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Railways: Intercity Express and Electrification

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2011


My Lords, with permission I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

“I wish to make a Statement on the Government’s plans for the extension of the electrification of the Great Western main line and for the procurement of a replacement for the existing diesel intercity trains. These two issues are closely connected.

I turn first to the provision of a new generation of intercity 125 mile per hour trains to take advantage of the electrification of the Great Western main line and to allow for the phasing out of most of the ageing diesel InterCity 125s.

In February 2009, the intercity express programme, launched by the previous Government, identified Agility Trains, a consortium of Hitachi Rail (Europe) Ltd and John Laing plc, as the preferred bidder to provide a new fleet of intercity trains. Subsequently, the previous Government placed this process on hold and ordered a review of the procurement by Sir Andrew Foster. Last summer, recognising the fiscal challenges that the UK faces and the challenges that the new Government’s plans for high-speed rail to Leeds and Manchester introduce, Agility put forward an improved, lower-cost proposal, which provides the required service through a mixed IEP fleet—some all-electric trains and some with a combination of electric and diesel power, allowing them to operate through services beyond the electrified railway. This proposal retained the more modern electric InterCity 225s on the east coast main line, as the previous Administration had proposed.

We have reviewed this proposal against the alternative of an all-electric fleet with purpose-built diesel locomotives being coupled to trains to haul them beyond the electrified railway. Either way, this would represent a multibillion pound investment for this country, underpinning the operation of intercity services on the conventional railway for many years to come, and it is imperative that the right choice is made.

As I said at the time of my Statement to the House on 25 November, there were complex legal, technical and commercial issues to be addressed. Both the Government and Agility Trains as preferred bidder recognised this. Over the past few months we have worked together on these issues and I can now announce that I am resuming the IEP procurement and proceeding with the proposal that Agility Trains put forward as preferred bidder. We will now work with Agility Trains with a view to reaching financial close by the end of the year. This is, of course, subject to the Government continuing to be satisfied that the proposal offers value for money as the commercial negotiations are concluded and that the final arrangements are compliant with the United Kingdom’s EU obligations.

This deal will allow us to provide better, faster, more comfortable services and to continue providing through journeys between London and parts of the rail network that are not electrified. In total, there will be over 11,000 more peak-time seats each day on the Great Western main line and east coast main line on the IEP trains, compared to today.

Hitachi is today confirming its plans to locate its European train manufacturing and assembly centre at Newton Aycliffe in County Durham. This investment is expected to create at least 500 direct permanent jobs, as well as hundreds of temporary construction jobs. Thousands more job opportunities will be created in the UK manufacturing and service supply chains. Coming just days after the news of the reopening of the Redcar steelworks, this is a massive and very welcome shot in the arm for the skilled workforces of the north-east’s industrial heartland.

I turn now to the related issue of electrification of the Great Western main line. I announced to the House on 25 November that, over the next six years, Network Rail will electrify the commuter services on the Great Western main line from London to Didcot, Oxford and Newbury. I recognise that this announcement, although welcomed in the Thames valley, left unanswered the clear aspirations of rail users further west for the extension of electrification to Bristol and into Wales. I and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales have subsequently considered the options for extending electrification alongside the Government’s consideration of the proposals for replacement of the current diesel intercity trains, and in close consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government.

We have concluded that there is a case for extending electrification westwards to Bristol and Cardiff and I am today asking Network Rail to add this major extension to its electrification programme immediately. This is good news for Wales and the south-west against a backdrop of public spending constraint, as we deal with the legacy of debt that we have inherited. Bringing electrification to Cardiff will mean that we are linking, for the first time, the capital cities of England, Scotland and Wales by electrified rail. These measures will deliver a London to Cardiff journey time of one hour and 42 minutes and will shave 22 minutes off the London to Bristol journey.

I have received representations calling for electrification of the Great Western main line to be extended as far west as Swansea. We have looked carefully at the arguments. The business case for electrification is heavily dependent on the frequency of service. Services between London and Swansea currently operate at a frequency of only one train an hour off-peak. There is no evidence of a pattern of demand that would be likely to lead imminently to an increase in this frequency. Consequently, I regret to say that there is not, at present, a viable business case for electrification of the main line between Cardiff and Swansea.

Because of the decision to proceed with Agility’s proposal for a bi-mode train, journey times from London to Swansea will be shortened to two hours and 39 minutes—20 minutes faster than today—with trains switching automatically to diesel power as they leave Cardiff. Because the constraining factor on the south Wales main line is speed limitations dictated by the geometry of the line, there would be no time-saving benefits from electrifying the line from Cardiff to Swansea. However, the policy of the Government is to support a progressive electrification of the rail network in England and Wales, for environmental among other reasons. My right honourable friend and I will therefore keep under active review the business case for future electrification of the Great Western main line between Cardiff and Swansea in the light of future service patterns.

I have a further announcement to make to the House. In the course of the examination of the case for electrification in south Wales that my right honourable friend and I have undertaken, we have established, at an initial high level, that a good case appears to exist for electrifying the key valley commuter lines north of Cardiff via Pontypridd and Caerphilly to Treherbert, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil, Coryton and Rhymney, as well as the lines to Penarth and Barry Island to the west. My department will therefore work with the Welsh Assembly Government to develop a full business case for the electrification of the Cardiff valley lines within the next rail investment control period, beginning in 2014. The Welsh Assembly Government will need, in parallel, to consider the case for specifying suitable electric trains for these routes when the Wales and Borders franchise is relet in 2018. This would, of course, be a prerequisite for electrification to proceed, and the timetable for franchise reletting and respecification necessarily dictates the timescale of this proposed electrification.

On the basis of our preliminary evaluation, the valleys electrification represents the best value-for-money rail electrification investment that can be made in Wales. It promises to bring all the benefits of electric commuter trains—faster acceleration, greater comfort and cleaner, greener travel—to rail users in south Wales. It would have a significant effect on the economy of Cardiff and the valleys, deepening labour markets, improving connectivity and significantly enhancing the attractiveness of the area to investors. Coupled with the electrification of the Great Western main line, this represents a major boost to the economy of south Wales as a whole.

These three decisions—on intercity express, Great Western main line electrification and electrification of the valley commuter lines—represent a major further investment in UK rail infrastructure, following the announcements that I have already made on Crossrail, Thameslink, Tube upgrades, Thames valley and north-western electrification and additional rolling stock. They sit alongside the Government’s proposals for high-speed rail, the consultation on which I announced to the House in a Written Statement yesterday, as testimony to this Government’s commitment to investment in the future of Britain’s railways. They represent excellent news for passengers on the Great Western main line and the east coast main line, for commuters on the Cardiff valley lines and for the economies of south Wales and north-east England as a whole”.

I commend this Statement to the House.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made earlier this day in another place, particularly as I understand that he is a late stand-in for the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, who is indisposed. We wish the noble Earl a full recovery to health as quickly as possible. I commiserate with him. In the past I have been somewhat critical of transport Statements presented by the noble Earl from the Dispatch Box, but today the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has drawn the long straw, because this is a Statement on which we can offer some commendation and approval. In fact, there is much in this Statement that the Opposition welcome.

We welcome, of course, the news about the intercity express programme. I hope that the noble Lord will recognise the perspicacity of the previous Administration, who last year asked Sir Andrew Foster to carry out a review of the situation. This was important, because the original bid contained unsatisfactory features. We are glad that the Government have been able to take advantage of the review and the additional time to agree a deal with Agility Trains that is a substantial advance on what otherwise would have been the case. It also means that they will be producing not just all-electric trains but a combination of diesel and electric power. As the noble Lord indicates, with the rejection of the case for electrification through to Swansea, this dual capacity is of great importance.

We also welcome the fact that Agility Trains and Hitachi have planned to locate their European train capacity in the north-east, at Newton Aycliffe in County Durham. We all know the present difficulties of many parts of our economy; all our regions are due to have very difficult times but particularly the north-east, so this will be a welcome development in terms of the number of manufacturing jobs created in County Durham.

We are somewhat concerned about the Government’s argument with regard to Swansea. After all, south Wales shares with the north-east difficulties with regard to its economy and a degree of remoteness from the centres of financial power in the United Kingdom. It may be regarded as a relatively short distance between Cardiff and Swansea, but the noble Lord must recognise that they are two different economies. This will inevitably be looked on in Wales as a gain for Cardiff—I will come on to the valleys in a moment—but as a rebuttal of the needs of Swansea, where links with London are of very great significance. I hear what the noble Lord says about the business case not having been made, but this is calculated using present traffic flow numbers. If the Government invest in infrastructure, the improvements will generate a degree of economic activity that will increase traffic flow and the numbers of passengers. We are sorry about that dimension of the Government’s decision.

We very much appreciate that the opportunity was taken to look at the valleys economy. There is no doubt at all that it is important to improve communications between the valleys and Cardiff—and, to that extent, Newport, too—and then the links to London. The House knows only too well the struggles that the valley towns have had in trying to replace industry, as the original, vast coal-mining activity is now long since gone. The extent to which effective communication between the valleys and Cardiff is absolutely essential has only more recently been appreciated, with regard to employment in the valleys. Effective communication gives the opportunity for people who live in the valleys to get to Cardiff and to that part of southern Wales where rather more jobs are available.

We welcome this Statement. It is a reflection of essential investment. It also reflects something of which we must all take due stock. We will all have our differences about economic strategies and policies and there is, of course, a fairly obvious division between the perspective of my party and that of the coalition on how to handle the present crisis. However, we must renew our commitment to long-term investment in infrastructure, which must survive changes in government if we are to build the crucial infrastructure that the nation requires. That is why I have not the slightest doubt today about the importance of this Statement and the fact that the House should take pleasure in it.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, for his comments regarding my noble friend Lord Attlee, who I certainly hope will soon be fit and well. It is of course a joy to be presenting a good-news story, which is exactly how the noble Lord, Lord Davies, has seen it, too. I thank him for that and for having the grace to understand that good-news stories can emanate from this Dispatch Box.

The noble Lord raised an interesting point about Swansea. I understand the disappointment, but the two things are linked, in that getting the intercity express train, which is electro-diesel, means that no one has to get out at Cardiff to get on to a connecting train, nor do they have to wait the 10 minutes or so for a diesel engine to be put on to the front. The train goes straight forward. Because of the nature of the track between Cardiff and Swansea, that journey time will be the same whether it is electrified or not. To that extent, there is no sense in these proposals that Swansea is being done down. Indeed, as I said in repeating the Statement, although the case is not at present viable, the Government propose to go on with further electrification and it may well be that an extension comes at some future time. I am grateful that the noble Lord referred to the valleys. This is, of course, a new scheme, which has not been raised previously. It will do a great deal for the area around Cardiff.

I particularly want to comment on the noble Lord’s concern about the long-term infrastructure. It is quite interesting that this is an interlude from talking about the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, on which I make no comment whatsoever. Yet however long the term is, of the terms that have been mentioned, those terms are often longer than it takes to get a major infrastructure project going. It will be towards the end of this Parliament that we see some wires and trains in some of the electrification proposals being put forward. It will certainly be into our next Parliament when we see more of that.

My Lords, will my noble friend convey to the Secretary of State in another place our warmest congratulations for a surprisingly upbeat Statement? It is probably one of the best that I have ever heard, but will he take back two or three small points? First, if we are to have electrification to south Wales, before anybody starts any engineering work we must have the line between Swindon and Kemble doubled so that we maintain a reliable connection between London and south Wales and vice versa.

Secondly, the procurement process for Agility Trains has been extraordinarily long-winded and expensive. It has employed a lot of consultants. Will my noble friend try to convey to the Secretary of State the need, in the new franchises, to simplify the acquisition of new rolling stock? That is something which the Department for Transport is singularly ill-equipped to do. I believe that we need to bring the train operators much closer to the process.

Lastly, would my noble friend remind the Secretary of State that there is no reason why some of the journey times between south Wales and London should not be shortened by, I believe, up to 15 minutes? That could be done by using the current equipment but taking out the intermediate stops which have been placed on those services at places such as Swindon, Didcot and Reading—again, I believe, at the behest of his own department.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments. I immediately looked at my railway map and thought, “What does this mean in terms of the construction period?”, particularly for the tunnel to south Wales and the electrification thereof. Clearly, there is the problem of that single line between Swindon and Kemble. I am told that much of the work is likely to take place at night. However, there is work going on at the moment, with Network Rail looking at its next programme of work from 2014-19. There is still a possibility that, if it is really believed that it would enhance the diversionary route for that period when work is taking place, it could be considered or, indeed, brought forward.

Secondly, on procurement, the likelihood is that there will be longer franchises in future, which may well mean that my noble friend Lord Bradshaw has his wishes in that regard. One feature of this procurement is the knock-on effect of various proposals and the fact that Agility Trains may well mean agility, in terms of trains moving from place to place. For example, if ultimately there were to be electrification to Swansea after this programme, you could then have all-electric trains while the electro-diesels could go somewhere else where they can go under the wires and not be where the line is electric. There is a sense in which this proposal is about more than one train company and one piece of work.

Concerning the third item, the journey times on the Great Western main line, we all know that the Thames valley has, over the years, become something of a honey-pot. Places such as Swindon and Reading have grown and grown, so commercial reasons have meant that more trains have stopped at those places rather than being express trains. With electrification, the likelihood is that there will be more trains—there are plans to have them—and fast trains. I cannot guarantee that there will be any enhancement in services prior to electrification but I will pass back to the department the comments that my noble friend has made.

I congratulate the noble Lord on this Statement, which is very positive, as my noble friend has said. It has resolved many of the uncertainties surrounding the whole of the Great Western network in terms of electrification, new trains and everything else.

I just draw his attention to one issue that needs a little more resolution: the section between Reading and London and the relationship with Crossrail. As noble Lords will know, Reading station is being subject to a major upgrade, which is very welcome too. At the moment, however, the Crossrail services are due to stop at Maidenhead, where I believe construction work has started on a big maintenance facility. Most people think that it would be much better if Crossrail trains went on to Reading, which is a major interchange; I do not think anyone would suggest that Maidenhead was the centre of the universe when it comes to changing trains. That would also avoid having a separate shuttle train, which I think is still planned to be a diesel, between Reading and Slough, stopping at Maidenhead. Reading station is being extended to take Crossrail trains, but there has been no decision on where they will go.

I have one final suggestion that my noble friend could pass on to the Secretary of State. It is very welcome that there will be 11,000 more peak-time seats with these new trains, but there is still an enormous demand for fast services between Reading and Paddington. It may be that there should be some faster services as well as the stopping Crossrail services to take up some of the slack, so that the seats are not empty all the way from Reading to Swansea.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for his comments and hear what he says about Reading and the extension of Crossrail beyond Maidenhead. Of course, until there was certainty of the electrification, I do not think that that could have been planned; clearly, it can now be planned. I am not sighted of any specific plans of today as to trains terminating at Maidenhead or going forward to Reading, but I believe that that is likely to be the case. Indeed, they may even go further, to Oxford. It is likely that that will be embraced, and this electrification means that that is possible.

I would like to take the Minister on a little trip. If he went to Westminster station and got on the Circle line, he would end up somewhere near Liverpool Street station. Liverpool Street station and Norwich are 111 miles apart and the line is electric, but the trains that we have there are—I was told yesterday—well over 40 years old. The rails and the catenas are frankly not of the quality that one would need for a fast train. The signalling is still very bad. It is appalling, in fact. The staff on the trains and the station have been trained to be nice and to keep you informed the whole time, which is wonderful; I think they deserve something for that. Every time the train stops in the wrong place, someone tells you why you have stopped there—or at least he tries to find out. Also, on this line is the rather important train for the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, which runs from Felixstowe to the Midlands, but you cannot go from Felixstowe to the Midlands yet. You can get under the bridge—through the tunnel—at Ipswich, but you have to come all the way down to London to go all the way back again. You have to do another 20 kilometres. Minister, this is a very important bit: it would relieve the main line to Norwich.

I am coming to the question now. If you go to Norwich, you can go to Liverpool Lime Street or London Liverpool Street, but you have to get on the right train—they are not in the same place.

When are we going to have some new trains? That is the question.

My Lords, it is good to have the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, and for him to extol the virtue of rail travel to Norwich. I am afraid, however, that I cannot say much about that. I leave that to someone else on another occasion. What the announcement means is that the new train will be electro-diesel. At some point you may even be able to go from London to Norwich and then a diesel will take you on to Great Yarmouth. That could well be possible because of this new way forward. He can at least have the comfort that there are these possibilities of enhancement. I have nothing to say at the moment, I regret to say, on further electrification beyond that which has been announced—or indeed on any other enhancements other than those in the Statement. However, the noble Lord knows about campaigning and knows how to make the case, and I am sure that he will continue—just as he has this evening—to do that.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware how warmly welcomed this announcement will be in the north-east of England, which is the home of the railways, of Stephenson and of the Stockton and Darlington Railway? This is a fantastic announcement for the north-east, which comes on the back of that great announcement of the planned reopening of the Teesside Cast Products at Redcar and the thousands of jobs that that will mean, which itself came on the back of announcements about the Tyne and Wear Metro upgrade of half a billion pounds. This is a huge amount of good news and demonstrates this Government’s commitment to that region. Would he care to contrast that announcement with the time a year ago when the Labour Cabinet arrived in Durham to mothball the TCP plant at Redcar and to postpone the announcement on Agility Trains? Would he care to contrast those two approaches to manufacturing in the north-east of England?

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments my noble friend Lord Bates. Clearly, as a north-easterner, he is very concerned and happy that there is to be investment there. He is quite right to point out the change that has taken place. This positive piece of work will go on there. Not only will north-east England benefit from new employment opportunities, there will be the possibility of even greater employment opportunities because of the railway factory and other places that will enhance and put further work there. He is right that this is a real piece of work about which the coalition Government can be really be proud. As I say, this is a real good news story.

My Lords, it is not often that I welcome a decision of this Government, let alone feel inclined to congratulate the Government on anything. The only other major infrastructural decision they have taken over the past nine months—the decision to veto the third runway for Heathrow—was absolutely deplorable. However, today I really congratulate them. Those three projects are going to be enormously important for the economy of the country and clearly the most important one of all is the high-speed rail link. Will the Government do everything possible to accelerate these projects now this decision has been taken? We in this country generally take far too long to implement infrastructural projects. The longer such projects take to be built and to be commissioned, the more you postpone both the internal return and the external return and the more you damage the economics of the initial decision. Will the Government take a close look at the lead time for such projects in France, Germany and Spain between a decision being taken and the first high-speed train running, and will he try to make sure that they treat that as a target, which this country should seek to beat?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for his contribution. I hear exactly what he says about lead time, and I will take back to the department his comments on that. Let us hope that these things can be speeded up.

My Lords, future travellers to Swansea will have to travel in the bimode train for about 35 miles. By comparison, London-to-Inverness travellers will need a bimode electro-diesel for 180 miles and those who travel on the hard road up to Aberdeen will need that for 150 miles. With regards to the split between pure electric and electro-diesel, can my noble friend please tell us whether there will be enough electro-diesels in the programme to cover such routes? Also, will the electro-diesels have enough power to handle the Drumochter and Slochd summits?

My Lords, I am not able to give details of the power that the trains will have to tackle the road to Inverness, but they are going to be brand new and had better be right for purpose. My noble friend makes a good point. Although I suppose he would love the electric wires to go to Aberdeen and Inverness, I do not think that that is on the list at the moment. However, the beauty of the bimodal system is that diesel trains will not go from London to Inverness under the wire; they will be electric to Edinburgh and will then turn to diesel on the way to Aberdeen. Therefore, the people in Aberdeen and Inverness, and those at points between Edinburgh and those places, will benefit from the electric railway between London and Edinburgh.

My Lords, a popular pub question is: what do Albania and Wales have in common? The answer is that they are two nations in Europe without a single mile of electrified railway. I warmly welcome the Statement that the Minister has made today because that is now going to be put right so far as concerns Wales, and I am delighted that the decision has been taken, after initial hesitancy some months ago, to extend the wires through the Severn tunnel into Cardiff. I think that the Minister or his colleagues will have to deal with the Welsh Assembly Government’s disappointment. They have certainly been campaigning very hard for the electrification to continue to Swansea. However, the news of the valley electrification is particularly welcome. The diesel multiple units that currently serve those lines are already life-expired, and the opportunity for new journeys and new trains is very welcome.

Perhaps I may be allowed one further comment. Today’s Statement is a very welcome, and clearly bipartisan, extension of the policy concerning the railway begun by my noble friend Lord Adonis. It was he who got the debate on High Speed 2 up and running and it was he who made the announcement on electrification. I certainly commend the Government for picking up the baton where he laid it down in May. I warmly welcome that and I think that my noble friend deserves some credit for it as well.

Perhaps I may ask a specific question, which the Minister has already been asked by his noble friend Lord Bradshaw, concerning the need to improve the line between Swindon and Gloucester. It is not just a diversionary line; it is an important service which already has an hourly train in each direction. However, when the Severn tunnel is closed, as it will be for part of the electrification works, it is going to be crucial that that line is double-tracked again. It was a very short-sighted decision to take the double track out.

I have one other specific question. Is it intended that the bimodal train which operates on the Great Western main line will be electric as far as Oxford and then diesel-powered on the Cotswold line to Worcester and Hereford? I should declare an interest as president of the Cotswold line promotion group and as an unpaid member of the First Great Western advisory board.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, and pay tribute to his service, and indeed that of his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in the latter part of the previous Government at the Department for Transport. There may be disappointment in Wales about the line from Cardiff to Swansea but there will of course be rejoicing about the valleys. The Government have looked at this matter in great detail and have concluded that, in terms of value for money and the return, it is a better bet to look at the valleys than at Cardiff to Swansea, particularly when there is now a prospect of a bimodal system for Cardiff to Swansea.

I note the noble Lord’s comments about the Gloucester line. Indeed, in the couple of hours that I had to look at this issue and discuss it with the department, I said, “Just a minute. Not only is there the prospect of this line being needed because of the tunnel being closed and construction work and so on, but, as I understand it, this is being looked at in its own right anyway”. Therefore, there could well be double the case for improving this line. I hope, and believe, that it will be considered very seriously.

I am not sighted on any proposals for bimodal trains to go beyond Oxford, although of course that is a possibility. Bimodal means that the wire can be used to Oxford and you can then go beyond that with the diesel system.