Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mims Davies.)
I am delighted to have secured this debate, which gives me a great opportunity to make a positive case in the Chamber for a new walkway station to serve the communities of Magor and Undy, which lie just over the Severn bridges in my constituency of Newport East. The reason for holding this debate now is that I am mindful that the Department for Transport will start considering bids for the next new stations fund in the near future, and this is a shameless pitch to promote a unique bid. It is unique in that the community will be encouraged to walk and cycle to use the station, rather than driving to it, and it is important because the station would be located in a community in Wales with a fast-growing population.
Is it true that the community to which my hon. Friend refers to is growing because, thanks to her work on the Severn bridge tolls, more people are now moving from Bristol to enjoy the delights of living in Wales, and that they are moving into Newport—expanding the community there—and commuting to work in Bristol because housing is cheaper and education is better in Wales?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She makes a valid point. Many more people are moving from Bristol to live in our corner of Wales, which is great. Many of them then travel across the border to work in England, and that creates an urgent need for new infrastructure.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) in paying tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on the Severn bridge tolls. Many of my constituents commute through Magor. Does my hon. Friend agree that a station there would help to manage overcrowding, because people from Magor would not have to drive to Newport to join their trains there?
That is very true, and I will expand on that point later.
Rail travel in our area is growing and growing, and we need the infrastructure to cope with that. Young people in particular need to be able to access work opportunities, not only in Newport and Cardiff, but in Bristol and also further afield. Those are two of the reasons why the campaign for this new station has so much public support.
I pay tribute to the Magor Action Group on Rail, a volunteer group that has campaigned with great energy over the past six years for a new railway station. From small beginnings, it has worked tirelessly and professionally —my constituency is blessed with a number of former railway workers and enthusiasts—to develop this idea that has caught the imagination of the local community and businesses, which the group has kept involved every step of the way. The group has won support for its campaign by organising many productive meetings with the Department for Transport, the Welsh Government, Network Rail, Railfuture, Sustrans, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, and Transport for Wales. It has also secured the wholehearted support of the local authority, Monmouthshire County Council, and that of elected representatives of all political persuasions—not just myself, but Newport East Assembly Member John Griffiths, regional Assembly Members of different parties, the Magor with Undy Community Council, and ward county councillors representing the area of Severnside as a whole.
The hon. Lady has outlined the importance of a reliable, working public transport system. Statistics show that 55% of rural households are within 8 km of a hospital, but does she agree that if they are without access to a network of reliable, timely public transport, the Government must look into funding better public transport links such as the one to which she refers to ensure that the general public can access such facilities?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is very true that we have to connect our rural communities in a better way, and I will say a bit more about that later.
Monmouthshire County Council says:
“The return of railway travel for Magor with Undy after many years will be welcomed by the community and offer many benefits. It will bring employment, retail, healthcare, education and leisure opportunities closer for residents and reduce traffic growth on congested local roads. It will significantly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases from transport and promote sustainable integrated travel.”
Indeed, one of the unique assets of the future station is that it would be one of the first community adopted walkway—rather than parkway—stations. It would be based in a central location within a 10 to 15 minute walk or cycle ride for all residents of Magor and Undy. That would tie in closely with the Welsh Government’s Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013, which encourages a cultural shift that leads people to get out of their cars where possible. It is estimated that a new station in Magor would have the potential to reduce traffic on the nearby busy B4245 by as many as 60,000 vehicles a year. The walkway concept also allows room for a multi-modal, integrated approach to public transport, linking in with local bus services.
Sustrans, the charity that encourages walking and cycling, is particularly supportive of the walkway station concept. Gwyn Smith, the network development manager for south Wales, says:
“Magor has a good network of paths that can easily lead to the proposed station site giving excellent opportunities for active travel. The scheme is well supported by the local community and the evidence we have seen is that it will be well used and is technically more feasible than other options. Recent transport modelling Sustrans carried out in south east Wales area also demonstrates that journey times from this area (using Severn Tunnel Junction and Caldicot stations) to Newport and Cardiff are significantly shorter than by car, making using the train the preferred option for many.”
Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, has also voiced her support for the project, which she highlights will contribute to all seven of the national wellbeing goals outlined in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. She says:
“One of the goals of the Act calls on public bodies to contribute to a Wales of cohesive communities and this campaign has already highlighted what a positive asset this can be for the 6,500 people who live in this village in promoting, for example, local businesses, tourism and tackling loneliness and isolation. Additionally, I believe this station will contribute to creating a more resilient Wales. It’s believed that 11,000 vehicles a day use the B4245 and such a station could significantly decrease the CO2 emissions from these journeys and reduce traffic growth on congested local roads.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that such a model, which clearly involves huge environmental benefits and benefits from exercise, is something that we could consider right across Wales, especially if this project is a success?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is a good model for us to consider, and we could learn much from this unique project.
The Magor Action Group on Rail highlights the fact that the idea of a walkway station is obviously not new. It was the norm before the rise of the motorcar, when the local station was one of the main points of focus for the community. The group has recognised that in its development of plans for a community adopted station, integrating it with a much-needed community centre and ticket office. As group member Ted Hand said, the project is uniquely “back to the future”. The ultimate goal is for the walkway station, community centre, and incorporated orchard and fields to become a community hub for social activity and public transport.
It is important to note that there is a clear historical precedent for a station serving the communities of Magor and Undy, which sit between the city of Newport and the town of Caldicot. The villages were served by two stations, Magor and Undy Halt, until 1964 when the first of the two now-infamous Beeching reports initiated their closure after around 110 years of service. At the time of closure, the villages of Magor and Undy had a combined population of around 1,000. Since then, the population has grown sixfold and, with further local housing developments on the way, the population is projected to rise to around 10,000 in the next few years. The two villages have become extremely popular with those who commute to Newport, Cardiff and Bristol—48% of residents travel out of the area to work—but there are also major employers on the doorstep, with large Tesco and Wilko distribution centres, and the AB InBev Magor brewery, drawing in workers from across the wider region.
Population growth becomes all the more significant when we consider the remarkable increase in demand for services on the Great Western mainline, which passes through Magor and Undy. Over the past 20 years, Newport station has seen a 108% increase in passenger numbers and Caldicot has seen a 111% increase. Severn Tunnel Junction, which is currently the nearest station to Magor, has experienced a staggering 297% increase in entries and exits, which is the highest growth at any station on the Great Western mainline. The Cardiff to Cheltenham line, which takes in all the stations in my constituency, also has the highest user growth of any line emanating from Cardiff.
As I have highlighted on other occasions, the railway network in this part of south-east Wales had been plagued by chronic overcrowding and unreliable services, which is one of the many reasons why we need investment in our rail infrastructure, including new stations like Magor, to adapt to modern demands. On that note, I pay tribute to the Severn Tunnel Action Group, another local rail group, which has done much to collect statistics and campaign positively for improvements in rail capacity over the years.
The Government’s industrial strategy talks about the need to back economic growth corridors between Wales and England, and the need to maximise the benefits to the Bristol-Newport-Cardiff area that will arise from the abolition of the bridge tolls. That is one reason why I have relentlessly raised the need to improve cross-border rail services at Transport questions and with the Secretary of State for Wales.
A Welsh Government-commissioned report from 2012 calculated that scrapping the Severn bridge tolls
“would result in an estimated increase in traffic across of 12%. This is equivalent to around 11,000 vehicles per day.”
More recent Welsh Government modelling suggests that, in the area immediately adjacent to the Severn crossings, traffic levels could increase by around 20%, which clearly emphasises the need to get more people on to rail to reduce congestion. Much better rail services are needed.
The costs associated with building a new station are relatively modest. A new footbridge is already in place, the signalling arrangements would not need to be changed, an existing subway could be upgraded to become DDA compliant, and the track layout—switching or slewing—would not need to be altered. In any case, the estimated building costs, around £7 million, are more than offset by the excellent predicted return on investment, a high 2. Meanwhile, as the platforms would be on key relief lines, key inter-city services, including those between London Paddington and Swansea, would not be affected in any way.
Since 2012, the Magor Action Group and Monmouthshire County Council have made huge strides towards securing this new station for the community, getting the funding they need to progress through the eight-stage mandatory “governance for railway investment projects” process. The GRIP 1 and GRIP 2 studies were completed by April 2016, and an application was made to the UK Government’s new station fund later that year. Although the bid was unsuccessful on that occasion, the group was offered a subsequent meeting with officials from the Department for Transport later in the year. The group was encouraged to resubmit as soon as it had completed GRIP 3.
Very positive news then followed, with Welsh Government Minister Ken Skates announcing that the Welsh Government would fund Monmouthshire County Council to complete GRIP 3. Good progress is being made on GRIP 3, and I understand that the second part of the options report is nearing completion.
The economic and operational viability of the proposed station is looking increasingly sound and, with continued support from the Welsh Government and further support from the Department for Transport, and with funding, the Magor Action Group is confident that a new station could be opened by the end of 2021. That would mean Magor station, alongside a new station at Llanwern, could form an important part of the South Wales metro project being developed by the Welsh Government, which is a key step towards a truly integrated transport network for our region.
Can the Department for Transport provide further support to the proposal for a new station, building on the very positive meeting between DFT officials and the Magor Action Group in November? Will the Minister meet the group to discuss its plans in more detail? I would also be grateful if he could confirm whether the group can apply to the new stations fund as soon as the GRIP 3 study is completed, regardless of whether the third round of the new stations fund has opened. The group has heard positive noises, and it would be good to get that on the record.
I again thank the group, including long-time members Ted Hand, Paul Turner, Laurence Hando, Phil Inskip, Councillor Frances Taylor—the councillor for Magor—Julie Wilson, Peter Wilson, Steve Lucas, Murray Ross and more, for all the work they have undertaken over the years. I emphasise to the Minister that I share their enthusiasm for their project. This is a group of very positive, creative and enthusiastic people, and it is a great pleasure to work with them as their constituency MP.
As group member Paul Turner has rightly said to me, the walkway station and potential community hub can
“help reduce traffic pollution, improve road safety, provide better access to public transport and places of employment, attract visitors into the community and improve social cohesion and wellbeing in the villages for current and future generations.”
One of the most encouraging parts of the campaign is the way the group has engaged with the two local schools, Undy and Magor, to talk to pupils about the need for a new station. With that in mind, I finish with a quote from the pupils of Magor Church in Wales Primary School, who wrote a letter to the previous Prime Minister in support of a new station for the village. They said:
“Magor is such a stable, peaceful area and it needs to stay that way. Gorgeous areas like ours are quickly disappearing and ours cannot. A station at Magor would reduce car fumes which are harming the environment so please help us get a station.”
With that in mind, I would be grateful if the Minister could give this project his attention and have a close look, meet the group and offer his support.
Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this important debate about the proposed Magor with Undy walkway new station and on highlighting the good work done locally in her constituency to take this project forward. We understand how important stations are to passengers but, as well as providing access points to the network, they are often important to the wider community, especially in rural areas. We are therefore committed to providing funding to improve stations and provide new ones. For example, each franchise has funding set aside for station improvements, and we have continued the Access for All programme to improve disabled access to stations. As Members are no doubt aware, we have also run two funding competitions for our new stations fund and we have been able to make funding available to support the building or reopening of five new stations. Four of those are already complete, including Pye Corner in south Wales, and a fifth, Kenilworth, began running services this morning—this is the first time the town has had a rail service for more than 50 years.
Magor and Undy’s was one of the19 bids we received in 2016 for the latest—the second—round of new stations funding. As the hon. Lady said, the proposal was for a new, accessible, two-platform station to the east of Newport, between the Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction stations. The proposal was to run three trains every two hours in each direction. The project was promoted by the Magor Action Group On Rail—MAGOR—and Monmouthshire County Council. I understand it also had support from the Welsh Assembly Government. The bid met the initial qualifying criteria and we felt there was a good strategic case for the station, connecting a growing residential area to the rail network. The site is also in an area where the population is expanding rapidly and, clearly, a new station would bring employment, retail, healthcare, education and leisure opportunities closer for residents and would reduce traffic growth on congested local roads.
However, we felt that the bid needed some further development work before we could support it. No analysis of the financial business case could be carried out and we felt that the timetabling impact of the new station needed further modelling. Last year, as the hon. Lady said, officials from the Department met MAGOR, the county council and Network Rail to give feedback on the bid and to suggest how it could be progressed. Like her, I have been told that this was a very positive meeting, and my team were impressed with the knowledge and commitment of the promotors. I know from the MAGOR website that the development work is continuing, and I look forward to seeing a more developed proposal in the future.
As for how the project can be taken forward and funded, hon. Members will no doubt be aware that the Government recently announced that they would be taking a new approach to enhancements going forward. The rail network enhancements pipeline sets out further information on the new approach the Government are taking to enhance the railway across England and Wales. This establishes a pipeline that moves the investment in rail enhancements away from a rigid five-year cycle, creating instead a rolling programme of investment, focused on the outcomes that deliver real benefits to passengers, freight users and the economy.
Through the rail network enhancement pipeline, the Government are committed to considering the regional spread of the overall portfolio of investments when making decisions about individual enhancements, making use of the Department for Transport’s rebalancing toolkit, where appropriate. However, we recognise that in the Department we do not have a monopoly on good ideas, which is why we have recently announced a call for ideas for rail improvements. We would welcome proposals from the hon. Lady and from her constituents that are financially credible without Government support, including for stations.
The rail network enhancement pipeline makes it clear that the Government’s focus for investment will be on the outcomes that make a real difference to rail users, rather than on the specific infrastructure, rolling stock or technology interventions to achieve that. I note and welcome the fact that the Welsh Government are taking a similar passenger-benefits-focused approach to procurement for the south Wales metro and the decisions on the appropriate technologies for delivery.
The Department will continue to liaise closely with the Welsh Government on the development of enhancement options for England and Wales, to ensure that Welsh requirements for increased capacity on the network are fully reflected. I hope that the hon. Lady and other Members have been reassured that the Government remain committed to investment that will improve rail services and passenger experience in Wales.
Question put and agreed to.