stock.

It has been mentioned that the plan for re-letting the east midlands franchise already falls mid-way through electrification and track upgrades, and that the revised completion for electrification to Sheffield already falls mid-way within the next franchise period. Both of those will present significant challenges for the next operator.

HS2 has been mentioned, too. The east midlands has developed a strong local consensus in support of HS2 and a hub station at Toton. Key to unlocking wider connectivity via HS2 is the ability to run so-called “classic compatible services” via the hub station, which will require an electrified midland main line. HS2 Ltd’s recent proposals for serving Sheffield midland station via Chesterfield will also require an electrified railway.

My right hon. Friend has made a hugely impressive speech and a devastatingly powerful case, uniting both sides of the House. Should not the Minister commit in his response to meeting all of us with the Secretary of State so that we can impress on them how important this issue is to all our constituencies and the fact that we refuse to be left behind again?

My hon. Friend has it absolutely right. Yes, the midlands refuses to be left behind on this important infrastructure project. I hope that the Minister will agree to facilitate a meeting with the Secretary of State as well as him, so that we can continue these discussions. I look forward to hearing the Minister confirm that.

We have also talked about the impact on the local supply chain. Any further delay or uncertainty will fundamentally undermine business confidence in the Government’s ability to deliver major investment. We have also heard about the potential impact on apprenticeships. For our residents and constituents, electric trains offer a quieter, smoother and more reliable passenger experience. They have a positive impact on air quality and thus on people’s health, which is becoming a major issue in many areas along the midland main line.

In conclusion, the midland main line is a major driver of local economic growth and a key asset, as we have heard, for the Government’s midlands engine initiative. The upgrade and electrification scheme was conceived as an integrated package. Only by implementing the whole scheme can the benefits to passengers, freight operators and local businesses be delivered in full. It remains vital that the Government deliver the upgrade and electrification scheme in full by 2023 at the latest. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the concerns of Members and give his commitment to the whole scheme. We heard the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for the Minister to agree to facilitate a meeting between himself, the Secretary of State and Members present today.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on securing this debate, and I note the presence of so many regional MPs in the Chamber to show their interest in, and concern about, this issue—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) will just have to wait, and he should not intervene from a sedentary position. My right hon. Friend is, of course, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on heritage rail, which I look forward to addressing in the coming weeks. I also note that this particular midland main line programme uses local suppliers such as Brush Traction in my right hon. Friend’s Loughborough constituency, as well as supporting new apprenticeships in Network Rail and the private sector. I think my right hon. Friend spoke powerfully about the importance of this project to her constituents—not just as passengers, but economically.

Let me talk first about why this Government have chosen to invest in our rail network and why we chose to invest in it for the future. We are making journeys better, simpler, faster and more reliable. Most importantly, we want to make transport not just safer, but more sustainable. I thus entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that the investment we are making today will help prepare our country for tomorrow. Our national plan will support jobs, enable business growth and bring our country closer together.

That is why we are supporting a record £70 billion investment in rail, roads, ports and airports, and we are undertaking the biggest rail modernisation since Victorian times. We are ensuring that every part of Britain benefits from a growing economy, and that all those who work hard have the opportunities that they need in order to succeed. As Members have pointed out tonight, the midland main line services provided for passengers today are compromised. The attempt to serve all passengers with inter-city trains means that, as my right hon. Friend has said, long-distance passengers suffer from slow peak journeys, and commuters to London have to board already crowded inter-city trains.

To solve the problem, as we design and build the next franchise, we will create two distinct services, one for commuters from Corby, Kettering and other stations to London and one for long-distance travellers, in order to serve both more effectively. That will significantly reduce journey times from Sheffield and Nottingham to London by reducing the number of stops on those long-distance services, as well as speeding up the trains themselves. On average, the slow Sheffield morning peak services will be reduced by between 20 and 30 minutes to about two hours, and the Nottingham services will be reduced, on average, by between 10 and 20 minutes to about an hour and a half.

It is vital for the first steps of the capacity work to be completed, and I am delighted to say that we are making good progress in delivering that. We will make the whole route between Bedford and Kettering four-track, and the whole route between Kettering and Corby two-track. The stops between Corby, Kettering and other stations and London, mainly used by commuters, would then be served by electric trains up to 12 carriages long.

That proposed approach will be consulted on as part of the upcoming East Midlands franchise competition, ahead of a planned invitation to tender in May 2017. I would greatly welcome engagement and input from Members to help us to achieve the right balance between journey time and connectivity on the route, and I am more than happy to accept the offer from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) to meet the Secretary of State and me to discuss such matters further. I look forward particularly to seeing bidders’ innovative proposals to improve services for passengers and other users of the railway, building on the Government’s substantial investment.

We are committed to electrification on the midland main line. We will deliver electrification from London to Kettering and Corby by 2019. Electric train services taking advantage of those improvements will begin as soon as possible after the completion of the infrastructure works, providing passengers with better trains, more seats, and better facilities on board. Those enhancements will provide increased capacity to relieve congestion on the railway.

If the hon. Lady waits for one minute, she may hear what she is hoping to hear.

The move to electric services to Corby will mean that we are able to deliver a third more carriage miles than today across the route. I can also assure Members on both sides of the House that development work is continuing on further electrification of the route to Sheffield and Nottingham. I am keen to ensure that the scheme delivers value for money for the taxpayer, and a better experience for the passenger.

We recognise that this is a challenging programme, with many difficult engineering hurdles to overcome, but we are determined to work with Network Rail to face the challenges and deliver the best possible railway for the people of this country. Work has already started to deliver the programme. If one travels from Corby to Kettering, one can see that the track-doubling and electrification are already in delivery. A major blockade to deliver those enhancements has just finished where work on strengthening bridges and viaducts was successful. Tens of millions of pounds are being spent on the project, which is laying the foundation for the new electric services.

We will remove the long-standing bottleneck at Derby station in 2018, to speed up midland main line, CrossCountry and freight services. We are improving the line speed between Derby and Sheffield, and at both Leicester and Market Harborough. Platform-lengthening work is going on throughout the network to enable longer trains to run. Overall, the programme will nearly double capacity into London in the morning peak, giving passengers a significantly quieter and smoother ride as well as a shorter journey. I believe that there will be a much better service for both current and future passengers.

The Minister has made some interesting comments, particularly about the line from St Pancras to Kettering and Corby. Can he, in a nutshell, tell me and the House what he is saying about the Government’s commitment to investment in the electrification of the line from Kettering and Corby to Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and the stations in between—

Let me make it clear that we are committed to continuing the ongoing development work, and my focus today is on how, in the shorter term, we can deliver faster journeys and better trains for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

Last year, the then rail Minister assured hon. Members that the Hendy re-plan would mean that

“we will have a deliverable and affordable set of improvements.”—[Official Report, 16 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 330WH.]

When the project was unpaused, the chairman of Network Rail assured us that

“the line north of Kettering to Derby/Nottingham and Sheffield can be electrified in stages by 2023.”

Will this Minister commit to that timescale?

I will merely repeat what I have just said, which is that we are committed to the development of the ongoing electrification programme. I urge the hon. Lady today to consider the benefits that will accrue to her constituents and her local economy from the improvements in journey times that we are going to be accelerating through the new franchise process. There will be faster, better trains for her constituents, as well as constituents in Leicester, Sheffield and around the east midlands because of that.

Let us be absolutely clear about something. We were given a promise in this House by Ministers when the electrification was unpaused that electrification would happen—to Sheffield, with the whole line complete —by 2023. Is the Minister now rowing back on that commitment or is he prepared to confirm it?

I am continuing to stress to Labour Members that we are continuing to develop the electrification proposals. What we are focusing on today is ensuring that we have better quality train services on the inter-city routes by ensuring that the longer distance trains have fewer stopping places south of Kettering. Therefore, we are continuing that development work. I am not going to take lectures from Labour Members about the pace of electrification, given that the Labour party failed to electrify more than 6 miles in its entire time in government. We are electrifying the line from St Pancras to Corby and Kettering to enable faster journeys for commuters on that route, and then we are continuing the development work as planned to ensure that we continue to improve services to Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, as we laid out.

Let me stress again that I recognise what my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough has said about the ageing rolling stock on the midland main line, but I remind her that although the HSTs are 40 years old, about three quarters of the inter-city fleet is made up of the Meridians, which are only 10 years old and are performing relatively well. Through the franchise competition, we will look to improve the rolling stock on the long-distance inter-city services. Across the country, rail passengers today are seeing the fruits of this approach to improving rail services. We need only look at the new stations at Manchester Victoria, Birmingham New Street and elsewhere across the country to see that.

My right hon. Friend also referred to freight, which I just want to touch on because it is very important to consider this in the context of the midland main line. The movement of freight is vital to the economic prosperity of the regions that export and manufacture. Indeed, a number of upgrade projects across the region, such as on the great northern great eastern line, have been specifically designed and delivered to improve freight paths for manufacturers in the region. Investment in transport across the UK—

Does the Minister not recognise that electrification also provides the additional capacity and gauge clearance that freight requires? Is that not one of the reasons why electrification on this line is so important?

I can only repeat what I keep saying to the hon. Lady, which is that she needs to focus on the fact that we are continuing our development work on the further stages of electrification. This is an incremental process. I am trying to emphasise that we as a Government are seeking to deliver the benefits that will accrue from a range of projects on the line as soon as possible through the new refranchising process. I urge her, when she gets the chance—[Interruption.] I ask the hon. Member for Sheffield South East very politely not to interrupt from a sedentary position. I urge hon. Members to look at Hansard tomorrow morning and to read carefully what I have said about what we wish to do with the new franchise. I have already offered to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues and the Secretary of State to discuss how best we can improve the service to Nottingham, Leicester and Sheffield in the short term while we continue to improve and deliver on the electrification process alongside that by continuing the development work. I have been clear about that today, and I am happy to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman again in any meeting that we might subsequently have.

Our enhancements are already being delivered, and we will be running an additional passenger train per hour on the midland main line into St Pancras as well as opening up additional capacity for crucial freight services. This will provide much needed extra capacity for passenger services on the stops from Kettering and Corby and other stations into London used by regular commuters into London, as well as allowing a reduction in journey times for passengers travelling from Sheffield and Nottingham via Derby and Loughborough into London.

I always welcome fact-filled debates and submissions from Members on both sides of the House. I thank them for their attention today, and I look forward to discussing this in more detail in the weeks to come.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7))