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South West Rail Resilience Programme

Volume 830: debated on Monday 22 May 2023


Tabled by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they intend to provide funding to ensure the timely completion of the works to protect the rail line at Dawlish from flooding, including Phase 5 of the South West Rail Resilience programme.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Berkeley, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, I can confirm that Network Rail has delivered two phases of the south-west resilience programme, providing protection to the railway at Dawlish from coastal flooding. The third and fourth phases addressing cliff protection measures are in delivery, with a combined budget of £85 million. Network Rail is being funding to deliver a detailed proposal for the fifth and final phase, which addresses cliff protection for a mile-long stretch of the railway.

My Lords, I am glad to see that Members are so keen to speak. I thank the Minister for her reply, but it does not really answer the Question—or it does so only partly—and it does not reflect the importance of this line to the already existing problems of transport links to west Devon and Cornwall. Can she reassure us that the vital fourth and fifth phases—she mentioned the fourth, but not the fifth—will indeed be fully funded by Network Rail and the department? Can she give us an estimated date of completion to restore full resilience to this vital link to the far south-west?

As I mentioned in my opening Answer, Network Rail is working on the fifth phase of the works in some detail; we need to establish detailed proposals for this mile-long stretch of the railway. Local consultations have happened, and there was some reluctance around some of the proposals put forward. Therefore, Network Rail is looking at the scope and costs of the fifth phase.

My Lords, I apologise for being a bit too quick, which is more than you can say for any of the trains travelling to the south-west. In the south-west, we look and listen in envy to talk of chopping off bits of time on the cross-Pennine railway and others. That is not a luxury we have; we have only one railway beyond Exeter linking the whole south-west peninsula. If Dawlish goes down, we have no connectivity at all. While I very much welcome all the money and the moves the Government have made with the resilience surrounding Dawlish itself, until such time as we have a second railway bypassing or connecting Plymouth—either west of Dartmoor or in line with some of the other options—we can never be sure that we can keep the south-west connected 365 days a year.

I welcome my noble friend’s interest in this Question; I know that he raised this issue in the other place many times. I assure him that delays on the line as it currently stands are significantly down, from 53.6 minutes per 1,000 services in 2018-19 to just 36.1 minutes per 1,000 services in 2022-23, so it is important to note that the resilience of the line is improving. The department has looked at alternatives—additional routes through to the south-west that might provide additional resilience. However, we are focused on improving the resilience of the line as it currently stands. In proposals for restoring elements of railway that previously existed, the case was not set out sufficiently.

My Lords, this example is one of many similar schemes. A few weeks ago I asked a Question about news reports that Network Rail’s future funding was so limited that we could expect that basic infrastructure may not be repaired. The Minister dismissed my inquiry, saying that you should

“never believe everything that you read in the newspaper”.—[Official Report, 26/4/23; col. 1214.]

Now we have sight of Network Rail’s own business case for the next five years. It warns that funding constraints mean that the condition of the rail infrastructure will deteriorate and there will be a decrease in reliability. Does the Minister think that I should not believe everything I read in an official Network Rail document?

I say, absolutely, that one should not believe everything one reads in the newspaper. It is the case that Network Rail has to work within its funding envelope for CP7, which goes from 2024 to 2029. We are investing a record £44.1 billion in our rail infrastructure—a 4% increase on CP6—so the Government are providing significant funding. As with many elements of the railways, it is important that Network Rail and others look at what funding they have and obtain efficiencies to ensure that the reliability of the railway is maintained.

My Lords, I looked at a recent exchange between my noble friend Lord Berkeley and the Minister on this subject. Essentially, he asked whether funding for phase 5 will be withheld and she gave the heroic non-answer that she has just repeated. Can we be absolutely clear where we are on funding? Will funding be available for phase 5? If not, does the Minister accept that building phases 1 and 4 and not phase 5 is a complete waste of money?

I do not accept the latter point. We have invested £165 million to date, and of course some of that was to ensure the resilience of the seawall itself. Other elements of that funding went into cliff protection measures. This final section of cliff protection measures is highly complicated and there has been some local reluctance around the plans that Network Rail originally put forward. That is why it has had to go back to the drawing board. At this stage we do not know the scope of the works or the costs, and therefore it is impossible to speak further about the funding.

My Lords, the Minister refers to keeping within the funding envelope. Is there any connection between the Government’s determination to cut taxes before the next election and the refusal to provide additional long-term funding for long-term investment? As a Government concerned with the national interest, should they not be more concerned with long-term investment than the short-term political advantage that a tax cut might provide before the next election?

The Government are always cognisant that we must provide value for money to the taxpayer. As I outlined in a previous answer, the amount of funding going into our railways is going up. We are very cognisant of the impact of that increased funding and the sorts of deliverables that we want to see out of it. I assure the noble Lord that the rail network enhancements pipeline, or RNEP, will include some of those enhancements and will be published soon.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that if we do not proceed with the fifth part of this protection, we should look again at the west Devon line going via Tavistock, because we could be left with absolutely nothing again?

I do not accept that those two issues are necessarily linked. It is very important that we have resilience on the existing line, which has been in place for many years. That is why we are very focused on improving its resilience and have invested heavily in it. As I said previously, we looked at some proposals. For example, in round 3 of the Restoring Your Railway project, Devon County Council produced a strategic outline business case for reopening the line from Bere Alston to Tavistock. There was also a proposal to open the line from Tavistock to Okehampton. Neither of those was really viable enough to take forward.

My Lords, what are the effects of the difficulties in the rail links on tourism to the particularly beautiful part of our country to which this Question referred?

As I noted earlier, the delays on this line have actually reduced; it is quite a reliable line, and the train operating company is very effective. I encourage all tourists to get on the railways and visit the south-west.

My Lords, talking about delays, of the many reasons my Avanti West Coast train has been delayed—it was 40 minutes this morning—points failures and signal failures are high on the list. Does this not indicate that the network is falling apart?

I do not accept that the network is falling apart. In whichever country one is in the world, there are occasional technical issues that cause trains to be delayed. The Government are investing £44.1 billion in the next control period. That will ensure that our railways are fit for the future.