HC Deb 23 April 2002 vol 384 cc131-3
2. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

What recent representations he has received on the progress of the upgrade of the west coast main line. [49394]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar)

I have received a number of representations about a range of issues relating to modernisation of the west coast main line.

Mr. Luff

On St. George's day—and a very happy St. George's day to you, Mr. Speaker—I am delighted to be able to ask a question about a line that links London with the heart of England. Does the Minister share my concern about the implications of the regular programme of weekend closures planned for the line later in the year? Will he intervene to ensure that better management avoids the serious short and long-term consequences of that wholly unnecessary programme of closures?

Mr. Spellar

As a fellow heart of England Member of Parliament, I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have a very acceptable and efficient alternative rail system from the west midlands to London via the Chiltern line. I am sure that he will acknowledge its extremely good record.

I depart from the hon. Gentleman, however, when he says that the closures are unnecessary. There was much discussion about them in the industry. As he knows, the initial proposals were for a four-week closure programme that included the working week. Many representations were made as to the impact of that on business and commerce in the regions. However, Railtrack needs to secure the track in order to make vital improvements on the west coast main line and there has been much discussion with the Strategic Rail Authority, local train operators, Virgin and Railtrack to try to pull together the various elements. Nobody could say that the closure is desirable but it is necessary and there was an agreement in which everyone gave a little. Obviously, we are looking forward to the improvements that will result from this period. We have also made sure that it avoids a number of significant events—not least the Commonwealth games in Manchester.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that when the west coast main line is fully upgraded—hopefully with the trains running at 140 mph—there will still be a major capacity problem? Bearing that in mind, does he support the SRA plan for a brand new high-speed link from London to the north of England?

Mr. Spellar

My hon. Friend is a little in advance as regards the state of that process. That option is being examined and we shall obviously look at the outcome. Similarly, we shall consider the proposal for additional freight capacity made by Central Railway. The SRA is in intense negotiations and will be making its recommendation later this year.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

On St. George's day, may I ask whether the Minister has had the opportunity to meet the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a joint assessment of the impact on the Scottish economy of the continued procrastination about the west coast main line upgrade? Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to deny the rumours and speculation that the upgrade will not extend north of the border?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman is a little uncharitable given that the state of the railway industry that the Conservative Government bequeathed to us, the appalling structure and record of Railtrack and the problems that it had on the west coast main line were the absolutely crucial factors in its inability to continue as a going concern. A degree of humility from Opposition Members would he in order.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the SRA, Railtrack and the train operators are considering how they can work together to ensure the most favourable outcome from the west coast main line scheme, which had been appallingly priced and mismanaged by Railtrack. We are starting to pull that scheme together, but I do not underestimate the difficulties that we were bequeathed by the Conservative Government, whom he supported.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the weekend closures and the closure of Stockport station? I am not sure whether he recalls that between 1958 and 1960, when the west coast main line was electrified, every bridge between Manchester and London had to be raised to get the electrical cables through. That was done with minimum disruption on a Sunday. Why do engineers now seem incapable of achieving the desired main line upgrade without major closures at weekends and without closing some stations for long periods?

Mr. Spellar

Well, Sunday is half the weekend. The implications of the time scale are straightforward—the more the work is spread out, the longer it takes and the later we get the improvements. As I said earlier, there was a proposal to do the work in shorter time by shutting down much longer chunks of the network throughout the week. That was thought undesirable and, indeed, damaging to business and business travel. As a result, we are considering a series of weekend works, but even more weekends would be affected if we were to adopt my hon. Friend's suggestion, which would, of course, affect even more people who wish to travel to and from London at the weekend.

A balance must be struck. No one believes that such closures are desirable—I merely point out that the various parties have reached the best negotiated outcome.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

The chief executive of the north-west tourist authority says that the weekend closures will seriously affect tourism in that region. They will also seriously inconvenience my constituents who do not have cars and who wish to travel to London and the rest of the country. Is it not beyond the wit of Railtrack and the Government to upgrade the west coast main line without shutting it at weekends in one of busiest periods?

Mr. Spellar

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's other constituents who wish to travel to and from London on business would be very concerned if the system were shut down during the week. A balance must be struck. All the options create difficulties; it is question of which is more undesirable. The House would generally agree that weekend closures are preferable to shutting the line during the week and severely disrupting business and commerce. I am sure that the business community in the north-west will note the rather light-hearted way in which the hon. Gentleman is treating such comments.