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North Cotswold Line

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 22 January 2020

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered North Cotswold line transformation.

It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I am delighted that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), will respond. I will start by declaring an interest, which is that I am an unpaid vice-president of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, a fantastic voluntary organisation that has worked relentlessly for decades to improve the North Cotswold line. I am grateful that I have secured the debate so early in the Parliament, and in time for the 2020 Budget, because we have a Worcestershire Chancellor, who truly understands the value of infrastructure improvements in unleashing our country’s potential and increasing its productivity. I believe that the case for investing in the North Cotswold line will be one of the easiest and most convincing ones he will see.

The North Cotswold line, for those who have not had the pleasure of travelling along it, runs from Oxford to Hereford and crosses many constituencies, one of which is Witney—my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) has recently, and conveniently, been appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Transport Secretary. The line also runs through the constituencies of The Cotswolds and Mid Worcestershire, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) will seek to catch your eye later in the debate, Mr Pritchard, although, sadly, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) would have to sit here silently, as he currently serves in the Whips Office. It then runs through the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), through my own constituency, and on to North Herefordshire—my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) is a keen supporter. It then goes through the constituency of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman).The North Cotswold line plan is to improve services to Kidderminster—I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) is here—and I know it will have knock-on benefits for colleagues in the Oxford area as well. All those colleagues are supporting this debate, even if they are not all speaking in it.

I also wanted to hold this debate now because it coincides with the arrival in the Department for Transport of the strategic outline business case for the North Cotswold line, which has been written by the North Cotswold Line Taskforce. I put on record my thanks to Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for chairing the taskforce, and to all the taskforce members: Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire County Councils, Herefordshire Council, the Worcestershire, GFirst, Marches, Oxfordshire, Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnerships, the West Midlands Rail Executive and the Cotswold Line Promotion Group. They have all done excellent work since the taskforce was set up two years ago.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She has read out a list of a number of those supporting the plan, but I notice that the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership was not involved. Is she as surprised as I am not to see it there, given that its southern part covers those north Worcestershire constituencies that the line to Droitwich Spa and Kidderminster goes through, where this will make a difference? It is a bit remiss of the LEP not to be on that list.

The honest answer is that I do not know the background and whether that LEP was approached, or whether my hon. Friend will now be able to tell it about this exciting proposal, which benefits the Wyre Forest and allows services to Kidderminster.

The history of this 86-mile line between Oxford and Hereford represents sharp decline and, now, slow recovery. The lovely, fully doubled line of the early part of the 20th century was reduced to mainly single track in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s—perhaps not coincidentally, a time when the whole railway network was in public hands. By the 1980s, there were only two trains a day between Paddington and Hereford.

Thanks to the campaigning of my predecessor, the late Lord Spicer, as well as Sir Peter Luff—the former MP for Mid Worcestershire—and many others, two sections of the track were redoubled between 2008 and 2011. By 2015, a broad hourly service had been achieved. The partial redoubling has also brought some improvements to journey times. Since the December timetable changes, one train per day in each direction completes the London to Worcester journey in less than two hours.

Having looked at a range of options, the North Cotswold Line Taskforce has given unanimous backing for what it calls option 5, a redoubling of four miles of track from Wolvercote Junction, Oxford, to Hanborough station, and the redoubling of five miles of track from Evesham to Pershore. In addition, option 5 includes second platforms at Pershore and Hanborough.

The combination of those elements in option 5 would allow two trains an hour from Worcester to London, additional services beyond Worcester to Malvern, Hereford and Kidderminster, a regular Worcester to London service in less than two hours, and faster services from Malvern and Herefordshire to London, as well as improved performance and reliability.

The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that those improvements on the North Cotswold line would also unlock additional opportunities in the nearby area? For example, it would be possible to link the line through to the Cowley branch line, and having the additional capacity at Hanborough might make it possible for that station to operate almost as a parkway, which would relieve some of the pressure on Oxford station. It would be a win-win not only along the route, but in many nearby areas.

I thank the hon. Lady for her support and, through her, thank Oxfordshire County Council for the support it has given this taskforce. I believe that option 5 allows a significant improvement to services around the Oxford area. I will come on to some of the environmental benefits of the scheme. She may well want to call a similar debate at some point in the future on the proposals she is making.

I do not know the details of the proposals the hon. Lady is making, but I do know that the benefit to cost ratio of this scheme is well over 4:1. That is with a cost estimate of just under £200 million for the whole option 5 scheme, including an optimism bias in the cost estimates. The five counties supporting the taskforce, including Oxfordshire, are home to more than 2.5 million people, and their economic gross value added is greater than that of the West Midlands Combined Authority and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Moreover, they are only asking for half the budget from the Department for Transport.

As I mentioned, there are clear environmental benefits. As train travel increases, it will take cars off the road. Currently, my West Worcestershire constituents travel miles along the congested motorway network just to get to Warwick Parkway and Birmingham International stations so that they can use the Chiltern line and the west coast main line. The strategic outline business case goes into detail on the benefits to the road system, and estimates that 5 million miles of highway driving would be avoided. Indeed, the delivery of the Worcestershire Parkway station—it is due to open any day, and I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to come and officiate at its opening—will strengthen the case for more travellers across south Worcestershire to use the North Cotswold line.

There will be huge tourism benefits, as the line goes through some of the loveliest countryside in the world. It passes the cathedral city of Oxford and goes on to the cathedral cities of Worcester and Hereford. It goes through the heart of the beautiful Cotswolds, near Blenheim Palace and, of course, through the glorious Malvern hills. There will also be huge housing benefits. The scheme will increase the affordability of housing for those working in Oxford, by giving them the opportunity to commute by rail from less expensive areas. In short, it will unleash the potential of the midlands engine and link it to the Oxford-Cambridge arc corridor, connecting it all more reliably, more frequently and more quickly to London, the Crossrail network and Heathrow.

My only ask of the Minister today is that he agree to pay half of the develop stage costs and allow the proposed scheme into the industry’s rail network enhancements pipeline. With that funding, an outline business case and a structural survey can be prepared for 2022. A commitment from his Department of only £1.5 million of the £3 million cost—taskforce members will pay the other half—will enable that progress.

I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister sees how compelling option 5 is in terms of value for money, the environmental benefit and the country’s productivity. The proposals are sensible, modest but impactful, and achievable in the tangible future. When he makes his case to the Chancellor, he will be making it to a friendly Worcestershire colleague, and he will know just how many other colleagues will be pleased by approving further progress on this wonderful train line.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for securing the debate, and I am grateful to the Minister for being here to answer our requests.

I have been heavily involved in the Cotswold line redoubling campaign, as it goes through my constituency—Moreton-in-Marsh and Kingham are both very busy stations along the line; the latter is just outside my constituency boundary but is used by many of my constituents—and I have worked closely with my fellow MPs, as my hon. Friend said. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) in his place. Part of the ask of this feasibility study will be to get the redoubling done in his constituency. I will say more about that in a minute, but I am sure that it will benefit his constituents hugely, and all of our constituents, because it will make the whole journey time quicker. It is delightful to see him here.

We have all worked closely with the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, which has been a staunch advocate for this line for tens of years. I pay tribute, as did my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, to Lord Faulkner for heading up that group. We have had upgrades on this line, as my hon. Friend said; it was redoubled in the early 1990s, as was the line from Kemble to Swindon. That had huge benefits, because it now takes just 12 minutes to travel from Kemble to Swindon, and reduces journey times from Cheltenham to Swindon to London.

The redoubling of the Cotswold line will increase the number of services along the line for the entire journey. Timetable changes in December 2019 were a milestone, because trains on that line now deliver an hourly service throughout the day. The trains are less crowded, with more capacity and, above all, faster journey times. The new timetable has been welcomed locally, but further investment is required to take it on to the next stage—for rail services to meet the long-term needs of the region which, as my hon. Friend said, is growing both economically and in population terms.

Relative to other regions, this is still a slow journey. The journey from Worcester to London, for example, which is 120 miles, has an end-to-end speed of just 57 mph, compared with the speed from equivalent towns such as Leamington Spa, at 76 mph; Bath, at 77 mph; Swindon, at a very fast 84 mph; and Rugby, at 99 mph. This is a slow service at the moment, and much could be done to improve it.

The journey time between Paddington and Worcester Shrub Hill—120 miles—takes between 1 hour 59 minutes and an appalling 2 hours 40 minutes, which is slow when considering that frequent trains throughout the day can reach Oxford from London in just over 50 minutes. The extra bit, which is another half of the journey, takes well over an hour. It is unacceptable that people travelling beyond Oxford are expected to travel on a second-class, slower service, as the train slows down significantly from Oxford.

The redoubling of the line that I worked to secure has improved the journey time, but the faster trains have to slow down through the single-line sections. Suggestions put forward by the Cotswold Line Promotion Group and the North Cotswold Line Taskforce would mean two trains per hour travelling through Worcestershire, the Cotswolds, Oxford and to London. Option 5, as my hon. Friend said, would see further redoubling from Wolvercote to Hanborough, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, and eventually a 5-mile stretch between Evesham and Pershore, producing faster journey times of less than two hours between Worcester and London. Minister, that is the ultimate goal; a city of the size, importance and distance from London of Worcester ought to have a rail service of less than two hours.

I am sure the Minister knows—my hon. Friends certainly know—that the line currently operates on both diesel and electric modes. A long-term aim, which would be a game changer, is to fully electrify the line from Oxford to Worcester, but that is not the subject of this particular study. Making the journey faster and more environmentally efficient is most important. I am sorry to tell this tale, but it is absolutely true: I recently caught a very old train from Norwich to Sheringham, and frankly it was like travelling on a moving, polluting factory—the diesel emissions were so bad. The ultimate aim must surely be to phase out all diesel trains in this country. If we want to get rid of the internal combustion engine—petrol and diesel cars—by 2040, we must have a plan to get rid of diesel trains as well.

As my hon. Friend said, the business case for redoubling the Cotswold line is compelling, with more frequent, faster services helping to generate nearly 400,000 new passenger trips each year. An investment of £199 million would have economic benefits of £33 million gross value added per year, and would support 750 new jobs. The operating costs put forward offer efficient rolling stock utilisation, with improved use of the existing fleet and efficient redistribution to match supply with demand.

Such improvements would hugely benefit my constituents who use the North Cotswold line. Moreton-in-Marsh is a growing town that has already seen considerable growth, mainly due to its actually having a station. I recently helped the Fire Service College—a national institution in my constituency—obtain a £500 million contract with the Ministry of Defence to train defence fire and rescue workers, which will help to secure an additional 100 jobs. The Fire Service College critically depends on the Cotswold line.

In addition, as my hon. Friend says, the Cotswolds is an important area of outstanding natural beauty, attracting some 38 million domestic and international tourists a year, generating £1 billion a year for the Cotswolds economy. I might add that that is not only my constituency; there are 17 constituencies in the Cotswolds. For the Cotswolds to be accessible and to retain this industry, it must have strong, sustainable, green transport links that offer an alternative to road-based traffic. For the Government to achieve their targets, as set out in the 25-year environment plan, including meeting the legally binding targets to reduce emissions of five damaging air pollutants and ending the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, more investment is needed.

The Cotswold line improvements will link in with the Elizabeth line, which is significant to my constituents, as well as those of my hon. Friends the Members for West Worcestershire and for Witney. At the moment, the journey to Heathrow is so difficult that I should think that well over 90% of my constituents choose to travel there by car. However, with an improved Cotswold line, meaning that they can get to Oxford and then Reading, and can then use the fast Elizabeth line from Reading straight into Heathrow, I am sure that more of them will change their mode of travel from car to rail. If we do not keep improving these railway lines and connectivity, many of our roads will simply clog up, which cannot be good for the environment.

Overall, this project delivers very high value for money—my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire mentioned a benefit-cost ratio of 4:1; I believe that the actual figure is 4.46:1, so it is nearer 5:1—and will support economic and population growth, tourism, connectivity to London and other regions, access to jobs and reductions in road congestion. We are talking about enhancing rural but economically competitive areas, such as the Cotswolds, that are currently being restrained—constrained—by the transport connectivity with other areas. Other strategic options such as train lengthening, road investment, platform lengthening and other railway projects in the region would all help to achieve those objectives.

My final sentence will be to repeat to the Minister the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire. We need from this debate only half the cost of doing a feasibility study—a mere £1.5 million. Considering the other requests that will be made, that is absolute chicken feed.

I did not originally intend to speak in this debate. One notable thing about this place is that quite often Members of Parliament stand up to speak because although everything has already been said, not everyone has already said it; so I will try to avoid repeating the incredibly excellent points made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin)—my own MP—who initiated the debate, which is a really important one for the local economy, and by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). Both have interests in this matter, because the track runs through their constituencies, and they are working extraordinarily hard to champion this scheme. However, the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire about it affecting other constituencies is incredibly important. Although Wyre Forest is in the northern part of Worcestershire, it will benefit very significantly from the opportunity created by the doubling of the track.

I want to make just a couple of points. I raised in an intervention on my hon. Friend the interest of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership. I did not want to catch her unawares with that, but it struck me that the more people we get behind this scheme, the better it is in terms of making the business case for what is not actually a very big ask from the group involved. Because the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP also covers the northern part of Worcestershire—Wyre Forest, Redditch and Bromsgrove—it takes in two of the stations that will benefit, Droitwich Spa and Kidderminster, which will benefit from being able to feed into this line through Worcester. Therefore there is an economic interest for that LEP and I will certainly make representations to it in order that it throws its weight behind the scheme.

My other point is on the benefit to local economies. If people look at the economies along this track and to the north, going towards the Black Country, they will see that we suffer from a number of different things, one of which is lower than average regional wages, particularly in Wyre Forest; that is something I have been particularly aware of. One thing that we are trying to do in the whole of Worcestershire, through the Worcestershire LEP, is to attract more businesses into the area and therefore bring up training, productivity, wages and general wealth and wellbeing for the county. It is well known that the best way to do that is to create infrastructure links. People will not be attracted to come to a county if they cannot get their workers in and the training in and their products in and out, and rail is certainly an incredibly important part of that. And if we free up the road networks by having more people travelling by rail, that benefits the economy as well as the environment. It is incredibly important that we all throw our weight behind this scheme, for so many different reasons, and it is incredibly important that we are having this debate now.

I shall ask just one question. There is obviously the rather peculiar debate going on at the moment about the £105 billion that is being put into HS2. That is not without controversy, and I do not particularly want to make a controversial speech, but I remember that when I was on the Treasury Committee a few years ago, we did an investigation into the value of spending what was then £52 billion, if I remember rightly—I think it was actually lower than that, but let us say that it was £52 billion—on HS2. Were we actually going to get value for money out of it? There was a very strong argument for it, and Andy Street, the Mayor of Birmingham, is arguing very vehemently in favour of that part of HS2 going up to Birmingham—I would agree with him on that.

However, the interesting question now is this. If we were to start the argument from the other end and say that we had £105 billion to spend on the rail network, would we build HS2 or would we spend that money on exactly this type of project and, indeed, other projects whereby we could extend reach down to places such as the far west or to East Anglia and other parts of the country that will not benefit from HS2? I think it is worth using this debate to highlight that point. Although HS2 is a very exciting project, it is not necessarily what we would have spent £105 billion on if we had started with the offer of the money. We may well have started by spending it on this type of project in order to get more—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, but I think we should not forget that the schemes that we are talking about here are in addition to HS2. This Government are spending £48 billion on the railways on precisely these sorts of schemes. Even if we release the money for HS2, money is still available for these sorts of schemes.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am not suggesting that we should scrap HS2 to pay for this scheme. He is absolutely right: we need to do an awful lot of different things. I was just trying to give a slightly different viewpoint on the whole HS2 argument. Actually, I think interregional connectivity is the most important point.

I will not take up any more of the House’s time; as I said, this is a really important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire for initiating the debate. The scheme is really important. It will make a big difference to a lot of constituencies that are not on the track but will benefit. My hon. Friend and everyone who represents a constituency along the track can 100% rely on my support for the scheme and my support in trying to get the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP to come in behind it as well.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I apologise for being somewhat late. I also refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on securing today’s debate and on championing investment in our railways. Labour is also very supportive of that. We have been calling for it consistently as part of our endeavours to create a greener and more affordable transport network run in the interests of passengers.

Back in 2017, the North Cotswold Line Taskforce was established. It was made up of the five county authorities, which the hon. Lady mentioned, and five local enterprise partnerships that are served by the line. As part of the Department’s enhancements pipeline process, the taskforce brought forward its strategic outline business case just last month, calling for faster, more frequent rail services to serve and better connect the communities and economies we have heard about today.

I also want to make the point about the wider connectivity—referred to by, I think, one Government Member—to the Thames valley and my own constituency in Reading, and about other, wider benefits across Oxfordshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) mentioned branch lines in her constituency. We need to look at this scheme on a system-wide basis, seeing it as a potential benefit not only to residents in the north Cotswold area, but to the wider rail network. Indeed, I will talk later about the importance of looking at the network as a whole.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that supportive point. Of course, all the trains that go from Paddington to Worcestershire and Herefordshire will pass through Reading, which in recent years has become a magnificent station, thanks to the investment that we have put in. That will enable connectivity to Crossrail for those areas, which are poorly served at the moment. I therefore thank the hon. Gentleman very much for making that point.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning Crossrail, because it is important that we think about the integration between London stopping services and the wider countryside beyond London and beyond major towns and cities.

The taskforce made a convincing case for track doubling on parts of the line, as we have heard. Currently, the single-track line on parts of the route does have an impact on the quality of services. What is proposed would come at a cost, but, as we have heard, with a very high benefit to cost ratio. It is worth noting—certainly we have noted—the very high benefit to cost ratio, at 4.46:1. That is unusually high, so the hon. Lady and other colleagues have made a very good point on that, and I hope the Minister considers the relative strength of the case.

The enhancements would also allow an increase in the speed and frequency of services along the line, as we have heard. The taskforce’s business case pointed out that the benefits would be felt by not only passengers, but the local economy. I think it quantified that at about £33 million annually for the economy and the area, and there would also be the creation of about 750 new jobs, which is quite a substantial benefit. We need to consider what this scheme means in real terms to the area, as well as to the wider network and the country as a whole.

It is obviously now up to the Department to look at the scheme—I urge it to do so seriously—and to decide whether to include it in its pipeline of enhancements and to commence the development stage, which, as we have heard from hon. Members, is the next step. Moving the scheme on to that phase will require an additional £3 million initially.

This scheme exemplifies how investments in public transport can bring massive benefit to communities across the country, but that should not be the preserve of just some areas. There should be a system-wide examination of the benefits of this type of scheme for all the UK. Investment in rail should stretch across all nations and regions of the UK. We hope, as hon. Members have described, that that will support other local economies, in counties, groups of towns and cities around Britain, and deal with the problem of rising inequality.

[Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Increased investment in rail is required to tackle air pollution and the climate crisis, as the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) mentioned. According to the Government’s climate change advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change, the Government are not on track to meet their emissions targets, which themselves are insufficiently ambitious to meet the objectives we all have set ourselves.

Transport, as was rightly mentioned, is the most emitting and worst-performing sector of the economy. It is an obvious target for us. There is a potential benefit economically and environmentally, and the hon. Gentleman made that point eloquently. Despite improving technology, transport emissions are rising. There is a serious risk of over-emphasising road transport—with the road schemes in the pipeline currently highlighted by the Government—rather than rail, which is a low-emitting sector.

If the Government are serious about cutting emissions, they must put their money where their mouth is. Unfortunately, Government policy in the last decade has taken us in the wrong direction. Regulated rail fares have risen by over 40% since 2010—more than 2.5 times the rate of increase in median wages. At the same time, overcrowding has increased, and reliability has declined. Rail travel is becoming unaffordable for many people, who are priced off the railway. Those who do travel by rail have to spend more of their income in real terms.

The policies Labour presented at the general election would address many of these issues. That complements my point about investment in particular parts of the country. Bringing the railway back into public ownership would improve services and deal with the timetabling chaos suffered by communities in the north of England last year. We would also have cut regulated rail fares by 33% from January 2020 and delivered a simple London-style ticketing system, which I am sure residents in the north Cotswolds would much appreciate as they travel in and out of the south-east or across their region.

Other countries are already tackling these issues. In Germany, where the railway is under public ownership, the Government recently made a substantial cut in rail fares, specifically as a climate protection measure. That complements expanding rail provision in under-served parts of the country. I would like the Minister to consider that approach. I hope he will take note of my points today in the same way I am sure he will take note of the specific regional issues in the north Cotswolds.

I hope the Minister will consider other policies where I believe we have the wrong balance between rail and other modes of transport. For example, the Government have repeatedly frozen fuel duty for private vehicles and, effectively, air passenger duty, at the same time as allowing rail fares to rise and cutting subsidies for buses. As the hon. Member for The Cotswolds hinted, there is a wider issue of connectivity to other public transport services, both into London and within shires, including better bus services. What steps will the Minister take to reduce the cost of rail travel, and reconsider the balance between rail and other modes of transport?

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about connectivity. We worked hard in Moreton-in-Marsh to try to get the local bus service to coincide with the arrival and departure of trains. We are also working hard on getting trains to coincide with bicycle hire, so that people can arrive at Moreton-in-Marsh from London, hire a bicycle with their family, have a day out in the beautiful Cotswolds and then take the train home again.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about connectivity to bicycle hire. Cycling can be supported by sensible policies that promote it and link it to rail travel and bus use. As I am standing in as shadow Minister for local transport, I refer him to the recent Labour manifesto on those matters. At least as a fellow cyclist, it is worth considering the need for greater investment in cycling.

I understand the Minister is interested in reversing some of the Beeching cuts. There is some merit in exploring that, but it must be matched by funding. Conservative Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East have articulated the need for funding. I urge the Minister to look at the broader funding envelope for the Department and the relative weighting of spending on rail as opposed to road. He may want to shed some light on various aspects of that, particularly his plans to reopen branch lines in addition to dualing existing railway lines.

If the Government are serious about boosting rail connectivity, the Minister must look at the pot of money the Government have available for road enhancements, which is taken from hypothecated money from vehicle excise duty. There is an argument for spending some of that on public transport. We have already suggested that a proportion of it be spent on subsidising bus use, which has recently declined, but there might also be a good case for some of that funding to be hypothecated for rail, considering the obvious points that have been made, as rail can often provide an excellent alternative for rural residents who wish to make long journeys and avoid our congested motorway network. Sadly, at the moment, we are not following the right approach, and we need to look at that balance again.

I commend Conservative Members for highlighting the needs within the north Cotswold area. They have made an excellent point about their railway line. I urge the Minister to consider the weighting of Government spending. I hope he will address such points and the wider package of support for branch lines and other smaller rail routes. I urge him to reconsider, to make a commitment to boost investment in the railway significantly and to cut fares to make rail travel more attractive.

I do not think this will be a problem, given the time we have, but will the Minister leave a couple of minutes at the end for the mover of the motion to sum up?

I shall have to remove a number of pages from my speech, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—I shall obviously obey your indication from the Chair and ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) has plenty of time to answer the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I shall now call her the vice-president of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group—“vice-president” is a proper title, even though it is unpaid. She is certainly showing that she is unbelievable value for money, as I am sure the cost-benefit reports she detailed in her speech show for this particular scheme. I congratulate her on the points she made, and I will go into some detail in my speech. My answer will get somewhere along the line towards where she wants to be.

A lot of Members have taken part in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) was instrumental in earlier improvements to the line we are discussing. I am sure that more than a bench on a station will be named after him for his contribution and his work in the area. He reminded us that the ultimate goal is to have journeys between Worcester—I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), is in Westminster Hall this afternoon—and London coming in at under two hours, which is what everybody should expect of a modern-day railway.

My hon. Friend talked wisely about the environment and how trains are a way of reducing car journeys. Actually, I think he would be proud at how much greener our rolling stock is becoming by the day. We have a huge amount of new rolling stock—I think it is about a thousand carriages—coming on to our network this year, so there will be a much greener network at the end of the year.

The Minister will know that there is new rolling stock on the Cotswolds line itself, and my constituents have well and truly noted the difference.

Yes, indeed. I am pleased to hear they have noted the difference, because, at the end of the day, these are relatively expensive vehicles, so it is nice to know that they are worth what we pay for them and provide good value for money for the taxpayer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) is no longer in his place; he apologised for leaving, but he had to go to another meeting. He wisely made the point that the Department for Transport needs as much stakeholder involvement in these schemes as possible. It would therefore be good if he could prod the local enterprise partnership for Greater Birmingham and Solihull to provide support, because the scheme would benefit this whole geographical area. My hon. Friend also made some points about High Speed 2, but that is not part of my brief, and it is a bit controversial, so I will duck that one completely.

There were other contributions, including interventions. Brief contributions were made by the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds). It is very kind of her to come along and support her “hon. Friends” on the Government side, and there are a lot of hon. Friends on the Government side, including the Parliamentary Private Secretary for the Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who has been itching to speak in the debate, but who has not been allowed to. However, it is fair to say that there is a voice close to the Department that is very positive about the benefits that can flow from this debate and indeed from the improvements to this line.

Then there is the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda). We have never really tangled in debate before, so I welcome him to his position—I believe he has been elevated or, at the very least, that his brief now encompasses more things. Everything that I have heard about him leads me to believe he is an honourable and decent man who actually wants to improve our railways and has some sensible suggestions to do that. I look forward to engaging with him on this issue.

The shadow Minister obviously knows a lot about our railways, so I am sure he has seen that there is a huge amount of investment in them. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds said, £48 billion will be invested in this five-year control period. That is a huge amount to improve our existing railways, quite apart from the huge schemes on the cards to build new capacity around the country.

The shadow Minister also made a point about fares. I have seen what has been going on in Germany, but I remind him that, in this country, 98p of every pound spent in fares is reinvested back into transport and specifically into the railways. So someone’s fare—any fare—is almost an investment in the railways themselves. However, there is a debate to be had about this issue. I welcome that debate, and I look forward to debating this issue with him.

The shadow Minister made a number of points about the road networks and other things that are way beyond my brief. Just as with one of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest, I will duck those issues in today’s debate and stick to the issue we are here to discuss.

Having said that, there was a point about cycling, which is in my brief, even if it is not part of this debate. I just wanted to back up the point my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds made about how we can connect cycling to the railways so much more than we do currently. Last week, I was privileged to go to the Cycle Rail Awards. Yes, there is such an event; it is a proper, red-carpet event—nothing but the best for the Rail Minister. It was really encouraging to see all the cycling schemes now being delivered up and down our railways, increasing capacity so that people can cycle to the railway and park their bicycle. There are also schemes whereby people can rent cycles. People can come out of a city and rent a cycle to enjoy the countryside, before returning the bike at the end of the day—please. There is a lot of investment in this area as well, so it was good to hear it being highlighted in the debate.

However, I guess I should actually talk about the meat of this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire presented a typically eloquent and persuasive argument for investment in the railway line between Oxford and Worcester. Although the debate is about the transformation of the North Cotswold line, it would be remiss of me not to begin by remarking on the renaissance the route has experienced over the last 10 years—my hon. Friend alluded to it in her speech, and it is quite spectacular.

At one stage in the 1970s, there was just one through train to London from Worcester each day, which meant the line lived up to its nickname of “Old, Worse and Worse”. From that low point, the route and the services on it have all seen slow—quite slow—but steady improvement. Now, thanks to the sterling efforts of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group and the North Cotswold Line Taskforce, it is going from strength to strength.

The real catalyst for the revival of the route was the Government’s investment in 2012, which reinstated sections of double-track railway that had previously been cut back—my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds was vociferous in campaigning for that to happen. The increase in capacity was made to improve performance on the route. However, it also enabled Great Western Railway to gradually introduce progressive enhancement of train services.

Fast forward to 2019 and we have seen more investment from the Government in the North Cotswold route and across the whole Great Western Railway network. We are investing over £5 billion to deliver better services and new trains, with thousands more seats, improving over 100 million rail journeys each year and stimulating—as all my hon. Friends have alluded to—economic growth from London through the Thames valley to the Cotswolds, as well as to the west country and south Wales. Our investment has provided 4,900 extra seats into London in the peak hour, which is a 40% increase in capacity.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way on that point. Can he update us on the wider plans across the Great Western Railway region for reusing old infrastructure that was, sadly, taken out of operation in the Beeching era, because it seems that a number of lines will be affected? My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) highlighted the Cowley branch line. I believe there are a number of other branch lines, and other sections of track, that are currently single track that might be worth reopening, and we should consider them.

I am sorry—I did not answer the point the hon. Gentleman made about Beeching in his speech. We have a £500 million fund. We are now setting out the rules for it. Obviously, Members would expect us to want to get the best value for money out of the schemes that are being brought forward thick and fast to reopen lines or to strengthen lines, so that instead of a line just having freight services it could also have passenger services, which would require the provision of carriages and so on.

Actually, there is way more demand for investment than the initial £500 million that we, as a political party, put in our manifesto and thought would be required. We will be able to pick some amazingly excellent and viable schemes, which are deliverable in short order, to reopen Beeching lines, and obviously there will be a geographical spread across the whole country. I very much hope to announce more details on that in the near future, but I hope that, for now, that answer will suffice for the hon. Gentleman.

The modernisation of the Great Western Railway enabled last month’s introduction of a new timetable, which most hon. Members here today would have noticed. It was a big timetable change for the Great Western Railway. I was not the Rail Minister in May 2018, but I was a Whip at the time, and we had debate after debate about the May 2018 timetable changes. There were so many words used to describe them in the Chamber, but they all meant that the changes had been pretty much disastrous in some parts of the country, where things absolutely did not work.

As the new Rail Minister, therefore, having such a big timetable change was a bit of a worry. However, it is fair to say that it has gone particularly well and delivered significant benefits to all rail users, reducing typical journey times between Hereford and London by 10 minutes, and the fastest journey times by seven minutes. The new trains have transformed the travelling experience for North Cotswold line users. A number of stations have benefited from extended platforms to make the best use of the longer trains.

The train operator has also invested in the route. New waiting shelters were opened last year at Moreton-in-Marsh and Kingham, and a combined ticket office and waiting area was opened at Hanborough. Car parking has also been expanded at several stations, reflecting the increasing popularity of the train service. On top of that we are trying to do things to encourage people to cycle to stations. The next key milestone will be the opening of the new station at Worcestershire Parkway. As Rail Minister, I am rather more excited about that than I should be, given the slight delay in proceedings. I am pleased that work is well advanced.

I reiterate my invitation to my hon. Friend to come and do us the honour of opening that station. It is an exciting moment for the county. I believe it will be the first new station we have had in the county for a century.

I would absolutely love to have that honour. I hope my hon. Friend has the capacity to invite me and that I am not going to turn up and be shoved off a platform because someone else is meant to be opening the station. If I am available, I would love to come. The issue has been a point of interest for me in the Department in the past few months as we have got to this point, but I am pleased that work is now well advanced.

The Government are committed to finding new and innovative ways to attract different forms of investment into the railways. Worcestershire Parkway will be a good example of how such investment can add value to our railway network.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for his positive words. I underline the connection between this line and another major project, which is the change to Oxford station. He will know that is a challenging project and that some of the discussion has been around where the buses will go in Oxford and whether it is necessary to have a multi-storey car park. I do not think that is necessary; I think we should privilege the buses. Having that link to Hanborough could help, if we used that as an additional parkway on top of the new Oxford Parkway station, which has been very successful. Will he bear that in mind when he talks about these issues?

The hon. Lady makes a good point for her constituents. What she has just described is a point of controversy in the city. Hanborough serves as a vital link not only to Oxford, but to Witney and other towns and villages across the piece. Her point is well made.

Worcestershire Parkway will enable thousands of new journeys on the two key rail corridors that it serves: Birmingham to Cardiff, and the line we are talking about today. I very much look forward to coming down and seeing it open, in operation and serving passengers who are seeing the benefits it delivers.

It is fair to say that the North Cotswold line has already been transformed from what it was a little over a decade ago. Members of Parliament and other supporters along the route can take great pride in their actions and what they have achieved, but time does not stand still and the world moves on, especially in the Cotswolds. We must look forward and effectively plan for the next investment and the next generation and for how they can grab the great opportunities that the Government will be providing and enabling. I therefore welcome and commend the work of the North Cotswold Line Taskforce in taking the lead on how to bring about further enhancements. Where others may have sat back and reflected on their success, the taskforce has galvanised stakeholders to push for more—in this case, £1.5 million more as a starter. I recognise that it wishes to see faster and more frequent services. I very much hope we can work together to move things forwards.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire and all Members here today that the Department will analyse in great detail the proposals set out in the taskforce’s strategic outline business case. We only received it 10 days ago, and it would be remiss of me to promise money without going through due process within my Department, but I guarantee we will go through that process as quickly as we can. The request for funding to develop the case further will be properly analysed and considered. There is a lot of information to digest in what we have been given, but I pledge that Department officials will set the way forward with the taskforce by the end of next month, so that we can move forward at a pace that allows us to do the work properly.

To conclude, I thank all Members for their contributions to an important debate. This is a fantastic success story, and I hope it continues to be so in the future.

I welcome the words from colleagues and from the Minister this afternoon. We have heard that there is support from all parts of the House for the continued growth of and investment in the North Cotswolds line. There was recognition of the importance of the geographic area and its significance to our country. There was a welcome commitment from the Minister, which I will hold him to, to give us an answer by the end of February. I encourage his officials to go through the recommendations, in particular option 5, as quickly as possible. I note that the end of February is still before this year’s Budget.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered North Cotswold line transformation.