I beg to move,
That this House has considered electrification of the Great Western line.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This is a debate that I never wanted to have to bring to the House and I am sure that many other Members felt the same. In doing so, I acknowledge that the Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard)—is relatively new to his post and that many of the problems I am highlighting will be ones that he has inherited. I also acknowledge that he has been and remains a formidable constituency MP, as well as now being a great Minister, so I hope that he will forgive many of us for expressing passionately the views and interests of our constituents. That goes to the heart of why I called for this debate, because I am sure that there are those somewhere who will say, “What is an MP for Bristol North West doing having this debate?” Neither Bristol Parkway nor Bristol Temple Meads are in my constituency, so some will say, “Well, she’s not affected by this.” However, anyone who says that an MP such as me is not affected by this issue misunderstands fundamentally the nature of transport and the nature of our railways in particular.
Our railways are not simply stretches of iron rail in the location where they are constituted; they are the circulation system, if you will, of our regions, our communities and indeed our entire nation. If something happens to one part of that circulation system, it has wide-reaching effects and impacts on the body as a whole.
I applied for this debate because of deep concern about the recent Government announcement of the deferral of electrification, which yet again appears to leave the south-west region trailing behind other parts of the country in terms of transport infrastructure investment.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I am sorry to interrupt her so very early in her speech. I know that most of the speeches in the Chamber this afternoon will be about the problems and the deferral of electrification. However, would it not be gracious to say that 10 years ago there was no prospect whatever of electrification anywhere to the west of London? We should be glad that this Conservative Government have delivered electrification as far as Chippenham—in my constituency, or just outside it—and that we have quite a few things to be grateful for, albeit that we also have a few problems.
It is always a profound joy to give way to my hon. Friend. If he had waited for a small amount of time before intervening, I would have come to that point. However, since he has made that case, I can skip over some of my speech, because it is a very valid point. We do not want to let the best become the enemy of the good and I want to acknowledge where we are.
The hon. Lady also anticipates something that I will raise in my speech. Whichever Government want to make dramatic railway infrastructure improvements, they face challenges. Whether a Labour Minister or a Conservative Minister was sitting in the Minister’s chair here, I suspect that the challenges involved in delivering what they want to do could be very similar. I will come back to that point in my speech.
I am afraid that all south-west MPs might agree that, when we see the bills for HS2 soaring to £42 billon, the deferral of our meagre-by-comparison £5 billion project is particularly hard to swallow, especially since the south-west has consistently been among the bottom regions in the league tables for regional spend per capita.
The south-west is a region that boasts exciting opportunities, that is incredibly fast-growing, and that desperately needs the kind of focus on rail investment that we have seen with HS2 and Crossrail. So, forgive me, Minister, if I say for the south-west that, when it comes to seeing actual infrastructure—not promised but built—many people in the region feel that it is now our turn.
Nevertheless, returning to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), raised, there have been improvements and the Government are making efforts. I must also be fair about the context of this debate. I recognise that, this deferral notwithstanding, the region will still receive, which it might not have received otherwise, 5,000 extra seats on journeys into London at peak time. Most of us have made that journey, so we know that those seats will be welcome. We have been promised new trains, which will deliver faster journeys. We are told that there will be station improvements down the line. However, I hope that the Minister will forgive me for being honest and saying that, given the recent announcement of the deferral, we will believe these things when we see them. I would also appreciate a bit more clarity in the Minister’s response about the exact tangible benefits we will get in return for what has been a hard blow in the form of the announcement of deferral.
As I said, the improvements are welcome, and I do not want to be ungracious by denying that. However, major concerns remain about what the decision says about how we do big infrastructure projects and I will be asking the Minister specific questions. If he is not able to answer them today, I would deeply appreciate a detailed written response.
I want to pick up on my hon. Friend’s earlier point about the south-west not always being at the front of the queue for such things. Bristol is, I think, the fastest-growing core city outside London, and therefore has a huge economic benefit to bring to the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is strange, therefore, that other areas have been given preference on the list for electrification? The deferral also includes the deferral of some of the Thames valley commuter lines and some of the lines to Oxford. Would it not now be sensible to re-examine the business case for the electrification of some of the lines radiating out from Bristol, on the basis that the economic case for Bristol’s economic zone must make it more attractive? That would go some way towards addressing the relatively low priority that Bristol and the south-west have previously been afforded.
If Hansard could kindly ascribe my hon. Friend’s comments to me I would be very grateful, because that is exactly the point I want to make. Yes, it does seem strange. It plays to a historical view that the south-west is always overlooked. I do not understand why we seem to have been axed when other places still seem to be a political priority. On the economic arguments, that does not make sense.
It is not just the south-west that has been axed from the great western line electrification. I had hoped to be able to contribute to the earlier debate about air quality around Heathrow. One thing that will damage air quality around the airport is the fact that the Windsor-Slough link will remain a diesel one—it will not be electrified, as was originally promised. People like me supported the original proposal for the third runway at Heathrow because we were promised that electrification.
I start my speech by saying that what happens in one area of the country affects another and then I go on to make an unapologetically biased—not biased, but strong—case for the south-west, but I hear exactly what the right hon. Lady says. Something happening in one region deeply affects another, but I continue to make a special case for the south-west, which has not, historically, had its merits duly considered by the Department.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one example of how the south-west does not benefit from investment is that at the moment it is impossible to get a train from Plymouth or Exeter to Bristol along the very great western network on which we rely?
I think that anyone who has travelled that route will echo, with gusto, what my hon. Friend has just said.
Moving on to macro-level concerns, I find the National Audit Office report into the functioning of Network Rail, and into the Department’s ability to project manage and to hold Network Rail to account, deeply concerning. I do not doubt the good intentions of all those involved, but we read in that report about over-optimism from Network Rail on significant elements of the electrification project and about inadequate project management. And the list goes on. The trouble is that it has become almost a matter of course over the years—I have to say, spanning various Governments—to expect any rail project to go way over budget and way over time, under Network Rail. If Britain is to stand a chance of competing globally, that simply is not good enough. I have to add that, from what I have seen, I do not think that Network Rail is a particularly good advert for those who still argue that the state should be running more of our railways. Given Network Rail’s performance, that idea fills me with absolute dread. I am not ideological on that point; I just like to see things work well.
It would be helpful if the Minister could outline what he sees as the main challenges for not just his Government but any Government delivering fit-for-purpose infrastructure projects under our current systems. I am particularly interested in knowing what levers he, as a Minister and an elected representative, has for holding Network Rail, which is, as I understand it, a state function, to account.
I have to confess to being a little confused on a matter of principle regarding the deferral of electrification. I know that the Government are saying that customers need not worry because we will get bigger and faster bi-mode trains delivering all the benefits of electrification without the need for that expensive “wire in the sky”, but if everything is so awesome without electrification, why are we still talking about it at all? If it is all so awesome, why would such improvements from bi-mode rolling stock, for a fraction of the cost, not make electrification a redundant technology? And if it is not redundant, will it not cost more in the long term to do it later rather than sooner? We need more clarity about the Government’s view of the merits of electrification.
I come now to more specific concerns. Have there been wasted works? It seems that significant investment has already been made in preparatory work for electrification that has now been deferred. Can the Minister give a figure for how much that has cost and can he provide a cast-iron guarantee that it is not now money wasted? I understand that Network Rail has suggested that the work to Bristol Temple Meads may now be completed by control period 6. Can the Minister clarify when during CP6 that might be?
Now that there has been a deferral of what was much vaunted electrification, questions are inevitably being asked about the other elements of the modernisation programme. The deferral announcement has dented confidence, and we really need that confidence to be rebuilt. Can the Minister assure us that the other core elements will be completed, such as the Filton bank capacity enhancement project, the new Hitachi hybrid intercity express trains and the two new services per hour between Bristol Temple Meads and London Paddington that those trains will enable?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As a Welsh MP—the only one here, I think—I add my weight to the argument that the south-west is under-represented where infrastructure is concerned and that there is a lack of confidence. Wales is also under-represented. Will the Minister, in his concluding remarks, outline the timetable for the main line electrification and reassure us that that will not slip? Confidence has been knocked.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that extremely good point.
I know that many other Members would like the chance to speak. My final concern, which has been raised locally, is about rolling stock. The effect of the deferral of the electrification of the Thames valley branches on the planned cascade of the Thames turbo class 165 and 166 rolling stock to the west of England is vital to the MetroWest phases 1 and 2 projects. I have been very public about what seems to me, and to many others in the region, an appalling missed opportunity on the part of local decision makers—their failure to prioritise the Henbury loop line in the MetroWest scheme. I have been clear that I do not think that such schemes are ambitious enough to meet the exponentially growing branch line demand in our region; however, they are a start. If the MetroWest scheme, as it is, were to suffer even further detriment, that would be catastrophic for our city and our region. I cannot impress that upon the Minister enough. Can he give assurances today that the rolling stock cascade—the Thames turbo class 165 and 166—will not be affected by the deferral?
I turn briefly to the Bristol East junction and to Temple Meads, issues that the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) will probably want to raise in more detail than I will. I have been pleased to be able to work, in many ways cross-party, on rail for our city. Can we get assurances regarding the concerns about the future of the remodelling of that junction and about plans for transforming Bristol Temple Meads to accommodate new trains at platforms zero and one? I know that the hon. Lady will want to speak about that, but I would like some replies from the Minister.
This is an important debate for so many MPs and so many of their constituents. It is not, as I fear it might be seen by some, people fussing over whether we have wire in the sky. It is about the south-west being sick of being the poor relation in our nation’s transport projects while other high-speed projects go roaring on. It is about a real concern that this is somehow the thin end of a wedge that will see all the progress we have made over the past six years, of which I have been so proud, melt away. It is about all of us here, regardless of party, asking serious questions about whether the mechanisms and bodies that this or any Government have at their disposal to plan and build rail infrastructure are any longer fit for purpose. Given what we have seen of projects soaring over budget and over time and then getting paused, deferred, cancelled or any other word anyone would like to use, under an array of Governments, it is hard to believe that Network Rail is fit for purpose. If it is not, and assuming Britain wants to be a global competitor, can the Minister provide some thoughts on what on earth we are going to do about it?
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. The debate is due to finish at 5.45 pm. It is an hour-long debate. It is very difficult to chair because I have an array of parliamentary talent before me and just over 20 minutes of Back-Bench time before I have to call the Front-Bench spokespeople. Unfortunately, I am going to have to impose a time limit of three minutes. If Members intervene on each other, some of you will not get called, but if you stick to three minutes, everyone will get in, and there may be time at the end to intervene on the Front-Bench spokespeople.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing the debate. I will curtail my comments.
I speak for my Bristol South constituents, who also use Bedminster and Parson Street stations, when I say that the so-called deferral of this project has confused and outraged passengers in my constituency. We are confused because, despite the promises that we received and the significant disruption that we have tolerated, we have a half-finished project. We are outraged because the rail connections are such an important part of our economic development and our success. Bristol is key to the entire regional economy and that is why this is such a critical decision.
In 1835, an Act of Parliament created the Great Western Railway. In just six years, Brunel managed to build the entire thing from Paddington to Bristol—but in the last six years we have seen a complete lack of progress. Decisions have been delayed and deferred and now progress has been halted. At the Public Accounts Committee next month, we will consider the National Audit Office report and I would be grateful for comments from all Members. I suspect the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) will also join that discussion. The report is very clear. Who is accountable now for the decision? Who is in charge of the plan to deliver benefits to passengers? Who lined up the key components of the new trains with the infrastructure and the operator? Who is managing the critical path alongside things such as the signalling works?
I have three asks of the Minister. If he does not have time to answer my questions, I would appreciate an answer in writing. First, is there still a case for electrification? What is now the Department’s analysis of the benefits for passengers in terms of journey times, frequency and capacity—dare I mention having a seat?—of bimodal trains versus electrification? We do not seem to know.
Secondly, Mr Brunel built the entire railway via an Act of Parliament, so why did the Department for Transport not at any point place an order under the Transport and Works Act 1992 for all the works? It might have taken longer to get to this point, but Network Rail would not have had to go through the myriad processes that it has had to, across the whole line.
Thirdly, what is the role of the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road? The Government have chosen to make it an arm’s-length body, but what is its responsibility in all of this? There is a political choice between enhancements and renewals or maintenance. The regulator has a clear role on renewal and maintenance, in light of its safety responsibility, but enhancement such as electrification is different. I am interested to know what the Minister thinks about that.
The core of the matter is passengers and our constituents. Whatever processes were undertaken to deliver the decision, it is true to say that as a result Bristol people feel we are being short-changed, and as we are the gateway to the region, the entire south-west region is being short-changed. Who is making these decisions on behalf of Bristol colleagues? Consider the make-up of the Government, the Cabinet and the Tory Front Bench. Apart from the Secretary of State for International Trade, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), the south-west has no representation at the top table of Government. There are 51 Tory MPs in the south-west, out of 55. I congratulate them on their victory, but they have a small smattering of Ministers from their number to be able to deliver top decisions at the top table—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing this debate, and for representing my parents-in-law so well.
It was a real blow to hear that the electrification of the great western main line would be deferred beyond Bath Spa, not least because as Members for the south-west region, we had all rather hoped that over the course of this Parliament we would be making the case for electrification to go on beyond Bristol to Weston-super-Mare, to Taunton and then on down into the far south-west. The fact that we are now here asking for it to be electrified to Bristol as originally planned is somewhat disappointing.
I have just one station in my constituency, Highbridge and Burnham, which is some way south of Bristol, although many people commute from there to Bristol and on to London. Many more of my constituents access the rail network in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) at Worle, or that of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) at Yatton. So my constituents have a real interest in seeing the electrification to Bristol completed and journey times improved, as well as commuter capacity.
In the brief time I have today, I have a couple of asks. First, bimodal trains are hugely impressive in the technology that they employ, but there is a sense that they have one foot in the past with diesel and one foot in the present with electrification. Given that so many of the bimodal trains operating out of Paddington towards Bristol Temple Meads will continue their journey on from Temple Meads to Weston, Taunton or Exeter, is there not a case for unmuzzling those trains—as the trains that operate on the Reading/Castle Cary/Taunton line have been unmuzzled—so that they have a bit of extra oomph to accelerate while under diesel power?
Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West raised the arrival of the additional rolling stock from the Thames valley, given the deferral of the electrification there. That is a real issue. I know from conversations earlier today with the Minister that it might be that the arrival of that rolling stock is not to do with the deferral but with delays elsewhere. Either way, that rolling stock is absolutely key. The commuter belt around Bristol—I know the part to the south particularly well, but I am sure it is the same for parts to the north and east as well—is increasingly congested. Two or three-carriage trains trying to serve those routes are simply not enough. We urgently need that rolling stock to come down from the Thames valley to serve the growing rail demand in the west country.
The Minister kindly came to the launch of the Peninsula Rail Task Force report. I ask him to ensure that all the things in that report about resilience in the far south-west do not find themselves competing with the very urgent things that need to be done to improve connectivity to Bristol.
I thank the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) for securing this debate. My constituents in Bristol West are as perplexed and as outraged as I am to learn that the much-needed and long-awaited electrification of the Great Western Railway is being postponed. The works were initiated by the last Labour Government, who rightly recognised that investing in infrastructure to support economic growth is a vital duty of government and that electrification helps to decrease air pollution, of which diesel engines are such a great cause.
Since then, the coalition and subsequent Tory Governments have paused, unpaused, and now paused the works again. As recently as June 2015, the then Secretary of State told the House:
“Electrification of the Great Western line is a top priority and I want Network Rail to concentrate its efforts on getting that right.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1068.]
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The HS2 project is of course hugely, vastly more expensive than this project. It is extraordinary that the electrification is being sacrificed for other projects.
Similar uncertainty has been meted out to other regions, such as the electric spine and midland main line. In fact, in June, when the Secretary of State was confirming his support for the great western line electrification, he was at the same time pausing midland electrification and that on the trans-Pennine route. That does not appear to me to signify a coherent, thought-through plan to invest in infrastructure.
I would like the Minister to respond to the following questions. Where is the Government’s commitment to a western powerhouse? Will the west of England devolution deal end up having to cover the cost of the electrification project? What answers do the Government have for passengers who are currently stuck with journey times that feel to them routinely longer than those in the 1970s, when it was apparently possible to travel from Bristol Temple Meads to London in 90 minutes without stopping? Where is the sense in suspending the work when so much of it has already taken place? How does the Minister answer the Bristolians who have been given the idea that we are not worth bothering about? How does the Minister square the postponement with improving air quality, something which my constituents in Bristol West so badly want to see? Finally, when will the Government sort out a coherent, reliable plan for investment in infrastructure, and will that plan include proper levels of investment in local train services inside Bristol as well as to Bristol?
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. My contribution will be brief. First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie). It is right that we collectively challenge and scrutinise the work of Network Rail. This project comes on the back of record investment not seen since Victorian times, and it is in stark contrast to the just six miles of electrification that was delivered under the previous Labour Government. I say that not to make a political point, but to highlight what a large engineering challenge this is. I know that first-hand, because I had the pleasure of visiting the electrification training centre—a £10 million facility based in Swindon—where all the apprentices and staff working on the project will go to do their training.
It is frustrating, and we would all love to see this happen tomorrow, but there have been some successes already. The test track finished on time on 30 September, the Severn tunnel finished on time on 22 October, and all of last year’s Christmas and Easter work was finished on time. The budget for the Christmas work is increasing from £60 million last year to £84 million.
I have some asks for the Minister, building on the positive news about the Hitachi trains, which will see a 40% increase in capacity. The Network Rail teams must engage with MPs and physically show us the engineering works, the challenges and the opportunities for the future. I know the Minister is held in very high regard, but I echo the plea for more south-west MPs to be on the Front Bench. I think we are all currently auditioning for that—we would all vote for ourselves if Front Benchers were democratically chosen. I hope the Minister will join me in lobbying the Government for the much-needed £5.5 million redevelopment of Swindon station, which is vital because there has been a 50% increase in train usage in the past decade, and it is anticipated that the extra capacity that the electrification work will create will make Swindon an even more popular destination—hard to believe, given that it already is the centre of all great things. Disability access must be a given for all future works at stations—I know the Minister will do that. Finally, as we look at the long-term arrangements for the operator of these lines, a long-term franchise must be put in place so investment in the day-to-day services matches the Government’s commitment to improve our rail infrastructure.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing this debate.
Last week, the National Audit Office issued a damning verdict on the way that this project has been handled to date. It described the project as
“a case study in how not to manage a major programme.”
The Secretary of State agreed when I put that to him at Transport questions. He said:
“I am not happy about the way in which the…programme has been managed”
and that he is
“still not satisfied with the progress that is being made.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 368.]
We need to look at what this tells us about how we handle major infrastructure projects—particularly transport infrastructure projects—in this country. They always seem to go over time and over budget, and they never seem to reach completion in the way that was originally intended. The epic mismanagement of this programme will cost the taxpayer £330 million, which is more than Bristol City Council’s annual day-to-day budget.
Bristol Parkway now has to wait 18 months longer than planned for electrification—until the end of 2018—and Bristol Temple Meads, the station that most of my constituents use, now has to wait until at least 2024 for an electrified connection to the Great Western Railway. There is no certainty it will happen, and many of my constituents have said that they have had to endure traffic jams caused by road closures for the essential work being carried out on bridges to prepare for electrification. Other roadworks are being carried out in Bristol, such as the MetroBus construction. It is already the most congested city in the country. My constituents have to endure more and they now feel it has been for nothing.
The Great Western Railway is already one of the most overcrowded routes in the country, and almost 8 million extra passengers a year are expected by 2018-19. Most of us who have travelled on that line will think, “Where on earth are you going to put them?” because it is already difficult to get a seat—certainly at peak times. The Secretary of State assured me that new stock will be rolled out sooner rather than later, but we are waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.
As well as calling on the Government to do what they can to speed up electrification, I want to flag up next year’s feasibility study of suburban rail in the west. Local rail is an important part of what needs to be an increasingly integrated transport network. The hon. Member for Bristol North West talked about Bristol East junction. It used to be in my constituency, but I was cruelly deprived of it by the 2010 boundary changes, along with Temple Meads station, Lawrence Hill station and Stapleton Road station. I now have no stations. We are, however, campaigning for the re-opening of St Anne’s Park station, which was closed in 1970. That would massively improve connections to jobs, services and culture for my constituents living in the more peripheral parts of east Bristol. I hope the Minister takes that on board, too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to be back in this Chamber for the second time today talking about the desperately vital need for infrastructure investment in the south-west. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing this debate.
It is not all bad news coming down the track for Great Western. We will soon have the first new set of Intercity Express trains ordered in my lifetime. I think the last set was ordered back in 1976. I suspect it is tempting for the Minister and the Department for Transport, given all the issues they have had with this renewal, not to order the next set until 2056, but hopefully they will soon be on the line.
It is right that this debate has focused on the electrification programme. I represent a constituency in the far south-west that was not initially part of the electrification process, and the coastal track at Dawlish is very unlikely to be part of it in the near future, given the obvious issues of mixing high levels of voltage and sea water. My concern is about the impact of the project and, in particular, how its cost has risen dramatically.
As the Minister knows, we talked earlier about the Peninsula Rail Task Force and a £280 million project to secure the Dawlish line. That is about 10% of the cost of the electrification project, and only a fraction of the increase in cost in the past couple of years. My concern is about the choices that the Government have when they make initial decisions and about the solidity of the information. As the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) said, we will certainly explore that at the Public Accounts Committee. My fear is always that projects look very attractive, and the price can look just about affordable, but they can require a much larger commitment that has not been predicted. In this case, we quickly found that the engineering required to put the masts in made it almost inevitable that the costs would rise significantly.
Given what the NAO report said, it is clear that in the future we need to plan how we deliver a whole railway, not just individual aspects. Passengers do not get on a train that has been heavily delayed due to flooding and say, “Great, I’ve got better wi-fi”; they look at their whole experience on the journey. That is why it is right that we ensure our investment projects are better managed. We must deliver projects without such issues and we must make our railway more resilient. As I said in an intervention, there is no train service between parts of Devon and Cornwall and Bristol, and there is a limited service between Devon and Cornwall and London. The well-known issues with the network are screaming out for investment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing this debate on a subject about which many of us have spoken together over the past few years.
The electrification of the main line is still projected to cut the journey time between my constituency and London, but, given the pinch point at Bristol East, there is a question about whether it will actually speed up the journey time between Bath and Bristol. That has obviously caused concern among my constituents and, I think, pretty much all of our constituents across the whole of the west of England.
I was very disappointed by the Minister’s announcement that the electrification of the line is going to be put on hold until control period 6—2019 to 2024. Following Network Rail’s frustrating report, I welcome the fact that the journey will still be introduced, and that the new Hitachi Intercity trains and the new commuter trains will be on the line by 2018. However, our constituents are justifiably concerned, given that they have to sit on the floor and the trains break down regularly between Bath and Bristol Temple Meads and onwards to other parts of the suburban rail network.
The electrification of the great western main line will now stop at Thingley Junction, which, contrary to rumour, is just before Bath Spa. We have had to endure a long period with the Box Tunnel being reduced in height, and we would like to have confirmed that the reduction in height will still enable the new trains to get through to Bath, Bristol and beyond.
The increase in capacity will clearly make a big difference and contribute a large economic benefit to our communities. However, there is genuine concern that how much the economy of the west of England contributes to the national economy is often underestimated: we have the second largest number of tech and creative companies anywhere outside Hoxton in London; we have one of the fastest growing economies anywhere in the country; and yet, off the top of my head, we receive the second lowest amount per capita of transport infrastructure spend in the country. That desperately needs to be re-evaluated.
Electrification would have a positive impact on the tourist economy, which is hugely important to my world heritage site city. Bath is a beautiful city and I want to see more tourists come to it, which would have a big knock-on effect for Somerset and Bristol, and that is another huge draw. With those trains, more people will have the confidence that they will arrive in Bath and the west of England on time.
Lastly, I want to echo some of the comments made about Network Rail. For time immemorial, we MPs have had our concerns about Network Rail being able to deliver the infrastructure projects that we require of it. I do not think that anything should be off the table, in particular given the contents of the NAO report.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing the debate. She made many of the points that I wished to make, but much more eloquently than I might ever have done. I join her in expressing disappointment at the decision to defer the four electrification projects along the great western route.
I will reiterate a couple of the points made by my hon. Friend, because that decision will have a direct impact on a number of my constituents in south Gloucestershire who travel from Yate, specifically, to Bristol Parkway and on to London. More passengers will continue to use the Bristol Parkway service as a result of the worsening congestion for many residents of south Gloucestershire.
I will also express some concerns about the knock-on effects of the plans to delay investment. I first seek reassurances from the Minister, as others have done, that the deferral of electrification of the Thames valley lines will not affect the cascading out of the Thames Turbo trains, the 165 and 166, to the west of England. They are essential to replace the trains that Great Western Railway has to return at the end of their leases. Failure to do so will result in a reduction of services and an increase in passenger overcrowding.
The chairman of our local West of England LEP called those trains
“essential to deliver the £100m MetroWest Phase 1 and 2 rail schemes”.
Phase 2 of the MetroWest scheme includes the plan to increase the frequency of services between Bristol and Yate from hourly to half-hourly, which will be hugely important to people in Yate, Coalpit Heath and surrounding areas. It has overwhelming support from people who want to see a reduction in overcrowding on the service, and would without doubt take more cars off already congested roads around Yate and Coalpit Heath. I will be grateful if the Minister clarifies that in his closing remarks.
I will also be grateful if the Minister clarifies the impact of the decision to delay on the local four-tracking project at Filton, which, too, is essential to deliver MetroWest phase 2. South Gloucestershire Council has already started some of the clearing work, so an early indication of any effect from the Minister will be extremely welcome.
Lastly, I call for reassurance that there are no plans to change the proposed four inter-city express services an hour between Bristol Temple Meads and London, two of which will pass through Bristol Parkway and connect directly with Yate services.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West for securing the debate, and I will welcome the Minister’s reassurances.
We now come to the Front Benchers’ speeches. I want to call Charlotte Leslie again to sum up the debate no later than 5.43 pm, which means that the Front-Bench speakers have nine minutes each. Were the Opposition spokesman to take less than nine minutes, there will be more time for the Minister to speak and, potentially, for interventions, but we are in her hands. I call Pat Glass.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I will endeavour to be as quick as I can.
The recent decision by the Department for Transport to delay the electrification of the great western route is just the latest in a series of announcements of delays and pauses made by the Government on electrification of our railways. We have had one announcement after another by the Government, who still state that they are planning electrification, but while the Government have promised much, they have delivered little.
I sympathise with the Minister. Like me, he is new to the role and just happens to be holding the parcel when the music stops. However, I have a criticism about his recent announcement, because he appeared to sneak it out just hours before the November recess and on the day of the American election when, presumably, he was hoping we would all be looking the other way.
I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing this important debate. She and I served together on the Select Committee on Education when we were new Members in this House, and I understand her dedication to the city of Bristol. I also want to acknowledge all the MPs from Bristol: they are four strong women, who are here together fighting for a better future for rail in their city.
The case for the electrification of the route was set out in October 2009. The Department for Transport projected then that it would take eight years to complete and cost up to £1 billion. According to the original timetable, we should have been looking at a fully electrified line from London to Swansea by the end of next year. Since then, however, the project has had a very unhappy journey.
Two weeks ago today, we were told by the Rail Minister that the project will be paused, with no detail of when it might be unpaused or restarted, or, indeed, if it will ever be completed at all. Over the past six and a half years we have had delay after delay to the original timetable, and the cost to the taxpayer has skyrocketed as a result. As the Minister knows, the National Audit Office, in its recently published report, laid the blame squarely on the Department for Transport, stating that it did not
“plan and manage all projects…in a sufficiently joined up way.”
I have worked in government at local and national levels. At the national level, I found that the lack of planning and joined-upness makes local government look like a smoothly operating machine, and that is saying something. Even within that, the Department for Transport has its very own place.
The cost of the project was reassessed in September 2014, when the Department estimated it at £1.5 billion, up 50% on the original costings. Although the cost-benefit ratio expected by the Department for Transport in March 2015 was within the Department’s high value-for-money range, at 2.4:1, by the end of last year that had dropped to 1.6:1, which meant that it had fallen to within the medium value-for-money range. That is because the Department was forced to announce that the cost of the project had been revised yet again and was now estimated to be more than twice the original projection, at £2.1 billion. The latest announcement is in another league altogether, however, with the estimated costs to the taxpayer reaching £5.58 billion. The Government have managed this infrastructure project so badly that the cost-benefit ratio has now fallen through the floor.
The issue is not isolated to the great western route alone. Rather, the Government’s handling of the electrification of UK railways is being felt right across the country. First, we had the delays to the electrification of the trans-Pennine railway. Originally planned to be completed by the end of 2018, that is now looking distinctly unlikely—to put it politely. The electrification of the midland main line was paused in June last year. The wires will now not reach Kettering and Corby until 2019—that is today’s estimate—whereas the original plan had been for electrification to stretch far beyond Corby to Derby, Leicester and Nottingham by 2018. When the Government finally announced that both plans had been revived, it was only to say they would be four years behind schedule.
In 2013, 30% of the most crowded train services in England and Wales were Great Western services into Paddington, and the Department for Transport forecast tells us that passenger demand on that route is to grow by 81% between 2013 and 2019. Electrification is therefore essential if we are to see any improvement for passengers. It will lead to further economic benefits, in particular driven by freight trains running on electrified lines, and it is vital if we are to reduce our carbon footprint and will help to build a greener transport network, with the increase of freight on rail being central to that aim. It is therefore really disappointing to see that a significant part of the estimated £330 million that will be added to the bill for the electrification of the great western route will come about because of the revisions that are needed to the new all-electric trains that the Government ordered.
Thanks to the delays, those trains, which were set to cost the taxpayer £4.1 billion, will now need to be fitted with diesel engines so they can run on sections of the great western route that the Government have now decided will not be electrified. Adding those diesel engines will make the trains heavier, less energy efficient, more polluting and more damaging to the track. So this Government will spend £5.58 billion on upgrades to the great western route that will in fact cause a reduction in capacity, a slower service and an increase in carbon emissions and mean that rail lines will require even more regular maintenance work. That is quite an achievement.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said that this issue impacts on the earlier debate about pollution in the Thames valley and the decision about a third Heathrow runway. Further, passengers in the north of England and Scotland will have to wait up to two years longer for improvements to their services, because the revised plans and delays to infrastructure works mean that old Great Western Railway stock will not be passed on to other areas that were depending upon getting that old stock to make such improvements.
The budgeting for this project has been shambolic, and clearly no one can confidently rely on any figures produced by the Department for Transport. The Government cannot be allowed to get away with continually claiming to be investing in infrastructure when we see Ministers once again with their tails between their legs trying to sneak out announcements about further delays to their plans.
Will the Minister tell us exactly when the Government intend to follow through on the great western line? When can we expect the pause to cease and the project to restart, if it restarts? In what shape will it be if it ever restarts? At the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for Bristol North West talked about passengers. She is absolutely right: neither passengers nor taxpayers are getting a good deal, and quite frankly, they deserve better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing this debate. Contrary to what we have just heard, I actually welcome the debate and the opportunity to discuss a complex project. Whether I can do it justice in nine minutes is another matter, but I will do my best. If I fail to address anyone’s points, I shall be more than happy to write to colleagues, and I thank all those who have participated in the debate.
My hon. Friend started by suggesting that the south-west was perhaps not first in the queue. My diary shows that I started today at the publication of the report of the all-party Peninsula Rail Task Force. Immediately afterwards, I had a meeting about the Exeter to Barnstaple railway line, and I have spent the rest of the day addressing this issue, which is a priority for the Government—and not just today. This is the first major rail electrification project for many, many years, and there has been an awful lot to learn. I am not someone who tries to go for cheap partisan points, but there is one that cannot be avoided in this discussion: the Labour party electrified fewer than 20 miles of track in its 13 years in office. We are having to overcome a backlog of delayed investment.
As we have heard, the NAO report on the electrification of the Great Western Railway states that £330 million has been wasted so far. Does the Minister believe that that huge waste of money endangers the final delivery of the Cardiff to Swansea section of the project?
We certainly recognise a lot of what the National Audit Office report says, and I will set out what the Department is doing in response to that. As the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) pointed out, the Secretary of State was critical of progress on the project so far at Transport questions last week. I share those concerns; the project clearly has not gone well.
However, it is worth stressing that we are having to defer four elements. I have heard many words pass around the Chamber—“cancellation”, “pause” and all sorts of others—but “deferral” is quite a precise term. No work is being paused; if one considers the various elements that make up the scheme around Bristol, work is continually ongoing. We are raising bridges, improving line speeds and resignalling. That is all preparatory work before decisions can be taken on proceeding with further electrification. The only work that has been suspended in the greater Bristol area is the erection of the overhead line equipment. That is what has been deferred until a future control period. I cannot make precise statements about what control period 6 will contain, because that has to be part of a wider national package, but I want to make it clear that we are not stopping work on the electrification programme in the Bristol area. That work continues.
If that is the case, why do the Government continue to spend money doing something that they cannot at any point say when we will need? Is that not potentially wasting more taxpayers’ money? What is the purpose of electrification if it does not deliver benefits and we are going to spend more money at some unknown time in the future?
I have just said that we will be making announcements about what—[Interruption.] Is the hon. Lady going to listen to my reply or just mutter at me? I am happy to respond to her point if she wants to listen. We will take decisions about what control period 6 comprises and announce the whole of that control period at the appropriate time. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, she will be more than aware that Sir Peter Hendy has already reprogrammed other projects across the country. As Rail Minister, I am not prepared to part-announce elements of control period 6 depending on what debate I happen to be in at any moment in time. That would not be a prudent way to go forward—nor, were I in her position on that Committee, would I think it a particularly prudent position for any Minister facing her queries to take.
Can the Minister reassure us that as a result of the deferral that he has just described, the cost-benefit ratio of the elements of the programme that have been paused will not be substantially changed? Can he also provide us with information about how those cost-benefit ratios compare with both the decision not to go ahead at all with the electrification of the suburban Bristol railway lines and things that are going ahead, such as High Speed 2?
There will always be ongoing recalculations of the cost-benefit ratios of any wider projects, as well as the elements within them. I do not see this as a matter of HS2 or the great western main line. There are investment backlogs that we have to catch up on in all parts of the country, and each investment has to respond to a specific rail need in that region. Here, we are trying to respond to a specific rail need by ensuring that all the passenger benefits that can be accrued by electrification can be delivered as soon as possible for the use of the new bi-mode intercity express programme trains.
I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with that information at a later point. That is more than fine.
Hon. Members have noted the extra seats and the 15-minute journey time saving from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads via Bristol Parkway that the new trains will provide, and I hope that they will also note that those trains should stimulate economic growth across the region as a whole. Bristol is one of the few cities that is a net contributor to the UK Treasury, and that has to be recognised. We need to do more to work with Bristol to ensure that all those in the commuter belt around Bristol are properly able to access the city. That entirely makes sense. But we need to go back to the fundamental point that modernising this line has been an ambitious and challenging undertaking, and it has not been straightforward. Even closing the Severn tunnel for six weeks this autumn has caused immense disruption to journeys and people’s lives, but it has been worth while, because had we not closed it for those six weeks, there would have been five years of weekend work and disruption.
As a result of that challenge and the complexity of the work, with ageing assets, heritage sites and a very busy line that Network Rail has to work around, difficulties have occurred. As was mentioned, the National Audit Office report was highly critical of what had occurred. However, what is often not pointed out in these debates is the recognition the NAO has given to the changes that the Department has made since 2015. In particular, we now have a programme board for each route upgrade across the country, chaired by a senior responsible owner from the DFT, to provide effective oversight of delivery.
We are working closely with Network Rail, train operators and other partners to ensure that major construction works and the introduction of new train services occur in a pragmatic, sequenced and timely manner and that all elements of those complex processes interact sensibly with each other. There is no point in delivering a piece of rolling stock that cannot operate on a particular track because the infrastructure work has not been done. That requires work to be sequenced. Much of the criticism in the NAO’s report was of the failure to sequence early on in the process and understand the true scope of the project.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West was concerned that the decision represents a waste of money. I would say that it does not at all. The preparatory work will enable future decisions to be taken, which is also a point that she made. If one takes some of the work around Bristol East junction, for example, the savings made through the deferrals are specifically targeted at bringing forward the work to enable the capacity improvements that will allow full advantage to be taken of the new bi-modes. If that did not occur, there would be less benefit from having the bi-modes because there would not be the capacity at Bristol East junction. That underlines the point about sequencing work and, in a project of this complexity, the overall need to have a degree of flexibility in the system so that, as technology moves on, options change and new pieces of locomotive and rolling stock come on stream, we have the capacity in our projects to make those pragmatic decisions and seek to deliver the benefits to passengers as soon as is possible.
As I mentioned earlier, this decision underscores a wider approach to rail investment across the country as a whole. Passenger outcomes must be delivered while achieving the best value for every pound spent. On that point, the Government have been clear about the rationale for electrification. We are not against using electrification as part of a wider strategy for delivering improved services. Electrification does bring benefits. It enables, for instance, the use of electric trains, which over time reduce the cost of running the railway as well as bringing environmental benefits—but we have to make improvements in the way that makes most sense and gives most value to the taxpayer. Therefore, in some cases, where a train can run on both electric and diesel power, it is right to look at how that can be factored into any decision about how we sequence the different elements of any electrification process.
In the end, electrification is not an objective. It is a means to an end. It is an input. It is about putting wires up. It is about traction and power. It is an engineering solution to a defined problem. Yes, it is an enabler of new trains, but that new capacity is needed by passengers as soon as possible. Therefore, if we have access to these new trains, I think it right that we go down that path.
I do beg your pardon, Mr Hollobone. I was looking at the clock showing the time left for my speech. If I may, to save time, I will write to the hon. Gentleman. I will end it there and write to any further Members who asked questions to leave time for my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West to finish the debate. I thank hon. Members for listening.
Before I pay tribute to the Minister for answering and to Members who have come here, it is appropriate to pay tribute to Network Rail workers. While Network Rail has taken a bit of a battering for its organisational abilities at the top level, we should pay tribute to those who over the past couple of days have been working so hard to keep our railways running, as well as those at Great Western Railway on the ground who are making passengers’ lives bearable on a day-to-day basis.
We have had a wide-ranging debate. I am proud to be part of a group of powerful women speaking for Bristol, who have dominated the debate in many ways with Bristol’s interests and articulated powerfully Bristol residents’ concerns about the announcement. The case has been made that the whole region is affected by Members from as far afield as Torbay, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) made the case about his city well.
There is anger generally that Network Rail does not seem to be able to deliver the projects that any Government—whether Labour or Conservative—want it to deliver. I take the Minister’s point that not an awful lot of rail was electrified under the previous Labour Government. Perhaps they were wise in leaving it as a promise for the next Government because they realised how difficult that might be to do with the mechanisms they had at their disposal. I pay tribute to our Government for even trying.
I take the point that the project is complex. However, if we are to be a global competitor, we need to sort it out. We can sit and talk about the reasons, the complexities and the sequencing, but other nations in Europe manage to get it done. If we are to compete properly, we need to up our game dramatically.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).