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CrossCountry Trains: Gloucester

Volume 618: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered CrossCountry intercity train services to Gloucester.

Mr Flello, it is a great pleasure to hold the last Westminster Hall debate of 2016 under your chairmanship. Although the subject—the thorny issue of CrossCountry trains to Gloucester—is narrow, many wider issues of growth, regeneration, connectivity and, ultimately, responsibility are at stake today.

I will start with the wider issues. Small cathedral cities such as Gloucester are among Britain’s greatest jewels. We have an abundance of natural, architectural and human heritage. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s developers and planners alike took a cavalier and unimaginative view of heritage, today, much boosted by a greater understanding of the modern uses of old buildings, and by the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, we realise that heritage, alongside modern retail attractions, is a driver of tourism and economic growth. Gloucester’s visitor economy grew by 8% last year, the fastest growth in the county of Gloucestershire and among the fastest in the country.

Gloucester has modern industries, including cyber, the reinvigorated nuclear power industry with the operational headquarters of EDF Energy, and sophisticated engineering, particularly aerospace and automobile. Also, the future of tidal lagoon power will potentially be headquartered in the city. But like other small cities, our ratio of private to public sector jobs is low—Gloucester ranks 56th out of 62 cities in Centre for Cities research—and we have one of the lowest rates of private sector job growth. Under the Governments since 2010, several public services have—understandably, given the pressures on public finance—been consolidated into regional hubs. The Courts and Tribunals Service, Her Majesty’s prisons and, most recently, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are three examples. All the workers from Gloucester at those employers, as well as at Royal Mail some time earlier, have been offered jobs in Bristol. With the regionalisation trend and the growth of, and emphasis given to, big cities, Bristol has inevitably been the main beneficiary of the relocation of public sector jobs around the county. In both those cases—of tourism, because of Gloucester’s great heritage and the new retail attractions, particularly in Gloucester Quays, and of public sector employees whose jobs have been relocated to Bristol trying to get to work—there is a huge demand for the connectivity that good rail services provide.

Gloucester railway station is, in many ways, remarkable. It has the longest platform in the country, and it is right in the city centre, the advantages of which anyone who lives or works in a city knows. But it struggles with two competing facts. To enter the station trains have to come off the main line from Birmingham to Bristol and through the railway triangle and, from a train operator’s point of view, that takes extra time and causes services between those two cities to take longer.

In 2006, the then Gloucester Heritage Urban Regeneration Company—snappily named GHURC—closely considered what might be done to create an alternative station “on the main line” next to and parallel with Eastern Avenue, which is the main road entrance to the city. The GHURC carried out an extensive review and had many meetings with the landowner Network Rail and the train operators, and its chief executive, Chris Oldershaw, summarised why he believed a new railway station would not be possible:

“Extensive discussions between the GHURC, landowner Network Rail and the train operators were held last year to scope the building of a new railway station on the railway triangle. The train operators did not support this course of action and Network Rail finally ruled this out as unviable. Network Rail has said that the future of Gloucester central station is not in doubt and confirmed its intention to retain the station and invest in improvements over the next three years.”

In those talks, no one on the GHURC board, which included the then Bishop of Gloucester; my predecessor as MP for Gloucester, for quite a lot of the time; councillors from all parties; leading businessmen; and people from the voluntary sector, demurred from the decision that was made. Indeed, no other decision could have been made, given that no one—those who were to operate the trains, those who owned the land or those who were responsible for the rail services—wanted a new station and the Government of the day did not wish to provide any money. However—this is the crucial point that the Department for Transport must grasp—the corollary to that decision is the need to recognise that trains have to come off the main line to get into Gloucester station and then go out on to it again.

The situation is different for services to Wales, because Gloucester is on the way to Wales for trains from Bristol and from Birmingham and Cheltenham. That is a different issue, and I should make it clear that CrossCountry runs a good service to Wales and that all those trains pass through Gloucester. That is not the issue. The issue is the inter-city trains, many of which call at a huge number of stations. The longest such service is, I think, the Aberdeen to Penzance route, which goes through the cities—I re-emphasise “the cities”—of Britain. However, only three of the 63 inter-city services between Birmingham and Bristol stop at the city of Gloucester.

My crucial point today is that if the capital city of Gloucestershire is not allowed to have a new station on the main line, as was decided some years ago, before both the Minister’s time here and mine, we must accept that trains have to stop at the city of Gloucester, coming off the main line route and up the railway triangle. That is the core issue at stake with CrossCountry today. Great Western Railway long ago accepted that, and every service on its London to Cheltenham route comes into Gloucester. That will continue to be the case when the operator expands its services, with more direct trains to London in 2017, and more trains to Swindon thanks to the redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble line by the coalition Government, about which people across the county of Gloucestershire are pleased.

Why, therefore, does CrossCountry find it so difficult to stop at Gloucester? I believe that there are two key reasons. The ostensible reason is that the additional time the stop would take would mean that passengers travelling from Birmingham and Bristol would be delayed and might be tempted to travel by car instead. Anecdotally, I understand from people who work in the rail industry that, interestingly, when the services to Gloucester were taken out, mostly between 2003 and 2006 under the Virgin franchise, the amount of time scheduled for those trains to get from Birmingham to Bristol was scarcely altered.

The Department for Transport will be able to look into that in detail, but I was emailed this morning by someone who looked at the train schedule for a CrossCountry service yesterday on the Aberdeen to Penzance line. The train that was highlighted to me arrived a few minutes late at Cheltenham and left nine minutes late, but arrived at Bristol Temple Meads absolutely on time. I gently put it to the Minister—the Department will be able to do its research—that it looks to me as though the time scheduled for the Gloucester stops was not taken out of the schedule when the Gloucester stops were taken out. Effectively, it acts as a buffer for creeping delays on the service as it comes from north to south. The avoidance of Gloucester enables the operator to ensure that by the time the trains arrive at Bristol, they are on time. If that is the case, that would be a shocking example of how train operators are treating the city of Gloucester. Even if that is not the case, the operators’ approach to Gloucester is revealing.

On Radio Gloucestershire this morning, I was asked a series of questions by the journalist, who was effectively reading from a script provided by CrossCountry. They asked, “Why is it not acceptable just to go to Cheltenham and change there?” Imagine, Mr Flello, that you are travelling south-east from a certain point. What logic is there in getting on a train that goes west, in order to catch another train that then brings you back past the station from which you started half an hour earlier, as a means of getting to your destination to the south-east? That is the most extraordinary concept. If we did that everywhere, we could reschedule all our train services around the country, taking out a whole number of stops, closing down various stations and inviting people to travel in the opposite direction in order to go back through where they started from.

The journalist also asked, “If the trains stopped at Gloucester, what about other passengers from other cities trying to get to their destination as fast as possible?” Well, what indeed? But hang on—if we started taking that approach, we would start ruling out a whole series of cities so that we could cherry-pick which passengers from which cities we wanted to arrive at their destination fastest. There has to be equality of treatment for all cities on an inter-city service. That is my fundamental starting point.

To be fair, the Government have been extremely helpful on the wider issue of growth and regeneration. I referred to that at the beginning of the debate. The chief executive of the GHURC said:

“Network Rail has said that the future of Gloucester central station is not in doubt and confirmed its intention to retain the station and invest in improvements”.

The Government have done that. Most notably, the previous Secretary of State for Transport reached an agreement with Great Western Railway in the previous Parliament. One of the crucial issues about that agreement was an investment by Great Western Railway in a new, additional car park on the south side of the station. For the first time in the station’s 150 or 160 years, it got a new entrance from the south side. It links the hospital on Great Western Road and my constituents who live on the south side of the city. That was a considerable step forward.

Additionally, during the last few years, thanks to co-operation with Great Western Railway, we have a new lift for disabled passengers, the elderly and those with heavy baggage. For the first time, they can cross from platform 2 to platform 4. We have a canopy on the bridge that crosses the railway tracks, again for the first time in the station’s history. We are also looking at a series of improvements to the station infrastructure, including the underpass that goes under the railway lines, the nature of the forecourt and a new exit out of the current car park on to Metz Way. There is an application in for the next round of the growth fund.

I am confident that we will be able to achieve more improvements to the station infrastructure, but no station is better than the trains that arrive there, and that is the crucial issue that is missing. CrossCountry has no intention of delivering more services. The managing director said in his letter of 15 December that

“as has been explained before, at this time it is neither operationally possible nor commercially viable to increase the number of CrossCountry services at Gloucester station…it was apparent that the current railway infrastructure could not accommodate the inclusion of more stops at Gloucester”.

One of the reasons that the Department gave was that work at the Filton end of the entrance to Bristol station would impede additional stops at Gloucester. In fact, there are two lines there. They have been there for ever—there will always be two lines there, and there will be two more once the electrification has taken place. A stop at Gloucester should not impede anyone operationally from being able to go into Bristol. Indeed, Network Rail confirmed to me on the telephone that in the grander scheme of things, two additional stops a day would be frankly a relatively minor tweak to the operational schedule.

I want to leave a key point with the Minister today. He has been extremely helpful and has seen me several times, as did his predecessor. He wrote to me:

“I can assure you that there are two additional calls at Gloucester in the new Franchise Agreement which CrossCountry are funded for, and obliged to deliver, as soon as they are able to do so.”

That is very reassuring; two extra services a day means 730 extra services a year. That would hugely help my constituents in getting to work and traveling north and south with much greater ease. However, I do not have confidence that CrossCountry will live up to the Minister’s expectations. The crucial words in his letter are

“as soon as they are able to do so.”

I am afraid that CrossCountry’s letter makes it absolutely clear that it has no intention of doing so. In my last debate before Christmas, I finish with the irony of CrossCountry’s slogan, which is: “Going that bit further”. On this occasion, it has absolutely gone the opposite way.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello, I think for the first time. I had not even taken on board that you were in such an august position. I am delighted to see you there. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for calling this debate and for being such a persistent advocate on behalf of the people of Gloucester. He is a textbook example of persistent, gentle, non-stop lobbying on the causes on which he is rightly passionate. We can all learn a lesson from him on how never to give up and how to persist on issues.

My hon. Friend raised this matter at Prime Minister’s questions recently. He regularly updates me on his offline conversations with Network Rail and CrossCountry. No one could be more helpful in ensuring that I get the full range of views on what is going on. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) have been sensible and pragmatic in how they have approached the issue. They recognise that no solution is viable that sees any diminution in services to Cheltenham or Gloucester, and that is an important baseline from which we have to start.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester rightly points out, one only has to compare the flows of trains stopping at Gloucester when travelling from south to north with those when one is travelling north to south to see that we have an issue. Of the 63 trains that travel each day from Birmingham to Bristol, only three call at Gloucester. It is therefore of no surprise to anyone that his constituents are frustrated by the lack of provision for those who travel from Gloucester. All cities, no matter how large or small, should benefit from good transport connections, and Gloucester is no different. As a Department, we are well aware of that and are doing all we can to put this right.

That is why, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, we asked CrossCountry to explore the potential for additional Gloucester calls from December 2017. As he knows from the correspondence, CrossCountry has confirmed that, in its view, that is not deliverable, operationally or commercially, at present. Crucially, the requirement to run two additional services, should it become operationally possible to do so, is included in the CrossCountry franchise agreement. It is not a matter of whether CrossCountry would like to do so in an ideal world, but of whether it is possible for those services to operate on the network. I understand that it is impossible to find a workable solution that would allow the extra services to be deliverable in December 2017. I will explain the reasons shortly. We will continue to work closely with CrossCountry to see what can be done in the short term, should circumstances change; in the medium term, we will try to bring forward the extra services as soon as possible.

As my hon. Friend has set out, Gloucester has very well timed connections into and out of the main line of the long-distance inter-city CrossCountry network. There are 36 services from Cardiff to Birmingham, Derby and Nottingham, all of which stop at Gloucester. It is in the southern direction that there is a problem. Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester and Edinburgh can all be reached hourly with one change on the same platform at Cheltenham Spa and a 10-minute wait. The same applies for trains to Bristol and Plymouth, but with a 10 to 15-minute wait. One still has to change trains, and take luggage off and put it back on; it is by no means ideal. For Birmingham to Bristol services to serve Gloucester, trains need to be diverted off the main line. If those services called at Gloucester, it would increase the overall journey time by approximately 10 minutes.

My hon. Friend described the email he received on the punctuality of services. I was interested to hear about that. I am sure my officials have taken note of the details. If he will share the email with me, I will look carefully into that, because he put forward a persuasive narrative about punctuality and a buffer that was built in. I would be concerned if that were the case, and if it were an obstacle to further services calling at Gloucester. After extensive research, which included modelling timetable options with Network Rail, the latter has formally advised CrossCountry that it will not be possible to deliver additional station calls for Gloucester from December 2017 as there is not enough capacity on the network to accommodate the trains at present.

The Minister is being very gracious, but has he been able to confirm Network Rail’s view of the CrossCountry comment that it is impossible to do this? As he rightly says, the business of whether there is time built in to allow for delays on that service may provide part of the answer to his question.

It may well do, although I should point out that I think he has misconstrued some of my previous comments on Filton Bank and the operational bottleneck that occurs there. The work that is ongoing at Filton Bank to double the track capacity from two tracks to four is about enabling extra services by expanding track capacity. That work is not an impediment to the extra two services; it is what will enable them. That is why Network Rail is saying to the Department that there is not sufficient capacity on the network. Given that I have been in the debate since I heard the news, we have not had a chance to put the points about the timetable to Network Rail to get further information. That could change the situation, and we will get back to my hon. Friend if it does.

CrossCountry is a second-tier operator on all parts of the network; it is not the dominant franchise holder. That makes flexibility in its timetables significantly harder to achieve, because it answers to the dominant operator on any part of the network, particularly in and around Bristol and Birmingham. In a sense, the start and end points of its flows from north to south are determined by the wider national timetable. That can make it difficult to alter its timetables. We have to be certain that the intermediate stops and timings are robust and accurate, as my hon. Friend points out. The delay to those already on the train is a material point when considering a business case for altering service levels. Although the benefit-cost ratio for any intervention is merely a number and is not the entire story, it is part of the story that the Department and train operators have to take into account.

The blockage to providing additional station calls at Gloucester is predominantly a lack of network capacity and fixed capacity constraints at either end of the line in Birmingham and Bristol. I understand that my hon. Friend’s preference is for CrossCountry to offer a good service to his constituents who commute to and from Bristol. Not only should they be able to rely on local Great Western Railway services, but they should have access to a faster non-stop alternative to existing services. It is important that we look at what more GWR can do to increase capacity on that important commuter flow. CrossCountry has already had discussions with Network Rail on the improvements in Bristol and the impact that they can have on its potential to deliver more services. We will continue to work with both CrossCountry and Great Western to see how the service that Gloucester receives can be improved in the short term.

In the longer and medium term, we still need to work closely with CrossCountry to see whether passengers at Gloucester can get more frequent calls in the day. This will include looking at a full reworking of the timetable as part of the impending refranchising process. Post High Speed 2, a reduction in services through Birmingham New Street may open up the possibility of revised timings and more capacity. That is a priority for the Department. We are engaging our own technical advisers to look in further detail at operational deliverability and the financial and economic business cases, so that more can be done for the people of Gloucester.

With more and more people using our railways since privatisation 20 years ago, passenger journeys have doubled. That is also true for CrossCountry, which has seen growth from 32 million passenger journeys in 2007 to 37 million in 2015, leading to demand outstripping capacity in a number of places. We need to ensure that demand meets capacity, both on the CrossCountry network, and more widely across the national network. That is why the new timetable proposed from December 2017 seeks to provide additional annual seats, improving the journeys for passengers up and down the land.

As my hon. Friend knows, we recently announced a new direct award for Arriva to operate the CrossCountry franchise. This will deliver additional benefits for passengers: free wi-fi; upgrades to 4G connection, which will increase download speeds; improved access to better information systems; and 24/7 customer services. I recognise that all that is of benefit only if there are trains that passengers can board at the stations where they want to board them, and that includes Gloucester.

In conclusion, I note that CrossCountry has continued to do extensive research at the Department’s behest to try to find ways of calling at Gloucester on the Birmingham to Bristol CrossCountry route, but that has not been possible in time for the December 2017 timetable.

The Minister is very kind. As he said in his letter, CrossCountry is funded to deliver extra services in the new franchise agreement, which has already started, and the new timetable comes in in December 2017. I understand from Network Rail that the new timetable is not yet finalised, and will not be until March. Does he agree that there is still an opportunity for Network Rail to work with CrossCountry to identify how the timing of the trains—we are not talking about additional trains—can deliver the services in the new timetable from December 2017?

My hon. Friend is essentially right. I will try to answer that point, but it deserves far more than a minute. The crucial phrase is “operational capacity of the network”. If the service can be delivered within the network’s operational capacity, it should be delivered. As it stands now, I do not believe there is operational capacity, but I need to test that theory against the points my hon. Friend has made regarding the timetable to see whether that frees up any space on the network. If it does not, there is an ongoing CrossCountry consultation on the new timetable. Unless there is physical space on the network between Birmingham and Bristol to run the extra services, I do not see how they can be introduced to the network merely because both he and I wish that they could. I commit to keep working hard on this matter on his behalf, and to delivering on this as soon as I possibly can.

Sitting suspended.