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Digital Railway Strategy

Volume 641: debated on Thursday 24 May 2018

Two weeks ago, Mark Carne, the chief executive of Network Rail, and I launched the company’s digital railway strategy in York, where we announced that the industry should make plans for all future renewals to be digital or digital-ready. I have already approved funding to develop digital schemes in Moorgate and the south-east, and in particular, I have set out plans for the new TransPennine route. The £2.9 billion modernisation, starting around this time next year, will be Britain’s first, principal inter-city digital railway, and very necessary it is.

Later this month, the priced option for the Island line in my constituency will be presented. I will be writing next week in support of that priced option. Can the Minister assure me that the Government understands the importance of the Island line to the Island and the importance of investment in it—in track, railway and stations such as Ryde Pier Head, which is on the pier, and Ryde Esplanade, which is a key gateway? Is he aware of my strong support for a feasibility study into extending the Island line south and west?

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that one of his constituents, not very far from here, has been listening intently to his question.

I know indeed, Mr Speaker—in fact, he used to be a constituent of mine and is now benefiting from the wonderful environment that is the Isle of Wight. My hon. Friend has been an excellent champion for it since his election. I can assure him that the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), and I will be taking careful note of the plans as they come through, and we will work with him to try to find the best way to ensure that his constituents have the best service that it is possible to deliver to them in future.

I call Tom Tugendhat—where is the fella? He has obviously beetled out of the Chamber. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling is not here, but we will bear up stoically and try to manage without him.

18. Following the collapse of the east coast main line franchise, will the Secretary of State make a firm commitment to Virgin’s previous pledge to deliver additional train services between Lincoln and London in 2019? They are essential for our local businesses. (905565)

Let me be very clear: it is my intention that the commitments to new services made in the Virgin Trains franchise are delivered. The hon. Lady will know, as I have told the House before, that there is an issue and has been for some while around the timing of some of those services because of problems with infrastructure improvements. I am putting Network Rail under as much pressure as possible to deliver those as quickly as possible. I give her and all Members who are waiting for these new services an assurance that I will make sure that they are delivered.

Can the Secretary of State tell me how the roll-out of the digital strategy, which is in itself a good thing, on my local lines is going to stop me receiving tweets like the one I received this morning? It said:

“Chaos for 4th day on SE lines—trains cancelled, late, diverted, not stopping, short formation & angry passengers”.

How is the strategy going to help that?

There are benefits of digital technology, but my hon. Friend will be aware that this is a difficult week on the railways, as I have explained. It has happened because of the late delivery of the timetable. This is the second time that it has happened in six months. I have already had discussions with Network Rail about this. It must not happen again. What the digital railway will do is create a railway that can run more trains more reliably. It gets rid of the risk of traditional signal failures, which are a big part of the frustrations that many commuters face, and I want to see, over the next few years, our stopping replacing old-fashioned traffic-light signals and using digital technology instead.

A digital railway is vital for improving capacity in the far south-west but will not necessarily improve journey speeds. If our journey times are to be long, they at least need to be productive, so can I ask the Secretary of State to commit to working with colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to improve our mobile and wi-fi signals to remove all the notspots in the far south-west, especially on rail journeys to Plymouth?

Sometimes, we disagree across the Chamber, but on this one I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are looking at the best options to do this. I think that we should be getting mobile operators to put up more masts down the route, and particularly as we move to a 5G network, I want to see that 5G network up and down the railway—and not just for passengers; it helps the digital railway as well. On this one, I am absolutely with him.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his very good question. The transition to digital technology basically means that in future, rather than having a red-amber-green signal by the trackside, the signalling is done automatically from the cab of a train. Each train will know how far it is to the train in front. It is therefore possible to manage the network more efficiently, to run trains safely closer to each other and to deliver more capacity for passengers.