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Rail Investment in the East Midlands

Volume 645: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2018

[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered rail investment in the East Midlands.

There are some firsts today, Sir Graham—I am always dealing with firsts. This is my first time under your chairship, which is very much appreciated. I also did not know before now that we could start early, which is very exciting, and I shall avail myself of the extra minutes to illuminate my subject matter further. I have sought this debate for quite some time, so I am really excited to have got it under the wire before the recess.

I am not naturally a whinger or shroud-wearer, but I will say a little about how the east midlands is perhaps not doing as well in terms of rail investment as it could be. I will also outline some really specific and really effective schemes that, with Government support, would deliver better rates of growth in our region. They are credible, ambitious and deliverable schemes, so I am trying to build support for them, and securing this debate is part of doing that.

The east midlands is at the heart of the country’s strategic transport network; it is literally the crossroads of England. Given our growth potential and our good record in the east midlands of delivering big projects, people might think that we would be a prime target for rail investment. However, the latest Treasury statistics—indeed, pretty much everything in the Government’s data —show that we are way behind where we ought to be.

Our region does not secure enough public investment in rail; in fact, we are at the bottom of the pile. The latest statistics bear a brief airing: the east midlands has the lowest level of public expenditure on transport, in total and per head; it has the lowest level of public expenditure on rail of anywhere in the country, at just £70 per head, which is £703 per head less than London and £180 per head less than the national average; for rail investment and transport investment more generally, the east midlands is not only the lowest funded region, but it has actually seen a reduction in funding in recent years; and the east midlands has the lowest level of public expenditure on infrastructure projects, at £230 per head less than the national average and £350 per head less than the north-west. And those figures are not a one-year blip; this is a trend over a series of years. The east midlands has actually experienced a steady downward slide to the bottom of the league.

I believe in levelling up. I do not see this process as some sort of competition against “That London”, and if it was, we would not win it. That is not the point I am making. However, it was very hard for me—I pride myself on being a pretty even-tempered person—to see what happened in one week this time last year. Despite an exceptionally strong business case, we saw the cancellation of the electrification of the midlands main line between Kettering and Sheffield, which represented nearly £900 million of investment. That happened just a day or two before the announcement of upwards of £38 billion of investment for Crossrail 2, the case for which is not as strong. I certainly would not wish to unpick Crossrail 2, but the point is that it was very difficult to hear those announcements on successive days.

We feel under pressure from London and the south-east, but we also feel under pressure, Sir Graham, from your backyard. The northern powerhouse is a competitor too, and it has a significant head start already; it is £980 per head better off in terms of infrastructure investment than the east midlands. Even in terms of the midlands engine, which we are very keen to see succeed, there is a risk of that becoming the west midlands engine, as it is tilted towards Birmingham, which is already £500 per head better off than the east midlands in investment.

We have some real challenges, and perhaps we need to look at why. It is true that we do not have the high profile of cities such as Manchester and Birmingham, with their Metro Mayors, and perhaps we lack an obvious regional identity—that is something I get quite a lot, and I was told not so long ago that the east midlands is basically what is left after everywhere else is taken away, which is a little unkind. Perhaps we struggle to agree local priorities. Or perhaps it has been down to a lack of propositions—well, not any more. That is my key theme for the debate: there are clear proposals for rail investment, and I am confident the Minister will have seen the Midlands Connect and Transport for the East Midlands shared vision for the region, which has recently been discussed with the Secretary of State, and the east midlands declaration on infrastructure funding, signed by Sir John Peace, chairman of The Midlands Engine.

When I was first elected, I went out to speak to as many people as possible, and I asked the business community, and especially our local enterprise partnership, what they wanted from their MPs. I got a very clear message: agree a set of priorities between you and stick to them. Contradictory messages have not served us well in the region. The all-party parliamentary group on the east midlands, which the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) and I co-chair, has sought to build that consensus, and this year we are focused on rail. I think that that cross-party approach has served us well and has developed a broad consensus. That is astute. Tenacity is important too, and we certainly will not lack for that.

I commend my hon. Friend’s work as co-chair of the all-party group. The point about cross-party working is incredibly important because there is a lot of consensus in the east midlands, particularly regarding the fact that we get £70 per head compared with £770 in London. We all understand the importance of the capital city, but that disparity really is stretching things too much. However, we are all being patient and trying to come together on the same priorities.

I am very grateful for that intervention. That is exactly right. This is not, dare I say it, an issue for just the current Government; it has been an issue for previous ones too. Our approach has to be one of consensus, and I think that that is how we will best get what we want. In thanking my neighbour to the east, I ought to reference my neighbour to the south, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). It might give the Minister some amusement to know that she is not with us because her Transport Committee currently has the Secretary of State in front of it. I suspect that the Minister will have a slightly easier time than the Secretary of State.

We should be an ideal investment opportunity because investment in the local economies that make up our region offers a great economic return—better in many business cases, in fact, than in other parts of the country. By increasing the proportion of national infrastructure spending in the east midlands, the Government will have a better chance of unlocking the private sector investment needed to revive and rebalance the UK economy. We need only look at the levels of gross value added—GVA—driven out for every pound of transport spend, to see how compelling the case is. That is one league table that the east midlands tops, showing our ability to deliver growth not only locally but nationally.

What am I seeking to raise with the Minister and perhaps secure his support for today? I have four things, the first of which is making the most of HS2. The east midlands has set out plans to use HS2 to drive up economic growth across the region, creating an additional 74,000 jobs and £4 billion of GVA by 2043. The region’s station at Toton will be the best connected HS2 station outside of London and will transform connectivity between the east midlands and Birmingham, Leeds, the north-east and Scotland, as well as London. We believe that HS2 can have a transformative impact on the east midlands; from the hub station at Toton and the Staveley infrastructure depot, to connecting Chesterfield to the HS2 network, there is an opportunity for the Government to invest in getting on with things and bringing them forward, starting HS2 services in 2020, three years early. Partially opening the hub station a little earlier in the next decade would stimulate growth earlier, unlocking the potential for 11,000 new jobs and radically improving connectivity between the east midlands and Birmingham. There is a real prize for us in HS2, and we can get on with it now. I know people think it is a bit of a long way away, but we can get on with it.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on a really important issue, particularly as regards getting the economic benefit from HS2. I want to flag, perhaps to the Minister, the opportunities that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) have been talking about in terms of the Robin Hood line, and the social benefits of connecting villages up to jobs, the tourist economy and, in the long term, the HS2 hub at Chesterfield, giving deprived communities access to the big economic boost that the hon. Gentleman talks about.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I am a big believer in our region’s future lying in the strength of HS2 and the logistics hubs that we can put around it and our airport. However, the hon. Gentleman’s community and mine will not benefit from that unless we can get there, and getting there cannot mean just going into the nearest big city and going out; we have to get there in other ways as well. I confess to enjoying a nice night out in Mansfield—a tasty night out, I would say—and I would definitely like to be able to get from Bulwell to Mansfield a bit more easily. However, I have picked up in dispatches that there might be a bit of a governmental wobble regarding HS2, especially its second phase, and I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s reflections on that.

The second priority is investment in the midland main line—you would expect me to say that, Sir Graham. We welcome the investment in upgrading the track and the signalling, but the importance of electrification should not be understated, as it is an opportunity to put really modern infrastructure in place for our region, make travel more comfortable, reduce running costs and carbon emissions, and improve air quality, journey times and efficiency. Electrification has an awful lot going for it.

As I said, the business case for between Kettering and Sheffield was really strong, and for it to be a casualty of cost overruns elsewhere is a real shame and a fundamentally flawed decision. That is not just my view or that of local business and council leaders; it is the view of the National Audit Office and the Transport Committee. But we are nothing if not pragmatic in our region. We appreciate that the rail franchise is now out to tender, and that it includes specification for bi-mode trains, so we must start in the world as it is, rather than the world as we want it to be. Let us make absolutely certain that whatever stock is procured for those lines can be converted to full electric mode in the future. Let us ensure that they can deliver on the journey time ambitions in both modes, and let us think about business growth. Our region is the international centre for rail engineering, so let us definitely ensure that those new trains are built in Derby.

Alongside that, in the spirit of pragmatism, let us think about the incremental electrification of the line. There is an opportunity to go bit by bit, and in time for the completion of HS2, so as not to risk losing one of the prizes of HS2 around speed. The Government have already committed to completing the section between Clay Cross and Sheffield in time for HS2. That will get us up to 62% of the line, so let us have a plan for the other 38%. I cannot help but think that we would save money by doing it properly, all in one go, but if it is incremental electrification, then let us have it, commit to it and plan for it, because it would progressively reduce the costs of running bi-modes on the line and release revenue to improve services elsewhere in the east midlands. Without electrification, it will also be more difficult to integrate HS2 into the existing rail network, so we really have to think about this and learn from mistakes elsewhere and from what has gone well in other countries.

The third priority is one I am particularly interested in. While waiting to start the debate, I saw the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) come in, and I thought he was going to talk, as a west midlands Member, about east-west connections, but I see he is in his place as Parliamentary Private Secretary. Nevertheless, if he had intervened, I would have made what I think is a neat assumption—that it is of as much interest to my neighbours to go to Walsall as it is to go to Wallington. That east-west has to be as important as the north-south. Sometimes it feels like a radical act to state that not everything for us is about getting to and from London more quickly; we are just as interested in moving east and west. So let us address the complex rail infrastructure in Newark and press for major investment to reduce conflicts between the east coast main line, which goes at speed, and the much slower Lincoln to Nottingham rail traffic. Let us reinstate direct services between Leicester and Coventry, which are important players in The Midland Engine.

One of my key things to highlight today is this: Midland Connect has developed the midlands rail hub concept, which would significantly improve rail capacity between the east and west midlands. It is a cost-effective package, with an additional 24 trains per hour improving east-west connectivity. At the moment, it takes 69 minutes to go the 50 miles from Nottingham to Birmingham. As you may know, Sir Graham, I am pretty quick on my feet, and sometimes it feels like I could beat the train. I think we can do better than 50 miles in 69 minutes. The hub would also benefit links to the midlands’ two international airports, and to the south-west and south Wales, allowing for an additional 36 freight paths a day, carrying £22 billion of goods every year. That is a really sensible package of ideas and, again, I am interested in the Minister’s reflections.

Finally, when I am on my feet, I never miss an opportunity to talk about light rail. I am a proud Nottinghamian, so I punt for light rail at every opportunity. We are really proud of our tram system. We are proud that we are the least car-dependent city in the country outside London and that we have the best public transport outside London, but there is potential for us to go further, and it would be really positive to expand our network. Similarly, East Midlands airport is a key part of our local economy, but it is hard to get to from East Midlands Parkway, and local roads are snarled up with associated traffic. A light rail link could be the perfect solution.

We have talked a little about the past, but I want to focus on the future. In the east midlands we are practical and pragmatic. We are a can-do region, and that is reflected in Government statistics for employment growth and new business start-ups, but we can do much more. We want to work with the Government to boost investment in key rail and other transport projects that will release economic growth, to not just our own benefit, but that of the county as a whole.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on securing the debate. I commend him, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) and the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie), for the work that they have been doing on the all-party parliamentary group on the east midlands, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), who is a bit further north of Nottingham. It is good to build cross-party links to ensure that the east midlands develops a coherent overall strategy for transport.

It is also a pleasure to have a chance to talk about the Government’s planned rail investment in the east midlands. I remind the House that we are in the process of undertaking the single biggest upgrade of the midlands main line since it was completed almost 150 years ago. Through more than £1.5 billion of investment, we will reduce peak-journey times, increase capacity for passengers and freight services, reduce the environmental impact of railway operations, and improve the experience of passengers travelling in the east midlands. Some of that work has already been completed. In February, passengers began using newly commissioned track and signalling between Kettering and Corby, increasing the capacity, speed and resilience of the railway between those two Northamptonshire towns.

Ambitious works to modernise and improve the railway at Derby station began on Sunday. That upgrade includes 17 kilometres of new track, 55 new signals, 79 sets of points and nine new overhead gantries. The current complex and inefficient track lay-out will be simplified, allowing for more direct train movements to and through the station. Ultimately, that will reduce journey times and improve reliability.

Works to extend electrification infrastructure from Bedford to Corby are also under way. We have also asked HS2 Limited to begin preparatory works for the future electrification of a 25-kilometre section of the midland main line from Clay Cross to Sheffield station. As the hon. Member for Nottingham North said, new bi-mode trains, to be delivered under the next east midlands franchise, will provide us with the flexibility to use electrification where it is affordable and delivers real passenger benefits.

Improvements for passengers, while vital, are not our sole focus. The midland main line programme will also provide more opportunities for freight. Stations and bridges between Kettering, Bedford and Corby are being reconstructed to accommodate larger shipping containers, creating more train paths for freight. The next east midlands franchise will exploit and build on those capabilities.

The recently published invitation to tender specifies an ambitious programme of benefits and improvements. Through the new franchise, connectivity between the east midlands and London will be significantly improved. Journey times between Nottingham and Sheffield and London will be reduced by up to 20 minutes in the peak, and there will be a brand new fleet of bi-mode trains from 2022.

When the scheme for electrification was cancelled this time last year, the Government went for bi-mode train technology, but the National Audit Office said that the train technology to deliver the benefits did not exist. Will the Minister reassure us that the bi-mode trains that he envisages are real and will deliver on the specifications that he hopes for?

Absolutely, and the decision means that passengers will benefit from the new trains sooner, and with less disruption, than had we gone ahead with plans to electrify the entire line. The upgrade of the midland main line will support much better journeys, faster journeys in the peak and more seats as a result of the new trains, with further improvements from 2022. Thanks to modern train technology—the bi-modes that we will procure—we will not need to electrify every part of the line to deliver better journeys.

The capacity of services will be increased throughout Lincolnshire, and between Derby and Crewe, and an additional train per hour will run from Corby to London St Pancras. Throughout the week, services will start earlier in the morning and end later in the evening, and more trains will operate on Sundays. Passengers will also benefit from high-quality wi-fi and mobile connectivity, both on trains and in stations. Smart ticketing options will be introduced for leisure and business journeys, including better value-for-money fares for passengers travelling regularly but on fewer than five days a week. The new franchise has specified exemplary passenger satisfaction targets for trains, stations, customer services and dealing with delays.

All those investments will radically improve rail services in the east midlands. However, our plans do not stop there. As we look to the future, we are working collaboratively with bodies such as East Midlands Councils and Midlands Connect to identify more areas where rail investment can unlock new potential in the region. To that end, the Government are supporting Midlands Connect with £12 million of funding to develop a transformational strategy to boost productivity and growth through transport investment.

A further £5 million has been provided to support the development of the proposed midlands rail hub that the hon. Member for Nottingham North mentioned, which seeks to provide a significant uplift in capacity and reduction in journey times between Nottingham, Leicester, Derby and Birmingham. The new east midlands rail hub at Toton will be one of the best connected stations in the region, providing new high-speed links to London, Birmingham, Chesterfield and Leeds. The station will also link to the existing network with routes to Nottingham, Derby and Leicester, connecting those cities in turn to HS2.

The Government’s commitment to continuously improving rail in the east midlands is evident, and the huge benefits that that will bring will be obvious. The measures that I have outlined will transform services across the breadth of one of England’s most dynamic regions.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.