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Railways: Wales

Volume 792: debated on Monday 2 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking with the Welsh Government to improve railway connectivity within Wales.

My Lords, the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government are both committed to improving rail connectivity within Wales. We have worked collaboratively to deliver on our commitment to devolve powers to award the Wales and Borders rail passenger franchise. The new operator announced by Welsh Government Ministers on 4 June will improve rail travel for the benefit of passengers across Wales in the coming years.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for her response. Improving connectivity in west Wales is key to supporting economic growth in a part of Wales that can often seem remote. One of the aims of the Government is to spread prosperity across the whole of the UK. Does my noble friend therefore agree that one option to achieve this is to build a west Wales parkway station to the north of Swansea which could bring west Wales at least half an hour closer to Cardiff?

My Lords, we are working with stakeholders to develop proposals for potential station improvements in and around Swansea, including looking at the case for additional stations. The department is looking carefully at the possibility of a west Wales parkway station which, as my noble friend has said, could help to improve connectivity and journey times in west Wales. However, the suggested sites are not currently served by regular passenger trains, and diverting them for this purpose could remove or reduce the number of direct trains from Neath and the main station at Swansea, so of course the proposals need to be considered carefully.

My Lords, related to connectivity is rail electrification. The Government have abandoned a promise long made to electrify the line between Cardiff and Swansea, and last week we had the Government scuppering the proposal for a tidal barrage in Swansea. Where is the Secretary of State who is meant to defend Wales in the Cabinet? Has the Minister no good news for us?

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Wales does an excellent job of defending the people of Wales, and I met with him just last week to discuss transport issues in Wales. We remain committed to delivering the right outcomes for rail transport in Wales. The introduction of bimodal intercity express trains means that we no longer need to electrify the Great Western route between Cardiff and Swansea. We are also improving journeys for passengers in south Wales sooner rather than later without the need to carry out disruptive electrification works.

My Lords, the franchise for Wales includes the electrification of the core valley lines at a cost which is far below that of conventional electrification schemes being carried out elsewhere. Meanwhile, Alstom and Siemens are about to launch new systems at much lower cost. Will the Government consider the effect of these cheaper schemes on the case for electrifying the Midland main line and possibly elsewhere as well?

My Lords, we are committed to electrification where it delivers passenger benefits, but we must also ensure that it is good value for money. Where possible, we will also take advantage of new technologies to improve journeys without carrying out disruptive electrification works. I have not seen the details of the system mentioned by the noble Lord but we continually assess the investment decisions in our programme of railway upgrades to deliver passenger benefits in the best way possible so as to give passengers and taxpayers maximum value for money.

My Lords, while accepting that the Government have made progress in the devolution of railway issues, is it not time for much greater devolution of the infrastructure and train operation to the Welsh Government? The noble Baroness has talked about bimodal trains. The only reason we have those trains is that Network Rail has failed to electrify the track. Bimodal trains are slower, more expensive and more polluting. Surely the answer is to give the Welsh Government total control without the micromanagement that seems to come from her department.

My Lords, the Government made a commitment to devolve powers for the Wales and Borders franchise following recommendations from the Commission on Devolution in Wales, which I am very pleased that we have delivered. It is a good example of effective co-operation between the Welsh Government and the UK Government. On the devolution of infrastructure funding, we do not believe that it is desirable generally to reopen discussion on the Silk recommendations, around which there was no consensus. We do not intend therefore to revisit the question of devolving Network Rail funding, given the discussions on the issue during the St David’s Day process. Of course, we continue to work closely with the Welsh Government on the specification and funding of Network Rail’s operations.

My Lords, given that all the Brexit negotiations were done directly between Ministers in Cardiff and the Government in Westminster, is not the office of Secretary of State now pointless?

I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble and learned Lord. As I said, the Secretary of State for Wales does an excellent job of representing the interests of the people of Wales at the Cabinet table.

My Lords, if we go down the Brexit road, what will happen to the north Wales line that goes to Holyhead and the south Wales line that crosses south Wales? Will there be any new arrangement? The Irish Sea will have Ireland on one side, which will of course be in the European Union, and we in Wales will be on the other, and will be out. What arrangements are the Government making to make sure that the whole process goes smoothly?

I assure noble Lords that the Government are working round the clock to ensure that the process of Brexit goes smoothly. Of course, we will absolutely take the impact on Wales into consideration, as we will for the rest of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, are the Government really happy that the franchise for Welsh railways has been handed to a consortium that includes Govia, which is responsible for an absolute shambles on Southern Rail and from which the Government are reputedly considering withdrawing the franchise? Is that sensible?

My Lords, as I said, we have devolved the decision on the franchise to the Welsh Government. The new franchise will see transformation across the Welsh railway network, including substantial frequency improvements on new routes and the doubling of service frequencies on many routes. The Welsh Government have said that the new franchise will see a £5 billion investment to fund significant improvements. The Government committed to devolve the award of the franchise to the Welsh Government; they have made that decision.

My Lords, is it possible for the Minister to use “electrification” without preceding it with “disruptive”?

It is possible. As I said, we will use electrification where it delivers the benefits that passengers need more quickly.

My Lords, when the Government look at value for money, do they look at value for money in terms of climate change? Clearing up from climate change, whether in Wales or anywhere else, is extremely expensive. That really ought to come into the calculation.

My Lords, of course we take the impact on the environment into account. Once the transformation of Great Western is complete, the new intercity express trains will spend most of their journeys between London and Swansea in electric mode, with near-zero emissions. In diesel mode, the new trains will meet the highest rolling stock emissions standards. The Rail Minister has challenged the rail industry to phase out diesel-only trains by 2040 as part of a vision to decarbonise the railway.