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Railways: South-West Network

Volume 768: debated on Thursday 28 January 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to improve the resilience of the rail network in the south-west.

My Lords, the Government are fully supportive of the initiatives which the rail industry is taking, led by Network Rail, to improve the resilience of the rail network in the south-west. The initiatives include implementation of the weather resilience and climate change adaptation plan for the western route over the period 2014 to 2019. Measures also include improvements to drainage systems, strengthening vulnerable structures, the greater use of specialist forecasting tools and improving flood resilience at key risk sites.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Those are very fine words, but the House will remember the Dawlish scenario two years ago, when a whole sea wall collapsed and access to much of Devon, Cornwall and Plymouth by rail was effectively cut off for several months. As the Minister said, Network Rail responded well but, as he will know, the problem is that the work is not yet finished. I quote David Cameron on one of his many welcome visits to the south-west. He said that cost would not “put him off” delivering what the region needed. George Osborne was there, too, and he said—and I quote—the Government would commit £7 billion of investment into transport. Can the Minister explain why last week the Government cut all funding to Network Rail, even for carrying out studies on the next stage of resilience? After the election, it is all forgotten.

The picture that the noble Lord paints is not factually correct. As he knows, we are putting £38 billion just into the rail sector—the biggest investment since the Victorian age. The fact that my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have visited the sites, including Dawlish, where we have restored what was damaged with an investment of £40 million, underlines the Government’s commitment. The top people in government are visiting those sites and putting money into ensuring that resilience measures are in place.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the opening up of the Okehampton-Tavistock-Plymouth line, with the middle bit replaced, would serve north Devon very well? It is an area that suffers from very poor public transport links, exacerbated by planned further cuts to bus services.

The whole area has been underlined by the Government’s commitment. The noble Baroness will know that, in 2014, we committed over £26 million of greater investment to improve resilience in the area. The particular line she points out has suffered, but improvements are being put in place. Let me underline again the Government’s commitment to ensure that, following the flooding damage that was done, we are looking at how we can improve further resilience measures, including the raising of rail tracks and control boxes.

My Lords, as the House is aware, for the past two months there has been no direct rail connection from Carlisle in England through to Newcastle, Edinburgh or Glasgow. There is no sign of that ending, as far as we know. Can the Minister tell the House what the position is on opening up Scotland from the west side of England?

The noble Lord raises an important issue about investment across the country and connectivity. I will write to him specifically about that particular route but, again, I repeat the commitments made. The investment we are making in the railway industry, including HS2, underlines the Government’s commitment to improve rail network connectivity across the whole of the United Kingdom.

May I revert to my noble friend Lord Berkeley’s Question and the Answer that the Minister gave? Can the Minister say why the money is not going in and there has been a pause on the work to be undertaken by Network Rail? What is the reason for that?

As I said in my original response, the Government have made commitments. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, talked about Dawlish, and we have completed the task there. He also referenced the new GRIP study and the issues around governance and finding funding for that. The department is looking at that.

Let me just be clear on what the Minister is saying. He said that my noble friend Lord Berkeley was factually incorrect. It is not factually incorrect that the Department for Transport and Network Rail have confirmed to the Peninsula Rail Task Force that there will be no further funding for development in the south-west prior to 2019 and no funding for the two key Network Rail studies on journey time reduction and electrification, which are integral to a Peninsula Rail Task Force report commissioned by the Department for Transport and the Prime Minister and due for publication this summer. The issue was raised in the Commons yesterday with the Prime Minister, who was unable to give a commitment over the funding. Can the Minister say whether the government climb-down on this issue will come this week or next week?

This is about investment in the future of our railways. I recognise the Peninsula Rail Task Force’s concern to push forward on the detailed studies on the opportunities for line enhancements. I, too, want to see this work happen, and the Government want to see it happen, in a way that is appropriate to the changes that will, as I am sure the noble Lord knows, come from the Bowe review. We will also work with Network Rail to ensure that whatever future development is required for the next rail investment period, CP6, it is made. The strategy is planned for publication in July 2017.

My Lords, is there any long-term plan to look at altering the line, where it now goes through Dawlish, back inland? I am not so sanguine as perhaps the Minister is about the long-term resilience of that Dawlish section.

My Lords, parroting the global amount being spent does not answer the specific Question that has been repeatedly put to the Minister about the studies that are preparatory to the work. Why have they dried up?

Let me be even more clear: the studies are being looked at. We have taken on board what the Peninsula Rail Task Force has said. My honourable friend the Rail Minister, Claire Perry, even this morning reiterated the Government’s stance that we are working with officials and looking at the studies to ensure that those improvement studies can be properly funded.

My Lords, the Minister accused my noble friend Lord Berkeley of being factually incorrect. He did not do the same to my noble friend Lord Rosser. Presumably, the Minister is confirming that it is correct that the rail enterprises concerned have been informed that there is no more money. What exactly is the situation? Are the Government looking at something that has already happened but, at the same time, telling somebody that there is no money to go any further?

I have already given the Government’s position: we are investing in our rail network. I have been clear about that to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. If the noble Lord, Lord Harris, wants me to say that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, was also incorrect that the Government are not making money available for investment in rail—we are. On the specific study on governance, as I have already said, my honourable friend in the other place made clear that she is looking at this issue very closely with officials to ensure that the appropriate money required for the governance studies will be found.