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Great Western Main Line

Volume 743: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2024

It is a great pleasure to start the new year by talking about something that this Parliament helped to create and establish all those years ago. We approved the legislation that enabled private railways such as Brunel’s Great Western to exist and to flourish. However, we have not had much debate recently about what has effectively been a creeping nationalisation since the pandemic. Recent rhetoric has not really recognised the success of the private railways that were created, or indeed the success of the privatisation of those railways more recently, which led to a 107% increase in passenger journeys, a 32% increase in passenger services, and a 145% increase in passenger revenue. At the moment, the situation is that the Department for Transport is really in control of the railway operators, including Great Western, and His Majesty’s Treasury takes the risk, with passenger frustration over the last few months increasing during a long period of train driver strikes.

But let me start at the beginning. All of us here share being part of the Great Western geography; we are linked by our constituencies to Paddington station, that railway cathedral graced by statues of the founding genius, Isambard Kingdom Brunel—what a name—Paddington bear, and a soldier in the trenches, symbolic of the 3,312 employees of Great Western who died in two world wars. We surely all recognise the engineering achievements of the Box tunnel, or even Kemble tunnel, the architecture of Bristol Temple Meads, and the social vision of the Great Western Railway’s village in Swindon, which led to the opening of the main line from Paddington to Bristol in 1841, and the fastest trains, such as the Flying Truro, which reached 100 miles an hour 30 years before the Flying Scotsman—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

As I was saying, the network of Great Western Railway today stretches from Pembroke Dock to Falmouth Docks, from Portsmouth to Gatwick and to Hereford. The GWR railway network now runs more than 1,600 services a day, with more than 80 million passenger journeys. That, of course, is significantly down on the pre-covid figure, which was almost 100 million.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing today’s debate. I recently met the GWR managing director Mark Hopwood and his team because many of my Slough constituents were angered and frustrated by the reduction in the number of fast trains going to and from Slough. Given that Slough is a huge business hub, does the hon. Member agree that it is incumbent on the Government and GWR to ensure, for the benefit of the local, regional and national economy, that we have a large number of fast trains so that commuters can go to and fro? If he cannot comment on that Slough-related topic, does he agree that it is about time the Government built the western rail link to Heathrow, having committed to it more than a decade ago and given that it is the No. 1 infrastructure priority for the whole Thames Valley region?

The hon. Member touches on one of the themes of this debate: the importance of Members of Parliament working very closely with their railway operator, the Department for Transport and Network Rail to try to achieve the services that their constituents most value. I will not comment on the business of commuter traffic from Slough to Paddington—it is not my specialist area. On his second point, constituents all over Gloucestershire and Wiltshire would relish the opportunity provided by opening Great Western Railway services to Heathrow. I am sure the Minister will want to touch on that, and I thank the hon. Member for his intervention.

Of course, there have been constant improvements to the network in recent times, although there have also been some real difficulties—as The Sunday Times focused on at Theale over the weekend—and colleagues will no doubt highlight those successes or failures. Since he cannot be with us, I highlight for my neighbour, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), the improved forecourt, interchange cycle hub and 70 additional car park spaces in his constituency that he and Great Western Railway have worked successfully on together. There is also the fourth platform at Bristol Parkway, the delivery of the MetroWest network, the new Portway park-and-ride station, and the new Ashley Down station coming soon. All of those are helpful in the west country. In all this, the Department has played its part, as have successive Ministers, including this one, who is a great supporter and champion of railways, which is important.

Inevitably, I would like to highlight what has been achieved in Gloucester since 2010. Gloucester railway station is an extraordinary animal. It has the longest platform in the country, but it is on a spur off the main line between Birmingham and Bristol, and therefore there has always been a lot to do. Since 2010, we have managed a significant number of improvements, including a covered walkway between platforms 2 and 1, the new waiting rooms, and a new accessible station footbridge with the lifts and eventually the canopy. That also led to a remodelled station booking office, and we have introduced additional car parking on the south side of the station, which was a major business. It is difficult to transfer an asset from the Ministry of Justice to the city council—that took about three years, but we got there eventually.

The new hourly direct services between Gloucester and Paddington also benefit all my colleagues in Gloucester. The new pay-as-you-go smartcard has been helpful in a number of ways not originally anticipated, particularly when the station underpass has been closed to access. Work is going on as we speak to deliver further improvements, particularly on the underpass, which is a sensitive bit of infrastructure that links the hospital to the city centre and which Great Western has gallantly taken on. There will also be a big improvement in the electric vehicle charging stations, the forecourts, bus services and so on.

I want to highlight for the Minister that although the journey time to Paddington has been reduced by 15 minutes since electrification, there is an opportunity to increase the speed of the services simply by renegotiating how long the trains stop at Gloucester. That time is currently 10 minutes, to allow the driver to walk from one end of the train to the other, but even at a slow amble that journey could not possibly take more than a minute and a half.

It is also important to recognise some of GWR’s community contribution and community projects, such as the Getaway project for independent rail travel. Its biggest contribution to community, however, comes from station staff, who are coping, calming and carrying on. When strikes happen, no one shouts at a train driver, because they are not there. It is Steve, Mike, Alan, Naomi and all their colleagues who cop it at Gloucester and all the other stations along the line. They deal with the drunks, the drugs and even the MP who left his bag on the train. I salute them all.

This debate has to touch on problems as well. I will highlight four. The first is the continuing strikes by train drivers, which damage trust and confidence, and put a lot of strain on other Great Western Railway employees. The second is the extraordinary feature that train drivers do not have to work on a Sunday. I cannot think of any other transport system—I was an airline manager once—where the driver or pilot would be allowed to decide whether they rock up on a Sunday. That ruins many weekends for families.

The third problem is the business of Network Rail’s infrastructure, particularly the failures in the Thames valley. It is easy to criticise Network Rail, but there are some real problems and anything the Department can do to improve the infrastructure in the Thames valley will make a huge difference to all of us. The last problem is the taxpayer subsidy. We must let managers manage and civil servants hold them to account. That is the only way in which we will get the railway operators to innovate and to continue to improve with better rolling stock and low-carbon operations that support travellers and help families and growth.

All those things matter. There are opportunities for big projects ahead. The Filton Bank electrification promoted by the western gateway to electrify and speed up journeys between Bristol and Birmingham in particular would be a very good project for the DFT to support. Just before coming into this Chamber, I heard from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) that Great Western Railway has decided to open the line from Swindon to Oxford, which will have a lot of advantages for many travellers.

I see the opportunities and the improvements at Gloucester station that have happened and are happening. I will certainly continue to work closely on all those, because ultimately, railway stations and railway operations are in danger of being an orphan. They are not well managed by county councils. It is up to us here both to hold them to account and to encourage them to innovate. I hope that I and all my colleagues in Gloucestershire and elsewhere will continue to work closely with Great Western Railway to achieve the necessary improvements.

I expect to call the Opposition spokesperson at 5.31 pm, the Minister at 5.36 pm and Richard Graham to wind up at 5.46 pm, and that the debate will end at 5.48 pm.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate. As it states in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I am a member of the GWR stakeholder advisory board. I represent the Thames Valley on that board.

I want to pick up the point that my hon. Friend made about the advantages we saw from privatisation of the railways. In my experience of dealing with companies covering services to my constituency—to Maidenhead, to Twyford, and the branch lines to Wargrave, Furze Platt and Cookham—there have been significant improvements when the companies are private and we have been able to work with them to improve railway services. The companies—predominantly GWR, recently—understand the importance of providing for the needs of customers. That is why I echo my hon. Friend’s comment that it is important that the Government examine the current situation, because there is a strange dichotomy between the cost risk taken by the Department for Transport and the revenue risk taken by the Treasury. The two need to be brought together if decent decisions are going to be made about the services that will be provided to customers.

Sadly, despite my overall experience of working with GWR, I have to say that in the last month, the experience of my constituents has not been good. I want to read out the problems that they have experienced. On 7 and 8 December, there was damage to overhead electrical wires, with delays and cancellations between London Paddington and Reading. On 9 December, industrial action resulted in delays and cancellations. On 10 December, damage to the overhead electric wires between Slough and London Paddington caused delays and cancellations. On 11 December, a points failure in the Slough area resulted in delays and cancellations. On 13 December, defective track between London Paddington and Reading meant trains having to run at reduced speed on some lines. On 14 December, due to a fault with the signalling system between Paddington and Heathrow and between Heathrow terminal 5 and Reading, some lines were blocked. On 15 December, due to a fault with the signalling system between London Paddington and Reading, all lines were blocked. The lines were closed on 24, 25, 26 and 27 December because of work at Old Oak Common. On 28 December, emergency services were dealing with an incident between London Paddington and Reading, and all lines were blocked.

On 2 January, an object was caught on the overhead electric wires. On 4 January, travel was disrupted when the police took control of the line and closed it because of an incident. On 5 January, there were disruptions from flooding. On 7 January, damage to the overhead electric wires between Paddington and Reading meant that some lines were blocked. On 8 January, urgent repairs to the track between Reading and London Paddington meant trains having to run at reduced speed. On 9 January—today—there was a speed restriction between Reading and London Paddington. Frankly, from the point of view of my constituents, this is not good enough.

What hon. Members and the Minister will have seen from this is that the vast majority of those incidents were about Network Rail and its response to problems with overhead wires and on the track. Just before Christmas, I held a meeting with GWR and Network Rail. Everybody understands the issues, but the question—and what I will look for from the Minister—is whether we can ensure that we will get sufficient support from Network Rail to resolve these problems such that my constituents can continue to have the service they expect and deserve.

The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) mentioned the economic importance of Slough. Maidenhead is also an economically important place and is important to GWR in terms of the footfall from Maidenhead. My constituents need to know that they can rely on the train service. Sadly, with the way that Network Rail is behaving at the moment and how it has been dealing with the track and overhead lines, we are not seeing the service that they need.

I hope the Minister will be able to give me some confidence and comfort. We want to get people out of their cars and on to the railways. Sadly, if they see disruptions and cancellations, they will go back into their cars. That is not good for the planet—it is not good for any of us—so, Minister, over to you.

I congratulate my near neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this important debate. I have regular contact with the Rail Minister, who is absolutely excellent.

I will just run through some of the projects we have locally. We are trying to reopen the Bristol Road Stonehouse line, which was closed under the Beeching cuts, to make sure that we have access into Bristol. This is a 25-year dream of my constituents. I grasped it, and we managed to get investment from Government to do a proper feasibility study. I am waiting for the Minister and Government to give us information about the next stage for the outline business case. I understood that it was going to come before Christmas, so it will be helpful for my constituents to hear a little more about that. Stonehouse Town Council is working particularly hard on that.

On step-free access at Stroud railway station, there is a lasting image—a picture is better than a thousand words—of me dragging up a toddler, a buggy and trying to balance a baby and all sorts of different things. I have huge sympathy with people who tell me that they are struggling to get around the station, or are disabled, have luggage or are elderly. We are really hoping to be in the Access for All pitch. I am just putting that underneath the Minister’s nose.

On the Cam and Dursley station, I have made a pitch, speaking to GWR and others about the reality. It is a really popular station, and we have a lot of homes being built around the area. We think there needs to be improved shelters for rain and all weathers, and I know that some constituents would like to see the frequency of services increased as we go along.

I do want to echo colleagues’ comments about GWR. They may disagree, because I know I am a total pest about the railway on behalf of my constituents, but I feel I have a good relationship with the organisation, and indeed Network Rail. I have had cause to contact them many times, sometimes just for run-of-the-mill, day-to-day things, but also sometimes on sad occasions, when there have been deaths on the lines. We have had good responses, and they are responsive, so I am pleased about that.

I do want to mention costs. Constituents of Stroud are talking to me about the difference between the cost of travelling from Stroud to London and other lines. At the moment, a single peak one-way fare is £95. That is absolutely prohibitive for people who want to travel to work. I know many more people are working at home, but there should be more choice. For off-peak it goes down to £46, then down to £33 at 10.30 am. A ticket on the Worcester to London line, which is a longer journey, at 7 am—when I had my £95 ticket for—costs £50. I understand that there are historic boundaries drawn up for Network Rail, and I have written to the Minister, who has kindly written back and talked to me about writing to the Rail Delivery Group, but I do think these historic boundaries and the unfairness that is built in for my constituents do need to be looked at.

One gentleman wrote to me:

“I’m really concerned by crippling rail costs; it’s proving more and more difficult for me as a freelancer to be able to commute into London because the costs are just astronomical. If areas such as ours aren’t going to be cut off from the rest of the country, a cheaper rail network is vital. FGW could operate within the rail network allowing people like me to take advantage of a rail network card that would greatly improve the costs for rail fares within the south of England. Currently, this is only reserved as far as Reading”.

It does not stretch to us, so I urge the Minister to have a look at that, and I urge all of the companies to do so, too. If it is prohibitive to get on the trains, we will lose it as a service and it will become the preserve of the rich. That absolutely should not be the case.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on bringing forward this debate. I represent Truro and Falmouth, which is in the heart of Cornwall, so I have the opportunity to experience the rail network myself on a weekly basis, as I often go all the way from Paddington back to my constituency. My constituents and I all have tales of unreliability on GWR’s longer-haul services. My inbox has received several complaints from those who have to commute out of Cornwall for work and from plenty of students who go to and from Penryn back to their families each term. Any additional support we can give to these rail lines would be appreciated.

However, it is important to acknowledge the improvements that have been made to our railways since 2019. I always try to make this point to remind our really talented students at the University of Exeter and Falmouth University that their journeys today are actually an awful lot better than they were about five, 10 or 15 years ago. It just would not have been practical for many of them to come and enjoy being a student in my constituency at all.

Since May 2019, we have had a half-hourly service between Plymouth and Penzance, which has greatly boosted passenger numbers and had a positive impact on the Cornish economy. GWR has also worked to improve reliability with its new rolling stock of inter-city express trains. There is also the Night Riviera Sleeper service, which I have used many times. The sleeper lounge at Truro station in my constituency has encouraged more people to travel to London by train rather than plane. We have seen an exponential rise in passengers since covid. Many people have now moved to Cornwall and can commute to London for a couple of days a week using the Riviera service. I believe it is out of service for refurbishment at the moment, but it is very popular.

I know that my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), will come on to this in greater detail, but I am proud that the Government are working with Cornwall Council, and its delivery partners GWR and Network Rail, to build the Mid Cornwall Metro. It will do exactly what it says on the tin: ensure that people can commute from Newquay via Par and Truro down to Falmouth, so that students do not have to live close to the university; we can all spread out and enjoy both coasts. We will see £50 million of levelling-up funding injected directly into Cornwall’s rail links. Hopefully, we can expect to see that up and running in 2025-26.

Our communities in Truro and Falmouth are incredibly mixed, with a large number of car owners. It is incumbent on the railways to recognise that we are dualling the A30 all the way through my constituency. That means that at the moment, with the service unreliability that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) has just set out, more people will choose to use their cars, which is not the direction of travel that we want. The dualling project will be completed early spring, and we want to ensure that the railways remain competitive. Getting the Mid Cornwall Metro over the line will transform connectivity for the groups—students, tourists and communities alike—who are most reliant on public transport, and hopefully alleviate pressure on parking in our town centres, particularly during the summer months.

I will not go on for too long, but changing our infrastructure for the better and levelling up our communities in the south-west is always going to take time. However, if we do not do it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) said, we will get cut off. The sheer amount of investment from the Government, Cornwall Council and Network Rail into the railway lines in the south-west has given us a real leg-up in the last few years. It is our job now to continue to work with those partners to keep the current projects on track, and to promote other value-for-money schemes that can help our towns and villages get that little bit closer. We are very precarious, and if we do not keep investing, it is easy for Cornwall to fall off the map.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on bringing the debate to this Chamber. I will concentrate on green transport because I am the climate change spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats. Talking about transport and climate change together is what I always do. To meet our net zero targets, we must make it easier to travel by train. Rail should be a lifeline for our communities that connects every part of the country through green public transport.

Before I discuss issues with our rail lines, I will mention that in November, I joined members of the Bath community and representatives from the armed forces and emergency services at Bath Spa station to hand over poppy wreaths, which were transported by train to the war memorial at Paddington station. The “poppy trains” began during covid lockdowns when local memorial ceremonies were not always possible. The initiative has been so well supported that GWR has now made it an annual tradition. It allows those who cannot make a long journey to London to be part of the commemoration, and it shows the benefits that the railway can bring to communities well beyond our regular services. I commend GWR for that wonderful event, and I echo that it is important for all of us as MPs to work well and have good working relationships with GWR. I am looking forward to doing so in the future.

However, public confidence in the railways and our net zero targets are linked. Transport is the larger emitting sector in the UK. Rail produces over 70% fewer carbon dioxide omissions than the equivalent road journeys, yet the current state of our railways is having the opposite effect because people have been dissatisfied with the service for a very long time.

I regularly use the train from Bath to London on Sundays, and there is not a single journey where there is not an issue. It affects anybody who uses the railway to get to work. The number of delay repay claims for GWR train journeys more than doubled between November 2022 and November 2023, and passenger rail performance is on the decline. Over 40% of trains were not on time between January and June last year. I hear constantly from rightfully angry constituents whose trains are late or cancelled, and the constant disruption impacts on people’s daily lives. Why should people feel confident about using the railway if every journey is a gamble? As we have already heard today, if people cannot rely on the railway, they will go and use other forms of transport, particularly their cars.

This debate comes as the Government oversees the largest increase in rail fares for a generation. The UK already has some of the highest rail fares in Europe, and fares are still set to rise by nearly 5% in March. The public are paying more for less on our rail network, and commuters are particularly affected. The short journey between Bath and Bristol was previously the most expensive rail journey per mile in the world, and Ministers cannot continue to turn a blind eye to these issues. I recognise that a lot of what we are talking about this afternoon is not just GWR’s problem, but a Government problem, and we have the Minister here to answer some of our concerns.

Ticketing is also complicated. Last year, GWR charged £46 for a peak return from Bath to London on 17 November. For the same journey on 30 November, the cost shot up to £94—more than double. We need a fares and ticketing system that makes taking the train simpler and more affordable, and I hope that we can get some answers from the Minister this afternoon. We in Bath are lucky to welcome so many foreign visitors, but it can be particularly confusing for tourists to use unfamiliar apps or ticket machines, and it needs to be a lot easier for them.

We also need to make our trains greener, and electrifying our railways is an essential step. I know that this is not GWR’s problem; it is basically about having a commitment from the Government, and I would like to hear more on that. However, the overall pace of electrification is lagging. Bath has a big air pollution problem. The electrification of the line through Bath has been on hold for years, and dirty diesel trains are still going through the city. Air pollution kills. Not getting on with electrification is a complete dereliction of duty not just to our net zero plans, but to public health.

The Treasury blocked a £30 billion plan to electrify Britain’s railways over the next 30 years. I have an ally in GWR who wants to see that happen. The Government said that Great British Railways would produce a 30-year plan to electrify the railways. However, that organisation is not expected to be fully up and running until later in the year at the earliest. I would like to know about the plans to finally establish Great British Railways, which has had cross-party support. Why the delay?

Strong public transport will take us to net zero and connect our country. Passengers deserve to feel confident in their railways, and people need access to clean, green and affordable trains. Only then will we build the sustainable, modern and affordable railway that we are all looking forward to.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Great Western main line to Cornwall. It is one of our absolutely critical transport links to the rest of the country, and I regularly travel to and fro London on it. Overall, the service is very good, although I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) about some of the problems over the last month or so. Many constituents have been in touch with me about that, and I have experienced the unreliability myself. However, we have seen significant investment in the railway in Cornwall in recent years, particularly the upgrade to a modern signalling system, which has enabled us to increase capacity on the train line. That has resulted in the new half-hourly trains between Plymouth and Penzance, which have been really welcomed and greatly used. Passenger numbers have grown as a result.

GWR also operates the Night Riviera Sleeper that, again, is really important to the Cornish economy, enabling people to travel overnight for work and for business. I know there have been questions over its future recently, and I put on the record just how important that service is to Cornwall; we really must do everything we can to maintain it.

We have seen some great investment, but there is still more to do. The one thing constituents often raise with me is that they would like to see better and more reliable mobile and wi-fi signals on the train to enable them to work. If we could do more to improve the reliability of the wi-fi signal particularly, that would be very welcome.

In the time I have left, I want to refer to the significant and exciting Mid Cornwall Metro project, which I have been working on since 2018. It will connect the middle part of Cornwall: from Newquay, through Par, St Austell, Truro and down into Falmouth. It will use the capacity on the existing main line, but will also utilise the two branch lines between Newquay and Falmouth to connect four of the biggest towns in Cornwall. Around a third of the Cornish population will be connected, offering direct trains from Newquay right through to Falmouth. About 50% of the economic activity of Cornwall will be able to utilise this line.

It is a really exciting opportunity that will see investment into Newquay itself: a second platform will be built that will open up more investment to improve that part of the town, and that will be really welcome. One of the things most exciting to me is the linking up of many of the smaller villages through what we in Mid Cornwall call the clay country—the china clay villages—with the four biggest towns in Mid Cornwall, and the opportunities that will bring for education, training and work, particularly to young people who do not have a car. I can imagine a young person living in the village of Roche being able to get to Falmouth to go to university, or an apprenticeship at the docks there, or being able to get to Truro for a job. This will open up such opportunity for young people, and that is what excites me about this project.

I know we are close to being able to announce the final funding agreement, and I ask the Minister to do all he can to make sure that the announcement comes forward as quickly as possible, because I know that GWR and Network Rail are desperate to start work. They want to start work next month so that we can deliver this project by 2025. I ask him to do all he can just to get that final push, so we are able to make that announcement. I know he came down to Cornwall last year, but perhaps he would like to come to see work begin on this new project. I genuinely believe it is a really exciting opportunity to improve the rail connectivity through Cornwall, and all the benefits that will bring.

Finally, I want to place on record my thanks to the Minister, the Department for Transport, Network Rail, GWR and Cornwall Council—we have all worked incredibly well together. It has been difficult at times, but the amount of work and collaboration that has gone on to get us to this point has been a real example of working together for the good of Cornwall. Thank you to everyone who has been involved, and I look forward to that positive announcement as soon as possible.

Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this debate, Ms Vaz. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), a constituency neighbour, for securing this debate. I am glad to see that Gloucestershire is extremely well represented in this debate—the premier county well represented.

The Great Western main line serves two directions in my constituency: it serves the north Cotswold line from Oxford to Hereford via Moreton-in-Marsh, and it also serves the south Cotswold line from Kemble, through my constituency and through my neighbour’s constituency, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), eventually to Swindon with some direct trains to Paddington. Rail travel did drop over covid, but it is coming back quite nicely now. I therefore welcome the Government’s investment of £5 billion into the Great Western route, including £2.8 billion to continue improvements on routes, as passengers return to travelling by train in their millions.

The service provided by train lines and train stations is important. I welcomed the news that the Government have scrapped their proposals to close all ticket offices; I received a considerable number of objections from constituents to this proposal. More and more people these days do use websites and apps to plan and book their journeys, but having someone who is able to help on the platforms and at ticket office can often make a huge difference to a journey, especially for elderly constituents and those with additional needs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester alluded to, we are trying to encourage more people to use trains where they can. Many have no choice: only one in four of our under-21s and fewer than two thirds of our under-30s have a driving licence. For those reliant on the Great Western line for work, school, hospital and appointments, the reliability of the service is essential. Since the end of the pandemic, regrettably, train cancellations have been at the highest level since records began 12 years ago. More than 30% of trains were cancelled late last year.

The performance and reliability data from National Rail, the independent website that automatically processes data from the rail network and the Association of Train Operating Companies, shows the following: 90% of trains were on time in 2017, compared with 78.8% last month; 8% were late in 2017, compared with 11.3% last month; and—the worst statistic—just 2% were very late or cancelled in 2017, compared with 9.9% last month. That shows a significant deterioration.

I have to tell the Rail Minister that up until recently I always regarded GWR’s service as being among the best, but in the last month or so it seems to have deteriorated significantly. If one relies on the railway to get to an appointment, it is really quite a difficult thing for it to be late or cancelled. Problems on the Great Western line have included extremely delayed or cancelled trains due to flooding, signalling issues, trains waiting at Reading station, which have caused issues further up the line, and a broken rail crossing. We have heard all that in the debate. That should have been avoided by a proper preventive maintenance programme. They surely ought to be fairly easy issues to fix. A particularly easy issue to fix is that Kemble station has a Rolls-Royce of a waiting room and Rolls-Royce facilities, but they are permanently closed. That causes annoyance to my constituents.

The rail line dualling that I initiated some years ago on both Kemble to Swindon and at Moreton-in-Marsh cut journey times significantly. If we could resurrect proposals to dual more of the railway from Oxford to Hereford, we could cut the journey time considerably.

Finally, I praise the staff, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester did. In particular, the staff at Kemble are delightful. One of Kemble’s delightful services is the wonderful coffee and buns that can be purchased there. I congratulate the lady there, who is incredibly nice, always reliable and always there. That makes rail travel a great deal more pleasant.

Thank you, Ms Vaz, for allowing me to participate in the debate. I hope that the Rail Minister will be able to give GWR a bit of a poke, so that we can get the poor service of the last month greatly improved.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for opening this important debate. As he said, the Great Western main line, engineered by Brunel nearly 200 years ago, continues to play a vital role in linking towns and communities, spurring economic growth and connecting our country.

This has been a good-spirited debate, with speeches and interventions of note on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) never misses an opportunity to speak up for his constituents and rail passengers, and I thank him for his tireless work in trying to improve connectivity between the south-west and Heathrow airport. A number of hon. and right hon. Members have raised a number of issues with regard to the cancellation of services and the delays affecting their constituents, and I thank them for that. It is clear that a key theme of the debate is giving passengers confidence in the reliability of services.

Of course, this is a very timely debate, given the disruption that we have seen on the line of late. It was caused most recently by a broken rail crossing and damaged overhead electric cables between Reading and Paddington. Perhaps more worryingly, there were four incidents of damaged rail found on the Great Western line within just eight days in November. There has been a flurry of incidents that raise concerns about whether enough is being done to ensure that our rail infrastructure is fit not only for the future but for the present.

To add to those concerns, last summer a Network Rail presentation leaked to The Independent revealed that current funding would not let Network Rail operate, maintain and renew its tracks, bridges and earthworks infrastructure. That leaked presentation said that there will be fewer repairs over the next five years and that there could be more obstructions that cause delays and accidents due to an inability to clear them. At a time of record cancellations and delays, as well as rising fares, that is the last thing that passengers deserve to hear.

Across the country in the 12 months up to September 2023, just two in three trains were arriving at their station stops on time. Those poor performance figures are no different from those of the Great Western main line: just 61.7% stops at Great Western railway stations arrived on time. I believe that that lack of reliability is driving people away from the railways at a time when we should be encouraging their use.

I am conscious of time, so I will carry on.

A couple of months ago, I sat in on a focus group made up of young men living near Exeter who were being asked about their use of public transport. It was disappointing but sadly not surprising to hear that they rarely use rail services, as they view them as being too unreliable and too expensive. They said that they were surprised when their train arrived on time, and that longer journeys were impossible to plan because they could not account for the expected length of delays.

As we look to the future, it is vital that the Great Western main line continues to evolve and improve. Key to that is making it fit for the net zero Britain of the future, but sadly successive Conservative Governments since 2010 have failed to deliver on that. According to the Government’s own figures, the 2013 cost estimate for the electrification of the 221 miles of the Great Western main line between Heathrow Junction station and Cardiff was £1.7 billion. The work, which was due to be completed in 2017, was part-finished in 2020 at a cost of £2.8 billion—a whopping £1.1 billion over budget—at a much reduced scope, with the removal of the 45 miles between Cardiff and Swansea, the 30 miles between Chippenham and Bristol Temple Meads via Bath, and the five miles between Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads.

I will carry on, because I am conscious of time.

As we know, coming in over budget and over time, and only partly delivered, has become the norm for rail infrastructure projects under this Government.

We need to ask why Britain has fallen so far behind other European countries when it comes to getting things built. The Government seem to be of the view that the country that created the railways can no longer build them; that other countries can do it, but not us. Labour wholeheartedly rejects that view. We are working with local leaders, mayors, businesses and unions. Labour in government will deliver a credible and transformative programme of rail transport infrastructure by replacing the current Victorian-era infrastructure, and building connectivity and capacity to improve performance, which will reduce congestion and put our railways back on track.

It is clear that there are many issues affecting the Great Western main line. I believe they are emblematic of the issues that are affecting our wider rail network. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will outline what steps he is taking to tackle the chronic delays and cancellations on the line—we have heard about that from many Members this evening—and to confirm whether he agrees with the Network Rail presentation that said that, over the last five years, there were fewer repairs, which led to even more delays for passengers. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks and I would like, once again, to thank the hon. Member for Gloucester for securing this important debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this important debate on the future of the Great Western main line and for his engaging and positive speech this afternoon. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions; if I do not touch on the matters that they asked me about, I will be sure to write to each and every one of them to ensure that they get a full response.

I also applaud my hon. Friend’s positive work campaigning to improve transport infrastructure for his constituents in Gloucester. Like him, this Government are committed to supporting investment in rail. The commitment to the vital role of the railway in connecting communities and supporting the economy is something that we share.

The last decade has seen major transformation across the Wales and western region, culminating in May 2023 in the full roll-out of the Elizabeth line services, a once-in-a-generation investment that now carries one in six rail passengers. However, there is now significant pressure on the Thames valley network and indeed the entire Great Western Railway network, where there are competing demands from commuter traffic, airport passengers, long-distance leisure passengers and freight users.

Performance on the Great Western main line has not been good enough in recent times. Too often, passengers are unable to complete their journey as planned. Hundreds of passengers were caught up in disruption at London Paddington when the overhead lines failed in early December, as many hon. Members mentioned, which forced many members of the public to stay in hotels or make complex alternative travel arrangements.

Last Thursday, flooding and a tragic incident in Pangbourne meant that passengers from London and Reading could not travel further west, once again leaving passengers no option but to stay overnight in Reading. Since then, the railway has seen further disruptions, including an electric line failure on the overheads on Sunday and two track defects yesterday and today, which were mentioned in the debate. Last year, the closure of Nuneham viaduct caused major disruption to passengers in Oxford and the Cotswolds for a prolonged period. This is not good enough. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) asked whether there will be Government support. That will be the case, and that will also be the case with regard to Network Rail.

Between October 2022 and 2023, 67% of delays were attributed to the asset and therefore to Network Rail matters. I am committed to improving performance in the western region. I recently met Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail—we meet regularly—to allow us both to reflect on some of the challenges. He is very straight and open about those challenges—we both are—and I have every confidence in Andrew and his team in their delivery of the required improvements. I am also meeting my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead and other members of the Great Western Railway stakeholder advisory board tomorrow.

Turning to performance, on 29 November, the Office of Rail and Road launched an investigation into poor train punctuality and reliability in the Network Rail Wales and western region, with particular focus on the Thames valley area, which affects all GWR services between London and Reading. Network Rail has committed to work with the Office of Rail and Road to identify causes and take steps to address them. The ORR’s investigation will assess whether Network Rail is complying with its licence obligations in the Wales and western region. There have been several operational and personnel changes on the Network Rail western route in the last year, and I am confident that the new appointments will start to bear fruit. I thought it important to set that out. It demonstrates that we recognise the challenge and that we are going to do something about it.

The Government are investing and re-investing in the network. On my summer rail tour, I visited the south-west of England, and many of the right hon. and hon. Members present today. I had the opportunity to see at first hand the great work delivered as part of the south-west rail resilience programme to complete the £82 million sea wall that protects the coastal Dawlish rail route, which has brought the total investment on that project to £165 million. We have also reallocated funding from HS2 to ensure that the final phases of the programme can be delivered. I also spent time with the managing director of Great Western Railways, his staff and his inspiring apprentices from Oxford, as they joined me on that journey to Devon and Cornwall and all the way back again. As part of the MetroWest programme, the number of services between Bristol and Gloucester doubled to half hourly in May 2023. I thank the West of England Combined Authority, which has worked in partnership with Great Western Railway to make this possible.

Turning to matters in Gloucester, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester was fundamental to initiating the multimillion pound redevelopment of Gloucester station. In addition to the Gloucester local enterprise partnership funding, this Government and GWR provided an additional £1.7 million to take the project forward, and we are committed to working with my hon. Friend to see what can be done to complete the redevelopment. He will be reassured to know that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is also a Gloucestershire representative and therefore has an interest. My hon. Friend made a point about dwell time improvements at Gloucester station. I will investigate and get back to him on that.

In 2023, three new stations were opened on the GWR network, all supported by Government funding. Passengers in Reading, Exeter and Bristol have benefited from the new Reading Green Park, Marsh Barton, and Portway stations. In May 2023, GWR introduced 65 new services each week between London Paddington and Carmarthen, thereby strengthening connectivity between England and Wales.

The Minister will know that in my part of the world, in west Wales, the bone of contention is that electrification stops in Cardiff. With the scrapping of HS2’s northern leg, does that free up capital money to electrify to Swansea, and even beyond to Carmarthen and further west?

The projects have been listed in the Network North programme from the Prime Minister, but there is additional funding going to regions, which can then decide how they wish to spend monies. That actually applies to the Filton project mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester.

Let me turn to Cornwall, because it was put to me: will Cornwall fall off the map? Never will Cornwall fall off the GWR map or the map of this Government. The Government allocated £50 million of levelling-up funding for delivery of the Mid Cornwall Metro project, which my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) has worked hard on. The joint venture between Cornwall council, GWR and Network Rail will boost connectivity and the economy in all parts of Cornwall. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who has tirelessly promoted this project. Whether calling me on my phone or chasing me around Parliament, he never ceases to push this matter, and I am grateful to him for bringing everybody together. I will of course come down and visit him and I hope we will have something positive to announce. I can tell him that the Cornish riviera is also a priority for me.

I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester about the need for a truly seven-day railway, and the damage that strikes on the railway cause. Leisure travel at weekends is a huge growth area, and it is disappointing that ASLEF refuses to engage on this issue of having a seven-day railway. Indeed, with Sunday falling on 24 December and 31 December, I found a submission at the beginning of December requiring more money for the workforce if they were going to work Sundays, because Sunday is not part of the seven-day week. Now, we had to comply with that because tickets had been sold and British Transport police were concerned, but we cannot be barrelled over. We need a seven-day railway, and I am committed to delivering that.

I will visit my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) in Stonehouse. She and the town council have done a great job, and when I visit we will look at the business case, because there has been work inside the Department.

I will be perhaps a little more realistic with the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse). The UK taxpayer has invested £31 billion during and since the pandemic. Previously, money was put in by the train companies from the franchising process to the tune of a profit of £200 million for the UK taxpayer. We have to be realistic about the funding of the railway, and therefore fare increases, when we are asking the taxpayer to pay such a burden. It should also be noted that only half the fare increases that one would usually expect from inflation have been borne by passengers; the rest has fallen on the UK taxpayer. We have that balance.

To my shadow, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), I gently point out that more than 1,200 miles of railway line has been electrified between 2010 and 2023. I do call that investment in the railway, when I consider that during the 13 years when Labour were in government, it was just over 60 miles.

To wrap up, I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester can see the Government’s ambition to improve journeys for passengers and freight users on the Great Western main line. I am grateful for the work that GWR does, and I recognise that the managing director shows an interest. He is here today, which tells us everything. I am grateful for the work done by Network Rail and for the work to come. I will personally be involved in bringing those matters together to give a better performance to the railway. Those running this railway, and that includes me, recognise that performance must improve. We are committed to ensuring that it does.

This has been a very useful debate. We have heard widespread enthusiasm for railways; recognition of the new services, such as those 174 extra Gloucester-Bristol services a week; reassurance that the Minister shares our views on Sunday services; recognition of the partnerships, perhaps particularly in Cornwall, that do happen between Great Western and other parts of the country; and of course, most importantly, a lot of frustration about reliability of services. I think we are all happy to hear the Minister’s comments on performance and his commitment to improvement. We look forward to seeing that improvement in performance and reliability delivered during 2024, so that all our constituents can enjoy the pleasures of travelling by rail on Great Western Railway.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future of the Great Western main line.

Sitting adjourned.